Jon Cogburn has a nice short post on Graham Priest here.

New realists have got to have an honest confrontation with the Kantian problems of totality, and Priest’s characterization of such problems in terms of varieties of Russell’s Paradox is an essential step forward. Russellian paradoxical proofs have two moments: one of Transcendence where a set A is provably not a member of some set B, and one of Closure where A is provably a member of B (with Russell’s paradox A and B are the same set; the problem concerns whether the set of all sets that are not members of themselves is itself a member of itself). This provides a rigorous model of precisely what always goes wrong with transcendental idealism, limiting what can be said or known (Closure) and having to surpass those limits (Transcendence) in order to state or think the initial limitation.

I like Jon’s designation “new realism” and I think that after a short (and hopefully thoughtful) pause it would be great to get back to the conversations about realism (Realism Wars™) when we read Lee Braver’s book. 

My own understanding of Kant’s issue of totality is mainly related to my attempts to think what he called Weltbegriff in a couple of passages I referred to earlier, but also his discussion of totality, world, and nature that is, of course, found throughout his corpus. Since Jon’s post is a sort of personal expression of his philosophical agenda, it’s only fair I reveal my own late interests and directions.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, and I apologize if you have already discovered it and think it’s so yesteryear, that Kant was a philosopher of nature (what we today would call a philosopher of science) from the very beginning – think Universal Natural History, which by the way already contains the first element of Kant’s famous expression about starry skies and moral law from the second Critique – and as is lately been pointed out by folks like Martin Schönfeld (The Philosophy of the Young Kant), we need to move away from Kant’s own view of his philosophy as really only beginning with 1781 publication of the first Critique (Cassirer is all about this narrative as well, plus Kant did not even want his pre-critical writings included in his collected works). I believe it’s important to take Kant as making an essential turn with critical philosophy, but that it cannot be understood and appreciated without Kant’s so-called pre-critical thought (and, for that matter, post-critical political writings which are ignored sometimes precisely because they are not thought to be part of the “critical philosophy” and its transcendental approach). In any case, this is a very long way of saying this: Kant’s discussion of totality, world and nature in the first Critique are to be read in light of his general interest in science, in cosmology, in mathematics and so forth. 

The ideas of world and nature are discussed in the following terms that I find very interesting: 

We have two expressions, world and nature, which are sometimes run together. The first signifies the mathematical whole of all appearances and the totality of their synthesis in the great as well as in the small, i.e., in their progress through composition as well as though division. But the very same world is called nature insofar as it is considered as a dynamic whole and one does not look at the aggregation in space or time so as to bring about a quantity, but looks instead at the unity in the existence of appearances. [A418-9/B446-7]

Kant has four “cosmological ideas” that he now labels world-concepts [Weltbegriffe] and then again divides these world-concepts into world-concepts proper that deals with mathematical whole and “transcendent concepts of nature” that deal with dynamic whole.

Since it seemed to me previously that world-concepts can also be considered close to what Kant called “cosmopolitan sense” of philosophy, I wonder if there’s a connection between this theoretical cosmological sense of world-concepts and practical cosmopolitan sense? Or, to return to Jon’s short post, I wonder if our theoretical musing about totality and unity also condition our pratical reflections on world and diversity/unity issue?

21 thoughts on “Cosmo-Musings

  1. M.E.: “It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, and I apologize if you have already discovered it and think it’s so yesteryear, that Kant was a philosopher of nature (what we today would call a philosopher of science) from the very beginning”

    Kvond: This is also, perhaps even more so the case with Descartes. We become so trained to think of philosophical positions as hermetic realms, I think really at least in the case of Descartes (and perhaps as you say of Kant), one has to start with a Natural Science sense.

  2. Yeah, Descartes’ argument for dualism in the Discourse is strikingly different than from the one in the Meditations in precisely the way kvond indicates. In the Discourse he’s already working with a metaphysical physics and he just poses the question of whether linguistic creativity will ever be able to be accommodated in this way. And since he can’t make sense of a machine with a language, he concludes that minds are not subject to the metaphysical physics. Since animals don’t have language the argument does not apply to them.

