“We Canadians”

So yes, by Ovid I meant Virgil…

Part of Our Heritage – Pretending to Pay Attention to the Natives (but not really paying attention to the natives).

A Part of Our Heritage – Only Making it Big After Moving to the US.

A Part of Our Heritage – Overestimating the Durability of our Natural Resources to Impress our Distant, Unelected Policy Makers.

http://feministphilosophers.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/famousfivebill4.jpg

Apparent Message: The Rights of Women.

https://i0.wp.com/www.theepochtimes.com/n2/images/stories/large/2011/10/12/50_Back.jpg

Apparent Message: Don’t mess with us, Russia.

Apparent Message: Indigenous groups are part of Canada.

https://i1.wp.com/www.globalnews.ca/uploadedImages/Global_News/Photo_Gallery/bank-of-canada-20-dollar-bill-4.jpg

Apparent Message: Canada is defined by its military victories.

(How’s your fish indeed…)

For More Information:

Web Cartoonist Kate Beaton on Heritage Minutes: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=6

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=22

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Beaton

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/11/03/global-domination-whoa-canada/gJ37RiRzIg3zqe8T4ZibTO/story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Granatstein

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_Minute

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_history

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geschichte_Kanadas (Why yes, the German wikipedia article is better than the English language article)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil

http://wsupress.wayne.edu/books/849/In-Babels-Shadow

“In contrast to fields like anthropology, the history of linguistics has received remarkably little attention outside of its own discipline despite the undeniable impact language study has had on the modern period. In Babel’s Shadow situates German language scholarship in relation to European nationalism, nineteenth-century notions of race and ethnicity, the methodologies of humanistic inquiry, and debates over the interpretation of scripture. Author Tuska Benes investigates how the German nation came to be defined as a linguistic community and argues that the “linguistic turn” in today’s social sciences and humanities can be traced to the late eighteenth century, emerging within a German tradition of using language to critique the production of knowledge.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_More_Smith (The Lunar Rouge)

http://www.lunarrogue.com/about-the-lunar-rogue-pub/the-story-of-the-lunar-rogue

http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781551990842 (The Spinster and the Prophet, about a court case involving Florence Deeks, a Toronto teacher and H.G. Wells)

“he prolific novelist and social prophet H.G. Wells had a way with words, and usually he had his way with women. That is, until he encountered the feisty Toronto spinster Florence Deeks. In 1925 Miss Deeks launched a $500,000 lawsuit against Wells, claiming that in an act of “literary piracy,” Wells had somehow come to use her manuscript history of the world in the writing of his international bestseller The Outline of History , a work still in print today. Thus began one of the most sensational and extraordinary cases in Anglo-Canadian publishing and legal history.”

http://mqup.mcgill.ca/book.php?bookid=1158

“The popular conception of Nova Scotians as a purer, simpler, and more idyllic people is false, argues Ian McKay. In The Quest of the Folk he shows how the province’s tourism industry and cultural producers manipulated and refashioned the cultural identity of the region and its people to project traditional folk values.”

http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/55/psychicresearch.shtml (Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton)

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-myth-of-1812-how-canadians-see-the-war-we-want-to-see/article553040/?page=all

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

https://i2.wp.com/faculty.uml.edu/sgallagher/mrsSatan1.jpg

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_Craddock

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Comstock

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Egypt_%28dancer%29

http://www.idacraddock.com/intro.html

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: http://www.idacraddock.com/

http://h2g2.com/approved_entry/A51607181 “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

Omnia and Pagan Folk Lore


On the topic of traditions and the channels through which they become constructed in each generation, there is also the matter of modern paganism. Like any philosophical or religious community, pagan culture is not reducible to any one group or canonical set of shared dogma. The culture of Ásatrú is not the culture of druids, druidism is not equivalent to Wicca, and even within Wicca you have the divides between Gardnerian and other sects. Yet there is a certain constellation to be seen in these varying belief systems, which are all broadly syncretic modern traditions claiming ancient roots in pre-christian western culture. I do not consider myself a pagan, though I have come to see paganism as something of a fellow traveler, and here would like to make a case for the value of paganism, particularly those elements within it which have formed around the fluid realm of folklore more so than in an ideal image of an absolute, unchanging and ancient dogma. To treat it as a dogma, or perhaps worse, as a dogma of convenience, evinces a lack of reflexivity in some pagan adherents that I find to be deeply troubling.

Wikipedia claims that the origin of the term Pagan comes from the Latin paganus, which meant rustic or “of the country”. While this is not wrong, a classicist friend of mine once informed me that at the time it was used this term also possessed pejorative undertones, more like, “bumpkin”, “hick” or “hillbilly”, and that it began to take on its “heathen” connotations with the growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire, which was, in its early history, much more a religion of the city than of the countryside.

In this regard some of my concern comes from the lack of historical awareness of some pagans, whose belief in the ancient origins of their tradition tends to mask the fact that in its first usage, paganism was a reactionary, christian invention, yet one which, in the hands of contemporary pagans, often seems, first and foremost to mean “not christian”. I do not know if it enriches a culture to define itself in terms of what it thinks evil, and some of my pagan colleges come very close to structuring their morality around a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment against the still-dominant christian culture.

There is also the question of perceived cultural trauma. Few things, real or imagined, tend to galvanise a people, as a collective, quite as well as a shared sense of loss. Psychologically, Christians thrived on their martyrs and their lions’ dens, something that they could rally around with the outrage of personal injustice. Jews, even before the holocaust, had the destruction of the temple. Most recently Americans (as a religion no less than as a geopolitical nation-state) experienced their 9-11. Pagans, likewise, often rally around the burning times, and a sense that as one people, the cultural destruction and abuses of Christianity have historically wronged them. Like most things, there is something to be said for this, but, like most things, it is also deceptive in its way, and has more to do with modern politics than with ancient antipathies.

