Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

The goal of this post is to put onto ‘paper’ some thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s rendering of tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and the way in which tragedy functions in Plato’s The Republic. I have prepared these thoughts within the context of writing a paper on Nietzsche and Bloch and preparing the syllabus for the introduction to philosophy course I am currently teaching at California State University Bakersfield. As I am now unable to produce anything like a lucid non-academic blog post, I have chosen to write this in essay format.


The confrontation Nietzsche seeks throughout his project with the figure of Socrates, I argue, is summarily available to his readers through the way in which Plato construes tragedy negatively as an inappropriately imitative form of art. My thesis is that Plato’s censorship of particular genres and modes of storytelling reflect the positive content Nietzsche locates within tragedy for the unleashing of the human without the constraint of a purely Apolline, epistemic, ontological commitment.

Defining Key Terms

Several key terms forms the basic building blocks for my argument and necessitate clear definition – aesthetics and tragedy. Ancillary concepts, which I define within the body of the essay, are “affirmation” and “repetition.” The order of my argument follows: aesthetics, tragedy, repetition and affirmation as tragic, and hope.

By aesthetics, I am referring to the realm of experience in which concepts of beauty, terror, or any other example within the range of human being finds expression through art and by which art elicits from people such emotions and experiences.[1] Such experiences do not occur in abstraction from philosophical concerns regarding ontology and politics, rather, the aesthetic names an integral doorway into such concerns, engaging them in ways that formal discourse cannot reach.[2]

By tragedy, I refer to particular aesthetic performances on dramatic stages. Such narratives are those that frame heroic existence against the background of the inevitability of the heroes demise. Fate will always destroy the life of the tragic person. Yet, the person continues to fight, she resists her fated destiny even to the point of death. It is precisely this resistance that occupies my attention; tragedy renders individuals in-themselves, against any transcendental grounding or guarantee of their ontological identity.

What Aesthetics Do

Insofar as I identify the tragic as a particular kind of aesthetic production capable of producing specific effects in the political lives of persons, the role of aesthetics in relationship to other modes of inquiry becomes clear; the aesthetic dimension acts together with other modes of human creation as an access points into the metaphysical realities of the world. Poetic prose, musical movements and other formations of creative art expose what Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, refers to as the primordial one. The primordial one is the basically immanent unity from which individuated entities, social formations and power relations all arise. The one is the causal core of the world, its common substance. This “one” is precisely that which individuated being, in its initial formation before the tragic experience, denies in its persistence to remain individuated, within the status quo’s projected ontology.

With regard to the general concept of art in this context, the aesthetic moves the person from the everydayness of life in which people find themselves individuated in their notions of identity and truth. The presupposition is that the ways people exist in societal structures of power correspond to reality as such. Hierarchical thinking in morality, religion and politics serve as examples for this initial state of the person in the world.

The critical function of aesthetic production is to collapse the structure of being, to render the world to the audience as essentially one with regard to its causal contingency, its lack of teleological grounding. Such a collapse disorients notions of propriety with regard to social relations. Thus, Nietzsche’s writing on the genealogy of morals proclaims, “It might even be possible that what constituted the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.”[3]

The aesthetic is always metaphysical even as it seeks to project an anti-metaphysical posture; the aesthetic is in a verbal sense, claiming something about the nature of reality within its moving of individuals toward a reflexive awareness of one’s connection to nature’s unified causal meaninglessness. The critical nature of tragedy is that the tragic performs the function of instilling in the audience a reflexive posture with regard to such meaninglessness.

The reflexivity Nietzsche wishes to engender through tragic drama is not the sort of posture one finds in the form of idealist thought. Rather, in affirming that existence, that nature itself, is an aesthetic phenomenon, Nietzsche advances a vision of human being that turns the nihilist pain of nature’s being into a resource for what Deleuze refers to as “the joy of affirmation as such,” the reorienting of the self to the immediacy of experience. The problem is not individuation in-itself but rather the sort of individuated structures of life that obscure primal realities of chaotic force in the erection of concepts of meaning.

Affirmation in the context of the movement into the primordial pain and chaos of existence and back out into an individuated state of self we may term “repetition.”[4] I want to position “repetition” within Giles Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche; repetition denotes the affirmation of the validity of every singularity of being, different from the other and from transcendental definition. Repetition is the affirmation of every individuation that occurs after exposure to the primordial pain of reality humans experience through aesthetic exposure.[5]

Here I must be clear with regard to the differentiation between an affirmation of individuation and that of subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept reliant upon the structures of traditional ontological discourse. Repetition, however, is the affirmation of life’s unlimited singularity within the univocal reality of the world’s chaos. In this sense, Nietzsche’s tragic movement of the person constitutes an affirmation of agency in the moment.

Nietzsche’s tragic person corresponds to an agency of “will.” This is a notion of agency in which all transcendental conditions for “the subject” become diffuse across the plane of immanent exposure to the primal realities of life .

We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being…we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable….Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive.[6]

Nature as Aesthetic Phenomenon

Nietzsche defines nature as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon, and in so doing addresses the problematic political relationship between oneness and individuation. Individuation in the first instance denotes a political ontology of an authoritarian nature; it denies the primal oneness and contingency of the world, and subsumes the subversive transgression against nature that is human agency in light of contingent being. Only an ontology that abandons this notion of individuation within the order of nature is able to posit a concept of identity that does not subsume the person within a hierarchical, or theological, structure of being-qua-being.

Rather, the Nietzschean realisation of tragic being attempts to ‘ground’ singular existent persons on no thing other than their self-assertion, their will-to-be, in themselves.[7] Tragic individuation turns out to be a notion of agency, which denies nature’s order in the assertion of the person’s singularity against the backdrop of death. The person in everyday existence is transformed into a tragic hero insofar as she asserts her singular newness of life in the face of her fated being-in-one, insofar as she grabs ahold of the contingency of her being and lets go of the false individuations, which metaphysicians and moralists sale for comfort.

In order to undo the condition of un-reflexive individuation and reach the concept of subversive agency, Nietzsche must render nature itself as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon. Nietzsche’s assertion takes form in the theoretical arena of metaphysical problems concerning transcendence and immanence, oneness and plurality; the question is how does one justify existence in all of its individuated forms, which include Church dogma, when the nihilistic reality of oneness in-death looms overhead?

By posing the question in this context Nietzsche takes aim against both the theoretical underpinnings and the societal structuring of human reality itself. Tragedy is that movement of music, bodies on the stage and emotions that confronts the individuated audience and beckons them into reality’s inevitable unity. The tragic rendering of the gods, for example, illustrates this function of tragic drama insofar as the gods are made to live the lives of humans and represent the elemental forms of nature. Through this representation the gods seduce human beings to continue living through a catharsis of seeing the truth of their being mediated. Thus, Nietzsche calls nature as an aesthetic phenomenon “the only satisfactory theodicy,” justifying the world through solidarity as opposed to logic.[8]

Here the importance of thinking tragedy becomes clear with regard to religion; the gods who correspond to the capricious natural elements function in a mythological sense in the same way as the stage itself, creating the necessary distance in which the audience is able to approach the nihilistic core of being without being overwhelmed and destroyed. Religious imagery and experience will function for Bloch in a similar fashion, bringing the religious person into contact with parts of their political and ontological reality that are unknown prior to the aesthetic experience.

The Mechanism of Tragedy: Schein

I want to explain the mechanics of Nietzsche’s tragedy that allows for the creation of the necessary distance between the audience and the reality of the world through the gods and stage. I wish to draw attention to the role of “semblance” as the primary vehicle through which tragedy accomplishes its dual task of deconstruction and reconstruction of individuals. The link between ‘representation’ and metaphysics is the essential feature of Nietzsche’s theory of nature and semblance is where this link occurs; semblance is the artistic creation on which human meaning is founded.

Semblance names the aesthetic element that Nietzsche finds basic in human existence. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by accounting for the occurrence of dreaming as one instance of semblance’s appearance, denoting its basically hidden place in the constitution of human nature. Nietzsche writes, “When this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance…philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a…quite different reality…this too is a semblance.”[9] Thus, the world of human life is essentially aesthetic semblance.

To be clear, semblance does not denote something unreal, but rather identifies the mechanical reality of how humans think about the real. Tragedy does something to the audience insofar as it engages this hitherto unknown metaphysical feature of human being. Tragedy moves the audience into the flux of the emotive and spiritual realms of their existence. This movement questions the terms of agreed upon social ontology in its exposure of ontology itself, as a discourse of power, as semblance. The deconstruction of ontology itself frees the individual, empowering her to assert her will in-the-world without regard for essentialist notions of identity or ultimate meaning beyond her immanently given self.

Plato’s Censorship of Schein

It is the role of schein in the tragic production which Plato finds damaging in The Republic. Semblance of this kind enables humans, through an imitative experience to sympathize with and to live-into the reality of the stage, in opposition to the hitherto unacknowledged semblance of everyday existence in ordered society. Such imitative possibility is the definition of subversion with regard to the necessary ordering of the polis’ life.