    From this perspective the Meditations look a lot different. They happen after you’ve broken with Aristotelian physics. Then you ask if this physics can make sense of thinking, feeling, and willing (Descartes had already answered no for the thinking aspect in the Discourse). So Platonist dualism comes back with a vengeance to save the day, the soul being the place he can sweep under the rug all the stuff he can’t make sense of with his naturalistic metaphysics.

    This in part I think explains why the arguments in the Meditations could be so bad. The bar really wasn’t very high. Descartes just needed something to save his metaphysical physics. The fact that the picture at the end of the Meditations does this is for Descartes the primary argument in its favor, just because its only role was to be a patch for his physics.

    Michael Friedman has this great book “Kant and the Exact Sciences” which actually examines the physics books that Kant taught from. Kant had a ridiculous teaching load (which was why he ended up being so neurotic about his writing time being for writing) which included teaching physics, chemistry, and math (if I remember right). Friedman looks at the actual science Kant was teaching and is able to interpret the critical writings in a different way. Also (if I remember right) he is able to show that some of the changes Kant was getting at before he died can be traced to the new chemistry he was starting to teach.

    This doesn’t address how the issues of totality (raised in the Dialectic, and then used to argue against transcendental idealism itself) tie in to the issues of normativity. Strangely, I think stressing the primacy of science for Kant supports the Coehenesque Marburg school epistemological take on Kant’s project. Does that mean that this is in tension with the Freiburg/Southwestern/Emelianov stressing of the primacy of the practical and normative in interpreting the Kantian project? I don’t think there is a tension, but I do think a story needs to be told.

    My intuition about Mikhail’s final question, is that the way to answer it might be through tracing the Kantian aspects of Sartre and then Levinas (whose views are far more similar than they are different). For Sartre, the mind that appropriates the other is just a hyperextension on Kant’s active mind appropriating things in themselves. But this then ultimately reduces the autonomy of the other (in making the other factical for me I sadistically undermine their transcendence). Levinas can be understood in part as saying we all ought to be Sartrean masochists, those who enjoy having their transcendence impinged by the gaze of the other. Again, this is Sartrean to the roots, because it appropriates Sartre’s picture of the self (albeit not “the subject”) being a mixture of other imposed facticity and transcendence. It is also Kantian, because the attempt to make Sartrean Sadism non-universal is motivated by the idea that it undermines the autonomy of the other.

    None of that is from reading and understanding Levinas’ own writings (I’ve done the former, never the latter) but from going to a lot of papers by Levinasian’s and reading a couple of secondary things (the Levinas as Sartrean trope is somewhat developed in Francois Raffoul’s new book).

    This is going to sound incredibly naive now- but Levinas called his book “Totality and Infinity”. So there has to be some tie to the Dialectic problems of totality, motivating the neo-Kantian side of his Sartrean ethics. If so, then that’s one place to move Mikhail’s question forward.

    Can anyone address this?

  3. Just to clarify the last bit-

    If you agree with Sartre’s picture of the inter-personal mechanics of facticity and transcendence (we are rendered factical in part by others thinking about us, a thinking which all on it’s own limits our transcendence, and vice versa; the sadist works to increase this objectifying of the other and the masichist works to increase his own objectification by the other), and bought Kant’s claim that you should not impinge upon the autonomy of others, then you would think there was an ethical argument for Sartrean masochism.

    Since Levinas begins with Sartre’s picture of the inter-personal mechanics of facticity and transcendence (he changes some of the words around, but it’s the exact same view) and ends up defending Sartrean masochism (ditto previous parenthetical note), I’m wondering if the “totality” part has anything to do with Kant’s Dialectic thinking about the totality.

    I’m just going for an existence proof of what Mikhail is thinking about, so we can move on and consider it in broader (non-Sartrean) guise.

