Cours Vincennes : synthesis and time (14/03/1978)
We are returning to Kant. May this be an occasion for you to skim, read or re-read The Critique of Pure Reason. There is no doubt that a tremendous event in philosophy happens with this idea of critique. In going into it, ourselves, or in going back into it, I had stopped reading it a very long time ago and I read it again for you, it must be said that it is a completely stifling philosophy. It’s an excessive atmosphere, but if one holds up, and the important thing above all is not to understand, the important thing is to take on the rhythm of a given man, a given writer, a given philosopher, if one holds up, all this northern fog which lands on top of us starts to dissipate, and underneath there is an amazing architecture. When I said to you that a great philosopher is nevertheless someone who invents concepts, in Kant’s case, in this fog, there functions a sort of thinking machine, a sort of creation of concepts that is absolutely frightening. We can try to say that all of the creations and novelties that Kantianism will bring to philosophy turn on a certain problem of time and an entirely new conception of time, a conception of which we can say that its elaboration by Kant will be decisive for all that happened afterwards, which is to say we will try to determine a sort of modern consciousness of time in opposition to a classical or ancient consciousness of time. Why it is that it was Kant who created the philosophical concepts of this new consciousness of time, making his philosophical expression possible, does not concern us or in any case does not interest me, but what I would like to say is that it is indeed this sort of consciousness of time which takes on a philosophical status in Kant, and which is completely new. I will proceed by numbered points because I’m always working with the idea that to each point corresponds a type of concept, and once again, I will be happy if you grant me at the end of these lessons that philosophers are precisely this, that they are no less creative than painters or musicians, simply that they create in a determinable domain that is the creation of concepts. Firstly, what does Kant understand by the a priori which he opposes to the a posteriori? These are common terms. In some cases new words must be invented, and this happens with Kant when he creates the notion of the transcendental, which is a very strange notion, transcendental subject… no doubt you will tell me that the word existed before, but it was rarely used and it marked no difference from the ordinary word transcendent, whereas Kant gives it a very special sense: the transcendental subject, he almost created a word… in the case of the a priori and the a posteriori he borrows a word, but he completely renews its sense. A priori, in the first place, means: independent of experience, that which does not depend on experience. In opposition to a posteriori which means: given or givable in experience. What things are a priori? Note that I don’t ask myself: does the a priori exist, which is to say, are there things independent of experience? The question of existence is secondary, we must first know what a thing is in order to be able to say and reply to the question of existence: does it exist or not? I’m saying that if it exists, what is something that would be independent of experience? Thus not givable in experience. Nothing complicated so far, Kant takes this up very quickly, the a priori in this sense is the universal and the necessary. Everything that is necessary and universal is said to be a priori. Why? It certainly fulfills the first condition of the a priori: not given in experience, because, by definition, experience only gives me the particular and the contingent. With expressions of universality and necessity it is always so necessarily, as also with certain uses of the future tense, or expressions of the type “each time”: each time I bring water to 100 degrees it will boil. Philosophers have said this for a very long time: there is something in this which is not given in experience. What is it? It’s the expressions: “always”, “necessarily”, or even the future tense. What experience has given me is, strictly speaking, that each time I have effectively brought water to 100 degrees, it has boiled, but in the formula “water necessarily boils at 100 degrees”, the necessarily is not an object of experience. Similarly if I say “all objects of experience” – do I have the right to say this? We don’t even know if “all objects of experience” is not nonsensical. Supposing that it is not nonsensical, “all objects of experience” are not given in experience, for the simple reason that experience is ???? Thus you can always make a summation, a sum of the objects you have experienced, but this sum is indefinite.
Thus the universal and the necessary by definition are not givable in an experience since an experience is always particular and contingent. So that gives us a second determination of the a priori. The a priori was first of all what is independent of experience, in the second place it is what is universal and necessary.
