Friday, April 21, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: SPACE

Space (Kant, 1989, pages 67-74)

Why are (as a colleague remarked to me in the hallway on the way to a meeting) so many geographers afraid to talk about space?

Perhaps they are afraid of becoming a bit like Roy Curtius in Roberts (2015, page 1) The Thing Itself: "Sick in the Head."  Let's talk about Roy for a moment before returning to the pariah-status of space in the discipline of geography.

We find out in chapter 1 of The Thing Itself that Roy (antagonist) is stuck with Charles (protagonist) on a research base in Antarctica.  It is just the two of them (a bit unlikely), and it turns out that Roy is a terrible roommate, a bit of a Sheldon Cooper know-it-all mixed together (as we find out later) with a Machiavellian silence-of-the-lambs side.  Roy is reading the Meiklejohn translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

True, it is pretentious to read Kant (unless you are a Kant scholar or are writing a very cool novel based on his ideas), and to leave your copy of it lying around so people can see that you are reading Kant, and to discuss Kant with people who are not interested in it might be considered a sign of poor social skills or worse.  Roy should have put me off reading Kant.  However, it is Roberts novel as a whole that overwhelmingly corrected that negative reaction, way over towards a positive one, that of really really wanting to read the Critique now that I'd finished The Thing Itself.

To leave behind any doubt as to the coolness of reading Kant, and to throw it back in Roy's face, I decided (like, not long ago) that it was in fact the Meiklejohn translation that made people cray-cray when reading Kant, and not the fact of Kant himself.  This, and reading Taylor's The Language Animal in which he cites the Smith translation, and the fact that the Smith translation is more in the spirit of Kant's self-description of the Critique as a literary (perhaps even more than a philosophical) undertaking, that I now thought to myself: I can handle this if I take it as a work of literature, and Smith's Kant seems to embody that notion.

Now when I say space has a pariah-status in the discipline of geography, this is true in spite of efforts of scholars like Massey (2005) and Soja (1989) to re-invigorate and liven-up the spatial.  These efforts were (and are) necessary because geographers remain enamoured of place.  But I would argue that Massey (but not so much Soja) in fact end up doing space a disservice by insisting on its non-representationality.

I have come (again) to pages 67-74 of Smith's Critique (Kant, 1989), the initiation to Kant's views on space, reaching a crescendo on pages 72-73.  Without a doubt, Kant views space as a representation, to the extent that he almost equates the two (space/representation), except for the fact of its ideality.  The is a massive exception to the 'rule' that space, in Kant, equals representation.  In fact Kant makes it very clear (as does Roberts) that space as a 'substance' underlying objects out there in the world is no thing at all.  Space is just an (shared, transcendental) idea that is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and not a property of the world itself.

Kant (1989) talks a lot, on pages 72-73 especially, about things-in-themselves, and it is here, I suspect, that the whole logic of Kant's dialectic is ultimately derived:

"we cannot treat the special conditions of sensibility as conditions of the possibility of things, but only of their appearances, we can indeed say that space comprehends all things that appear to us as external, but not all things in themselves..."

Take that NRT!  Kant says, almost surreally, that space comprehends things.  He (Kant, 1989) goes on to say:

"We assert, then, the empirical reality of space, as regards all possible outer experience; and yet at the same time we assert its transcendental ideality -- in other words, that it is nothing at all, immediately we withdraw the above condition, namely, its limitation to possible experience, and so look upon it as something that underlies things in themselves."

When Kant/Smith says that space is nothing at all, I immediately have doubts as to what extent Kant is the reactionary I have sometimes made him out to be!  He sounds positively Thriftian (2007)!

So, here I am, at the edge of a what?  Back to NRT (no, for now)?  To science fiction (I have been a sci-fi fan since adolescence, and The Thing Itself is a bit of a departure for me because I tend to favour hard/extrapolative sci-fi if I'm being honest)?

If there is any truth to the idea that mere repetition of words/phrases leads to belief in their validity/truth then Kant//Smith must've been aware of it, for we have a third mention (Kant, 1989, pages 73-74) in these two (and-a-half) pages of the thing itself:

"The transcendental concept of appearances in space, on the other hand, is a critical reminder that nothing intuited in space is a thing itself, that space is not a form inhering in things in themselves as their intrinsic property, that objects in themselves are quite unknown to us, and that what we call outer objects are nothing but mere representations of our sensibility, the form of which is space"

The problem now, is that Kant has to prove this, which is as it stands a mere assertion.  At the same time, at least for now, this (Smith's) Kant is so immanently readable, so literary, that I was half the time thinking about writers like Cormac McCarthy, Christopher Dewdney, and Erin Moure (ok my taste in literature also runs smack into Canadian avant-garde poetry).

That is to say, I'm hooked, thanks in no small part to Roberts and Smith!  Now, back to Kant.

[This is an ongoing review of Kant/Roberts, to be continued]


Kant, Immanuel.  1989.  Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  London: Macmillan Education.

Massey, Doreen.  2005.  For Space.  London: Sage.

Roberts, Adam.  2015.  The Thing Itself.  London: Victor Gollancz.

Soja, Edward.  1989.  Postmodern Geographies.  London and New York: Verso.

Thrift, Nigel.  2007.  Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect.  Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

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