Since Mikhail has already invoked the most speculative of topics,
I thought I would join him in trying to explicate what the ‘conditions for the possibility of speculation’ look like. Now, to put the spoiler up front, it’s going to turn out that Speculative philosophy for Kant is the rather strange twinning (or maybe intertwining) of aesthetics and ethics that arises from the Reason’s need to act in and judge its world and that is only possile on the basis of an irreducibly subjective feeling of difference (i.e. a difference that is ‘more primordial’ than either intuition or the pure concepts of the understanding). Let me underscore this point: if we’re in the least bit Kantian, Speculative philosophy is essentially normative philosophy, which takes its bearing from an inherently subjective position, but attempts to encompass or comprehend its total situatedness
Lest anyone think this claim is off the mark — for how could speculation not be metaphysical? –, it should be enough to point out that nearly every Post-Kantian, speculative philosophy, from Fichte to Marx, is bound up with the notion of Normativity; They are all inextricably connected to developing the meaning and richness of the notion of Reason, or Rationality, whose defining features are normative.* Whether you call it the Absolute I or Spirit, Nature or Bourgeois Capitalism, the ‘Totality’ that German speculative philosophy attempts to comprehend is configured in terms of the normative potentials and limitations inherent in the concept of Freedom, Selbtsändigkeit, or whatever fancy name it bears. Insofar as German Idealism is specualative, it attempts to develop, widen, and transform our practices of making and taking things to be valuable or true.
Given the above sketch — and it’s no more than a sketch –, we can now ask a ‘materially transcendental’ question: how did speculative philosophy take on such an avowedly normative tone? Answer: Kant. A proper account of Kant’s evolving views on speculation (indeed, as an inherently normative practice) would probably have to begin with how Kant limits its metaphysical traction from the Critique of Pure Reason to his curious essay, ‘What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking,’ and then trace the necessity for speculative thought in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgment. But who has the time or patience for that? We can, I think, provide an interesting, albeit foreshortened version of this argument by concentrating on the ‘Orientation’ essay, and then gesturing to the decisive reformulation of this essay’s key notions in the 2nd and 3rd Critiques. In effect, what I want to claim is that ‘speculation’ (like Revelation for Rosenzweig) is orientational, arising from an original kind of need in relation to an irreducible, subjective feeling for difference (Hence the wild catchphrases, like ‘the point of indifference between identity and difference’ in Schelling, and the Identity of identity and difference in Hegel).
1. Orientation is Speculation — Practically
“However exalted the application, and however far up from sensibility we may abstract them,” Kant says at the beginning of his Orientation essay, “still they need to be attached [anhängen] to figural representations [blidliche Vorstellungen] whose proper purpose is to make these concepts, which are not otherwise derived from experience, serviceable for experiential use” (Ak 8:133 for those curious, you can find an English translation of this essay in the Cambridge Series of Kant’s primary works, Religion and Rational Theology, 7-18; citations will be to the AK). Although this may sound like the 1st Critique‘s motto, ‘concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind,’ there are is at least one decisive difference: figural representation, like the construction of geometrical figures, is a potentially constructive procedure: the synthetic a priori construction of a new concept is made coherent through its visual presentation, and thus enters into the realm of possible experience. Figural Representations, we might therefore say, are essentially mnemonic devices, or experiments: what can be visually presented is an object of possible experience. These figures orient thought.
This is the orientational kernel I want to focus on. To be sure, I’m departing from Kant’s actual exposition, but I think this departure is authorized by the larger arc of Kant’s thought, to which I would like to draw attention. So, leaving aside Kant’s remarks on Mendelssohn, let’s pick up Kant’s discussion of orientation proper in this essay. For he offers a form of argument strikingly similar to the kind used in the deduction of the Transcendental Unity of Apperception (i.e. a regressive, immanent analysis that uncovers the unique principles involved in a particular activity): First, he attempts to establish the meaning of ‘orientation;’ second, he extrapolates the formal structure underwriting this meaning (i.e. he articulates what makes that meaning intelligible); third, he identifies the unique conditions that makes the previous formal structure possible. What separates the present argument in the Orientation essay from the Transcendental deduction in the 1st Critique
is what I would like to call a catachrestic reduction
. That is, Kant identifies the figural register inherent to the notion of ‘orientation in thought,’ and then inquires into the conceptual conditions of possibility for ‘orientation as such.’ And this essentially figural concern
, I would like to suggest, marks the birth of a distinctively Kantian conception of Speculation
. With this general overview, let’s look at the specifics of Kant’s argument.
1.1. The Catachrestic Reduction: the Meaning of Orientation
As Kant will show us, the most literal — although still figural — meaning of ‘orientation’ is geographical. “In the proper meaning of the word,” he writes, “to orient oneself means to use a given direction [Gegend] (when we divide the horizon into four of them) in order to find the others — literally to find Sunrise.” (Ak 8:134) Quite simply put, ‘orientation’ amounts to finding one’s position within a whole, based on relative — finite and relational — knowledge, rather than absolute knowledge. “If I see the sun in the sky, and I know it is midday” Kant continues, “then I know how to find south, west, north, and east” (Ak 8:135). Here, what’s worth pointing out — despite what Kant himself will say in a moment — is that Orientation requires intuition (a representation of the Sun) and some form of knowledge-based practice (how to divide the horizon into the 4 directions at midday). This practice, however, is not entirely conceptual. For as Kant emphasizes, “I also need the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, the difference between my right and left hands.
