Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kant’s body and other natural disasters

This post is part of a series of occasional posts I am working on concerning the body and ecology.  I start somewhat circuitously by examining the re-introduction of the body into philosophy in the work of Kant.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in tones braggadocio, prefaced his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, with the following sentence (suggestion: read it slowly and dramatically), “Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am.”
Nietzsche proceeded to review the challenges he confronted us with in several chapters with titles progressively more grandiose (or jocular, depending upon your sensibility): "Why I Am So Wise", "Why I Am So Clever", "Why I Write Such Good Books" and "Why I Am a Destiny".  My objectives are more humble than Nietzsche’s.  I am interested in re-examining the relationship between the comportment of our bodies and the founding of knowledge about the natural world.  Does having a body matter at all for deepening our relationship with the rest of nature? Though my objectives are modest, nevertheless it may be mannerly to take Nietzsche’s lead and say a little more about who I am.

Once a week or so for the last three years I metamorphose into a graduate student of philosophy at the same school where I am a professor of environmental science.  Though I am a clamoring scientific cuckoo dumped into the philosophical nest, my professors have been affable, hospitably taking my fledgling efforts seriously.  They have taken me under their capacious wings, (to keep the metaphor straight I can say they have placed this outlandish egg alongside the rest of their brood beneath their downy underbellies) and they treat me as one of the clutch.  And though I have perhaps been a little more impatient than my fellow students to sweep philosophy up into rapid use, I have nonetheless taken to heart their teacherly advice to be a slower and more attentive reader.  (Could it be that scientists, in general, are less patient readers of their foundational texts than are philosophers? Surely not all biologists have read their Origin of Species line by line, though it might be harder to imagine a philosopher that has left unread The Critique of Pure Reason).  These days I am as entertained as the next man by, let us say, lengthy disquisitions on the use by Kant of the two German words translated as “object” in the English rendering (Objekt and Gegenstand).  Despite my newfound persnicketiness when it comes to texts, I remain relatively impatient to launch myself from the nest’s edge and try out my new feathers.

Submitting to formal philosophical training is itself an experiment of sorts.  Philosophical attention to the scientific method, though often examined by many scientists in a desultory manner (e.g. “Yes, I have read Popper!”), has not until recently been a component of scientific training, although in both its positive and negative critique it could be useful in a suite of ways to both the understanding and practice of science.  Moreover, recognizing that we live in an age of simultaneously burgeoning ecological knowledge and of declining environmental quality (in several of its facets, at least), it seemed useful to ask whether we might reevaluate the way in which we think about some of the problems, and furthermore to step back and think about the nature of ecological thinking itself.  What is it to be a person thinking about both other persons and other “others” in this world?  It has become pretty clear to me though, that philosophy, like ecology, has had its own vicissitudes when it comes to thinking about the body and its significance in knowledge production.  The body in philosophy is a sort of spectre in which knowledge looms.  That being said, philosophy has been inclined in recent years to take on the body of knowledge, (or better this body in which knowledge “happens”), as a subject.  Could it be that ecologists can learn from this?  If philosophers have discovered that they are enfleshed, perhaps the same will be revealed for ecologists.   

Of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the writer H.L. Mencken, wrote, “Some of his ideas were really quite simple, but he always managed to make them seem unintelligible. I hope he is in Hell.”  Possibly none of Mencken’s pronouncements are true.  Most of Kant’s work has been contentiously, if not always productively, mulled over for a couple of centuries; little of it, seemingly, is simple to those who have immersed themselves in it.   His self-declared “Copernican turn”, confronts an assumption “that our cognition must conform to the objects”, a tenet of empiricism (a school exemplified by famous British philosophers like John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume), with a counter-proposal which evaluates “whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.”  He thus asserts the centrality of the human subject in questions about our knowledge of natural things.  Whether or not this attempt succeeds at providing a foundation for securing both objective knowledge and clarifying the limits of reason is difficult to fully grasp.  Kant’s writing is a little dry, this is undeniable, and no doubt its aridity contributes to the complexity of the task of comprehending his work, but despite its density it is intelligible enough for Kant to have emerged as a foundational thinker for most contemporary philosophical movements.  Kant may indeed ultimately have gone to hell, and some of us, of course, may get to verify this, though in life it seems that he never ventured from his home town of Königsberg.

