notes on kant’s c.p.r.

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Salix herbacea — dwarf willow

Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) Critique of Pure Reason (1781 & 1787; hereafter CPR) had several aims, one aim had to do with getting at an understanding of how we come to know things by the use of reason. A rigorous critique of reason for Kant includes detailed ways in which our knowledge of the empirical world combines with reason, and how universal and necessary knowledge is justified apart, and combined with, empirical knowledge claims. In order to accomplish these goals, Kant picked up where his predecessors left off. Although there were others, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and David Hume (1711-1776) represent two predominate philosophical trends from which Kant was influenced, and from where he wished to start his legendary critique.

Leibniz was a rationalist, and Hume was an empiricist. Kant, in the CPR would refer to each, respectively, as a dogmatist and a skeptic. These two modes of philosophical thinking are also referred to by Kant as “transcendental realism.” He writes of them, “hence the transcendental realist conceives outer appearances […] as things in themselves that exist independently of us and our sensibility […]” (A369). In short, this is the typical, and ordinary, way of thinking about objects as distinctly separate from our thinking of them. But how does this apply to Leibniz and Hume?

Leibniz is a transcendental realist, because in his rationalist way of thinking about the world, he separates knowledge into a system that favors the rational over the contingent (empirical). Leibniz divides knowledge of truth in two ways, the rational part of the way man knows things is known as a “truth of reason.” These truths of reason are necessarily and universally true and cannot be contradicted. Such truths are classified as the laws of nature, pure mathematics, and so on. As for contingent truths, Leibniz refers to these as “truths of fact.” Truths of fact are contingently true and are known to us via the senses, i.e. in an empirical way. In Leibniz’s rationalist understanding of the world, God and our God-given rationality are sovereign over and beyond what can be known as a truth of fact. Since the world we know by the senses—a truth of fact—is essentially contingent, then the only way to be sure of things is to appeal to an all prevailing reason. Again, this is a form of transcendental realism because the contingent world of the senses is completely reliant on the rational way in which we come to understand it (i.e. the subject and object are separate).

Hume, on the other hand, is a transcendental realist due to his skeptical empiricism. Hume’s division of knowledge is commonly referred to as “Hume’s fork.” There are, for Hume, “relations of ideas” which are otherwise known as truths of reason, necessary truths such as natural laws, pure mathematics &c. are included in this category. And there are “matters of fact,” the substantive world which is empirically known via the senses. Matters of fact also bear the marks of contingency. Since Hume’s philosophy draws all of its conclusions from an empirical way of understanding, even the associations of ideas can be traced back to an experiential origin. For Hume’s radical skepticism, reason and contingency are not necessarily compatible, therefore a quest for reason in the midst of the sensible becomes pointless (vacuous, arbitrary, &c.). Habit and association are what we have to rely on to put the world together as knowledge (re: inductively).

Both of these views present problems when it comes to justifying an objective (empirical) knowledge that relies on necessary and universal claims to truth (re: scientific knowledge). In Leibniz’s world, rational thinking only affirms itself without proper recourse to the contingent world. And as for Hume’s empiricism, all we have is the sensible world. Therefore for Hume, any recourse to universal necessity becomes unnecessary, and any thought of a fundamental structure that underlies experience becomes only a series of associative habits.

Enter Kant’s “Copernican revolution.” It should now be remarked that this turning from transcendental realism represents what Kant will name transcendental idealism, whereby cognition plays an active role in the way objects are understood, and subjective cognition is no longer separate from the objects of cognition (objectivity). Describing and elucidating transcendental idealism is another primary and critical goal of the CPR. Kant’s emphasis had to do with how transcendental idealism subjectively constitutes the objective world for man. In the 1787 “Preface” to the CPR Kant writes, “Thus far it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to objects. […] Let us, therefore, try to find out by experiment [i.e. a central project of the CPR] if we assume that objects must conform to our cognition” (Bxvi). It is here that we find Kant demonstrating that objects must conform to our cognitive reasoning, instead of a turn to the objects themselves, or to our reasoning alone. Kant’s transcendental idealism seeks to reconcile rational and empirical philosophy by means of a counter-intuitive change of cognitive perspective. Copernicus shifted astronomical perspective away from a supposed position on an unmoving and centered earth. He took on the perspective of what the universe (and rotating solar-system) would look like if we were on the sun. Heliocentrism ended up making more (calendric) sense than a Ptolemaic system. It was this Copernican thought experiment that changed the way we thought about our calendar and our place in the solar-system, and the universe.

Kant’s new transcendental idealism also changed the way we understand that the very structure of our cognition determines the way objects appear to us. The CPR will be a heroic, systematic and scrupulous attempt to show how cognition does this.


Quite often when we are introduced to the first two (of the four above knowledge terms) a priori and a posteriori, a priori knowledge is typically defined as coming before experience. If we start with this common way of designating a priori knowledge we find ourselves confused, since Kant, in the CPR, explicitly states in the first sentence of the “Introduction,” “There can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience” (B1). A way to fully explain how a priori knowledge (reason) is combined with experience (empiricism) would be by way of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, “I call transcendental all cognition that deals not so much with objects as rather with our way of cognizing objects in general insofar as that way of cognizing is to be possible a priori” (A12-B26). A priori knowledge does not happen because of experience, instead, it’s the governing cognitive structure of experience, and it shows itself via necessity and universality discerned apart from the contingency of experience. That is to say, the necessary and universal aspects of cognition are a means by which a priori knowledge is made evident.

To begin with we’ll explicate what these terms mean, with Kant’s special emphasis on synthetic/a priori judgments, and transcendental idealism. Then we’ll continue, by looking at how the four types of knowledge/judgments (a priori, a posteriori, analytic, and synthetic) are comparable to the (above mentioned) “transcendental realist” positions of Leibniz and Hume. We will close with a brief explanation of Kant’s synthetic/ a priori judgment and its connection to transcendental idealism.

The first order of business will be to look at a priori and a posteriori knowledge (alternately referred to by Kant as cognitions). Avoiding the typical way of defining a priori knowledge as ‘prior to experience,’ we will instead define it as having to do with the rational ways in which we know things necessarily, universally, and as irrefutable. A classic example of an a priori cognition is: ‘all bachelors are unmarried.’ With this knowledge claim we immediately think of it as experientially irrefutable. Without being ridiculous, we cannot think of any case whereby a bachelor is married. Once a bachelor becomes married he is no longer a regarded as a bachelor. A bachelor, by definition, is necessarily unmarried, and this necessity holds universally. Unmarried bachelorhood cannot be refuted by the man becoming married. Once we see that a knowledge claim withstands a test of irrefutability, it can then be said to be necessary and universal—hence it is a priori knowledge.

Similarly, a posteriori knowledge is often thought of as happening after experience, but this too adds confusion (for the above mentioned reasons, i.e. all knowledge starts with experience). It makes more sense to regard a posteriori as contingent knowledge that is experientially refutable. The raw material of experiential life is a posteriori, and the rational structuring principle of life is a priori. A posteriori knowledge also accounts for contingency.

Kant was not satisfied to simply retain a priori and a posteriori as the sole means by which we understand things, so he introduced what he called analytic and synthetic judgments. Analytic judgments are usually statements or propositions about the world, having to do with predication. When I say something about an object, I predicate an object. With an analytic judgment, predication is contained within the subject. With a synthetic judgment, predication is not contained in the subject. Analytic and synthetic judgments rely on identity to tell them apart. With analytic judgment the subject predicate link is explicative. Kant’s also calls this “elucidatory” (A7-B11). In other words, the predicate explains, and explicates the subject. As with Kant’s example “all bodies are extended” (A8-B11). The predicate term ‘extended,’ explicates bodies in space, i.e. all bodies have extension, and no body is without extension. With synthetic judgments the subject predicate link is expansive. In other words, the predicate expands the meaning of the subject. Kant’s example is “all bodies are heavy” (A7-B11). The predicate requires us to go elsewhere (re: into experience) to explain the subject. In his example the respective weight of things has to be investigated to know what is heavy, and what is not heavy.

Also, for an analytic judgment to be true, the contrary of the predicate has to be self-contradictory, that is to say, contradiction of the predicate would be inconceivable. With the judgment “all bodies have extension,” no refutation (contradiction) can be conceived of, we cannot think of a physical body as un-extended. Then, with a synthetic judgment to be true, the predicate’s denial is not self-contradictory, that is to say, a contradiction of the predicate is conceivable. As with the judgment “all bodies are heavy,” a refutation can be conceived of, that is, we can immediately think of a physical body that is lightweight, e.g. ultra fine dust particles, &c.

But how are these four terms connected? (a) An analytic/a posteriori judgment is an impossible connection since we cannot appeal to experience to predicate an analytical judgment. (b) Synthetic/ a posteriori judgments rely on experience to expand predication of a judgment. (c) And analytic/a priori judgments are really about logical truth and pure reason, these judgments rely on necessity and universality for their truth claims. (d) Then there is Kant’s special (transcendental idealist) case of synthetic/ a priori judgments, whereby we know something with a priori knowledge, yet, in order to make a judgment about it we must expand the knowledge claim synthetically (more on the transcendental idealist position below).

And what about the empiricism and the rationalism of the transcendental realists, a.k.a. Hume, the skeptic, and Leibniz, the dogmatist?—how do these positions line up with priori/a posteriori knowledge and analytic/synthetic judgments? Both thinkers acknowledged the basic a posteriori/ a priori distinction, yet neither acknowledged these forms of knowledge as intrinsically combined. For Hume, necessity is thought of as vacuous, which is to suggest that an analytic/a priori judgment is something that cannot be founded in experience, therefore, the only valuable combination for him is the synthetic/a posteriori judgment. Hume’s skeptical empiricism allows for a priori and analytic reasoning for mathematics, yet he famously favored inductive reasoning. Contrariwise, Leibniz’s metaphysical rationalism ultimately favored the analytic/a priori, since the substantive contingency (a synthetic/a posteriori judgment) of experience is only a mirror of the rational mind of the subject (and God). Therefore, his dogmatism only allowed for the precedence of reason. The world of the rational subject and the world of substantive contingency only mirror each other and never-the-twain-shall-meet in Leibniz’s system.