I do not mean to say that the burning times did not happen, but that based on most contemporary historical studies of the events, those who were persecuted, tortured and killed rarely, if ever, experienced these abuses because of some association with what we now think of today as pagan identity. They were, by and large, christian midwives, spinsters, outcasts, very commonly in Spain they were Jewish or Jewish converts to Christianity, the Marranos. In the case of the Druids, there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture and traditions, but this act was perpetrated by pre-Christian Rome in its wars of conquest, not by Christians.

The Awen, Neo-Druidic symbol of the Order of Ovates, Druids and Bards.

Community building is important and valuable, and I would very much like to see all pagan groups thrive, diversify, and grow into what they desire and seek in a spirit of introspective exploration and self-awareness. I would not like to see it expand upon a foundation of willed ignorance or through an apathetic disinclination to investigate its own claims as a historical tradition, or by a shared contempt for any other system of beliefs.

In this regard I have been most impressed by the the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, who not only seem to recognize how much is fragmentary, retroactive and contingent in the tradition that they themselves have made as much as found, but that they also seek to unearth whatever they can of the old ways with specific plans of historical research. I was first made aware of the order through their exploration of the possible ties between ancient druidic beliefs and practices and those of ancient India. Their article on the subject is linked below.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_neopaganism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paganism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marrano

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Druid

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Awen

http://www.druidry.org/

http://www.druidry.org/druid-way/other-paths/druidry-dharma

Serafino Macchiati, Spiritualism, and a Lacuna in Wikipedia

The images above, Le visionnaire and Spiritism (Scena spiritica) were done by the Italian artist Serafino Macchiati (1861-1922). I’ve not been able to find out much about Macchiati’s interest in spiritualism. Indeed, the only substantial source of biographical information about him seems to be a site dedicated to two volumes of his works that were produced  by his grandson. I find it exceedingly unusual that, while he was made a Knight of the Italian Crown and produced a series of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, there is still no Wikipedia article on him in English, French, German or, most surprisingly, Italian. If anyone knows anything about Macchiati’s relationship to the occult, I’d be curious to find out.

For More Information:

http://www.serafinomacchiati.com/

Facinated by Fractals

[errata: So Mandelbrot coined the term fractal in 1975, not the 1980s. Also have to work on using “um” as a place holder! And… maybe a script would help.]

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractal

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_deficit_disorder

http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hologram

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrocosm_and_microcosm

http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Scale-free_neocortical_dynamics

http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(10)00291-6

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractal_dimension_on_networks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_invariance

Buzsaki, Gyorgy. 2006. Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

http://www.philhine.org.uk/writings/ktul_fractals.html

A Postcard from “The Devil’s Punch Bowl”

The above image is a postcard of a place known as the “Devil’s Punch Bowl” in Windsor, Nova Scotia. It is said to be one of the first places where hockey was ever played in Canada, but that is not what intrigued me most when I came across this card in the archive at the West Hants Historical Society. For you see, it comes from a series that was taken around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and on the back, I believe it is dated January 25th, 1911. It was sent from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to Miss Dolly Gray in Upper Clements, and was written in either an apparently esoteric form of short hand, or else an actual cypher.

I’ve been trying on and off to decipher it for the past few years, suspecting that it’s a simple substitution cypher, but because its been written in pen and some of the symbols seem to bleed into each other, I’ve not been able to break it. I’m now curious enough to send it out and see if anyone else has the skills/time to decipher it.

For More Information:

http://www.birthplaceofhockey.com/birthplace/long-pond/support-pages/frog-pond.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Substitution_cipher

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shorthand

Emblemata: An Iconographic Overflowing

The emblematic world view, a modern term for the ways in which late medieval and Renaissance scholars saw the intertextuality and symbolic elements of the natural world, was popularized among historians of science by William B. Ashworth in his essay “Natural History and the Emblematic World View”. Here, he attempted to ascribe the fall of the emblematic world view near the end of the 16th century to its inability to account for certain aspects of human experience, such as the discovery of the new world, or the discovery of a new kind of history. While these factors most likely played a part in its decline, this explanation closes the door on several important considerations that would apply to other kinds of taxonomies as well.

Perhaps the decline of the emblematic world view was caused by a mechanism which was not particular to it alone. It is possible to imagine that when those working within a specific method of taxonomic interpretation come to feel that it has no end in sight, through either its increasing age and complexity, or when it finds itself presented with an abundance of intermediary forms or anomalies, the general body of its adherents could begin to grow disillusioned with the hope that that method of interpretation would lead to a kind of conclusive knowledge. In this instance, then it would seem that knowledge is only truly accepted as knowledge if it is believed to have an end.  This can apply to both its purpose and its progression to some ultimate goal. Conversely, the rise of the literal view of natural science wiped the slate clean, so to speak, giving early modern natural scientists a new hope for an exhaustible source of knowledge through observation. The seat of authority for this new standard of knowledge could be attributed to its ability to be reproduced numerous times, something to which the previously inexhaustible emblematic system of knowledge had less of a claim.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich

As Ashworth points out, the essence of the emblematic world view “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible”.  Furthermore, these hidden meanings are connected symbolically to other things in the cosmos, making it necessary to be constantly searching for the interconnectedness of as many signs and symbols as possible. For example, Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), in his zoological encyclopaedia History of Animals, includes an exhaustive study of the signs and symbols associated with the animals under discussion because he “believed that to know the peacock [or any other thing] you must know its associations”. It would be fair to say that Gesner was not doing this because he was uncritical or obtuse, but because emblematic knowledge required such exhaustive measures in order to have the complete picture of the natural world.

