- Written on the Body, Written by the Senses
"Explore me," you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I'm free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon's wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.1
Ever since Plato wished to banish the poets from the republic (Republic 607b2),2 philosophy has stood in a vexed relationship to literature. There seem to be at least three reasons for philosophy's traditional contempt for literature as a reliable means to truth: (a) because literature engages the passions of a reader, it may cloud the reader's ability to deliberate calmly and rationally about any given account of how things really are; (b) literature most commonly deals with the particular and concrete and therefore cannot claim to a more general or universal truth, and; (c) literature is too open-ended and ambiguous in its meaning, which, again, obstructs the reader's view of how things really are. Though the writer is imitating the world, is holding up a mirror to it—a speculum mundi—literature's images are mere appearances.
Philosophy, on the contrary, aims for a kind of "transcendental vision." Either philosophy looks beyond the particular appearances of things in the world to find the one structure which unites all instances of the thing, or philosophy claims that the structure of each object is supplied by consciousness, which then delimits and bounds each object, and places it in space and time so that the scientist can better dissect, measure, and catalogue it. That is, either philosophers, in the [End Page 365] tradition of Parmenides, aim to find the one in the many—as Socrates explains in the Republic "we are accustomed to assuming one Form in each case for the many particulars" (596a4–5)—or as in Kant's Copernican revolutionary thinking, consciousness renders the object of experience a knowable thing.
While this transcendental vision proves quite useful for the scientist who deals with the empirical, it proves less useful where the task would be to conceptualize what is not a possible object of experience. While the scientist can indeed dissect and probe the body to understand how it functions, the scientist is less likely to discover what it means for a body to love, or to be free. In the "The Antinomy of Pure Reason" in the first Critique, Kant, in fact, left us with a choice about what philosophy's true object should be: either we restrict philosophy to the empirical world and its logic, or we pursue metaphysical questions about God or Freedom which cannot be grasped.3 On pain of contradiction, we cannot have both. In chapter three of the Transcendental Doctrine Judgment, "The Ground of the Distinction of all Objects in General into Phenomena and Noumena," Kant uses a wonderful metaphor to illustrate the dangers of Pure Reason venturing into metaphysical questions, and thereby employing the categories beyond the empirical: "This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself with unalterable limits. It is the land of truth—enchanting name!—surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion" (CR, 257). If we allow ourselves to be allured by the deceptive appearance of farther shores, then we are not engaged in philosophy, but speculation or mysticism. We cannot provide an account for such knowledge in universal terms, in arguments, in logic. And yet, as Kant himself very well knew, these are questions that we are, as humans, compelled to raise. At the outset of the Transcendental Dialectic, Kant makes clear that reason will ineluctably be led...