Normativity (in sensu cosmico)

Reading a bit of Jäsche Logik this afternoon, came across some observations on the nature of philosophy. Since the status of this text is different from even your usual student lectures, it’s hard to cite it as belonging to Kant himself, although it is clearly in the spirit of what Kant writes elsewhere on the matter (see below):

Philosophy is thus the system of philosophical cognitions or of cognitions of reason from concepts. That is the scholastic concept [Schulbegriff] of this science. According to the worldly concept [Weltbegriff] it is the science of the final ends of human reason. This high concept gives philosophy dignity, i.e., an absolute worth.


In this scholastic sense of the word, philosophy has to do only with skill [Geschicklichkeit], but in the relation to the worldly concept, on the other hand, with usefulness [Nützlichkeit]. The the former respect it is thus a doctrine of skill; in the latter, a doctrine of wisdom, the legislator of reason, and the philosopher to this extent not an artist of reason but rather a legislator. 

The artist of reason… strives only for speculative knowledge, without looking to see how much the knowledge contributes to the final end of human reason; he gives rules for the use of reason for any sort of end one wishes. The practical philosopher, the teacher of wisdom through doctrine and example, is the real philosopher [der eigentliche Philosoph]. For philosophy is the idea of a perfect wisdom, which shows us the final ends of human reason. [9:24] (English translation from Cambridge edition, 537)

It seems that Kant is talking about speculative philosophy in terms of skill/art of speculation which is not authentically philosophical exercise. What is it then? I think that without sounding condescending and dismissive we can stay that such philosophy as artistry is skill-oriented, detail-oriented and aims at a concrete set of abilities. This sort of scholastic philosophy concerns itself with style and form, not necessarily with substance, even if this distinction can be easily contested. The stylish philosopher is well-spoken and well-argued (maybe even smooth). What is this other “worldly concept” of philosophy? I think it is philosophy in a worldly sense as in “cosmopolitan sense”  [weltbürgerlichen Bedeutung] that Kant mentions on the next page. It sounds a bit strange to my ear – worldly philosophy – but it seems to imply a sort of this-worldly philosophy that is concerned with “ends of human reason” which is Kant’s way of thinking purpose

Kant’s notion of Weltbegriff  is translated as world-concept at one point in the first Critique and deals with “absolute totality” [A408/B434]. Yet at another point, closer to the end, we get a translation of Weltbegriff as a “cosmopolitan concept” (despite the fact that Kant provides a Latin equivalent – conceptus cosmicus – and has a footnote on the matter). In fact, this is the point in the first Critique where Kant, in his own voice, so no doubts about the authenticiy of the passage, basically says the same thing as in Jäsche Logik written in 1800 (so with first Critique out in 1781, we can safely say that this was likely one of those annoying mantras professors repeat once in a while forgetting that they alread said that many times): 

Until now, however, the concept of philosophy has been only a scholastic concept, namely that of a system of cognition that is sought only as a science without having as its end anything more than the systematic unity of this knowledge, thus the logical perfection of cognition. But there is also a cosmopolitan concept [Weltbegriff] (conceptus cosmicus) that has always grounded this term, especially when it is, as it were, personified and represented as an archetype in the ideal of the philosopher. From this point of view philosophy is the science of the relation of all cognition to the essential ends of human reason (teleologia rationis humanae), and the philosopher is not an artist of reason but the legislator of human reason. It would be very boastful to call oneself a philosopher in this sense and to pretend to have equaled the archetype, which lies only in the idea. [A839/B867]

In a footnote Kant clarifies his “cosmopolitan concept” as one that concerns that which necessarily interests everyone. This imagery of artistry of reason versus philosophy as wisdom is strange at first, but makes sense if we look at it a bit closer. Kant is not denying that philosophy needs skill and artistry, he is not putting down “mathematicians, scientists and logicians,” who are the main examples of “artists of reason,” he is suggesting that a philosopher proper aims at “systematic unity from the standpoint of ends” – the final end, the highest end and “there can only be a single one” which is “the entire vocation of human beings” [A840/B868].  The philosophy of the entire vocation of human beings is moral philosophy, therefore the real task of philosophy is morality which is one of Kant’s most prominent themes.

So after all of these citations and all, what does it have to do with normativity? I think that Kantian notion of normativity deals with this “worldly concept” that in turn deals with unification of manifolds, with a final purpose of humanity. Normativity rests on principles and principles are not found in experience, i.e. they cannot be deduced from empirical observations of how things are. Kant’s insistence that “real” philosophy is philosophy that deals with that which interests everyone is this insistence on the legislative or normative nature of philosophical purpose, it is that which distinguishes philosophical stance from other uses of reason, as necessary and as skillful as they are. 

This is not a uniquely Kantian idea, I think, because Aristotle, for example, makes a similar point in Metaphysics: what makes a specific object what it is is what it does, its function (ergon), or in Kantian terms, its end [Zweck]. 