The regularity of Kant’s habits: his fastidiousness, abstemiousness and ascetic character remains a source of amusement for many commentators.  Fellow townsmen could, it has been alleged, set their watches by regulatory of his perambulations about the town.  This philosopher who wrote influentially on aesthetics had questionable taste; famously illustrating the notion of “free beauty (pulchritudo vaga)” in his Critique of Judgement with “foliage for borders, or wallpaper” (lumped in a list with “the parrot, the humming bird, the bird of paradise”).  Those inclined towards sympathy for Kant counter with examples of his great hospitality and his capacity as witty conversationalist.  One such sympathetic commentator comments on his wit and says, “Despite the stereotype of Kant as rigidly intellectual (and punctual), he was a great favorite inside and outside of the classroom.”[i] Moreover, Kant was apparently “quite sociable, sharing long dinners with friends and frequenting the theater and casinos.  He was highly prized for his sparkling conversations in the most fashionable salons.”[ii]  Long dinners, witty conversations, casinos!  It is remarkably clear that Kant indeed had a body, and that it was put to moderate though not intemperate use (for instance, he died a forty-year old virgin twice over).

In fact, Kant’s body has been a subject of a little scholarly curiosity and was a topic of much comment among his contemporaries. Steve Naragon, from Manchester College, has assembled a selection of descriptions of Kant’s body.[iii]  Kant, it seems, made constant reference to his own body, no doubt during those sparkling conversations at the fashionable salons.  He was “the matador of heads”, according to writer Joachim Schulz.  His friend, the poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, remarked on his “broad forehead”, which was he says “built for thinking”.  In other accounts from that time Kant’s head is described unsurprisingly as large relative to his body, a body so lacking in flesh that he needed “artificial means” to keep on his clothes.  The head on him possessed eyes with arrestingly ethereal properties.  In one report the recipient of a glance from Kant, reported that it was “as if I was looking through this blue aetherial fire into Minerva’s inner temple.”!  Perched on top of his remarkable bewigged head was a “hair-bag” typically in a state of some disarray, a state of disarray set to rights by his faithful servant Lampe. The head and its associated organs may have been protuberant, but Kant often joked indelicately about his absence of a backside.  His right shoulder blade was pushed out in the back; his back was somewhat crooked.

As Kant’s reputation grew his body atrophied.  The Critique of Pure Reason was published when Kant was in his fifties, The Critique of Practical Reason seven years later, and, finally, the Critique of Judgement almost a decade after the first.  The three books together present Kant’s “critical project”, the first determining the limits of reason alone (crudely here he curtailed the tendency for reason to spin off to make unwarranted assertions about the reality of things we cannot have direct experience of), the second outlines his moral philosophy placing it on a secure objective footing, and the third critique concerns aesthetics and an analysis of teleology.  By the time his labors were concluding Kant was elderly.  Roger Scruton, a British commenter, suggested that the third critique betrays signs of an exhausted mind.  His body manifested evidence of a decline.  A student noted that at that time he was desiccated and “like a shard”.  His physician also noted that he had lost “a remarkable amount of weight in all parts of his body, other than his face”, a fact that, apparently he pointed out to his guests at dinnertime.  He joked that he “had reached the minimum of muscular substance”.   As the eminence of his thought grew, Kant’ body faded away until he was, at the end, a type of philosophical Cheshire cat, all cerebration and precious little bodily presence.  Kant may not be in hell, he may be an ever shrinking mote whose intellectual exudations continue in his place.
Kant is not perhaps the most obvious point of departure for a discussion of philosophy and the body.  René Descartes is more typically chosen by those launching criticism of modern philosophy’s neglect of our sensual selves and our material bodily existence [iv]. Descartes philosophical statement, Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), leads infamously to a separation of body and mind.  That is, one arguably can have a confidence about the mind that cannot be extended to the body or beyond.  To embark with Kant is useful for a few reasons, however.  With Kant we see philosophy putting the body back into play; perhaps not yet at centre stage, but at least cueing it up in the wings[v].  Firstly, Kant counters Descartes, arguing that confidence about a world outside the doubting mind (a confidence that includes the body) is not indemonstrable.  In Kant’s view we are more than a wax tablet awaiting the soft impress of exterior things.  His “Copernican Turn” both reasserts a centrality of human pre-experiential cognitive functions (cognitive abilities already associated with the wax), and argues that with an account of these, so called a priori, functions secured, he could save us from skepticism about the nature of things beyond us.  Moreover, with Kant we might hope to justify a belief in this exterior world, in all of its physical and fleshly realities (though we may not have direct access to them – we do not know that as they are “in themselves”).  There are even numerous references to “pleasure and displeasure” in the first critique!  Themes of the body are even more prevalent in the Critique of Judgement.  Kant is no male bawd, ‘tis true, but at least this buttockless philosopher set to philosophical work his suppertime confabulations about the body, his own included.

