Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic” provides the basis for Whitehead’s “subjective form”

Kant’s great mistake, according to Whitehead (1929/1978), is to accept Hume’s founding assumption: a complete atomism of subjective sensations, or “the radical disconnection of impressions qua data” from one another (113). For Hume, “the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception” (157). Kant’s aim, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is to avoid the skeptical consequences of this position. But Kant never questions the premise of starting out with the chaos of “mere sensation”; he only tries to show how this chaos can be ordered, and its elements connected, in a more satisfactory way than Hume was able to accomplish.
Hume offers nothing but mere habit as an explanation for the basic stability of experience. In Kant’s account in the “Transcendental Logic,” the understanding, with its Categories, forcefully imposes a conceptual order upon an otherwise disconnected and featureless flux of individual impressions. In resolving the matter in this way, Kant relies exclusively upon “the higher of the human modes of functioning,” and ignores the more “primitive types of experience” (113). He retains what Whitehead riticizes as “the overintellectualist bias prevalent among philosophers” (141).
By ordering experience as he does in the “Transcendental Logic,” Kant remains within the tradition – stretching back at least to Aristotle – of what Gilbert Simondon (2005) calls hylomorphism (45-60). This is the dualism of form and matter. Hylomorphism presumes that materiality, or the “sensible” (that which can be apprehended by the senses alone), is passive, inert, and intrinsically shapeless, and that it can only be organized by an intelligible form that is imposed upon it from outside, or from above. Simondon argues that hylomorphism, with its rigid dualism, ignores all the intermediaries that are at work in any actual process of formation or construction. In fact, matter is never entirely passive and inert, for it always contains incipient structures. Matter already contains distributions of energy, and potentials for being shaped in particular directions or ways. (It’s easier to plane a piece of wood if you work in the direction of the grain, rather than across it – cf. Massumi 1992, 10).
For its part, form is never absolute, and never simply imposed from the outside, since it can only be effective to the extent that it is able to translate or “transduce” itself into one or another material. That is to say, form is energetic: it works by a series of transformations that transmit energy, and thereby “inform” matter, affecting it or modulating it in a process of exchange and communication. (The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan puts it; contrary to the hylomorphic assumptions of Shannon’s theory of communication, no message, or formal structure, can be indifferent to the medium by and through which it is transmitted).
In the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” in contrast to the “Transcendental Logic,” Kant does not altogther adhere to hylomorphism. He does indeed say that space and time are the “pure forms” of perception, and that “sensation as such is its matter” (1996, 95). But his discussion also bears the traces of a different logic, one more open to intermediaries. Because time and space are not categories or concepts, they do not relate to their objects in the way that the forms of logical intelligibility (“causation, substance, quality, quantity”) do. They are not organizing principles actively imprinted upon an otherwise shapeless and disorganized matter.
In Simondon’s terminology, space and time are the media of a flexible, always-varying modulation, while the Categories are the principles of a rigid and always-identical molding (2005, 47).9 Space and time have a certain flexibility, because they are modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity. Kant says that sensibility or receptivity “remains as different as day and night from cognition of the object in itself”; rather than being cognitive, sensibility has to do with “the appearance of something, and the way we are affected by that something” (1996, 96; italics added).
And that is the crucial point. Even though the “thing in itself” is unknowable, or uncognizable, nevertheless it affects us, in a particular way. And by conveying and expressing “the way we are affected,” space and time establish immanent, non-cognitive connections among objects, between the object and the subject, and between the subject and itself. These affective connections are intrinsic to the very course of any experience in space and time. Whitehead laments the fact that Kant “conceives his transcendental aesthetic to be the mere description of a subjective process” (1929/1978, 113), and reserves for the “Transcendental Logic” the more basic task of giving an account of the necessary conditions of all experience.
But once we take the “Transcendental Aesthetic” in the more radical manner that Whitehead suggests, there is no problem of formlessness, or of disconnected, atomistic impressions; and therefore there is no need to impose the Categories of understanding from above, in order to give these impressions form, or to yoke them together. As Whitehead puts it, in such a process of feeling causality does not need to be established extrinsically, since “the datum includes its own interconnections” already (113). Understood in this way, Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic” provides the basis for one of Whitehead’s most important notions, that of “subjective form.”
7 It is crucial to remember that, despite these critical revisions of Kant, Whitehead nonetheless maintains that “the order [from subjectivity to objectivity, or from objectivity to subjectivity] is immaterial in comparison with [Kant’s] general idea” of experience as “constructive functioning,” which is the really important thing (156).
8 Kant is often taken, even by Whitehead, as having sought to “save” Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry by giving them an a priori grounding. But I agree with Kojin Karatani (2003, 63) that, in fact, “just the opposite is closer to the truth.” As Karatani shows, the whole point behind Kant’s discussion of time and space, and the mathematics of time and space, is to show that these are synthetic conditions, rather than analytic logical necessities, and hence that theyactually need to be constructed, and cannot simply be taken for granted, or presupposed (55-63).
9 As Deleuze (1997) puts it, traditional philosophy posits “a concept-object relation in which the concept is an active form, and the object a merely potential matter. It is a mold, a process of molding.” But with Kant, thanks to his new treatment of time and space, everything changes: “The concept-object relation subsists in Kant, but it is doubled by the I-Self relation,which constitutes a modulation and no longer a mold” (30). Steven Shaviro shaviro@shaviro.com The Pinocchio Theory

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