The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida
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The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida

Sean Gaston

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The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida

Sean Gaston

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About This Book

In the mid-eighteenth century metaphysics was broadly understood as the study of three areas of philosophical thought: theology, psychology and cosmology. This book examines the fortunes of the third of these formidable metaphysical concepts, the world. Sean Gaston provides a clear and concise account of the concept of world from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth century, exploring its possibilities and limitations and engaging with current issues in politics and ecology. He focuses on the work of five principal thinkers: Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida, all of whom attempt to establish new grounds for seeing the world as a whole. Gaston presents a critique of the self-evident use of the concept of world in philosophy and asks whether one can move beyond the need for a world-like vantage point to maintain a concept of world. From Kant to the present day this concept has been a problem for philosophy and it remains to be seen if we need a new Copernican revolution when it comes to the concept of world.

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Chapter One
The Kantian World
1. The Metaphysical World
On April 12, 1961, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit the earth. Seven years later, the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 was the first manned spaceflight to produce an image of the earth from the lunar orbit. In this striking photograph, the upper half of the earth is visible surrounded by black space. This would be followed during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 by the first images of the earth taken from the surface of the moon. The famous so-called blue marble photo of the earth, when it was seen for the first time as a complete sphere, appeared in 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission. It is perhaps surprising to recall that it is only in the last forty years that we have been able to see the earth as a whole. From Gagarin to Apollo 17, the earth became a visible object that could be encircled. To use William Blake’s phrase from the late eighteenth century, which he attributes to the labour of a god-like reason, after Gagarin we became “englob’d.”1 Even without the recent emphasis on globalization or global climate change, which were no doubt given a tangible authority by these famous images from the 1960s and early 1970s, one could treat this visualization of the earth from afar as the Copernican revolution of the twentieth century. Today we can all encircle the globe.
In 1781, 180 years before Yuri Gagarin’s flight, Immanuel Kant had argued in the Critique of Pure Reason for his own Copernican revolution. For Kant, the significance of the hypothesis that the earth rotates around the sun was that Copernicus formulated it “in a manner contradictory to the senses yet true” by seeking “for the observed movements not in the objects of the heavens but in their observer.”2 Kant compared the project of critical philosophy to a Copernican revolution, insisting that we should not start with the object as given but with how it is possible that we can experience and understand the object.3 This displacement of the priority of the object in philosophy was not simply a rejection of empiricism, which had become a recognized philosophical tradition since the publication of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. Kant’s work was primarily focused on challenging the assumptions and impasses of metaphysics “as a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself above all instruction from experience.”4 Kant’s critical philosophy was devoted to challenging the excessive claims of both empiricism and rationalism. He would attempt to find a new middle way between these competing philosophical perspectives.
As much as Gagarin’s circumvention of the earth ushered in a new era—the significance of which is still being formulated today—Kant’s critical philosophy would profoundly change the understanding of the concept of world in the history of philosophy. In the nineteenth century, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would all argue for a new concept of world in reaction to critical philosophy. Indeed, Schopenhauer described the works of Kant as “the most important phenomenon to emerge in philosophy over the past two thousand years” and then devoted over a hundred pages to a sustained critique of Kantian philosophy at the end of the first volume of The World as Will and Representation (1818).5
The refutation of the Kantian concept of a world that is confined and regulated by transcendental idealism would prompt the search throughout the nineteenth century for the concept of world itself, whether this was in the name of the world as spirit (Hegel), of the world as will and representation (Schopenhauer), or of the play of the world (Nietzsche).6 The reaction against Kant would continue into the first half of the twentieth century, most strikingly in the work of Husserl and Heidegger. In making the case for a more original life-world, Husserl argued that Kant had “never penetrated” the enigma of the world.7 Heidegger’s criticisms of Kant as he formulated the influential notion of being-in-the-world were clear and emphatic. He argued that Kant had failed “to recognize the phenomenon of world and to clarify the concept of world.”8 In this opening chapter, I will explore in detail three very different formulations of world in Kant’s work: the metaphysical world, the regulative world and the categorical world.
We all broadly know what the concepts of planet, earth and world mean: the planet is a celestial, rocky or gaseous body; the earth is the name for our planet as well as its ground, surface, sea and soil; and world is used to describe, variously, a planet, the earth or a part of the earth, human existence, human action and human thought. Not least from its ability to stand at times for both the earth itself and for what is on the earth or indeed in the purview of one individual, the concept of world has always had a great deal of latitude: it can be at once geographical and intellectual. This latitude is part of what makes world an integral but elusive concept in the history of philosophy. World is clearly something more than a planet and the earth. This is why Kant also includes world in the trinity of transcendental ideas (the soul, the world and God) that have led pure reason into its own metaphysical delusions and dogmas.9 Perhaps somewhat too easily, Gilles Deleuze attempted to signal the end of this metaphysical tradition in the Logic of Sense (1969)—published in the year of the moon landing—by describing the trinity of these “great terminal ideas” as “the Grand Canyon of the world, the ‘crack’ of the self, and the dismembering of God.”10