    • Ok, I see. The short answer from my comment below (?) is that of course, Levinas supports Kant’s primacy of the moral sphere of the categorical imperative over any empirical or ontological totality. Why? For Levinas the “ought” cannot be drawn out from the “is” and the whole ethics as first philosophy thing… e.g. ethical infinity cannot be derived from or reduced to ontological totality.

      You’re quite right to want to go “through” Levinas because Kant’s moral philosophy, in L’s eyes, is a step in the right direction with regards to what Levinas thinks is the big problem of Western metaphysics, viz, ontologies have wrongly conceived of the framework of Being as a closed totality. For L infinity (rather than the lone “unconditionality” of K’s categorical imperative weighing down on us) makes genuine transcendence possible since it exceeds any ontological or logical totality (and also surpasses Kant’s “totality of all possible representations” as “nature”). Levinas uproots the totality of the inwardness of the self-reflecting cogito with the radical exteriority and irreducibility of infinity, as absolutely unknowable, and includes our relation with the human other, whose face carries the trace of this infinite insurmountability between the Other and the subject.

      L’s start point is not K’s doctrine/antinomies, but really, the philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger I think.

      Blech! Very sorry if this sounds too “lecturey.”

      Hmmm….I’ll have to think more about the similarities/differences between Sartre and Levinas. Off the cuff…I think the difference between Sartre and Levinas hinges on the notions of the “good” and “love.”

      • One more thing. At least as far as I understand it, the biggest difference between S and L is this: any “self” containing the Other, the self not for itself but instead for the other, is nothing less than the transcendence of the Ego which is otherwise immanent in Husserl’s pure intentionality. Sartre severs/brackets the transcendence of the Ego from the immanence of intentionality. This has some consequences, doesn’t it? I see your point, however, a similar structure of transcendence/facticity is at work in Sartre. I’m just not sure the two share as much as you suggest…it’s the masochistic talk that’s hanging me up…honestly.

        Ok, now I must really go.

  4. Hi, Jon. I think your intuition to think through Levinas (and Sartre) is a good one. One way to parse this out (off the top of my head) is through a (somewhat) perverse form of Levinasian ethics which would have do to with Kant’s insistence throughout the Groundwork that morality itself is the highest good, it is unconditioned. This means that if its intention is to be ‘good’, morality has to be served by action. Yet, and here’s the next logical question: does not the unconditioned then become a conditioned? Well, yes.

    Kant wants to allow for the unconditioned’s dependency upon the condition since the conditioned makes up the unconditioned. The conditioned depends upon the unconditioned because we need the idea of an absolute good to condition any action whose thrust is towards the good. E.g. if the conditions, i.e. the intentions, are good then the conditioned good is-of course-good. The highest or absolute good, in short, the unconditioned, is a necessary precondition for the possibility that the conditioned subsist as good at all.

    In other words, from the perspective of Levinas (or the perspective I read Levinas as holding) Kantian legalism maintains a trajectory inherited from Aristotle and continues on to Husserl, viz., the understanding of the infinite as the indefinite potentiality of a series of growth, which can be extended through addition or division, and whose magnitude can be divided–Bad Infinity! For Kant, infinity appears as a limiting idea, not something to be drawn on through the understanding. For Levinas, who takes on Descartes “idea of the infinite” as a surplus of obligation the mind cannot attain. The infinity functions as an “and” that always appears when I assume my responsibilities, a sort of transcendence within immanence.

    Throughout his work Levinas invokes diachrony to prevent say, the synchronous unfolding of the Hegelian Spirit or the integration into the phenomenological time consciousness–of course the reason for the other is prior to and subverts any project to uncover and autonomous principle for being.

    With regards to Sartre, I’m wary of the masochistic language, but I know what you mean. Levinas very often speaks of responsibility as an act/action. The will is under obligation to the Other without having made any sort of rigorous contract or even, a promise. Yet, it is free to take up the responseability in any sense. In _Totality and Infinity_ Levinas quite clearly says we can refuse the gaze of the other (a la Sartre), but I don’t think it is to suggest that obligation is optional, which would be a contradiction, but only that the will has the negative freedom not to fulfill the obligation that it owes the Other. In this sense, it’s not all that different from Kant’s claim that violation of the moral law is assumed freely even though the law would obligate me unconditionally.

