Mad men and philosophers – Kant’s Unfortunate Legacy

By | February 1, 2010

Walt Kaufmann once faulted the great Immanuel Kant for persuading generations of philosophers (primarily Germans) that serious and important philosophy must be written in the obscure, difficult style of The Critique of Pure Reason. Many years ago I studied Kant’s great work and can attest to its mind- numbing, difficult style. I used the standard translations, which cleaned up Kant’s prose significantly; but even with this help, comprehending what Kant was saying was a gargantuan task. You walked away thinking that you needed a translation of the translation; and you did. These were provided by large numbers of secondary commentaries and studies of the Critique. Even then, the results were alternative interpretations with rival schools of thought promoting one interpretation over another, and nobody really clear on what they were saying.

Anyone who reads the continental philosophers following Kant knows that Kaufmann was correct. Many of them, primarily German and French (with some notable exceptions, e.g. Frederick. Nietzsche, Albert Camus), imitate Kant in producing the type of obscure writing that surely has caused many students headaches and sleepless nights! I give you Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre (in his philosophical works where he imitates the Germans).  Can anyone really render clear, coherent interpretations of what these people are saying?

Lately I’ve had occasion to delve into another of these German obscurantist. E-mail correspondence with a retired LB City College philosophy instructor and with a group of philosophical enthusiasts (Santa Ana Meet-up) about phenomenology have moved me to open Edmund Husserl’s work, Cartesian Meditations – An Introduction to Phenomenology, translated by Dorion Cairns. This is a challenge indeed, and I can only take small doses at a time. After having struggled with the first two meditations I only get vague glimmers of what Husserl propounds as his “genuine philosophy”; something to the effect that a Cartesian-like meditation, which brings about a transcendental shift in attitude (the “epoché”) and allows examination of the structures of consciousness, is the only approach to genuine philosophy and an indubitable base for the sciences. This is what he seems to say, but don’t hold me to it!

I quote some gems of Husserliana (taken out of context, of course) to give you an idea of his far-from-transparent writing style. (Of course the English is supplied by Cairns, but I’ll bet you the German is even more obscure.)

“Owing to the instability and ambiguity of common language and it’s much too great complacency about completeness of expression, we require, even where we use its means of expression, a new legitimation of significations by orienting them according to accrued insights, and a fixing of words as expressing the significations thus legitimated. That too we account as part of our normative principle of evidence, which we shall apply consistently from now on.” (Pp.13-14)

“An apodictic evidence, however, is not merely certainty of the affairs or affair-complexes (states-of-affairs) evident in it; rather it discloses itself, to a critical reflection, as having the signal peculiarity of being at the same time the absolute unimaginableness (inconceivability) of their non-being, and thus excluding in advance every doubt as “objectless”, empty. Furthermore the evidence of that critical reflection likewise has the dignity of being apodictic, as does therefore the evidence of the unimaginableness of what is presented with evident certainty. And the same is true of every critical reflection at a higher level.” (Pp. 15-16)

“With that, another fundamental trait of intentionality is indicated. Every subjective process has a process “horizon”, which changes with the alteration of the nexus of consciousness to which the process belongs and with the alteration of the process itself from phase to phase of its flow —an intentional horizon of reference to potentialities of consciousness that belong to the process itself.” (P. 44)

Had enough? Yes, these are taken out of context. But even when read in their proper context they will be not any easier to understand, believe me! This is a really bad philosophical malady, believe me!

Dr. Bernal’s prescription: Read Gilbert Ryle’s classic work, The Concept of Mind. Try at least 10-20 pages per day. If the patient persists in using such aberrant terms as “noesis,” “noematica,” “epoché,” and “transcendental ego,” increase dose to one chapter of Ryle’s cleansing treatment per day. Patient’s thinking and language should clear up in 5-10 days, and he should be able to resume his work in sane, comprehensible philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Mad men and philosophers – Kant’s Unfortunate Legacy

  1. jbernal Post author

    Skywalkr, the concluding part is mostly an attempt at humor, with some seriousness. My point is that the mental turmoil that results from reading obscure writers can be relieved by reading people who write clearly. The example given is the 20th Century English philosopher Gilbert Ryle.


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