Third point: how can this universal and necessary be defined? There is already something extremely delicate here. To say that something is independent of experience doesn’t prevent this something perhaps being applied to experience and only to it. The question of application is entirely different. When I say “water will always come to a boil at 100 degrees”, I don’t know where this idea of “always” comes from, since it is not given to me in experience, I don’t know where this idea of necessity comes from, since it is not given to me in experience, this doesn’t prevent the fact that “always” is applied to water, boiling, 100 degrees, all things which are given in experience. Let’s suppose then that the a priori is itself independent of experience but applies to objects given in experience. In other words the universal and the necessary are said of objects of experience; perhaps they are said of other things as well, but they are said of objects of experience. What is universal and necessary? What would these universals and necessaries be which can be said of objects of experience? Here is introduced a notion which is famous in philosophy, that of the category. A certain number of philosophers have even made or proposed what are called tables of categories. There is a famous table of categories in Aristotle. With Kant, who did not escape a strong influence from Aristotle, there will be another table of categories. What is a category? A category is not just anything in philosophy, it’s as rigorous as a scientific notion in another domain. What is called a category is a universal predicate, or universal attribute if you want. Which is to say a predicate which is attributed to, or predicated of, or said of any object. This notion of “any object” is bizarre. I say “the rose is red”. What is that? “The rose is red” is not complicated, it’s a relation between two concepts, the rose and red, and if I say “what is universal or necessary in that?” I can reply: nothing. Not all objects are roses, not all roses are red. Not all reds are the colour of roses. I would say that there is an experience of the red rose and that this experience is particular, contingent, a posteriori like all experience.
Compare this judgement: “the rose is red” to this other judgement: “the object has a cause” or even “the rose has a cause”.
I see a difference straight away, which is that the concept of rose defines what will be called a class in so far as it is an a posteriori concept, the concept of rose defines a class or set. Red is a property of a subset of this set, the subset formed by red roses. I can define a set according to what it excludes and in relation to what it excludes: all that is not a rose. The set of roses is carved out of a broader set which is that formed by flowers, and the set of roses can be distinguished from the rest, which is to say all the flowers which are not roses. When I say “all objects have a cause”, am I not in another domain completely? Evidently I am, I am completely in a different domain because to have a cause is a universal predicate which is applied to all objects of possible experience, to the point that I don’t even need to – or I believe that – but that makes no difference because “I believe” will become an act that we will have to analyse – I believe that if an unknown object emerged in experience before my eyes, this object would not be an object if it didn’t have a cause. To have a cause or to be caused is a predicate of a wholly other type than the predicate “red”. Why? Because the predicate “to be caused” – to the point where we can wonder, after reflection, is that really a predicate or is it something else? – the predicate “to be caused” is predicable of any object of possible experience, to the point where it is not going to define a set or a subset within experience because it is strictly coextensive with the totality of possible experience.
Moreover, we must go back. When I said that the totality of possible experience has perhaps no sense, now we have the response: the totality of possible experience makes no sense in itself, but it is precisely to the extent that there are predicates which are attributed to all possible objects, which are thus more than predicates, and this is what Kant will call conditions, they are the conditions of possible experience, it is thus via the notion of conditions of experience that the idea of a whole of possible experience will take on a sense. There is a whole of possible experience because there are predicates or pseudo-predicates which are attributed to all possible objects and these predicates are precisely what are called categories. I’ll cite some examples of categories according to Kant: unity, plurality, totality (with Kant they come in threes).
Reality, negation, limitation.
Substance, cause, reciprocity.
I’ll stop there. In what sense are these categories and not predicates of the type red, green, etc…? They are categories or conditions of possible experience for the simple reason that any object is only an object to the extent that it is conceived as one, but also as multiple, having the unit parts of a multiplicity, and in this forming a totality, any object whatever has a reality. On the other hand, it excludes what it is not: negation, and by virtue of this it has limits: limitation. Any object whatever is substance, any object whatever has a cause and is itself cause of other things.
That’s enough to be able to say that my notion of object is made in such a manner that if I encountered a something which did not allow the categories be attributed to it, I would say that it is not an object.
So there we have as a last determination of the a priori, they are the conditions of possible experience, which is to say universal predicates as opposed to empirical predicates or a posteriori predicates.
I could define the categories in the simplest way as being the predicates of any object whatever. Thus you can yourselves make your list of categories according to your mood, according to your character… what would be good would be to see if everybody came up with the same list of categories. In any case you do not have the right to cheat with the word. To make your list of categories is for you to ask yourselves what is for me predicable of any object whatever. I have already given a certain list of them, with nine categories. In fact, for Kant, there are twelve of them, but I left three aside for later; you see: unity, plurality, totality, affirmation, negation and limitation, substance, cause, reciprocity or community.
To finish with this first point, I am saying that the categories, qua predicates of any object whatever, are a priori, and they are conditions of possible experience; understand that it is through them that the notion of possible experience takes on a sense.