    Clearly Levinas has a place for Kantian spontaneity in his moral theory without making responsibility optional. However, the “bottom line” is that the Other provides the only non-rational and non-coercive “incentive” for adopting impersonal reason. The Other does so precisely insofar as he or she is able to obligate the will directly through speech.

    So real quick and dirty–and I’ll have to think about this some more–my first inclination to think through the question Mikhail raises at the end is (1) with Levinas to think history as diachrony–as the proximity of history–which should probably be thought from the other direction, the irreducibility of the past. In its anarchic responsibility (not an arche, but an-arche) diachronic time operates outside all reference to a remembered past, but rather, an immemorial past, its significance begun from responsibility to the other.

    So, a peripheral question arises with regards to totality, or better, with Levinas the idea that origins are events that are actually effects of beginnings comes into a slightly different focus with the notion of passivity. Passivity, formulated in a primordial attachment, is according to Levinas “made in an irrecuperable time which the present, represented in recall, does not equal, in time of birth or creation, of which nature or creation retains a trace, uncontrovertible in memory. Recurrence is more past than any rememberable past, any past convertible into memory.” The quote is from the essay “Substitution” in the L Reader.

    (2) To pursue all this, one might also want look at L’s conception ethical proximity towards the end of OTB.

    That’s all I have for now…off the cuff.

    • Shahar,

      Thanks, that’s golden. My brain’s full!

      I really like the way you explained the Levinasian need for something more than a limit concept of infinity (“potential infinity”). If the speakers I’ve seen talking about Levinas had gone into that more I never would have thought of him as merely Sartre with the labels moved around.


      • Well, I got a bit carried away, but I guess you struck a chord, as they say. Regardless, Levinas is a thinker I keep thinking I’ve “moved through” and left behind, but find myself continually returning to nevertheless. It’s funny that often Kant, and more recently, Levinas (what with Zizek and Badiou’s recent polemics–although Badiou took it back I think) is deemed “the enemy.” However, with enemies like these who needs friends…

  5. Jon: “This in part I think explains why the arguments in the Meditations could be so bad. The bar really wasn’t very high. Descartes just needed something to save his metaphysical physics.”

    Kvond: I like all your thoughts here, but, if I can add, as I’ve mentioned in other contexts, to be fair (and really comprehending of the dualism of Descartes) one has to really appreciate the ideological fix his physics was getting him into. A Gaukroger points out in his excellent biography, Descartes was largely a Natural Science philosopher until the chill was sent through the Catholic World with the censure of the otherwise very well-connected Galileo, whose mere physics as getting him into very hot water. Descartes, though seemingly safe in a Protestant Dutch Republic, was Catholic, and there was ever the sense that Catholic powers could reach right into that land (either through the extensive Inquisitional spy network – Spinoza was reported on in Spain for instance, by two first hand spies – or through military invasion – Spain and then France). Descartes metaphysical dualism argument, which is not entirely evident, and certainly not emphasized in his treatment of optics, can be seen as an attempt to justify his physics before Catholic Inquisitional fears. His dualism was dangerously close to putting him on the wrong side of serious questions about the nature of the “substance” of the Eucharist, how the bread and wine could be literally Christ’s body and blood.

    I think that not only must Descartes over-riding interest in Natural Science Philosophy be taken into view, but also his present Ideological position as a Catholic should be included in weighing the quality of his arguments (which I am not so convinced are so outrightly “bad”, though I am no Cartesian). Descartes is sailing through a scylla and Charybdis of the natural world and the politcal powers, attempting to find a way to pass successfully between.

    • Poor Descartes, the Meditations still ended up on the Index of Prohibited Books.

      I know this is a bad way to read a philosophical text, but for some reason I can’t help it with the Meditations: (1) you’ve got the circle with the clear and distinct ideas, (2) the Deus ex Machina in any case, and (3) also the fallacious substitution into intensional contexts in his argument of why the brain is different from the body.

