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Eckart Förster’s analysis of the late Kant

III.b.  Eckart Förster’s analysis of the late Kant


Having quoted from James Luchte’s summaries of Kant’s arguments, then Frederick Copleston’s paraphrases and translations, and having returned to Luchte’s similar treatments of the philosopher, I have now taken up a recent book by Eckart Förster, Kant’s Final Synthesis: An Essay on the Opus posthumum. Förster is principally concerned with the so-called “transition” in Kant’s later thought from “natural science” to physics, with, that is, Kant’s attempt to relate transcendental philosophy to the mathematical, theoretical sciences and to calibrate the relation of his own systematic ideas to physical matter and physical motion.


With Kant in mind, Förster writes: “Physics is the doctrine of the laws of the moving forces of matter. Since the latter, like everything belonging to the existence of things, must be known from experience, physics presupposes metaphysical foundations in which the possibility of an outer object is cognized a priori, that is, the Concept is constructed.” I am reminded of the “construction” of the landscape in the Chinese literati painter’s imagination prior to its execution by his ink brush. Förster has carefully collated the various manuscript and printed versions of Kant’s late period, relating them to his earlier work, and concludes as follows:


“’It took him quite some time and several attempts in other directions until he realized that only the exhibition of the subject’s own bodily forces in the systematization of experience can play the role previously assigned to the construction of the concept ‘matter.’ In other words, only a Selbstetzungslehre can fill the ‘gap’ in the critical system.” My focus here will be upon the analogy between Kant’s theory of self-positing and the painter’s diffuse representation of the Self in his landscapes, for, again, Kant’s theory of self-positing in bodily form strikes me as analogous to the painter’s objectification of himself in a physical, artistic modality.


Förster regards the Kantian doctrine, expressed in the last fascicles of the Opus posthumum, that the subject posits itself, or makes itself into an object of experience, as “the culmination of Kant’s last work,” if not “of his entire critical philosophy,” so we are not talking here about a marginal aspect of Kant’s thought. His application of his transcendental system to physics (to physical matter and to physical motion) was for him essential to the squaring of the circle and looks back to goals that Kant had enunciated in the first Critique. Again, an analogy between Kant and the painter: both inscribe themselves into a world as they describe it.


Kant: “I posit my own existence” in a world “for the sake of empirical consciousness and its possibility,” because, Förster explains, “empirical knowledge of myself as a being determined in time can only be knowledge of ‘myself as a being that exists in a world.’” The cogito, Kant had written in The Critique of Pure Reason, “expresses the act of determining my existence. Existence is already given thereby, but the mode in which I am to determine this existence, i.e., how I am to posit in me the manifold belonging to it, is not thereby given.” For the painter, his mode, by contrast, is readily at hand. As for Kant’s acceptation of “positing”:


Förster says that Kant in a 1763 essay “for the first time expresses his famous thesis that existence is not a real predicate or determination of a thing.” Kant: “The concept of position or positing is completely simple and identical with the concept of being in general.” So much for terminology. Now for the philosophical importance of this positing of the Self. Kant: “We substitute dialectically for the distributive unity of the empirical employment of the understanding, the collective unity of experience, a whole of appearances as one single thing that contains all empirical reality in itself.”  (He is speculating as to what may be bodied forth.)


This to me is very suggestive with regard to painting, for I have always considered the three great hanging scrolls in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, by Fan Kuan, Kuo Hsi and Li T’ang, to be images of a total empirical reality, i.e., cosmological emblems. Kant: “By means of [a] transcendental subreption, [we] substitute for this whole of appearances [the empirical realm], the concept of a thing which stands at the source of the possibility of all things and supplies the real conditions for their complete determination.” Förster goes on to gloss this hypostatization of “what is only an idea” as the determination of “the primordial being,” i.e., God.


Later I will glance at the question of the relationship between Kant’s biblical God (as modified by Enlightenment theology) and the Chinese Heaven (T’ian). Now, however, I want to clarify what is involved in his transposition of the Self into Nature, as it were, so that I will have the grounds for asserting that a similar process in the hands of the painter is “Kantian.” “We must take care to note,” says Förster, “that here ‘unity of experience’ is the collective unity of the experience of moving forces affecting the subject,” not “distributive unity in the progression of the synthesis of given representations in accordance with the categories.”