To the question: does the whole of possible experience mean something? No meaning [sens] at all if we remain in an a posteriori approach, because in an a posteriori approach I am led to make an addition: the roses, the flowers other than roses, the plants which are not flowers, the animals, etc…. I could go to infinity like that and nothing tells me that I have a whole of possible experience. On the contrary, experience is fundamentally fragmented, it is opposed to a totalisation. If Kant launches this very very new notion of a totality of possible experience it is because he is in a position to define, to say: yes, there is a level where the whole of possible experience takes on a sense, it is precisely because there are universal predicates which are attributed to all things, which is to say are attributed to any object whatever. Thus it is a priori that the notion of the totality of possible experience will be founded.
Is there anything else besides the categories that can be a priori, which is to say, universal and necessary? The reply is yes, and this other thing is space and time. Because every object is in space and in time, or at least in time. But you will say to me straight away, very well then, why not make a category of them, why not add space and time as two categories? Because space and time are also, it seems, predicates. Obviously, Kant has the most serious reasons to not want to and he will go to great pains to distinguish the categories on the one hand, and on the other hand space and time. There will thus be two sorts of a priori elements: the categories and space and time. Why doesn’t he want space and time to be among the categories? I will give a reason very quickly which will become clear afterwards: it is that the categories qua predicates of possible experience are concepts, whereas Kant fundamentally holds that, these are a priori representations, a priori representations or concepts, while space and time are presentations. There you also have something very new in philosophy, it will be Kant’s work to distinguish presentation and representation. So there will be two sorts of elements in the a priori.
My second point is Kant’s importance at another level, which is the notion of phenomenon, and that also is very important. There Kant operates a kind of essential transformation of a word which was frequently employed previously in philosophy. Previously philosophers spoke of phenomenon to distinguish what? Very broadly we can say that phenomenon was something like appearance. An appearance. The sensible, the a posteriori, what was given in experience had the status of phenomenon or appearance, and the sensible appearance was opposed to the intelligible essence. The intelligible essence was also the thing such as it is in itself, it was the thing in itself, the thing itself or the thing as thought; the thing as thought, as phenomenon, is a Greek word which precisely designates the appearance or something we don’t know yet, the thing as thought in Greek was the noumenon, which means the “thought”. I can thus say that the whole of classical philosophy from Plato onwards seemed to develop itself within the frame of a duality between sensible appearances and intelligible essences. You can see clearly that this already implies a certain status of the subject. If I say that there are appearances and that there are essences, which are basically like the sensible and the intelligible, this implies a certain position of the knowing subject, namely: the very notion of appearance refers to a fundamental defect in the subject. A fundamental defect, namely: appearance is in the end the thing such as it appears to me by virtue of my subjective constitution which deforms it. The famous example of appearance: the stick in water appears broken to me. It’s what is called the rich domain of sensory illusions. So much so that in order to reach the thing in itself the subject must in fact overcome this sort of constitutive infirmity which makes it live amongst appearances. It’s Plato’s theme: leave appearances to find essences.
With Kant it’s like a bolt of lightning, afterwards we can always play clever, and even must play clever, with Kant a radically new understanding of the notion of phenomenon emerges. Namely that the phenomenon will no longer at all be appearance. The difference is fundamental, this idea alone was enough for philosophy to enter into a new element, which is to say I think that if there is a founder of phenomenology it is Kant. There is phenomenology from the moment that the phenomenon is no longer defined as appearance but as apparition. The difference is enormous because when I say the word apparition I am no longer saying appearance at all, I am no longer at all opposing it to essence. The apparition is what appears in so far as it appears. Full stop. I don’t ask myself if there is something behind, I don’t ask myself if it is false or not false. The apparition is not at all captured in the oppositional couple, in the binary distinction where we find appearance, distinct from essence.
Phenomenology claims to be a rigorous science of the apparition as such, which is to say asks itself the question: what can we say about the fact of appearing? It’s the opposite of a discipline of appearances. What does an apparition refer to? The appearance is something that refers to essence in a relation of disjunction, in a disjunctive relation, which is to say either it’s appearance or it’s essence. The apparition is very different, it’s something that refers to the conditions of what appears. The conceptual landscape has literally changed completely, the problem is absolutely no longer the same, the problem has become phenomenological. For the disjunctive couple appearance/essence, Kant will substitute the conjunctive couple, what appears/conditions of apparition. Everything is new in this.
