The Stakes of Genius
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The Stakes of Genius
Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality Catherine Malabou Carolyn Shread, trans. Polity Press 223 Pages; Print, $24.95

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Paragraph 27 of "The Transcendental Deduction" in Kant's second revised edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787) has been a headache to commentators and critics alike of the origin and nature of the transcendental system of categories and their relationship to experience. This is because, uncharacteristically, Kant has recourse to a figurative analogy, as Catherine Malabou explains, from biology. Specifically, it is from the developmental history of embryonic formation, known since Aristotle's day and resurrected by Buffon and others in their time.

In order to distinguish how the human mind works to process experience from the view of a pre-established or innate harmony of subject and object worlds, guaranteed by God or a providential or miraculous coincidence; or an entirely empirical learning by experience, with little or no contribution by the mind to the process; Kant says (as cited by Malabou), the interaction of the categories of understanding, especially causality (for every effect there must be a cause), amounts to: "as it were, a system of the epigenesis of pure reason [gleichsam ein System der Epigenesis der reinen Vernunnft]. Malabou goes on to elaborate, "Kant claims that the relation of the categories to objects develops through self-differentiation, as do all embryos."

Epigenesis, the concept that finally achieved widespread favor at the end of the eighteenth century, then becomes the privileged biological figure of the spontaneity of the elements of thinking. This assertion cuts short both innatism and the fabrication argument: transcendental formation develops as a living individual and is not produced [after the fact] artificially.

Malabou traces the history of commentary, critique, elaboration, and alternative, focusing on twentieth century revisions and dismissals of the epigenesis of reason. Tracing three thematic threads in this mass of commentary, time, the brain, and subjective spontaneity, Malabou argues that rather than retreat to innate preformation in the mind of the categories; or accept the empirical trial and error learning from experience, precursor of the adaptive post-Darwinian neural biological model; we would do better to take Kant literally in his figuration; that is, it is the transcendental power of the mind itself that forms "as it were, the system of the epigenesis of pure reason."

This argument is conducted masterfully, with surprising and also brilliant readings along the way of philosophers and philosophical mathematicians such as Heidegger, Foucault, Ricoeur, Frege and Meillassoux, as well as neuroscientists such as Jean-Pierre Changeux and others. Malabou demonstrates elegantly how continental philosophy has been largely a continual revisionary critique and dismissal of the transcendental, all the while reinscribing it within their own logically deduced assumptions, if not their own self-baffling statements. Whether or not Malabou, with her understanding of the mind, as informed by the latest brain studies, possesses a creative plasticity, a position for which she is well known, has definitely resolved the controversy surrounding this passage, she has laid out the stakes of genius. For "genesis" in its popular and academic variations, over the last two centuries or so, is less a mystification, though it can be that, less a rationalization of elitism or sexism or any other bad-ism; than it is a sign marking the attempt to claim a role in the synthesis of mind and nature, subject and object, that synthesis we call human experience. The spontaneous, autonomous contribution of the self-forming subject to the dialectic of experience, what we "half-perceive and half create," as Wordsworth famously said in "Tintern Abbey" (1798) is Malabou's surprising argument. This power is the genius of the mind, the genius of humanity itself.

The alternative to Malabou's position would either be a Daniel Dennettlike determinism, in which consciousness and its reflexive sense of spontaneous activity in perception, cognition, and decision-making—Dennett dismisses all human consciousness as illusion, Maya—or the other extreme, a Bishop Berkeley solipsism that only a God could get the species out of.

Against this [aporia], I have not proposed a revivalist attempt to save the integrity of...