Kant’s transcendental idealist innovation was with the synthetic/a priori judgment. An example of this, offered in the CPR, is mathematical: “7 + 5 = 12” (B15). Here, we know that the sum is necessary and universal, we can’t think of another way to add these two numbers without being ridiculous—knowledge of this sum is a priori. Likewise, when we work on the problem out we can possibly get it wrong (this point is made more evident with larger more cumbersome numbers. With “7 +5” the sum is too obvious). A judgment of this sum is conceivably refutable, i.e. it is synthetic, and we might make a mistake in our calculations. Essentially a primary focus of Kant’s CPR is directed at explicating synthetic/a priori claims. His philosophy deals explicitly with synthetic/a priori knowledge, otherwise known as transcendental idealism. Kant wanted to lay down a foundation for science and mathematics while attempting to solve a few of the inherent problems of dogmatic rationalism and skeptical empiricism.


After the “Prefaces” and “Introductions” of the CPR, Kant then takes us through the arguments of the “Transcendental Aesthetic” (A19-B33—A49-B73). It is in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” where Kant proposes the idea that objects are given to us by way of sensual intuition. Basic intuition can be thought of as another word for experience (in an everyday sense of the word). Intuition describes how we are affected by objects, as much as it describes our primary and fundamental receptivity of the empirical world. Kant distinguishes between outer and inner intuitions, whereby space refers to all our outer intuitions, and time refers to all our inner intuitions. “Pure” intuition refers to “all presentations in which nothing is found that belongs to sensation” (A21-B35). This means that for Kant, ‘pure’ is another way of describing what is transcendentally ideal. Essentially, when we (theoretically) extract from all sensible intuition such things as the understanding of concepts, and when we (theoretically) extract the sensual components from experience, we find what Kant refers to as the transcendental, i.e. that specific and unique part of our intuition of space (and time) that is necessary—the a priori. Simply questing for the a priori is not the sole objective of Kant’s expositions on space and time, he also wants to show how if space is an intuition, then it is a synthetic judgment. Likewise, if space and time are synthetic/a priori judgments, then for Kant, space and time are transcendentally ideal.

In the CPR the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is divided into to two sections, “Section I” covers Kant’s arguments for the a priority of our knowledge of space, how space is known via intuition, and how his conclusions about space provide a justification for the synthetic/a priori basis for geometry and the sciences. The first subsection of “Section I” (§2) is titled the “Metaphysical Exposition of This Concept,” (hereafter MetEx), the second subsection (§3) is titled the “Transcendental Exposition of the Concept of Space” (hereafter TransEx). In a footnote Kant explains the difference between the MetEx, and the TransEx: the MetEx of space “investigates the nature of the presentation of space and shows that this presentation is a priori…” [1]This is where Kant demonstrates that space is known to us a priori. And the TransEx of space “shows that and how from the a priori presentation of space something else that is a priori follows—viz., synthetic a priori cognitions.”[2] That is to say, the TransEx of space shows that the science of space, geometry, relies on synthetic/a priori cognitions of space.[3]

The MetEx of space subsection is further divided into four main arguments,[4] grouped into two areas of emphasis, whereby 1 and 2 are arguments for the a priori cognition of space, and arguments 3 and 4 are arguments for space as an intuition, rather than as a concept. Let’s elaborate more on these arguments. In argument 1, Kant basically makes the claim that space is not an abstraction from empirical data. We don’t know about space by experiential reduction, nor do we know about space by the relationships of things. Space is, rather, the underlying part of all outer experiences (re: it is a priori).[5] In argument 2, space is easily thought of without objects, but we cannot think of objects without space. Therefore, space is necessary (it is a priori) and it underlies the “presentation” all of our outer intuitions (A24-B39). Instead of moving consecutively to argument 3, we will jump to argument 4, since this argument allows for a better preliminary understanding of Kant’s argument that space is not a concept, as it is discussed in argument 3.

Kant has already provided two arguments (1 and 2) that the cognition of space is known to us a priori. Now he has to demonstrate that judgments about it are known synthetically as an intuition, instead of analytically, and he has to clarify that space is not a universal concept. With argument 4 it is important to know the difference between the instances of a concept, versus the particulars of an intuition of space. With the instances of a concept, each particular instance of a concept falls under the concept and each instance is not part of the concept as a whole. Each instance of a concept is merely an instance of the concept, rather then an intrinsic part of the concept. An accumulation of like concepts does not constitute a whole concept—i.e. every instance of a table does not make for the entire concept of a table. We don’t know about space by comparing a multitude of space-like concepts. We do, according to Kant, have an intuition of space whereby its particulars are thought of (cognized) as parts of the whole of space. Another way of thinking about this distinction would be to compare the relationship of parts and wholes of an intuition of space. Parts of space do not operate in the same way as concepts do, since space is thought of as an individual “infinite magnitude” (A25-B40). This is to suggest that the particulars of space cannot also contain individual “infinite magnitudes.” The particulars of space are not under space conceptually, they are space intuitively. Particular spaces cannot be taken apart in the same in the way that the concept of an object can be taken apart. When space is divided up into particular parts it does not lose any its spatial qualities, it just is another magnitude of space. Since space is an individual “infinite magnitude” it is not a universal concept (that is to say, it is not analytic)—it is a synthetic/a priori intuition.

Now to argument 3, where Kant repeats that we do not know about space by a reduction of empirical relations, that space is a priori, and that space is not a universal concept. In this argument we also find that the parts of space cannot precede the whole, and since we do not experience space via empirical abstraction, we do, however, experience space via one experience of it, “space is essentially one” (A25-B40). Again, as mentioned in argument 4, the particulars of space are not to be thought of as the particulars of concepts, if space is singular and individual, then a particular of space cannot be taken away that will alter our intuition of space. So our intuition of space does not have to do with comparing conceptual relations, we have to go out into the experience of space to answer questions about it, that is to say, we have to experience space with our intuition—synthetically. We must go beyond conceptual relationships to properly cognize judgments about space. Space is not contained in an analytic concept of space.

Lastly, the argument for the TransEx of space is meant to show that due to the synthetic/a priori intuition of space, the science of space (geometry) is made possible. The MetEx of space already argued that space is a synthetic intuition and that it is an a priori cognition. A transcendental judgment of space makes geometry possible, because, as we’ve shown, mathematics, geometry, &c., require a priori necessity, as much as they require synthetic predication (whereby a contrary is possible).[6] Arguing for transcendental idealism is a primary aim of Kant’s CPR, and the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is no exception to this claim. It too shows that our intuitions (and our knowledge) of space and time are transcendentally ideal.


Kant’s expositions for time, more-or-less, line up with his expositions on space in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” sections from the CPR, with a few modifications. As noted above, when we (theoretically) extract conceptuality, and the basic sensual qualities from experience, we are left with the “pure” intuitions of space and time. Time, like space, is an a priori intuition. Under Kant’s terms, the designation “pure” usually means a priori, and whenever we are dealing with a priority for Kant, we are dealing with the transcendentally ideal. And as mentioned above, if space is intuited as an outer experience, then time is intuited as having to do with inner and outer experience.

For the subject of time, we will not repeat some of the forgoing issues mentioned with the space arguments. Although most of the issues apply to the intuitions of time in much the same way as did the intuitions of space. However, given time’s specific layout in the CPR, we will organize arguments 1 and 2 (the MetEx of time) as the arguments for the a priority of time. And arguments 4 and 5 (of the MetEx of time) are offered as the arguments for the time as an intuition rather than a concept. The TransEx of time consists of argument 3 (from the MetEx)[7] whereby time is positioned as a synthetic judgment that justifies science (or the science of time, whatever that may be, temporal axioms, motion, &c.).

In the first argument in the MetEx of time, time cannot be known through empirical abstraction, just as we cannot know space by way of empirical abstraction. We do not necessarily know about time by comparing empirical events.[8] Time underlies all empirical ways of knowing about it (A31-B47). We already presuppose infinite time in all cognition of things and events. Therefore, cognition of time is a necessary condition of the experience of temporal things and events. Time is intuited in an a priori way (i.e. it is transcendental). In argument 2, Kant presents time as a necessary presentation of experience underneath all intuitions of objects. In other words, time is easily thought of without the presentation of objects, yet we cannot think of objects without the presentation of time itself. Basically, how time gets filled with objects, happens contingently—we have the notion that time can be filled differently—events could have been otherwise. “Appearances, one and all, may go away; but time itself (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot be annulled” (A32-B47). Therefore, time is a priori.

The two remaining arguments for time from the MetEx (aside from argument 3) are arguments 4 and 5, which offer justification for time as an intuition rather than by conceptualization. In argument 4, time is not a universal concept for Kant. Basically, the instances of concepts are to be differentiated from the parts of time. A concept’s relation to its instances is not the same as parts of time are intuited. For example, if we take the concept of a desk, each instance of a desk does not constitute part of the concept of a desk—an agglomeration of desks does not make for a total concept of a desk. Each desk is a particular instance of the concept desk. An intuition of time does not work the same way. Time’s particulars are not instances of the concept of time. Time’s wholeness is individual, when time’s particulars are brought together, they constitute the wholeness of time, and “different times are only parts of one and the same time…” (A32-B47).

Related to argument 4 is argument 5, to repeat, Kant is trying to establish that time is not conceptual, in other words, time is not analytic, and we are not comparing ideas in order to intuit time. We have to intuit time experientially, i.e. synthetically in order to make an intuitive cognition of it (transcendentally). So in argument 5, Kant’s temporal concerns are similar to his spatial concerns. Due to the infinity of time, time’s individual parts can only be known with respect to the whole. Time’s parts are limitations of the whole. Still we do not need a whole experience of time to know about time intuitively—we only need a single presentation of it to know it as time.