Kant, in other words, is going beyond the terms of his earlier theory. I return to the importance of “motion.” (You may recall that earlier we had considered Wolfson’s discussion of Copernican, Newtonian and Einsteinian motion in relation to the motion of the traveler, or implied Travel, in the literati landscape and to the “motion” required to unroll the hand scroll or to read the hanging scroll progressively, as the traditional Chinese viewer does.) Related here is the Kantian motion of the Self and the time-space continuum as force. Förster summarizes this aspect of Kant’s characterization of Space and Time in the Opus posthumum:


“Thus we find Kant now characterizing space and time not simply as forms of our intuition, as he had in The Critique of Pure Reason, but as ‘forms of our effective forces’: space and time are also forms of the forces by which I move and react to affection of the senses. [O]rganic self-motion must underlie all experience of the moving forces of matter, hence the ‘hypostatization’ of space as an object of the senses.” Kant: “I am conscious of myself as a self-moving machine.” Moreover, “I become [so] conscious of myself . . . in the process of interacting with other bodies and of ‘inserting’ forces into the yet undetermined manifold.”


Here I pause to relate what Kant is saying to the activity of the literati landscape painter, whose brush is in motion so that he may capture the underlying motion of Nature (the Great Self-So). Though he has no atomic theory to guide him, he intuits that Nature, like the Self, is in motion. The latter he embeds in his landscape, as one of the effective forces of his own space-time continuum; with Kant he intuits, that “organic self-motion underlies all experience,” even the “experience of the moving forces of matter” (which he also intuits). He is moreover conscious of the subject-object fusion as the Self interacts with other moving bodies.


Kant: “I must posit myself as object [cp. the painter’s landscape] in order to know myself as subject [cp. the painter as embodied in this landscape].” Förster: “The understanding as spontaneity subjects itself to the imperative nosce te ipsum — know thyself — and proceeds by bringing this object under concepts gained in the thoroughgoing determination of the sensible manifold [cp. the cohesiveness of Chinese mountain landscapes]. The determination of my own existence takes place for Kant within the context of the ideal of a single, all-embracing experience, itself depending on the collective unity of the moving forces of matter.”


Kant: “The understanding begins with the consciousness of itself, apperceptio, and performs thereby a logical act.” Förster: Selbstetzung thus provides the schema for outer sense, the condition under which something can be given as object, or ‘the sensible concept, of an object in agreement with the category.’” According to Kant, the principle of reflective judgment specifies its universal laws to empirical ones, according to the power of a system and for the sake of our judgment, which “first makes it possible for us to think of nature as having not only a mechanical necessity but also a purposiveness,” without which there would be no unity of classification.


In other words, without the formal logic of an ethical judgment [cp. the Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist principles evoked by Fan Kuan, Kuo Hsi and Li T’ang] there can be no systematic treatment “of particular forms in terms of empirical laws.” This expresses my perception, reinforced by Chinese readings, that the literati landscape is anthropomorphic. For Kant “no modern principle for the classification of nature’s moving forces had yet been discovered” (as it had been for Lao-zi and the pre-Socratic Greeks, however poetic the concepts), and so he resorted to the theory of the now-discredited Ether, whose reality he deduced from a possible “unified experience.”


The quaintness of Kant’s science, however, does not much matter. (“These attempts come to an end when Kant realizes that knowing the topoi of the Elementary System does not suffice for a systematic cognition of the moving forces of matter.”) “We must also be able to ‘insert’ into the manifold of sense what we seek to extract from experience.” Like the literatus, also unaware of our knowledge of the physical universe, the insertion of himself into an experiential system, his embodiment of his own experience in nature, so to speak, is what counts. Förster: “This leaves a final question, that of the unity of theoretical and practical reason,” which I take up next.


III.c. A summary of Förster’s derivation of Kant’s ethics from his late metaphysics