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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Looking with 72 senses at Kant

“…commencez d’abord par me dire combien les hommes de votre globe ont de sens. — Nous en avons soixante et douze, dit l’académicien, et nous nous plaignons tous les jours du peu. Notre imagination va au-delà de nos besoins; nous trouvons qu’avec nos soixante et douze sens, notre anneau, nos cinq lunes, nous sommes trop bornés; et, malgré toute notre curiosité et le nombre assez grand de passions qui résultent de nos soixante et douze sens, nous avons tout le temps de nous ennuyer. — Je le crois bien, dit Micromégas; car dans notre globe nous avons près de mille sens, et il nous reste encore je ne sais quel désir vague, je ne sais quelle inquiétude, qui nous avertit sans cesse que nous sommes peu de chose, et qu’il y a des êtres beaucoup plus parfaits.” – Voltaire, Micromégas

Philip Almond, in Adam and Eve in Seventeenth Century Thought, reviews the idea that other planets contained other living beings, which he thinks is one effect of the Copernican revolution. I have made the case that Cyrano de Bergerac’s inhabitants of the Moon owe a lot to the inhabitants of the New World. The discovery of the New World and the continuing discoveries being made in the 18th century in the South Pacific had the effect, on the learned in Europe, of destroying the notion that the knowledge of the world revealed by the traditional disciplines was complete. Extraterrestrials were an annex to that history of discoveries. A sort of dream compromise was struck between Utopia, More’s island in the Pacific, and the discoveries of astronomy. Almond quotes Robert Burton’s argument that if the Earth is a planet whirling about the sun, then the other planets must be like Earth in having inhabitants. Huyghens was also of this opinion. Fontenelle – that modern ultra – argued for the thesis in his Entretiens. In his second conversation with the marquise, he writes that ‘since the sun is now immobile, has ceased to be a planet, and the earth which moves about it, has begun to be one, you will not be so surprised to hear that the moon is an earth like the latter, and that apparently it is inhabited.” Fontenelle is often called a delightful writer. He was, at least, a flattering one, tempering his knowledge to the gestures of salon gallantry, the social convenance of volupté in which the moment of learning that a thing is such and such a way is identified with the thing’s being such and such a way – as if our discovery was an essential condition of the object’s being. In this way, he produced a rococo Genesis that is not for all tastes.

Not, for instance, Voltaire's, who makes fun of the whole strolling in the garden, talking with the marquise thing in Micromegas. Voltaire not only hits out at Fontenelle in Micromegas, but also at Pascal, who for Voltaire was always the arch-enemy. That Voltaire accuses him of being a mediocre geometer is, from a man who was as uncomfortable with mathematics as Voltaire, a rather usurping gesture. But the point here is to bring to earth Pascal's 'anguish' in the face of the infinite. In the goings and comings from planet to planet, the infinite simply becomes the tall and the taller, and even on the edge of the universe the picaresque narrative rule applies - every sage finds his buffoon.

Other writers – notably Lambert in Germany and Thomas Wright in England – use the as a basis to enquire into the constitution of the heavens. Kant reviewed Wright and knew Lambert.

As the interior human limit dissolves under the blows struck upon it by Enlightenment materialism, the extraterrestrial, or something that fills up a space that is comparable to the human, emerges. The notion of another rational being, neither God nor man nor angel, is not long in presenting itself in the Critique of Practical Reason. And it does so in terms that are surprisingly close to Micromégas:

We assume as a principle that, in the natural disposition of an existence organized, so to speak, purposefully, so as to be alive, we will meet with no feature (Werkzeuge) that is not most appropriate and suitable to that end. If in an existence that had reason and will, the actual end of nature were its preservation and well being – in a word, its felicity, it would have badly executed this intent by selecting this creature’s reason to be that intent’s overseer. For all the actions that it has to carry out to meet this intent, and the whole rule of its behavior would have much more exactly been enacted, and this end would have been more securely maintained, by instinct, than could happen through reason. And should the latter be allocated to the favored creature above, it would have had to serve him only in order to make observations of his fortunate material disposition, to admire, to enjoy, and to be grateful to the ever so benign cause of it; but not to have its desires submitted to this weakened and delusion-prone guide in order to blunder into Nature’s intent. Nature would have forthrightly confided to instinct the taking over of not only the choice of ends, but also of means. (6-7)

This paragraph is certainly in a philosophical treatise, and is meant to be appropriate and suitable in tone towards that end. And yet, it uses a rhetoric, a tone, that bears the distinct stamp of that most Enlighenment of genres, the philosophical satire. We are hyperaware that the words ‘man” and “human” are avoided here, and we are hyperaware of the satire’s bent for negative space, the way it grabs the eraser, the way it produces disjunction in order to create conjunction. No subject here, but instead, an existence, (Wesen) a creature (Geschöpf), as if we must begin with the language stripped down to a certain anatomical level. And if the satirist casts a distinct shadow over the page, hasn’t there always been a relationship between the moralist and the scold? And even, in philosophy, the stripping advice of the stoic. There is a degree of freedom in this paragraph, in other words, that is derived from something other than proofs and arguments.


traxus4420 said...

have you read the last part of Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View? The last part called "On the Character of the Species." David Clark has an essay called "Kant's Aliens" where he quotes this part:

"The highest concept of species may be that of a terrestrial rational being [eines irdischen vernünftigen], but we will not be able to describe its characteristics because we do not know of a nonterrestrial rational being [nicht-irdischen Wesen] which would enable us to refer to its properties and consequently classify that terrestrial being as rational. It seems, therefore, that the problem of giving an account of the character of the human species is quite insoluble [sie schlechterdings unauflöslich], because the problem could only be solved by comparing two species of rational beings on the basis of experience, but experience has not offered us a comparison between two species of rational beings...We cannot think of any form that would be suitable for a rational being than the form of a human being."

roger said...

Funny you should ask that. I was reading the Anthropologie last week for another purpose. But I hadn't read that beautiful quotation. Although today I was thinking that if I were some grad student trying to get a paper published, I'd think about using Kant's AI thesis at the beginning of the C. of practical R.

northanger said...

preternatural kant.