Plato establishes early on in book III of The Republic a sense of moral propriety with which the rulers of the polis are to judge particular stories. Interestingly, and politically telling given the above analysis of Nietzsche, Plato positions the poetic merit of a story as coterminous with a story’s potential to affect corruption upon the city’s youth.[10] More pertinent to the theoretical divide between Nietzsche’s upholding of tragedy against the figure of Socrates, however, is the way in which Plato proceeds to define three specific modes by which one is able to tell a particular story. “Now I think I can make it clear t you what I couldn’t make clear before, that one type of poetry and storytelling is purely imitative – this is tragedy and comedy, as you say. In another type, the poet tells his own story…The third type, using both imitation and narrative.”[11]

Each type of storytelling corresponds with a particular set of behaviors and habits that each story produces within people. In short, the founders should censor any aesthetic production that engenders imitation inappropriate to one’s “natural aptitude” and corresponding role within the city.[12] It is precisely this schematization and censorship of aesthetic production itself, suspending concern for particular content, that separates the Socratic posture and the liberated will of human spirit in Nietzsche’s work.

The drive of the Socratic posture is the equation of knowledge and wisdom, and the political correspondent equates to each manifests as the properly ordered, intelligible, society.[13] The power of the unconstrained tragic production to pull oneself into the purely imitative posture subverts this rational, scientific and moral order.

“For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.”[14]


What tragedy breaks apart is the inability of the person to exist in limitation with regard to one’s relationship to aesthetic production. The danger Plato’s locates in comedy and tragedy as imitative kinds of aesthetic production is exactly where Nietzsche locates the horrific freedom for life after tragedy. Tragic truth obliterates the surety of moral and epistemic order, leaving the door open for tragic agency in the world to emerge in opposition to every sense of propriety.

What I find most interesting is how each thinker’s analysis, opposite as they are with regard to prescriptive argument, details the same affect aesthetic form has upon people. The formal movement that occurs in the imitative tragedy is what is most dangerous and liberative. In this sense, both Plato and Nietzsche locate the potency of tragedy in the same fashion. The only difference is with regard to ontological commitment.

[1] Audi, R., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition: 1999, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 12. “Questions specific to the field of aesthetics are: Is there a special attitude, the aesthetic attitude, which we should take toward works of art and the natural environment, and what is it like? Is there a distinctive type of experience, an aesthetic experience, and what is it? Is there a special object of attention that we can call the aesthetic object? Finally, is there a distinctive value, aesthetic value, comparable with moral, epistemic, and religious values?”

[2] Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. 1990, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA; Blackwell. p. 3. Eagleton, admitting that his readers will most likely find his definition of aesthetic too vague or all-encompassing with regard to the political qualifications of aesthetics writes, “But is the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain interdeterminancy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony.”

[3] Nietzsche, F.W. and W.A. Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1989, New York: Vintage Books. p. 10

[4] Deleuze, G., Nietzsche and Philosophy. European Perspectives. 1983, New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 71-72. Here Deleuze offers a picture of how repetition manifests within Nietzsche’s work via the concept of the eternal return. “The eternal return is the being of becoming. But becoming is double: becoming-active and becoming-reactive, becoming-active of reactive forces and becoming reactive of active forces. But only becoming-active has being; it would be contradictory for the being of becoming to be affirmed of a becoming-reactive, of a becoming that is itself nihilistic. The eternal return would become contradictory if it were the return of reactive forces. The eternal return teaches us that becoming-reactive has no being. Indeed, it also teaches us of the existence of a becoming-active. It necessarily produces becoming-active by reproducing becoming…The old song is the cycle and the whole, universal being. But the complete formula of affirmation is: the whole, yes, universal being, yes, but universal being ought to belong to a single becoming, the whole ought to belong to a single moment.” Repetition is the continual movement into the newness of life in-the-world, a decision to be oneself, to create oneself, to be(come) one’s singular existent, to borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy’s lexicon.

[5] Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. p. 57. Here the relationship between the dismantling of transcendental reasoning and the affirmation of will-in-itself, through within the singular occurrences difference as ‘will’, becomes clear. “It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must ‘will’ itself or find itself through all the others.”

[6] [6] Nietzsche, F.W., R. Geuss, and R. Speirs, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 80-81. Here Nietzsche is specifically describing the function of Dionysian art. However, for the purposes of my analysis of agency, his description illustrates the sort of movement into the univocal reality of chaos from which the will emerges in assertive, tragically heroic, force.

[7] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. p. 82. While Nietzsche provides other examples of the sort of hierarchies he attempting to deconstruct, or more appropriately ‘reevaluate,’ here Nietzsche illustrates the logic behind such hierarchical individuations of human being. The logic which Nietzsche opposes is, “the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science…there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world.” Socrates represents the quintessential anti-tragic thinker insofar as he embodies this posture toward knowledge over and against tragic embodiment of life in-the-world as primary. While Nietzsche refers specifically to science in this instance, theological morality Here, as my invocation of Heidegger’s neologism suggests, the Nietzschean posture informs the Heideggerian disavowal of metaphysics, of the onto-theological constitution of metaphysics. Against “Being” as “ground,” the most elementary definition of “nature,” both Nietzsche and Heidegger render Being as somewhat perverse, as chaotic and in opposition to singular beings, participating in reality with them but not defining their various essences. See: M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference. 1st ed. 1969, New York,: Harper & Row. p. 57.

[8] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 24.

[9] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 15.

[10] Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari, and T. Griffith, The Republic. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. 2000, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 71-72. Here, Plato specifically refers to the censoring of theological stories. “We shall have to ask them to stop being so negative about the underworld, and find something positive to say about it instead…Not that they lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do. But the more merit they have, the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death.”

[11] Plato. The Republic. p. 82

[12] Plato. The Republic. p. 52. Natural aptitude, the natural place of each individual in the world, forms the basis by which the person socializes into society. “And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks.”

[13] Plato. The Republic. p. 60. “And are love of knowledge and love of wisdom the same thing?’ ‘They are.”

[14] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 75.


Mitsein Freunden, Mitsein Liebe: A Reflection on Being-With

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to Heidegger’s neologism mitsein, being-with. The reasons for this are varied, in part due to a doctoral seminar in which I was assigned a fair bit of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work. In another sense, my thoughts are due to a more personal realisation – an increasing conviction that the world in which I am a part, of which I am constitutive, is only so through the reality of others and that, to put it crassly, this is all there is. So this being where I am at, I wanted to pause during this time of term paper writing, conference paper abstracting and syllabi preparing to offer some honest (and cheesy) reflections on Heidegger’s mitsein. Specifically, I want to talk about being-with-friends and being-with-love and why the contingent nature of being-in-the-world increasingly causes me to grab ahold of those who constitute as particular mode of my being-with in-the-world.

So bear with me though my basic expositions of Sein Und Zeit. I realise we all think we know Heidegger and how the language works. However, if my classroom discussions indicate the reality of the real-world most of us religion folk still don’t know shit and just like to wax Heideggerian, usually hiding our ignorance of the text about 10 “dasein” references into a conversation with some comment about Heidegger being a Nazi piece of shit. Which to be fair…

Dasein is not Present-to or Ready-at (At least not in the Same way other things are)

Mitsein, Mitdasein, and Dasein itself, function within a particular understanding of the way in which the sheerness of actuality frames human life, the way in which existence works in an existential fashion to define being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is impossible to think the “I” without also thinking “world,” which in turn is impossible to conceptualize without also thinking oneself-with-others and with-entities. Oh, fyi other entities exist with dasein in one of two ways, either present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. This distinction is important for understanding what exactly Heidegger is on about when he begins describing the who being-with thing…and also for his discussion about what the hell “being-in” really means, which I think is pretty important and probably should have been placed earlier in the text…but whatever. We don’t have time for that here. Just know the two ways of being-alongside other entities exist and that to a degree dasein shares with them the characteristic of being present-at-hand…but that dasein is still totally different that those entities even with its being present-at-hand.

“Present-at-hand” denotes a particular way in which dasein is in-the-world with regard to entitles which are not itself. This is contrasted with that other way of being-in-the-world in which entities that are not dasein manifest as “ready-to-hand.” So before getting to that, you sort of have to know what the fuck Heidegger means with the whole being-in-the-world thing. In brief, “being-in,” the “being-in-the-world” of dasein, denotes not “being-in-something,” not “in-one-another-ness.” Rather, “Being-in” is the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has Being-in-the-world as its essential state.” That Being-in-the-world is dasein’s essential state means that for whatever dasein is, it is pure and simple; “the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

The affirmation of dasein as such is its essence without transcendent qualification. Dasein is, meaning that it its being is univocal and co-constitutive of the world. This use is in contrast to the improper use of “being-in,” which typically renders as the world as something external to dasein. The improper rendering of ‘world’ makes it that in which dasein is said to be within, while still being sufficient in-itselfhood alongside other entities that exist in the same way. “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein.” Dasein is simply in- insofar as dasein is, and the way in which dasein is-in distinguishes itself in the fact that dasein is that for which Being “is an issue for this entity in its very Being.”

