On Nature and Natural Law

Note 8: Kant: Metaphysical Barbarism. 4/21/99

This initial excursion into Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is meant to be an introduction to a series of notes on the problem of metaphysical discourse and therefore should not be taken too seriously. Any attempt to evaluate or (de)construct the subject or object of metaphysics has to include Kant, of course, since his views are of primary significance in much of the recent discourse on the topic. Some critics, for instance, have suggested that Mikhail Bakhtin owes much of his position, in either a positive or negative light, to late nineteenth century neo-Kantian thought. Another Marxist thinker, Theodor Adorno, has been credited with the effort to unravel the tangled mess in the metaphysical realm of the relationship between objective reality and the knowing subject and the related issue of how the idea of a thing is related to the thing itself. Both these issues can be traced, at least in Enlightenment discourse, to Kant's discussion of Pure Reason. Needless to say, and since I am, it must also be obvious that I have something to add to the discourse, otherwise I would not be saying anything about this subject or object at all. My position, even as I claim to have one, is clouded, even completely obscured, by the fact that I have not read Pure Reason for many years, don't remember much about it, and have just initiated a renewed effort to master Kant's text. I make this admission, against the better judgment of everything I know about the nature of academic study (how seriously can I be taken after all if I admit going into it that I am not an expert in Kant's position in the Critique), only for the sake of maintaining an honest relationship with my audience. (How easy would it be for me to pretend I actually know something about Pure Reason when no one in his/her right mind would ever accuse me of having any?)

Be that as it may, and precisely because of this inescapable fact, that I do not possess a shred of Pure Reason whatsoever, I have an initial reaction to Kant's discourse that I cannot resist sharing with anyone foolish enough to still be reading this mindless and pointless introduction to a subject/object I know virtually nothing about. Early in his discussion, Kant manages to break through the several centuries separating his milieu from mine, even the one separating him personally from me personally as a particular living human being looking back at his non-living, and hence, universalized and not-particular, condition (or as Hegel puts it--death has a tendency to universalize the particular), and I almost want to pause here for a time to allow this thought to penetrate fully into the mind of my audience, as opposed to his (Kant's not Hegel's)audience, because surely no one in his/her right mind would assume that Kant and I share one; and, in breaking through that wall of temporal separation, Kant truly anticipates my existence, as a responsive audience to his perceptions of the decline in metaphysical speculation occasioned by the rise or appearance of empirical science, by describing me perfectly as a member of the class of dissenters from the Faith he exposes in Pure Reason as being skeptics to the cause of his endeavors. It is the precise terms he uses to describe me, who he does not know, that astonish me, when he says that "the sceptics, like nomadic tribes, who hate a permanent habitation and settled mode of living, attacked from time to time those who had organized themselves into civil communities." Of course, in this context, the tribe of skeptics are the ones characterized as hating a "permanent and settled mode of living," while the metaphysicians are the ones who have drawn themselves together into "civil communities." The aspect of this comment that astonishes me concerns the fact that being characterized as a skeptic where metaphysical discourse is concerned constitutes one fact about the nature of my personal philosophical position which can only be said to exist a priori to the point Kant makes in his context about skeptics being, or belonging to, tribes of nomadic people. Under ordinary, or for that matter, simply under other, circumstances this statement would not draw any particular notice because a mere simile used in an off-handed way to disparage members of a philosophical school, or habit of thought, is not the kind of thing that shapes the outcome of complex philosophical discourses like ones involving a subject/object as grandiose as Pure Reason.

In this particular instance, however, I am compelled to point out just how true Kant's assessment of this issue, and one which he could not possibly have known or anticipated, has turned out to be. This is true, of course, and quite obviously so, precisely because I trace my ancestry back to a native American tribe of actual nomads. When Mikhail Bakhtin argues that every utterance invites and anticipates its rejoinder, as he most certainly does in every word he spoke, one would be hard pressed to deny the validity of that perception in this specific case. This is true because Kant has leveled an attack against me personally, who he did not even know and could not even anticipate, when he disparages both my natural ancestry as a member of a nomadic tribe and then again because I am skeptical about the nature and validity of metaphysical discourse. Should I allow Kant's prejudice against nomadic people unduly to influence my apprehension of his argument and his discourse? The real question is: how can I not be influenced by his predisposition to disparage nomadic people?

If this were the only occasion in Western European discourse wherein a tribal person was (dis)respected solely on the grounds that he/she might have a tendency to wander aimlessly (as Europeans incorrectly perceive nomadic motions to be) across the face of a trackless wasteland, Siberia say, or Montana/Nebraska (where my ancestors happily diverged from the straight and narrow path to anywhere significant at all), or worse yet to show a pre(dis)position to wandering across a page as opposed to following it word by word or thought by thought, then I would be naturally (dis)inclined to hold it against him and would allow his prejudice to slide down the slope to sure oblivion unremarked, unnoticed, and left whole in the innocence out of which it may have been born. That virtually every Eurocentric thinker disparages tribal people, however, makes any instance of it a necessary and inescapable part of how such a person can, or should, respond to it. And yet again, it is not just that Kant does it here in this specific statement but, more to the point, is the fact that he does it again in a slightly different context that presupposes an even worse and more universal condemnation of how he perceives tribal people to behave toward a reasonable and serious discourse to which they find themselves opposed on one credible ground or another. In talking about what he perceives as the relationship between metaphysics and the other, less fantastical, sciences, he says that Metaphysics "is the oldest of the sciences, and would still survive, even if all the rest were swallowed up in the abyss of an all-destroying barbarism." Well, sure, and the point here is that we all know where that "all-destroying barbarism" is most likely to arise; namely, on some nameless stretch of barren wasteland known to be frequented by wandering tribes of nomadic people.

Not to miss or obscure or distort the point I am making here--namely that I am overawed by Kant's ability to put metaphysics into actual practice when he doesn't even know he is doing so. What, after all, could be more metaphysical than assuming on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that a nomadic person would arise at the very end of the twentieth century, who was also highly skeptical of metaphysical propositions of every kind imaginable, and would then set out on a course meant to "swallow-up" every science known to eighteenth century philosophers and would do it by starting off with the one that Kant insists will survive when all others have fallen.

The act, then, of circling up the wagons to protect the women and children from marauding bands of native American nomadic savages has already found its way into Kant's discourse long before he, or anyone else for that matter, could have imagined that one would appear on the horizon with nothing more than a volley or two of words, pointed occasionally, tipped with an arrowhead perhaps, notched against the gut-string of the bow, drawn back to the cheek with the eye of the hawk sighted down the shaft to the sign of the prey, and so on, and so forth, until the twang of the gut is heard clearly across the dry and empty meadows of Eurocentric discourse down to the very ear at which the arrow is aimed--and yet, and still, Kant, like God, is nothing so much as he is dead and beyond hearing even that final mark of his dissolution. Or not.

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