We have now dealt with Being in the primary sense, to which all the other categories of being are related; i.e. substance. For it is from the concept of substance that all the other modes of being take their meaning; both quantity and quality and all other such terms; for they will all involve the concept of substance, as we stated it in the beginning of our discussion. And since the senses of being are analyzable not only into substance or quality or quantity, but also in accordance with potentiality and actuality and function, let us also gain a clear understanding about potentiality and actuality… [9.1045b]

If we take Aristotelan distinction between matter and form, then matter is the stuff of an object and the form is its functional or teleological organization, i.e. form is the organization of matter that allows the object to properly fulfil its function. In this sense, teleological organization of any object is a normative judgment about it: it must be this way to be what it is. A desk is that which serves a purpose of holding my papers, pens, books and allows me to use it as a writing space. My desk is made of wood, but I can easily imagine all sorts of desks, and what will make them desks will be their function. There is a normative principle behind this function of the desk, it must be this way and not any other way in order to be a desk. This function constitutes my desk – what is at some point a simple aggregate of parts becomes a desk when its function becomes visible to me. In this sense, for Kant, philosophy deals with the final unity of all the functions, of all the ends – the concept of the “world” in Kant, of course, cannot be a product of experience and therefore philosophy is by definition a normative/legislative activity not of describing how the world is, but prescribing how it must be

Without going further into Aristotele and all that business of potential/actual, as interesting as it is, plus this post is getting too long anyway, I’d like to draw attention to the exchange that is taking place over at Speculative Heresy concerning the similar issues of normativity – here are just some sections I liked:

[Alexei] – I guess all I can say is that I don’t see how philosophy isn’t anything other than a concern for the intelligibility and significance of our world, our relationships to one another, and the meaning of our actions. To the extent that we’re all concerned with ‘meaning,’ we’re concerned with normativity. For meaning, like knowledge, is normative (knowing what ‘green’ means = knowing how to apply it in various contexts, and be able to identify misapplications, etc). Again, normativity isn’t the same as ethics or norms; normativity = that which makes ethics or norms rationally compelling. On a bad day, when I’m hungover or grumpy, I would probably say that normativity = the problem of philosophy, full stop. Bad philosophy is philosophy which fails to realize this.

[Asher] -I think a genetic (or more broadly, “naturalistic”) description of normativity can do more than tell us where specific norms came from. It can tell us why we think normatively at all, and further, why some things are rationally (or irrationally) compelling to us.

It seems to me that it is fair to say that to think philosophically = to think normatively, everything else is important part of our use of understanding/reason, collection of observations, science, theories etc etc, but to think about objects philosophically is to see how they are teleologically constituted, i.e. to see not only their use/function, but their purpose, and purpose seems to imply “why?” rather than a simple “what?” 

[Alexei] – All I want to maintain is that an explanation of something in terms of efficient causes is an incomplete explanation. That’s all I need to say; that’s all I need to show. If I can mount a convincing argument on this score, then the materialism/naturalism/idealism/realism controversies turn out to be red herrings. That is, if it turns out that a ‘complete’ explanation of a given phenomenon requires both a physical description and a normative component (a base and a superstructure, a Zizekian parallax), which cannot — for whatever reason — be reduced to some univocal, underlying phenomenon, then the point of contention among the competing substance monisms becomes totally otiose. They’re all false, insofar as non of them provide a compelling account of a given phenomenon on their own.

I am not at all sure if I know what I am talking about in all of this, it’s just some rather random thoughts and observations, but it seems to me that a larger philosophical enterprise, a system, if you will, must necessarily explain itself in terms of “why?” and leave the rest to sciences and their “what?” – the question of the relationship between science and philosophy raised during Realism Wars™ has been bugging me precisely because I am not willing to accept the scenario in which I need to abandon philosophy and become an amateur scientist since there’s no real philosophical subject matter or uniquely philosophical activity. Ultimately, if we follow Kant’s hints, philosophy is about system-building with a very practical goal in mind, i.e. its final end is a project for the future of humanity (moral philosophy – ethics and politics)…

39 thoughts on “Normativity (in sensu cosmico)

  1. A book that might be of interest is Kojin Karatani’s “Architecture as Metaphor: Language, Number, Money,” where he makes a similar argument that all philosophy is related to system-building (the metaphor of “building,” “architecture,” drawing on Kant’s “architectonic”). I’ve only read the introduction so far so I can’t say much more, but it seems pretty good.

  2. “it seems to me that a larger philosophical enterprise, a system, if you will, must necessarily explain itself in terms of ‘why?’ and leave the rest to sciences and their ‘what?'”

    Most of my “disagreement” with Alexei, I think, turned out to be illusory because of how I was defining “why” (basically, something causal-ish) and how I was defining “science” (as including “pure” reasoning from premises). If we take care to define our terms the same way, it seems to me that what we’re calling “science” in these discussions is precisely non-normative descriptions, and what we’re calling “why” is precisely a normative question. I’m accepting Alexei’s and your delineation on this for the sake of discussion because I think my delineation is muddier.

    But I disagree with Kant if he’s excluding the empirical from philosophical (normative, legislative) thinking. Normativity, in its basic form, is present for amoebas, in my opinion. Along the same lines, there is a “real”, empirical answer to normative questions like “Is it safer to cross here, or further downstream?”

