Kant's Muddle


VI. The Kantian Whirligig 


                                             KANTIAN IMAGINATION 


            Immanuel Kant (1727-1804) provides no systematic philosophical account of the faculty of imagination, nor of the connections between imagination and reason. But Gibbons (1994) collates his hints and notions about the nature of imagination, and the relations between it and reason, drawing upon his critiques of 'pure reason' (1781, 1787 2nd Ed.), practical reason (1788), and judgement (1790), to give an exploratory Kantian synthesis that inspires further interpretation, perhaps interpretations beyond Kant's own means for meta-psychology via philosophy. The following essay/discussion relies upon Sarah Gibbons' 1994 book, a revision of the thesis she wrote for her D.Phil. at the University of Oxford. In the Preface she notes that she sometimes thought of herself as part artist and part sleuth. As sleuth, she traced clues from the diverse parts of Kant's published work to build up a generously coherent depiction of his "theory" of imagination. She tells us that in her interpretive strategy she emphasized "the roles of the idea of a divine (or intuitive) intelligence and of imagination as the human model of divine knowing."  Looking back over the years of reading Kant she saw that her approach was guided "as much by imagination and a felt grasp of the whole as by reason."  Her reading was a reflection of her view that "imagination and intuition are central to human cognition and experience." She shares this rather widely held view as a citizen of modernity, two hundred years after Kant's professorial musings. Her imagination bridges the gap between his pre-Darwinian world and that of modern cognitive psychology. It remains to be seen whether modern psychology has a deeper understanding of imagination in our era of post enlightenment, compared to that of earlier centuries.


Our Approach

            Gibbons (1994:7) notes that the details of Kant's reasoning and arguments are notoriously obscure and problematic. Philosophical critiques of Kant's notions and arguments have not failed to see his penchant for elaborating phenomenologically counter-intuitive and confused or muddled superfluous pseudo-solutions to pseudo-problems (e.g., Gibbons' references pp. 2, 54-55, 136, 149-150).  In light of this, what we attempt here is an inspirational interpretation that gives Kant credit for making sense when he may not in fact have done so of his own accord. A stripped down version of his contribution to our understanding of imagination (channeled by Gibbons, reinterpreted in conceptual graphics) is proposed below in an attempt to avoid some of the unnecessary muddle. For example, with regard to 'intellectual intuition' (a form of knowledge that proceeds from whole to part), we can give an austere or stripped-down interpretation that leaves behind Kant's problematic notion of intellectual intuition as possessing a perfect harmony between its knowledge and the world, and acknowledge his insight that productive imagination has the capacity to apparently construct a concept or holistic idea ('synthetic universal') in the act of exhibiting or presenting it to us in intuition (Gibbons pp.117-123, 136-139).

            Gibbons also notes that by the time Kant wrote the third Critique he realized that there are more connections between the functions of imagination and reason then he previously appreciated. Perhaps they appeared to threaten the 'primacy of reason'. She agrees with Martin Heidegger's (1929) comment that

 ….Kant was frequently tempted to step back from the 'abyss' created by giving imagination a central role in cognition, in this case by linking the functions of reason with those of imagination. Nevertheless, Kant never simply retreats from the abyss, as Heidegger claims.    ..... he consistently returns, however cautiously, to the examination of the connection between reason and imagination.  (Gibbon, pp. 86-87.)


The Meat: Lean and Fat

            Imagination, Kant came to realize, depends on subjective capabilities and acts reflecting an autonomy not constrained by the mere application of concepts within reason. He realized (as Gibbons, p.93, expresses it) that "imagination is not reducible to a solely sensible or intellectual faculty..".  Furthermore, imagination is a cognitive capability that does not furnish rules that allow it to be examined and explained. Because of this its productions are indeterminate, " 'forming rather a blurred sketch from diverse experiences', similar to the 'incommunicable shadowy image of their creations 'which artists 'profess to carry in their heads' " (sub-quotes from the first Critique, given by Gibbons p.100). These 'shadowy' images are not conceptual ideals: 'an ideal of the imagination …does not rest on concepts but rests on an exhibition, and the power of exhibition is the imagination' (quoted from the third Critique by Gibbons p.100). Perhaps it should be noted here that it seems Kant personally lacked any significant capability for the arts, neither the visual arts, literary arts, nor music. Hence the shallowness of his attempt to understand artistic originality, much less genius (see Gibbons pp.108-111). Also, he does not appear to have understood the genius of high-artisanal craftsmanship in design that enters into the performance of creative acts. He might have appreciated the cognitive externalization of complex thought in modern conceptual graphics, but that capability for productive imagining was apparently beyond him. Not to worry, we can still learn from his attempts at philosophizing on imagination, and though he might seem a bit behind the times, we can celebrate him as the last great baroque mind of Europe.

