Fragment: More Philology of the Future

Thoughts such as this, I suspect, can help explain why I’ve moved increasingly from Nietzsche to occult studies. Not that Nietzsche was an occultist (he was quite disappointed by the one seance he did attend), but his emphasis on traditions, mysteries, symbols myth and the force of will can certainly lend itself to a intriguing reinterpretation of thought at the fringes of society.

“If on one level, then, the Dionysian is a thoroughly modern myth, on another level the Dionysian is a symbol for the ineradicable need for myths in modernity. Nietzsche thus uses the Dionysian to expose, in a rhetorical rather than declarative way, the most transparent and therefore most invisible myth of all: the myth of mythlessness that prevails in the modern world, its presumed ‘timeliness.” Philology as a discipline is what helps to sustain this myth and the modern needs for myth in the contemporary present. That those needs are said by Nietzsche to be consistent with religious needs that develop in antiquity is only a sign of the deeply rooted nature of the phenomenon described and of its seeming ineradicability.

Traditional philology is the agency that helps to sustain the mythical shape of the present, in part by alienating myth as an object of dispassionate study. It is one of the forms that forgetfulness assumes. Exposing this condition is the work of a critical philology. And because there is no philology that does not stand in the shadow of its own history, philology for Nietzsche must become a self-reflexive, self-critical, and often paradoxical undertaking.”

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 224.

Fragment: Academic Charisma

“The traditional exam had been heroic oral theater, analogized by jurists to the three trials of a crowned athlete in Roman law. That heroic theater, colored by metaphors of blood and ordeal, seems to have hurt few. The modern exam has become a mundane, meritocratic exam associated with sweat and labor, but it can make one nearly ‘sick to death.’ In extreme forms, such as at Victorian Cambridge, such exams can recur to motifs of heroism. But the first generations that endured the Prussian Abitur and the modern Oxbridge exams described the process as torture. As survivors and administrators of such exams, we should not discount the reality of mental torture in modern practices. Torture acts to break spirits and wills. Following chapters investigate more closely the rehabilitation of some of the tortured.”

Clark, William. 2006. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 139-40.

Fragment: The Philology of the Future

I have never been convinced that Nietzsche heralded, as Heidegger claimed, “the death of metaphysics”, but instead thought that he demonstrated, indeed, its very inevitability. Yet a student today could be excused for thinking that that word “metaphysics” was some kind of vile academic invective.  In Porter I recently found a reassurance that I am not alone in this suspicion:

Nietzsche cannot be assumed to have passed from a philosophical naivete (as if in a “precritical” period) to some emancipated, free-spirited thinking that definitively outgrew the theoretical problems (and not just the philological materials) that he had encountered early on. I doubt that Nietzsche believed in grand emancipatory possibilities at any point in his career. His readings of the Presocratics (Heraclitus, Parmenides, or Democritus) put this beyond doubt for the early period: what these reflections show is something about the inescapably, not just of the category of the subject, but of its idealism– which is always bound up, for Nietzsche, with the subject’s infinite capacity for delusion. What we learn is that Nietzsche’s inquiries into ancient philosophy do not reveal a premetaphysical thinking that points to a region beyond metaphysics, as is frequently held. On the contrary, Nietzsche’s early writings reveal the inescapability of metaphysical thinking. […] But as Nietzsche says quite plainly in both phases, early and late, ‘It is absolutely impossible for the subject to want [and hence, to be able] to see and known something beyond itself: knowledge and being are the most contradictory spheres there are.’ The ‘subjective concept’ is ‘eternal’: we can never accede to a region ‘beyond the wall of relations’ by which we are conditioned, for beyond these lies merely ‘a mythical primordial ground of things'”.

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 21.