    The damning fact is, though, that I have not systematically connected those “basic” sorts of normativity to anything that could be called a philosophical system. In any attempt to do so, I would be be presuming something philosophically normative.

    What Alexei and I didn’t get much into is the question of justification. And what you (or Kant, at least) appear to be saying is that this justification is the philosopher’s primary task. Justification is really nothing but saying why it should be this rather than that, right? Justification is legislating (laying down the law about) normative issues.

    As Maddy says many times, the philosophical urge seems to be to “ground” or provide a solid foundation for those normative questions. The problem is that those “why” questions are inexhaustible, just like the five-year-old child’s “why” questions. There does not appear (to me) to be a pure, solid foundation to place any normative system on.

    Maybe the first philosophical task is to justify why we need to build such a system in mid air.

  3. “The creativity of normative imagination dissuades one from divining an exhaustive cultural list of moral keywords or codes, but it does point to the imbibing of a culture of ethics. An individual’s engagement in ethical thinking and morally appropriate conduct is deeply diglossic, but to try to trace a stable map of this diglossia is like tracing an eddy. An individual’s ‘moral’ knowledge seems cumulative, crisscrossing, processual, episodic, and narratives are like ‘luminous details’ of an always only partially visible moral map. Oral narration and moral life and living demand that dharma—the ethical—be understood as an ongoing process, one that produces, and is produced by, the imagined texts of daily life” (Leela Prasad, Poetics of Conduct: Oral Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 229).

  4. Do animals have “normativity” or is one confined to saying everything they “socially” do is merely “instinct”?

  5. I’m reminded of Kant vs. Hegel discussion of morality, do you think that Hegel’s notion that Kant’s moral theory is empty formalism is applicable in this case? I know we’re not talking about morality per se, just normativity.

  6. Just wanted to pipe up and say that I’m deeply interested in this Weltbegriff notion that you’ve called attention to, Mikhail. It sounds fascinating, and very much in line with some things I’ve been trying to articulate (I think).

    It’s good to know that this stinky pool hall of blog (I prefer to think of it as the backroom of a cash-only basement Bar, where folks play cards while drinking impossibly chic cocktails) is capable of some pretty high level philosophical ruminations. And I’m glad to hear that others have found the discussion between Asher and I (over at Speculative Heresy) as productive as I have.

  7. Alexei: “It’s good to know that this stinky pool hall of blog (I prefer to think of it as the backroom of a cash-only basement Bar, where folks play cards while drinking impossibly chic cocktails) is capable of some pretty high level philosophical ruminations.”

    Kvond: Be careful, you are very close to saying that something called “real work” is being done here. How ludic of you, of course :).

    • How ludic of you

      just keepin’ it real, Kevin. Although I doubt that I would ever use the phrase, ‘real work:’ thinking is inherently playful, experimental, or ludic.

      Qu’on ne dise pas que je n’ai rien dit de nouveau: la disposition des matières est nouvelle; quand on joue à la paume, c’est une même balle dont joue l’un et l’autre, mais l’un la place mieux [Let no one say that I have said nothing new: the arrangement of material is new; it’s the very same ball with which we play — now one, now the other — but one of us places it better] (Pascal, Pensées Lafuma # 22), my translation)

  8. Do animals have “normativity” or is one confined to saying everything they “socially” do is merely “instinct”?

    I don’t know what Mikhail or Alexei think, but I think that there is normativity for animals, even if they don’t have it. But I see normativity as something broad that goes beyond social interaction. I’d say, for example, that there are better or worse actions for any creature with respect to any number of contexts (survival, health, pain, reproduction, happiness, the biosphere, etc.). Those contexts are universes of discourse of a (maybe primitive) sort.

    I am wanting to think that these more basic forms of normativity are related somehow to the social, moral and philosophical forms that we’d think of as “proper” normativity, but I’ve only begun to explore the possibility.

    On the other hand, I think almost anyone would be uncomfortable with a normativity that didn’t involve at least some sort of volition (we wouldn’t, for example, say that a stone or a espresso machine had the same sort of normativity as an amoeba).

    • I don’t think I have a worked out position on the matter of normativity and animals, but I’m inclined to agree with Asher. My own instinct is to say that insofar as animals can reason (I’ve seen behaviour in cats and dogs, for instance, that suggests problem-solving abilities), they must have some basic semantic categories. To that extent, there must also be some kind of normativity involved. But that’s really just an intuition I have. I’ve never really thought about it.

    • I agree with Asher and Alexi.

      I think this issue of normativity for animals ties in to some of the stuff Levi has been recently posting about anti-representationalism.

      Making sense of normativity for non-linguistic creatures seems to me a prerequisite for having a genuinely non-Cartesian (in the perjorative sense of Heideggeriana) linguistics.

      That is, if “the problem of reference” is analogous to the problem of the external world (the reason Derrida is accused with some justification of being a linguistic idealist), then one would expect solutions to be analogous. And the most plausible solutions to the problem of the external world (well in particular Alva Noe’s enactive theory of perception), involve presenting detailed characterizations of perception as non-representational. Analogously we need to treat concepts and conceptual behavior non-representationally.

