THINKING FOR A LIVING: A PHILOSOPHER’S NOTEBOOK 16
299. The political aesthetics of outer space. Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space,[i] a nowadays-neglected, minor philosophical classic of the mid-20th century, is a brilliant phenomenological-aesthetic investigation of inner or intimate space, focusing on the house and its interior, and related shapes.
What I’m interested in, for the purposes of this set of notes, however, is the philosophical complement of Bachelard’s topic: namely, outer space.
And I’m interested not only in the phenomenological aesthetics, or poetics, of outer space, but also in its radical political dimensions and implications.
So just to give this line of inquiry a name, I’ll call it the political aesthetics of outer space.
300. Like most people who were children during the 1960s, and also had access to TV, movies, and print media, I was absolutely entranced by, even obsessed with, The Space Race in general and the U.S. Space Program in particular.
Indeed, if I remember correctly, my first publication, at age 5 or 6, in 1962 or 63, was this profound sentence in a self-published typed newsletter, distributed in carbon copies:
“A Canadian and American satellite rocket was launched today from Churchill, Manitoba. By Bobby Hanna.”
In the interests of full disclosure: I seem to remember I misspelled ‘satellite’ as ‘sattelite’.
A few years later, as my spelling improved but my entrancement by or obsession with The Space Race and the U.S. Space Program remained undiminished, I was greatly disappointed to me to learn that even though the Canadians and the Americans occasionally shared rockets and satellites, as a young Canadian of that era, I had a less-than-zero chance of becoming an astronaut.
Another few years later, however, this frustrated passion for outer space travel led to an equally passionate interest in science fiction, and, another few years after that, to a permanent passion for philosophy.
301. In retrospect, however, it’s clear that The Space Race and the U.S. Space Program were essentially a militaristic, scientistic-Statist boondoggle jointly arranged by the USA and the Soviet Union, essentially jingoistic macho posturing, and a huge waste of money, on both sides.
The Space Race and the Space Program were also a massive, decades-long technocratic bread-&-circuses event staged by the military-industrial-university(and now also –digital) complex, aka The Deep State, in order to deflect popular attention from real-world problems, from worldwide big-capitalist exploitation and/or Leninist-Stalinist communist tyranny, and from coercive authoritarian Statist oppression of all kinds.
This began to dawn on me when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s bitterly satirical short story, “The Big Space Fuck,” in 1972, a story notable not only for its exceptional political edginess, but also for the further facts that it was, (i) as Vonnegut later put it, “the dirtiest story I ever wrote,” and, (ii) as far as I can tell, the first fairly serious literary publication in English to have the word ‘fuck’ in its title.
But at the same time, as Vonnegut’s short story and many of his most famous novels—e.g., Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five—and also the novels and short stories of Stanislaw Lem, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, along with Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (based on Lem’s same-named novel), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Lucas’s Star Wars, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Scott’s The Martian, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, all brilliantly demonstrate, some of the most politically radical and/or inventive literature and cinema in the past 120 years has been framed in science-fictional, futurist-fantastic, and utopian/dystopian terms, with strong emphases on outer space, off-world settings, and space travel.
302. Moreover, and here is what I am most interested in for the purposes of this set of notes,
not only (i) is there something inherently philosophical in synoptic, reflective thinking about outer space, space travel, cosmology, the origins and destruction of the universe, and so-on—see, for example, Aristotle’s idea that all philosophy begins in wonder (thaumazein) and also Edgar Allan Poe’s amazing Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe,
but also (ii) the phenomenological aesthetics of outer space is inherently sublime, deeply political, and ultimately spiritual in a fully humane and and humanistic sense.
And here’s what I mean by all that.
