Pär SegerdahlI read last summer Immanuel Kant’s enormous work, Critique of Pure Reason. It struck me that one of the “methods” he uses could be described as: thinking to the limits of language.

How is such thinking done?

Like this, for example: I see a cloud in the sky and think that the cloud is up there (I indicate “where” with a pointing gesture). Thereafter, I think more abstractly that the same can be said about the part of space that the cloud fills. That part of space is also up there (I point again).

– But where is space itself, as a whole?

Here it is tempting to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.” But precisely that I cannot do, say or think. Because then I would treat space as if it were somewhere. I would treat space as if it existed, in space.

My thinking took me to a limit of language, which it is tempting to transgress. So far, so good. But then it struck me that Kant also has a definite interpretation of his method.

He interprets the limit he acknowledged as if it were fundamental and primary: as if it were a source that enables our seeing of clouds and other things (here and there). Space itself does not exist (in space): space is the possibility of seeing things (here and there). This possibility is subjective, “within us,” Kant says; but that cannot be meant in the ordinary spatial sense.

Kant thus interprets limits of language as sources. Speaking, writing and thinking about these sources, he develops purified philosophical prose. He develops extra-ordinary forms of language, possessing absolute authority since they speak of what comes first: the sources within us of what we ordinarily experience and chatter about.

So although Kant indeed acknowledges the limit (by pointing out that space does not exist in space), he nonetheless contrives esoteric language to systematically present its nature and function as a source. The limit inspires, as if it were a philosophical starting line.

Is there an alternative to Kant’s interpretation? The alternative is that the limits of language hold for all of us, not least as thinkers. Thinking to the limits of language, as we did, does not lead to sublime discoveries of “first truths,” although it sounds profoundly true to say: “space does not exist in space.”

Paradoxically, it is when we reach the limit, and acknowledge it as a limit, that the temptation to transgress it arises. For our acknowledgement of the limit appears profoundly true and worth its own investigation. It strikes us as an “original” truth preceding all ordinary truths about, for example, that cloud in the sky.

And in that spirit we move onwards, as if summoned by the perceived profundity of the limit.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking