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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

what does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?

Kant’s little writings are all too little known, except for the all too known What is Enlightenment. One of his most entertaining papers is entitled “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking.” It was written to interfere in a dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi over the limits of reason and the rights of genius. Mendelssohn, in the course of this dispute, talks about being “oriented” by common sense, or healthy reason, and opts for a religious purified of enthusiasm, worshipping a rational God. Kant, with that driest of dry wits (the wit of the praying mantis as she devours her mate) likes the word orientation (and of course there is a little subdued play here with Mendelssohn as a man from the orient – a Jew).

This is how Kant explains it:

To orient oneself means, properly: out of a given world region (in the four of which we divide the horizon) to find the other, namely, the place of rising (sunrise). If I look at the son in the heaven at this instant and know that it is noon, so I know how to find the south, west, north and east. But I need in support of this throughout the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, my right and left hands. I name it a feeling; because these two side show externally to the intuition [Anschauung – inner view] no marked difference. Without this capacity: in the description of a circle, without requiring any distinction of objects in it, to still distinguish the movement of the left to the right from the opposed direction, and through this to determine a difference in the position of the objects a priori, would not be something I knew how to do, if I did not set the West to the right or the left of the south point of the horizon, and so thus should complete the circle with the north and the east until I was again at the south. Thus I orient myself geographically by all objective data on the heavens, but only through a subjective base of difference (Unterschiedungsgrund); and if, in a day through some miracle all the constellations otherwise retaining the same shape and position relative to each other only took a different direction, that is, instead of eastwardly, going now westwardly, in the next starbright night no human eye would perceive the least change, and even the astronomer, if he simply relied on what he saw and not at the same time on what he felt, would be unavoidably disoriented.

Kant always had a deep appreciation of the time reversable world of Newtonian physics. The notion of the sky played backwards or the earth going backwards is a gorgeous mindfall – one can go a long way down, thinking of that. Is there a bottom? This is a subjective claim indeed, but not one often raised in philosophy. Partly because philosophers spend too little time marveling over left and right. Kant, in this essay, uses the term subjective to mean something oddly material – inhabiting a body in space and time. But, as Kant knows, that body is built, partly, of directions that seem to have nothing to do with space and time as we commonly think of them, requiring an imaginary dimension in which we can transfer from left to right and right to left. This is the issue at the heart of the dispute between Leibniz and Newton about absolute vs. relative space. Which I’m not going into, except to note how Kant is building his notions

His next move is to expand this idea – which, incidentally, involves introducing the first practical joke (if we put aside Descartes evil demon) in philosophy (and all the praying mantises go doo, da doo da doot da doot doo da doo da doo doot da doot):

This geographic concept of the process of orientation I can now expand, understanding it thusly: in a given space in general, thus purely mathematically, to orient oneself. In darkness I orient myself in a well known room when I get hold of only a few objects, whose place I have registered in my memory. But here I am obviously helped in nothing by the specific affordances (Bestimmungsvermogen) of the place according to a subjective ground of distinction: then the objects, whose places I should have to find, I don’t see at all; and if someone, playing a joke on me, had put all the same objects in the same order one with another, but to the left where all had previously been to the right, so I would in a room where otherwise the walls were all the same, not be able to find myself. But so I orient myself now through the simple feeling of a difference between my two sides, the right and the left. Just that happens, when I in the nighttime on street otherwise familiar to me, in which I can now not distinguish between houses, go and appropriately wend my way.

Am I the only one, reading this, who thinks:

“He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

I won’t translate all of Kant’s essay. I want to drive us to this passage – and, I assure you, I am still thinking about Wallenstein and superstition. A moment, ladies and gentlemen. Let me compose myself. I haven’t been feeling well lately. Isn’t it hot in here? Let me get out my handkerchief. Actually, touch of an old tropical distemper, plus of course the damned clap. Vixen was well worth it! The worms have the best of it. They dine off the best bits... Was this the face that launched a thousand ships...


“The course of things is approximately this. First, genius disports itself by making its bold flights, since it has dropped the thread that otherwise links it to reason. It soon entrances others through mighty speeches and great expectations, and seems to have set itself on a throne, which slow, heavy reason barely graces; whereby it still leads with the language of the same. The at that point assumed maxim of unworthiness of a too highly placed, lawgiving reason we common men call enthusiasm [Schwarmarei] these sports of benificent nature call it illumination. Because in the meantime there must arise a confusion of speech among them because, while reason can assume the dignity to command every man, here now this one, now that one follows his inspirations: thus must finally arise, out of inner inspirations through the testimonies of externally observed facts, out of traditions, that were in the beginning themselves kinds of preferences, with time becoming intrusive oracles [Urkunde], with a word the whole subjection of reason under the fact, i.e. superstition - because this at least carries with it the form of law and thus a point of rest.”

Time for a quick one...


northanger said...

don't know where you're going with the superstition bit, but this from "Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida" is interesting. btw, hyperstition is related, apparently, to superstition.