As for the TransEx of time, argument 3 belongs to it instead in the MetEx. It is here, in the TransEx of time, where Kant restates a point made in argument 4 (in the MetEx of space), “Time has only one dimension; different times are not simultaneous but sequential (just as different spaces are not sequential but simultaneous)” (A32-B47). Time has to be experienced to be known, this experience is known intuitively in a sequential way. If time’s intuitive sequence is not known to us analytically, it is known to us synthetically. The a priori and necessary intuitions of time are not analytic. We do not know about time conceptually. We do not know about time by comparing ideas. Another way of putting this would be to say that time is a transcendentally ideal cognition. Transcendentally ideal cognitions explain Kant’s synthetic/a priori judgments about the world, namely these judgments are necessary and about the contingent world of experience (re: judgments having to do with science).[9] This is also where Kant writes about change and motion, made possible via the intuition of time. “Let me add here that the concept of change, and with it the concept of motion (as change of place), is possible only through and in the presentation of time [as an intuition, not a concept]” (A33-B49).

We will see that the spatiotemporal concerns of the “Transcendental Aesthetic” will be for Kant a cognitively fundamental way to get to the rest of the work of the CPR—conceptual understanding relies on spatiotemporal intuitions.


There is a wonderful metaphor Kant offered in the “Preface” to the first edition of the CPR, where metaphysical dogmatism is characterized as the reign of despotic reason, because of this it still retained traces of barbarism and civil wars ensued. Eventually these civil wars culminated into a state of anarchy, whereby the skeptics (of empiricism) who were nomads, would manage to continue the reap chaos (Aix-x). We already know that Kant intended the CPR to contend with a few philosophical issues of his day, namely the rationalism of Leibniz (Wolff, &c.) and the empiricism of Hume. Kant anoints each, the dogmatist and the skeptic respectively. The contention basically had to do with the manner in which each position, according to Kant, was unable to get at knowledge that was both about the world and necessarily true.

In order to see how Leibniz’s dogmatist position applies to analytic statements as substantive, and how Hume’s skeptical position considered a priori knowledge to be vacuous, we will consider each as a way that precludes problems raised in Kant’s CPR. In epistemology we have two distinctions concerning the ways in which things are known to be true (rationally): a priori (necessary) and a posteriori (contingent), these two epistemological classifications were used prior to Kant’s usage. It is also known that Kant introduced two finer distinctions related to the way we make rational judgments about things: analytic (where the predicate is found in the subject, and a contrary is inconceivable) and synthetic (where the predicate is not in the subject, and a contrary is conceivable). We will not demonstrate how these are combined for Kant, Leibniz, and Hume [This subject was explicated previously. See question/answer 2 above.]. We will show that for Leibniz, a substantive position must be strongly related to Kant’s analyticity, whereas Hume’s denies the sovereignty of the a priori.

For Leibniz’s rationalist metaphysics it is commonly known that when reason and contingency conflict, reason always prevails, because ultimately, reason is the only way in which we understand the world.[10] This means that Leibnizian “truths of reason,” which rely on necessity are more important that “truths of fact” which rely only on contingency. But what about a Leibnizian claim that any substantive statements we make about the world are necessarily true? Recall that Leibniz was (for Kant) a “transcendental realist” which meant that objects in the world are mind-independent. For anything to be a truth of reason it had to conform to logical analysis. Essentially under Kant’s rules, if an analytic judgment means that predication is contained in the subject (i.e. to be a judgment of truth, we have to turn to a priori and analytic reasoning), and that a synthetic judgment means that the predicate is not contained in the subject (for it to be a judgment of truth, we have to turn to experience). This must mean that in Leibniz’s terms, if “matters of fact” only reveal contingent truth, then “truths of reason” have to be analytic. The only way to understand the truth of something has to do with the analysis of reason. In other words, in order to say anything substantive about the world, we, if we are followers of Leibniz, have to turn to reason only, since contingency is not useful in Leibniz’s rationalist circumstances. All finite reality mirrors the infinite rationality of God, therefore all meaningful reality must be analytic.

Hume’s empiricism, on the other hand, presents another set of difficulties that are tied to his speculative claim that a priori knowledge is vacuous, arbitrary, &c. Hume presents a straight-forward account of the vacuity of a priori reasoning when he discusses causality. Also, recall “Hume’s Fork” whereby, “relations of ideas” more-or-less represent necessary and mathematical truth, and “matters of fact” represent empirical contingency. If a priori and deductive reasoning relates to what is necessary, then Hume tries to downplay necessary connections by way of inductive reasoning. Put simply, the logical (a priori) connections that are made between causal events are more-or-less habitual for Hume. Usually when we see one event follow another, we connect the cause to the event by way of a priori necessity. Hume’s emphasis is that the a priori connection cannot—no matter how hard we try to find it—be found in experience. Any a priori connection, for Hume, is brought into empirical situations without any tangible determinations of it.[11]

Each philosopher, Leibniz and Hume, attack what the other cherishes. Hume attacks a priori reasoning as vacuous and arbitrary, and Leibniz supports an idea that all reality is essentially rational. As we see for each position, the means by which we justify scientific objectivity become tenuous and strained, since both philosophers admit to clear delineations between subject and object relations in the world. The idea that all substantive truths are analytic for Leibniz becomes something that is difficult to justify, but it seems that he had to appeal to God’s infinite wisdom, and his principles (i.e. the principle of sufficient reason and the predicate in notion principle[12]) to establish his radical claims. Hume had different problems, since it becomes difficult to account for the ways in which necessity is justified simply by means of habit, association, and inductive reasoning. Each philosophical phase, rationalism (dogmatism) and empiricism (skepticism) becomes a study unto itself, but most importantly for our uses, under Kant’s transcendental idealism, exemplified in the CPR, the warring factions began to work together toward something that looked like peaceful reconciliation.


[1] Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. 1996, 76.

[2] Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Pure Reason, 76.

[3] Since the MetEx appeals to the experience of space, and the TransEx appeals to the way a synthetic/a priori intuition of space leads to geometrical and scientific discoveries, a skeptic (like Hume) could deny the relevance of science, but he cannot, in kind, deny the relevance of existence.

[4] Alternately referred to as expositions; here I will opt to refer to them as arguments.

[5] This description looks a lot like innatism, because it suggests that our cognition of space is nothing but an in-born trait. But in argument (3) Kant seems to refute this by making the case that we know about space in one single experience of it. The a priority of space is known in conjunction with experience, thus explaining the synthetic/a priori way that space is cognized—i.e. we can’t have one (a priori) without the other (experience).

[6] Also see footnote 3.

[7] Kant writes in first line of the TransEx for time: “I may refer for this exposition to No. 3, where, for the sake of brevity, I put among the items of the metaphysical exposition what in fact is transcendental” (B49).

[8] See footnote #5, from essay 3 on space.

[9] As noted with space, the TransEx of time shows that the scientific grounding for the intuition of time are synthetic/a priori judgments. This argument may not convince a skeptic like Hume. But the MetEx expositions for time show that the synthetic /a priori judgments of time are primary for experience itself and Hume cannot deny the primacy of experience.

[10] In Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics we find (this is often termed the “predicate in notion principle,” PIN,) from §VIII: “This being so, we are able to say that this is the nature of an individual substance or of a complete being, namely, to afford a conception so complete that the concept shall be sufficient for the understanding of it and for the deduction of all the predicates of which the substance is or may become the subject.” Leibniz, Gottfried, Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology, translated by George R. Montgomery, LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1950, 14-15.

[11] Hume writes in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (after presenting his celebrated billiard-ball example that aims to dispel an a priori connection between cause and effect): “In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.” Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1958, 29-30.

[12] Noted above in §VIII of Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics.


Bibliography

Altman, Matthew C. A Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008.

Buroker, Jill Vance. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: An Introduction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Selections from A Treatise on Human Nature. LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1958.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1996.

Leibniz, Gottfried. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology. Translated by George R. Montgomery. LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1950.

plotinus: the three primal hypostasis

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

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The Three Primal Hypostases (V, 1 [10])[1]

(V, 1 [10], 1)[2] To begin with, it seems that Plotinus wants to highlight certain modes of the human soul’s becoming into a body. It wanted its independence from the other souls, it forgets its origins while it downplays its own worth. If it is then capable of knowing The One/ The Good, it must know itself better. (V, 1 [10], 2) The Soul, and the soul are the animating life force of the universe. The same is to be said for man, his soul animates him, otherwise he is merely matter, hence: the recasting of a Heraclitus fragment “a corpse is viler than a dunghill.”[3] (V, 1 [10], 3) Although the soul is not perfect, it still retains aspects of The Intelligence from which it stems. For Plotinus, this means that it contains the characteristic of discursive reasoning. (V, 1 [10], 4) If we should find the sensual world amazing enough, we’d do better to recognize that The Intelligible is better than that. Self-composed, The Intelligence thematizes thought itself, it governs all other thought, and it is not as “particular” as the soul is. “It ‘is’ alone,” meaning that it is beyond past and future, re: it is in a state of constant present-ness. Since it is present in this way, this means that it is bound to Being. Something that is thought partakes in being, these twin originary concepts in turn implicate the necessity of identity, difference, movement, and rest. Identity, difference, movement, and rest are also intermixed with other “originating principles” such as number, quantity, and quality. (V, 1 [10], 5) The Intelligence and the Soul are bound together, but where does The Intelligence come from?—The One, “the partless that is prior to plurality.” It appears that The One is unified and beyond a numerical understanding, re: it is not singular and it is not simply a plurality. (V, 1 [10], 6) Problems emerge with an idea that from The One comes multiplicity. There is to be found connections to Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover.’ “The One leaves its selfsameness undisturbed…” The One is prior to movement—all else moves around, with and for it. A hierarchy would look like this: The One → The Intelligence → The Soul. (V, 1 [10], 7) Even though The Intelligence is smart and it looks like The One, it is only what is intelligible about The One. The One cannot be fully understood. The Intelligible is not diminished in its relationship to The One, after-all, the Intelligible is closely aligned with being. As The Soul’s power is a derivative of The Intelligible, so The Intelligible’s power stems from The One. (V, 1 [10], 8) Plotinus wishes to distinguish between his conceptualization of the (One, Intelligence, Soul) from that of Plato and Parmenides. (V, 1 [10], 9) Although Plotinus sees the differences between the various thinkers who have spoken of The One, etc., he seems to insist on a kind of harmony of the triad. (V, 1 [10], 10) The triad is present in nature and it is present in man. (V, 1 [10], 11) Within us, there too must exist elements of the divine that are tapped into when we make judgments, including and beyond the discursive. (V, 1 [10], 12) Man is not completely aware of how these things are within him, which is why Plotinus recommends looking even deeper inward.