      I want to read philosophy like Leibniz instructs, swearing to interpret so as to never read a falsehood. Something in this spirit (and of course at some point you have to pull back from that) usually works pretty well with historical texts.

      Maybe it’s the bit about animal vivisections without anesthetic that makes me go through Descartes in a less charitable spirit than Bertrand Russell had during the detritus of his second marriage. I don’t know. I do know that the more of his other stuff I read, the better the Meditations looks when situated therein.

      • I like teaching Meditations though, I think most students don’t read it closely enough to see all the complications and confusions, but it has enough of that thought-experiment taste and that freshness (vis-a-vis earlier stuff) that I find it worth my teaching time. A new English translation came out lately, it reads a bit better too and I do like the Objections section (especially that beef with Hobbes and all)…

  6. Jon: “Maybe it’s the bit about animal vivisections without anesthetic that makes me go through Descartes in a less charitable spirit”

    Kvond: Ouch, so unkind (on your part). I mean, this was not unusual for the day as there was really no “other” way, and one would think that actually going out and looking at the world, putting one’s ideas to the test was precisely the kind of thing that would show that the guy was not merely playing deus ex machina thought-games. If anything his thought as a bold attempt to lay hold of the world, the material world, as it was, apart from dogmatic concerns. And from his position in history Substance dualism was the best conceptual framework he could dream up. There simply would have been no Leibniz (or Spinoza), nor their principles of clearness of thought, without Descartes. I say, give the man his due, even though we disagree with him.

    • Yeah, that has to be correct.

      At the risk of being perniciously Leiterific, I’d rank him at number 5. e.g.

      1,2 tie Plato and Aristotle
      3,4 tie Kant and Hume
      5. Descartes
      6,7 tie Schopenhauer and Heidegger
      8. Russell
      9. Kripke
      10. Priest

      My thought is that when you list someone on a list like that, then all the people they commented on and were reacting to get reflected glory. So Descartes at 5 brings in the medievals he overturned.

      I’m on a Priest kick, so take that with a grain of thought, a decade ago Michael Dummett would have made the top 10, and at various moment MacDowell and/or Sellars would have hit that spot.

      Weirdly, everybody on the list tells a history of philosophy that leads up to them.

  7. Great comments everyone, sorry I’ve been a bit busy lately to respond to each specific point, so let them just be there for others to appreciate. My only addition to my musing about cosmopolitical-cosmological is that it seems that “polis” and “logos” in this case are somehow more important than “cosmos” – or so it seems to me. I found that my attempts to talk of Kant’s philosophy as “cosmopolitan philosophy” get some weird looks very often: “I mean he did write about cosmopolitanism” I hear, “but the most important part is his transcendentalism, you know? all that business about noumena/phenomena.” – and I do not disagree, but the question for me is whether the purpose/end/goal of Kant’s transcendentalism is not a better scientific picture of reality and a better human situation? If acting on the assumption that we are free and that it is up to us to make this a better world can be said without Kant’s transcendentalism, it’s fine, but I think Kant’s version gives us a more sophisticated nature+culture mix, science+politics and so on. Just a thought…

    Jon, I am tempted to reread Kant and the Exact Sciences these days, I also think that because of all these conversations I have started seeing things a bit differently myself. And to think that only 8-10 years ago I didn’t even own a computer and used yellow pad as my “word processor” – how was I finding books to read and things to think about back then?

  8. Kripke who is far less notable without Wittgenstein (?), ouch again 🙂 ; Russell who was eclipsed by Wittgenstein? I sense an interesting repression here. MacDowell without Wittgenstein?

    Where is the most horrible of philosophers Hegel who at the very least gives them all a run for their money?

    Spinoza? Leibniz? Kierkegaard? Schopenhauer without Nietzsche? Lucretius? Augustine? Plotinus?