Entities which are not dasein have two modes of being-in-the-world that are relative to dasein’s relationship to these entities: present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. To be fair to the OOO folks this is a pretty anthropomorphic way of characterizing such entities….and that is a point that clearly needed so many blogs, books and whatever devoted to it (hopefully the sarcasm is coming through). Anyways… Dasein is not characterized in a way that is completely equivocal with these two modes of being-in that characterise other entities. Rather, the aforementioned fact of “Being being an issue” conditions the way in which Dasein is said to share a present-at-hand relation to/in/as-the-world, rendering Dasein’s present-at-hand relation distinct.

Without diving into more boring-ass explorations of Heideggerian terminology, you can go look up the exact definitions for present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Suffice to say that mitsein, or more precisely the “other(s)” to which dasein’s “being-in-the-world-with” (Mitdasein), refers exhibits the same sort of distinctive being-in-the-world that characterizes dasein.

Mitsein vs. Zusammensein

I now want to begin to lay the cheese on thick. The neologism Mitsein is distinct form othe German formulations of being-together insofar as mitsein embodies the sort of sheer affirmative content of dasein’s being-in-the-world, insofar as this denotes a contingent way of being a co-constituent of the world (again, dasein is not like really in something external to its essence…which is existence).

Mitsein is contingent being-with, there is no prescriptive necessity behind it, only the content of the world its encounters and creates. An existential recognition of contingency, then, forms the basis by which one may distinguish between zusammensein, which can entail ‘togetherness,’ and mitsein. Since mitsein embodies the content of dasein, mitsein entails a way of being with other in which one is bound inextricably to the other, this being-with forming a kind of immanent transcendental condition by which dasein’s being-in-the-world is made intelligible to itself. What we share is that we are and this fact is inescapably the constant that frames our reality.

I am. We are. That is Enough.

Ernst Bloch’s refrain from The Spirit of Utopia resonates through me when I think about what it means to be-with. I am with my friends, they constitute the way in which my being-in is my own, the mineness of my present-at-hand being-in-the-world. Similarly, though with a different register of force and intensity at a certain point, my partner and I find ourselves being-with-love, the more accurate description of being-in-love insofar as the being-with identifies love as having to be within the context of a relation with-the-other. In both cases mitsein is enough. In both cases mitsein is all that there is.

The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.

[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 2)

More time than I would’ve liked has passed between part 1 and 2 of this series. I’ve been in Berlin since the beginning of July improving my German and will be here until the end of August. My intensive language course has left little time for comprehensive exam preparation, let alone blog posts! Still, I’ve managed to find some time to crank out some reflections here. In this post, I begin to move into a discussion of theology by first considering Ernst Troelthsch’s mentor Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl provides the second stream which flows into the river of Troeltsch’s thought and is important to consider so that we can see what Troeltsch is doing in his project (which will be the third post, contrary to what the first post says.)

In the first part of these posts, I laid out Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history which includes the justification for a viable human science on the basis of historical individuals and value relations. I also pointed out the obvious ways in which this methodology went very bad very quickly and remained so until the latter half of the 20th century when critical discourses were finally able to diagnose the various problems that underlay methodology in the social sciences. I’m especially interested in how theology fits into this story, particularly in whether theology is interested in the general or the individual (as Rickert understands those terms) or if instead it can somehow take an interest in both that doesn’t fall into the traps that Rickert’s philosophy does. Aside from what, from the perspective of critical discourse, is the impossibility of value neutrality and indeed the necessity of examining value neutral discourses to expose their underlying colonial, patriarchal, etc. commitments, Rickert’s insistence on the objectivity of values (i.e. value neutrality) seems to expose him to the precise criticism which he levels against positivism in the first part of The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science.

Remember that objectivity in the strict Kantian sense does not mean and should not be equated with knowing things as they are in themselves, i.e. knowing reality as it actually is. What Rickert is insisting on instead is to regard values as objects–but this is tricky. Values, we’ll remember from the last post, though they are abstracted from empirically reality, have no empirical reality when taken as the objective ground of historical study–they are wholly ideal. His insistence on this point is a little confusing since it seems like the point he is wanting to make is that these values are basically additional categories of perception, both empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Thinking back to Kant, we’ll remember that in order for perception to even be possible, these categories are required–they’re what make it possible for us to talk about empirical reality at all. But they themselves are not observable within empirical reality (e.g. Hume’s famous refutation of the observation of a necessary cause and effect.) The problem is that value is not a demonstrable condition of perception, and Rickert is aware of this. Values, then, essentially become general categories of value. This is the best Rickert can do. Like universal laws of science, these objective values which are meant to ground historical study are universal, general categories of value that must hold some sort of validity for empirical reality for every human being across time and space. His explanation of objective values, then, seems to slip general categorization back into historical study through a back door. If we were to really dig into an analysis of how these values operate, we would see that they’re not quite the same as the sorts of universal laws of human history and behavior that positivists in the late 19th century were trying to abstract from historical study. Still, we cannot deny that in order for Rickert’s system to work, he [thinks he] needs an objective ground; otherwise, historical study is arbitrary. The problem, of course, is not that Rickert insisted on the wrong ground but that he argued for an objective ground in the first place.

That’s a well worn path, and I don’t mean to rehash something that now comes so naturally and is so obvious to cultural theory and critical discourse to the point of seeming banal, essentially behaving as a first principle of sorts. However, the way that Troeltsch comes to wrestle with mediating between the poles of what he calls “absolutism” and relativism–and in 1902–with regard to theology is, to my mind, rather revolutionary. However, we first have to get a handle on the other, theological side of things, though with regard to both the social sciences and theology, Troeltsch is wrestling with absolutism, ethical neutrality, etc. Troeltsch was perhaps the final prominent member of the Ritschlian School and arguably Albrecht Ritschl’s sharpest critic. This garnered a lot of attention for Troeltsch from younger theologians and students, notably Paul Tillich, who were seeking out alternatives to the classical liberal theology that Ritschl’s work embodies. (My own thoughts on Troeltsch’s membership in classical liberalism will have to wait for another post. In short, I don’t think he belongs there.)

One of the difficulties in undertaking a commentary on Troeltsch’s departure from Ritschl and its philosophical underpinnings is that both Ritschl and Troeltsch are usually considered, in part, neo-Kantian theologians, Ritschl influenced primary by Hermann Loetze and Troeltsch by Rickert/Weber. Ritschl founded what is typically referred to as the “History of Religions” school of theology.  He was trained under the historicist biblical scholar and theologian F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century. This was a period of great transition and turmoil for theology, philosophy, and the study of history.Ritschl The Geisteswissenschaften were already emerging (well before Rickert came on the scene), and the question of the nature of history as a proper object of study was experiencing both reactions against and defenses of the dominant Hegelian idealist paradigm of history. Most important for the fields of study within Christianity was the question of historical context: Could theology be understood as a properly scientific discipline if its scholars presupposed Christianity to be the absolute religion? Baur’s response was a decisive “No.” However, his students, most notably the biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss and Ritschl polemicized against this view, Strauss appearing to be the more orthodoxly Hegelian of the two. Ritschl insisted that the question of presuppositions was the wrong one to ask. Christianity is one of a number of major world religions, and, so Ritschl argued, it is only from the context of the history of religions as seen from the point of view of Christianity that the latter could be truly understood in its religious form, thus attempting to eliminate or at least delimit the problems Baur identified with assuming Christianity as the absolute religion.

As mentioned, Ritschl was also heavily influenced by the then burgeoning neo-Kantian philosophy, particularly that of Hermann Lotze. A full exploration of this influence is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but a few points are of interest: 1) Lotze affirms Kant’s view that the ethical will is the will of God. 2) However, Lotze departs from Kant in positing religion as a three-part relationship, I-God-Man. 3) He further departs from Kant in positing the Kingdom of God not as a kingdom of future ends toward which we infinitely approximate but as an actuality in the present. Finally, Lotze argues that doctrine and dogma can never be transmitted in an account of their actual truth. Instead, their transmission contains an “intuitive seeming” which makes intelligible what is ultimately inexpressible and maintains a true relation to the actual.

