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[Xmca-l] Re: Kant's Imagination

Hi everyone,

Particularly when it comes to Kant, I'm very much a novice, and many of my thoughts below are likely incomplete, but I hope not ill-informed. Keeping that in mind, here's my contribution. Thanks in advance for reading it.

I've been digesting quite slowly a paper by Gaeber about radical alterity (see: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau5.2.003). Kant is mentioned a few times in it. 

To set up this discussion, Graeber claims that the word "ontology" has morphed from speaking about "being," its classical meaning in philosophy, to something else, namely, "way of being" or "manner of being." Kant wouldn't have gone along with this. Graeber claims something happens when we get away from talking about Being to talking about "way of being." I think I agree with him. Here is a quote to help kick things off (p18-19):


[What happens, then, to the older philosophical conceptions—lets call them Ontology1, Epistemology1, and Semiotics1, so as to distinguish them from the new OT [Ontological Turn] usages, which we can refer to as Ontology2 and Epistemology2—under this new dispensation? Well, if Epistemology2 really just refers, as Henare, Holbraad, and Wastel (2006: 9) claim, to “systematic formulations of knowledge,” then it follows that all branches of philosophy, including Ontology1, Epistemology1, and Semiotics1, are simply different forms of Epistemology2—and therefore, precisely what OT thinkers propose to move away from. In which case, would not Ontology2 have to refer (just by process of elimination) to tacit assumptions about the nature of being “in itself ” and the forms of action and modes of experience these make possible (or, possibly, too, to the anthropologists’ explicit theories about such tacit assumptions)? 

This would appear to be the case. But that raises another problem: What, in that case, would “in itself” mean? Consider here the following definition, which I must emphasize comes from someone I consider to be an unusually subtle and philosophically sophisticated OT thinker: “Ontology—the investigation and theorization of diverse experiences and understandings of the nature of being itself ” (Scott 2013: 859) 

Let’s unpack this. So: ontology begins as a mode of academic theory-making, a form of discourse, but its object is not discourse (since that, presumably would be Epistemology2) but “experiences and understandings of the nature of being itself.” “Understanding” sounds a lot like knowledge, but let’s say for the sake of argument that we are speaking of the tacit understandings underlying certain forms of “experience.” Arguably this might escape the charge of Epistemology2. But that leads to the question: How exactly is it possible to have an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? One can certainly have experience of specific manifestations of being (toothpicks, oceans, bad music coming from a party upstairs . . . ). But normally that’s just called “experience.” Perhaps a mystical experience, such as might have been had by Jalal al-din al-Rumi or Meister Eckhart, might qualify as an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? But presumably, this is not the sort of thing the author is talking about either. It only really makes sense if “being itself ” is simply whatever “understandings” people might be said to have of it. In which case all “itself ” is really doing here is pointing to that familiar anthropological object, the tacit assumptions about the nature of time, space, action, personhood, and so on, that underlie what used to be called a particular cultural universe—just, now constructed as an “as if,” the sort of Ontology1 one imagines the people one is studying would construct, were they the sort of people who spent their time engaging in speculative philosophy.]

Papers cited above are:

Henare, Amira, Martin Holbaard, and Sari Wastell. 2007*. “Introduction: Thinking through
things.” In Thinking through things: Theorizing artefacts ethnographically, edited by
Amira Henare, Martin Holbraad & Sari Wastell, 1–31, London: Routledge.

Scott, Michael. 2013. “The anthropology of ontology (religious science?).” Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. (19): 859–72.

*I believe the citation for Henare et al as 2006 in the above quote is a typo.


Graeber says also that to confuse Kant's conceptual categories with cultural categories is a mistake. Kant was attempting to find categories that come before experience, not derived from it (hence a priori, right?) What I wonder, now that we are sitting here in the 21st century, if what this really means is *context*? That we must have a framework there first, a stage upon which to act. For Kant, this is made up by the categories: the opposition of unity and plurality; the notion of cause and effect; the notion of time as a relation of past, present, and future, etc. These are frameworks, or contexts. But (again, sitting in the 21st century) these categories are material, aren't they? (Consider Lakoff and Johnson's metaphorical reasoning, J.J. Gibson's theory of affordances, and Hutchins's distributed cognition, right about now).

>From Graeber (p22), "Kant rejected the very possibility of Ontology1, as he did not believe we could say anything about the nature of things in themselves." This on its face I take to mean that Being is the final and underlying basis of beingness, and there's no way to get beneath Being, but that is my novice reading of Kant in light of my studies of Advaita. I suppose Sartre would say that what is beneath Being is Nothingness, and we can all leap into the void with abandon! How French! :) 

I say there is nothing there, period, but Being. Being is the final turtle, for the reason you can't take it away so that no thing is there. There is always something there, even if we are talking space.

Kant, as I understand, was trying to remedy the error that arises in Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," which is dualistic, yes? Descartes claims that being arises from thought, rather than the other way around, which would be "I am, therefore I think." 

"I think, therefore I am" seems to say that consciousness arises not from being, but from mind, like the hum of the machine.