Let’s start with this highly artistically important painted image,
and with these equally highly philosophically important texts written by Kant and Goethe:
[T]wo things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence (Ehrfurcht), the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 5: 161-162)
II. THE HUMAN BEING OUGHT TO LEAVE THE ETHICAL STATE OF NATURE IN ORDER TO BECOME A MEMBER OF AN ETHICAL COMMUNITY
Just as the juridical state of nature is a state of war of every human being against every other, so too is the ethical state of nature one in which the good principle, which resides in each human being, is incessantly attacked by the evil which is found in him and in every other as well. Human beings (as we remarked above) mutually corrupt one another’s moral predisposition and, even with the good will of each individual, because of the lack of a principle which unites them, they deviate through their dissensions from the common goal of goodness, as though they were instruments of evil, and expose one another to the danger of falling once again under its dominion. Further, just as the state of a lawless external (brutish) freedom and independence from coercive laws is a state of injustice and of war, each against each, which a human being ought to leave behind in order to enter into a politico-civil state, so is the ethical state of nature a public feuding between the principles of virtue and a state of inner immorality which the natural human being ought to endeavor to leave behind as soon as possible.
Now, here we have a duty sui generis, not of human beings toward human beings but of the human species (menschlichen Geschlechts) toward itself. (Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason 6: 96-97)
The human being knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ [of sensibility] within ourselves.[ii]
With that image and those texts in front of us, what I want to do now is to present four arguments in support of what I call Cosmopolitan Natural Piety.
What I am both asserting and advocating is nothing more and nothing less than an absolutely universal Kantian “cosmopolitan moral community” (Kant, Religion With the Boundaries of Mere Reason 6: 200) that is beyond all States and State-like institutions, and encompasses not just the Earth but also, in a Greek Cynic-inspired way—and of course I’m thinking here about Diogenes’s profound remark that he was a citizen of no State, but instead a “citizen of the cosmos”—the entire natural universe.
The first three arguments are needed in order to set up the fourth argument, which is the most important one for my purposes here.
Bounded in a transcendental nutshell, what I want to argue by means of these four arguments is this:
Because it is as true to say that “the natural universe is inside me” as it is to say that “I am inside the natural universe,” and because I have dignity, then the natural universe has proto-dignity. But since all States and State-like institutions—and specifically, neoliberal nation-States and State-like institutions—violate my dignity and oppress me, and must be resisted and exited, therefore those States and State-like institutions must also oppress the natural universe via, for example, their technocracy. So the natural universe must also be protected by me from this oppression, precisely to the extent that I am resisting and exiting the State and other State-like institutions.
That’s Cosmopolitan Natural Piety for you.
303. Kant discovered the metaphysics of transcendental idealism between the publication of his seminal proto-Critical essay of 1768, “Concerning the Ground of the Ultimate Differentiation of Directions in Space,” and 1772.
Indeed, the philosophical implications of the “Directions in Space” essay almost certainly triggered the major proto-Critical philosophical break though that Kant famously reports when he says in one of the Reflexionen that “the year ’69 gave me great light” (Kant, Reflexionen 5037, 18: 69).
More precisely, what Kant had discovered between 1768 and 1772 is what I have called transcendental idealism for sensibility.[iii]
In 1772, Kant told Marcus Herz that if the human mind conformed to the world, whether phenomenal or noumenal, then a priori knowledge would be impossible (Kant, Philosophical Correspondence 10: 130-131); but by 1770 Kant already also held that a priori knowledge of the phenomenal world is actual and therefore really possible in mathematics, hence the phenomenal world must conform to the non-empirical sensible structure of the human mind, and more specifically must conform to our a priori representations of space and time, since that is what makes mathematics really possible (Kant, Inaugural Dissertation 2: 398-406).
So transcendental idealism for sensibility says that the apparent or phenomenal world fundamentally conforms to the essentially non-conceptual a priori forms of human sensibility, our representations of space and time.
Kant worked out explicit proofs for transcendental idealism for sensibility in the Inaugural Dissertation and again in the Transcendental Aesthetic in the Critique of Pure Reason.
The simplest version of the proof, provided in the Transcendental Aesthetic, is the following.