The primary effect of this influence is Ritschl’s rejection of an absolutely transcendent will in favor of a more contextualized understanding of the human person and agency. Ritschl, however, still maintained Idealist tendencies, particularly on the concept of the absolute in theology. For Ritschl, theology requires an organizing principle, and, according to Ritschl, the organizing principle of all Christian thought is the Kingdom of God, a view he began to develop as early as 1858. In his magnum opus, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1874), Ritschl writes, “The Kingdom of God is the summum bonum which God realises in men; and at the same time it is their common task, for it is only through the rendering of obedience on man’s part that God’s sovereignty possesses continuous existence.” This definition reflects the mid-19th century tension between historically bound human beings and transcendent theological principles. The Kingdom is a good that is imparted to humans by God, something they receive passively; however, it can only be realized in the moral striving of human beings toward it as their goal. It is thus dependent upon human will, which Ritschl does not view as itself transcendent the way Kant did. Christianity solves this apparent problem by means of a transcendent connection of the two ideas in the logic of grace. Therefore, the divine act of the gift is what ultimately constitutes the ground of the highest good. Human beings only contribute insofar as their moral striving is done out of faith in Christ. In other words, membership in the Kingdom of God is the condition for any human contribution toward it’s reality in the present or future. Johannes Zachhuber writes, “In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means. Its function as telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love: The Kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an end in itself.’”

Of particular importance for our purposes here is the absolute character of the Kingdom of God. Ritschl makes it clear that this is in no way to be identified as an earthly kingdom, i.e. as a State. Its operations in how it understands wrongdoing (sin), punishment (separation from God), and justification (removal of separation) completely transcend any worldly handling of these terms. This extends to all other religions as well. In other words, in asserting the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle for all Christian thought, Ritschl is also asserting the absoluteness of Christianity over all other religions. All human development is striving toward the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Hegelian influence on this point is obvious. From this perspective, however, it is difficult to see how Ritschl can reconcile this understanding of the absoluteness of Christianity with his assertion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions more generally. This was not a problem for Hegel, who paid no attention to the world religions and was arguably only concerned with Western Europe. But for Ritschl, it imparts a nagging relativism which he does not seem to take seriously enough. Indeed, this is the primary criticism which his student Ernst Troeltsch leveled against him, to which we turn in the next post.


Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 1)

I’ve been immersed in neo-Kantianism this whole year between reading and rereading Weber as well as the literature that surrounds his work. This last quarter, I worked through a handful of texts that came from the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, spending most of my time in Heinrich Rickert’s The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science. Two seemingly unrelated questions were raised as I worked my way through it: (1) What sort of discipline is theology? and (2) What is the status of valuation in critical discourse. I have a number of friends working on the relationship between theology and science, something I too have waded into since my time in seminary, and I think Rickert provides some ways of thinking about the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences that have begun to change how I think about theology’s place in that spectrum. It also, I think, provides another way of conceiving materiality in relation to theology and some good reasons for why a materialist theology, carefully defined, is ultimately the most fruitful way forward.

This is going to take a few posts. In this one, I’m just going to lay out Rickert’s philosophy of history, and at the end, I’ll allude to what I’m going to do in the next post, which is to start talking about theology in relation to Rickert.

Rickert’s primary aim is to illuminate a logical opposition between concept formation in the human (historical) sciences and the natural sciences as a means of establishing what it means to conceptualize what he calls “historical individuals.” When Rickert is writing at the turn of the 20th century, historical study (broadly, what we call the humanities) is still emerging as a collection of disciplines in its own right over against the natural sciences with its own methodology and authority. Prior to Rickert, the study of history was regarded more or less as one of two things: the study of antiquity (what we call “Classics” today) or the far more contepmorary positivist sociology. The latter, championed by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, argued that the study of history was just like the study of the natural sciences: the goal is to collect the data and abstract from it general categories and universal laws. This was untenable for Rickert, who, following his mentor Wilhelm Windelband, argued that general concepts destroy that which precisely makes history what it is: uniqueness and individuality.

Rickert is neo-Kantian in the sense that he doesn’t think that our knowledge is about reality as such. So when he’s setting up this logical opposition between concept formation in the natural and human sciences, it’s on the basis of how we regard our experience of reality. In other words, the difference between the natural and the human science is not in the ontology of their objects but the phenomenology of them. They share the same real objects as they come to us in experience but regard that experience differently. That experience, Rickert says, comes to us as an infinite stream of individuals. It’s actually doubly infinite in that there is an infinite number of individuals (extensive infinity) and each individual itself is infinitely complex (intensive infinity.) Because this is how we experience reality, general concepts are always less real than our immediate experience, i.e. they can never represent our experience of reality as that infinite stream of individuals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t produce knowledge though. General concepts still hold validity for empirical reality. They just can’t give us any knowledge of individuals in their unique individuality. This is a logical impossibility, says Rickert, because the very definition of general concept precludes uniqueness. The goal of the scientific method is to erase anomaly (uniqueness) in favor of repeatability (which we usually call verifiability.)

It’s also, then, logically impossible for general concepts to apply to history. History is by definition unique and therefore unrepeatable in that uniqueness–at least, the history that interests us (more on this in a minute.) The data that eventually becomes “history” in the sense Rickert is after has the same nature as empirical reality (doubly infinite) and, by definition, cannot be made sense of in the same way that natural science makes sense of the infinite manifold. Rickert’s explication of concept formation in natural science shows us that there is this piece missing from our knowledge that natural science cannot provide–a concept of the individual. But now there’s a further problem: How is a concept of the individual possible if individuals are doubly infinite and unique? Up until this point, concepts have only ever been general. Historical concepts have to be something else that isn’t abstracted from the exact historical material in question but is instead formed out of something else.

This ‘something else’ also can’t be arbitrary, which is the other problem facing historical concept formation. As we’ve seen, natural science has the advantage of repeatability in forming its general concepts. Kant showed us this. Scientific observation is about the perception of a sequence (not a sequence of perceptions.) The repeatability of any sequence of perceptions is what eventually becomes knowledge in natural science. Clearly, historical knowledge doesn’t have that advantage within the data itself because in order for a datum to qualify as “historical” it cannot be repeatable. Returning to the idea of interest that I mentioned earlier, Rickert acknowledges that there are many more individuals (infinitely more, actually) within empirical reality than what we could actually study according to the methods of historical science. You can look at every leaf on a tree, every dog, every lump of coal in its unique individuality. But why would anyone do that? Though these individuals, in our immediate experience of them, are unique and individual, they are almost just as quickly subsumed under a general concept, which is what allows us to take in an infinite manifold and not be driven insane by the unique individuality of an infinite number of objects who are infinitely complex. So instead of trying to take in and consider each individual leaf, dog, rock, etc. we instead have leaves, dogs, and rocks as general concepts

But why don’t we do this with every individual? What’s the difference between Goethe and a guy at Tuesday’s open mic night? We can just as easily refer to both as “poets,” “humans,” “men,” etc. as we can examine them in their individuality and uniqueness. What non-arbitrary ground could there be for selecting one over the other as the proper object of historical study? How can we justify our interest in one over the other? Rickert’s answer is that there are two types of individuals: those which become automatically subsumed and “in-dividuals”–those whose uniqueness simply isn’t subsumable under a general category because of the values that intersect it.

Values, for Rickert, are very similar to general concepts in natural science. They have no empirically real content–they are ideal–but they do hold validity for reality. In other words, they are true insofar as they are valid. (“Truth,” by the way, is also a value for Rickert, which may be a problem in how he defines values, but we’ll table that for now.) Thus, Rickert establishes a number of “spheres” which he believes exist in every society–but they have variable content. Examples include art, religion, science, ethics, sexuality, etc. Each sphere has a value relation attached to it, i.e. art-beauty, religion-spirituality, science-truth, ethics-morality. The claim, then, is that the scholar selects historical individuals of interest to conceptualize based upon the ways in which they intersect these values as those values hold validity within the culture and time period in question. Goethe, rather than the guy at the open mic night, intersects beauty, spirituality, etc. in a way that one can identify within German culture at the time that he was alive but also perhaps today and certainly within other cultures as well (especially in the West.) The open mic guy just doesn’t do that in the same way.

That last paragraph probably made anyone familiar with critical discourse cringe. There’s an obvious tendency in this theory that leans toward old white guys deciding what’s culturally valuable, and certainly that’s how this panned out during the majority of the 20th century in the social sciences and humanities. Without giving Rickert more credit than he’s due on this point, I actually don’t think he was interested in the superiority of any one culture (unlike Hegel who clearly thought Germany represented the pinnacle of all civilization and that the history of any non-Western civilization was totally irrelevant to the progression of absolute spirit.) Rickert insisted on a rigorous value neutrality when it came to the scholar’s own personal valuations. This should be familiar to any of us in a social scientific field. It’s one of the challenges of being a theologian in a religious studies department. Value neutrality is still one of the most important aspects of good social science today.

The story should sound much more familiar now. The combination of these two aspects of Rickert’s method, value relations without valuation, inadvertently introduced into humanities/social science discourse the possibility for a normative colonial, patriarchal, bourgeois, and even Protestant agenda disguised as value neutrality, intentional or not–a truly catastrophic combination if there ever was one. This has in turn created the necessary space for genealogical critiques of social scientific disciplines (Foucault), particularly religious studies (Asad), as well as the post-structural critiques of social science found in Derrida, et. al.

