Synthesis


Of course it is strange, feeling no desire to write -- but then there are moments when I think I've glimpsed something that I must share. Perhaps I'm wrong about it (surely I am), but that is no reason for cowardice.

Almost four years ago, when I began writing on this webplace, I was reading Kant for my classes and Virginia Woolf for myself. I wrote of those two together then, and I want to return to them again.

Last week in class we were speaking of the notion of synthesis in the Critique of Pure Reason, and relatedly, of the different uses of apperception, consciousness, self-consciousness and others. What is it that Kant is speaking of when he speaks of the I, the I think, the presentation of myself to myself as an appearance and not as a thing in itself? We spoke of the chance that what he meant was something like what contemporary philosophers call indexicality. Could it be that all of those analytic philosophers who thought they had come across something new hadn't in fact? Could it be that Kant was first to realize the something special in our use of the first-personal pronouns, and to accurately describe it? Could he have been first to notice that there was something which could not be analyzed out of the statement 'I think,' and yet imparted no content, no quality, nothing other then the pointing-toward, the ostensiveness?

These are deep tangled issues, they are unclear to me and will remain so, of that I'm sure. But I knew as we were speaking of this, and as I was reading scholars and philosophers writing about Kant, I knew that I had encountered these ideas in other areas. It isn't a question of who came first at all, for there was an explosion of literature that dealt with these exact problems. I remembered Proust and Woolf especially, and the problems I have dealt with in this space -- the problem of feeling as though there a multitude of selves, all anchoring themselves in some shadowy unknown self -- the problem of doubting the return of the self, night after night, sleep after sleep, how is it we find our way back? where does the continuity come from?

I thought of these things, of The Waves and of Marcel, and I wondered what I wanted to say about all of this. And now I think of what Kant says -- how reason hungers to ask these questions, how they are our natural urge, how we will inevitably try and solve them, try and reach past the appearance and to the thing itself -- to the self itself. He condemns philosophy for trying to anchor a metaphysics on such pursuits -- in doing so, reason illicitly lends substance and sense to something which was mere abstract idea. But what if instead we were to use art to explore these problems -- not to solve them, but to understand them. What if we were to try, with Woolf, as she describes in the passage below, to confront our selves, to find the thing itself, the quick of life. And if something incandescent comes of such a project, the better for us, the better for art, the better for the life trying, doing, acting.

Kant says that there are two ways of understanding self-consciousness -- there is the consciousness of oneself as a receptacle for the play of appearances in inner sense -- and then there is the consciousness of oneself as the one who makes, who synthesizes, who combines, who unifies, who acts. He says: "I exist as an intelligence conscious solely of its power of combination."

That is the consciousness of the artist -- the one who experiences the hurt and the suffering, the joy and the love -- the one who receives shocks, who receives blows, who receives impressions -- the one who reacts to those impressions by rearing up, by acting, by putting into words or deeds the experience -- the one who makes order, who imposes order on what comes in, on what is received.

It is fascinating to me to see, as I write this, the great similarities between what Kant says of the possibility of experience, and what some of my favorite artists have said of the process of creating -- I think here of Paul Valery, of Robert Musil, of Proust, of Beckett, and of course of Virginia Woolf. There are many others of course -- but I think now that there is much here, much to be understood.