Kant’s greatest contribution to thought was the recognition and rigorous articulation of the thesis that thought is creative. When Kant asks the question “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” he is asking “how is it possible for thought to generate something new?” To understand this, it’s necessary to understand the difference between synthetic a posteriori judgments, analytic a priori judgments, and synthetic a priori judgments. In a synthetic a posteriori judgment, I am making a judgment of experience that relates to my sensations. If I say “oranges are sweet” I have made a synthetic a posteriori judgment. I synthesize my concept of those substances known as “oranges” with the quality of “sweetness”. The concept of oranges does not, in and of itself, contain the idea of the quality of “sweetness”. For this reason, Kant will say that synthetic a posteriori judgments are “ampliative”. They expand the concept, “orange”, by adding something new, sweetness. In an analytic a priori judgment, by contrast, I think nothing new. If I make the judgment “all bachelors are unmarried men”, I have not amplified my concept of “bachelor” in any way, but am merely thinking what is already contained in the concept of “bachelor”. Yet Kant introduces a third category of judgment: synthetic a priori judgments. If I make, to use Kant’s example, “7 + 5 = 12”, I have made a judgment that is ampliative and that is independent of experience. The concept of “12”, says Kant, is not already contained in my concepts of “7” and “5”, but rather my understanding must engage in a creative act that synthesizes these two concepts, bringing something new into thought.
What is remarkable is that I have done this independently of experience. We can see very well how, in experience, new thoughts are generated as a result of receiving new experiences and then combining or synthesizing them in the mind. There isn’t any great mystery here. What’s remarkable are those modes of thought that do not come from experience, from some alterity that we receive, but from us where some new thought is thought in the thought as a result of the activity of thinking. For in the synthetic a priori judgment, we have an instance of thought transforming the thinker as a result of the thinking. And this is what makes synthetic a priori judgments so bizarre: We are the ones making these judgments, yet in the process of thinking these judgments something that wasn’t already in us is thought or, more importantly, produced. Moreover, it is not only that something new is produced, it is that the thinker herself is transformed in the activity of the thinking in these forms of thought. At the end of such a thinking– as is readily evident in the axiomatic adventures of mathematicians –the thinker becomes something other than she was at the beginning of thinking. Us realists can think what we like about Kant and the way in which he resolved these questions– there’s plenty to criticize him for –but there can be no doubt that he’s hit on something profound in his question of how thought, independent of world, is capable of producing something new. This, I believe, is the concept of freedom or autonomy is groping towards, not the idea that we are already autonomous.
This, for me, is the mystery of writing. The spontaneous common sense theory of writing is that writing is but a trace of what we have already thought. Here, the theory runs, I expressively externalize what my thought already contained and formulated in my writing. As a consequence, my writing is but a prosthesis where I externalize or “express” what was already in me for someone else. Were we telepathic there would be no need for writing. It is from here that we get “author’s intentions” theories of meaning, where the meaning of a text is what the author intended. The author, the story goes, knows what it means.
Yet this is not how I experience the act of writing at all. Rather, I experience the activity of writing as a transformation. At the beginning of a writing I do not know how I will turn out. Something in the activity takes flight, takes on an agency of its own, that somehow recoils or rebounds on me turning me into something else. Somewhere early in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil he remarks on how we don’t have ideas, as if we were the origin of ideas, but rather how ideas come to us as events, such that we become patients of ideas. In the old Roman-Medieval language, of course, a “patient” is a being that is “acted” by another being. We are, for example, in Spinoza and Lucretius, patients of our passions. This is exactly what it’s like in writing. At the other end of inscription, of writing, of the activity and process of writing, you become something else. You don’t know, in advance, what you’ll become, what you’ll be, at the outer end of a writing.
I do not understand how this works. How is it that something that originates from me can also make me something other than I am? This is something that I’d like to understand. This is also the case in certain classes of action, where the very doing transforms the doer, making the doer something other than he was to begin with. I suspect that this is what Badiou is trying to get at with his “truth-procedures” and Zizek with his “Acts”. The subject of a truth-procedure is both somehow the origin of that truth-procedure and the patient of that procedure. If something like this is true, this, incidentally, is why those critical projects that seek to outline conditions in advance of inquiry and activity are so misguided. They wish to halt the synthetic or creative power of a procedure, activity, or engagement, by delimiting conditions and boundaries before the work is done or the process is undergone.
If it is true that writing, thinking, and acting have these synthetic or creative powers, it follows that all thought, writing, and action are a risk. They aren’t a risk simply because they might fail, but because we become something other in the course of these activities. No doubt this is the reason that all orthodoxies, whether religious or Marxist, have always spurned thought and writing, seeking to transform bodies into what von Foerster called “trivial machines”, where, given a particular input (the indoctrination of the orthodoxy) will produce a particular output. Orthodoxy has always waged war against non-trivial machines, dreaming of perfectly docile bodies that would function as reliable carriers or vehicles of the orthodoxy. And indeed, we can always detect the presence of a “thought” animated by an orthodoxy when it perceives or interprets the forces it fights as attempting to transform beings into carriers of an ideological orthodoxy. Insofar as we interpret the desires of others in light of the desires that we have, the interpretation of our enemies in this light is indicative of our own desires and ambitions. Yet somehow, nontrivial machines or machines that produce something new out of outputs in the process of metabolizing them arise. I would like to understand how this takes place.