      If we can make sense of animals who don’t have representational language as having concepts, understanding that as being subject to norms in the manner of a Kantian normative account of concepts, then we can do something analogous to what Noe has achieved with perception.

      Mark Okrent’s recent book “Rational Animals” maybe does something analogous.

  9. Be careful, you are very close to saying that something called “real work” is being done here.

    My employer would definitely disagree ;). But, like Alexei, I’m finding the discussion productive. These blogs are a great place to think freely (and in my case, sloppily) and mine smart people for ideas.

  10. Alexei: “I’ve seen behaviour in cats and dogs, for instance, that suggests problem-solving abilities), they must have some basic semantic categories.”

    Kvond: You imagine that a being without language would have “semantic categories”. Interesting. I can’t see through to this, but perhaps you have a difference sense of semantic and category.

    • I’d bet my right pinky finger on it. Neural networks categorize – they can’t help it. I’d go so far as to say that “semantic categories” is redundant. Categorization is semantic.

      Vervets have different alarm calls for different classes of predators. Even though almost no-one would call alarm calls “language”, they definitely imply categorization.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, fellows – it was a nice day out and since I don’t have the necessary elements for productivity (no sleep, no tv, no friends, no wife etc etc), I cannot possibly spend all the time at the computer [insert emoticon of superiority].

    Let me start from the very beginning then: these are no organized thoughts by any means, just thinking aloud. The notion of Weltbegriff has been stuck in my head for a bit partly due to my attempts to understand what Kant wanted philosophers to do, partly do to my attempts to understand the real practical role for philosophy (if there is such) – Kant seems to suggest that there’s a larger task of thinking in worldly terms on a worldly scale. I don’t like the translation of Weltbegriff as “worldly” though because it solicits images of religion, especially Christianity and I don’t think this is what Kant had in mind. I do like the rendition “cosmopolitan concept” but he certainly uses the phrase “weltbürgerlichen Bedeutung” as well – are these two synonymous? I tend to think that they are, but the main idea is, it seems, that philosophy involves some sort of global thinking or thinking of everything there is to think, especially as it applies to practical betterment of human condition.

    Bryan, thanks for the recommendation, it does look like an interesting book. I think clearly Kant is interested in architectonic and such, but it seems to be that it is less out of concerns for completeness or even beauty, but out of concern for human progress. If everything goes according to rules/laws, which is what Kant often says, then mustn’t there be some sort of final end/purpose for humanity as in the sense of ultimate function (not in any sort of religious way, although, of course, that’s where for Kant we need the idea of God and I’m not sure I want to go there with him).

  12. Animals: it’s a great question and I think it is precisely the sort of question that allows us to at least attempt to think normativity outside of will and morality. If normativity is related to something must be the case, if it is necessary (if necessity exists), if normativity is about teleology (I’m not sure about “justification” here, it seems too human), then there’s certainly normativity for animals, but not in terms of norms that animals perceive and share (I’m not sure how to think that sort of normativity), but in terms of teleology. Still on the other hand, it is humans who think in terms of normativity, so I don’t know if animals themselves, outside of human evaluation – or we should say, outside of human animals’ evalutions – are able to think normatively…

  13. Fido, I think I agree with the quote, I don’t think my attempts to separate normative from ethical are suggesting that I don’t want to bring the two back together, although it seems to be that “normative” is forever contaminated by its association with mores, with Sittlichkeit (ethical life) which is why I think that Hegel completely misses Kant’s moral theory when he complains that it is empty formalism – as opposed what? full formalism? Formalism is empty by definition Kant gives it, to suggest that Kant’s fails because he is formal (and Hegel’s notions of form vs. matter differ) is rather strange. It’s best illustrated by Hegel’s support of war in Philosophy of Right where in the end he wants soldiers to be nice and respectful while not providing any sort of normative justification not only for how they can be so (ethical life, training etc can certainly work here) but for why they should if their ultimate goal is to win (and to give the nation the much needed boost of nationalism) – I find it strange that Kant is often accused of helping Nazis with his doing things for the sake of duty alone when Hegel is much more “guilty” here if we are to distribute guilt…

    [Back to tending plants, Saturday night drink and “real life”]

  14. M.E.,

    If you mean by “categorize” differentiate, then bacteria “categorize” (the pursue food, flee predators). And if you want to say that this is then “semantic” then great, bacteria are semantic creatures.

    • Sigh. I suspect that there is quite a bit of this if I read his blog. Really, his very strong reaction to my interpretation really said it all,

      “The Lady Doth Protest too much” the bard once said.

    • Said’s Orientalism trope has been the cause of a great deal of intellectual laziness. It’s a seductive thesis just as are all theses that let a researcher ignore centuries of other people’s work is seductive (compare the trope of “rethinking” in continental philosophy; we don’t have to worry about how people have interpreted Plato’s texts for the last 2,500 years, because we’re doing something more originary with respect to them; likewise for analytical philosophers who don’t feel compelled to study anything prior to Frege because those people didn’t understand how quantification works).

