If Kant explains it simply, you don’t understand it well enough

Without really meaning to, I’ve spent the last couple of years limbering up for reading big, long books (with the likes of Wodehouse and Christie in between for perspective, and light relief.) Having a Kindle – and eschewing Amazon in favour of Project Gutenberg – has actually helped with this: with an e-reader, you don’t have to carry around doorstops; you don’t even know they’re doorstops; and a progress bar is far less intrusive, and hence discouraging, than a bookmark in the doorstop you aren’t actually carrying anyway.

Along with a couple of Dickens novels, I got through Ulysses again, understanding a bit more this time, especially some of the historical and political references. And, eventually, I made my way through War and Peace. Infamous for its number of characters, and their slippery Russian-aristocracy naming conventions, it definitely grows on you after a while, and the confusion over which name is the pet name for which “count” or “prince” does largely fall away. Meanwhile, I finished Finnegans Wake without really understanding, or expecting to understand, much of it: that was actually in paperback rather than electronic format; and since I (intentionally) only ever read it just before bedding down, then I only ever intended it to be a journey rather than a destination.

What next? Well, while K. borrows my Kindle to work her way through a certain witch-and-wizard series of books, I’ve turned back to those books on my to-read shelf that have the iconic status of Schindler’s List: you always want to have read them in the past, without at any point really desiring the burden of reading them in the present. The biggest one, and the one that it pains and saddens me most to have never made my way through, is – bizarrely – Kant.

That’s right: for this Christmas, as my fun holiday reading, I’ve chosen the Critique of Pure Reason. Honestly, if I were a character in a novel myself, you’d be raising your eyebrows at this point and saying “well, that’s a bit overegged, frankly. I mean, he’s no Donald Trefusis, is he?” Well, quite.

Kant occupies a weirdly mythological place in my own rather dilettante and scattergun philosophical investigations. There’s something admirable and – if you’re in the right mood – enjoyable about the clarity, purity and (frankly) dryness of his critiques; even then, he can be very, very heavy-going. But his quote about rainbows and the impossibility of grasping Sachen in sich (pp084-085) made its way into my thesis over a decade ago: as an epilogue; but also as a somewhat disillusioned comment on the transcendental usefulness or otherwise of the last four years of my life focussing on lasers of different colours. At the time, I hadn’t managed to more than skim-read the rest of the Critique, although I can’t imagine my examiners caring much; they were understandably more concerned with the correctness of my physics.

Anyway, I’m now trying again. And I’m armed with a pencil and annotating freely because – let’s be frank – it’s kill or cure this time. Either I get as far as the Architectonic of Pure Reason, or I give it all up as a bad job and just bluff based on my Bertrand Russell. I mean, who else is really likely to read this kind of thing? And these days, that insufferable sort is much more likely to be watching Schindler’s List. Or putting off doing so.

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4 Responses to If Kant explains it simply, you don’t understand it well enough

  1. 1looby says:

    I had a techno-conservative attitude to Kindles until I started lugging War and Peace around on a train. It was partly the weight of the physical book, and the force of English anti-intellectual feeling from one’s fellow passengers, that made me think that Kindles can lighten the burden in two ways–no heavy tome to drag around, and it anonymises ones reading in the light of the faint bullying.

    Kant–I spent a year being hand-held through the CoPR in the 80s and have been glad tonight to have something to concentrate on after an argument with my girlfriend. It’s good to be reminded of how necessary it is, to have that distancing from the fantasy of apprehendnig things how they are.

    • smallbeds says:

      Yes, as with a lot of technology, I would never have bought myself a Kindle. Apart from the Amazon connection, I tend to be kind of techno-conservative but techno-curious: I’ll try things out when I first see them; but I’ll rarely commit to buying something until I’ve established a really clear use case for it. As The Restart Project says: “we are definitely not against fun or innovation, but let’s not treat our electronics like prizes in a Happy Meal.” Also, as you point out, I like not being judged: that works in both directions, he says, just finishing Harry Potter VI for perhaps the tenth time….

      Sorry to hear of your argument. Perhaps it’s some solace that the argument is merely representational, and not an object in itself?

  2. Pingback: I am not a philosopher | Small Beds and Large Bears

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