15 and 16 March 2002
« LITERATURE AND THE INTERNET: NEW FORMS OF ELECTRONIC WRITING »
- opening music: Mozart! (There is no music, but the silence followed for a beat)
The conception of freedom is a conception of pure reason, writes Emmanuel Kant in his Metaphysics of Morals.
Don't believe anything without thorough examination.
Don't obey any authority, however important it claims to be.
Look at everything through your own eyes and examine it thoroughly.
These were Emmanuel Kant's permanent Maxims as reported by his contemporary Borowsky.
This intuitive rambling lecture deals with the life of Emmanuel Kant, eminent XVIII century humanist philosopher from Königsberg whose metaphysical research (Forschung) is the founding stone of modern thought, bringing European culture out of the closet of the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment - Aufklärung, and I will attempt some examples of his Metaphysics applied to the Internet.
What does it have to do with the Internet, you ask?
Well that's what we're here for. I won't be talking about how to make a buck on the Internet... We're concerned with content, with writing, with knowledge, with ideas. Because the Internet is today's revolutionary tool for disseminating knowledge, it is a powerful tool to apply Metaphysics.
Emmanuel Kant's Metaphysics were an intellectual revolution of knowledge whose dissemination and popularization was made possible by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.
The Internet, grandchild of ARPANET created by Paul Barret, Larry Roberts, etc, in the 1960s, lead to a revolutionary dissemination of knowledge today - allowing an infinite amount of people to exchange knowledge and awareness electronically outside of time and space - time and space being another concept of Kant I will mention later.
Let me first give you a brief synopsis of Kant's life and a perspective of his autonomous thinking liberating himself from religious dogmas and constraints by gaining knowledge of
Sein, Erblickbarkeit, das Numinose und so weiter...
... resulting in a scenario of general metaphysics, ontology (the essence) and deontology (our duty) that still very much concern us.
Kant's Metaphysics put the individual at the core of knowledge and put God, like an embryo in a jar of formaldehyde. But someone had to replace the void of His "responsibility", and this is where Kant came in with his philosophical and spiritual architecture.
Metaphysics, according to Steven Palmquist's definition, is the highest form of philosophy, which attempts to gain knowledge of ideas. It is the quest for the ultimate truth.
The essence of metaphysics are, as expressed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the eternal questions:
What can I do?
What should I do?
What may I hope for? - The results of our dreams, expectations, our essential goals.
This leads us to the question:
Who are we?
We are all people, you and I, all of us are individuals! We all carry the essence of Metaphysics in us, even if we don't know it. We all eventually struggle with questions like freedom, God, immortality - and infinity. Is the universe infinite? Do we have a chance comprehending it, in order to survive and be happy?
Humanity hasn't evolved as quickly as fast paced technology, and we still find relevant inspiration in Kant's humanist work, lending a peculiar thrill like standing atop a cliff ready to jump and soar, by applying his metaphysics.
Hegel said of Kant's Metaphysics that it was something like trying to learn how to swim without getting wet. Try that once.
This is not an easy task to perform and perhaps won't give us any greater insight into who we truly are, or what we're doing and hoping for in life, on this planet, but it's worth the risk to consider ourselves masters of our own lives and destiny, and obtaining some kind of awareness of the essence of existence as a bonus before we pass on.
I will finally be speaking of ethics and duties that we should question on a permanent basis.
For the sake of simplicity lets take a deep breath and leap into the universe of Emmanuel Kant, in order to imagine how his Metaphysics apply to the Internet.
In fact, we know very little about the Internet. We know how it works, the physical part of it, how its technology functions and develops. A lot of things are said and written about it. Yet we have scant knowledge of its true possibilities. (In 2002 this was still true, clearly, we understand much more since google helped discover the universe.)
The same I can state about ourselves: we are all people who don't really know who we are or what we're doing, and why.
Now I'd like to ask you to do a simple exercise, will everyone please rise, stand up; now, all of us, let's take a deep breath together. Inhale slowly through your nose, exhale, if you wish, through your mouth. I will take a picture of you.
Thank you, sit down and relax.
Now that we know a little more about ourselves, like we know that we're alive, we're here, we breath and feel our bodies, let me tell you something about Emmanuel Kant and his enlightening philosophical work: it shines a radiant, fascinating spotlight on the Internet enabling an a priori investigation that should lead us to more questions and give us a few relevant answers.
Kant came into the world on April 22, 1724 at 5 in the morning, when Europe was still a battleground of powers that fought wars to expand territory and protect their interests. It must've been something like Afghanistan today, tribal warlords fighting each other, then making deals and switching sides and fighting again. It cost a lot of lives and money. People were poor, and education, in Central Europe, was considered useless, unless it furthered military objectives.
