Some philosophers are such great writers and stylists that they are a pleasure to read — even in translation. Plato and Nietzsche are the most obvious examples, though I’d also include Spinoza, Hume, and Wittgenstein, at the very least, on my short list of great philosophical stylists. And the rhetorical effects of style are a big part of what attracts readers to such philosophers — Nietzsche, especially, seduces more on account of his style than on account of his actual arguments. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a delusion, in any case, to think that you can separate logic from rhetoric, or content from style. Even mathematicians value “elegant” proofs. In things less cut and dried than mathematics — like metaphysics and ethics — style and rhetoric are even more important. Philosophy since Plato has tried to combat stylistic persuasion and seduction, but it’s significant that Plato, for whom the distinction between logic and style, or truth and persuasion, is so important — as in his constant championing of Socrates against the Sophists — is nonetheless himself one of the most powerful practitioners of artful, stylized, rhetorically active prose. Plato is ultimately a greater Sophist, you might say, than Gorgias or any of the other Sophists he rails against and shows up in his dialogues.
There are other philosophers who, everyone agrees, are terrible writers, terrible stylists; even though we have to read and study them nonetheless, if only for the force of their arguments. One thinks here of Kant and Hegel, above all. Nobody has ever seen Kant as anything but an awful writer (at least in the Critiques; he can write elegantly and pleasurably in some of his lesser essays, but that talent seems to abandon him in his mature major works). Nonetheless, my own proper philosophical perversion is that I take enormous pleasure in reading Kant, in reading Kant’s style. (In contrast, I find the prose styles of both Hegel and Heidegger absolutely nauseating and repugnant: which is a big part of why I have so little patience with, or interest in, their arguments). (Needless to say, all this is filtered through translation — I’ve forgotten what little German I once knew, and which was never good enough to read any of these thinkers in the first place).
What is it that seduces me in the style of Kant’s prose? It’s clumsy, but at the same time never effusive; or to put it in reverse terms, it is somehow cut-and-dried (which has to do with Kant’s formalism and schematism), and yet never reductive or closed off in the way highly organized structures almost always are. No matter how convoluted the arguments get, there is always a way to diagram them in terms of taxonomies or categories (using this word in a general sense, not just in Kant’s strict philosophical sense). (This is a trick that, I think, Deleuze picks up from Kant: even when Deleuze’s prose, by himself or with Guattari, seems to be ranging anarchically all over the place, in fact it has a rigid and unvarying architecture, which is what keeps it from falling apart).
Since Kant never makes his points clearly and concisely enough, he tends to repeat each thing that he says over and over, a half dozen times at least, using slightly different terminology each time. This is part of what many readers find irritating about him, but for me the repeated paraphrases resonate with one another and condition one another, which leads to a sort of clarity in depth: like when two images, one in each eye, first overlap blurrily, but then snap in to stereoscopic depth focus, a third image that subsumes the other two — but in Kant there are more than two overlapping parts, and hence (as it were) more dimensions of depth, more dimensions than three.
This effect of multiple depth is crucial, because so many of Kant’s (binary) distinctions are so subtle, and yet so important, that they couldn’t be articulated any other way. I’m thinking of the contrasts between determinative and reflective uses of reason, or between constitutive and regulative ideas, or between the transcendental and the transcendent: binary oppositions which in fact turn out to be not quite binaries, because of they way they shade into one another, or better confront one another on borders which are as indistinct and fuzzy as they are absolute and uncrossable. Kant neither maintains binaries, nor “deconstructs” them, but walks a thin line in between these two tendencies, and this is precisely an effect of his overwrought and involuted prose style (even as, in contrast, Hegel’s erasure of Kantian limits and distinctions in a predetermined pseudo-orgy of smugly interlocked transforming categories is an effect of his execrable prose style).
(Zizek, good Hegelian that he is, always says something like: the situation seems to be X, but in fact it is precisely the opposite of this. I’d prefer to see an exploration of oblique angles and extradimensional digresses, rather than this continual, oppressive turning inside-out of the labor of negation. And that is a big part of what I love in Kant, and detest in Hegel).
