Monthly Archives: May 2012

Reading Kant’s first Critique provoked Heinrich von Kleist’s famous “Kant crisis”, because if he could only see things as they appeared to him, how could he know anything at all? This early example from a long line of misreadings (arguably including much of subsequent German philosophy) shows just how radical Kant’s critical system then appeared once grasped, even if in misapprehension. In my previous post I made the ex cathedra assertion that Kant was not an idealist, whereas Kant’s own term for his position was “transcendental idealism”. Such labels inevitably mislead if they give the impression that each one of the broad range of possible positions is monolithic, eliding the specific insight of all individual philosophers. Kant wrote a rebuttal of a review assimilating his position to that of Bishop Berkeley, which as I remember found its way into the second edition of the Critique. Nonetheless, Kant interpretations are manifold, and mine is based not on extrapolation (put more kindly, exploring the possible ramifications of the arguments in detail, especially when these are corrected to remedy some supposed error), but on a sense of the broad aims and context of the project as a whole. As the Introduction makes clear, Kant sought to keep reason’s feet on the ground, provide a firm foundation for the scientific method, and close the door to flights of speculation. In particular, most of the perennial questions of philosophy are dismissed as beyond our ken: free will versus determinism, whether the world is finite, the existence of God. However, Kant did not thereby intend to open the door to relativism or subjectivism — on the contrary, he sought to secure objectivity even without relying on epistemological access to things in themselves, and that tour de force was his “Copernican Revolution”. Though Kant’s epistemology stands or falls independently of whatever such concerns motivated it, they constitute strong circumstantial evidence if the interpretation of the philosophical arguments themselves is in doubt. For that reason, it seemed natural to allude to Arnold’s Dover Beach, even though the poem isn’t about epistemology.


It was rather by chance that my doctoral work led me to take a long bath in the icy waters of Kant’s critical philosophy, though I suppose there still may have been an elective affinity. I emerged a convinced Kantian, not only epistemologically, but ethically too, and with a sense of the unity of those disparate arms of pure and practical critique. In the first Critique above all, Kant is one of the few truly difficult philosophers, “truly”, that is, in that the difficulty is inherent in the material and not mere obfuscation (nor even really the result of poor exposition, for all the flak Kant takes for his dry style, and flabby though it becomes in translation). The result is that most people who take only a passing interest in such matters (and even many philosophers, who oftentimes can’t see the wood for the trees) have no more understanding of the wider importance of Kant’s Copernican Revolution than they may do of Einstein’s General Theory, so they are probably instinctive Platonists without ever having reflected on it — even though they may well also say they are atheists, materialists, and “believe” in science. Yet although chance alone led me to Kant, and despite my lack of training to judge the nitty-gritty of his arguments, I confidently subscribe to the broad outline of his system, because it seems like the obvious consequence of putting away childish things that something of the kind must be true. Kant himself might well be horrified at so much trust, not to say credulity. But what it makes me wonder is, who should I read next? To put it another way, the arbitrariness inherent in the notion of having an “epistemological sensibility” is only really worrying once it becomes a point of mossy repose. The important thing is the epistemological turn which Kant brought to fruition, the principle that for practical purposes (not in essence, Kant was not an idealist), epistemology precedes ontology, indeed, we may never get to things themselves: we have to live within our metaphysical means, and not speculate. Ethics is then utterly transformed, and everything else that matters. There is no return from Dover Beach

It will be obvious that my recent posts after visiting galleries — to put it more or less pleonastically — reflect the enthusiasm of an amateur. For instance, any such interpretation of Ecce homo would need to start from a knowledge of Renaissance christology, and specifically, the way theological concepts were expressed by painters — for example, with what degree of sophistication. In turn, this would need to be placed in the context of Tintoretto’s oevre, and any actual biographical evidence as to his religious background. Nonetheless, the power of such great works is revealed in their ability to speak directly across centuries to the viewer, for instance even a viewer barely aware of the gospel narrative behind that painting, because (in that case) we feel the human condition in our bones. I have clothed it in my own notions, and that is not scholarship, but it is a response.

To help make sense of these posts I have festooned them with hyperlinks to images of the works, but there is no substitute for seeing them in the flesh. This Tintoretto is a case in point. Whether because of damage, poor restoration, or even because the artist really painted it like that, everything outside the torso is very dark, whereas photos and prints compensate for this by adjusting the contrast and distorting the balance of colour, disguising the effect of luminous presence I described. Recovering the original state of a painting several centuries old is as complex a question as interpreting it, but the improving distortion of the photographic lens is based on no such painstaking hermeneutic heuristic. You have to go there and see it for yourself.

Crivelli’s St. Catherine in the Ashmolean is now on the opposite wall, so it is no longer the first painting you see when you walk into the room, like the painting that reminded me of it at the Gulbenkian Museum. On the way across is a charming bust of John the Baptist as a child. Just beyond that first room hangs Tintoretto’s Ecce homo, depicting the scourged Christ before his crucifiction. Were it not for the title I’d have taken it instead for a depostion from the cross, so morbid is the flesh: man reduced to a hunk of meat. The massive, unnaturally pale body dominates the composition as a diagonal white slab, and it glows with a Platonic presence, embodying the contradiction of Christ’s human and divine natures that are about to meet at Golgatha.

The Gulbenkian collection contains a number of Corots, an example of the personal character of the collection. After two weeks they are no longer in my mind’s eye, but I remember being struck by the insight that the very natural effect of the paintings as landscape derives its force and pregnancy from effects of composition rather than texture. Many of them depict a country road, and that unmade road’s sandy yellow gathers together the light as well as unifying the composition, not as the source of illumination, but with a slight inner glow reminiscent of El Greco — especially the paintings of Toledo. The Bridge at Nantes demonstrates the effect because the function is here performed by a bridge not a road, but in just the same way, with the river as a contrasting axis of movement. Perhaps my favourite of the Corots shows a flock of sheep in the distance to the top left with a willow tree reflected in a pond in the foreground to the left, and a yellow track heading off from it up to the right. A girl leans on the tree, lending the whole its human dimension and scale. The scene could be in Oxfordshire. An apparent exception to the pattern is a painting of Venice, with the red light of San Marco reflected in the canal and a very Venetian sky; the canal is the thoroughfare that unifies the composition formally, but its unity of light gives it its distinctive character as a Corot — or so I felt when I noticed the red light in the canal, and then the sky.