Two things are at first noticeable from this account. Firstly, emblems make their ultimate appeal to be representative of reality through their meanings in relation to their parts and to each other. As Ashworth states: “In the ideal emblem, each element was necessary, but not sufficient, for comprehension”. Sometimes they point to God for authority, sometimes they point to the ancients, but they always demand that the reader return back to the structure in which they are presented, namely, each other. For example, a creature such as the bee could be understood in a variety of ways depending upon what other symbols were placed alongside it. In one English emblem they are a symbol of prosperity in peace: “Which doth declare, the blessed fruites of peace, / How sweete shee is, when mortall warres doe cease”, or in one German emblem it could be said to be a symbol of a well-ordered society. These two emblems taken together could then indicate that a well-ordered society is one that is benefiting from the fruits of peace. In such a way the emblems could be built upon each other to create more complex layers of meaning. Furthermore, because these meanings are hidden, they are necessarily subject to diverse interpretations.

When combined with the removal of any sort of earthly authority over the interpretation of the nature of symbols, this trend allowed a wide proliferation of emblems with a variety of meanings. Indeed, God himself could be understood as the ultimate emblem maker. In Huston Diehl’s article “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England” he points to two different emblem maker’s opposite assessments of the meaning of the same biblical brass serpent: “the image of the brass serpent, […] is neither inherently good or bad. Rather, what the viewer makes of the image, how he uses it, determines whether it is an idol to be condemned or a sign to be remembered”. Fundamentally, the emblem book asked the reader to interpret it and to see as many relations as one can, both among the emblems themselves and in the natural world.

This is further seen in the intentions of their original maker, Andrea Alciati, who wanted to “devise epigrams that were especially enigmatic, so that the readers would get a sudden and pleasing illumination when they figured them out”. Yet their being enigmatic would only add to the multiplicity of meanings that were derived from them. The emblem books could be open to such a wide array of interpretations because nature was seen to work through correspondences and patterns which were directly related to the understanding of human beings.

“Mind, not outward form, prevails.”

This extreme multiplicity of symbolic interpretation makes itself apparent if we examine one of the most theologically understood animals in the emblematic world view. The generally accepted symbolic role of the Pelican in the moral language of the Middle Ages was that its act of self sacrifice for the sake of its young reflected Christ’s sacrificing himself for all mankind. As it says in the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: “There are different versions of this emblem, but the pelican is always shown pecking open its breast to allow the young to feed on its own blood. […] the pelican represents Christ’s mercy”. With a precursory glance at some of the examples of pelican symbolism, however, we see the self-sacrifice of the pelican go through a number of transformations.

As per the generally accepted symbolism there are those, like the example from the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution, which show the Christian importance of the pelican. However, there were many associations drawn from the pelican other than this interpretive norm. The pelican, it seems, can also serve as a symbol of the king who sacrifices himself for his people in emulation of Christ. While this is not too far from the generally accepted iconography of the pelican there are others that diverge significantly from this symbolic norm. One emblem in particular “Pelikan baut sein Nest auf dem Boden” Pelican: builds its nest on the ground. This diverges from almost every other pelican emblem, only preserving the nest in its symbolism. Rather than espousing the virtues of self-sacrifice, as even the more secular emblems of its kind tend to, it warns against hubris, citing the placement of the pelican’s nest (which itself varies from emblem to emblem). Furthermore, this warning against arrogance is also reincorporated in another pelican emblem that depicts a mother holding her infant carelessly above the ground by one leg, while the pelican in the foreground moves to protect its young from their flaming nest. It condemns mothers who hold their own well being above that of their children. The nest in this emblem is also, incidentally, placed on the ground. It is no wonder then, that when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) tried to make an encyclopaedia of the emblematic knowledge of his time, he did not finish until he had compiled thirteen massive folios on the subject. As Ashworth states: “It is one thing to talk about a ‘web of associations’; it is much more impressive to see this web laid out, strand by strand, as Aldrovandi does”. What allowed this massive swelling of emblematic knowledge was in part the extreme fluidity of meanings, which was shown to be the case with the pelican example above.

If the rise of the emblematic interpretation of the world first seemed to correspond with the Protestant Reformation, it would be that same Reformation that would set up the conditions for its downfall. As Peter Harrison discusses in his work The Bible Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science: “The demise of allegory […] was due largely to the efforts of Protestant reformers, who in their search for an unambiguous religious authority, insisted that the book of scripture be interpreted only in its literal, historical sense”. This search for an unambiguous authority worked its way into all forms of knowledge both sacred and secular, and was the start of a process that would spell the end of the emblematic world view.

“To insist now that texts be read literally” writes Harrison, “was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things”. The Protestant reformers, in their efforts for a single textual authority with a fixed meaning and unambiguous understanding, could not coexist with a view in which there was no one textual authority, no fixed meanings and that thrived on these very ambiguities. The Bible needed to be the only authority on matters of religious doctrine and thus it would necessarily be interpreted in such a way so as to remove all doubts and ambiguities. “Only a literal method, or more strictly a method which allowed but a single meaning to be assigned to each passage of scripture, could serve this purpose”. When taken into the realm of natural science this approach was incompatible with views based on ancient authorities or traditional symbolism. Interpretations of natural entities could no longer look to each other for their justifications, but could only appeal to the final authority left in the literal world: the senses. More than any other force, the disillusionment with the possibility of a set end to the emblematic understanding of nature served to discredit the possibility that meaning could serve as any solid basis for knowledge, for as a product of human convention it had no end but itself. This threw the entire view that meaning was the measure of knowledge into question, and helped set the stage for a view of observable truths to take its place. As Harrison writes:

A disturbing implication of this development was that the purportedly natural representative functions of living things were in fact merely conventional, that the things bore no universal, God-given, significance, but instead had been arbitrarily given meaning by human agents.