ARGUMENT 1: Transcendental Idealism for Sensibility
1. Space and time are
either (i) things in themselves,
or (ii) properties of/relations between things in themselves,
or (iii) transcendentally ideal.
2. If space and time were either things in themselves or properties of/relations between things in themselves, then a priori mathematical knowledge would be impossible.
3. But mathematical knowledge is actual, via our pure intuitions of space and time, and therefore really possible.
4. Therefore, space and time are transcendentally ideal. (CPR A 23/B37-38, A38-41/B55-58).
Briefly put, Kant’s thesis of transcendental idealism says that the basic structure of the apparent or phenomenal world necessarily conforms to the pure or non-empirical (hence a priori) structure of human cognition, and not the converse (CPR B xvi-xviii).
Or in other words, Kant is saying that the phenomenal world fundamentally conforms to the a priori structure of the human mind, and it is also not the case that the human mind fundamentally conforms to the phenomenal world, or indeed to any non-apparent or noumenal world.
So if Kant is correct, then he is saying that the world in which we live, move, and have our being (by which I mean the phenomenal natural and social world of our ordinary human existence) is fundamentally dependent on our minded nature, and not the converse.
If transcendental idealism is true, then we cannot be inherently alienated from the world we are trying to know, as global epistemic skeptics claim, and human knowledge—not only a priori knowledge, but also a posteriori knowedge—is therefore really possible.[iv]
304. Now I’ll present an argument in Kant-inspired political philosophy for philosophical social anarchism.
ARGUMENT 2: Philosophical Social Anarchism
1. There is no adequate rational justification, according to the set of basic Kantian moral principles, for an individual real person’s, or any group of real persons’, immorally commanding other people and coercing them to obey those commands as a duty.
2. Nevertheless, the very idea of political authority entails that special groups of people within States or State-like institutions, namely governments, have not only the power to coerce, but also the right to command other people and to force them to obey those commands as a duty, even when the commands and forcing are immoral.
3. So there is no adequate rational justification for political authority, States, or any other State-like institutions—therefore, philosophical social anarchism is true.
Or in other and even fewer words:
Human governments have no moral right to do to other people what human persons have no moral right to do to other people, according to the set of basic Kantian moral principles; yet all human governments falsely claim this supposed moral right; hence philosophical social anarchism is true.
305. Kantian transcendental idealism for sensibility, when taken together with some central claims of Kantian aesthetics and some self-evident Kantian phenomenology, jointly provide an argument for this thesis:
The natural universe is the metaphysical ground of all human persons and their autonomous dignity.
I will call this thesis The Natural Universe is Our Spiritual Home.
The seven-step argument for The Natural Universe is Our Spiritual Home thesis fuses the Transcendental Aesthetic of the first Critique with a Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime in the natural environment in the third Critique, and a Kantian self-evident phenomenology of our experience of “reverence” (Ehrfurcht) for the manifestly real natural universe and human nature, at the very end of the second Critique.
ARGUMENT 3: The Natural Universe is Our Spiritual Home
1. Given the truth of transcendental idealism for sensibility, then we can take fully seriously the sensibility-grounded, essentially non-conceptual evidence provided by the aesthetic experience of beauty in the natural universe, as veridically tracking natural purposive form, without a purpose, in a way that is inherently disinterested and therefore divorced from all possible self-interest (CPJ 5: 204-211). In short, our experience of beauty in the natural universe shows us that the natural universe cannot be and ought not to be regarded or treated purely instrumentally, that is, merely as a means, or exploited.
2. Given the truth of transcendental idealism for sensibility, and our experience of beauty in the natural universe , then we can also take fully seriously the Romantic/natural-religious/natural-theological reverential experience of what Kant calls “the mathematically sublime in nature,” for example, “the starry heavens above me.” To make this kind of “Romantic/natural-religious/natural-theological reverential experience” phenomenologically vivid to yourself, either stand outside on a clear, moonless night at 2:00 am in a place without too many nearby city lights and then look straight up, or else consider, for example, the image I inserted above of Van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece painting, “The Starry Night.”
