On the pleasures of reading Kant.

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.

11 Responses to “On the pleasures of reading Kant.”

  1. Kirby Olson says:

    Steve, this was a wonderful thing to read.

    I wonder if by revolutionary you meant revolutionary in his time?

    Doe Lyotard continue to claim a revolution out of Kantian ideals?

    At least at the very end Lyotard says we can have nothing better than liberal democracy — this is in Postmodern Fables, I think, and is in response to Rawls thinking that Lyotard backed terrorism.

    I loved your description of the architectonic revels of Kant.

    What translation do you like best?

  2. Kirby Olson says:

    I think there would be nothing more beautiful than to see a top model such as Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss strolling down the catwalk with The Critique of Judgment as an accessory. But the question that remains, which translation!

  3. Dr. Spinoza says:

    A lovely and eloquent defense of Kant; it also goes some way of showing the power of what Nietzsche referred to, somewhat dismissively, as a “garrulousness due to an exceeedingly large supply of conceptual formulations” (The Gay Science 97).

    I do think that this helps specify what is so powerful in Kant and which almost all his epigones and self-styled successors (Hegel, Heidegger, Carnap) miss. (I would exempt Adorno and Deleuze, both of whom are highly sensitive to Kant’s weird balaancing-act between fecundity and formality.)

    I long had trouble seeing this side of Kant, but thanks to Karatani’s work, and the above, I’m beginning to see it.

    On translations: if you want to appreciate Kant’s prose, the new Guyer/Wood translation is pretty good; they don’t chop up Kant’s long sentences, but twist around the rules of English grammar so as to produce long, tortorous English sentences which are, nevertheless, enjoyable. The Pluhar translation is more “readable,” but the old Kemp Smith translation has some serious flaws.

  4. david says:

    I think the definitive translation would be The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant tr. and ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Any serious reading of Kant’s Critiques would have to refer to this series.

  5. I have been reading the Pluhar translations — those are the ones that all my marginal notes are in, so I have in a sense locked myself into continuing with them (and thus these are the versions that I cite in my own scholarly writing).

    But it’s clear that I ought to get ahold of the Cambridge (Guyer/Wood) editions and start working with them.

    Kirby, in terms of revolution I was thinking of Kant’s assertion that subjectively we ought to continue to believe that an improvement in human conditions is possible, even if objectively we never see the success of this. And that the French Revolution as an event gave hope for the improvement of humankind, even if the Revolution itself turned bad subsequently.

  6. Kirby Olson says:

    Steve, I would agree with what Kant says in regards to hope.

    I’ve read a lousy translation of CPR apparently — it’s by JMD Meiklejohn, and was published by Prometheus Books in Buffalo, NY in 1990. I’ll try to get the Cambridge editions, too. The CJ I read was translated by Bernard and published by Hafner books.

    Last summer I also read a neat book by Dieter Henrich entitled Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World: Studies in Kant (Stanford 1992). It had a number of cool clarifications. He says for instance that aesthetic judgments are singular but that they create a sense of play “between imagination and understanding,” and while I was reading that I was thinking of you blogging about running your tongue obsessively over something in your mouth (was it an abcess — I can’t remember?).

    Most importantly he argues that if we are to establish the truth of human rights claims then this requires a belief in valid, universal norms. Do you think this is part of what you find fascinating in Kant? The kind of play between the singularity of the aesthetic judgment and the universal norm which might lead to the validity of human rights? One of the things I find so compelling is this giant leap he keeps trying to make between singularity and universality, and between aesthetics and the notion of a final destiny for humanity in the Nude Jerusalem.

  7. The only copy I have is the Great Books edition, translated by Meiklejohn, Abbott, Hastie and Meredith. But I also have the Haffner edition of the Critique of Judgment, translated by Bernard. Comparing translations in tandem can be useful as a means to approximate the amount of play contained in the original.

    I read the Critique of Judgment straight through in grad school. It was the same week I read Schelling. They were both background for a three page paper on Coleridge. I’ve never read the Critiques of Reason or the Metaphysic of Morals straight through, although I have poked around in them a little. Personally, I prefer Lucretius and so does Kant, but people kept asking him his opinion about things, so he gave it to them.

  8. Dr. Spinoza says:

    One of the aspects of Kant which has long intrigued me is what could be called his “fictionalism”: we cannot know that we’re free, or that God exists. In fact, he thinks he can give definitive arguments for why these assertions are forever beyond the scope of human knowledge.

    But he then turns around and says that we ought to live as if these assertions are true. Faith is affirmed precisely in its excess beyond mere fact — the fictionalization of faith. “Fiction” is not quite the right term, because it gets its sense from the contrast with “fact.” Perhaps it would be more precise that the “postulates of pure practical reason” — what Kant calls Ideas — are “beyond fact and fiction”?

    Has it been appreciated how much Deleuze’s contrast between thought and knowledge, and the liberation of thought from the constraints of knowledge, comes directly out of Kant?

  9. VirusHead says:

    As a reading experience, Kant is like chewing glass fragments. Still, like a good swig of whiskey or a double gulp of Coke, one can grow to like it – an acquired taste. At least with Kant, one isn’t infected with the compulsion to create new words with hyphens and parentheses.

  10. MR. ARKADIN says:

    Thanks for this. I recently took to re-reading the CPR. As you say, there is much to enjoy My favorite part is certainly the antinomies. However, I can’t help but draw constructivist methodological conclusions from the limits Kant sets to reason. I read Deleuze & others as taking off from that–letting reason run away with itself in a kind of delirious sophistry, which I find enjoyable, since I long since gave up trying to “discover TRUTH” through philosophy, as something which pre-exists it (of course there are logical truths, but those are fairly boring–or at least only formally pleasurable).

  11. Try Heidegger on Kant or Hegel and you will see the power of his mind.
    His Schelling book is a very good read. Heidegger’s reading of other philosophers is amazing for re-thinking everything. Also, Heidegger is not doing philology – he does philosophy with other philosophers. He is teaching us how to ‘read’ and then ‘think’ with other philosophers.

    Yours – Daniel Ferrer.

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