It is important here to note the difference in language used to describe what constituted knowledge in the emblematic and literal world views. When discussing the knowledge of the emblematic world Ashworth does not mention the word “truth” until he arrives at Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) attempt to demystify the symbolic associations of several animals in his section entitled: “Browne and the quest for truth in natural history”. In this section Ashworth recounts how Browne held the emblematic account of animals to the test of repeatable experimentation and observations, as he says about one of his works: “in the Pseudodoxia [Epidemica], Browne asks the remarkable questions: Are these stories true? Can they be demonstrated?” In this section Ashworth implies, if he does not state, that the measure of knowledge in the emblematic view is not truth, but meaning.

These two concepts are also paired off against each other in Harrison’s account, in which he describes St. Augustine’s focus on spiritual truths (the theological meaning beyond the literal sense of a text) as being elevated at the cost of literal interpretations. Mapping St. Augustine’s approach to scripture onto accounts of the natural world, he goes on to argue how the meaning of the “spiritual truth” undermines the truth of the literal interpretation of the natural world. What is perhaps more interesting, in a later section Harrison goes on to describe how Thomas Browne sought to demystify the mythological representations of animals. He did this with an account based on observations that explained where the mistaken belief about the animal’s behaviours may have come from. This shows a reversal of St. Augustine’s original evaluation in which the meaning is actually a misinterpretation of the truth of a particular creature. As Harrison states: “Thomas Browne, for example, suggested that the allegory of the pelican might have arisen from observations of the birds scratching their breasts during preening, and drawing blood”. This is the exact opposite of the earlier accounts of the natural world and is evident in the word choice of “meaning” as opposed to “truth”, a distinction that arguably did not exist until the rise of the literal view. Thus it could be summarized that meanings are variable, of uncertain authority, and potentially endless in their permutations, whereas truths as seen to be pinnacle of certainty, appealing to one firmly established authority and above all a limited number of viable permutations. In the decline of the emblematic world view a new concept of “truth” had displaced “meaning” in providing the conceptual framework under which nature was studied.

John Ray (1627-1705), in his preference to The Ornithology of Francis Willughby states that the chief error of previous natural philosophers trying to document the physical world was that they multiplied, unnecessarily, the number of species. This new focus on facts above meanings also necessitated a different ordering principle than that which had dominated the emblematic world view.  Harrison states that even with the emergence of Baconian empiricism, there was no set structure guiding observational knowledge: “Physical collections of objects bear witness to the same taxonomic anarchy […]. Vast amounts of new data might have been accumulated, but in the absence of an alternative conception of natural order, these could not constitute a new science”. What provided this order in the case of the literal world view was both the thesis, or hypothesis, and the developing science of taxonomy. As Harrison notes: “An overarching ordering principle is conspicuously absent in critical and constructive humanist works on natural history”, though arguably this lack of an overarching principle was part of the point of the humanist approach to knowledge, it does provide a key insight into the differences and similarities of the two. The emblematic world view could not have a thesis because that would require some end to the process of associations; it could not have a taxonomy based on the smallest parts of animals because its form of knowledge was based on building them up in associations, rather than breaking them down. In comparison, the literal world view needed a thesis and a set taxonomical language around which to structure it as its ordering principle to some observable end.

Thus the need for some set thesis led to the new pressure to develop a uniform taxonomy of the natural world, so that it could be discussed in definite terms that allowed for conclusive answers. Ray, commenting on his deceased colleague Willughby describes in his work the mentality that would be necessary to develop such a taxonomy:

Now that he might clear up all these obscurities, and render the knowledge and distinction of Species facile to all that should come after, he bent his endeavours mainly to find out […] certain Characteristic notes of each kind. But if in any kind no singular mark occurred whereby it might be certainly distinguished from all others, he did minutely and exactly describe all its parts, that at least a Collection of many accidents, which all together could not be found in any Species else of the same kind, might serve for a Characteristic.

At first glance this method could be seen as being similar to the “taxonomic anarchy” of the emblematic world view. However, one must keep in mind that the reason why such exhaustive detail was needed was to fulfill the set task of ready identification and separation of species, instead of the more general task of “accumulating vast amounts of new data”. Furthermore, we see that this massive accumulation works downwards to more minute details, rather than upwards to more complex meanings. Harrison argues that this taxonomical process is the offspring of the attempt to find a universal language capable of filling the gap left by the death of the emblematic world view. As he states:

[N]o-one thought any longer that such universal languages would somehow unlock the secrets of Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge. The best of the schemes offered a way of ordering and symbolizing what human ingenuity had discovered, [and gives us] a glimpse of the future direction of such systems – taxonomy.

In considering the comparison between these two world views it seems wise to offer an alternative explanation for one of the main changes seen in the shift from one to the other. While it is argued by Harrison that such an account shows a turn to a demand for more “useful” knowledge, it is more elucidating to consider that the question is not one of use as opposed to uselessness, but rather of what was considered useful to the various practitioners of these interpretive methods. The medieval interpretations of nature as allegory served the use of spiritual enlightenment, the emblematic interpretation of nature served the use of holistic wisdom, both of these concepts were more highly valued in their times than what we would today consider practical use. In contrast the literal world view was the only one of these interpretive methods to focus on practical uses, whether they were coming to know God or being able to describe more accurately the anatomy of a pelican. If anything, this trend shows a greater intolerance for uncertainty than a turn away from supposedly useless knowledge.

The effort to develop a set taxonomy described here is the literal equivalent of the expanding series of relations that had developed in the emblematic tradition. Ashworth quotes François Jacob’s comment that: “Living bodies were scraped clean, so to speak. They shook of their crust of analogies, resemblances and signs, to appear in all the nakedness of their true outer shape”. If this was the beginning of the literal world view, it certainly was not its end. What the efforts at taxonomy show is the literal world view’s alternative, or renewed, quest to build itself up, not through a web of associations, but by a chain of facts that would point to the ultimate knowledge of natural entities. If in the emblematic view creatures were systematically expanded into a growing web of associations, then the literal one could be said to have systematically stripped creatures down in a sort of reductionist taxonomy. This method had the new goal of identification, which itself served the purpose of expanding the literal knowledge need for a single, specific, unambiguous language with which to address the natural world.