If thought causes being, who is there (first, or "a priori") when Descartes utters his sentence? If thought causes being, then who is there in the infant when its brain/body is not yet developed? Is the baby not a person? And when I sleep, am I no longer a person? In both cases self-awareness (thinking about myself) is not there, but being is. 

If being is the basis, this makes more sense: I am there before I think that I am. If thought were the basis of being, then I could imagine all kinds of things and become them, a lion, an eagle, even a unicorn, and we would all see far more variation in the human being than we do now, if thought were so powerful in creating being, or should I say beings? I'm sure people would have sprouted wings or gills by now over the millions of years we've been around.

It's true, there is a lot of variation in people, but there is a lot more we share than we don't. This brings it back around to the topic of imagination (so thanks for your patience and diligence to have read this far). Our imaginations allow *expression of being* and the creation of infinite experiences and invention of many kinds of tools, but our imaginations do not constitute being, Being constitutes our imaginations. I hope that isn't a controversial thing to say and that the Spanish Inquisition doesn't come to surprise me tonight and drag me from in my bed! But if Descartes were right, then they'd never ever find me! Because I'd be asleep and not there! :)

Continuing in my novice understanding here, Kant's innovation was the transcendental method, which I learned from the Graeber paper many anthropologists use to understand their subjects in the field. Kant's innovation is to assert that there are perspectives, right? And to be able to imagine what has to be there first for something to exist as it is (or as we find it)? Is that right? Or am I mistaken? It's not a bad as a method, but it can create what Graeber calls a "moral or political apartheid," if taken too far, that is, as an ideology rather than a method.

[Does this have anything to do with "is-ought" ?]

Additionally, Kant is the first to coin the term "ontotheology" to try to make the connection between transcendental and ordinary being, which is basically to come up with a theory of everything. Nice try Kant. 

So Kant is not to asserting that beingness as I experience it is identical to the beingness that you experience, but that there is a Beingness that pervades mine and yours that both you and I cannot know, and because this Beingness affects me and you, it is therefore transcendent, because it affects us, but we don't affect it.

I can see how this pertains to imagination, because we cannot find an object, point to it and say, "that is Being, the Final Turtle" though we could say "that is an example of beingness." We must imagine Being, somehow.

So here I am finally making a connection that may be of some contribution, also derived from the same Graeber paper: There are two kinds of imagination that Graeber calls "immanent" imagination, and a "transcendent" one (pg 17, footnote #18).

My sense is that immanent imagination seems to be the one Mike is thinking about, is this so?

It seems to me making this distinction between imaginations is important. Considering these two "categories" of imagination, immanent imagination is about the ways of interacting with the here-and-now, as in the immanent world, all the objects flying about me in my stream of experience. Transcendental imagination has to do with entirely abstract objects, whether we are talking about God; points, lines and planes of geometry; the infinite digits of pi; the sun as the center of our solar system; or even the ends of the universe.

Here is my a-ha moment: Perhaps "overlap" is what happens when dealing with immanent imagination, and perhaps "gap" is what happens when dealing with transcendental imagination? I say this because that which is  transcendental, whatever it is, is the part of reality we cannot know. There is a certain gap there to our knowledge.

I also feel this ties into Vygotsky's unit for analysis, and the concept of the water molecule, but I'm not clear on that just yet. Just how it has to do with the particular and the general; it seems to parallel the immanent and the transcendent.

There is another book I read sometime ago, "Heidegger on Ontotheology" by Iain Thomson. As some may already know, Heidegger critiques the ontos and the theos (metaphysics) in Western Philosophy (in his "Being and Time") and its apparent progression through history. Somehow this seems relevant too, given that Heidegger is connected to Kant via Husserl (recall Kant coined the term ontotheology) and also that Sartre came to his own existentialism through reading Being and Time.

I think that Heidegger believed that because we lost our way of understanding Being, if we examine Being of the Pre-Socratics, which I think he considered as humankind's "true Being" any fool would see we needed to return to, as our original state (and apparently, this is where Heidegger foolishly lost his way, by thinking National Socialism was the way of return). 

Anyway, I wonder if this historical construct of "Western" thought as linearly drawn (as a lineage) is a fallacy itself, because we know the victors always do the rewrite. So it's not about finding or delineating a lineage, but instead marveling at the multiplicity of Being (which gets to the power of Māyā, that I'd written about in another thread).

This also gets me thinking about evolution, and how (for a time) we got so fixated (remember the Missing Link?) on a lineage there too (perhaps because of all the begets in Genesis); that we don't recognize how arbitrary and anarchic evolution can be. And that's just talking about how our *material bodies* have evolved in particular environments over time. 

For me, this gives an entirely different meaning to "the fittest survive," because it's not a contest, it's fitness, or better, appropriateness for a given scenario at a given time. Altruism and collaboration could be the better vehicle for evolution above any to-the-death-competition in that same scenario. 

Certainly the maximal fitness of altruism is the case for cultures, since there can't be a culture of one. 

Perhaps this is true even for imaginations!

Kind regards,