An Ordered Whole
We are fortunate to have extensive student notes from nearly thirty years of Kant’s lectures on metaphysics, which gives us an insight into the concept of world that he was questioning in the Critique of Pure Reason.11 In these lectures, Kant is concerned with the philosophy of cosmology (Weltwissenshaft), and his most likely source is Alexander Baumgarten’s Metaphysica (1738), which was influenced by the ideas of Christian Wolff, who had in turn formed his own philosophy through reading the then available works of Gottfried Leibniz.12 Both Baumgarten and Wolff rely on the very traditional metaphysical distinction between the sensible world (mundus sensibilis) and the intelligible world (mundus intelligibilis).13 One can trace this metaphysical treatment of world back to Plato and Aristotle.
In classical Greece, kósmos had a number of varied meanings, including ornament or decoration, but was broadly defined as an ordering or arranging that referred at times to the universe and at other times to the world. We might say that kósmos is an ordered whole or a world that is ordered and contained by the universe. Plato gives us one of the most orthodox accounts of kósmos in the Gorgias, when Socrates remarks,
In fact, Callicles, the experts’ opinion is that co-operation, love, order, discipline, and justice bind heaven and earth, gods and men. That’s why they call the universe an ordered whole [kósmos], my friend, rather than a disorderly [akosmosían] mass or an unruly shambles.14
The notion of kósmos as an ordered whole is still retained in the sense of cosmology as a rational account (lógos) of the world (kósmos). Diogenes Laertius reports that Pythagoras was most likely “the first to call the heaven the universe [kósmon].”15
The Metaphysics, Aristotle’s collection of drafts and students’ notes on first philosophy, was devoted in part to trying to find an accurate definition of substance or ousia.16 Aristotelian substance is a general essence that is found to be first or prior to anything else.17 Substance precedes any combination of form and matter and indicates that which is entirely “in itself.”18 If the universe as a whole has a primary substance, this substance must be eternal and actual.19 There must also be an eternal form “that moves without being moved” and which in turn gives rise to the spatial and material movements of the heavens and nature.20 This first or Prime Mover allows us to treat the universe as an eternal and ordered whole (kósmos).21 The Metaphysics would create the framework for the later medieval scholastic tradition of placing theology at the heart of metaphysical cosmology. As David Hume dryly observed in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), “Whatever cavils may be urged, an orderly world, as well as a coherent, articulate speech, will still be received as an incontestable proof of design and intention.”22
The Metaphysics also reinforced the need to think of the world within what we can call a pervasive logic of containment. While the essence of a form is that which cannot be created or produced by something else, the essence of a material entity is found at the level of a species placed in relation to its genus.23 This latter definition is significant because it suggests a framework or logic of containment: there is the genus (the container that contains), the species (the contained that contains) and the individual (the contained). This structure of containment is also found in Aristotle’s Physics when it comes to defining the world: there is the universe (the uncontained that contains), the world (the contained that contains) and beings and things (the contained).24 Plato had already alluded to a similar structure in the Timaeus, where the form of kósmos is defined as that which is contained and contains. As he observes,
But we shall affirm that the Cosmos, more than aught else, resembles most closely that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions. For that Living Creature embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible Living Creatures, just as this Universe contains us and all the other visible living creatures that have been fashioned.25
For our purposes, we will call this influential classical logic of containment the foundations of the metaphysical world.
According to Johann Gottfried Herder’s notes from Kant’s 1762 lectures on metaphysics, cosmology begins with the assertion that “the world is a real whole.” The world is whole because it is “not part of another.”26 Twenty years later, in the notes taken in 1782–1783 by Christoph Coelestin Mrongovius, Kant still begins his lectures with this basic proposition. “The world,” he observes, “is a substantial whole which is not part of another.”27 The metaphysical world is real because it is a substantial whole. In other words, the metaphysical world has an essential and objective reality that transcends the material world. This real whole must also be distinguished from an ideal whole, which is formed by my subjective representations. The metaphysical cosmos is a concept of reason and its reality should not be confused with the world as an empirical object.28
This easy dismissal of the empirical world is founded on the Aristotelian distinction of treating the world as a substance that is constituted not by bodily matter but through form working on matter and generating a “connection of substances.” For Aristotle, form gives matter unity. “The form of the world is a real connection,” Kant remarks in his lectures, “because it is a real whole.”29 From the point of view of metaphysics, the world is an absolute and not relative whole and it is only when world is treated relatively and in the physical sense that it can be described as the earth or a globe.30 As notes from Kant’s 1790–1791 lectures succinctly state, this metaphysical world is an intelligible world and its real connections or unity are fo...

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