Ultimately then, the mechanism most likely to have caused the demise of the emblematic world view and the rise of the literal one was the growing feeling that knowledge based on meanings could potentially continue forever. In contrast, knowledge based on observable truths promised a specific end with definite results. The shift was caused by a change from valuing the holistic knowledge of nature as associations to valuing the repeatable and observational knowledge of nature as sensations over and above human history and meaning. One could not repeat the “experiment” of a symbol or emblem, and their uses were discredited in light of their potential for endless ambiguities and interpretations. What is present in the one case is the valuing of knowledge as being incomplete without those necessary uncertainties that make psychological relationships possible, as opposed to the very definite demand for certainty present in a literal account of the world.

As such, meaning and their symbolic representations were eclipsed by a notion of truth and its association with observable facts as the measure of knowledge. The new interpretive tools provided by the literal world view, however, in their need to fill the space left by the receding emblematic tool set, demanded some new descriptive standard. That standard was taxonomy. The physical taxonomy of things being interpreted in terms of their more minute physical components is a method not dissimilar in kind to that of the emblematic world view, yet it benefits from being younger and having the renewed promise of a definitive end. Yet understood this way, the door is open for the possibility that the literal world view could succumb to the same pressures that were the ruination of the emblematic cosmos. The processes may be slowed somewhat by the specialization of knowledge, but one must eventually ask oneself the question: What would happen if this method of interpretation were to encounter the same explosion of “facts” and the same seemingly endless pursuit that led to the demise of the emblematic world view? That is, however, a question for another time. For as has already been stated, when operating under the literal world view, the demand for a thesis under which to organize a collection of information contains within itself the demand for a recognizable, definitive end.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emblems

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Gesner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Alciato

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulisse_Aldrovandi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Browne

Geoffrey Whitney. A Choice of Emblems 1586 Yorkshire: The Scolar Press Limited, 1973.

Henkel, Arthur, Albrecht Schöne, Ed. Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts.

John Ray, Francis Willughby. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby London: Printed by E. Cotes, 1658.

(Accessible online at: http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12589921)

Ashworth, William B., Jr. “Natural history and the emblematic world view”, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 303-325.

Diehl, Huston. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England”, Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1986): 49-66.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tapp, Kevin. “Emblematics”, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, Ed. Wilbur Applebaum. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, 203-205.

Kant’s Ghost: The Crooked Scales of Hope and Kant’s Attack on Emmanuel Swedenborg

“I do not find that any attachment or other inclination insinuated prior to examination has robbed my mind of its readiness to be guided by any kind of arguments, except one”, the Prussian Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in his attack on the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg:

The scale of reason is not, however, wholly impartial, and one of its arms, which bears the inscription “Hope for the Future,” has a mechanical advantage that causes even weak arguments that fall into the pan belonging to it to lift up the speculations that have a greater weight on the other side. This is the only inaccuracy that I cannot easily remove and that, in fact, I never want to remove.

While previous philosophers had delved a seemingly impassible chasm between the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal, even in his early writings the Königsberg professor sought some way to harmonize and unify them into a coherent world picture. To achieve this harmony it was necessary to demonstrate the errors of both base materialism and mystical idealism in order to demarcate the limits of human speculation.

However, as is apparent from statements such as that above, more than a refutation of materialism, it was the engagement with the mystical side of idealism, with its concurrent striving to engage in, and hope for, some future life that presented the most startling challenges to Kant’s balance between the phenomenal and noumenal. After all, that was the direction in which the scales themselves were admittedly rigged.

There is much to be learned about the development and direction of Kant’s thought from his stormy relationship to Swedenborg. The ridicule heaped up by Kant upon his contemporary belies a very serious difficulty he faced in attempting to distance the immortality and immateriality of the soul from the mystical or idealistic understanding of spirits. His ultimate answer to this was hope, a hope not found in experience, but in the realm of moral utility, or pure practical reason. Still, given the weight of moral or practical use in Kant’s philosophy, it is not immediately apparent why an investigation into the nature of spirits would provide nothing of value in considerations of the immateriality and immortality of the soul. From examining this position one learns a great deal about the Kantian definition of utility based on his earlier dismissal of spirits themselves as “useless”, as well as the moral utility of the soul’s immortality. In comparing these reasons we can begin to understand just how epistemologically threatening spirits could be to the subsequent balance of hope and experience, even as Kant could no more deny their rational possibility than the rational possibility of the immaterial soul he so wished to preserve.

The immortality of the soul stood alongside the existence of God and the freedom of the will as Kant’s three “proper” areas of metaphysical investigation. While unable to be demonstrated through syllogistic reasoning, because of the tendency of human thought to make errors of inference (paralogisms), we can be morally certain of them because they are postulates of pure practical reason. To understand how it is possible to be morally certain of something that is nevertheless indemonstrable, and how this relates to Kant’s rejection of spirits, we must first examine his reason for presenting the soul in this manner.

Rational Psychology was what Kant employed to set the limits of speculative reason in regards to the composition of the subjective self. In his own words it:

reminds us to regard this refusal of our reason to give an answer to those curious questions, which reach beyond this life, as reason’s hint that we should turn our self-knowledge away from fruitlessness and extravagant speculation toward fruitful practical uses, which, even if it is always directed only to objects of experience, takes its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience, and hence above this life.