            Importantly, for Kant the faculty of human reason, both 'pure' and practical reason, requires imagination. Reason is dependent upon the use of imagination. Imagination 'mediates' between the dualisms expressed in our thoughts and understandings, including that between concepts and intuitions. Kant imagines imagination as a capacity to 'bridge gaps' in cognition and experience (Gibbons p.2). He also proposes a 'new' philosophical method of investigation (a science of metaphysics) wherein we establish a priori principles that hold universally and necessarily for all objects of experience 'according to reason's plan' (p.3). In Kant's transcendental idealism, reason affords insights into what it produces according to its own plan or nature. For Kant reason has drives and needs. It seeks totality and systematic unity, etc. In his reliance on metaphor and reification, Kant sees reason as a constructive power which builds according to its capacity, according to its plan (Gibbons pp.2-6).

            To escape the confines of his method of rationalizing introspections 'according to reason's plan,' Kant repeatedly employs the metaphors of everyday language. Most of the characterizations of imagination that he is aware of are common sense: e.g., a bridge; collaborative; hovering between; insightful; original; prompting new thought; spontaneous; purposeful without a purpose; engaging in free play. We should note that Kant's notion of the 'free play' of productive imagining is not quite the difference between that of spontaneity vs imagining upon request. For him the contrast is with the 'reproductive' sensible functions of mental imaging, a rather hamstrung conceptualization. He does not systematically consider more creative forms of imagining upon request

            Stripping down Kant's musings to a central contribution to a philosophical appreciation of a theoretical role for imagination in thought, we privilege his metaphors of ' a bridge' and collaboration, or mediation.  Gibbons' integrative interpretations of the metaphoric collaboration of imagination and reason inspires us to a synergistic, if not syncretistic, interpretation of the possibility of a Kantian cognition. This revolves around Kant's notion that imagination mediates between the dualism of pure-concepts and empirical-intuitions. This Kantian transcendental psychological duality is a secular version of the Christian divine vs worldly, the mind-body dualism of neo-platonic aspirations. Reinterpreting Gibbons' interpretation of Kant, and verbally drawing on some Buddhist metaphysics, we can image imagination as a kind of time-space cognitive bardo, or liminal Pure Land, wherein a whirl of imaginative capabilities occurs. See Figure K, the Kantian Imagination-Whirligig (also known as the P-G-K Whirligig of Imagination, in reference to its chain of authors).  Imagination is now no longer the muddle in the middle, but rather an intermediary being, an Arhat, with its avatars responsible for creating original thought, including those representations we refer to as judgements and self-awareness, on the way to a higher dharma of dreams, and finally no-thought.

Figure PGK. Kantian Imagination-Whirligig. Conceptual Graphic by CRP of his interpretation of Gibbons' (1994) interpretative comments on Kant's philosophical musings on imagination in the context of his aging metaphysical method of transcendental idealism. CRP makes the anthropological reinterpretation that the 'pure concepts' are unquestionable cultural a priori concepts, i.e. the most fundamental concepts that one is enculturated to, beginning in the womb (see The Upper Realm of Rarefied Gases below).


            In case you find this syncretism is too much for western digestion we can return to Kant. In his later years Kant considered the relations between imagination and reason in aesthetic judgements. His borrowing of E. Burke's (and the subsequent romanticist) notion of the darkly sublime in natural phenomena (e.g., chaos, terror, OED, B.1b.) degenerates into a muddle of imagination (Gibbons 1994:124 ff; a 'sacred thrill' of realized self-delusion, p.150).  But Kant did better with the fine arts, i.e. the arts of design.