      I really enjoy Harman’s posts about what it is like for an American philosophy professor to live in Egypt. And I think more generally it is a very good tonic from the non-“orientalist” picture of vast swaths of the world that is standard in the United States even before September 11th.

      I grew up in Alabama for the most part. Now I live in Louisiana. It’s a very different culture. Why can’t I post on my blog about things that are interesting to me as an Alabamian? Why can’t I isolate things that seem better to me? In part that’s just the politeness of being a guest; there is nothing sinister about it.

      Yes, yes, yes you can go on about the hermeneutic circle and how I’m importing my own Alabamian presuppositions. But if this is universal, then it’s inevitable.– so the trick is to do it in a morally decent way. And more importantly it’s inevitable with any two human beings interpreting each other. There is nothing special about “cultures” with respect to which this is a problem; my presuppositions that color everything are my own and don’t in any interesting way have anything to do with a supposed Alabamian hermeneutic essence. This should be obvious, as thinking otherwise is really dangerously essentializing (the other big sin of Saidianism). But it is not obvious to a whole host of otherwise sensible baby boomer academics, for whom “culture” works like a universal fulcrum. I would suggest that like the “flat tax” and “the culture wars” it’s something we need to grow out of.

      What’s the alternative to doing what Harman does? Never saying anything at all about different parts of the world? Or never saying anything positive about the people and practices inhabiting those places? No thanks!

      I don’t mean to contribute to a debate about Harman’s blog. The only reason I’m posting on this is because I think the “orientalism” trope is one that seriously needs to die. It leads to incredibly bad scholarship, horrifically ignorant aesthetics (for a tonic see Kristian Davies amazing book at ), and genuinely poisonous essentializing views about “culture”.

      • Jon,

        That you don’t see what is wrong (or damaging) with idealizing a foreign people in some exotic way suggests that you see no link between the positive essentializations (they are sooo noble, sooo charming, sooo senuous), and the opposite projections of negative qualities. I mean, black people have so much rhythm and are so virile, (but don’t hire those lazy types to work, and you better keep your women from them). The positive capacites and character of the “other” becomes sites of pleasure-enjoyment which can quickly flip. So, of course, there is the “problem” of a Western, white, American professor expessing colonialist idealizations of the sensuality (and apparent nobility) of the people he is living with. With pictures of people come political actions.

        Further, there is a personal difficulty that Graham himself as railed against colonialist idealizing of Egypt in particular, he wrote with great bile against Flaubert’s depictions of his Egyptian counterparts. So, Graham finds himself in a bit of a public countradiction.

        But really lastly, if it was just another American nimcumpoop expressing their rather naive and emotional reactions to the “natives”, what’s the big deal? Americans (and other Imperialist powers) have been talking like this to no end. Just another one. But what I attempted to point out is that Graham’s entire metaphysical theory of objects seems strikingly born out one great essentialization of an orientalized Egypt, as he almost autobiographically tells the story of (white) outer objects that cannot touch each other, and (Eastern) inner objects that all filled with senusous effects, and “vicars” that cannot help but touch each other. His entire theory is one great binary orientalization, I suggest, wherein the white objects are in need of the sensuous powers of inner objects, just to come in contact. This is orientialization 101. His personal thoughts on the charm of his Egyptian nobles simply add evidence that this is the case.

        Here was my argument, which up to that point had been somewhat well-received by Harman. To this post though he got rather angered, as if the point I was making was severely out of bounds (curious, because my criticism went not only to him, but the whole of the tradition he was drawing on):

      • kvond (I hope I correctly posted so that this one shows up after your post, otherwise this will be confusing),

        I find your linked post about the metaphysics really interesting, and I’ll respond to that when I have time (assuming I have anything interesting to say other than “that’s really cool” which is a distinct possibility).

        But in reference to what you’ve written above, none of Harman’s posts that I’ve read, including the one about how the Egyptian trade-people don’t walk right into his apartment, involved anything like the “noble savage” myth that comes out of a guilty conscience for having perpetuated genocide, and it is morally odious to connect what he’s doing with this. [I should note that my people are from Broken Bow, Oklahoma- of course not originally, only after the potato famine on one side and the trail of tears on the other. Though if you push back far enough in any family history you will find relatives that suffered genocidal depredations.].

        The thought that any of Graham’s posts do are “orientalist” in any pejorative sense stems from something that I think is endemic in baby boomer academic theorizing, the over-application of the version of Kant’s categorical imperative that tells us to respect the autonomy of the other. The problem is, if you stretch this enough to equate Graham’s posts with genocidally murderous ideology, then there is no longer *any* force to the original moral criticism involving autonomy.

        Consider Sartre, who is the paradigm case of this (and arguably the cause of all of it all the way down to Derrida’s ethics of impossibility). For him objectifying others is something that happens all the time no matter what you do. Just to have any thought whatsoever about another person is to objectify them and to also deny their autonomy. O.K. fine, but then the notion of objectification has no negative moral weight whatsoever, and does not involve a denial of autonomy in any interesting moral sense (third wave feminist defenses of pornography make this very point against second wave feminists who claim that the male gaze is “objectifying”).