In general, the soul was considered to be a simple substance; however, as Kant reminds us in space, and thus in experience, there is no substance that is simple. Even if there were some way to demonstrate this quality, it would nevertheless not be proof of immortality because of the logical possibility of the diminution of all simple substances into oblivion, thus: “the persistence of the soul, merely as an object of inner sense, remains unproved and even unprovable”. At best, all that can be gleaned from experience is the unity of consciousness that underlines cognition, but this is not a transcendental conception of the subject, nor do the principles of this subject come from some apparent “higher realm”. Instead, we must behave “as if” we took our moral principles from somewhere higher that implies, though can only ever imply, some future life. Rational psychology’s entire reason for being in the Kantian system is to explain why it is impossible to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, even as it hints towards this crucial principle of “as if”. Ultimately it is a kind of contradiction:

The problem of explaining the community of the soul with the body does not properly belong to the psychology that is here at issue, because it intends to prove the personality of the soul even outside this community (after death), and so it is transcendent in the proper sense, even though it concerns an object of experience, but only to the extent that it ceases to be an object of experience.

To demonstrate the immortality of the soul, in this regard, would by Kant’s definition be to show that which can not be shown. Yet he is clear that for this very same reason, the immortality of the soul cannot be so easily disproven. Indeed, the weight is on the side of the soul’s immateriality and immortality because despite the limitations of the understanding we live “as if” it were in fact a certainty.

It is instructive to note that just as rational psychology sets the limits of our understanding of the soul in experience, Kant counters the materialistic rejection of its immortality by appealing to quite a different limitation, that of the corporal body itself. In response to those who say that consciousness degrades alongside the degradation of the material mind and body, he claims:

You can weaken the power of this proof by assuming that our body is nothing but the fundamental appearance to which the entire faculty of sensibility and therewith all thinking are related, as their condition, in our present state (this life). Separation from the body would be the end of this sensible use of your cognitive power and the beginning of the intellectual.

Again it is space, as a category of understanding, which bars us from coming to any phenomenal conclusion. Yet here it is performing a different conceptual task, instead of challenging the notion of the simple, that which is not composed of any divisible parts, it argues from the perspective of the particular. That is to say, we can no more find evidence of the simple in experience as we can be sure that it may not in fact exist undetected in particulate beings, in this case the human animal, and by implication a kind of undetectable soul. However, at best such a defense is a mere heuristic exercise when compared to the demands placed upon us by pure practical reason, though it is important to keep in mind the balance of Kant’s argument.

Despite its indemonstrability in experience, Kant did in fact claim that he could be certain of the immortality of the soul. As he said:

this certainty of postulated possibility is not at all theoretical […;] it is not a necessity cognized with respect to the object but is, instead, an assumption necessary with respect to the subject’s observance of its objective but practical laws, hence merely a necessary hypothesis. I could find no better expression for this subjective but nevertheless unconditional rational necessity.

The conditions of the moral law that stand at the pinnacle of human worth, “to love God above all things and thy neighbour as thyself”, requires, a priori the three domains of metaphysics of which the immortality of the soul is one. The subjectively necessary, true and unconditional immortality of the soul causes Kant to dramatically personalize his position:

no one will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God and a future life; for if he knows that, then he is precisely the man I have long sought. All knowing (if it concerns an object of reason alone) can be communicated, and I would therefore also be able to hope to have my knowledge extended to such a wonderful degree by his instruction. No, the conviction is not logical but moral certainty, and, since it depends on subjective grounds (of moral disposition) I must not say ‘It is morally certain that there is a God,’ etc., but rather “I am morally certain’ etc. That is, the belief in a God and another world is so interwoven with my moral disposition that I am in as little danger of ever surrendering the former as I am worried that the latter can ever be torn away from me.

Moral certainty, in this case, is the ultimate “as if” in favour of the immortality of the soul, which has at its base the power of hope to bridge the gap between what is possible to understand in experience and what is possible to know through reason. In this exposition of personal certainty that goes beyond experience, but which nevertheless has the power to move him, as it were by force of the noumenal itself, there are echoes of his early encounter with another individual who did in fact claim a privileged access to this self-same noumenal realm: Swedenborg.

Kant published his work on Swedenborg, Dreams of a Spirit Seer, Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics in 1766, shortly before his famous “silent decade” in which he was to publish little until his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Writing in 1804 Kant’s friend and biographer Ludwig Ernst Borowski, commented that: “In general, every attentive reader finds already here the seeds of the Critique of Pure Reason and of that which Kant gave us in the future”. Thus it seems reasonable to investigate this text in order to gain a deeper insight into some potential tensions in Kant’s mature work.

Despite their admitted differences, there are also a number of striking similarities between the two thinkers, so much so that during his own lifetime Kant was concerned that their philosophies should be confused. He complained:

I have the misfortune that the testimony upon which I have stumbled and that bears such an uncommon likeness to my philosophical brainchild looks so desperately deformed and foolish that I would much sooner suppose the reader would, because of their affinity with such testimonies, regard my arguments as absurd rather than the reverse. Consequently, concerning such offensive comparisons, I bluntly state that I do not get the joke and declare in a nutshell that one either must suppose that there is more cleverness and truth in Schwedenberg’s [sic] writings than first appearances allow or that it is only by accident that his system coincides with mine, as poets sometimes prophesize when they rave, as one believes, or at least so they say, when they now and then coincide with what comes to pass.

Safe from accusations of materialism, it was a particular branch of idealistic mysticism in which Kant saw an apish image of himself. Yet what were these accidental ways in which Swedenborg’s system coincided with Kant’s that made it so offensive?

In Swedenborg’s system of morality we find that it is only through a good will, and not the execution of good acts, that one attains to a moral life, along with the intertwining of desire and thought itself, and the notion that the highest good for an individual is to love the “Lord above all things, and his neighbor as himself”. Likewise, while not used in exactly the same way, before Kant, Swedenborg was employing the language of the “kingdom of ends”, regnum finium to describe the ultimate value of human beings; however, with the added caveat that for him it was also associated with a “kingdom of uses and ends” that provided signatures in the phenomenal world that ultimately connected it to the noumenal in a way unimaginable in the Kantian system.

