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Kant, surveyor

In the longer, original introduction to the third Critique, which was unpublished by Kant, he makes passing reference, when discussing the difference between practical and theoretical parts of a science, to the ‘art of surveying (agrimensoria)’ (20:198).

The metaphor of ‘surveying’ was famously used by Kant in the first Critique to open his chapter on phenomena and noumena: ‘We have now not only travelled through the land of pure understanding, and carefully inspected each part of it, but we have also surveyed and determined the place for each thing in it’ (A235/B294).  The land Kant surveys, the ‘land of truth’, is ‘enclosed in unalterable boundaries by nature itself’, by the ‘broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion’.

Kant goes on to make the distinction between phenomena and noumena, the latter being the boundary concept between the world of sense and the pure understanding’s ideas.  Determining the cliff-edges of the land of truth, the point at which to lay down the boundary concept of the noumenon, and the legitimacy of any excursions onto the stormy seas of the Ideas, are of course the stakes of the first Critique.  The Critical philosophy can then be seen as a work of surveying – Cassirer dubs Kant a ‘geographer of reason’ – but what exactly is this surveying?

Surveying of the land has a history exactly contemporaneous with Kant.  The British Ordnance survey emerged out of the surveying of the Scottish highlands, to facilitate the clearances, the forced removal, of the highland clans after the Jacobite uprisings of 1745.  Kant, whose grandfather was Scottish and whose closest friend from the 1760s to the 1780s was a Scottish merchant named Joseph Green, is likely to have been well aware of this.

The triangulation of the British Isles to map its elevation began in 1783, and the Ordnance Survey (ordnance meaning military logistics) was founded in 1791.  Over the same period, the Cassini family were surveying France, and published their Carte de France, their map of the whole country, from 1756 to 1815 (Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France records the role of this enterprise in the colonisation of France by Paris).  Kant’s description of his project as a surveying of the land and his commonly topographic spatial metaphors therefore had particular scientific and political resonances in the late eighteenth century.

Cassini map

In both the first Critique‘s chapter on phenomena and noumena, and the third Critique‘s discussion of the ‘domain’ of our judgement (in which our concepts are legislative), Kant uses the image of occupying terrain; in the first Critique, against ‘hostile claims’.  Similarly, the ‘domain’, Gebiet, has an echo of Gewalt, violence or state power.  This resonance is retained in the translation of Gewalt as ‘dominion’ in the Critique of Judgement.  Is our domain of reason the space in which we are the sovereign?  On this reading, Kant, whose surveying identifies ineliminable boundaries and whose Critical philosophy seeks to ‘occupy’ the land against ‘hostile claims’, would constitute another militaristic encampment on the battlefield of metaphysics.

However, the political resonances of ‘occupation’ vary: consider Occupy Wall Street in contrast to the occupied territories.  The concepts ‘domain’ and ‘dominion’ reappear in the third Critique, in Kant’s lines on the dynamical sublime.  Kant writes, regarding man’s resistance to nature’s dominion:

In this way, in our aesthetic judgement nature is judged as sublime not insofar as it arouses fear, but rather because it calls forth our power [Kraft] (which is not part of nature) to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health and life) as trivial, and hence to regard its power [Macht] (to which we are, to be sure, subjected in regard to these things) as not the sort of dominion over ourselves and our authority to which we would have to bow if it came down to our highest principles and their affirmation or abandonment. (5:262)

Here we have humanity’s Kraft against the Macht of nature; ‘a self-preservation of quite another kind’ through our ‘capacity [Vermögen] for judging ourselves as independent’ of nature, which is grounded in a rational revaluation of our values (‘those things about which we are concerned’).  This passage on the dynamical sublime should be considered in the light of thought on political resistance: potentia against potestas, inoperativity, transvaluation of values.  ‘The humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to [nature’s] dominion’.

Similarly, can Kant’s surveying be rescued from the colonial overtones furnished by the practice’s origin in the highland clearances?  Does our Gemüt (the mind or totality of faculties), through the complexity of the interaction between the stormy sea of the supersensible and the land of the sensible – to which the difficulty of Grenze and Schranke is important  – resist being fully surveyed, fully available to surveillance?

By Steve


One comment on “Kant, surveyor

  1. tlacorte
    June 3, 2013

    Very interesting blog.

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2013 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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