3. Now since, according to Kant, via the human experience of the mathematically sublime in nature, the natural universe is thereby experienced as having a specific character and normative value that is expressible only as a transcendently infinite, transfinite, or non-denumerably infinite, quantity, it follows that the natural universe inherently cannot reduced to any denumerable quantity, no matter how great (Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment 5: 244-260).
4. Hence the natural universe, experienced as mathematically sublime, cannot have a “market price” and is experienced as beyond price, or priceless, since all “market prices,” or exchangeable economic values (say, monetary values) “related to general human interests and needs” (Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 4: 434), are expressible only as denumerable (natural number, rational number) quantities, even infinite ones. Otherwise put, the specific character and normative value of the natural universe, experienced as mathematically sublime, inherently transcends any economic calculus.
5. Steps 1 to 4 jointly entail what I call the proto-dignity of the natural universe. Dignity according to Kant, is the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value of persons, or rational animal agents, especially human persons. The natural universe is not itself a person, and more specifically it is not itself a human person, and therefore it does not have dignity per se; nevertheless, the natural universe, as beautiful and sublime, inherently cannot (without eco-disaster) and inherently ought not (without moral scandal) be merely exploited, merely bought or sold, or otherwise treated as a mere capitalist resource or commodity (aka “commodified”).
6. But human nature itself belongs to the natural universe.
7. Therefore transcendental idealism for sensibility, plus the self-evident phenomenology of our reverential experience of beauty/sublimity in the natural universe (“the starry heavens above me”), plus our equally reverential experience of respect for the autonomous dignity of human nature (“the moral law within me”), transcendentally prove that the natural universe is the metaphysical ground of all human persons and their autonomous dignity. That is: the natural universe is our spiritual home.
306. The fourth and final argument, the argument for Cosmopolitan Natural Piety, employs a Kantian logical distinction between two sharply different types of universal sets or totalities:
(i) absolutely universal sets and
(ii) restrictedly universal sets.
Absolutely universal sets include, for example, Kant’s omnitudo realitatis (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A576/B604), Bertrand Russell’s set w of all sets that are not members of themselves,[v] and Georg Cantor’s universal set C, corresponding to the greatest cardinal number.[vi]
The logical technical term “impredicativity” means, roughly, “constructibility or definability by means of self-reference or iterative self-inclusion.”
Absolutely universal sets are then what I call vicious impredicative totalities, because they are impredicative and paradoxical.
Above all, however, vicious impredicative totalities are transcendent, noumenal, and ungrounded in empirical intuition.
By sharp contrast, restrictedly universal sets include Kant’s transcendentally ideal/empirically space and time as infinite given magnitudes, and Cantor’s transfinite sets—for example, the set of real numbers—as constructed by the power set operation on denumerably infinite sets.
All such sets are what I call benign impredicative totalities, because although they are impredicatively constructed by virtue of including everything in some infinite class of things, including themselves, they are logically consistent and not paradoxical.
Above all, however, benign impredicative totalities are transcendental, a priori forms of the phenomenal, and grounded in empirical intuition.
In turn, ARGUMENT 4 exploits the notion of a benign impredicative totality.
ARGUMENT 4: Cosmopolitan Natural Piety
1. We have reverence for nature and its proto-dignity (as mathematically sublime): the starry heavens above me.
2. The starry-heavens-above-me experience perfectly exemplifies what I call transcendental normativity, by which I mean the unconditional and strictly universal highest ends, goals, ideals, standards, and values of the several different kinds of rational human activity, aka categorical normativity.[vi] This shown by the following sub-argument.
2.1 When experiencing the starry heavens above me as having proto-dignity, it is every bit as as true to say that I am in space (empirical realism) as it is to say that space is in me (pure intuition of space as an infinite given whole + the transcendental ideality of space).