In both thinkers there was a developed sense of the limitations of human knowledge based on the structuring categories of understanding that were placed upon experience, yet for Swedenborg this would take on a notably different role, demonstrating, instead of refuting the possibility of some kind of encounter with the noumenal. As Kant understood it, for Swedenborg we can only perceive spiritual natures as filtered through our mental categories of understanding, and as such, do not see spirits-in-themselves, but only ever our representation of them. In this way Swedenborg’s account evaded several of Kant’s critiques of the impossibility of perceiving immaterial souls in space, since properly speaking, for both thinkers, souls, or spirits, did not occupy space at all. Instead, the “spiritual sense” was likened unto a category of understanding, though one not necessarily shared by all. This stands in a striking contrast to Kant’s mature position, not on the nature of spirits, but on how the understanding engages the material world through its structuring, universal categories. Instead, the problem with Swedenborg’s position here, for the young Kant, was that it was not useful. As he writes:

the property of developing in such a manner the impressions of the spirit world to clear intuition in this life can scarcely be useful, for by this the spiritual sensation becomes so closely interwoven with the figments of the imagination that it must be impossible to distinguish the truth in them from the crude illusions that surround it.

In agreement with his later philosophy, but notably different in the way he arrives at this conclusion, there were limits placed on speculation into these matters. The path he took to limit speculation in this case depended upon his belief that the person claiming to see spirits is sick because the vision “presupposes an altered balance of the nerves that are set in unnatural motion merely by the activity of purely spiritual sensations of the soul”. Here we see Kant entertaining, as a rational possibility, the existence of categories that are not necessarily universal in scope, but personal. True, these non-universal categories are signs of sickness in the constitution of the body, and at best were a source of confusion as to the validity of our intuitions, but the very possibility of them presented a challenge to the balance between idealism and materialism. Namely: how did this kind of irreducible uncertainty about the representation of the senses in the case of spirits compare to the same case in regard to the “thing-in-itself”?

In the case of Swedenborg’s spirit visions, while they could theoretically be present in experience, as a kind of non-universal category of understanding, the presupposed condition of seeing them, “an altered balance of the nerves”, would involve an inability to discern if they were actually from the noumenal realm, or creations of the subject’s own mind. Spirits would then be the very last thing a person could ever hope to see, for upon seeing them they could never be certain of any of their intuitions, even if the visions themselves could potentially be real. If Kant were to accept the possibility of non-universal categories as anything other than a sign of mental illness then it would cripple his ability to resist a purely idealist stance on the phenomenal world. For how does it follow that, admitting the logical possibility of spirit-visions, the potential spirit-seer would never be certain from whence any of his impressions came, while the experiences of person who was only ever a chair or table-seer would be validated by the supposed “coarseness” of their intuitions and comfortable ability to sit? In this way we begin to see just how much of a potential difficulty mystical idealism could present to Kant’s well-ordered distinctions between the phenomenal and the noumenal. While not rationally impossible, and indeed, necessarily possible for Kant’s project of establishing the immateriality and immortality of the soul, an investigation into spirit-visions would reap havoc with the investigator’s ability to distinguish between imagination and experience. It threatened to completely tip over the scales of reason towards the noumenal, which, as we have already seen, had a mechanical advantage in the hope for a future life.

Despite this potential pitfall, while making clear that he did not agree with the argument, Kant would go on to present a very similar image as Swedenborg’s in his critique of materialism. Despite expecting readers to lay aside such thoughts once their materialist foe has been vanquished, “we proceed quite rationally here, showing the opponent who thinks he has exhausted all of the possibilities [that he has not]”:

You could propose a transcendental hypothesis: that all life is really only intelligible, not subject to temporal alterations at all, and has neither begun at birth nor will be ended through death; that this life is nothing but a mere appearance, i.e., a sensible representation of the purely spiritual life, and the entire world of the senses is a mere image, which hovers before our present kind of cognition and, like a dream, has no objective reality in itself; that if we could intuit the things and ourselves as they are we would see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures with which our only true community had not begun with birth nor would not cease with bodily death.

Later in life Kant used the same inability to discern the boundaries between the mind and experience to weaken the materialist stance as he claimed was a sign of sickness in a potential spirit-seer such as Swedenborg. Not only this, but he uses the same language of the “dream” to describe this condition. Thus the first difficulty that Kant faces in his disregard of the existence of spirits is derived directly from his wish to argue for the immateriality and immortality of the soul, for how can the above argument, “quite rationally” show the impotence of the materialist stance and, with a like logic in the case of spirit-visions, maintain its force in the face of his refutation of mystical idealism? The answer to this rests in his concept of moral utility, a utility that was also jeopardized by accepting the potential existence of spirits. Kant could not accept the existence of spirits not in spite of, but because of how he sought to convince his contemporaries of the immortality and immateriality of the soul.

A sketch of Kant later in life mixing mustard to improve his memory.

Between Dreams of a Spirit Seer and The Critique of Pure Reason there is already a distinction to be made between what Kant considered rational and moral utility. In Dreams Kant considers utility largely in terms of what is rationally useful, writing at the beginning of the text that between looking for even one case of spiritual manifestations in this life and debunking their existence altogether: “there is, perhaps, a third position left, namely, not to meddle with such prying and idle questions, but to concern oneself only with what is useful”. According to this, the existence of spirits was as impossible to prove as it was to be used to prove anything else, and thus not worthy of consideration by serious minds. However, this is a position that, in and of itself, could equally apply to the immortality of the soul if simply left at that. Moving closer towards a sense of moral utility, Kant concluded his treaties on Swedenborg with the rejoinder that:

it would probably be best if [inquirers] would deign to wait patiently until they arrived there. But since our fate in the future world will probably very much depend upon how we have conducted ourselves at our post in the present, I conclude with that which Voltaire allows his honorable Candide, after so many useless scholastic debates, to conclude: ‘Let us look after our happiness, go into the garden, and work.