Concentricity and Monocentrism

What, in sum, is the relation between rational religion (Vernunftreligion) and revealed religion (Offenbarungsreligion)? Kant compares them, not to strictly separated spheres, but to concentric circles. In the preface to the second edition of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, he writes: "Regarding the title of this work (since doubts have been expressed also regarding the intention hidden behind it) I note: Since, after all, revelation can at least comprise also the pure religion of reason., whereas, conversely, the latter cannot do the same for what is historical in revelation, I shall be able to consider the first as the wider sphere of faith that includes the other, a narrower one, within itself (not as two circles external to one another but as concentric circles)" (RBR 64/569). Derrida's reading helps us to single out the centrist or monocentrist presupposition of Kant's philosophical theology.89 Somewhere, for Kant, there must be a center—one center—and only one or the other, either revealed or rational religion (according to Kant the latter, the smaller of the two circles), lies closest to it. Not that one could easily measure the distance between the two circles, or between either one and their purportedly common center. More importantly, Kant asserts that these fundamentally incommensurable circles can still somehow be said to revolve around a common measure: the highest good, the ideal of reason, and, ultimately, God. Although they are abstractions (from one another), one circle would nonetheless somehow lead or point toward the other.

Derrida points out that we can never hope to determine with either epistemological or moral certainty which of the circles (if circles they are) is more central or closer to the center (if there is one, just one). Reason alone cannot decide whether it is historical revelation (Offenbarung) or, on the contrary, pure moral religion (die reine Vernunftreligion). The problem of which comes first or is primary—a particular, positive revelation captured by dogma or a rational religion (a problem inspired by the "logic of presupposition" that Derrida discusses in Aporias and that I have reconstructed at some length in Philosophy and the Turn to Religion—is irresolvable in any rigorous, decidable way. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing here with an undecidability that is neither accidental nor the result of a lack of reasoning, but reveals a general and universal structure of revealability (Offenbarkeit) itself. It can only be solved through resolve, through conscientious resolution, that is to say, through decision, affirmation, confession, and testimony. Everything thus comes down to the question of orientation, of how to orient oneself in thinking, a question that in 1786 Kant raises explicitly in a polemic with Jacobi, in "Was heisst sich im Denken orientieren?" ("What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?").90 This problem, in turn, Derrida writes, entails that of the "lever" of thought and action: "When one asks how to be orientated in history, morality or politics, the most serious discords have to do less often with ends... than with levers."91

- - -
89. In his text, Derrida gets it the wrong way round, however, confusing the letter if not the spirit of Kant's text, and stating that rational religion encompasses revealed religion ("Autour du même centre, le cercle intérieur est celui de la religion révélée ou historique, le cercle extérieur celui de la religion rationelle"; DP 357-58).

Roger Gathmann said...

hmmm. I was looking around for a Derridian reference to the orientation essay. It deserves more than being treated as an appendage to the religion book. It is a surprisingly untreated text, you know, North? So ... once again, LI is showin' you the frontier! But does anybody appreciate my inner Daniel Boonness? {sob} no!

northanger said...

nice to know gramm is right about one american. you.

Roger Gathmann said...

North, me a whiner? Before I can become a full bodied Gramm whiner, don't I have to be a success in some small way?

I like to think of my whining as an activity that would melt your heart, like the mewing of a kitten - rather than, say, the dyspeptic ranting of a middle aged man.

northanger said...

maybe you should put a pootie shot on the top of this post. to garner sympathy.

but i think all that's required to be a full bodied Gramm whiner is to be one dumb fuck. which you aren't! so whining is beneath you.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ah, but how about the Underground Man?

"I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I
believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my
disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor
for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors.
Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine,
anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am
superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you
probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I
can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my
spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not
consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only
injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is
from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!"

Roger Gathmann said...

Actually, my best friend Dave, before I moved to a certain city - call it x. - where he had scooped out jobs for us (which turned out not to exist - besides which, being a garbageman requires you to get up at an ungodly time) told me that before I had arrived, he read the Notes from the Underground, just to prepare himself for my character.

So, now I am meta-whining. This variety is so subtle that I don't even know if I'm whining or not.

northanger said...

sheesh meta whining. only you woggia, only you. go find that pootie shot!

oh here it is: HYPERSTITION/ SUPERSTITION & Hyperstition & The 'hype' in hyperstition: Hyperstition aims to flatten the transcendence of superstition. Nowhere is this immanence more obvious than in the role hype plays in the market. Here hype acts concretely as an 'element of effective culture that makes itself real', where reality is precisely measured in $.

northanger said...

Cyberhype-1: Who Believes in the New Economy? Jack Schwarz’s paean to ‘superconductive capitalism’ out-hyped even Volta’s enthusiastic affirmation of the virtual economy. His presentation ‘Mindless Trade’ promoted itself as a "practical demonstration of irrational exuberance", whose result would be "collective ego-dissolution into the hypersphere". He defined his method of ‘positive unbelief’ — "a fictional techonomic yoga from the Plateau of Leng" — as a process of "tuning into artificial reality, which is the only reality left." It is no longer a matter of what is believed, but of what can be treated as real. "Belief and disbelief are the twin traps of maya," Schwarz suggested. "True fusion with the market only occurs on the plane of unbelief."

northanger said...


Anonymous said...

Hyperstition, eh?

Shoggothic Multiplicity Engineering in Tangent Space, by seeking Synesthesia via the light of Disjecta Membra.

Interesting house ya got here Roger. Greets from the Confederate States of Heaven.

Roger Gathmann said...

Hmm. Confederate equal rebel - rebel from heaven - damn, the devil!

But is this the devil I worship - his black magic majesty - or the one I exorcize (suspect goes under the alias Jehovah). That's the question.

Anonymous said...

My Uncles always say that the Devil is in the details.

Did Kant's personal demon have something to do with his arm?