Explosives needed chemists, guns needed physicists, strategy needed proto-psychologists.
Königsberg, on the Baltic Sea next to Poland was the second largest city in Prussia. During Kant's life it changed hands a couple of times, one day is was Russian, the next day Prussian, then Russian again. Soldiers chose to have two different uniforms in the closet just to be on the safe side.
Once the more liberal Friedrich II took over in Berlin and invited great thinkers like Voltaire to his court, Prussia started gaining an intellectual reputation that distinguished itself from the mind-smashing dictatorship of its former - and some future rulers.
Universities flourished and those who could afford it sent their children to study. Emmanuel Kant's parents were humble pietiest Lutherans, his father a hard working saddler who strictly applied the doctrines of their protestant religion. Young Emmanuel never heard an expletive voiced by his parents.
Through his caring and loving mother's contact with their pastor, he got into school, and through tedious hard work - he was a slow, distracted worker - he got into the university. He studied Latin and the Greek philosophers. He studied theology until the day his professor asked him whether he could feel the fear of God in his heart. Needless to say, this may have sent him on his path to freedom. But a long time before becoming a professor and author of the Critique of Pure Reason he was a private tutor to privileged families, a job then known as Privatdozent.
The greatest natural event that shook that century's intelligentsia was the earthquake that hit Lisbon the first of November 1755, on All Saints Day. News had reached them in Königsberg shortly after.
The earth shook in the morning of All Saints Day at 9 o'clock. People were in church. Chasms cracked open, the ground spewing hot sulfurous fumes and flames. People and horses fell into the flaming chasms. The raging fires spread through the city leaving it a heap of rubble and ruins. The tremors of the earthquake lasted five minutes. The citizen fled to the coast for the safety of the store houses. Suddenly a huge tidal wave smashed into the harbor and crushed all the ships, flooding the city, tearing down churches and palaces like sand castles. Over ten thousand people have perished...
... and the immediate question was: Why? How could this happen?
It gave Voltaire the material for the best chapters of his brilliant novel Candide whose subject is the question of cause and effect. The immediate cause attributed to this unprecedented cataclysm was that it had to be God's punishment.
But for what?
Kant's interpretation came quickly: he proved that the earthquake was a natural event caused by physical forces alone, his sound reasoning backed by pure logic.
The second event that marked Kant's life took place far away in America whose settlers revolted against the European royal powers' authority, to create their own independent homeland. It was a social and political unrest that changed the way contemporary intellectuals looked at empires and the seed of modern state democracy was planted.
This was followed by the French revolution that ended the belief in eternal kingdoms ruling by the will of God.
The religious wars that had driven thousands of starved people across the Atlantic to settle America produced an effervescence that stimulated Kant's thinking. Is there order in the universe?
It is my suspicion beyond doubt that tobacco that had just been introduced from America, and it's exhilarating narcotic - nicotine - accelerated Kant's neuron-transmitters to the point that he took a quantum leap into his new concept of philosophy after smoking his morning pipe.
Only shortly before he was born the world was known as a flat confined space with God running the entire "Camembert" covered by a heavenly cheese-bell, and no human being able to raise his voice to contradict this so called "truth", because if you did - remember what happened to Galileo Galilei in 1633 when he was forced by the Inquisition to recant or perish on the stake.
Emmanuel Kant, in the safe haven of a protestant Prussia took his whiff of Cuban tobacco, and intoxicated with the idea of - Sein (Being) - came up with a new order of ontology - the essence of existence.
Kant was a small, frail man with clear blue eyes and blond hair. He had a large head in proportion to his body. One shoulder was slightly higher than the other, probably caused by his strenuous daily writing. Once he embarked on his determined quest for the ultimate knowledge he confined himself to Königsberg, refusing tempting offers to chair professorial posts in elite universities of superior cities - Berlin, Jena, Halle, - rejecting stardom and notoriety that could have jeopardized his independence, autonomy and intellectual freedom. He never took vacations, and every day he worked and worked. He adopted a disciplined routine that allowed him to develop the architecture of his Kritik der reinen Vernunft - Critique of Pure Reason - which took him ten years to write.
He slept less than 7 hours a day getting up before 5 each morning when his servant Martin Lampe (this means lamp in German) brought in the tea, smoked a pipe and started writing. His students arrived at 8 or 9, for lecturing was done at home. Once a day he took a constitutional at exactly the same hour and neighbors set their clocks when Herr Magister ambled past. His peripatetic exercise was known as the philosopher's walk. He favored silence to the presence of others, in order to think, and keeping his mouth shut while walking in order to breath through his nose and avoid catching a cold or getting sick.
