- Letters for the Blind1
Nowhere do things flourish which are not a combination of inert elements, and nowhere can we perceive matter as other than that constant nourishment which thought directs, regulates, and controls, but on which it is dependent.—Ferdinand de Saussure, Words upon Words
In the autumn of 1798, Immanuel Kant published what was (excluding lecture notes) his final work, The Conflict of the Faculties. The latter comprises three essays, which ostensibly address the conflicts between the lower faculty of philosophy and the higher faculties of, respectively, theology, law, and medicine. Each of the three essays was written for a different purpose and at a different time (CF 7:11; 243):2 the first, completed in 1794, deals with the relationship between theology and philosophy in the modern German university; the second, probably written in 1795, addresses the progress of the human race and the possibility that this progress is visible in the positive responses of uninvolved spectators to the French Revolution; the third and final essay, written in 1796, is Kant’s philosophical reply to a recent book on The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1796) by the physician C. W. Hufeland. Kant acknowledges in his prefatory remarks that The Conflict of the Faculties was not initially conceived as a cohesive work, that only upon returning to the three essays did he recognize “their systematic unity” and the need to publish them together in a single volume “in order to prevent their being scattered” [um der Zerstreuung vorzubeugen] (7:11; 243). The systematic unity that Kant recognized has, however, seemed less certain to The Conflict’s readers. Ernst Cassirer, for example, in his 1921 study of Kant’s Life and Thought, notes that the third essay, at least, “is only superficially hooked on” (407–08). More recently, Manfred Kuehn has described the composition of The Conflict as Kant’s last attempt at “tying the bundle” of his occasional writings before age—Kant was seventy-three at the time—and illness made this project impossible (393). The result, Kuehn concludes, is a “mixed bag” (404).3
Most commentators would probably agree with Kuehn’s assessment, as evidenced by the fact that a number of the best readings of The Conflict begin by disintegrating it, ignoring its putative unity and focusing instead on one of the essays in isolation from the other two—so, we have Jacques Derrida’s “Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties,” which addresses only the first essay; and we have Jean-François Lyotard’s Enthusiasm: The Kantian [End Page 81] Critique of History, which addresses only the second. In what follows, I shall, to some extent, cleave to this disintegrative approach to Kant’s text. I am interested in the third essay: “The Conflict of the Philosophy Faculty with the Faculty of Medicine,” also titled “On the Power of the Mind to Master its Morbid Feelings by Sheer Resolution.” And I am most interested in this essay’s Postscript, which finds Kant turning from the prolongation of human life and the resistance to hypochondria—the essay’s professed foci—to the more particular matter of prolonging “literary life” by protecting the eyes of readers from blindness and other afflictions.
So I want to focus on the third essay. By doing so, however, I hope to show that this essay and, more specifically, this essay’s appended insights on literary life, open not only onto the question of the systematic unity or disunity of The Conflict of the Faculties—a text that is, within the Kantian corpus, admittedly peripheral—but also onto a question of unity at the very center of Kant’s critical system: the transcendental unity of self-consciousness. The latter, Kant writes, is “that highest point to which one must affix all use of the understanding, even the whole of logic and, after it, transcendental philosophy” (CPR B134; 247). My claim is that through his reflections on reading and on literary life, Kant rehearses a conflict between the transcendental idealism that he explicitly endorses and a materialism—in this case, a kind of linguistic or literary materialism—that he rejects but never really puts to rest...