Examining just one instance of Kant’s writing on the body exemplifies a general tendency for his remarks about the body to become bloodless and remote from the lived experience.  In the essay What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? (1785) Kant starts us with the “proper meaning” of the term to orient, that is, to use a given direction in order to find all four horizons (“literally”, he says, “to find the sunrise.”)  To orient oneself on such a morning one looks for the sun and then calls upon knowledge of one’s own body, that is, Kant says, “I also need the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, the difference between my right and left hands”.  With sun and body one can identify the horizons and can be off about one's business.  But there we have it, folks: Kant gleaming beneath the rosy-fingered dawn, using the resources of his body to save him from disorientation.  In the next paragraph we have Kant set loose in a dark room.  In fact, some clown has even “moved all the objects around so that what had been on his right was now on his left.  Nevertheless Kant’s trusty right and left hand do their job of work and again he orients himself, as indeed the same hands do when, a little later he imagines himself sauntering through the streets of Königsberg, taking correct turns as he goes.  Points all very well made; the body and our awareness of it become philosophically lit up, enough so that philosophical remarks have been made on the passage in the centuries since they were written.  But just as the body and the peculiarities of its orientation are presented to us, it is jostled out of sight.  The Cheshire cat’s hands flung out to orient him beneath the dawn, now groping in the dark, and then swinging through the streets themselves begin to recede; they have performed their duty: their fingers point to a yet more general concept.  In thinking “in general, i.e. logically”…, and this is Kant’s main point, it will be the concern of pure reason to guide its own use when it wants to leave familiar objects.  Reason itself must have grounds for orienting itself in that “immeasurable space of the supersensible, which for us is filled with dark night”.

We need not detain ourselves now with the full implications of Kant’s thinking of reason and its orientation.  The issue is this: Kant’s philosophy starts with an account of what we encounter in the world around us, the evidence of our embodied senses.  Famously he declares, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  The “content” of those “thoughts” is that which is furnished by us being bodies (in the fullest sense) in the world.  And yet the body itself atrophies before it reaches the page.  What we get is a “view from nowhere”, to use Thomas Nagel phrase, coined in reference to the natural sciences.  The strength of this of course is that one can claim that what is right in Kant is right for all of us, anywhere, anytime (though an “evolutionary Kant”, that is, an account of the evolution of cognition as Kant understands it, would be a nice project).  Thus Kant's claims are made in the same spirit as are claims of the natural sciences where conjectures are presented as perennially and ubiquitously true - until, of course, they are found not true, or not the whole story.

Let me make one final point; and this is, in fact what I have been preparing to say:  In philosophy, as in ecology, the importance of embodied experience, fleshly living, is undeniable.  Flesh: Kant loved the stuff, brought it for walks around the streets of his town, talked it up over lunchtime. And yet we get no more than the promise of a philosophy of the body in Kant.  And this pattern is the one we see in contemporary ecology – the body of the ecologist in the world, the one that bends towards nature so that the rest of nature can lean in towards it, so that the flies become visible to entomologists, and birdsong announces itself to the ornithologist’s ear.   All this and yet this is insufficiently noteworthy to systematically reflect upon.  I am not at all claiming that philosophers and ecologists need become diarists of the body.  I am just asking if we can get something, anything, from a more meticulous examination of the body in nature.  The question is important since folks, at least in the western world, are spending less time in direct contact with the world, at the same time as they are demanding more from it, and at the same time as wanting it to be beautiful, sublime, marvelous, instructive, and sustainable.

Since Kant’s time, a philosophy of the body has become an important topic.  In particular, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy makes embodiment a central issue.  Philosophers such as Merleau Ponty who along with Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, to name just two others, show the body to be important as a philosophical topic, may also light a way for ecologists to get back to their own embodied experience.

A version of this originally appeared at in Feb 2010.
[i] Jill Vance Buroker (2006) Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Ibid..
[iii] Steve Naragon (2010) “‘A Good, Honest Watchmaker’: J. C. F. Schulz’s Portrait of Kant from 1791” in Kant-Studien, 101: 217-26
[iv] Mike Proudfoot, for example, starts with Descartes in his edited volume Philosophy of Body (2003)Blackwell       
[v] Helge Svare gives a good account of the body in Kantian writing in her Body and Practice in Kant Studies in German Idealism, Vol. 6, Springer (2006).

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