Thursday, April 20, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant


There are two main inspirations for even beginning to think about reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (i.e. the translation of Kant made by Norman Kemp Smith).  The first was Charles Taylor’s book Hegel, which covers some of Kant (that part related to dialectics).  The second was Adam Roberts’ book The Thing Itself, which gives a fictional treatment of the Critique (though not the Kemp Smith version specifically).

Taylor also mentions Kant in his newer book The Language Animal, citing Kemp’s translation specifically.  This was the final straw that broke my resistance to committing to reading Kant’s most important work, translated by his most important English-language translator.  Taylor himself has always had a big influence on my writing, in terms of both style and content.  Taylor's take on Kant (and his translator) matters a great deal to counter-mapping mainly for getting dialectics right.  The latter requires philosophical sophistication, subtlety, and style.

I’m also writing a book on dialectics that explicitly avoids both Hegel and Marx.  And without those two elephants in the room, and with the above intellectual supports in place, I can begin to think through some of the implications of Kant for my book (Contrapuntal Cartographies) that takes a dialectical approach to counter-mapping.  The latter, being properly dialectical and therefore political, will undertake a constant excavation of taken-for-granted assumptions and bases for the production of powerful mappings of- and in-the-world. 

In a way, I'm looking for a critique of non-representational theory 'from the beyond', from before Hegel, Bergson, and Jameson launched their critiques.  A large part of the continuing momentum of NRT is carried forward in the discipline of geography with theorists like Massey and Thrift at the leading edge.  Massey's For Space deals much too casually with questions of representation/space, and her main point that space is seen as fixed and dead is somewhat close to that made by Soja in 1989 in Postmodern Geographies.

So, reading Kemp's Kant is a way of critiquing the critique, but also of being right at its leading edge as well.  For counter-mapping, or mapping against hegemony, it is the hegemony of NRT that is ripe for critique and re-mapping.  I propose to take a more-than-representational approach that brings in evolutionary theories and memetics, and also a good dose of dialectics (including Kant).  An occasional geographer will be useful in this endeavour (e.g. Lorimer's 2005 intervention in Progress in Human Geography), but more often it will be philosophers, anthropologists, even biologists I might disagree with (thinking Dawkins and indeed Kant here) who will 'come to the rescue'.  And then I'll fold it all back into counter-mapping and geographical thought. 

Philosopher Rowlands, in New Science of the Mind, and anthropologist Malafouris, in How Things Shape the Mind, take on questions of representation in ways that geographers do not seem ready to do.  The all-too-easy geographical (NRT) critique remains mired in post-structuralism and even, at times, a kind of happy-go-lucky Nietzschean nihilism.  What Rowlands and Malafouris do, in their separate ways, is to give questions of representation the treatment they deserve by carefully sifting through the various arguments for and against, accepting and rejecting aspects that do or do not fit the facts and frameworks at hand, and making judgements and conclusions based only upon whether the theories fit the facts, without speculation.  In short, there is too much speculation in geography.

Kant is just the medicine for the speculative turn in geography, and for naive thinking in general (but also unfortunately in geography very specifically).  His thinking is idealistic, which will also rub many geographers trained in 'materialities' and 'spatialities' thinking the wrong way, going against an ingrained framework that is only superficially hard-headed.  The problem with much recent theorising in geography is in fact its lack of grounding in useful questions, in useful theory!  It is, in fact, (as for example in McCormack's 2017 lead paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) an a-theoretical approach to questions of geography, lacking robust empirical and methodological grounding, and epitomised by the post-phenomenological, affective, speculative, and circumstantial, all terms currently favoured in the current paradigm of geographical thought. 

To put it another way: Kant's just the antidote.

Contrapuntal Cartographies: Dialectics of Counter-Mapping (McGill-Queen's University Press) is expected to be on shelves by 2019

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

Lorimer, Hayden.  2005.  "Cultural geography: the busyness of being `more-than-representational'" Progress in Human Geography.  29(1): 83-94.

Malafouris, Lambros.  2013.  How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

McCormack, Derek P.  2017.  "The circumstances of post-phenomenological life-worlds" Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  42(1): 2-13.

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

Rowlands, Mark.  2010.  The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Taylor, Charles.  2016.  The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles.  1975.  Hegel.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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