Fine Arts

             Kant realized that aesthetic ideas induce 'a wealth of thought as would never admit of comprehension in a definite concept, and, as a consequence giving aesthetically an unbounded expansion to the concept itself…' (Critique of Judgement, trans. J.C. Meredith quoted by Gibbons p.141). As Gibbons rephrases it "No single conceptualization of a work of art will capture 'the wealth of thought' that it triggers…because the interpretation and appreciation of the work are necessarily open to entirely new interpretation and further appreciation under different clusters of concepts which attain only partial articulation' (pp. 141-142).  In our case (Figure K, The P-G-K Whirligig of Imagination), there are emergent properties in both the imaginative aesthetic of the conceptual graphic and the interaction of the graphic with the imagination of the viewer/reader. The misstep that Kant and Gibbons make is their position that the positive role of imagination "arises from its ability to exhibit an order in intuition which conceptualization cannot adequately express" (p.142).  This is a position that arises from linear, discursive thought: proceeding one step at a time to reach one's conclusion. The imaginative expressions of ideas in the art-and-craft of conceptual graphics do not exceed our powers of conceptualization. To the contrary, through the faculty of imagination they expand our powers of conceptual thought and reasoning. In addition to exhibiting emergent properties for both the composer/creator and the viewer/reader, these designs are simultaneously analytic and synthetic. They prefigure and exhibit/evoke an array of latencies, nascent, in-the-making, with the viewer/reader acting the accoucheur (assisting in the birth). Gibbons (p.143) is correct in recognizing that imagination "partially achieves an intuitive grasp of the whole that aims at overcoming the limitations of discursivity ----- thereby bridging the gap between thought and intuition and making judgement possible."  In fine art and conceptual graphics, imagination "exhibits the fittedness of conceptual thought to sensible intuition (expanding our thought about both the sensible and the supersensible)."


Literary Arts: Application of the Imagination Whirligig to Poetry

            Poetry is the cognitive time-space of liminality where the Bardo-Whirligig is most touching and cognitively liberating. To exemplify this we have Figure LF, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem on the Statue of Saint Francis Where No Birds Sang (#6 in A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958, A New Directions Book, pp.17-18).


            As you read this poem you encounter the a priori pure concepts (known to the mind prior to the scene) used to profile, as we would say today, the “old Italians”, “young reporters”, and “young priest”; while the “young virgin…wearing only a very small bird’s nest…”,  is the representation that Ferlinghetti synthesizes for our empirical intuition (we grasp both her personage and something of her unique sensuous personality). The poem emerges in the center of the Whirl.

Remember this is Poetry: The Poem is to be read out loud. 


The Upper Realm of Rarefied Gases in the P-G-K Whirligig 

The Cultural A Priori In Our Conceptual Graphic of Impure Imagining

            For the artist whose work is informed by imagination, the pure a priori of the upper realm in Figure PGK is not the traditional rationalist one, nor that of Kant's transcendental rationalism (gifts of the gods, or beliefs thought to hold for all possible worlds), but rather the a priori of culturally given conceptual conventions, abstract beliefs ontogenetically prior to an individual's adult experiences in the mundane world. These are experiences within the word-images and pictorial propaganda of one's childhood. In the vernacular we say this is what you were bathed in at birth.

             Artistic license, in our case, avoids the unresolvables of philosophy (see The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy for ubiquitous examples), by interpreting the upper realm of Figure PGK as understandings of the world via concepts influencing judgement and self-awareness that are prior to, and independent of the impure personal experiences of adulthood. The conceptual thought in Figure PGK is conceptual thought alone, a rather lonely thought, self-contained until violated/enhanced by associations and synergisms in the whirl of imagination and worldly personal experience. The cultural a priori given us in childhood is severely tested and modified accordingly, if taboos are not completely in control, as we adapt ourselves to the broadening adult world of global exploration and cultural diversity, and the awareness of our place in history. It may even be the case that those pure concepts classified as a priori according to Kant, are in reality regulatory principles of experience inherently a posteriori, cultural byproducts of cognitive vulnerabilities exploited by the plural causalities of particular sociocultural time/space contingencies.  Having left nature we are now the children of civilization, a multifarious community of hidden agendas.