All of those discourses have been and continue to be necessary tools, helping to pry open the door for important voices to speak in all of the humanities and social science disciplines, and theology has been no different. In the next post, I’m going to turn to the earliest theological critic of modern sociology, Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch is more often than not seen as the first theologian to embrace the modern social scientific method–and he is–but he did not do so uncritically.  It is in his critique of the value neutrality found in Rickert and his close friend Max Weber that we begin to find the answers to the two questions we started with: In what sense can theology be a science and given critical discourse, can theology engage in positing normative values?

Basic Transitions Toward Immanence: Small Thoughts on Theodicy

ImageThis past semester I have been participating in a Theology and Science seminar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. The seminar comes at a time of transition for me. I am working, preparing for my new  doctoral programme in Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University, attempting to finish an initial reading list for my first semester of research for my PhD at Nottingham and finishing a paper I am giving at the University of Bielsko-Biala, in Poland at the end of June. With so much going on I have worried that my capacity for attentiveness might be somewhat diminished with regard to the seminar. I have found, rather, that the seminar has coincided well with the material I have been engaging elsewhere, albeit a very critical coincident. 

Some point of obvious contention have included certain statement made by those on the theological end. “Quantum theory says ‘this’ so then we may speak of divine action like ‘that'” etc. There is an entire apologetic posture built into those types of questions that I don’t think I really need to expound but really only need to state in order for its fallacious nature to be obvious. However, I was assigned a brief presentation with another student on John Hick’s book Evil and the God of Love. The point of the assignment, with regard to its relation to the particular variant of the science-theology dialogue that the class engages, is to approach the topic of theodicy in light of what science purportedly has to say or do.

Specifically, I was tasked with responding to Hick’s argument for an “Irenaean approach” to theodicy. Hick argues that contrary to an Augustinian narrative of sin, where there is a historically and ontologically verifiable original state of humanity from which the species falls in sin, that Irenaeus provides a way of thinking humanity, evil and God that both takes evil serious as real, unlike Augustine’s privation, while preserving the transcendent categories for God and Being. What follows is my response that I will present tomorrow, which I have above characterised at a transition toward Immanence. In part this is due to how I take Hick to misrepresent Spinoza, and  the entire idea of monism. However, also see this response as an outworking of a larger transition toward figuring out how the work in my MA on critical pedagogy and personhood relate to a deeper recognition of what it means to think in an immanent frame. 

Here I wish set Hick’s descriptive account of the Irenaean approach into dialogue with an earlier section of the book in which Hick attempts to describe two other approaches, which he deems incompatible with Christian faith. The polar schematic Hick draws pits a monist ontology on the one end of the spectrum, what I will refer to here as an ontology of “immanence,”[1] and dualist ontology on the other end. Our focus for this reflection is upon the monist paradigm.

The purpose for such a move on my part is to provide the context from which to inquire into Hick’s understanding of the goal of theodicy, and by extension, the legitimacy of such an endeavor in itself. In short, I wish to question whether Hick’s nuanced attempt to bring about an eschatological resolution to the problems that plague other projects in theodicy actually accomplishes its goal. This line of questioning serves the larger purpose of getting us to the more basic question at work in Hick’s text, namely, whether or not the sought after goal of his theodicy is legitimate. Toward this end, I wish to argue that what Hick says he wants in the text, set against what his work discloses with regard to his desires, is contradictory.

Hick wants a rejection of an original state of perfection. Yet, he also needs to retain some sense of an incompleteness of the present in order for his interest in constructing a theodicy to remain intelligible. There is a certain type of rhetorical game that Hick plays at this point in recourse to Irenaeus, (i.e. the notion of ‘maturing’ vs. the Augustinian idea of moving from innate damnation to salvation in Christ). Yet, we must press Hick to differentiate further how this rhetorical move functions any differently than the move Augustine makes. I contend, with regard to function, that the logic is the same as the Augustinian. Any form of a redemptive eschatological goal that regards the present as somehow wanting in content, necessitating something other than the immanently real, ultimately devalues the present. Ironically, Hick will proceed to charge Spinoza, one of the great thinkers of immanence, with failing to take the immanent reality of evil seriously, while still making use of the aforementioned model.

I want to assert along these lines that Hick’s desire for an eradication of the perfect original state of humanity conflicts with how he wants to recognise the reality of evil in theological categories. Indeed, I want to so far to ask whether or not, in light of his use of modern theology, he maintains his proposal for dogmatic and not speculatively honest, reasons? Hick’s desires obfuscate the primary value that he highlights in his recovery of an Irenaean theodicy through Schleiermacher, namely, the primacy of an immanently human framework from which to make intelligible statements about evil and suffering.
            Hick couches his basic description of theodicy’s purpose in the form of a critical response to Spinoza’s concept of evil and suffering. Hick describes Spinoza’s monism, writing, “Everything in nature is, not indeed as it ought to be – for ‘ought’ presupposes a cosmic purpose or norm – but as it must be as a necessary part of the universal being tht is God in his aspect of natura naturata (20). Accordingly, evil is not “real” in any ontologically positive sense. To this point, Hick compares Spinoza’s understanding of evil with the Augustinian privation theory, writing of that Spinoza actually participates in the Augustinian paradigm.[2] “Sin, for example, is a state if self-imposed privation of virtue; the sinful act is good in so far as it contains a certain degree of reality, but evil in so far as it lacks a greater degree (20).” Following his description of Spinoza, Hick then gives us a response, in which the stakes of theodicy are laid bear. Hick writes, “the weakness of this way of thinking is not far to seek. In showing that the evils that we human beings experience are the illusory products of confused and inadequate ideas Spinoza has not made those evils any less dreadful and oppressive (23).”

On this basis, Hick thinks he is rejecting the monist ontology, and by extension of his critique of any privation theory of evil, he is able to already cast doubt upon the Augustinian legacy. However, this charge against Spinoza is curious since, in the first instance, the reading is questionable, and in the second instance, any attempt to frame evil outside of the parameters of a sheerly given experience already forces one to condition the experience beyond what is phenomenologically given, creating distance from whatever evil is as experienced. Is it not rather the case that in attempting to look at evil and suffering within the parameters of an immanent frame that one avoids such conditioning?[3] Hick, having dismissed the monist proposal outright, then, misunderstands the ramifications of Spinoza’s ontology for theological discourse, and as a result, fails to incorporate immanence into his own project as a viable way to understand issues of evil and suffering.[4] I find this misreading unfortunate for our current discussion since it seems to expose one of the more basic tensions at play in our discussion of how science and theology can speak to each other. Attempting to take experience as real and describe it accurately without the need to qualify it in any categories outside of itself appears the methodological site of struggle between the scientist and theologian.

Some questions for further consideration: Is the point of theodicy to really make evil less dreadful? What does this sort of statement reveal pedagogically about the difference in posture between the theologian and scientist? Is there room for an honest inquiry on the part of the theologian who seeks to ask questions related to theodicy if, for maintenance of theological identity, one has to condition, or qualify, experiences?


[1] Beistegui, M.d., Immanence: Deleuze and philosophy. Plateaus. 2010, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 35. Here it is important to be precise about what is meant by “immanence.” To begin, we must avoid conflating our meaning with another type of discussion more properly dogmatic in both language and aim. That particular discussion lies strictly within the scope of Christian theology and is dogmatic in concern. Ours is a larger concern, philosophical in nature, and encompasses only aspects of that other theological discussion. “Immanence” is to state the core realisation of an assertion for univocity. This is that the common substance of the universe is purely immanent to itself in cause and effect, such that the distinction between the two is only relative to itself in substance and time. “Pure immanence, on the other hand, requires as a principle the equality of being, or the positing of equal Being: not only is Being equal in itself, but it is equally present in all beings; not only is it said of everything that is, but it is said in the same sense– as ‘expression.’”

[2] This is one of the more directly fallacious associations Hick attributes to Spinoza. While the language appears similar with regard to evil not ‘being’ in a positively ontological sense, the association fails to seriously consider the difference the Augustinian narrative of a necessary salvation makes for framing privation. Privation only makes sense if there is a prescriptive order to the world, in which one can participate either fully or partially. For Spinoza, the statement of necessary order is not in any prescriptive sense but rather a phenomenological reality, the world just is and this includes the spectrum of human desires, feelings, etc. For Spinoza, then, there is no true privation of evil but rather an acknowledgment that evil and suffering function along a definitional horizon that is always in-flux, much the same way we now understand sexual desire to function.

[3] Barber, D.C., On Diaspora: Christianity, religion and secularity. 2011, Eugene, Or. Cascade Books. p. 27. Barber writes, “Immanence, ontologically speaking, names a reality that rejects any transcendent beyond, but it does so from a point prior to the distinction between a beyond and a below. What immanence defends, in other words, must not be defined by a prior relation to the beyond.” (Italics are mine). Hick comes close to realizing this outright when he affirms Schleiermacher’s project of eradicating the original state of perfection. “This is accordingly not a doctrine of the original perfection of the world in the sense of a harmonious primordial condition…The perfection of the world, in virtue of which the God-consciousness can occur within it, still exists; it is ‘original’ in the non-temporal sense of being fundamental and constitutive (221).” Hick appears to favour the use of ‘original’ as merely descriptive in nature of something innately given to human experience. In this regard though, Schleiermacher is much close to Spinoza than any explicitly Christian formulation insofar as such a theological conviction is not need for the affirmation of Schleiermacher’s position. This is not a conditional definition but rather a phenomenological description.