        If you want to call noticing one of the norms in present day Egyptian culture that is morally, psychologically, or aesthetically good and then sharing your insight with family and friends on your blog “orientalist” well fine I guess. But then there is absolutely nothing wrong with orientalism, especially if you yourself have Egyptian friends who are or would not be not offended by the things you are saying.

        No, actually it’s not fine. Totally independently of the moral fallacy, it still creates a kind of negative theology about different cultures. They’re so exotic and Other that we can’t even say anything about them. What could be more essentializing than thinking only people of their own ethnic group can talk about that ethnic group?

        Feh. Identity, Schmidentity.

  15. Sorry M.E., it was ashley,

    “I’d bet my right pinky finger on it. Neural networks categorize – they can’t help it. I’d go so far as to say that “semantic categories” is redundant. Categorization is semantic.”

  16. Jon, not to offend you with my bluntness, but what is the difference between Alabama and Louisiana cultures?

    I don’t really have a position on this while orientalism angle, I’m a foreigner living in a foreign land myself and I’m sure some of my observations about the “local” culture could be perceived as condescending and even insulting – but I too enjoy reading about others’ experiences in foreign lands, well, most of the time…

  17. Mikhail,

    Well there are lots of differences and lots of similarities. Northern Louisiana tends to be much like the rest of the Bible Belt, where the dominant cultural traditions come from Scottland and Africa (and these traditions are both shared by black and white southerners).

    But Southern Louisiana is much more a result of different cultural forces, predominantly catholic through the survivors of the genocidal British expulsion of the French Acadians (“Cajuns”) and the “Creole” culture prior to that from when New Orleans was a part of the French and Spanish empires. Also there has been a lot of Lebanese and more recently South East Asian immigration that has left a mark. The whole heavy drinking and eating have a million festivals “let the good times roll” thing is pretty foreign to Alabama culture. Or at least in Alabama this is done during moments of “backsliding” after which you go back to church and get born again yet again and live abstemiously for a while. In Catholic South Louisiana you might give up fishing for lent, but that would be pushing it.

    The creole tradition in cuisine from South Louisiana is what makes New Orleans’ greatness as a food city really disproportionate to it’s size. You have a critical mass of people who view great French inspired cooking as their birthright (and you *can* get a bad meal in New Orleans, but you can also get a great one for almost no money, and really great ones on a par with any city in the world). There’s just nothing like this in Alabama.

    While I’m doing all this essentializing, I should say at least some nice things about Alabama. The niceness side, both places have a vastly higher genial tolerance for eccentricity than one would think from their press. On the negative side, since so few people out or in migrate it’s much harder to make close friends with people if you move in for a job. I think Louisiana is actually markedly worse than Alabama (and New Orleans markedly worse than the rest of Louisiana) in this manner. Both places revere the oral tradition of story telling. Hanging out in a bar in Alabama or Louisiana is a vastly different experience from hanging out in a bar in the Midwest. In Alabama or Louisiana people take turns talking for longer goes, and the ability to tell a funny story is very highly prized. In the Midwest people’s conversational contributions are each of much shorter duration.

    The biggest problems are an allergy to investing appropriately in public infrastructure/education/health care (the confederate constitution even stipulated are unconstitutional), tolerance of and even support for massive wealth inequality, and using religion for evil ends. The Republican Party of the last forty or fifty year’s whole reason of being has been to export these pathologies from the American South to the rest of the country. If you compare today’s median statistics to those of 1976, you’ll see that they’ve been pretty successful.

  18. Jon: “But in reference to what you’ve written above, none of Harman’s posts that I’ve read, including the one about how the Egyptian trade-people don’t walk right into his apartment, involved anything like the “noble savage” myth that comes out of a guilty conscience for having perpetuated genocide, and it is morally odious to connect what he’s doing with this.”

    Kvond: It is you, it would seem, who reduces the noble savage image to “guilty conscience” and genocide. I can’t say that the noble savage images of let us say Gauguin’s depictions of supposedly innocence sexuality in Polynesia had anything to do with his own, or even French “guilt” (though their eventual success may have), nor does one find in the early Dutch colony depictions of the American Indian, some of them rather idealized and pastoral, much of this “guilt” (unless one wants to psychoanalyze a culture).

    As far as Graham’s “quaintness” depiction of the noble charm of Egyptians, I personally find it both naive and strongly ethnocentric, but if you don’t what can I do? In my view Graham is not just “noticing norms” but he is also being “charmed” by them (just as in his theory the sensuous vicar of the other somehow mysteriously seduces an internal action which results in causation), they are as a class of people, “ennobled” by this charm. Perhaps one should not be mystified that Graham takes such offense at philosophical questioners who simply don’t wait by the door, and then again quietly wait at each room in his philosophical apartment.

