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Tag Archives: Purpose

Kant’s Criticism of the Purpose of Spinoza’s God

John Zammito’s The genesis of Kant’s critique of judgment is a compelling book, in particular for those interest in the after effects of the “Pantheism Controversy”. Zammito provides a convincing explanation on how much of Kant’s third Critique flowed from his difficulties with Jacobi, and the need to clarify his own rational position against Jacobi’s attempt to collapse all bravely followed rationality (rationality taken to its rational ends, no matter where they go), results in “Spinozism” something roughly posited as atheistic, fatalistic and nihilistic. Not to address these mischaracterizations of Spinoza here, or even Kant’s position towards them, there is this very nice little bit on Kant’s attack on Spinoza which has interest.

Here Zammito takes up Kant’s somewhat misdirected critique of Spinoza’s “God” along the lines of God’s purpose, a denial of God’s causality through Idea. Kant attempts to apply a truly anthropomorphic projection of purpose, based upon Representation, upon Spinoza’s ultimate ground, Substance, and finds it lacking. In a certain sense Kant rejects Spinoza’s God’s causal force because this God simply is not anthropomorphic enough:

What is interesting about this projection of the human discursive reality, leaving aside its place in the general context of his critique of Spinoza, is the way it seems to reveal in sympathy just what I have always felt is just so anthropomorphic about Graham Harman’s own (misnamed) Object Oriented Philosophy. One can see this most plainly in Harman’s so-called theory of causation, which is whole-heartedly representationalist, even as it tries to describe the events of causation between dustballs, interest rates and summer’s breeze. For Harman each of these must possess within their molten cores representations which link them to the rest of the world. (If unfamiliar with his thinking, here is my summation of the thought, and some of my criticism: How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?; Harman approved of my summation.) The point comes back to me that the general mistake that Kant makes in the above in criticism, applying human discursive reality to the Spinoza non-human, is by Harman multiplied to a true infinity. It is taking an anthropomorphic, representational conception of not only “idea” as actualized by praxis but broadcasting it into each and every object kind imaginable. Harman treats these representations – what he calls vicars – as mysteriously the means of causation, leaving the issue of freedom and action behind.

Spinoza of course denies the kind of human freedom that Kant so theoretically valued, granting freedom solely to God (and his modes in degrees), and he did so by virtue of treating Ideas NOT as representations, but actional, ontological expressions of power and freedom. It is rather from the non-human that Spinoza brings his attack upon the human realm itself, all the while arguing a vigorous ethics of action and an ecology of cares, ultimately effacing the categorical “I” (and the not-I) that would inspire much of Idealism after Kant. In Spinoza an Idea is distinctly trans-human, not as a representation, but as I argue elsewhere, an informational interconnection of expression itself. It seems that if there is to be true object orientation, or appreciation, it can only be arrived at by not grasping at the kinds of representational conceptions that historically have marked out human reality as privileged and unique (for obvious theological reasons). These Kantian notions of representation go deep, as they can even be found in the notion of the internal Umwelt in biosemiosis, talked about here. Even these far flung boundaries defined by internal representational realms need to be opened up and inter-connected.

This is just a passing reflection in my reading, not a whole argument, but I do suggest reading the chapter linked above on Kant’s critique of Spinoza, and the previous one focusing on the “pantheism controversy” influence upon Kant. The link between subject/object representational insistence and the political-theological fears raised in the controversy is no small thing.

The Purpose of a Word: a note on PI section 6


Wittgenstein, in attempting to upend the picture-in-the-mind theory of meaning writes rather innocently:

Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen�is it the purpose of the word?–Yes, it may be the purpose.–I can imagine such use of words (of the series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the [bring me a slab] language of section 2 it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose).

–Philosophical Investigations, section 6

There are a few problems here. One is that is that the word “purpose” is not included in the block-pillar-slab-beam primitive language game Wittgenstein is referencing, so to speak definitively of what is and is not the “purpose” of an action is really to superimpose our description upon it. The word “purpose” does not exist in that world.

Secondly, the entire idea of purpose, as it relates to instrumentality, depending upon the models of mind being used, varies with each model, as it is so conceived. I might push a button so as to cause an explosion, and one might say that the purpose of my pushing of the button is to cause that explosion, but if the button is stuck and doesn’t move, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of pushing on the button is not to get the button to depress. If I push the button and it does not move, my original purpose to make move will be exposed as I push at it again and again. In just this way, if the model of the mind one is working with is that of thinking that one gets a picture in the mind before being able to match a word to its object, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of using a word is not to bring a picture of the object before the child’s mind. In fact, like the button/explosion example, if the desired result does not occur, I might go about trying to get the child to hold just such a picture (for instance I might draw the object, or mime its outline), just as I might press repeatedly at a button that does not move.

Thirdly, since language games could be seen to be historically contingent, and a particular teacher might very well be under the according to Wittgenstein mistaken view that the child must hold a picture in the mind before being able to identify the word to its object, then it certainly can be asserted that the purpose of stating a word is indeed to put a picture of the object before one’s mind. In fact, if the picture-before-the-mind model of language is as pervasive as some might think, one could argue that it is exactly such a purpose that is present in many of everyday uses of language (that is the assumed button that almost always depresses).

It seems that speaking about the purpose of an action is fraught with the difficulty of assembling a description, and each description is itself a framing of the action. Ultimately there is no “purpose” actual or otherwise, that does not rely upon some description of purpose as such.

[written September 20, 2006]