[4] Barber. On Diaspora. pp. 26-27. Barber illustrates my point in relation to understanding Spinoza’s notion of immanence and what this means for theological discourse, including theodicy. Immanence is unitary; it is ‘immanent’ to nothing and contingent upon only itself. In this sense, Hick’s description of monism is only partly wrong, his utilization of ‘harmonious’ to summarises Spinoza’s point being the target of my criticism on this point. Spinoza struggles with naming immanence, calling it dually ‘nature’ and ‘God.’ Barber picks up on this necessary act of naming in such a way that one asserts two difference names at once. He writes, “Spinoza thus serves as an excellent exemplar of the approach I am advancing, one in which the opposition of immanence to transcendence requires not the rejection of theological discourse’s signification, but on the contrary a new expression of it.” Theology, Christian theology included, is not necessarily against the monist but is required for the monist insofar as it expresses something necessary for stating the sheer thereness of the world as one substance.


Lacan on the Subject and Object – Tad Delay

The following is an excellent post by Tad Delay picking up on some of the issues we are dealing with in talking of subjects, objects and immanence. Tad is currently a PhD student at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.Image

“Truth is nothing but what knowledge can learn that it knows merely by putting its ignorance to work.”1

Lucas and I have had our share of conversations over the notion of immanence in relation to critical theory and pedagogy. What seems to make for a roadblock in those conversations is some combination of 1) the differences in influences a Husserlian and a Lacanian naturally bring to the table and 2) the sheer amount of gin we consume during those conversations. But after his recent post, I think I am beginning to regarding subjectivity (or inter-subjectivity), and I think my trouble understanding had less to do with an irresolvable difference and more to do with the differing starting points of our respective theorists. So I’m going to start with where that difference might be located—which is our different meanings of subject and object—and I am going to conclude by saying we are not subjects interacting with objects but instead objects interacting with subjects.

Lucas uses the term immanence to describe an irreducible embeddedness of subject and object, all the more so when that object is another subject. He concludes we should examine “one’s existence as verbal, as ‘ ing’ in construction, ‘ -ing’ in-the-world with and as entities(y), constituting the most basic stuff of what we refer to when we talk of ‘discourse.’ As such, critique must be always thought in the face of the imminently human.” As a Lacanian, I say yes to the verbal nature of subjectivity (after all, the phrase the unconscious is structured like a language appears in nearly every essay and all seminars), but I think the big difference in starting points I mentioned comes from my disposition to see subjectivity—the Lacanian subject—as primarily unconscious. There is a wide difference between the totality of the I and the conscious perception of the me.

“The specular relationship with the other…can only reduce to its effective subordination the whole fantasmatization brought to light by analytic experience by interposing itself…between this shy of the Subject and this beyond of the Other, where speech in effect inserts it, insofar as the existences that are grounded in speech are entirely at the mercy of its faith.”2

The difference between the I and the me is described in Lacan’s “L Schema.”3 Two of these positions are (partly) conscious and two are unconscious. And to be clear— because this is almost always obfuscated— the un in unconscious is not a simple negation of conscious the way pre- Freudians and Jungians use the term; conscious is not to unconscious the way that

black is to unblack.4 Unconscious is a phenomenon that insists rather than exists.5 “The unconscious is a concept founded on the trail left by that which operates to constitute the subject. The unconscious is not a species defining the circle of that part of psychical reality which does not have the attribute (or the virtue) of consciousness.”6 In the “L Schema,” S (the subject) and A (big Other) are unconscious, and a’ (ego, the moi that I consciously perceive myself as) and a (the object, or object cause, of desire inasmuch as it enters the imaginary register7) are at least partly conscious. The object of desire is always accidental, never perfectly calculated the way our egos would like to imagine.8 L’objet a is not a “thing” qua actually-existing-thing but instead a structural position that the psyche maps an idea onto, which is why nothing we acquire finally satisfies the drive. These four positions are asymmetrical; think of the Subject as both its own position and that which contains the totality of the other three positions where Autre is the primary actor. And S, if it is properly split into conscious and unconscious ($) as it is in neurotic and perverse individuals, is a projection of the A, the big Other, which Lacan calls the discourse of speech.

This Other shouldn’t be confused with a Jungian collective unconscious, but if I understand Lacan’s intention correctly then there is no clear division between the big Other of the individual and the big Other of the culture creating that individual’s ego. The big Other is purely a function of the symbolic register; like the objet a, the Autre is a phenomenon and a position in the psyche rather than anything that actually exists in the world. It’s worth clarifying, because the big Other is often used as a synonym for God. God is one manifestation of the big Other, as are any number of social expectations, pressures, injunctions, identities, etc., but anytime we name something we are no longer talking about the symbolic big Other but instead are figuring a representation of the Other within the imaginary register. But moving on, analytic therapy is not simply a relation of two egos, one ego seeking help from the other. “…I teach that there are not only two subjects present in the analytic situation, but two subjects each of whom is provided with two objects, the ego and the other, the latter beginning with a lowercase o.”9 Lacan’s most basic matheme for the neurotic subject’s relationship to an object of desire is written as ($<>a).10

“In the unconscious, which is not so much deep as it is inaccessible to conscious scrutiny, it speaks…”11

“Why not look for the image of the ego in shrimp, under the pretext that both acquire a new shell after every molting?”12

In other words, when I perceive that I desire something, my ego (a’) is investing in an object (a) at the behest of unconscious injunctions and/or drives. This process is called cathexis by Freud and is most evident in the transference of love and hate. The stronger the cathexis, the more the ego has identified itself with an ideal and the more that ideal becomes part of the superego. “Over-thinking a relationship/job/conflict/etc.” is what cathexis feels like. There’s more to be said about object-libido and ego-libido (narcissism), but I will leave that aside. So we love and we hate, but we do not always have much of a rational reason explaining why we love or hate. That lack of rationality is because our ego has been directed (sometimes only in part, sometimes

entirely) by the unconscious. Anger is experienced at the imaginary register, but underneath it is “…the failure of an expected correlation between a symbolic order and the response of the real.”13 There is always a significant element of backwards-engineered justification by the time an idea becomes conscious, and this is why psychoanalysis does not locate subjectivity in the system-conscious. You see this backwards-engineering all the time when you discuss a concept with someone whose identity seems to depend on an easily falsifiable and/or completely indefensible position. You can strike down claim after claim (façade of a after a), but nothing changes one’s mind. The ego is actually defending the integrity of the big Other, and the big Other can simply redirect the subject’s ego to attach itself to the next object/idea. In therapy, this is a defense mechanism that gives me an infinite number of justifications to maintain self- sabotaging behavioral patterns. The big Other manifests as a repetition injunction. But this conversation began as a vicissitude of sublimation or repression of a drive, so the thing (with a lower case t, the façade) you are consciously discussing is already a few steps removed from the Thing/objet a of the drive. But every once in a while you stumble onto the conception of a particular a that big Other cannot stabilize itself without, and there is a cascading reaction where a particular form of the big Other looses operative power over the subject. At that point, the argument (or therapy) is over. So this is why Lacan’s goal was to traverse the fantasy, to “pierce through the imaginary dimension which veils the symbolic and confront the analysand’s relations to the Other head on.”14

“It is true that I am incomprehensible… I’m not afraid of people leaving. On the contrary, I am relieved when they leave.”15

So where then am I differing with Lucas? Well at the risk of oversimplifying—indeed, this whole piece is a bit of an oversimplification of Lacan’s schema—Lucas is rightly talking about the embeddedness of subject interacting with objects in order to discuss immanence and intersubjectivity. It’s just that Lacan doesn’t let us talk about subjects interacting with object; instead, I (at least, the me of the I) am an object interacting with subjects. Or further, moi is an object contained by a subject interacting with other objects contained by other subjects, and then this relationship becomes further complicated by group identities (which yields more and more complex conflicts of inter- and intra-group psychopathology). The analyst has to affiliate herself with the healthy part of the subjects ego, or applied differently, we have to realize that our conversations with others present a fiction that amounts to an interaction with only one part (momentarily conscious) of only one register (the imaginary), but we have an infinite depth to us, symbolic and real. At any rate, the moi is not where the Lacanian places the emphasis.