    As to whether their is anything “wrong” with orientializing your little Egyptian neighbors, lavishing them with all kinds of positive projections. I’m unsure if “wrong” is the right term. And I certainly don’t know what a “Moral Fallacy” is. I would say “problematic”. I suppose one could/should then “africanize” your local negros and all their wonderful quaint and noble primitiveness. And then go about idealizing women and their wonderful soft feminizing qualities, and children with their lovely radiant innocence. Ah yes, aren’t they all so charming?

    • kvond,

      Do you think Professor Harman is lying when he’s said that his Egyptian students and friends don’t find his discussions about Egyptian culture to be condescending or tied up in imperialism? Or do you think that’s irrelevant? What evidence to you have for this?
      Have you been to Egypt or made a close study of Egyptian history and culture? I’m not a priori ruling out that you know more about what Egypt or Egyptians are like than Professor Harman. But if you don’t, why should I trust your judgment about what is or is not condescending in reference to describing Egyptians and Egyptian culture?

      I’m not claiming to be an expert (I work with one Egyptian and we talk about Egyptian culture, but obviously this does not make me an expert). But why do you get to dictate what Professor Harman gets to say about Egyptians? And just using tired, thoroughly discredited, self-flagellating baby boomer neo-Sartrean (see above) tropes about “the other” and “culture” (whatever that is supposed to be) doesn’t cut it.

      The fact is that the dude actually lives there. For a tenure track job he had to learn Arabic (no easy task) and leave all his friends, family, and graduate school colleagues half way across the world, going to a part of the world that a non-trivial part of the American unwashed thinks we’re at war with. And he makes the best of it by finding things to like and relish, and he shares that on his blog. I find that admirable in the extreme, and again find it odious and lazy to use the language of imperialism to apply to him.

      Most of us in Harman’s situation either wouldn’t have the guts to go there or would feel like tragic victims (most of us feel that way in any case, self included). I think the only way to avoid this when your life is uprooted by moves is precisely to do what Harman does. The non-southerners who come down here and do what Harman does tend to be much happier than those who mock the south as a third world country (though they probably would not mock actual third world countries, many of which have less income inequality and better health services than the American South).

      I’m sorry if the reference to Broken Bow Oklahoma was unclear. That is in the Choctaw territory, the end of the road for the first Indian removal of the Choctaw, a removal repeated for two subsequent years even though everybody knew that half the people subject to it were dying en route, even though the Choctaw had been allies of the United States and Pushmataha was a great military leader that helped Andrew Jackson (the President who orchestrated the removal, known by Choctaws as “The Great Satan”) win that war.

      So yes the “Dances With Wolves” phenomena in my family is seen as weird at best and at worst in terms of the after-effects of a genocide. But the reality of Broken Bow is nothing like Dances With Wolves, nor was life among the “Civilized Tribes” prior to the removal. My father had scurvy as a child. He had neither running water nor electricity. When I bought him Angela’s Ashes he loved it because it reminded him so much of growing up near Broken Bow.

      I did not mean to imply that the orientalism phenomena only happens when a genocide has been perpetrated, but such cases are paradigm instances of cases where there is something wrong with it.

      In some cases, especially when it helps stop empire and genocide, there is nothing wrong with it. For example, recent literature on the British in India show how vastly worse things got when the 19th century religious revival in Victorian England led to the end of intermarriage between Indians (not native American Indians, but Indian Indians) and Brits, which had been very common (they can get statistics by looking at gravestones). Part of that intermarriage certainly involved some of the goofiness of “going native” in the sense that Said effectively mocks, and hence was orientalist in that way. Or consider the French Acadians, whose culture in Acadiana was much more tightly integrated with Indian culture prior to the British genocide against them. I’m sure there was some “orientalism” there too, but it wasn’t a bad thing. The rejection of it was. But (1) neither of these things legitimized empire or genocide (in both cases they had to put a stop to it to legitimize empire!), and (2) the general phenomena no way justifies the wholesale dismissal of scholarship of the European scholars who spent their lives in colonized places, many who had a love for the people grounded in a deep understanding they had gleaned (for example, scholars involved in the academic study of Sanskrit and classic texts of Indian philosophy and religion). Crapping on these people’s labors (labors that helped the West turn away from imperialism and slavery, and aided in colonized people’s stopping it) is like refusing to read the Rosetta Stone because it was found by Napolean’s researchers. But credible scholars (covered several times on ) allege that this kind of thing is precisely what has happened with overuse of the “orientalist” trope.

      My mention of genocide was just to make a concession that the romanticization of the other as other can be morally and ethically nasty, which is something everybody already knew before Said. But it was with Said that we started rejecting the very people whose work led to greater intercultural understanding. Consider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Both radically increased understanding across cultures, and both call out for the dismissal as being “orientalist” (vastly more so than anything Harman has written, though probably precisely because Stowe and Twain obviously could not worked alongside and for African Americans). Thank God you weren’t there to berate them on the internet while they wrote these books, or thank god they would not had listened had you done so.

      And yes- Of course Africans, women, and children can be quite charming. So can Europeans, men, and adults (I’m not sure about teenagers).

