Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 20 June 2012

The Philosophy of the Flesh (Continued) - Arendt's Critique of Kant

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by ‘standing still and remaining’the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness…” (LotM, p46).

As we have seen, Arendt’s critique of the Cartesian cogito moves correctly from the observation that “thinking” shows merely that “there are thoughts” (p49). But from this conclusion Arendt does not, unlike Nietzsche (again, p49), proceed as she must to question the entire notion of a “subject”, of a “thinking ego”, and therefore also of Husserl’s “transcendental ego” and its “intentionality”. For what can it mean to say that “reality is charcterised by standing still and remaining the same long enough to become and ‘object’ for a ‘subject’”? No matter how hard it may try, thought will never be able “to stand still and remain the same long enough” (!) to be able to identify an “object” and a “subject”, but only “to perceive or intuit” that there is a “thereness”, an ever-present or present-ment (pressentiment or “sixth sense” or Aquinas’s sensus communis) of “reality”. This is so for the devastatingly simple reason that all that thought can ever be conscious or aware of is the “pre-sent”, which is neither “the past”, because even “memories” are “present”, nor quite evidently “the future” – which is a “present pro-jection”. Instead, Arendt stops at the conclusion that “thinking” con-firms the existence of a “reality”, of a “world” from which even the most “meditative” or abstract thought can “withdraw” and yet one that it can never quite “leave”. Presumably, one ought to infer from this “withdrawing without leaving” that Arendt has relinquished the notion of the “transcendence” of thought – but in fact she has not, as she herself demonstrates with the following observation:

Whatever thinking can reach and whatever it may achieve, it is precisely reality as given to common sense, in its sheer thereness, that remains forever beyond its grasp….Thought processes, unlike common sense, can be physically located in the brain, but nevertheless transcend all biological data, be they functional or morphological…(LotM, pp51-2).

Yet again, in her preoccupation or haste to offer “thinking” a privileged place in ontology, Arendt forgets that “common sense” and “thinking” are one and the same thing, that they are located neither “in the brain” nor in any other “organ” (cf. Arendt’s objection to the earlyWittgensteinian notion of “language is part of our organism” at p52) as every philosopher from Hegel to Merleau-Ponty (in ‘Signes’ or the ‘Reader’) – whom Arendt expressly acknowledges and agrees with contra Kant (pp48-9) – would tell her. On this specific point, Arendt misconstrues Merleau-Ponty’s charge against Descartes of seeking to distill and then isolate thought from perception for the simple reason that for Merleau-Ponty perception and thought – just like perception and language – cannot be separated as Arendt attempts to do here by “elevating” thought (though strangely not language) to a higher “transcendental” level from (mere?) “biological data be they functional or morphological”!

The reason why Arendt is so persistent, even obdurate, in this “transcendental attitude” is that she thoroughly misconceives the entire “nature” or “ontological status” of abstract thought – that is, of thought that pretends or presumes “to ab-stract from” and therefore to transcend the world, as Descartes’s “meditations” or Husserl’s “epoche” (suspension) were meant to do, albeit in different ways.

Kant’s famous distinction between Vernunft and Verstand, between a faculty of speculative thought and the ability to know arising out of sense experience,…. has consequences more far-reaching….than he himself recognized….Although he insisted on the inability of reason to arrive at knowledge, especially with respect to God, Freedom, and Immortality – to him the highest objects of thought – he could not part altogether with the conviction that the final aim of thinking, as of knowledge, is truth and cognition; he thus uses, throughout the Critiques, the term Vernunftererkenntnis, ‘knowledge arising out of pure reason’, a construction that ought to have been a contradiction in terms for him, (LotM, pp62-3).

Reprising Heidegger’s (and even earlier, Nietzsche’s) critique of the exhaustion of Western philosophy in the erroneous identification of “truth” with “certainty” or “cognition” or “knowledge”, Arendt demonstrates incontrovertibly just how little she has grasped the real problematic of Western philosophy and of the Kantial critique in particular. Arendt cannot understand that if indeed Kant had chosen to con-fine pure reason to the sphere of “sheer activity”, that is to say of pure thought, of pure concepts (Croce), he would then have had to concede the “sheer conventionality” of pure reason and its “abstract thought” – its naked “instrumentality” and cognitive “emptiness” (intuition without concepts is blind; concepts without intuition are empty”). Arendt seeks here to elide and elude and avoid the entire problem of the “ordo et connexio rerum idearumque”! A pure reason that remains “sheer activity”, “abstract thought” with no “empirical” nexus to reality, perception and intuition – such a pure reason would end up being a mere “ghost” and, in its “formal logico-mathematical” aspect, a welter of total, complete and abject tautologies. Arendt herself intelligently identifies this Kantian quandary when she quotes him writing that

“[for the sake of mere speculative reason alone] we should hardly have undertaken the labor of transcendental investigations….since whatever discoveries might be made in regard to these matters, we should not be able to make use of them in any helpful manner in concreto” (p65).

 The problem for Kant as for all Western philosophy has been always, and quite justifiably, to discover the “nexus rerum”, “the purposive unity of things”, the “link” between “objective reality” and “subjective knowledge” of that reality. To negate or deny that such a link ec-sists means effectively that one must then either discard the “content” of abstract thought or else to jettison the “scientificity” of all knowledge! Arendt has simply failed to comprehend this crucial predicament that has been the bane of Western metaphysics and science. Instead, she curiously and naively believes that Kant could easily have abandoned the “confusion” involved in reconciling thought and experience.

