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Immanuel Kant is the most radical modern, the founder of our ultimate subjectivity. His three Critiques are world-constituting and world-inverting. Before him, the world qualified the mind; now consciousness constitutes the world… (This essay was originally published as the preface to How to Constitute a World by Eva Brann, Paul Dry Books, 2017)

Immanuel Kant’s writings are the subject of the body of essays constituting this collection. He was my first philosopher. The green German edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Philosophische Bibliothek 37a) is the most tattered book on my philosophy shelves. In a moment I’ll say why—in the hope of capturing your, the reader’s, good will.

The book you’re holding consists of a Prelude, in which the two philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides are juxtaposed, and of a center and bulk on some of Kant’s writings, large and small. “But where is the fourth?” to quote Socrates’ question that opens the dialogue Timaeus. We don’t learn who that mysterious missing fourth is there, but here it is Plato’s Socrates himself; he appears only incidentally. As Kant was the first philosopher I really studied, so Socrates was, long before that, the one I ardently followed, for five reasons. First (this mattered most in youth): He showed in the “romantic” dialogues, Phaedrus and Symposium, that thinking can be an erotic arousal of the soul. Second: Philosophizing is an activity best done in an alternation of solitary effort and human companionship. Thus, the way Socrates brought philosophy down to earth is not, as Cicero claimed, by making it moral, but by making it an intra-human activity rather than a divine initiation. Third: This activity is called dialectic, conversation of a sort that sometimes pushes speech beyond its proper, that is, its logical, limits. Fourth: The way to go is through “hypothesis” (Plato, Republic 510 B), literally a “setting under” of an assumption that is at once deep and high. As Heraclitus says, “The way up and the way down is one and the same” (Diels-Kranz 60). Fifth: These assumptions encapsulate a faith that I think of as “philosophical optimism.” What is hypothesized and then perhaps corroborated is good and desirable to know, earthly deviations notwithstanding. Plato’s Socrates is the missing fourth here only because I’ve already written a book devoted to him, The Music of the Republic. The two philosophers of the Prelude, Heraclitus and Parmenides, are usually called Pre-Socratics. Is this implicitly a denigrating denomination, as if they were purely anticipatory, mere preludes to the grand event? If so, it is surely a misapprehension. Socratic cautiously bold philosophizing is a falloff from the grandeur of Heraclitus’ initiation by the Speech-divinity, by Logos himself, or from Parmenides’ reception, perhaps by the truth-goddess Aletheia herself. Moreover, I ask myself whether, in the order of thinking ourselves into illumination, these “pre”-thinkers are mere upbeats, or seriously prior. I find it an engaging perplexity and an abidingly interesting question, perennial.

Heraclitus, chronologically the first philosopher of the West—but a late discovery for me—is a thinker of terrific depth. Socrates said of him (Diogenes Laertius II 22), that it would take a Delian diver to bring his thought to light. (The men of the island of Delos dove for sponges.) Heraclitus regards Logos, “Thoughtful Speech,” in two ways. He is an external world- governing king who sorts things out into antagonistic kinds, which, by their mutual stresses and strains, energize a world. Then the same Logos, functioning immanently as logoi, ratios, makes these kinds mutually transformable and the stuff of the world recyclable by proportion.

Parmenides, Heraclitus’ younger contemporary (early fifth century B.C.E.), discovered Being as the one and only thinkable, sayable entity: its “is-ing” is all there is. My first essay presents these two men as almost made-for-each-other opponents, by which I mean that they are antithetical but at opposite ends of the same spectrum. They differ in every point of execution, but they are doing the same thing; they are telling how the world is constituted such as to be an intelligible whole.

Thus they are both metaphysicians, thinkers who go beyond the world’s obvious appearances, who penetrate and transcend them so as to dive to the true rationale or the divine truth deep down. Hence they are the initiators of what I might call the Western Tradition, meaning such inquiry as goes “beyond nature” (metaphysics). I say “might call” it so, were a tradition of inquiry not a paradox—for how can thinking be “handed over”—which is what “tradition” says and means? And yet there is such a tradition, a tradition-subverting tradition, which has inherited the two basic, perennially contended terms, Logos and Being, one from each of these Pre-Socratics, together with the procedure later called dialectic—the disputatious joining of minds over a common perplexity, with its occasional overleaping of the boundaries of proper, that is, logical, speech into paradox, self-contradiction, and the attendant profound perplexity which is, strangely, not a source of thwarting despair but of aroused awe.