      As far as the “moral fallacy” I think the point about Sartre is clear.

      Let me say one more thing just because I realize this has gotten heated. I enjoy reading your posts, kvond! In that spirit, please know that whatever you post in response to this will be the last word as far as my contribution to this sub-thread.

  19. Thanks, Jon, that’s a fascinating account – I’ve never been to either state, I think I’ve got as south as Chattanooga, TN once and I’ve been to Atlanta, but nothing like MS, AL, or LA and I think I’d like to take a nice ride through those one day.

  20. Jon,

    Thanks for the guided tour through Graham Harman’s classrooms, Choctaw territory, the Rosetta Stone, Kevin Costner films, and southerns, but I can’t say that any of this is very germane to my point.

    Clearly you are heavily invested in the issue (I don’t feel “heated” at all), so it is best that I beg off. I’ve made my case against Graham Harman’s over-rich, sensuously imbued metaphysics, and it stands on its own.

    As far as what Harman wrote about his “noble” repairman who charmed him (or on the noise-tolerant Egyptians in a post he has now deleted), I find it hilarious, and probably Harman is himself embarassed by what he wrote.

    As to dictating what Harman says about Egyptians or any other persons, there seems to be this sense that people are trying to tell Graham what he has “right” to do. Damn, the guy can be a full-blow neo-Nazi for all I care. He can spew endless projections about people as he is inspired to do so. But he does so PUBLICALLY, and so invites public comment. I personally find his orientalizing, exotic fantasies both of Egyptians and inner-objects problematic. Let him trudge on.

    Its great that he has someone like you to come to his defense. That way others can draw conclusions they find most sensible.

  21. Mikhail,

    As far as your original post- First, didn’t Kant defend “cosmopolitanism” in some of his political writings? I might be misremembering that, but it would be interesting if there was a connection between that and the Weltbegriff of the lecture you cite.

    Second, In Heidegger’s first lecture series from 1919, now published as “Towards the Definition of Philosophy” ( ) he attributes a similar approach to Kant to Windelband, the founder of the Southwest school of neo-Kantianism and also what Heidegger refers to as “transcendental value philosophy.” Heidegger also endorses Windelband’s student (and Heidegger’s teacher and habilitation adviser) Rickert’s characterization of Fichte as the “greatest of all Kantians” because of the role his work played in motivating Lotze and then Windelband in this very regard. Here’s a bit of manuscript (taken from Section 2 of the Second Lecture):

    ” Windelband already explicitly mentions in “On the Certainty of Knowledge” that Fichte had shifted the ‘ethical motive’ to the centre of all philosophy. And thus Windelband too conceives laws of thought as laws ‘which thought *should* conform to, if it wants to become knowledge’. ‘The logical laws . . . are given to the soul as the norms which *should* direct and guide the effectiveness of natural law.’ The logical law has ‘normative apriority.” ”

    Heidegger contrasts this with Cohen’s take (and Cohen invented neo-Kantianism as well as the word “epistemology” as it is used today, Windelband was responding to his Marburg school) and says for Windelband,

    ” . . .The objectivity and truth of thought rest in its *normativity.* Theoretical philosophy ‘is no longer to be a copy of the world, its task is to bring to consciousness the norms which first lend thought its value and validity.”

    Windelband thought in the three Critiques Kant was doing this respectively with respect to normative thinking, normative willing, and normative feeling, and that as a result of all this “Philosophy must therefore be ‘the total consciousness of the highest values of human life.’ ”

    It’s pretty cool stuff.

    I realize this may be old news. I haven’t read the Kantbuch yet and my Kant is so bad (it shamefully deteriorated in graduate school) that I’m going to need a week of doing nothing else during the time I hope to closely read Friedman’s book on Heidegger, Carnap, and Cassirer (Friedman explains the relevant bit of Heidegger in terms of contrasting the Kantbuch view with Cohen’s interpretation).

  22. Jon, these are interesting remarks, I need to look at these lectures. Kant mostly certainly wrote on cosmopolitanism in “Perpetual Peace” essay and one can read his whole practical philosophy as a cosmopolitan philosophy (in fact, I think one can read his whole philosophy, as in my post, as a cosmopolitan enterprise – theoretical philosophy clearing the space, practical philosophy creating a system of ethics with cosmopolitan condition as the end/purpose).

    In “The Doctrine of Right” in Metaphysics of Morals he has a very simple and logical view of right – from state of nature humans transition into a state of law, first in the form of the state, then inter-state cooperation and international law and then finally there’s a cosmopolitan condition in which all humans are under national, international and cosmopolitan law. This picture is of course based on Kant’s view of the strict distinction between morality and legality and this is where it gets a bit complicated, at least for me and I’m still working these subtleties out for myself. I actually do like some of Fichte’s ethical/political ideas a lot.

    It’s interesting that there are two approaches you mention with epistemological one being the most dominant (it seems to me) and Kant’s practical philosophy is not receiving that much attention, at least not on introductory level, thus my interest in Kant’s Weltbegriff and his vision of philosophy as a “worldly philosophy” – I think I might think more along these lines later.

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