  9. kvond-

    The lack of Spinoza and Leibniz is, I agree, entirely symptomatic of my historical ignorance. Moreover, I think I know enough at least in regards to Spinoza’s influence and Leibniz’ continuing worthiness of interest to know I’m wrong in the above.

    I do not think Russell was eclipsed by Wittgenstein. In fact, him turning away from logic because he thought Wittgenstein was going to take care of all of it was tragic both for his own life and the development of philosophy I think (Goedel desperately tried to pull him back with his essay in the Library of Living Philosophers volume). If there had been a generation of defenders and developers of his predicativity response to the paradoxes, those of us who have qualms about the nature of infinity would be in a much better place vis a vis our mathematical neighbors (there is new work showing just how much math you can get with cleaned up versions of Russell’s approach).

    I think without Wittgenstein Russell would have been eclipsed by the working out of the American pragmatist tradition within the idiom he started. In this regard it is important to realize that Russell lectured at Harvard while Quine was there and most of the stuff people think is in the positivists that Quine attacked was really Russell (and the positivists before Quine had made many of Quine’s very attacks too; Quine’s self-aggrandizing atrocious citational habits make this way worse than it should be). That is, the working out of the much more nuanced anti-Hegelian return to Kant movements from Germany (the Southwestern school that gave way to logical positivism and the Marburg school giving way to Heidegger et. al.) is in part what led to his eclipse. Russell was important because eclipsing him by the positivists and then their critics (Kripke in the case of necessity) did add clarity to a lot of what is of lasting worth in the analytic tradition.

    Maybe with the exception of the influence on Carnap, I think the Tractatus could have never been written and not much would have changed. The late Wittgenstein is really, really important, but the main ideas are possibly recoverable from Heidegger. I think Kripke and MacDowell could have written what they did about Heidegger and much would have gone on the same. I realize that that is tendentious, and part of me hopes it is false, because I love the Philosophical Investigations and the Blue and Brown Books, and Wittgenstein would make my top 20.

    Much better Schopenhauer without Nietzsche than the other way around I think.

    [Note: I realize that this is a goofy game that was irritating enough when Casey Kasem did it all those Sundays ago with respect to middle brow musical tastes.]

  10. Jon,

    You have gone to great lengths to eliminate Wittgenstein from history posing alternerate historical realities (rather than our own), even seemingly going to far as to suggest that Kripke could have written on Heidegger and ended up with something like “Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language” without Wittgenstein having existed.

    Clearly your colors show in interesting hues. But we all have our lists, and I certainly accept yours. I am just being playful.

    • Yeah, the claim about “Heidegger on Rules and Private Language” does look pretty absurd after a night’s sleep.

      As far as possibly stupid opinions from the original post, I’ll stick by my claim that most of the interesting things Nietzsche said are already in Schopenhauer (a debt he acknowledged to a much larger extent than Freud did). So are significant parts of early and later Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle. In addition, all the body oriented philosophy from Merleau-Ponty through Varela owes a huge debt, as does the broader trend towards “naturalization” in analytic philosophy.

      Hey, the list on your blog is cool. I like how you have parenthetical remarks noting the theme that merits inclusion on the list.

      • I’m glad to hear your love for Schopenhauer, for it is good to hear passion for a philosopher. But Wittgenstein would be (is!) turning over in his grave to hear that ‘significant parts’ of his entire intellectual arc were already contained in Schopenhauer, for he wrote of him (in Culture and Value):

        “Schopenhauer is quite a crude mind, one might say, ie though he has refinement, this suddenly becomes exhausted at a certain level and then he is as crude as the crudest. Where real depth starts, his comes to an end. One could say of Schopenhauer: he never searches his conscience.”

        This does not mean that it isn’t so, but Wittgenstein himself probably felt that if there are significant parts, they would be the most insignificant significant parts.

        Thanks for the good words on my list. Thanks for your own list that spurred it.

      • p.s. jon, wondering if your list would change under the criteria that I offered.

  11. Pingback: 10 Greatest Philosophers: Desert Island Question « Frames /sing

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