[1] Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1964), 59-71. Plotinus, “The Three Primal Hypostases,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1964), 90-105.

[2] Format note: I’m citing the section numbers first, followed by that section’s explication, viz: (V, 1 [10], 1) […explication…etc.].

[3] Fragment 96: “Corpses are more fit to be thrown out than dung.”

aristotle: metaphysics book XII (Λ), chapters 9-10

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

medieval manuscript of aristotles metaphysics

Aristotle / Metaphysics Book XII (Λ), Chapters 9-10[1]

Part of the job of reading Aristotle is reading and re-reading till one reaches only a satisfactory understanding of what is ultimately being said. We already know that that the Metaphysics have to do with the question of being, and that with the question of being begs the question of a primary being, which can be said to be the ultimate cause. This means that while we are reading only two short chapters, we are also jumping three-quarters of the way into the complexity of Aristotle’s inquiry about being and a primary mover that looks like God. With all this in mind, it is also difficult to ignore a few of the points Aristotle makes in chapters 6 and 7. For instance, there’s the idea that “actuality is prior to potentiality” (1072a, 10). This in itself is interesting since we typically assume that potentiality must precede the actual, so Aristotle’s claim becomes one where potential is contained within the actual. This is a profound thought indeed, one that anticipates Bergson’s ideas of the virtual, and so on. Another point, similar in its profundity, is brought about in chapter 7, where Aristotle names a “mover, which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (1072a, 25). Along with this mover, Aristotle also attributes thought, the good, the eternal, and a intricate way that it is necessary without being caused itself (1072b, 1-30). From here we move through chapters 9 and 10, where we find Aristotle trying to qualify what the nature of divine thought consists of. His opening up of the discussion starts with the tail end of chapter 8. Aristotle finds inspiration with the idea that the divine is not anthropomorphic and is better thought of as “the first substances to be gods” (1074b, 10). Aristotle continues with the idea that divine thought must be of a substance, it must also be “itself that thought thinks” (1074b, 34). This must mean that the kind of thought that the divine is, must contain thinking before thought thinks about things—the divine is thought (shades of Xenophanes’ divine). Aristotle also seems to discount the idea that this divine thought can be composite, since human thought is not necessarily composed of parts of thought. Divine thought must then be whole, and not a composite of thought units. In Chapter 10 Aristotle compares the good and the higher good (of the divine) to an army and the leader, respectively. This is a way of saying that the good depends on the higher good, and not the other way around. To suggest that order depends on the higher good suggests a telos to Aristotle’s divine, i.e.: order is informed by to good, to be what it is and what it will be. Another point Aristotle addresses has to do with the Pre-Socratic (probably Heraclitus) notion of contraries. Aristotle finds this view lacking in its lack of full explanatory evidence. There are other views Aristotle covers including Plato’s Forms, with a question of how real things (forms) actually participate with the Forms. Aristotle concludes later in the chapter that “the form and the thing are one” (1076a, 35). Characteristic of this move we find the Homeric quote at the end “the rule of the many is not good, let there be one ruler” (1076b, 5).


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, n.d., 1692-1700.

the origins of critique for marx

December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

marx mao sqaure

“There is no other road to truth and freedom except leading through the brook of fire [the Feuerbach]. Feuerbach is the purgatory of the present times.” – Karl Marx[1]

“Rationally interpreted, Hegel’s propositions would mean only this: The Family and civil society are parts of the state.” – Karl Marx[2]


The Origins of Critique for Marx

This essay aims to find Karl Marx’s origins of critique. There is no absolute answer to this inquiry, however, there must be a case to be made for Marx’s critique as having a strong connection to the dialectical reasoning based in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. I will start by examining the influence of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity as it closely relates to Marx’s statements on critique itself in his early manuscripts of the 1840s. This analysis will then lead even further back to ask if the early sources of Marx’s critique are relatable to Hegel’s well-known chapter in the Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, on “Lordship and Bondage,” (commonly known as the Master-Slave dialectic). From Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy, through Hegel’s dialectic, Marx went far beyond his predecessors. Nevertheless, his critique is best understood with them in mind.

A.) Feuerbach’s Critique of Christianity and the developments of Marx’s Critique.

Feuerbach’s influential The Essence of Christianity (1841) was published only a few years before Marx wrote “The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (1843),[3] (hereafter the “Critique Intro.”), when he was in his mid-twenties. Marx’s manuscript was published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (the German-French Yearbooks), Marx’s and Arnold Ruge’s[4] own short-lived publication.[5] This early manuscript demarcates a few of Marx’s key themes—the critique of capitalism, calling the proletariat to mobilize—all of this was quickly developing into a full-blown critique on capitalism, on through the later heights of Capital in 1867. Yet another central, but underlying, theme is the notion of critique itself.

In the opening sentence of the “Critique Intro.,” Marx decries, “for Germany, the criticism of religion has been largely completed; and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”[6] Why is that?—how does a critique of religion constitute the “premise for all criticism”? For an answer to this question we have to take into account that Marx must be referring to Feuerbach’s earlier critique of Christianity. Marx, as a fellow Young Hegelian with Feuerbach, is taken to critique by way of Feuerbach’s critique of religion, “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”[7] It is hard not to be seduced by many of Marx’s lines that demonstrate a critical break with mystifying religious ideology that distracts people. A religious attitude, for Marx, is one that permeates the very ways that we understand our relationship to the world and to others. Criticism becomes a way to examine the illusions that are separating people from their material conditions.

To contextualize this more, let us look to the workings of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach shows that the ideal of religious practice alienates people from themselves.[8] The ideals of Christianity—the perfection of God, the infinite, &c.—alienate humans from our true nature. Because religious life sets up an ideal world that is unattainable, we are alienated from what we can actually be, the fruit of our own consciousness. Feuerbach wanted to place religious belief and practice (theology) in the anthropological realm.[9] We are alienated from the infinite possibility of our own being if the infinite is thought of as existing apart from us, only to be attained after death. Human development coincides with the development of religion. For Feuerbach, religion is brought down to earth to be realized and placed as the cultural development of humankind.[10]

To a degree, Marx accepted Feuerbach’s critique, yet Marx felt that Feuerbach’s critique remained in a thoroughly Hegelian mindset that was unaware of how it too was alienating in its understanding of human being’s connections to their species-being (human-nature). If Marx was critical of Feuerbach’s conclusions, still, he didn’t abandon Feuerbach, nor did he ever really abandon key aspects of Hegel’s ideas. If Marx did not entirely reject Feuerbach’s critique of religion, he critiqued it while preserving key elements, such as Feuerbach’s position that people need to reawaken to their own intrinsic power instead of deifying that power in the mystifications of religion, along with the mystifications of philosophy.[11] Projecting their own power into the power of a deity weakened a person’s very real potential.[12] All of this sets up the idea that Marx critiqued, and was inspired by Feuerbach’s critique, yet it does not directly point to critique in general. Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity set Marx on the path of critique under the influence of the Hegel’s dialectic.

According to Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, religion is a reflection of humankind’s own consciousness.[13] People can now (after reading Feuerbach) let go of the illusion that the power to transform themselves and their environments is in their hands and not in the hands of a deity. Marx famously wrote in 1843, in the “Critique, Intro.,” that religion is “the opium of the people.”[14] Two years earlier, Feuerbach also says something surprisingly similar to this in his Essence of Christianity, where he writes “religion is as bad as opium.”[15] The similarity of these quotes speaks to the affinity of their ideas at this time. For Feuerbach it is as simple as recognizing that the religious promise of an afterlife distracts people from their actual lives on earth, before they die. Religion anesthetizes actual life with the constant promise of a better life in heaven. The very real suffering of people becomes mystified away from understanding suffering’s real causes. The mystifications of Christianity need to be put aside in the name of getting to the real-world conditions of human suffering.[16] A strong opiate only manages and palliates the pain. Opium is not a treatment or a cure for the cause of the pain. Certain kinds of religious illusion create suffering in the name of alleviating pain. Christian dogma promises to help us with suffering but often fails to do so. I would be amiss to avoid mentioning that Feuerbach was not a dogmatic atheist either. In Frederick Engel’s Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy (1886), Engels writes that “He [Feuerbach] by no means wishes to abolish religion: he wants to perfect it. Philosophy itself must be absorbed in religion.”[17]

Marx wants us to see that not only is this a critique of religious life—the incipient beginning of his critical method—he also wants us to see a reason to critique the actual material conditions that promulgate illusions in the first place. Critiquing material conditions and the social relationships that promulgate religious illusions is different than simply critiquing the mystifying illusions of Christianity. The conditions that have made it necessary to maintain Christianity (in Marx and Feuerbach’s time) are none other than the social, economic and political powers that exist in the day-to-day world. This means that to critique Christianity is to critique the structures that make it manifest, therefore, as Marx puts it, “the criticism of theology [is transformed into] the criticism of politics.”[18]

In a provocative letter to his friend Ruge, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” written around the same time as the “Contribution Intro.,” Marx reiterates this exact thought “just as religion is the catalogue of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is the catalogue of its practical struggles.”[19] Here, Marx brings in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, so if the theoretical applies to religion and the practical applies to politics then, not only do we notice his early call to praxis, we see that philosophy remains in the theoretical.