Fragment: “Psychic Television”

Some time ago I attended a conference at the University of Michigan where Dr. Andriopoulos gave a Skype-mediated keynote lecture in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. During the talk he mentioned his work on the technology of television and remote viewing. I looked into his article on Psychic Television and found this interesting passage:

“The coincidence of texts from 1929 describing occult “domestic phenomena” and the magical properties of the new technology in one’s own home can be related to a more fundamental interrelation of television and clairvoyance. Walter Benjamin understood spiritualism and occultism to be the “backside” (Kehrseite) of “technological development.” In contrast, I would like to establish spiritualist research into the psychic television of somnambulist mediums as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the invention and implementation of the technological medium. Spanning a period from the late nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth century, television’s gradual emergence in no sense relied exclusively on “factors immanent to the technology,” as suggested by Joseph Hoppe and others. The slow accumulation of technical and physical knowledge, beginning around 1890, accelerating in the 1920s, and enabling the first wireless transmissions of moving pictures in the last years of that decade did not take place in a vacuum that could be separated from its contingent cultural contexts. Instead, occultist studies on psychic “clairvoyance” (Hellsehen) and “television” (Fernsehen), carried out in the same period by spiritualists who emulated the rules and procedures of science, played a constitutive role for the technological inventions and developments of electrical television.”

Andriopoulos, Stefan. 2005. “Psychic Television”. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Spring ), p. 618-637.

Fragment: Harmonious Triads

“Debates concerning Paganini’s controversial virtuosity raged throughout European bourgeois and aristocratic circles. He himself reportedly started the legend that he had obtained his unparallelled skill from the Devil, continuing a centuries-old trope of violinists’ deals with Satan. His fourth string, which was rumored to be composed of the intestine of his mistress whom he purportedly murdered, elicited wondrous melodic tones. The rumors continued. He supposedly spent twenty years in prison for his murderous deed, accompanied only by his violin. During this time in solitary confinement, he was able to ferret out the secrets of his instrument, inventing a new fingering technique. As fantastic as these tales are, they seem to pale in insignificance to his very real performances. Whenever he broke a string from his passionate and forceful playing, he compensated without missing a beat, by continuing the piece with only three strings. Should another break, he could play with two. Indeed, his coup de grace was his uncanny ability to play an entire piece on only one string.”

Jackson, Myles. (2006) Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 253.

Nietzsche’s Mustache

Nietzsche's Mustache

“Knowing one’s ‘particularity.’ — We too easily forget that in the eyes of strangers who are seeing us for the first time, we are something completely different from what we consider ourselves to be: usually nothing more than an eye-catching particular determines the impression. Accordingly, the most gentle and fair-minded person on earth can, if he merely happens to have a large mustache, sit, as it were, in its shade, and sit calmly – ordinary eyes will see in him the accessory to a large mustache, in other words, a militaristic, quick-tempered, under certain circumstances violent character — and they act toward him accordingly.” ~ Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2011. Dawn. Trans. Brittain Smith. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 210.

The Fearful Figures of Carlos Schwabe

Le Faune, 1923.

The German symbolist painter Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926) spent most of his professional life in Paris. He composed illustrations for the works of authors Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire and had notable Rosicrucian sympathies. Taking up such symbolist motifs as death, beauty, mythology and the monstrous, he apparently modeled the angel in his “The Death of the Grave-Digger” after his own wife.

La Vague, 1907.

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La mort du fossoyeur, The Death of the Grave-Digger, 1895.

La Douleur, The Pain, 1893.

From Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”.

Poster of the First Rosicrucian Exposition by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa, 1895.

For More Information:

Nietzsche and the Evil Eye: A Bequeathal of Sorts


Stumbling across Alan Dundes “The Evil Eye: A Casebook” early in my undergrad, just when I was starting to read Nietzsche, certainly helped to further my interest in the relationship between folklore and psychology.

As a belief, the evil eye has proven to be incredibly durable and widespread, extending, to the best of my knowledge, from India to Scotland, and across thousands of years, well into Greco-Roman times and beyond. Roughly, it is the belief that a person who possesses the evil eye, or who develops it out of envy and covetousness can cause a great deal of harm to the object of their attention. To combat this, many cultures have developed eye-like jewelry and charms to “catch” the gaze of the eye before it can do any harm.