“Desire is what manifests itself in the interval demand excavates just shy of itself, insofar as the subject…brings to light his lack of being with his call to receive the complement of this lack form the Other—assuming that the Other…is also the locus of this lack. What it is thus the Other’s job to provide—and, indeed, it is what he does not have, since he too lacks being—is what is called love, but it is also hate and ignorance.”16

“We need not, in psychoanalysis, broaden people’s minds,”17 but for further reading on topics discussed:

Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Freud, The Ego and the Id

Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

 Lacan, “Position of the Unconscious” in Écrits

Lacan, “The Freudian Thing” in Écrits

Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” in Écrits

1 Lacan, Écrits, 675.

2 Lacan, Écrits, 40.

3 Lacan, Écrits, 40.

4 Lacan, Écrits, 704.

5 Read all of Seminar II!

6 Lacan, Écrits, 703.

7 This is a bit oversimplified, and l’objet a has as much (or more, depending on which seminar we draw from) to do with the real as it has to do with the imaginary. It is not the actual object that exists in reality, but reality’s objects become an objet a through all three registers and normally become expressed by the imaginary register. The objet a is the object of a partial drive—all Lacanian drives are partial, all are death drives—and the drive can only reach jouissance by endlessly encircling its object instead of directly acquiring any object. What I am describing here is admittedly a mix of Lacanian drive and Freudian cathexis regarding their shared origin in object-libido. Each use these terms, but Freud might be in more agreement with my use of the terms here than would Lacan.

8 Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, 46.

9 Lacan, Écrits, 357.

10 Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 99.

11 Lacan, Écrits, 364.

12 Lacan, Ecrits, 217

13 Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 103.

14 Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 35.

15 Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, 83, 85.

16 Lacan, Écrits, 524.

17 Lacan, Écrits, 305.

The Origins of Critique IV: Objective Judgment

We now turn to the final part of our task which is to explicate the idea of objective judgment for Kant in order to show that the knowledge that results from an objective judgment cannot be knowledge of an object as it is in itself and further explicate the central role of the person in the production of knowledge. Within what we have covered already, we have touched quite heavily upon the arguments that Kant sets forth in his objectivity thesis; namely, that the appearances of objects are correlated to objects outside of intuition, but these objects, “can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object.”[1] We shall now examine the steps in Kant’s argument for this thesis, so we may see the function of the thing-in-itself in relation to objective judgment.

Kant begins from what he calls the transcendental unity of apperception—the ‘I’ that thinks.  He writes, “The I think must be able to accompany all my representation; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me” (B132).[2] The manifold of intuition (prior to any proposed application of the categories) must have a relation to the I think. This is a pure self-consciousness. It cannot be given in experience, nor is it an a priori intuition. It is rather “an act of spontaneity, i.e., it cannot be regarded as belonging to sensibility” (B132), and it must be regarded as a unity so that we may say the representations that correspond to it belong to only that I think.[3] That is to say, the manifold of the intuition must be synthesized in one consciousness that I call “my representations.” The categories which Kant proved in the Metaphysical Deduction are the rules by which this synthesis takes place. It follows, then, that “The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognize an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other way, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness” (B138).[4] The categories are, therefore, objectively valid, meaning they apply to objects, and they allow us to make objective judgments, which give us knowledge about objects.

Kant makes his “object argument” in the third part of the A Deduction (A104-105) in order to show what an objective judgment is and how they are possible. He begins by reminding us that when we say our representations are appearances in objects, we mean that our appearances “must not be regarded in themselves, in the same way, as objects (outside the power of representation)” which raises the following question: “What does one mean, then, if one speaks of an object corresponding to and therefore also distinct from cognition?”[5] One might think that we simply have nothing to say at all about the object as distinct from cognition, and indeed, we cannot say anything about it; however, we do know that there is necessity in the relationship between our representation and the object outside of our cognition. Kant writes, “[I]nsofar as they are to relate to an object our cognitions must also necessarily agree with each other in relation to it, i.e., they must have that unity that constitutes the concept of an object.”[6] Kant has already established that our intuitions are necessarily intuitions of objects as they appear to us and that the categories apply to objects because we have a transcendental unity of our apperception, which is only possibly through the application of the categories to the manifold. But this has only demonstrated that the manifold of our intuition is a unity in our self-consciousness.

What Kant is adding in the object argument is our ability to make objective judgments about the objects found in our representations. We must remember, Kant writes in the third step of this argument, “that since we have to do only with the manifold of our representations, and that X which corresponds to them (the object), because it should be something distinct from all of our representations, is nothing for us, the unity that the object makes necessary can be nothing other than the formal unity of the consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of the representations.”[7] We might worry, therefore, that even though there is a correlation between representation and object (outside of representation), we might only be able to have subjective judgments about those representations since they are not the objects as they are. These would be judgments of perception only.[8] However, we must also remember that the categories are rules that apply to objects, and, therefore, the above worry is “impossible if the intuition could not have been produced through a function of synthesis in accordance with a rule that makes the reproduction of the manifold necessary a priori and a concept in which this manifold is united possible.”[9] In other words, the synthesis of the manifold into the unity of transcendental apperception is not possible without the categorical rules by which this synthesis takes place. The categories are universal, necessary, and known a priori. Therefore, if we think objects according to the categories, we have the means by which we can have objective judgments about objects of appearance that produce objective knowledge that is also universal and necessary.[10]

Here’s where we are now: objective judgments that produce universal knowledge about objects cannot be equivalent to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but they are related. The conditions of possible experience that make the manifold of our intuition possible also produce a necessary methodological distinction between intuition and objects as they are outside it. But this methodological distinction also produces a necessary correlation between object outside of intuition and the appearance of the object within it since the distinction is merely two ways of considering the same object. But the manifold of intuition alone is not enough to make coherent judgments—it is a chaos of sense impressions.

We know, however, that the manifold is transcendentally unified in our self-consciousness; it is our manifold. What gives the objects of the manifold unity is the synthesis of them according to the rules of the a priori universal categories. Therefore, when we examine these objects of intuition, which are correlated to how the objects really are outside of it, according to the categories of the understanding, we can make objective judgments which produce knowledge about the objects of intuition, but not about the objects as they really are. The worry that what Kant gives us in his explanation of objective judgments is knowledge about things in themselves cannot be the case since Kant demonstrates quite clearly that objective judgments are confined to the conditions of possible experience which cannot apply to things in themselves but because the manifold of our intuition is unified by a priori categories, both transcendentally ideal and empirically real, we can make universal judgments about objects that are necessarily correlated with things in themselves but cannot apply to them.

What this study has hopefully done is given us an important starting point for the constitution of the person in critical discourse. I would encourage readers not to get too caught up on words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” right now. The important take aways from this study:

1) Intuition belongs to a subject.

2) “Objectivity” is not removed from subjective intuition but is rather an integral part of it.

3) Correlation here is not 1:1 between objects of intuition and objects as they really are.

The demand of these conclusions for contemporary critical discourse is that we employ more care when we talk about the problems that terms like “objectivity” and “correlation” pose. As I mentioned in the first post, continuing through the history of critical discourse, we’ll see how the role of the subject in the production of knowledge and the articulation of the limits of knowledge becomes reconfigured and contested such that, eventually, words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” become immensely problematic. For right now, I hope readers will find it useful to think through these issues with figures like Kant (and later, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and others) in order to arrive at a more robust understanding of one’s own place in the larger tradition of critical discourse.

[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 347-8.

[2] Kant, 246, his emphasis.

[3] Kant, 246-7.

[4].Kant, 249, his emphasis.

[5] Kant, 231.

[6] Kant, 231.

[7] Kant, 231.

[8] Hume thought that outside of mathematical knowledge, these were the only sorts of judgments we could make, i.e. “The sun is out, and the ground is warm.” There is no necessary connection between these events, only a series of perceptions.

[9] Kant, 231.

[10] In contrast to the example in the previous note regarding judgments of perception, an objective judgment is one of experience. That is, given the categories of the understanding, one could examine a series of perceptions (“The sun is out, and the ground is warm”) and produce a necessary connection between them, i.e. “The sun caused the ground to be warm.” This is an objective judgment that produces necessarily true knowledge about the objects in question.

The Origins of Critique III: The Function of the Noumenal

I established in the last two posts (here and here) that how the thing-in-itself operates within Kant’s system is rather difficult to pin down; in addition to this, what the phrase means is also quite ambiguous since Kant uses a number of different locutions to seemingly refer to the same thing.[1] Furthermore, Kant discusses the subject at both the beginning and the end of the first division, and it is not clear that he is referring to the same thing in both places. That said, I want to emphasize again that this reading of the thing-in-itself is set forth and utilized in order to best show the distinction between knowledge of things-in-themselves and knowledge that comes from objective judgments, which we’ll get to in the next (and final) post on reason in Kant.