In order to get to his critical work on the political economy of capitalism, Marx had to dialectically get past Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Nevertheless, according to the logic of dialectical reasoning,[20] Marx’s thought included Hegel and Feuerbach, even though he often tried to suggest the contrary.[21] The critique of philosophy and religion has to make way for the critique of political life. Marx was then concerned with finding the preconditions of the contradictions of the political state that lead us away from truth.[22] This distinction is no small step in Marx’s early development since it leads to significant points famously made in the “Theses on Feuerbach” from 1844. Although Feuerbach was recognized as critical of religion (by way of Hegel), Marx felt that Feuerbach didn’t go far enough. In thesis “V” Marx speaks of Feuerbach’s sensualist-materialism (i.e. the result of humankind’s break with Christianity) as not being materialist enough because Feuerbach did “not conceive sensuousness as practical, human activity.”[23]

Marx critique of Feuerbach stands as a departure from a strictly philosophical mindset into a practical means of critiquing unquestioned presuppositions that lead to contradictions of social and political life. Ideology and reality clash. The ideology of reason loses sight of its material conditions.[24] Critique is to be differentiated from dogma.[25] Marx did not appeal to a doctrinaire position that wishes to spell out its future vision of change at the expense of comprehending the realities that have become overlooked—we cannot face our problems till we know what they are in practice. Criticism needs to come to terms with real struggles. Our own consciousness needs to develop into a thoroughgoing understanding of what holds us back, not only in a theoretical and philosophical way but in a practical way. Recall the oft-quoted “XI” theses on Feurbach, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[26]

It shouldn’t be forgotten that this is still early Marx, while he is talking about a critique of politics and society, the critique is still focused on the Germany of his day—meaning a critique of the German status quo in the 1840s.[27] Getting into the contradictions of German history that have produced a status quo remains a point of contestation and a way toward critique that analyzes the sources of suffering in the Germany Marx had recently left behind.[28]

B.) Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic.

Ultimately, Hegel felt that the realization of freedom was made manifest through history as it progresses dialectically onward in the physical world.[29] Hegel’s renowned Phenomenology of Spirit was published in 1807. This brilliant work takes as its modest theme the development of human consciousness from nothingness and being, progressing from the “Lordship and Bondage,” and deeper into such abstract issues as “Absolute Knowing.” Richard Bernstein in his 1971 book Praxis & Action devotes a chapter to “Marx and the Hegelian Background.” In this chapter, Bernstein traces the origins of praxis in Marx, from Feuerbach and back to Hegel. Bernstein’s analysis sparked my idea to trace Marx’s origin of critique back to Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic.” Bernstein writes “it [Hegel’s master-slave dialectic] is a paradigm of what Hegel means by dialectic and it shows what Hegel means by Geist realizing itself through its own negation.”[30] It is this “realizing itself through its own negation” idea that must be at the root of what it means to critique, i.e. to recognize negation disclosed by critique to advance the progression of freedom.

For Hegel, consciousness finds certainty in the world. The desire for consciousness to know and comprehend things is confronted by that which is other to consciousness, i.e. everything else. In the effort to make this other known and comprehensible, consciousness has to sublate itself in order to become conscious and to become knowledgeable of something other than itself. Sublation is the critical phase in the dialectic, it is not a force unto itself, it immanent in the human desire toward reason. In the Phenomenology, Consciousness getting to know itself is reason getting to know itself and beyond each particular consciousness. This moving beyond any particular consciousness is what Hegel would call Geist (spirit, consciousness, and mind). Figuring out that the ways in which consciousness knows and understands the world has to do with how consciousness comes to know itself and the world. The way to know the world is a way to know consciousness itself, for Hegel. Again, none of this happens without dialectical logic, the progression of consciousness takes place as a way it works itself out into self-consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t just stay in a nascent state of consciousness. Consciousness must become self-consciousness to become fully actualized, and to become truly free. Bernstein succinctly writes that “it should be manifest that by ‘negativity’ Hegel means an active process.”[31] The negative, is essential to the dialectic. It thwarts, informs, and propels the progression of reason.[32] Every sublation contains the traces of previous stages of development as much as it contains further transformations. I propose that the motivations of Marx’s critique has its infancy in the negative drive of Hegel’s dialectic.

Bernstein reminds us that the dialectic is not stasis “The dialectic of Geist [spirit, consciousness, and mind] is essentially a dynamic and organic process.”[33] Dialectical progression is not static. It is a process that happens actively over time and over the course of human history. At its beginning stage, picture a protagonist (in this case, consciousness itself) in the struggle to achieve knowledge, comprehension, and self actualization. There will inevitably be struggles to face contradictory elements threatening to overcome the protagonist’s push forward. In the effort overpower the negative force, the protagonist must squarely take opposition as a fundamental key in the way she supersedes the negative foe. What is sublation and the aufheben? The aufheben is a special German term put to vigorous use by Hegel to simultaneously infer a lifting up and a taking down—an overcoming and an including. This inherently contradictory term actually relies on a negative contradiction to become something beyond the original premises combined.

As I’ve said, when consciousness becomes self-consciousness, one thing is clear for Hegel, to become fully self-conscious, consciousness has to recognize other consciousnesses—i.e. other people. To become fully self-actualized humans we must recognize that others are conscious creatures like ourselves. We know ourselves better through our interactions with others. Hegel’s first line in §178, from the Phenomenology, on “Lordship and Bondage” reads “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.”[34] What Hegel is describing is inter-subjectivity[35] or the recognition that there are other people (other consciousnesses) that want and deserve to be recognized by other people—we are not fully self-conscious till we recognize the consciousness of others. Hegel’s progression of the Master-Slave dialectic starts when the master desires to become actualized, she desires to have self-consciousness, and because of this she desires to be successful. In this desire, the master takes on a slave to do the heavy-lifting for the master’s desire for success. Yet the slave, because he is owned by the master, does not have full self-consciousness. This is because he is regarded as only a means to the master’s ends. The master considers the slave a thing, therefore because the slave’s essential humanity is not getting recognized by the master, the master herself is not in full possession of her own self-consciousness. Add to this that the slave also considers himself a thing, therefore, he too is not in full possession of his self-consciousness.

The master then is only getting the work she needs done by negating the slave’s personhood. The slave is reduced to producing labor and things for the master that are (paradoxically) essential to relationship. This mode in the Master-Slave relationship is characterized by alienation. The slave is alienated from the objects produced since the objective of his work is not within his power to control under the reins of the master. Hegel writes “Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is (§195).”[36] Put another way, the slave produces the essential part of the relationship, labor and things. The master is unaware that the power of what the relationship is based on. It rests on the labor-worn shoulders of the slave. The driving force of the relationship is the labor made manifest by the slave. Not only is work a core connection between the master and slave, but the production of things is also a key component in the dynamic of consciousness for Hegel, since consciousness is itself primarily made conscious by way of its dialectical encounter with material existence—it is (consciousness’s) of the other made known by labor.

It is a pivotal realization for the slave when he realizes that he possesses the power to make the things the master relies on. The dynamic changes for the slave once he is in conscious acknowledgement of his own power. Keep in mind that when the slave confronted his work it was under the duress of the negative force embodied in the master. Hegel puts it better, “through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman [the slave] realizes that is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own (§119).”[37] None of this transformation of consciousness and transformation of the master-slave relationship would have the dynamic drive to move forward if it had not been for the negative (re: alienation) that threatened consciousness or the master and slave.[38] It is important to note here that Hegel does not mean that the negative in its own right is what is important, but how consciousness tries to overcome the essential alien negative working against it. The negative is a catalyst for change.[39] Change cannot happen without something working to negate it or without working to negate something alien to it.

 

C.) From Hegel to Feuerbach, the Influence of the Dialectic on Marx’s Critique.

The structure of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic cannot be overlooked as it relates to Marx. First, there is the analogy between the arrogant master and the brow-beaten slave for Hegel, to the bourgeois capitalist and the laboring proletariat for Marx. Then there is the importance given, for both thinkers, to the very way consciousness is made manifest in the material world. A person’s consciousness is constituted within their material conditions, within their social milieu.[40] The slave’s labor itself is a negation of the alienated stuff of material existence, for Hegel, as much as the slave is not fully realized because his personhood is negated by the master. This too is transferable to Marx, in that the capitalist uses the proletariat as a means to an end product. Because the proletariat is not in control of the means of production, the proletariat becomes alienated from the objects of production. It is only when the proletariat realizes their own power over the material world, beyond the ideology of the capitalist, where true freedom can be sought for. But it is only when the proletariat has the knowledge of their own power that they can utilize this power in the form of a critique (theory) against the capitalist status quo, so as to change the unequal contradictions through deliberate action (praxis). None of this would take place if there were no capitalism to awaken the proletariat to their own potential, (nor if Hegel hadn’t conceived of the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology). In other words, the proletariat has to include and deeply consider the material conditions of oppression by the bourgeoisie as a way to overcome those very conditions.[41] A practical solution cannot come to the fore without a critical negation to force it beyond its original dilemma.

