Kant and Speculative Realism

I need more time to work through Graham Harman’s critique of certain aspects of my Whitehead book. But I think I can give a quick answer to his PS about Kant.

Graham quotes, against my reading of Whitehead as a kind of post-Kantian, Whitehead’s own assertion that Process and Reality involves “a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought” (page xi). Throughout my book I am referring, instead, to a passage where Whitehead instead credits Kant as “the great philosopher who first, fully and explicitly, introduced into philosophy the conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” (page 156). This particular way of relating to Kant is crucial to my whole reading of Whitehead; it is why I position Whitehead as a kind of (radical) post-Kantian. Ultimately, which of these two sides of Whitehead’s attitude towards Kant one wishes to cite is a tactical decision. But in any case, I think that my Kant/Whitehead juxtaposition is more than what Harman dismisses as a “bats and birds both fly” argument.

I certainly do take Graham’s point when he says: “So, why do I choose to portray Kant as an enemy rather than an ally? Largely because of how Kant has been appropriated.” From an anti-correlationist position, Kant is indeed the source of the problem diagnosed by both Harman and Meillassoux, and it makes sense for them to move against him.

My own positioning of Kant as an ally has a different genealogy. It really comes out of the implicit “Kant vs Hegel” faultline in French philosophy. My very first book was on Blanchot and Bataille, and a big part of my argument (inherited from my initial advisor, Joseph Libertson) was that they were reacting against Hegel (whom they encountered via Kojeve) by disassembling the whole (Kojevian more than actually Hegelian, perhaps) “labor of the negative” — hence Bataille emphasizes “negativité sans emploi,” and Blanchot “desoeuvrement” — both of which mean that negativity cannot be put to work, cannot perform a labor. Negativity is weak, and not productive. I saw a link here between the Bataille/Blanchot critique of negativity and Kant’s emphasis on limits: even though Bataille and Blanchot never themselves say anything about Kant. But Foucault definitely positions Bataille in relation to Kant (rather than to Hegel) for this reason in his crucial early article on Bataille, “A Preface to Transgression.”

Subsequently, thisconfiguration seemed to me to be the key to Deleuze’s hatred of the dialectic, and to his presentation of Nietzsche as the thinker who “stood Kant on his feet” in a manner analogous to how Marx stood Hegel on his feet. Deleuze separates productivity entirely from negativity. Similar anti-dialectical stances in Foucault and even in Derrida are grounded in this sort of argument, as well. From there I came to a sense that one could read the second half of the First Critique (the Transcendental Dialectic) as, in effect, Kant’s rejoinder-in-advance to Hegel’s critique of him in the Encyclopedia Logic. And this, in turn, takes on considerable relevance today, since Hegel’s critique of Kant is such a centerpiece of everything that Zizek does. I never managed to work this out in a form that I was satisfied enough with to publish — but it definitely stands behind why I found Kant of such importance in talking about Whitehead and Deleuze.

To try to put this more concisely: Kant’s importance is in saying that there are limits to the pretensions of thought to determine the cosmos. Hegel and Zizek argue that any limit to thought is illusory, since it is turns out to be thought itself that is positing such a limit. I think that Kant’s Transcendental Dialectic is best read as a rejoinder in advance to this sort of argument. It is in this particular sense that I argue for reading Kant as (surprisingly, perhaps) an ally of some of the speculative realist arguments against unlimited correlationism; rather than seeing this part of Kant’s philosophy as being — as Deleuze sometimes implies — a policing action against speculation. Of course it is both, but my reading of Kant in Without Criteria is designed to bring out some of the often overlooked “minor” aspects of Kant — which is something that gets me in trouble with more orthodox Kantians,and more generally with normativists, as much as it does with speculative realists who see Kant as the enemy.

12 thoughts on “Kant and Speculative Realism”

  1. Very quickly — just to clear up one misunderstanding.

    Harman writes:

    I don’t agree with his tactical point that “praising Kant will help get Kantians on board.”

    Perhaps I expressed myself with insufficient clarity, but I didn’t mean to imply that I was hoping (tactically speaking) to convert the mainstream Kantians or anything like that. If anything, those are the people who hate the way I am reading Kant the most. I only wanted to say that the way I read Kant against Hegel is useful for resisting the inexorable march of the dialectic…

  2. Harman has another criticism of my use (or abuse) of Kant here. Harman says that my apologia for Kant “sounds like it was written by Kant’s lawyers. It reads like spin.”