All this is to say that the things for which Kant is most often criticized (both in terms of his writing style and in terms of his conceptual content, to the degree that one can separate these dimensions), his extreme formalism and his obsessive, rigid architectonics — that these things are precisely what’s great about him. Kant’s endless repetitions and dry elaborations his architectonics and schematisms, are in fact a powerful source of astonishing, continual invention. If Kant didn’t write the way he did, he simply couldn’t be so richly suggestive and so rigorous, all at once. This oxymoronic combination of rigidity and fertility, as of scholastic pedantry and mind-blowing leaps of insight, is what for me defines Kant as a thinker. It’s precisely to the extent that Kant is pedantic and formalistic, that he sets limits and proclaims legislation and duty — precisely to the extent, that is, that he seems to be (in Deleuzian terms) a thinker of a priori regulation rather than immanent construction, or (in Negri and Hardt’s terms) a thinker of constituted rather than constituent power — it’s precisely to this extent that Kant is in fact prodigiously inventive and liberating, arguably more so than any of the constructivist or constituent thinkers (like Spinoza, Nietzsche, or Bergson) who are commonly opposed to him.
For example, the very argument about how certain uses of reason can only be regulative, not actually constitutive — an argument which, to my mind, is based as much (affectively) in the prose style that I have been trying to describe as it is (cognitively) in any logical/conceptual distinctions — might seem to be an odious legislation, a shutting down of the potentialities of thought. (Deleuze/Guattari and Hardt/Negri never actually make this charge, but it’s the sort of thing that their epigones often do — this is at least a general impression I get, admittedly I don’t have any citations). But in fact the seeming restriction of (certain types of) thought to a regulative use only, the denial that it can have any determinative or constituent force, is a powerful liberation and stimulus. It’s a constraint, but one that offers release from the burdens of totalization and absolute determination. It gets us out of the straitjacket of the transcendent, and (precisely because of its heuristic value) points us to a multiplicity of contexts and applications and connections that might not otherwise have been available to thought. It opens a space for the freeplay of the mental faculties. It allows for the differentiation of moral duty and aesthetic singularity from the positivistic tyranny of fact, without thereby falling victim to the horrors (in either morals or aesthetics) of what Kant (in good Enlightenment fashion) decries as “fanaticism” and “dogmatism.”
(I’m reminded of the apocryphal story — at least, I have never been able to verify its truth, or to find out the name of the philosopher in question — about a Chinese philosopher who was sent to work on the farm during the Cultural Revolution; at great risk, he smuggled a copy of the Critique of Pure Reason with him and studied it at night; years later, after his release and rehabilitation, he published a book about how Kant was the necessary defense against the excesses of Hegelian and statist dogmatism).
To a great extent, I find the experience of reading Kant’s prose to be a soothing and comforting one. But most of the things we find soothing and comforting are such because they are constrictive: they hide horrors and difficulties from sight, let us safely regress, take a vacation from the world and its worries. Kant is almost unique in that his prose is (to me at least, and I’ve already said that from a general perspective this can only be a “perversion”) soothing and yet at the same time stimulating: opening things up rather than closing them down, extending our vistas rather than sheltering us from them. An oxymoronic effect that nobody else (as far as I am aware) is able to produce. (Except perhaps Whitehead, my other favorite philosopher, so different from Kant and yet in this respect so oddly complementary to him).
The other day, for instance, I came upon this: “Deceit, violence, and envy will always be rife around him, even though he himself is honest, peaceable, and benevolent. Moreover, as concerns the other righteous people he meets: no matter how worthy of happiness they may be, nature, which pays no attention to that, will still subject them to all the evils of deprivation, disease and untimely death, just like all the other animals on the earth. And they will stay subjected to these evils always, until one vast tomb engulfs them one and all (honest or not, that makes no difference here) and hurls them, who managed to believe they were the final purpose of creation, back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from which they were taken” (Critique of Judgment, section 87, A452). Only Kant can acknowledge all this, and yet, at the same time, open a space for moral, and indeed political — revolutionary — hope. And once again, I insist that all this is an effect of style, as well as argument.