Now let’s return to Feuerbach and Marx’s origins of critique as it is made evident in Marx’s manuscripts from the 1840s. In the one of the four “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx presents what he’s calling “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole.”[42] This text begins with Marx calling into question (critiquing) German philosophy’s relationship to Hegel’s dialectic,[43] especially criticizing the Young-Hegelians such as David Strauss and Bruno Bauer, who still remained “wholly within the confines of the Hegelian Logic.”[44] Marx turns to praising another Young-Hegelian, Feuerbach, namely Feuerbach’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic.[45] Marx lays down a three point list highlighting what Marx felt to be Feuerbach’s “great achievement,” Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic. Marx’s first point is related to Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, whereby the religion of Christianity was shown by Feuerbach to be a product of humankind and that it served to alienate people from their essence, their demystified human nature. In the second point, Marx praises Feuerbach for bringing about a “true materialism” and “real science.”[46] In other words, as a result of the critique of Christianity, Feuerbach wanted to re-establish humankind’s relationship with itself—away from its relationship with an abstract spiritual being. The third point is the most perplexing as Marx presents it, but it is probably the most important part (according to Marx) of Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel. Essentially, Hegel felt that at one time, in his speculative assessment, that religion was subordinate to philosophy. Then at another point in his career (Marx is likely referring to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), Hegel tried to reposition this claim with a “restoration of religion and theology,”[47] above philosophy. This means that in Hegel’s late career, when he was chair of philosophy in Berlin, and when he was writing the Philosophy of Right—he became an apologist for the Prussian State. This also meant that man became subordinate to the state.[48] Later, in this same manuscript, Marx writes what I’ve been waiting for, a tangible connection to critique itself and Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic.

“The Phenomenology is, therefore, an occult critique—still to itself obscure and mystifying criticism; but insomuch as it keeps steadily in view man’s estrangement [alienation], even though man appears only in the shape of mind, there lie concealed in it all the elements of criticism, […]”[49]

Now we see several threads coming together. One thread is highlighted by Bernstein, “according to Feuerbach, Hegelian philosophy is a “mystification” because it inverts the subject-predicate relation.”[50] Bernstein brings this in because of the problems with the way Hegel positions the individual person in relation to Geist. Which means that people, in Hegel’s state, are subordinate to not only Geist, but they are also related to religion in much the same way. People are predicates of the state, religion, and as a result, to Geist. This inversion is the basis for what Marx is keying into with Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel and Christianity (which, by the way, can be considered synonymous, i.e. Feuerbach’s critique of religion is also a critique of Hegel[51]).

Then there is the thread that represents Marx’s critique of Feuerbach from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” whereby Feuerbach’s critique was not reaching far enough. Marx’s critique centers on several issues at once. One main theme has to do with the issue of practice (praxis). In order for people to wake up to thier own power (after Feuerbach’s critique), enough to become aware of their own subjection by the political state, the bourgeois capitalist, religion, &c. they will have to get to work changing it. Philosophy doesn’t happen on its own accord, it must be put into action. People must wake up to their own subjugation in society. We are not just cogs in the machinery of society. We are people of that society. Society is a predicate of individuals—not the other way around.

Even if Marx rarely spoke at length about morality, the best way to hint at a conclusion would be to say that a powerful implication of Marx’s critique is the betterment of humankind, not by the edifice of philosophy alone, but by the actions we take to reveal the contradictions that bind us to delusional ideologies that often parade as truth. This kind of critical sentiment is made evident early in Marx’s thought.[52] Critique is the aufheben of working life found in Marx’s voluminous and often extraordinary sentences. It is the pivotal moment in Hegel’s progression of consciousness, whereby consciousness works as its own protagonist toward self-realization in the form of a slave, Marx’s proletariat. The negative force by which an alienated consciousness develops the recognition of fellow consciousnesses, is thereby where we manifest communal freedom. Feuerbach’s aufheben becomes a reason to take humankind back to its own vital and infinite powers that it once projected on to a God. All of this takes action, none of it happens with continued inertia. We cannot become free by just thinking about freedom. We have to do as Marx encouraged. We have to be critical, and we have to mobilize with an understanding of what our critique reveals. Marx says it better, “I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”[53]

Aurelio Madrid


[1] Karl Marx quote found in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, trans. Zawar Hanfi, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co.

[2] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in The Marx-Engels Reader edited by Robert C. Tucker, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978, 16.

[3] It was written in 1843 and published in 1844.

[4] Arnold Ruge was yet another Young Hegelian, he and Feuerbach were its senior members (with others) along with the younger Marx and Engels (and others) coming on later. The group was formed shortly after the death Of Hegel in 1831 (reminding us that these early texts of Marx were written only a decade or so after Hegel’s death).

[5] Robert C. Tucker writes in the head-note to “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” that Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher came out in Paris in February, 1844, in the German language. Only one double issue of the journal was published.” From The Marx-Engels Reader, 12.

[6] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978, 53.

[7] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[8] “Religion is the alienation of man from himself; for man sets up God as an antithesis to himself.” Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, E. Graham Waring and F.W. Strothmann eds., New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1957, 18.

[9] Part of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity” is titled appropriately: “The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 7-49.

[10] In the “Introduction to the Essence of Christianity” Feuerbach writes, “The characteristic human mode of being, as distinct from that of the animal, is not only the basis, but also the object of religion.” Ludwig Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, 98.

[11] In the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” Marx offers three itemized points on what be believed to be Feuerbach’s achievement. the first one is relevant here, “Feuerbach’s great achievement is: (1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thoughts and thinking expounded, and that it has therefore likewise to be condemned as another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 107-108.

[12] Feuerbach writes in The Essence of Christianity, “It must be shown how the various attributes of God, compared to which man is imperfect, arise by objectification of diverse human powers.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 18.

[13] Feuerbach writes in the concluding chapter of The Essence of Christianity, “Religion is the first form of the self-consciousness of man. Holy, therefore, are all religions, for they have saved for posterity this first form of consciousness.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 65.

[14] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[15] Feuerbach’s full quote reads: “At the same time the belief in a better life hereafter is an escape mechanism, which prevents men from going after a better life in a straight line. Religion is as bad as opium.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 47.

[16] Feuerbach writes in The Essence of Christianity, “Not even suffering and fear of suffering, inescapable from human nature, are alien to the incarnate God created by religious yearning.” Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 29.

[17] Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, New York, NY: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1941, 33.

[18] Marx, “Contribution…,” 54.

[19] Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” From The Marx-Engels Reader, 14.

[20] I will also elaborate on the details of how the dialectic works when I talk about Hegel’s “Master-Slave Dialectic.”

[21] In “From the Afterword to the Second German Edition” of Capital, Marx writes, “My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but its direct opposite. [&c.]”, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 301.

[22] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism…,” “Out of this conflict of the political state with itself, therefore, one can develop social truth,” 14.

[23] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 144.

[24] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism…,” “The state everywhere presupposes that reason has been realized,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 14.

[25] Marx writes in “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” I am therefore not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatics clarify to themselves the meaning of their own positions.” Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.

[26] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

[27] 1843, the year the “Contribution, Intro.” was written, also was the year that Marx married Jenny von Westphalen and in November moved to Paris.

[28] Marx recently moved Paris at this time, due to thorny political problems he was having in Germany.

[29] In the “Addition” (lecture note/s made by one of Hegel’s students: Eduard Gans) for §4 of the “Introduction” to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right we find this quote “The freedom of the will can be best explained by reference to physical nature. For freedom is just as much a basic determination of the will as weight is a basic determination of bodies.” Then in a concluding the “Remark” to §5 we find the dialectical turn of freedom “Thus, whatever such freedom believes that it wills can in itself be no more than an abstract representation, and its actualization can only be the fury of destruction.” G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 35-38.

[30] Richard Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis & Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Action, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1971, 28.

[31] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 21.

[32] Immediately after this Bernstein quotes from Hegel’s Reason in History, “The very essence of spirit is action. It makes itself what it essentially is; it is its own product, its own work.” Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” Praxis and Action, 21.

[33] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 20.

[34] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A.V. Miller. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977, 111.

[35] Hegel’s emphasis on inter-subjectivity is probably due to J.G. Fichte’s influence.

[36] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 118.

[37] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 119.

[38] Hegel writes “for this [self-consciousness] reflection, the two moments of fear and service as such, as that of formative activity, are necessary, both at the same time being a universal mode (§196).” Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 119.

[39] In 1844 Marx writes that “The Outstanding thing in Hegel’s Phenomenology and its final outcome—that is, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle—is thus first that Hegel conceives of the self genesis of man as a process, conceives objectification as a loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labor and comprehends objective man—true, because real man—as the outcome of man’s own labor.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 112.

[40] Recall Marx’s “VI” thesis from his “Theses on Feuerbach,” “Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

[41] There is an amazing sentence, and as we know, Marx was prone to long amazing sentences, from the “Critique, Intro.,” that encapsulates this idea better than I can. “There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only human status, a sphere which is not opposed to particular consequences but is totally opposed to the assumptions of the German political system; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, without therefore emancipating all these other spheres, which is, in short, a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat.” Marx, “Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 64.

[42] Marx, from The Marx-Engels Reader, 106-125.

[43] It is curious how Marx, in this essay, refers to Hegel’s dialectic, the word dialectic becomes a stand-in for the whole of Hegel’s philosophy.

[44] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 106.

[45] Marx writes, Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field.” Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 107.

[46] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” from The Marx-Engels Reader, 108.

[47] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 108.

[48] Hegel writes in one of the opening sections on “The State” in the Philosophy of Right, “…freedom enters into its highest right, just as the ultimate end possesses the highest right in relation to individuals, whose highest duty is to be members of the state” (§258). G.W.F. Hegel, “The State,” in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W, Wood editor, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 275.

[49] Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 111.

[50] Bernstein, “Marx and the Hegelian Background,” in Praxis and Action, 39.

[51] I do not have room in this essay to explore how these precisely connect for Feuerbach’s critique.

[52] Here we find another one of Marx’s crazy sentences, “Up to now the philosophers had the solution of all riddles lying in their lectern, and the stupid uninitiated world had only to open its jaws to let the roast partridges of absolute science fly into its mouth” Marx, “For a Ruthless…,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.

[53] Marx, “For a Ruthless…,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 13.


Bibliography

Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

Bernstein, Richard. “Marx and the Hegelian Background.” In Praxis & Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Action. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1971, 11-83.

Engels, Frederick. Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. New York, NY: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1941.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Edited by E. Graham Waring and F.W. Strothmann. New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1957.

——. The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach. Translated by Zawar Hanfi. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1972.