            One last note. If you object that Figure PGK is not art, we might say that it is ugly art. That is what the words of academic philosophy lend themselves to in an art of the Machine Age. That's an aesthetic judgement. Alternatively, we might say that Figure PGK follows the ancient Greek tradition of geometrizing all things, of exhibiting the beautiful in the geometric. In that sense this conceptual graphic exhibits an aesthetic judgement, a good-looking word-image geometry. Moreover, the graphic is more than philosophy, if philosophy is, at best, the demonstration that nothing substantive can be solved or understood with reason alone. Philosophy, as exemplified here, offers us alternative insights, and their biases, to consider. The graphic is more. It induces the reader/viewer's imaginative participation in the personal activation of the whirligig, in order to achieve an understanding both individual and general. See Figure LF, above, and accompanying text, for a poetic example of that activation. 



Speculative Beginning of Human History (1786):

Kant's Enlightenment Church of the Sub-genius

Sunday-School Lesson

                The Speculative Beginning of Human History (1786) is one of Kant's pseudo-anthropological essays, this one published between the two editions of his Critique of Pure Reason. The translation relied upon here is that of Ted Humphrey's in his 1983 volume of translations titled Perpetual Peace and Other Essays in Politics, History, and Morals [essays written and published by Immanuel Kant between 1784 and 1795]; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

            Kant begins this essay as follows.

Surely it is permissible to insert speculations into the progression of a history in order to fill out gaps in the reports, because what comes before, as distant cause, and what follows, as effect, can give a fairly reliable clue for discovering the intervening causes so as to make the transition comprehensible. To produce a history entirely from speculations alone seems no better than to sketch a romance. Thus it could not go by the name of speculative history but rather only that of the fiction. Yet, what may not be ventured regarding the progression of the history of human actions, can nonetheless be attempted through speculation regarding their first beginnings, as far as these are made by nature. For this speculation need not be fictional, but can instead be based on experience, if one presupposes that in their first beginnings these actions were no better or worse than we now find them to be, a presupposition that conforms to the analogy of nature and has no risky consequences. A history of freedom’s first development, from its original capacities in the nature of man, is therefore something different from the history of freedom’s progression, which can only be based on reports.

However, since speculations may not make too high a claim on one’s assent, they must not lay claim to being serious business, but perhaps rather only to being an exercise of the imagination in the company of reason, carried out for the sake of the mind’s relaxation and health. Thus, they cannot compare with those histories that, as actual reports whose verification rests on grounds entirely different from the mere philosophy of nature, set out the very same events and are to be believe as such. Because of that, and because I here undertake a mere flight of fancy [Luftreise], I may hope to be granted permission to use a holy document as a map and, at the same time, to imagine that my flight­­­—taken on the wings of imagination, though not without a guiding thread by which, through reason, it is tied to experience—follows precisely the same line as is sketched out in that historical document. If the reader will check the pages of that document (Genesis, 2-6), he can see whether the path that philosophy follows by means of concepts coincides every step along the way with the one set out by history.                                                                                      Kant 1786, translated by Humphrey 1983:49.


            Kant starts the meat of the essay (pp. 49-50) assuming man "as a fully formed adult", and "only a single pair, so that war does not arise…" etc.  He puts "this pair in a place secured against attack from predators, one richly supplied by nature with all the sources of nourishment, thus, as it were, in a garden, and in a climate that is always mild."     …"The first man could…walk; he could talk (Gen. 2:20), even converse, i.e., speak in coherent concepts (v.23), consequently, think."  Kant adds "These are skills that he must have developed completely by himself (for were they innate [anerschaffen], they would also have to be inherited [anerben], which contradicts experience)…"

            Next he speculates that

Instinct --- that voice of God that all animals obey --- must alone have first guided  the beginner. This permitted him to use several things for nourishment, but forbade others (Gen. 3:2-3). However, it is not necessary to assume a special, now lost, instinct for this purpose…  … for the distinction in the powers of perception between those men who are occupied with their senses and those who are also occupied with their thoughts, whereby they disregard their sensations, is well-enough known."    {Trans., p.50.}

            He continues.