I consider it a miracle that two men who never met should be so neatly each other’s dialectical partner—a miracle I hesitate to acknowledge because, while time and temporality (the experience and its analysis) seem to me among the great objects of philosophizing, it also seems to me that chronology (calendrical temporality) is scarcely ever an explanation in philosophy. Here’s an example: Add to the question “In what significant ways are the two Pre-Socratics prior to Socrates?” this even brusquer question, “Which of the two is prior in thought, the older or the younger?” You’ll see that this is not a question of birth date, especially for near-contemporaries.

The five essays that constitute most of the book are about Kant, my devotion to whom has several aspects, which I’ll set out here to capture, as I said, the reader’s goodwill for him. (The captatio benevolentiae is said, in the rhetorical tradition, to be an expositor’s first job.)

To begin with, I trust his probity. He poses his problems and resolves them with huge analytic power and perfect candor; there is no casuistry or subterfuge, no trickery. It is a virtue I would not especially mark in a philosopher were there not successors who shamelessly lack it. Second, a consequence of this absolute straightforwardness is that, without getting entangled in his hidden intention, a trustful reading will suddenly bring one to an unconcealed abyss: The books whose very titles say “Critique,” meaning the setting of limits to human rational capacity, past which dogmatism ensues—are those critiques themselves well grounded? The case of most interest to me is also the most obvious: the imagination. For Kant, this capacity has an up-front and a deep-down aspect; the latter, a “hidden art,” is responsible for our most crucial soul-craft: the inter-action of categorizing thought with spatial-temporal sensibility. Is it adequate to consign it (be it taken as a psychological ability or ratcheted up into a critical “condition of possibility”) to “the depths of the human soul” (B 181)? Such candor in the author promotes critique in the reader—and gratitude.

Third, there is—don’t laugh—Kant’s charm. His texts are difficult, but not more so than his world-inverting system requires. Nietzsche calls him “the great Chinese of Königsberg,” by which he means, not least, certain rococo curlicues that give Kant’s style a peculiar elegance (Beyond Good and Evil 210, 245). Learn the vocabulary, and his writings can be aesthetically pleasing.

But, fourth and above all (once I had woken up to the fun and relief to be had out of finding apt characterizations for one’s own time, or perhaps rather of devising a typology by which to constitute it into an epoch), I found in Kant the most radical modern, the founder of our ultimate subjectivity. The three Critiques are world-constituting: world-reconstituting, world-inverting. Before him, the world qualified the mind; now consciousness constitutes the world.

In the Epilogue, I go off on my own, though swept along by reading around, particularly in neuroscience, a fascinating science operating willfully in a self-confirming circle. Its basic postulate is that only sensorily confirmable evidence counts, and then the soul is set aside because there is no evidence of it! In the course of these amateur studies I discovered yet another late hero, William James, the true founder of contemporary Phenomenology, understood as the accurate description of the phaenomena of consciousness—another terminally honest thinker. He is, as his science requires, a “naturalist” as physicalist and a determinist as a denier of psychic spontaneity. But he says, as wisdom demands:

Let psychology frankly admit that for her scientific purposes determinism may be claimed… [But this] assumption of psychology is merely provisional and methodological… The forum where [the sciences] hold discussion [about ethical matters] is called metaphysics. Metaphysics means only [‘only!’] an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly and consistently. (Abbreviated Psychology, 1892, Epilogue)

I offer no solution to any metaphysical problems. I have none, above all because I don’t believe that metaphysics spawns “problems,” meaning quandaries capable of solution, that is, of dissolution, such as make the question moot. Rather I use a figure to delineate two kinds of inquiry: into depths and into complexity—downward and outward. These are the ways of a diver and of a researcher. I declare for the currently less practiced one and admit to two postulates of my own: The first, already mentioned, says that time is (along with imagination) the central human mystery and as such a great object of philosophy but never its determinant: “When” has only marginal power in thinking. The second demand declares that philosophy is a faith. I intend by this postulate no extravagant know- nothingism but a kind of open-eyed sobriety acknowledging three articles: First, thinking is spontaneous, ours to summon forth but not to force into shape. Second, staying on the surface is actually less safe than diving, at least for a happy life. And third, the world, the complex beings it displays and the unifying Being it hides—Heraclitus: “Nature loves to hide” (Diels- Kranz 123)—informs our souls, while we, in turn, constitute it only superficially and sometimes to our detriment.

This essay was originally published as the preface to How to Constitute a World by Eva Brann (Paul Dry Books, 2017), and it is republished with gracious permission from the author.

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  1. « the way Socrates brought philosophy down to earth is not, as Cicero claimed, by making it moral, but by making it an intra-human activity rather than a divine initiation » — The author’s disavowing claim notwithstanding, Cicero presents Socrates as the first political philosopher, one for whom the political is irreducible to the divine.

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