We should, I think, pause to consider the implications of this ‘feeling of a difference in my own subject’ carefully. A great deal hangs on it. For it seems to suggest that some differences are more fundamental than others, and that these more fundamental differences are not given conceptually or intuitively. In this case, my right and left hands, which are phenomenally indiscernible from one another (they’re mirror images of one another, etc. Wittgenstein also discusses the irreducibility of the right-left difference Cf. his Tractatus 6.3 ff), become the foundation for my orientation in the world. Right and left it would seem, are prior to the intuitions of ‘things on the right or left’ and their concepts in every conceivable way. Rather than being ‘equiprimordial’ or ‘flat,’ this feeling of a difference is the foundational difference which makes (1) a figural representation and (2) the set of applicable concepts possible. I take it that Kant’s feeling of an (orientational) difference between right and left is not a difference in the objects of knowledge, or in the things in themselves, nor in the world in general. It is not a difference that is independent of ‘the subject.’ But it is the difference which allows us to identify other relevant differences.
Kant considers two other figures of orientation, before moving on the next stage of his argument (what he calls mathematical orientation and orientation in thought), but they more or less amount to the same thing outlined above. In all three cases, ‘orientation’ means attaching to a set of concepts to a figure through the primordial feeling of a difference.
1.2. The Formal Structure of Orientation: the Needs of Mental Life
So far, Kant’s procedure has remained consistent with what reader’s of the 1st critique would have expected. He manages nevertheless to reverses our expectations.** Almost out of the blue, after considering how thought can orient itself in the putative absence of any figure, Kant claims that thought can nevertheless find within itself “a subjective ground for of differentiation in the determination of its own faculty of judgment” (Ak 8:137). In essence, and to anticipate, Kant tells us that we possess the potential for merely reflective judgment. Even more interesting, however, is not the relationship between the feeling of an orientational difference and the feeling of a reflective difference, which Kant seems to be intimating, but that this difference itself corresponds to a need. Kant himself is vague on what constitutes “an actual need” (Ak 8: 136), as he calls it, but this much is certain: where “there enters the right of Reason’s need, as a subjective ground for presupposing and assuming something which Reason may not presume to know through objective grounds,” there it is “capable of orienting itself in thinking solely through Reason’s own need, in that immeasurable space of the supersensible, which for us is filled with dark night” (Ak 8:137).
Maybe it’s just me, but there is something sublime, almost terrifying about Kant’s claim: Speculation is called on to satsify a need, a need to orient oneself in the darkness. And this orientation, as we have now seen, is possible only through a subjective, irreducible, yet fundamental feeling of difference, which allows us to transforms pure concepts into figures, symbols of something else — so that now something beautiful can stand for something moral — which can in their turn be attached to other concepts. Although Kant doesn’t clarify in this essay what constitutes the need (past saying that all conditioned things must stem from something unconditioned), a few pages later he does clarify where speculative thought is needed. Taking the Speculative claims concerning God as his model, Kant writes, “we must assume the existence of God not only if we want to judge, but because we have to judge. For the pure practical use of reason consists in the precepts of moral laws” (Ak 8: 139). From the starry sky above, which Kant will later designate as sublime, to the moral law within, which rests on the absolute, unconditioned idea of my freedom, Kant’s introduces speculation as a response to an irreducible need of a finite individual. More than this: he introduces speculation as an orientation towards an uncognizable totality that one ultimately comprehends via one’s normatively driven activities.
This is a long way off of what I had hoped to accomplish, but I’m too lazy to continue tonight, and this post is getting tedious. If I’m lucky, however, it gestures towards the origin of the notion of Speculation, and ties it, however ham fistedly, to the explicitly normative — and hence subject centered — concerns of ethics and aesthetics. Perhaps there’s even the germ of a critique of specualtive Realism here. After all, what is the need and the irreducibly subjective feeling of difference that produces the speculative proposition, and opens up new orientational horizons for philosophy?
*Schelling’s work may in fact be the exception to this rule, for what is distinctive of his philosophy is precisely the irrationality — the pain, suffering and loss, which, contra Hegel, is never made truly productive — of the process of becoming. But I’m a newcomer to Schelling, and have a tenuous grip on even his most elementary ideas.
**It is precisely this reversal that I find fascinating in this essay, and what makes it a strange transitional piece to Kant’s 2nd and 3rd Critiques. For this essay is the only place, so far as I am aware, where Kant speaks of the needs of judgment. This undeveloped, pregnant notion of Need, which will later become Duty, and disinterested interest, stands one of those intellectual borders where one could travel in several diffeent directions. IN this essay, need grounds Speculation, which is understood as a mode of orientation.