Here it is implied that while hope for a future life is an important guide to actions in this life, that it has a moral utility, the lack of rational utility present in the question of spirits makes it of some moral inutility. Here hope seems to be performing the logical function in the noumenal realm that the laws of nature perform in the phenomenal. Yet does this follow, and if so, why? To answer this we must now more deeply consider what Kant hand in mind by moral utility.

In his discussion of the three domains of metaphysics, of which the immortality and immateriality of the soul was a part, Kant stressed that these very concepts are lacking in utility, strictly speaking. As he said: “If, then, these three cardinal propositions are not at all necessary for our knowing, and yet are insistently recommended to us by our reason, their importance must really concern only the practical”. How is it that reason tries to induce us to admit principles about which it can never have any knowledge? It is perhaps more appropriate to say that hope, not reason, is the foundation of this “practical interest”, as Kant seems to imply when he asserts that:

“since the moral precept is thus at the same time my maxim (as reason commands that it ought to be), I will inexorably believe in the existence of God and a future life, and I am sure that nothing can make these beliefs unstable, since my moral principles themselves, which I cannot renounce without becoming contemptible in my own eyes, would thereby be subverted”.

From this we may consider hope to be the grounding principle of moral utility, indeed, that very thing which allows us to talk in terms of moral utility in the first place. It is that which allows the human beings to take heed of the noumenal realm and be aware of the three elements of metaphysics. Without it, admittedly, the arguments of materialism may be refuted, but nothing else could be erected to balance them, since the world of the noumenal itself would be silent. Yet this, for Kant, was chilling, alternating between a moral relativism, on the side of the materialists, or else “fanatical theosophic dreams”, on that of idealists like Swedenborg:

The proposition about the moral vocation of our nature, that only in an endless progress can we attain complete conformity with the moral law, is of the greatest usefulness, not merely in regard to the present supplement to the incapacity of speculative reason but also with respect to religion. In default of it, one either quite degrades the moral law from its holiness by making it out to be lenient (indulgent) and thus conformed to our conveniences, or else strains ones’s [sic] calling as well as ones’s [sic] expectation to an unattainable vocation, namely to a hoped-for full acquisition of holiness of will, and so get lost in enthusiastic theosophical dreams that quite contradict self-knowledge.

In this anxiety then, we find a potential answer to the question raised earlier. Both the immortality of the soul and the existence of spirits lack a substantial rational utility; in the phenomenal realm they can be neither proven nor disproven. Yet the immortality of the soul has a moral utility for Kant, since it forms the basis of a hope that ultimately joins the two realms. In contrast, the existence, or the acceptance of the existence of spirits, would in fact be detrimental to this very same hope, for it would co-mingle the noumenal and phenomenal in such a way as to make certainty of either seemingly impossible, for then there would be no way of telling what was a construct of the mind, and what a visitation from the noumenal realm. Perhaps paradoxically, anything resembling a promise of phenomenal evidence for the immortality of the soul would in fact destroy the principle of hope upon which Kant would spend his entire life employing to connect the two realms of existence, a hope that by its very limitations makes our appreciation of these realms possible.

In his writing and in his thought, Kant had no difficulty in distinguishing himself from the materialist position, yet the pull of idealism was much stronger and for that same reason potentially more destabilizing to the uneven balance that he wished to maintain. There was a double difficulty inherent in the existence of thinkers like Swedenborg, whose system of mystical idealism also chose as its main topics God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will. Firstly, in terms of rational utility, both spirits and the immortality of the soul shared the same inherent inability to be proven or disproven. Yet the consideration of spirits along Swedenborgian lines presented a grave problem, for Swedenborg’s spirits acted upon the understanding in much the same way as the thing-in-itself, and thus partially bypassed the limits that Kant set up for what experience could or could not demonstrate. Yet because of this they only served to sow uncertainty about the source of our intuitions, and had the potential to collapse the distinction between imagination, the noumenal and the phenomenal to the confusion of all. The second difficulty that Swedenborg’s system presented was the way in which this potential confusion about the sources of our intuitions subverted the role of hope upon which the moral law was founded. How could practical reason be said to take “its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience”, if the very hope upon which this “as if” rested could be logically realized in a way that pushed our uncertainties back, not into the domain of a clear and particular hope, but into that of an irresolvable distrust of all our intuitions? It is conceivable that we could see spirits, and thus have no way of ever trusting our knowledge again, or else be forced to accept any construction of the mind as valid. Such a state may very well result in the Kantian nightmare scenario, of a kind of relativism, or mystical idealism that could offer no certain footing for any system of morality. Thus Swedenborg and other “visionaries, enthusiasts, etc.” were very important targets for attack, not despite, but because of the similarities between their systems and Kant’s and especially on the subject of the immortality and immateriality of the soul, the uneven balance for which he sought no solution.

Kant’s ghost, the one which he could not do without, whose very existence was a paradox because it could not be realized without destroying its own foundations was nothing more, and nothing less, than hope  itself. He’d have rather had a certain absence of proof, than an uncertain presence, for it would throw the rest of his system completely into the realm of the ideal, and hence of our wildest dreams.

For More Information:

Kant, Immanuel. 2002. Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings. Trans. Gregory R. Johnson and Glenn Alexander Magee. Ed. Gregory R. Johnson. Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation Publications.

—. 1999. Critique of Pure Reason. Eds. and Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—. 1997. Critique of Practical Reason. Ed. and Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. 1909. Arcana Caelestia: The Heavenly Arcana contained in the Holy Scriptures or Word of the Lord, Vol. 1. New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society.