As long as inexperienced man obeyed this call of nature, he was well-served by it. But reason soon began to stir and sought, by means of comparing foods with what some sense other than those to which the instinct was tied—the sense of sight, perhaps—presented to it as similar to those foods {sic}, so as to extend his knowledge of the sources of nourishment beyond the limits of instinct. If only this attempt had not contradicted nature, it could, with luck, have turned out well enough, even though instinct did not advise it. However, it is a characteristic of reason that it will with the aid of imagination cook up desires for things for which there is not only no natural urge, but even an urge to avoid; at the outset these desires go by the name of greediness [Lusternheit], and from them arise a whole swarm of unnecessary, indeed even unnatural, propensities that go by the name of voluptuousness [Üppigkeit]. The occasion for deserting the natural urges may only have been a petty matter; however, the result of this first attempt, whereby man became conscious of reason as an ability to go beyond those limits that bind all animals, was very important to and even decisive for his way of life. Perhaps a mere fruit whose appearance [Anblick] resembled that of others that he had tasted and found agreeable tempted man to experiment; or perhaps it was the example of some animal whose nature was fitted for consuming it, whereas, on the contrary, it was detrimental to man’s nature, so that his natural instinct consequently resisted it. Either could have given reason the first occasion to play tricks on the voice of nature (Gen 3:1), and in spite of the latter’s opposition to make a free choice that, as the first, apparently did not have the anticipated outcome. No matter how insignificant may have been the damage done to the voice of nature, man now proceeded with his eyes open (Gen. 3:7). He discovered in himself an ability to choose his own way of live and thus not to be bound like other animals to only a single one. The momentary delight that this just discovered advantage may have awakened in him must have been followed immediately by anxiety and unease as to how he should proceed with this newly discovered ability, for he knew nothing about its hidden characteristics and distant consequences. He stood as if at the edge of an abyss; for besides the particular objects of desire on which instinct had until now made him dependent, there opened up to him an infinitude of them, among which he could not choose, for he had no knowledge whatsoever to base choice on; and it was now equally impossible for him to turn back from his once tasted state of freedom to his former servitude (to the rule of the instincts).  {Trans. pp.50-51.}


            It would be useful at this point for the reader to stop and look at Kant's Genesis citations to see how his philosophy "coincides every step along the way".  Take a moment now, and do that if you would………

            [One of us (J.P. Carter) has checked the passages of Genesis being considered here and found the Luther Bible does not differ substantially from that of King James.]

            OK, STOP!    Can we assume the reader has now done this so that we can continue without the need to waste time documenting Kant's parody of Genesis?  {And what about odd omissions?  How, for example, does the serpent speaking to Eve relate to Kant's ''voice of nature" and that "voice of God "?   And what about that first expression of human reason (including Eve's desire to become wise?, Genesis 3:6) being for Kant "freedom" from "former servitude"?  ETC.}


            Next we have the instinct for sex, and Kant's (apparently personal, unacknowledged) experiences of arousal, influenced by reason.

Once aroused, reason did not hesitate to demonstrate its influence here. Man soon found that sexual attraction…is capable of being prolonged and even increased by the imagination, which pursues its affairs more temperately, but at the same time more obduracy and constancy, the more removed the objects of the senses, and he thereby discovered the weariness that accompanies the appeasement of mere animal desire. The fig leaf (Gen. 3:7) was thus the product of a far greater expression of reason than the one displayed in the first stage of its development {? by Eve, see above}.   .....Refusal was the feat whereby man passed over from mere sensual to idealistic attractions….eventually to love and…to the taste for beauty… In addition, decency --- a propensity to influence others' respect for us by assuming good manners (by concealing whatever could arouse the low opinions of others)… --- gave the first hint of man's formation into a moral creature. It was a small beginning that was nonetheless epochal, since it gave an entirely new direction to man's thinking [Denkungsart]; as such, it is more important than the entire, incalculable series of cultural expansions that follow from it.  {Trans. pp. 51-52.}


            Kant continues (p. 52), "Reason's third step…was the reflective expectation of the future.   …the distinguishing characteristic of man's superiority…though it is at the same time also the most inexhaustible source of cares and troubles, which the uncertain future arouses and from which all animals are exempt (Gen. 3:13-19)".  

            Should we stop again so that you can check that one?  Or you can wait for the next step that Kant's reason took, and check it along with his rather bizarre citation of Genesis 3:21 that follows.

