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Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
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Sep 30, 09

bookshelves: fall-2009
Read in September, 2009

Schema/Synthesis/Imagination

My dissertation project investigates the contradictory perceptions of temporality on the construction site of a renewable energy plant in Abu Dhabi. I am mainly interested in understanding how an apocalyptic environmental time becomes woven together with capitalist time, a time of continuous progress, rationalization and exact knowledge. I explore how architects, engineers and researchers imagine a technologically enhanced space that does not yet fully exist, within a temporal frame that is constantly shifting from infinity to imminent destruction.

Before proceeding further, let me clarify the type(s) of imagination at work within the construction site. Kant identifies two main operations of the imagination, “synthesis” and “schematism,” through which intuitions and otherwise heterogeneous concepts become juxtaposed. Synthesis occurs at the moment when one perceives an object X, and recognizes the object X as a concept. It facilitates the production of generalizations through which objects accrue transcendental meanings. As such, I see a tree, and re-cognize it as a tree, thereby conjoining the object I perceive with a range of objects that I have sensed before, and I will continue to sense hereafter. On the other hand, a schema, Kant argues, is “a monogram of the pure a priori imagination through which, and according to which, images become possible in the first place” (CPR, A-142). Etymologically, the word monogram means single letter, and yet is used to refer to a character formed of several letters in one design. Accordingly, the resulting mono-gram that Kant refers to here (the schema) is a product of multiple letters (pure a priori imaginations), and yet when it is acted out in space and time, it appears to be a single letter. This single letter determines the relationship that a priori imaginations have, or will have, with each other and with space and time. Hence, a schema realizes the mediation of intuitions and concepts, applying a priori concepts to the spatial and temporal conditions of intuition. The critical difference between synthesis and schematism, as Deleuze (1978) identifies, is the order of questions. In synthesis, the tree is available to the subject, and the subject needs to recognize the tree as such. However, a schema is not a rule of recognition. It is a rule of production, which occurs through producing an experience in space and time, in conformity with one’s own concepts (Deleuze 1978). A construction site, then, is the ultimate schema, in which developers, researchers, architects, engineers and construction workers slowly achieve the spatio-temporal projections of their multiple a priori concepts. It is a mono-gram of the manifold pure a priori imaginations that constitute the site.

It is important to stress here that according to Kant, I, the ethnographer, can only know myself as a subject. Everything else that I perceive appears to me as an object only, and I am incapable of experiencing the subjectivities of others whom I attempt to investigate. The gap between us is irreconcilable. Thus in this case, what I perceive is a collection of human objects, creating a schema of their contradicting thoughts, and I rely on their verbal and physical declarations in order to develop a sense of their subjectivities. I synthesize the objects that I perceive and try to build a concept out of my sensory experience. Contrary to what Deleuze (1978) argues, my first responsibility may be to create a record of this sensory information. Then, I try to develop concepts that match the processes that I have witnessed. Indeed, I have prior knowledge that shapes the way that I attend to the process of production. There are certain elements of production that are of interest to me, and others that I cannot be receptive towards. This selection process in fact implies that synthesis does not operate by itself; an active process of schematism, through which I select the objects that fit former knowledge, interests and indeed concepts, assists synthesis. Thus although I wish to be open to cognize all objects, the schematism inherent to my thought process disables such neutrality. Every thought I develop, then, is a double movement of synthesis and schematism. I legislate reality as such.

However, regardless of the kind of imagination at work, let us return to the very moment where I watch the set of human objects and their diverse prostheses building a schema of their concepts. Observing this process of producing the schema I can infer judgments about the various concepts that may be shaping the object that is under construction. My project, then, carries the inherent assumption that the process of putting together the schema is the process that reveals something about the a priori concepts that give direction to this production, as what interests me is not the schema itself, but the a priori concepts that instigate this schema. How does one use the rule of production in order to achieve a priori concepts? Kant argues here, “the concept must contain something which is represented in the object that is to be subsumed under it. This means that the concept must in some way be influenced by the material to be perceived” (CPR, A-137). Thus Kant also points to a double movement: I may wish to develop pure concepts of thought and try to apply them on the world around me, but I develop these concepts via relying on the world around me. Thus, unfortunately, my imagination is somehow limited by the intuitions that I may cognize. As Adorno suggests, “this is the non-subjective element within subjectivity.” It points to the priority of the object over knowledge. He (1959: 137) succinctly argues: “As knowing subjects we only know ourselves. In this sense we are never able to get outside ourselves; we are imprisoned within ourselves. This, too, has its profound truth in Kantian philosophy because it means that the world in which we are captive is in fact a self-made world: it is the world of exchange, the world of commodities, the world of reified human relations that confront us, presenting us with a façade of objectivity, a second nature.” What exactly is it that I may know by observing a construction site? Adorno would suggest that I develop a sense of the-thing-in-itself by analyzing its social production. I trace the conditions that lead to the emergence of this thing as such, while mapping the multiple imaginations of the objects responsible for its constitution.

Is it a legitimate task to explore different understandings of time within the construction site? According to Kant, mutable objects transform in time, but time itself endures. It is a pure form, like space, because it structures and precedes all experience, both of outer objects and inner states. How could time have a qualifier? The only qualifier that time would accept is “empty,” where empty time is the time in which one is not. However, Adorno (1959: 228) challenges the idea of a pure form by suggesting that “the relation of form to content is not that of an empty form into which a content flows, as generally appears to be in the case of Kant, but here, too, the situation is one of reciprocity. That is to say, this form only exists if it has a content, because it is form only as the form of a content, just as, on the other hand – as Kant correctly perceived – a content can only exist if these forms can actually be said to exist.” Does this imply that the content gives shape to the form as well? The time-form, as experienced in the construction site in multiple ways, inheres different types of social content, which eventually drag subjects in opposing directions, although enabling them to build this one renewable energy plant. The observation that temporality is experienced in multiple ways, such as capitalist time or environmentalist time, does not mean that I am itemizing time. I am merely suggesting that there are different cognitions of time within and towards the same time-form, which shape the time-form itself. Finally, the social content of time creates and re-creates the inward meanings of time as such.

In this short essay, I tried to briefly touch upon the ways in which Kant’s thought relates to my research questions. Indeed, this is not a comprehensive analysis, but it sheds some light on the ways in which Kantian theory could provide guidance. Benefiting from the cognitive framework of my preliminary ethnographic research, I concluded that the processes of schematism and synthesis cannot be separated, especially because they both produce limits for each other. Finally, I attempted to think through the possibility of an engagement with temporal experience, from a Kantian perspective, thereby understanding that the time form is inevitably shaped by socially mediated time content.

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