However he did not shun company if he could lead the conversation that flowed as freely as the good wine he liked to drink for lunch. Lunches that began at noon when five or six convives normally much younger than himself gathered around his table and Lampe sauntered in with the meal. He ate only once a day but in good company his meals could last till 6 or 7. Usually he got up wiping his mouth with his napkin uttering "And now Gentlemen..." And that was the sign to break up and work. He never spoke of his Critique, but someone jokingly suggested his next book ought to be Critique of pure food.
Kant believed in healthy simple food; chewing his categorical imperative of pure nutrition lead him to an interesting conclusion:
Insanity (and many other diseases) start in the stomach.
He never got sick, although he often felt ill, but he never was bedridden.
The only occasion he missed his daily philosopher's walk was when he received Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile and could not tear himself away from the book whose main character is coincidentally a tutor with whom he identified. According to Curtis Bowman of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Philosophy, Rousseau made a greater impact on him than any other philosopher of his time.
Emmanuel Kant died peacefully in his bed, at 80, leaving us with the most fascinating and thorough work of philosophy preceded only in my mind by the famous Ethics of Baruch Spinoza.
To make it easier to understand Metaphysics, let me tell you a little story:
In Poland at that time there was a small town called Chelm known for its kind of eccentric people.
One day they all got together because a mountain that threw a shadow in the evening on Chelm bothered them. They decided to move that mountain. They went to the rabbi and said they needed counsel on how to move that mountain. The rabbi thought about it for a while and then said, ok, but everyone must participate.
So they all went out to the mountain and the rabbi asked them to take their coats off and lay them down in a heap at the foot of the mountain. Then they all pulled up their sleeves and began pushing the side of the mountain. Pushing, pushing, pushing. Sweat was pouring down their faces blinding their eyes, they nearly had multiple hernias but they kept pushing. In the meantime some thieves turned up (I suspect contracted by the rabbi) and stole all their coats.
After a while the rabbi looks over his shoulder and cries: Stop! I can't see our coats anymore, we must've pushed the mountain miles away!
And they all went home happy and convinced they had pushed the mountain forgetting all about their coats.
In Chelm lived a man called Zelig, an unemployed tailor. All day long he sat in front of his house reading the Talmud day-dreaming of a better world. His wife Sara complained morning noon and night that he was the worst failure of Chelm although he'd given her 3 beautiful children who loved him for his bed-side stories and he loved them, dearly, too. Over dinner, while having to eat her tasteless food, Sara yelled that he should get a job and make some money! But every time he got a job, he ended up getting fired. His last job at tailor Meier terminated when he made an ingenious coat with four sleeves for the best client, fishmonger Shloimo.
When Meier asked Zelig why he'd made a coat with four sleeves, wasting all his expensive cloth? Zelig replied: it's for Shloimo and his twin brother.
Every day Zelig hung out at the market, hoping to meet travelers who passed through Chelm with tales of faraway countries and cities that would nourish his dreams.
One day he met two merchants from Warsaw who happy to have found an eager audience, told him all about the beauties and wonders of Warsaw. Warsaw was far superior, had splendid architecture, glorious synagogues, paved streets, and money grew on trees. The people were kind and life was bliss. To Zelig this was the revelation of his dreams.
On his way home, Zelig considered the benefits of leaving Chelm to Warsaw in order to realize his dreams. When he entered his home Sara screeched at him that he was a worthless idiot idling his time away when he should be making some Money. And on top of this tirade her soup tasted like dishwater.
That night Zelig could not sleep and early in the morning without telling anyone he sneaked out the door with his toothbrush in his pocket, his old worn out walking shoes in his hand not to wake anyone, determined never to return home again.
He took the road pointed out to him which would lead him straight to Warsaw, and started marching.
He kept marching and marching and marching until night fell and he was tired and hungry but the vision of Warsaw stilled his hunger. Yet his feet were hurting and it was pitch dark and he heard the wolves howling in the distance; and scared of stepping on a wolf's tail in the darkness, he decided to lie down in a grassy hollow near the road.
As he was falling asleep with his shoes on, he suddenly remembered that next day he needed to be certain to continue in the right direction to Warsaw and had the brilliant idea to take his shoes off and place them down on the side of the road, the tips pointing in the direction of Warsaw, the heals towards Chelm.
Exhausted from his march, pleased with his brilliant idea, he slept deeply having wonderful dreams of his future life in Warsaw. He dreamed that he was loved and cared for by his next wife and children, and he saw money growing on trees.