Nietzsche, as a philologist, must have come across references to it in his readings of classical authors, or even during his travels to Italy. In any event, the number of references made to the evil eye, or an envious eye, in his writings are legion, and few commentators that I am aware of have explored this trend in any detail. I suspect though, that much can be learned about the structure and history of his psychological notion of ressentiment by comparing it to his encounter with this body of folklore.

Yet while I believe this to be the case, I do not think that I will be the one who proves it. I’ve two books on Nietzsche somewhere within me, and hopefully no more, as I’ve seen what happens to scholars who spend their entire careers on one, and only one, historical figure, and I am too wedded to diversity to find that path appealing.

That said, I think that someone should do it.

Below are just a few of the references in Nietzsche to an evil eye that I could cobble together:

“You go above and beyond them: but the higher you climb, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy. And he who flies is hated most of all.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“And many a one who cannot see the sublime in man calls it virtue that he can see his baseness all-too-closely: thus he calls his evil eye virtue.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states./ A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears to me, for now I will speak to you about the death of peoples. / State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” / It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. / Destroyers are they who lay snares for the many, and call it state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. / Where there are still peoples, the state is not understood, and is hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs. / This sign I give to you: every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbor does not understand. It has created its own language of laws and customs. / But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The teachers of the purpose of existence.— Whether I contemplate men with benevolence or with an evil eye, I always find them concerned with a single task, all of them and every one of them in particular: to do what is good for the preservation of the human race. Not from any feeling of love for the race, but merely because nothing in them is older, stronger, more inexorable and unconquerable than this instinct—because this instinct constitutes the essence of our species, our herd. It is easy enough to divide our neighbors quickly, with the usual myopia, from a mere five paces away, into useful and harmful, good and evil men; but in any large-scale accounting, when we reflect on the whole a little longer, we become suspicious of this neat division and finally abandon it. Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish:—still it is proven that it has preserved our race so far. (The Gay Science)

Another mode of convalescence (in certain situations even more to my liking) is sounding out idols. There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my “evil eye” upon this world; that is also my “evil ear.” Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out. (Twilight of the Idols)

7 Moral for psychologists. — Not to go in for backstairs psychology. Never to observe in order to observe! That gives a false perspective, leads to squinting and something forced and exaggerated. Experience as the wish to experience does not succeed. One must not eye oneself while having an experience; else the eye becomes “an evil eye.” A born psychologist guards instinctively against seeing in order to see; the same is true of the born painter. He never works “from nature”; he leaves it to his instinct, to his camera obscura, to sift through and express the “case,” “nature,” that which is “experienced.” He is conscious only of what is general, of the conclusion, the result: he does not know arbitrary abstractions from an individual case. What happens when one proceeds differently? For example, if, in the manner of the Parisian novelists, one goes in for backstairs psychology and deals in gossip, wholesale and retail? Then one lies in wait for reality, as it were, and every evening one brings home a handful of curiosities. But note what finally comes of all this: a heap of splotches, a mosaic at best, but in any case something added together, something restless, a mess of screaming colors. The worst in this respect is accomplished by the Goncourts; they do not put three sentences together without really hurting the eye, the psychologist’s eye. Nature, estimated artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves gaps. Nature is chance. To study “from nature” seems to me to be a bad sign: it betrays submission, weakness, fatalism; this lying in the dust before petit faits [little facts] is unworthy of a whole artist. To see what is — that is the mark of another kind of spirit, the anti-artistic, the factual. One must know who one is. (Twilight of the Idols)

24 L’art pour l’art. […] One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum, whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it — must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread — this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy — to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty. (Twilight of the Idols)

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For More Information:

The Evil Eye: A Casebook. 1992. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

A Bust of Mephistopheles

While it’s sadly no longer on display, I  saw the above bust of the devil Mephistopheles when I first came to Toronto some years ago. Apparently it is cut from a single Tanzanian ruby, with a gold and obsidian base. It’s part of the Michael M. Scott private collection, and as far as I can tell it was made by Günter Petry, in Idar-Obserstein, Germany. While I don’t tend to be a fan of conventional jewelry, the stonework in the collection was quite impressive.

For More Information: (Site opens with kind of sleazy rich person jazz)

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.