It is difficult to hear the Dionysian thunder that rumbles beneath Kant’s austere question “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?”  In evoking his famous synthetic a priori judgments, I do not thereby endorse his account of how these judgments are possible or his thesis that there are pure, a priori, forms of intuition and categories of the understanding.  The point is not one of maintaining fidelity to the letter of Kant’s philosophy and its fearsome conceptual edifice.  Rather, a different sort of fidelity is here in question.  Following Deleuze’s recommendation of a “method of dramatization” that I gestured to in an earlier post, this other sort of fidelity is to an intuition or affirmation that animates a philosophy.  The elaboration of this intuition can be quite disparate from the originary intuition, such that we can reject the articulation, holding that it is inadequate to the intuition, while nonetheless maintaining fidelity to the original intuition.  Perhaps this is what true fidelity to a philosophy is:  fidelity not to the letter of the text, to its conceptual elaboration, but rather to the intuition that animates that text and sets the thinker strive to elaborate or articulate that text.  To repeat a philosophy is then not a scholarly exercise of devoting oneself to how the text all holds together according to its letter, but is instead to repeat the adventure of that intuition.  This, for example, is what Lacan does with respect to Freud.  To be sure, he attends to the letter of the Freudian text, yet he seeks out what is unsaid in the text, the intuition that goes without saying, and allows himself to be transformed by this.  As a consequence, there’s a curious doubling of Freud in Lacan that simultaneously looks like a faithful portrait, yet is something other than Freud.  Freud is transformed in repeating Freud.

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What, then, might be the intuition that animates Kant’s arid and intimidating question “how are synthetic a priori propositions possible?”  Kant’s fundamental affirmation, I think, is that there is a fundamental power of thought such that thought has the power to take us beyond ourselves and to transform ourselves in and through the act of thinking.  Let us situation Kant’s question in the context of a crass and vulgar contemporary debate:  The debate between nature and nurture.  One camp, the nature camp, has it that we are what we are by virtue of a nature defined by our genetics.  Our biological being is, according to this hypothesis, what leads us to act and think as we do.  We see this thesis most clearly articulated in evolutionary psychology and sociology.  Because of our primate heritage, the argument runs, we’re led to act and behave in all sorts of ways reflective of chimpanzee social hierarchy, gender relations, reproductive imperatives and all the rest.  We are told, for example, that men have an imperative to mate with as many women as possible, whereas women have an imperative to seduce men so that they might stay and help raise the children, so that men might provide protection, and so that men will bring food to help raise the children.  This, the nature proponent claims, is programmed into our very nature, such that it ineluctably determines our behavior.

The nurture hypothesis, by contrast, rejects this hypothesis.  In its most extreme forms it claims that we have no ultimate nature that programs our behavior.  Rather, the nurture hypothesis argues that we become what we are as a result of the environment in which we are raised.  It is our experiences– and, in particular, our experiences of our parents –that make us what we are.  Where the nature hypothesis tells us that we have a trans-historical programming– and thus that something like socialism, for example, is not possible –the nurture hypothesis argues that there are no human universals, that we are plastic and can become many things depending on how we are nurtured.  Nurture, the story goes, can make saints or monsters.  It’s all a question of how we’re raised or of our experiences.

At first glance it would seem that nothing could be more opposed than these two positions; though many attempt to synthesize the two in the formula that “we are a little bit nature, a little bit nurture.”  However, if we look a bit more closely, we will see that these two positions are not as far apart as we might initially think.  In both instances, nature and nurture comprehend the subject as an effect, a programming, that is heteronomous to the subject or the self.  The subject is either the unfolding of a program of nature or a program of nurture or culture.  In either case, nature or nature, are destinies of the subject.  No person, these two positions claim, can go beyond their programming.  Instead, our lives are the ineluctable unfolding of our programming from without.