At sunrise he was still fast asleep when a carriage coming from Warsaw and going to Chelm stopped on the road where his shoes were standing. The driver jumped off, picked up the shoes to examine them, but seeing that they were worn out and worthless, he put them back down on the ground, but turning them around, the tips pointing to Chelm instead of Warsaw.
When Zelig finally woke up from his delightful dreams he stretched and his eyes were aglow in the morning sun. Today he would reach Warsaw! He found his shoes still standing on the road, the tips pointing in the direction of his goal, so he wouldn't miss Warsaw. And he set off in that direction - back to Chelm. In the evening he finally approached a town. This must be Warsaw! And how astounded he was when he entered Warsaw and it seemed all so familiar!
Familiar were all the faces on the street, but they were so much nicer! Unbelievable!
They greeted him like they all knew him, how kind they all were. Even a man looking like Shloimo the fishmonger back in Chelm screamed something about a four sleaved coat, that was brilliant because he never separated from his twin brother in the synagogue. They knew about his great ideas from back home!
Still confused, he entered a street that looked like his street in Chelm.
He saw a house that looked just like his own home in Chelm, and a woman looking like his wife Sara came running out greeting him cheerfully, (happy to have him back), calling him Zelig, Zelig - she even knew his name! That's strange, there must be another Zelig out there, he thought, it must be a mistake - but she invited him in for supper.
Since he was hungry he accepted, and he sat down with three lovely children who looked just like his own children, who stared lovingly at him even more so than his real children had ever done, (because they had been scared of losing him and happy to see him back). And the chicken soup was delicious (because he was famished).
Zelig ate and stared and wondered and sat in a daze. It's wonderful to be in Warsaw, Zelig finally said, and Sara, getting really worried, ran to consult the rabbi. After a moment of reflection the rabbi decided that all the citizen of Chelm should make a small contribution to keep Zelig in Chelm. Zelig, of course, was now convinced that Warsaw was far better place than Chelm, since money grew on trees.
And so he lived happily ever after, dreaming through the days, his dreams only clouded from time to time by the worry: what will happen when the real Zelig returns?
Now what does this story have to do with the Internet, with Metaphysics, or Emmanuel Kant?
The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited in regards to space.
The Internet, however, is a dream world, our vision, a world of innocent wonder, our imaginary Warsaw, our virtual Chelm, it is outside spatial-temporal concerns; the Metaphysics are our actions, and Emmanuel Kant wrote 3 Maxims that we ought to consider :
For rational beings all stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and others, never only as a means, but always at the same time as an end in himself. By doing so there arises a systematic union of rational beings under common objective laws - that is, a kingdom.
The categorical imperative of our actions need to be determined by the law of freedom. The inherent value of the world is freedom in accordance with a will which is not necessitated to action. Freedom is thus the inner value of the world.
We need to remember(1) that plants animals and human beings are part of this system, the world our earth; in order to preserve it we need to do everything possible to obtain results that will our children the same duties that have driven us to accomplish something that we ambitiously call civilization. This planet, in order to save it, we need to understand our humanity, animals and plants, and we need to pursue the goal of understanding who we are what we're doing and where we're going towards, what we hope wish and dream what we're doing for our children and children's children. We need to understand the moral duty that Kant was talking about that is not part of religion, it is a natural part of human kind, it is part of you and me, it is every person's responsibility.
The Internet is not the ultimate goal of existence, yet it is a tool to convince others that this planet, our home, needs to be preserved from destruction. Protected for its own good - and the Internet is a unique tool we have today to educate, and apply the Metaphysics and Maxims of Emmanuel Kant to further awareness, consciousness, and thought. In other words our work on the Internet is identical to a metaphysical action in itself: we don't know what the results will be of our writings; it is a hope a dream, yet it is a metaphysical action that nevertheless is our duty to pursue.
I wish to conclude with Jack London's memorable words(2) during his lectures in the US quote The revolution is here and now unquote, thank you!
(1) reference to a campaign speech by Gore Vidal, from "Gore Vidal, the Man Who Said No", a film by Gary Conklin; (2)Henry Miller who had attended a lecture by Jack London reported this to me.
Special thanks goes to Professor Ron Gottesman, USC Humanities Department, and specially to Andrew Gallix for organizing this event.
Encyclopedia Britannica edition 1952
Goulyga, Arsenij Emmanuel Kant une vie
Aubier, 1985, Jean Marie Vaysse - En quel sens sommes-nous tous Kantiens?
Mistler, Jean Borowski/Jachmann/Wasianski - Kant Intime, Grasset 1985
Heidegger - kant et le problème de la métaphysique - Gallimard, 1953