But Kant does not insist on this side of the matter [the irrelevance of reason to cognition and knowledge], because he is afraid that his ideas might then turn out to be ‘empty thought-things’ (leere Gedankendinge)… It is perhaps for the same reason that he equates what we have here called meaning with Purpose and even Intention (Zweck and Absicht): The “highest formal unity which rests solely on concepts of reason, is the purposive unity of things. The speculative interest of reason makes it necessary to regard all order in the world as if it had originated in the [intention] of a supreme reason”, (LotM, pp64-5).

Right in the midst of the passages quoted above occurs the sentence that stands in the greatest possible contrast to his own equation of reason with Purpose: “Pure reason is in fact occupied with nothing but itself. It can have no other vocation, (LotM, p65).

What Arendt fails to understand is something that Kant knew all too well, and that is that unless the “truths” of pure reason” can be intimately “con-nected” to the regularities found in nature, then they can lay no claim to “truth” at all – and, worst of all, neither can the “scientific truths” that Arendt espouses, because there would then be “nothing at all” in those “empirical regularities” that could lend them the status of “scientific truths”. Science would then be exposed for what it is: - sheer “instrumentality”. Arendt is aware of this difficulty, which is why, on one hand, she attempts to preserve the word “truth” for scientific discoveries of a “finite” and “paradigmatic” (she cites Kuhn) nature; whilst on the other hand she seeks to avoid the word “truth”, preferring “meaning”, for the “sheer activity” of abstract thought, preserving thus its “formal” and “non-purposive” quality. Weber does the same with his Zweck-rationalitat, which is in fact “non-purposive” in the sense that it is “instrumental” and not “teleological”, and yet Weber, unlike Arendt, intelligently and perspicaciously acknowledges the “technical-purposive” instrumentality of this “instrumental reason” without dignifying it with a patina of “spirituality” or transcendence as Arendt does!

Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in any scientific enterprise, but it is the role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific, (LotM, p54).

This is pure Weber: but whereas Weber perceives that thinking is pure instrumentality, “a means to an end”, it is Zweck-rationalitat rather than Wert-rationalitat, Arendt steadfastly refuses the “purposivity” of this notion of “thinking” or “reason”, clinging instead to a romantic notion of “meaning”. Weber sees the “purpose” in “reason” and leaves it at that, at its “technicality” which he confuses with “scientificity” rather than “instrumentality”. Arendt instead is looking for “something more” in “thinking” – wishing to rescue it from, and to give it a “content” or “transcendence” over and above its, (sterile) “purity”. So here is the crux: what can it mean for Arendt, more than for Kant who obviously was ambivalent about the idea, to say with Kant that “pure reason is occupied with nothing but itself and can have no other vocation”? Arendt obviously seeks simultaneously to preserve the “purity” (non-instrumentality and non-purposiveness) of “reason”, and to avoid the “sterility” of such “neutrality” – its tautologous quality – by emphasizing its “meaningfulness”, and finally to redeem the “spiritual” side of thinking – not its “faith”, pace Kant, but its “meaning-fulness”.

[Kant] never became fully aware of having liberated reason and thinking, of having justified this faculty and its activity even though they could not boast of any ‘positive’ results. As we have seen, he stated that he had “found it necessary to deny knowledge… to make room for faith”, but all he had “denied” was knowledge of things that are unknowable, and he had not made room for faith but for thought , (LotM, p63).

Yet whilst Arendt resists every notion that “thinking” is confined to its “content” – whether as reason or intellect -, at the same time she intuits that if the ontological status of thinking is defined by “thinking the unknowable”, such a “spiritual” notion will reduce both the ontological status of thinking and its content or subject-matter to abstract, ghostly-ghastly sterility and insubstantiality as well as irrelevancy: - which is quite precisely why Kant had said that by rescuing “reason” for cognition he had also rescued “faith”, that is, what lies “beyond” the “materiality” or “instrumentality” or “purposivity” of thinking that is “necessarily required” by “the unity of things”, the nexus or connexio between cognition and world! Arendt is still shackled to the notion that “thinking” transcends the world even though she seeks to avoid the idealistic implications of this position by redefining thought as “withdrawing from the world without ever leaving it”! What Arendt has failed to do is to fulfill the original goal of her reflections on “the life of the mind” – that “philosophy of the flesh” that, as was Merleau-Ponty’s great intuition, does not distinguish between thinking and its content, perception and its “object”, thought and the senses, thought and language, and treats them instead as immanently connected.

Here is Arendt again emphasizing the “gap” between thinking and cognition or certainty or “truth”:

There are no truths beyond and above factual truths: all scientific truths are factual truths…and only factual statements are scientifically verifiable….Knowing certainly aims at truth, even if this truth, as in the sciences, is never an abiding truth but a provisional verity that we expect to exchange against other, more accurate verities as knowledge progresses. To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know….In this sense, reason is the a priori condition of the intellect and of cognition; it is because reason and intellect are so connected….that the philosophers have always been tempted to accept the criterion of truth – so valid for science and everyday life – as applicable to their own extraordinary business as well, (LotM, pp61-2).

The difficulty is evident: the only “test” for “verities” is “truth”; if we renounce the notion of “truth” we are left not with “verities”, but with nothing at all except either “con-venience” or “con-vention”, which are the nemesis of “scientific endeavor” (cf. Mach, ‘EuI’). Furthermore, the “criterion of truth and error” is in fact just as applicable to “thinking” as it is to factual truths: contrary to what Arendt thinks, the opposite of factual truth can be “error” and not just “the deliberate lie” (p59) – because factual truth can be as aleatory or “falsifiable” as factual untruth! The terrifying reality is that Arendt has abolished the notion of “truth”, much as Nietzsche and Weber did, without being able to replace it with a “meaningful” one of “thinking”. When she does attempt to infuse “thinking” with “meaning”, the result is as revealing as it is fallimentary and fallacious.

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