The fourth and final step that reason took in raising mankind altogether beyond any community with animals was that through it {i.e. reason} he conceived himself  (though only darkly) to be the true end of nature, and in this regard nothing living on earth can compete with him. The first time he said to the sheep, "the pelt that you bear was given to you by nature not for yourself, but for me;" the first time he took that pelt off the sheep and put it on himself (Gen. 3:21); at that time he saw within himself a privilege by virtue of which his nature surpassed that of all animals, which he now no longer regarded as his fellows in creation, but as subject to his will as means and tools for achieving his own chosen objectives. {Trans. pp. 52-53.} 

  And so, for Kant, man become the unqualified equal of all higher beings. He cites Genesis 3:22 as the authority for this.

And so man became the equal of all [other] rational beings, no matter what their rank might be (Gen. 3:22), especially in regard to his claim to be his own end, his claim also to be valued as such by everyone, and his claim not to be used merely as a means to any other ends. In this—and not in reason insofar as it is considered merely to be a tool for satisfying his many inclinations—is to be found the basis of the unqualified equality of mankind with higher beings, whose natural endowments may otherwise surpass his beyond all comparison, but who do not for that reason have a right to command him in accord with their pleasure This step is at the same time also connected with man’s release from nature’s womb, a change that is, indeed, honorable, but also full of danger, since she drove him out of the safe and secure state of childhood—a garden as it were, that cared for him without his troubling himself (Gen. 3:23)—and threw him into the world, where he was awaited by so many cares, burdens, and unknown evils. In future times, the toilsomeness of life would often arouse in him the hope for a paradise—the creation of his imagination—where he could dream or trifle away his existence in peaceful inactivity and permanent peace. But lying between him and that imagined place of bliss was reason, which restlessly and irresistibly drove him to develop those capacities [Fähigkeiten] that lay within him, and it did not allow him to return to that crude and simple state from which it had torn him (Gen. 3;24). It drove him to undertake with patience the toil that he hates, to chase after the frippery that he despises, and to forget death itself, which fills him with horror—all for the sake of those trivialities whose loss he dreads still more.  {Trans. p. 53.}

We might speculate once more that Kant is speaking from the personal experience of his own life: of his mother's death, of his Lutheran education, of his enlightenment, and of his haunting self-doubts in his cloistral career as an academic philosopher in a Prussian university.  


            After a lengthy digression from the story, called a Remark, Kant resumes his 'historical' narrative with The Resolution of History, which again includes citations to Genesis. In what he refers to as "a great leap" he places man in possession of crops and domestic animals (citing Genesis 4:2). This is the time when man passed from an earlier period of "leisure and freedom," out from that "original state of the wild hunter and the wandering root digger and fruit gatherer…"(p. 55).    Kant notes that this passage in man's way of life "may have occurred quite slowly", although his citation is to the sons Cain and Abel born by Eve to Adam. Even though Adam lived one hundred and twenty years, and he and Eve had another son later, still this passage in time was historically, if we adhere to Kant's usage of that term, quite short by any ordinary (non-Kantian) measure.

            Kant goes on, according to the plan of his reason, to postulate a feud between herdsmen and farmers: the life of the herdsman is the most leisurely and secure, while that of the farmer is full of toil, insecure, with a number of sedentary responsibilities. "The farmer might seem to have envied the herdsman as being more blessed by heaven (Gen. 4:4), while in fact, the herdsman annoyed the farmer as long as he remained in the neighborhood, for grazing cattle do not spare the farmer's crops" (trans. pp.55-56). The farmer found that "he had finally to remove himself as far as possible from those who followed the herding life (Gen. 4:16). This separation comprises the third period" (trans. p. 56).


            In the next, or fourth period, farmers

...come together and found villages (improperly called towns) in order to protect their property against wild hunters or hordes of wandering herdsmen. The primary needs of life required (Gen. 4:20) by a different way of living could now be exchanged for one another. Culture and the beginning of art, of entertainment, as well as of industriousness (Gen. 4:21-22) must have sprung from this; but above all, some form of civil constitution and of public justice began…   ….a lawful power that preserved the whole… became a form of government, and was controlled by no other power (Gen. 4:23-24).    ….Inequality among men --- that source of so many evils, but also of everything good --- also began during this period and increased later on. {Trans. pp. 56-57.}


We have come to the establishment of the fifth period of history.