To make things a little more modern, I would just as well say: to the disjunctive couple appearance/essence, Kant is the first who substitutes the conjunctive couple apparition/sense, sense of the apparition, signification of the apparition. There is no longer the essence behind the appearance, there is the sense or non-sense of what appears. Grant me at least that even if what I say remains just a matter of words, it’s a radically new atmosphere of thought, to the point where I can say that in this respect we are all Kantians.
It’s obvious that thought, at that time, was changing elements. People had for a long time thought in terms which didn’t come from Christianity but which fit in very well with Christianity, in the appearance/essence distinction, and towards the end of the eighteenth century, prepared no doubt by all sorts of movements, a radical change takes place: for the whole appearance/essence duality which in a sense implies a degraded sensible world, which even implies if need be original sin, is substituted a radically new type of thought: something appears, tell me what it signifies or, and this amounts to the same thing, tell me what its condition is.
When Freud comes up and says that there are certain phenomena which appear in the field of consciousness, what do these phenomena refer to, Freud is Kantian. How so? In a way that is at the same time very general but also very rigorous, namely that, like all those of his era and since Kant we spontaneously think in terms of the relation apparition/conditions of the apparition, or apparition/sense of what appears, and no longer in the terms of essence/appearance.
If you don’t see the enormity of the reversal, admire the fact that the subject, in my second couple, the subject is not at all in the same situation. In the disjunctive couple appearance/essence, the subject is immediately condemned to grasp appearances by virtue of a fragility which is consubstantial with it, and the subject requires a whole method, it needs to make a whole effort to get out of appearances and reach the essence. In the other case, what makes the subject take on an entirely different value? It’s when I say that every apparition refers to the conditions of the appearing of the apparition, in this very statement I am saying that these conditions belong to the being to whom the apparition appears, in other words the subject is constitutive – and understand this well, otherwise it’s a radical misinterpretation – the subject is constitutive not of the apparition, it is not constitutive of what appears, but it is constitutive of the conditions under what appears to it appears to it.
I mean that the substitution of the conjunctive couple phenomena-conditions, or apparitions-conditions ensures a promotion of the subject in so far as the subject constitutes the very conditions of the apparition, instead of constituting and being responsible for the limitations of appearance, or the illusions of appearance. There is indeed a subject, Kant will say, which is subordinated to appearances and which falls into sensory illusions; it will be called the empirical subject, but there is another subject which is evidently neither you nor me, which above all is not reducible to any empirical subject, which will be from that point on named the transcendental subject for it is the unity of all the conditions under which something appears, appears to whom? Appears to each empirical subject. It’s already beautiful as a system of ideas. I hope you can feel its extent, it’s a tremendous machine.
To finish this second point, I’ll make two corrections: Kant is at the turning-point of something, so it’s more complicated than I’m making it out to be because he keeps something of the old essence-appearance difference, and effectively he will say all the time: do not confuse the phenomenon with the thing in itself, the thing in itself is the pure noumenon, which is to say it is what can only be thought, while the phenomenon is what is given in sensible experience. So he maintains the disjunctive duality phenomenon/thing in itself, noumenon. It’s the duality of the couple appearance/essence. But he gets out of it and he is already in another type of thought for a very simple reason for he says that the thing in itself, it is so by nature or the noumenon – the thing in itself can be thought, it is thus noumenon, but it cannot be known. So if it can be determined, it is a completely different point of view than that of knowledge; so we don’t bother with it or at least we will bother about it in very special conditions.
What counts from the point of view of knowledge and of all possible knowledge is the other couple, apparition-conditions of appearing, conditions of the fact of appearing.
Once again if I sum up this reversal it’s the one which consists in substituting for appearance-essence, apparition-conditions or apparition-sense of the apparition.
If you ask me what these conditions of appearing are, fortunately we have got somewhere because our first point gave the answer, the conditions of appearing, which is to say the conditions of the phenomenon, in so far as the phenomenon is what appears, we will not look for an essence behind the phenomenon, we will seek the conditions of its apparition, and in fact the conditions of its apparition are, the categories on one hand and on the other space and time.
Everything which appears appears under the conditions of space and time, and under the conditions of the categories. By this fact space and time on the one hand and on the other the categories are the forms of all possible experience and they belong not to things as they are in themselves, but as forms of all phenomena, as forms of all apparition, space and time on the one hand, the categories on the other hand are the dimensions of the transcendental subject. Time is already completely involved here