This metaphysically unique relation of subjective-objective, enantiomorphic, symmetrical containment is beautifully and crisply captured by Goethe’s remark that the human being “knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world.” And as a deliciously evocative pictorial analogue of this metaphysically unique relation as also occuring in a non-denumerably infinite structure, consider, for example, placing a person between two mirrors facing each other, as in this both literally and figuratively iconic scene in Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece movie, Citizen Kane—
In the context of this set of notes, this is also a deliciously ironic pictorial analogue, since the Orson Welles character, Charles Foster Kane [= William Randolph Hearst], a highly politically ambitious, ruthless, and xenophobic newspaper tycoon, both is in the movie [Welles/Kane] and also was in reality [Hearst], the very antithesis of a citizen of the cosmos.
2.2 Therefore, the totality with proto-dignity that is constituted by the starry-heavens-above-me experience is an impredicative totality: a non-denumerably infinite totality constituted by including (a complete representation of) the totality itself as a member of the totality.
2.3 But this totality with proto-dignity is also a benign impredicative totality, since it is both well-grounded in human experience and also includes a (complete representation of a) universal set that is also a member of itself, without entailing a contradiction.
2.4 There is no contradiction in the constitution of this totality, precisely because not only is manifest realism generally consistent with transcendental idealism, but also manifest realism and transcendental idealism mutually synthetically a priori entail each other under the weak or counterfactual interpretation of transcendental idealism: necessarily, if the manifestly real world exists, then were we also to exist, we would be able to cognize the manifest real world veridically, to some salient extent.[vii]
3. But, by virtue of the ethical demands of existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchism,[viii] we must also exit the State (as a coercive and therefore oppressive social system) and all State-like institutions (as also coercive and therefore oppressive) in order to create and belong to an absolutely universal ethical or moral community.
4. Therefore, we must simultaneously protect the natural world and also systematically deconstruct/dismantle and constructively replace all State and Statelike institutional mechanisms that are damaging or destroying the natural universe, especially big-capitalist ones, insofar as those mechanisms oppress people, of whom it is every bit as as true to say that they are in space as it is to say that space is in them, and therefore perfectly exemplify transcendental normativity in the special form of human dignity.
In other words, as citizens of the cosmos, we have a transcendental political and spiritual obligation to protect the natural universe against damage or destruction by big capitalism, States, and State-like institutions.
307. Thus Cosmopolitan Natural Piety constitutes a new kind of radical environmentalism, insofar as it is robustly grounded on manifest realism/weak or counterfactual transcendental idealism, Kantian aesthetics, Kantian ethics, transcendental normativity, existential Kantian moral theology, and existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchism.
And in turn, Cosmopolitan Natural Piety also constitutes the fundamental thesis of the political aesthetics of outer space.
[i] G. Bachelard, Le poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1958); G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. M. Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).
[ii] Goethe. Text translated and quoted by E. Fromm in Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966), pp. 28-29, translation modified slightly.
[iii] See also R. Hanna, “Directions in Space, Non-Conceptual Form, and the Foundations of Transcendental Idealism,” in D. Schulting (ed.), Kantian Nonconceptualism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 99-115.
[iv] R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge, THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), PREVIEW, esp. chs. 3 and 6-8.
[v] See B. Russell, “Mathematical Logic as Based on the Theory of Types,” in B. Russell, Logic and Knowledge (London: Unwin Hyman, 1956), pp. 59-102, at p. 59.[vi][ See, for example, Wikipedia, “Cantor’s Paradox,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor%27s_paradox>.
[vi] See also R. Hanna, “Transcendental Normativity and the Avatars of Psychologism,” in A. Stati (ed.), Husserl’s Ideas I: New Commentaries and Interpretations (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), also available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/10682733/Transcendental_Normativity_and_the_Avatars_of_Psychologism.>.
[vii] See Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori, section 7.3.
[viii] See R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise, THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4 (New York: Nova Science, 2018),
PREVIEW, esp. parts 2-3.
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