Now, as long as nomadic herdsmen, who acknowledge God alone as their ruler, still swarmed about the residents of villages and the farmers, who have a man (government) as their ruler (Gen. 6:4), and as long as nomads, who are express enemies of the ownership of land, were hostile to those other two groups, and these in turn hated the nomads, there was continual war between them or at least incessant danger of war, though on both sides people were able to take joy, at least within their own social structures, in that invaluable good, freedom --- ….In time, however, the ever rising luxury [enjoyed by] the residents of villages ---especially the art of giving pleasure, in which village wives eclipsed the filthy desert girls --- must have been a powerful temptation (Gen. 6:2) to those herdsmen to enter into a union with those residents and allow themselves to be drawn into the glistering misery of the cities. This melding together of two otherwise hostile peoples resulted in an end of all threat of war, as well as the end of all freedom; it also resulted in a despotism of powerful tyrants: these were, on the one hand, a scarcely begun culture abandoned in slavery to a soulless opulence, accompanied by all the vices of man's crude state [of existence], and, on the other, the human race's irresistible urge to depart from the path marked out by nature toward developing its capacities for goodness. And it was thus that man made himself unworthy of existing as a species designated to rule over the earth, and not as one   designated to live in bovine contentment and slavish servitude (Gen. 6:17).    {Trans. p.57.}


            Finally, Kant gives us a Concluding Remark of several hundred words. Some of it seems very personal. It begins

The reflective person feels a grief that the unreflective do not know, a grief that can well lead to moral ruination: this is a discontentedness with the providence that governs the entire course of the world; and he feels it when he thinks about the evil that so greatly oppresses the human race, leaving it without (apparent) hope for something better. It is of the greatest importance, however, to be content with providence (even though it has marked out for us so toilsome a road through this earthly world), partly so that we can always take courage under our burdens and --- since we push guilt for those burdens off on fate and not ourselves, who may perhaps be the sole cause of these evils --- fix our eyes on that fact and not neglect our own obligation to contribute to the betterment of ourselves.              {Trans. pp.57-58.}

He goes on to assert "that the greatest evil that can oppress civilized peoples derives form wars," …particularly "the never-ending and constantly increasing arming for future war."  He concludes this paragraph

Thus, at the stage of culture at which the human race still stands, war is an indispensable means for bringing it to a still higher stage; and only after a perfect culture exists (God knows when), would a peace that endures forever benefit us, and thus it is possible only in such a culture. In regard to this point, then, we probably bear the guilt for the evils we so bitterly complain of, and, since culture has hardly begun, Holy Scripture is completely correct in portraying the melding together of peoples into a society and the complete freedom from external danger [that results from it] as a hindrance to all further culture and as a fall to unredeemable corruption.  {Trans. p.58.}   


            Next Kant comments on man's dissatisfaction with the shortness of life. In an apparent satirical vein, he notes that if it were longer than it actually is it "would only prolong a permanent game of struggling with toil and trouble" (p. 58).  And "…further, {for a life span of 800 or more years} one would have to believe that the vices of so long-lived a human race must climb to such heights that they would be worthy of no better fate than to be wiped out by a flood covering the entire earth" (p. 59). {We should note that in his concluding remarks Kant gives no explicit citation of Genesis, although he refers to it implicitly in numerous ways.}

            Now he speaks to "the empty longing" for a golden age, the nihilistic wish to return to a time of simplicity and innocence. "This longing is stimulated by tales of Robinson Crusoe or of trips to the South Sea Islands, or, more generally, by the weariness that a reflective man feels regarding the civilized life when he seeks its worth solely in enjoyment, and when reason perhaps reminds him to give life meaning through action he counteracts that reminder by falling back into idleness" (p. 59).

            In summary

Such a picture of man's history [as we have here] is useful and conductive to his instruction and betterment because it points out [1] that he must not blame providence for the evil that oppresses him; [2] that he is also not justified in ascribing his own transgressions to an original sin committed by his parents, through which a tendency to similar transgressions was inherited by their descendants (for freely willed actions contain nothing hereditary); [3] that, instead, he must admit what they did as his own act, and must completely credit to himself the guilt for all evil that arose from the first misuse of reason, for he is probably conscious that he would behave in precisely the same way were he in those circumstances, and his first use of reason (even in the face of nature's advice) would have been to misuse it.   {Trans. p. 59.}

Kant concludes his essay.