Hegel, G.W.F.. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

——. Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A.V. Miller. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx. New York, NY: The Humanities Press, 1950.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Tucker, Robert, editor. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978.

commodities, value & fetishism

November 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

bourgeois capitalists

In the “Preface to the First German Edition” of Volume 1 of Capital, published in 1867, Karl Marx tells us that the opening sections of his book will be the most difficult to understand. In order to critique political economy of capitalism Marx felt it necessary to scrupulously analyze its manifestations, apart from the traditional approximations of his predecessors. Marx more accurately says that “…in bourgeois society the commodity-form of the product of labor—or value-form of the commodity—is the economic cell-form.”[1] That is to say, to have a thoroughgoing account of the political economy of capitalism, we must go to the cellular level, i.e. the commodity of bourgeois society. In this brief essay we will attempt to describe Marx’s concept of the commodity, including the forms and origins of value associated with it, as well as how it is said to be fetishized.

Commodities are an elemental form of capitalism, which is why Marx starts his analysis of capital with them. Human beings produce things. At the most basic level commodities are products of human labor that are exchanged with other people in a capitalist economy. Marx begins his examination of commodities with the kinds of value they come to represent in relationships of capitalist exchange. His first distinction is to show that a commodity has two different values contained within it. Most fundamental is use-value. Use-value is a direct and clear embodiment of a product’s value. Use-value is another way of thinking about a product’s inherent physical utility. Bread has the use-value of food. A coat has the use-value to clothe. The use-value of such products depends on what the object actually is and how it is consumed. Something of use-value does not have to be a commodity. I give you an orange. A mother provides useful things for her family. These value exchanges do not make the products into commodities, but commodities must be useful in some way. Also the use-value of an object has to do with its qualitative value. In this way, an object’s material qualities help define how it will be used and exchanged.

Marx then talks about value as exchange-value, which is not entirely reliant on the object’s use-value. This idea has more to do with how products are exchanged and the labor invested in them. Exchange-value is connected to what a product is exchanged for. Basically commodities are (or can be) exchanged for other things (including money). Within a capitalist economy any commodity has a quantitative equivalency that can be exchanged for other commodities—“1 quarter corn = x cwt. iron.”[2] If a product’s exchange-value is not exclusively reliant on its use-value, then what else (other than its exchangeability) does the product contain that imparts value? Marx reminds us that commodities are born from the hands of human labor. Products are a “congelation of homogeneous human labor.”[3] Commodities contain labor. Human labor imparts most of a product’s exchange-value over and above a product’s inherent utility (use-value).

Although a product’s exchange-value is dependant on the labor congealed within it, sheer labor is not the sole determining factor in the product’s value. There is what Marx terms: “socially necessary”[4] labor, this means that if someone takes a long time to produce something, it doesn’t entail that the object is automatically more valuable. Socially necessary labor is more of a socially mediated way of determining the particular value of products. In other words, there is an average socially determined rate by which the exchange-value of products is mediated. We won’t pay more for a commodity if the average price for a comparable commodity is much lower (no matter how many labor hours it took to produce it). Labor in this socially necessary way is quantified. It is measured against all other equivalent labor. Also, when labor is regarded in this generalized sense, without qualitatively comparing specific types of equivalent labor (e.g. tailoring versus weaving, &c.) it is considered by Marx to be “abstract labor.”[5]

Given that the socially necessary labor is relative to market conditions, a product’s exchange-value continues to be related to the difficulty or ease it took to produce it. If diamonds are considerably more difficult to procure then brewing a cup of tea, then diamonds are automatically more valuable, not necessarily only due to their use-value, but more due to the difficulties involved in their procurement. Abstract-labor then is closely locked to the socially-necessary exchange-value of commodities.

Marx, apparently, was the first to notice that labor also had a two-fold nature.[6] Labor has one side, a useful concrete aspect which is used to create useful things, and another side, the abstract side of labor, where most of a commodity’s exchange-value stems from (including surplus-value, a.k.a. profits). Marx may have also been the first to notice how profits manifest from abstract-labor.[7] But how does this happen? Profits are surplus-value. Labor is a very special type of commodity, since it creates value above wages earned. For example, in an average workday, the wages earned, say for the first four hours, is what the worker needs to live on, however the rest of the time the worker is producing surplus-labor that goes beyond what she’s paid for—that is to say the rest of the day is spent creating surplus-value for the bourgeois capitalist. The capitalist only pays an agreed upon wage, but the worker’s labor exceeds that predetermined value (surplus-labor). Hence, the capitalist is rewarded with an excess surplus-value as a result of the worker’s surplus-labor. Surplus labor is easily exploited (implementation of productivity quotas, longer hours, less pay, &c).[8]

Lastly, Marx was also keen to recognize the phenomenon of the “fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof.”[9] Like some forms of religious practice, objects are conferred with mystical properties that are not inherent in the objects. In a capitalist system commodities are also conferred with metaphysical properties that are socially and culturally instilled, “…the social character of men’s labor appears […] as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor…”[10] In short, we forget that the exchange power of commodities have to do with the base of human labor that created them—instead, we tend to focus more on commodities as relations among mere things (which also leads to reification, i.e. ‘thing-ification’). Things (commodities) become more important than the human work used to produce them. The importance of the phenomenon of fetishization leads us, in a capitalist society, to place more importance on quantities over qualities.[11]

Aurelio Madrid


[1] Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition, Volume One” of Capital, Robert C. Tucker ed. in The Marx-Engels Reader, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co, Inc., 1978, 295.

[2] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 304.

[3] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 305.

[4] Marx, Capital, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 306.

[5] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 305.

[6] “I was the first to point out and to examine critically this two-fold nature of the labor contained in commodities.” Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 308.

[7] See Jonathan Wolff’s subchapter “The Economics of Capitalism,” in Why Read Marx Today? New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002, 66-81.

[8] See Chapter VII, “The Labor-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value” Marx from Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 344-361.

[9] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 319.

[10] Marx, Capital in The Marx-Engels Reader, 320.

[11] See Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, I,” from History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. by Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 83-110.


Bibliography

Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Lukács, Georg. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, I.” From History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 83-110.

Tucker, Robert C. ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1978.

Wolff, Jonathan. Why Read Marx Today? New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

paine / kant

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

ROP_92590

Roxy Paine: Checkpoint, 2014 / Maple, aluminum, fluorescent light bulbs, and acrylic prismatic light diffusers / 14 ‘ h x 26′ – 11″ w x 18′ – 7 1/2″ d

The American artist Roxy Paine (1966- ) exhibited the diorama Checkpoint at the Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York, NY, September-October 2014) Checkpoint was shown with other sculptural works in Paine’s first solo show with the gallery titled Denuded Lens. Checkpoint represents a life-sized airport security room carved and fabricated in maple wood. The perspective of the diorama is set on a single point. This single point perspective distorts the trompe l’oeil effect depending on the viewer’s position in the room (an 80’ room is compressed into an 18’ deep diorama).[1]

Paine’s monochrome Checkpoint represents a space overlooked in the anxiety of hyper regulated air-travel security. We normally do not think of such a space as aesthetical—or even beautiful. Yet, the scrupulous (computer aided) attention to detail begs to be noticed. Much in the same way, we do not normally think about the complexities of a judgment of taste, as much as Kant did in the 3rd Critique (Critique of the Power of Judgment). Kant’s 1st Critique (Critique of Pure Reason) alluded to a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, whereby his transcendental idealism changed the philosophical perspective from empirical skepticism and rational dogmatism. The beauty of philosophy has to do with a focus on that which seems insignificant and mundane, while at the same time exposing what is significant and profound.

The extreme and laborious work involved to create Checkpoint stands as a salient quality of the aesthetic experience. Part of the way we appreciate Paine’s diorama is closely attributable to the way we reify work itself. We admire the hours it took to fabricate the piece. Work itself becomes aestheticized. I will argue that Kant’s philosophical efforts are aestheticized in a similar way. Kant’s perilous intellectual heights come close the extremes of work found in a finely crafted artwork. Aestheticized work aspires toward universal agreement about its ability to please. Such work becomes normative. It creates, as much as it wants to be a regulative principle exemplified by its own high standard. Nonetheless, sheer labor cannot serve as a logical concept to create beauty. Yes, we admire hard work, while we also know that some things become overworked.


Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790-6), commonly referred to as the “Third Critique,” deals with aesthetics and teleology. Kant says that the power of judgment “is the faculty for thinking of the particular as contained under the universal” (5:179).[1] Given the notorious complexity of the text, we cannot get into numerous details, such as the differences between “determining” and “reflective” judgments, other than to point out that aesthetic and teleological judgments are considered “reflective.”

An aesthetic judgment, for Kant, is based on a feeling of pleasure or displeasure. He names four types of aesthetic judgments: (a) a judgment of the agreeable (b) a judgment of the good,[2] (c) a judgment of taste (&/or) the beautiful, and (d) a judgment of the sublime. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from primary cognitive judgments.

First Moment (§§1-5): A judgment of beauty is essentially based on a feeling of pleasure. Yet, the pleasure felt has to be disinterested, i.e. it is not to be confused with lust, or covetous desire. A judgment of the beautiful is to be distinguished from cognitive judgments because it is based on a feeling, whereas a judgment of the agreeable is that which “gratifies”[3] (empirical things such as comfort, food, drink, &c.).

Second Moment (§§6-9): Judgments of beauty claim “universality” or “universal validity.” We have the notion that when we claim something is beautiful, everyone else ought to share the same feeing about the object in question. Yet, universality is not conceptual. A judgment of beauty is not based on logical concepts. We cannot prove an aesthetic judgment. A judgment of beauty has “subjective universal validity” (5:215). It is subjective because it is based on a feeling and it aspires to be universal. A judgment of taste must be an agreeable “free play” of the understanding and the imagination (5:218).

Third Moment (§§10-17): Beauty is seen as a special kind of non-teleological “purposiveness.” It is purposeful without conceptual or perfectible utility. A judgment of taste is aloof from emotion or charm (5:223). There is a connection with the a priori in a judgment of a moral/practical good. A moral connection is not exactly the same with an assessment of (non-conceptual) beauty, but judgments of beauty and the sublime are related to moral freedom.