    I can only respond that I think Kant’s thought is richer, and more contradictory, than either Harman (or orthodox Kantians) give him credit for. Kant’s innovativeness in the history of philosophy is such that he opens up a lot of things, and makes it possible to follow a lot of paths — and not only the paths that in fact were followed in the century following him (and that still trace a course for so much philosophy today). I am quite deliberately reading Kant against the grain, in order to trace out some of these alternative paths.

    Whitehead himself didn’t read Kant this way, evidently; but I am reading Kant much in the way that Whitehead reads Plato and Locke. For Whitehead, there is much in Plato that cuts entirely against the history of “Platonism.” And there is much in Locke that pulls in a very different direction than that actually followed by post-Lockean British empiricism.

    Whitehead says at one point that his own philosophy “may be conceived as a recurrence to Descartes and to Locke, in respect to just those elements in their philosophies which are usually rejected by reason of their inconsistency with the elements which their successors developed” (PR 73). I am arguing that Whitehead in fact “recurs” to Kant aw well, in just this way.

  3. Wow! Viva la blogosphere!

    This blog is quite amazing. I just found it making researches on Simondon. So maybe this is not the correct stream of posts, because here you work on Kant. I’ll add you at the list of blogs in my blog because I think it might interest other folks and spend a couple of weekly hours just reading your posts. Congratulations!


  4. I really like this explanatory post, but…

    When Harman writes: “Nothing against Kant (#3 on my all-time list of greatest philosophers) but he is simply not a philosopher of concrete individual entities. If he is, then who isn’t?”

    Is he for you, or is he not, “a philosopher of concrete individual entities”? Or, for you, that in Kant you find valuably that “there are limits to the pretensions of thought to determine the cosmos” does this make him a philosopher of such entities?

  5. Kvond, I would say no but this is beside the point. Harman is pointing out ways in which Kant and Whitehead are not at all alike. I am pointing out ways in which they are indeed alike. I don’t think one of these negates the other.

  6. Thanks Steven. I realized the latter in your nice, clear post. I was just left wondering where you stood on what for Harman is a vital issue (and to you less so). I very much liked the way that you framed Kant here. It is oddly sad how Philosophy is forced to caricature a Philosopher in order to “proceed”. I do also see that Harman is responding to a certain kind of response to Kant, but I also see that Harman is practicing a mode of philosophy that thinks that “any important philosophy makes a brilliant initial exaggeration”. I’m not really sure at all that that is either helpful, or true. In fact the caricatures of history, when added to the caricatures of intentional exaggeration, seems to produice a confusion. If anything your post moves in the other direction. It works to minimimize an exaggeration that Graham may have called you on. Really, excellent writing.

    I can now see where/why you read Kant as medicinal to the very trend that SR imagines it is somehow ghostily fighting, and upon which, if for simplicity’s, or even ease of enemy’s sake Harman lays at the foot of Kant.

  7. Limits to thought? Of course. It’s utterly nonsensical to think there aren’t.

    This seems pretty clear to me. As usual I come from a completely different angle.

    Humans think. If thinking has no limits, then there are an infinite number of thoughts to be thunk. Humans exist in time. It takes time to think a thought. Since thoughts take time, a lack of limits to thought would demand eternity to think them all. Not possible.

    Second: thoughts exist in brains. There are a limited number of people who have, are, and will ever exist. Therefore: there is a limit to the thoughts that can be thunk.

    Yeah, thunk – ‘cuz I roll like that, when I’m in a good mood.

    So, we have establised that there is a limit on the number of people who can, have, or will think thoughts in time. If we could chart them all in some big book, when humans go extinct it would be a very large book, but not an infinite book, and it would, by definition, display a set of limits. Just because we don’t know what they are now, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. While one might think the last thoughts of humanity could be ideas and reflections on these limits and contours, I tend to think they will probably be more like notions of agony as they die of thirst or hunger after roasting their dog three weeks earlier.

    So, when people say “there are no limits to thought” they don’t understand or are wilfully ignoring the material parameters of what thinking is, or seem to think that such realities have no weight or value in such considerations.

  8. I’m pretty sure any of the brand name philosophers of history still stand, but if you want to get technical, science already wiped out rationalism, thomism indirectly, most idealism.

  9. I just have a question about kant’s argument about the limits of thought. In the way I read deleuze, there is a way in which the notion of virtuality (an infinite potential), is equated with the infinity of thought, or the capacity to perceive the ‘unperceivable’, what is beyond perception and can only be sensed through a transcendental exercise of the faculties. Of course in this way the notion of thought becomes one of a non-human, ‘natural’ or ‘cosmic’ thought (to put it in whiteheadian language), that goes beyond the human limits. Is this the sense in which you agree with kant, in saying that it is the ‘human range of thought’ that has these limits?

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