The Ocean of Illusion–A Few Thoughts

I was struck again a couple of days ago by the remarkable extended metaphor that Kant uses to open his “Phenomena and Noumena” chapter of CPR.  Here is a bit:

We have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place.  This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits.  It is the land of truth–enchanting name!–surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion.

Kant advises that, before setting sail on the ocean of illusion, we should take on last look at our map of the land of truth, asking two questions:  (1) Can we be satisfied with what the map discloses, indeed, are we not in fact compelled to be satisfied with it, since there may be nowhere else to settle?; and, (2) By what title do we possess even the land of truth, are we in fact secure against all opposing claims?  Kant takes the “Analytic” to effectually have answered these questions, but he thinks that reviewing a summary answer to them is worthwhile.

The summary is not so much of interest to me now.  I am more interested in the extended metaphor itself.  It is an icon of CPR.  Up to this point in the text, Kant and his reader have been mapping the land of truth, exploring it, surveying it and measuring it.  But now it is time to go down to the ship, to set keel to breakers–to go forth on the ungodly sea.  Now it is time to face illusion.  And we have no choice.  –What mesmerizes me is Kant combining the ideas that we are compelled to be satisfied with our island, that we do possess a clear title to it, and that we are nonetheless gripped again and again by hopes (empty and delusive though they will prove to be) of farther shores out across the enshadowed ocean, tempted by (ultimately idle) adventures.  To be compelled to be satisfied does not guarantee satisfaction.  (The peculiar fate of human reason!)  Against what I take to be the ground on which CPR is figure, namely against the prioritizing of the practical over the theoretical, we can see CPR as thematizing the Church-Man’s skepticism.  Reason provides only conclusions in which nothing is concluded.  That is a topic I will return to in subsequent posts.

(Kant’s extended metaphor also provides an icon of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  But in PI, Wittgenstein and his reader are almost always sitting amidships, wind jamming the tiller, sailing into and then out of fog banks, up to and then away from swiftly melting icebergs.  He and his reader spend scant time on the land of truth.  They spend their days on deepest water, longing for shore leave, for a dry and homely ingle.  But real needs keep them at sea.  Being at sea and occasionally coming back home:  the rhythm of their lives.)

One response

  1. Pingback: To the sea « Practice and History of Philosophy

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