At the risk of anachronism– though is it really so anachronistic given Aristotle, the Thomist tradition, and the empiricists? –it is precisely the thesis that the subject is an effect or a puppet of heteronomous forces that Kant contests.  When Kant asks, “how are synthetic a priori propositions possible?”, when he affirms the existence (quid facti) of synthetic a priori judgments, his declaration, is cry, is that there is a power of thought that is autonomous, or that is not merely an effect of heteronomous forces.  What does this mean concretely?  Concretely it means that thought carries a Dionysian, daemonic power to go beyond our programming by nature or nurture.  Through thought, Kant cries, I have the power to pleat myself otherwise than how I’ve been formed by nature or by culture.  I can fold and reconfigure myself in ways that are otherwise than my natural impulses, what I’ve been taught, what I’ve experienced, or how I’ve been raised.  I can fashion myself.  This is the battle cry that lies behind Kant’s seeming innocent observation that when I add the sum of 7 and 5, I learn something new in the sum of 12 that wasn’t already there in an “analytic a priori” judgment, and that also isn’t the result of something I have been taught or conditioned to think in associations.  In adding (and all other mathematical operations) thought goes beyond what it already knows to produce something new, and goes beyond what it has been taught.  Like magic, I come to think something that wasn’t already there.  The nature and nurture proponents follow the logic of the magician, arguing that you can’t pull a rabbit out of the hat without first putting it in the hat.  They merely disagree with how the contents of the hat get there.

Kant, by contrast, is a true magician:  he argues that the rabbit wasn’t already there but is conjured by this power of thinking.  Thought creates this new content.  It doesn’t matter, says Kant, whether we were raised by the most abusive parents imaginable, or if we were only ever exposed to horrific racism and misogyny, thought has the power to think beyond the origins of the subject and to reconfigure ourselves through that activity of thinking.  This is Kant’s affirmation in his humble and innocuous example of arithmetic:  there is a creative power of thought that cannot be traced back to origins in a nature or a nurture; there is a power for us to fashion ourselves through our thinking.  It matters little whether we follow Kant in how he explains how this is possible.  We don’t need to follow the letter of this affirmation to affirm Kant’s intuition.  We can theorize that intuition otherwise, elaborating or developing it differently.  The main thing is whether we follow Kant in this affirmation.  That’s part of what it means to maintain fidelity to Kant if we’re so inclined.  Drawing on Kant, there is something in Kant that is more than Kant.  Bearing fidelity to that “more than” can lead to something that is unrecognizable as Kant.  Those who bear fidelity to this intuition, of course, will always be in the weaker position from the standpoint of “knowledge”.  The sociologists, psychologists, and biologists will always rise up and protest:  there is nothing in thought that was no already there in an arche, an origin, back to which it can be traced, they will declare.  And they will trace, with great ingenuity, thought back to whatever their origin or arche of choice might be.  They will even go so far as to quote Ecclesiastes, telling us with the full force of Biblical authority, that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Those who bear fidelity to Kant– or Bergson or Deleuze or Badiou, for that matter –will never be able to adequately respond, for doing so would require them to demonstrate an arche or origin, which is precisely what they have negated in their affirmation.  No, all those who bear fidelity to the thesis that there is a power of thought can do is trace the fragmentary remainders of a disruptive novelty that appeared in the world when it shouldn’t have been able to appear.  They will only ever be able to appeal to mathematical and philosophical invention, artistic transformations that seem to arise out of nowhere, and those people despite their biological and cultural interests who managed to resist slavery and racism in the South or who denounced the rise of fascisms and hatreds despite never being exposed to anything else.  They will only ever be able to point to the abused child that nonetheless became something entirely different than what their origins say they should have been, or the queer, trans kid from a small, conservative religious town who should have never been able to conceive an alternative, or the unusual forms of love that couples invent despite having been taught their entire life that the Two was supposed to be something else, or all the rest.  They will never convince the originalists, the hermeneuticians, the historicists, the structuralists, the sociologists, the psychologists, nor the biologists that genuine ruptures have taken place.  The originalists will always find an explanation for everything except that which matters:  that subjects and peoples became otherwise in thinking and pleated themselves and their world otherwise in ways that should not have been possible.  Those who bear fidelity to Kant’s intuition will embrace what I have elsewhere called “rogue objects” or objects that appear, as if out of nowhere, while the originalists will deny that such things even exist or are possible.  All one can do is choose:  is an otherwise possible, or is there only ever programming of one variety or another?  All we can do is declare is that there is a power of thought that can think faster than what we have thought and achieve escape velocity from the gravity of our existence.