So this is the outcome of a philosophical attempt at setting out man's primordial history: Contentment with providence and with the course of human things as a whole, which do not progress from good to bad, but gradually develop from worse to better; and in this progress nature herself has given everyone a part to play that is both his own and well within his powers.   {Trans. p. 59.}



Some Post Modern Comments

            What has Kant to teach us in this essay about his knowledge of and skill at imaginative reasoning, and what should we make of the style of his argumentation?  Here are some possibilities.

A)  Kant's speculative method or strategy seems to be a combination of medieval and Lutheran propaganda techniques, often mixing intellectual insights into a dense German muddle. On the medieval side his techniques include: a) authoritatively styled (didactic) presentations of credulous beliefs about ways of life for which he has no reliable knowledge. As an example he buys into the romantic myth of the leisurely, secure, life of the wandering herdsman, compared to the insecure life of toil of the farmer (trans. pp.55-56).  One might expect that as a member of the learned class of his time (The Enlightenment) he would temper his uneducated beliefs with cautionary caveats or acknowledged concepts of limits to knowledge, especially in light of the wonders revealed by discoveries in the New World. One might mistake his credulousness for imagination, instead of Germanic reasoning's follies.

In the medieval vein he also displays the scholastic skill of rationalizing vague and contradictory mythological traditions. For example, deliberating on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings, Kant concludes that nature has given mankind two conflicting capacities, one for the life of an animal and another for developing a moral culture. From this conflict arises, he argues, "all true evil that oppresses human life and all vice that dishonors it; the impulses to vice, for which man should be given the blame, are, in themselves and as natural capacities, good and serve a purpose. But since these natural capacities were given man in his natural state, they will conflict with culture as it proceeds…" (trans., pp. 54-55).

For another example we have his rather imaginative parenthetical comments that

danger of war is the only thing that tempers despotism, because wealth is required if a nation is to be powerful, and without freedom none of the industriousness that produces wealth will arise. One finds, instead of this industriousness, that poor people must participate to a considerable degree in the preservation of the commonwealth, which would not otherwise be possible except that they feel free within it.    {Trans. p. 57.}


B)  His Lutheran epistemological training appears to have included: cherry picking; decontextualization; and hermeneutics for purposes other than sacred religion. Perhaps the most egregious examples come from his fiddle of Genesis to suit his Enlightenment narrative substituting reason's plan for that of his God. Perhaps he was influenced by John Milton.

         The patient reader who has done his Bible homework, as invited early on in this essay, is already familiar with some of Kant's misappropriations of Genesis. Perhaps Kant's intended audience thought that this technique, to give his fanciful narrative fiction the guise of factual authority, was clever, or so Kant hoped.

         How far are we to go in a judgement that Kant was dishonest in his use of the Bible? Take the example of "The fourth and final step that reason took in raising mankind altogether beyond any community with animals..."  We spoke of this early on (above) in Kant's rendition of Genesis 3:21 as man taking the pelt off the sheep and putting it on himself. The biblical context is the open-eyed nakedness of Adam and Eve followed by their sewing fig leaves together to make themselves aprons. King James gives Kant's sheep verse as "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them." It appears important for Kant to replace God with man.    It is up to the interested reader to give a close read to Kant's essay in comparison with his favorite version of the Bible to fully judge whether accusing Kant of dishonesty is simply an error. On the face of it, Kant was not only dishonest in the service of 'reason', but he also lies by omission. His invisible treatment of Eve is an example of the latter. This example also shows Kant unable to reliably coordinate his sources and thoughts into a coherent whole. 

Example: It is Eve's reasoning skills and imagination that result in her accepting the argument of the serpent (Genesis 3:4-5) that if she eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she shall not surely die. She saw (Genesis 3:6, not cited by Kant) that the tree was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desired to make one wise. Lives of sorrow for breaking their God's commandment, and all the follies of humankind follow, notwithstanding those rationalizations of betterment that Kant clings to for hope in a future of moral enlightenment. The question that can be raised here is this, does Kant understand his own arguments, convoluted (involuted) as they may be?  It seems that Kant's belief in a moral teleology for humankind, as reason's plan, is based on little more than an unacknowledged religious, reproductive imagination. He seems to get lost (then muddled) in his own reason's plan. His lack of productive imagination is not to blame.





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