The primary issue at hand for Kant is to explain both how objects in our sensible intuitions are only as they appear and how it is that his system is not simply a version of Berkeleian idealism in which there are no empirically real objects at all, only ideas. Kant first introduces the idea of appearances contrasted with objects as they are in the Transcendental Aesthetic.[2] Objects cannot be given to us any other way but through intuition (A19/B33), and Kant calls these given objects appearances. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, he establishes both space and time as a priori conditions of the possibility of intuition, with space as the outer sense of intuition and time the inner sense. They are the form of all intuition—they make appearances possible. Space and time are therefore not themselves appearances or empirical concepts that come from experience but the form of experience without which we could not have sensible intuitions. Most importantly for our present concern, space and time do not apply to objects in themselves. We know a priori that space and time give us the form of objects as they appear to us, since “One can never represent that there is no space, although one can very well think that there are no objects to be encountered in it [. . .] [and] In regard to appearances in general one cannot remove time, though one can very well take the appearances away from time” (A24/B38, A31/B46).[3]

In other words, we simply cannot think outside of these forms. They are for us. If space and time are the form of our intuition and we accept that there are empirically real objects that we intuit as appearances,[4] it follows that those objects exist as they do not appear to us as well. We can think them that way (or “consider” them as Allison says) because we know that our intuitions are of objects as they appear to us according to the form of space and time. In this way, thing-in-itself is a contrasting place-holder. We cannot know anything about objects as they really are because we would have to know them outside of space and time. However, this does not prevent us from saying that the same objects exist independentally of our intuitions—refuting that that would be to commit to idealism. We can thus say that the thing-in-itself as aspect is a methodology in that it is the counter to the thing as it appears to us in space and time that helps us square the existence of empirically real objects with the premise that the intuition of objects can only be appearances given that the ground of all intuition is space and time, an a priori pure intuition. In Kant’s conclusion to the Transcendental Analytic, he surveys all that he has covered and returns to the ideas of appearance and thing-in-itself. In the A edition, Kant reintroduces the phenomena/noumena terminology from the Dissertation (discussed in my first post) initially giving a summary of his claim from it. He writes:

Appearances, to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories, are called phenomena. If, however, I suppose there to be things that are merely objects of the understanding and that, nevertheless, can be given to an intuition, although not to sensible intuition (as coram intuiti intellectuali), then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia). [. . .] For if the senses merely represent something to us as it appears, then this something must also be in itself a thing, and an object of a non-sensible intuition, i.e., of the understanding, i.e., a cognition must be possible in which no sensibility is encountered, and which alone has absolutely objective reality, through which, namely, objects are represented to us as they are, in contrast to the empirical use of our understanding, in which things are only cognized as they appear. Thus there would be, in addition to the empirical use of the categories (which is limited to sensible conditions), a pure and yet objectively valid one, and we could not assert, what we have previously maintained, that our pure cognitions of the understanding are in general nothing more than principles of the exposition of appearances that do not go a priori beyond the formal possibility of experience, for here an entirely different field would stand open before us, as it were a world though in spirit (perhaps also even intuited), which could not less but even more nobly occupy our understanding (A248-9).[5]

His initial description of noumena found in the Dissertation cannot possibly be correct; otherwise, to paraphrase Kant here, we could not assert that the categories are rules by which we unify the manifold of sensation and do not exceed the a priori formal conditions of space and time which make sense experience possible. His previous understanding of the noumena as non-sensical intuition (i.e. what he had previously called intelligence) does not have a place in a system of transcendentally ideal, empirically real categories in which all intuition is sense experience. Kant reconfigures the terms, writing:

All our representations are in fact related to some object through the understanding, and, since appearances are nothing but representations, the understanding thus relates them to a something, as the object of sensible intuition: but this something is to that extent only the transcendental object. This signifies, however as something = X, of which we know nothing at all nor can know anything in general [. . .], but is rather something that can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object. This transcendental object cannot even be separated from the sensible data, for then nothing would remain through which it would be thought. It is therefore no object of cognition in itself, but only the representation of appearances under the concept of an object in general which is determinable through the manifold of those appearances. Just for this reason, then, the categories do not represent any special object given to the understanding alone, but rather serve only to determine the transcendental object [. . .] through that which is given in sensibility, in order thereby to cognize appearances empirically under concepts of objects (A250-1).[6]

We have now a reasonably clear understanding of both the definition and function of the thing-in-itself for Kant. It is a methodological concept that is the necessary result of recognizing that the objects of our intuitions are appearances which conform to the pure intuitions of space and time a priori. In my final post on reason in Kant, we’ll look at his understanding of objective judgments to see how that differs from knowledge of things-in-themselves. 

[1] Allison, following Gerald Prauss, writes, “By far Kant’s most common locution is Ding an sich selbst” which he goes on to say is a version “of the cannonical “thing considered as itself” [Ding an sich selbst betrachtet], where the an sich selbst functions adverbially to characterize how a thing is being considered rather than the kind of thing it is or the way in which it exists.” Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004): 52.
[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
[3] Kant, 158, 162.
[4] We have not addressed the issue of objectivity yet, and indeed at this point in the Critique, neither has Kant. We shall reconstruct Kant’s objectivity thesis in the final post.
[5] Kant, 347, his emphasis.
[6] Kant, 347-8, his emphasis.

The Origins of Critique II: The Limits of Knowledge

We have seen that even in 1770, eleven years before the first edition of the Critique was published, Kant recognized that our sensible intuitions gave us appearances of objects but not the objects as they really are and that the status of the noumenal and its relationship to the phenomenal is quite different than what is described in the Critique and indeed in conflict with it. In altering the latter term of the phenomenal/noumenal relationship, Kant has needed to consequently reconfigure the what of the noumenal in order to explain what work it is doing in the analysis of our sensible intuitions. That is, the question of what the noumenal “is” must always be related to the question of how it operates, and, as I  discussed briefly in the last post, the two dominate views[1] on the matter are either that Kant is espousing two ontologically distinct “worlds” of objects or that objects have two aspects, in which “Kant’s transcendental distinction is between the ways in which things (empirical objects) can be ‘considered’ at the metalevel of philosophical reflection rather than between the kinds of thing that are considered in such reflection. Things can be considered either as they appear, that is, as they are in relation to the subjective conditions of human knowledge, or as they are in themselves, independently of these conditions.”[2]

The former view is perhaps the most classical interpretation of Kant and is indeed one of the sources of early criticism against him (which will be important as we go on to discuss later post-Kantian figures.) Typically, the reading is that unity of the appearances that are given to our mind as the manifold of sensible intuition is made possible through the application of the categories to the manifold, which in turn comes to us from the affection of objects on the mind. “But, so the argument goes, if the object is an appearance, interpreted here as a representation, it could scarcely produce the very sensory manifold out of which it itself was first formed. The only alternative is affection through things in themselves. But Kant explicitly denies that the object can be a thing in itself.”[3] Thus, the problem of affection is the most common objection to the transcendental distinction between phenomena and noumena as an ontological distinction. Something outside of space in time could scarcely have an effect upon things in space and time.

Henry Allison’s version of the two aspect view differs significantly from this two world view in that Allison argues the distinction should be understood methodologically rather than metaphysically. The label “two aspect” is a bit misleading in this respect as it seems to suggest just another ontological description of objects, namely, that they have both phenomenal and noumenal aspects simultaneously. Indeed, Allison acknowledges the worry that if this is what is meant by “two aspect,” then the problem of affection has not really been solved but only condensed into objects as a single class. However, this is not Allison’s claim. Rather, the claim is that by setting up his project as the identification of the “epistemic conditions” of sensible experience, Kant is claiming to have discovered the conditions for our discursive knowledge specifically—a knowledge that is limited and finite. This suggests that there is another type of knowledge which we cannot have, namely, knowledge of the thing-in-itself which is outside of the conditions of possible sense experience. Thus, Allison writes, “It is precisely because sensibility has its own a priori forms that we are forced to distinguish between things as they appear, that is, as they are sensibly represented, and the same things as they are in themselves, independently of the conditions of their sensible representation. In other words, Kant’s theory of sensibility, which is itself an essential ingredient in his account of the discursivity of human knowledge, entails that the things that we intuit are not in themselves as we intuit them.”[4] The thing-in-itself becomes a way of thinking about sensible intuition as belonging to us and conditioned by the very categories that make it possible in the first place. The thing-in-itself, in other words, is a conceptual tool that helps us understand how our sensible experience is both ours and is of objects that are real and not ideal.

In the next post, we will turn to Kant’s own account of the thing-in-itself in order to spell out the most helpful way to think about it in light of the problem of conflating knowledge of the thing-in-itself with objective judgment.

[1] It must be noted that there are also other, “third way” views, which cannot necessarily be categorized together that attempt to criticize the two aspect view as set forth by Henry Allison but not from the defense of the two world view. Rather, they espouse either a “two perspective” view (i.e. Hoke Robinson), or by attempting to minimalize the importance of the noumenal in Kant’s philosophy altogether. See: Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives on Kant’s Appearances and Things in Themselves,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 32, no. 3 (July 1994): 411-441; Lior Nitzan, “Thought of an Object and the Object of Thought: A Critique of Henry Allison’s ‘Two Aspect’ View,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92, no. 2 (June 2010): 176-198.

[2] Henry Allison, “Transcendental Idealism: The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” New Essays on Kant, ed. Bernard den Ouden (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987): 155.

[3] Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives,” 415.

[4] Allison, “The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” 158-9.