Fourth Moment (§§18-22): Judgments of beauty lean more toward subjective necessity. Still, we know that everyone will not agree with our judgments of taste, but we feel they ought to (re: judgments of taste are normative). The aspiration of universality can be thought of as sensus communis (common sense) (5:238). Although a judgment of taste is subjective, it presupposes agreement. The drive for universal agreement normalizes its subjective claims. Taste yearns for regulative principles.


[1] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 66.

[2] Note: an aesthetic judgment is not an agreeable judgment or a judgment of the good, although there are intrinsic connections between them all.

[3] Kant, Immanuel, “Analytic of the Beautiful,” Philosophy of Art, 274.


[1] …see the press release for the show: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com/exhibitions/roxy-paine-denuded-lens/pressRelease

john dewey / art as experience

September 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

john dewey art as experience

In the first and second chapters of his 1934 book Art as Experience, “The Live Creature” and “Having an Experience,” the American philosopher John Dewey begins to lay down his aesthetic theory with a primary emphasis on experience. Dewey wastes no time cutting to what he sees as a central problem with aesthetic theory. Common misconceptions hold that aesthetics and artworks are distinctly separate, and that art and daily experience are held apart. This binary way of approaching the activities and practices of art needs to be avoided to make an appeal for the primacy of experience. The aim of this paper will be to explicate Dewey’s implicit claim that letting go of the binary distinction of art as separate from everyday experience, will allow for a more invigorating approach to aesthetics that benefits our understanding of art, aesthetics, and experience. Detailing these benefits takes us through a few of Dewey’s arguments that make room for a view of art that speaks to the quality of appreciation, rather than seeking a staid text-book definition of art’s value and meaning. We will conclude with an assessment of the strength of Dewey’s position with a nod to the art making process itself.

What are Dewey’s reasons offered for art’s power to change people? (A-α) Dewey’s aesthetics begins with the way that we as living creatures experience the world. When artworks are set in a museum or gallery space, they are isolated from the day to day lives of viewers. In this way, an artwork becomes cut off from its origins, its functions, and from the ways in which it was created. Refined institutional isolation creates an unnecessary distance from the artwork and its audience. Dewey’s stated task, then, is to “…restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events…”[1] We must be careful to note that Dewey is not suggesting that art needs to be taken out of museums, or that his is a overt critique of institutions. Instead, his position is simply to look at the ways in which we can let a museum, or gallery setting, get in our way of experiencing and understanding the artworks.

It is surprising, if not radical, that instead of choosing to talk about art objects, Dewey emphasizes the experiences behind the objects, as well as the way we experience the artworks themselves. Art must be seen as a way that humans interact with the world. For Dewey, focus on the experiential takes art from being a simple object, to being a complex of interactions in the world from which it was created. We intuitively know that life, creativity, innovation, and discovery are distilled into artistic expressions, yet we need someone like Dewey to remind us of this.

Incredibly, art and the experience of it (aesthetics), take on a central place within Dewey’s total philosophy. “Dewey opts to select aesthetic experience as his primary instance of meaning…”[2] As mentioned above, there is a long standing tradition of demarcating, and partitioning off, of artistic objects into the rarified space of museums and gallery spaces. All of this begs the question (A-β) what in people is affected, and how, in Dewey’s embrace of experience? Dewey wishes to obviate the everyday demarcation of art as aloof, cold and distant, to stake a claim for the primary importance of experience. Not only does Dewey’s idea promise to bridge the gap between art and an experience, but also, by implication, he offers a means by which to put us back into contact with the ways in which experience contextualizes and enriches life, only if we are keen enough to take notice of art’s dynamic presence aesthetically. Taking aesthetics out of the stringent realm of contemplation into the world of lived experience, allows for experience to speak for itself. Dewey’s refreshing insistence on finding equilibrium, harmony and rhythm of experience’s confrontation with tension, speaks to the inherently imaginative course of artistic practice. Hence, we are put in a position to appreciate the quality of the ways in which we encounter, not only art, but life itself.

But what kind experience is worth taking notice of?—is it just any experience? Although, all of life is composed of a continuous stream experiential comings and goings, Dewey chooses to emphasize what he calls a “consummatory” [3] experience, whereby a given activity is seen as whole, rather than fragmented parts that consist of interruptions, or even ambivalence. Emphasis is given to a complete event that holds together without a distracted falling apart, e.g. writing an essay, carving a sculpture, printing a complicated broadsheet, enjoying a concert, &c. Generally speaking, we tend to call these events an experience, instead of just experiencing them. This subtle point is what Dewey wishes us to notice as aesthetical, and again this has to do with the quality of the experiential.

Here, we could ask about (A-γ) the benefits and detriments of art for the larger common good, found in Dewey’s aesthetics. Dewey writes of taking notice of experience with a recognition that life is full of deeply felt connections with our environment, made evident in our earnest (and aesthetic) efforts to overcome resistance, “Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.”[4] When the past is made to reawaken the resonant possibility of the present moment, the future is no longer a mundane continuation of the past—art takes us to these epiphanies. Past, present, and future coalesce into a recognized whole. Attuned experience shows us that the past harmonizes with the future in the present moment. A way of moving forward that favors the possibility of what can be, rather than what should be, reawakens our minds to an affirmation of life. Such experiences lead us to commune with the artistic and the aesthetics of life as exemplary examples.

Detriment would have to be found in the negative outcome of the above ideas, for example, when we continue to reinforce the status-quo of art as a vaunted intellectual practice. Experience too, is obscured by the contemporary infatuation with multi-tasking. Doing too many things at once quickly reduces experience to hastily drawn out conclusions with distracted imprecise attention. This is what Dewey calls “anesthetic,” when we take shallow and cursory notice of events and conclusions, “things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift.”[5] So much of life is fettered away in this anesthetic mode, including art appreciation. Often, if the art doesn’t offer up its message fast enough, we lose patience. Sometimes art’s rewards are measured in years, instead of summoning instantaneous results.

Now we ask (A-δ) which (benefit or detriment) is greater? The positive benefits of claiming a place in aesthetics and art, by way of primary experience, sheds light on all three of these components. Recall that Dewey wanted, not only to invigorate an investigation into the ways experience informs art-making, he also wanted to blur the delineation between art and aesthetics. According to Dewey, the artistic and everyday experience contains patterns of doing and undergoing.[6] For instance, it takes a patient intelligence to know that the intense effort of carving wood requires a mainstay of tenacious strength to overcome the boundaries of hardness, combined with maintaining the sharpness of one’s tools, to create a desired sculptural effect. As much as the artist has to undergo the painstaking control of a particular medium to find expression in the inanimate resistance of base matter, so too must the philosopher (writing about aesthetics) find the right words, methods, and strategies to appreciate creative accomplishments. Founding art intermixed with aesthetics on the grounds of experience by no means excludes the acts of appreciation and perception it takes to observe these qualities in tandem, as they are all working in rhythmic synchronicity with each other.

With all of this said, the reader could still be left wondering about art itself. What is art composed of for Dewey? The short answer is probably surmised in the book’s literal title Art as Experience, i.e. art is to be reevaluated as an experience. Drawing this out a bit more, Dewey also brings in many concrete links via all of the above mentioned points, but a salient feature of art stands out as having to do with the relations of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, “…art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience and experience.”[7]

As an artist, I wholeheartedly agree with Dewey’s position, and here are a few of the reasons why. The doing and undergoing of the art making process sounds much simpler than it actually is, but we needn’t fault Dewey for putting it into simple words. Afterall, doing really is about making, it is about the process that lies beyond words. An artist has a multitude of ideas, but the proof of those ideas is only made possible by enacting those ideas into a physical creation, never mind the planning that has to take place to get to work in the first place. The artist has to source his materials while taking into account their cost, and whether or not they are in his budget, so even this little detail of affordability is part of the experience of the project. The idea will then have to be modified if the artist cannot afford to put the idea into actuality, then, and only then, will the artist have to undergo the process of making, fabricating, creating his idea. This undergoing does not promise a successful outcome. The creative energy he puts forth depends on any number of factors that determine the artwork’s overall effect—time, patience, endurance, intelligence, &c., all play a part. This is just the beginning. The artist will then have to market and promote the work before it even gets to be seen by a wider audience, if it even makes it to that stage. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will be received with any acclaim. Dewey’s aesthetics enables these seemingly insignificant elements to be a part of the whole aesthetic experience, i.e. the aesthetics of getting art from the drawing board to the gallery to be considered by an audience becomes a viable way to understand art. An appeal to experience itself is a fantastic way into any art. We just have to be willing to let experience speak for itself. The strength of Dewey’s argument resides in its ability to apply to the wide range of creative expressions, not only as finished products, but also as a way to become more creative with our aesthetic appreciation.

There are the conditions art must undergo, and if we are to take Dewey’s philosophy seriously, we’ll become attune to the qualities and nuances of key aspects that might remain unnoticed, or ignored. Yes, there are an infinite amount of qualities to be noticed about art, and the art making experience, yet if we are intent on adhering to exhausted old fashioned modes of thinking, we cannot move to alternative connections and unthought-of concepts. Dewey’s philosophy allows for a new range of aesthetic experiences, no longer confined to worn-out questions of beauty and tradition. When the struggle of the past is made to be harmonious by the present wisdom of life’s potential, then the future becomes luminous. Art offers us the strength to transform. John Dewey’s experiential aesthetics brings us closer to this brilliant potentiality.

aurelio madrid


[1] Dewey, John, Art As Experience, New York: NY: Perigree, 2005, p. 2.

[2] Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling, Albany, NY: State University of New York press, 1987, p. 186.

[3] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 37.

[4] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 16.

[5] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 41.

[6] Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 45-7.

[7] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 50.


Bibliography

Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: Horizons of Feeling. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, NY: Perigree, 2005.

Hildebrand, David. Dewey: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2008.


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