Monday, June 1, 2015

Meiklejohn’s translation of Kant’s Critique

The theme of the subconscious kept dominating my thoughts. On my daily walks, I could not help marvelling at the precision with which my subconscious re-presented to my consciousness the field on which I was walking, the footpath, the grass, the flowers, the trees – there was a little ladybird on a leaf of grass in front of me, a little to my right, I watched it, as it flew away – my subconscious presented all this to me on the basis of the chemical and electric activities that were taking place in my nerve system, beginning with the photoreceptors on the retina an ending up in the visual cortex. Then I heard a blackbird singing. It must have been in a tree in the hedgerow, some thirty feet away, I strained my eyes, I approached the hedgerow, I wanted to see the bird, but I could spot it only when it flew off. Listening to the bird, seeing the tree where was sitting, walking towards the tree, trying to find the bird, seeing it flying off – all these perceptions and thoughts must have involved thousands and thousands of interconnected neurons, all engaged in their biochemical and electric activities, located at different parts of brain, at different brain centres. And on that basis my subconscious re-presented to my consciousness the field with its footpath, the hedgerow with the tree on which the bird sat, the birds song, which affected my eyes and ears by virtue of electromagnetic waves scattered by all those objects and my ears by virtue of air waves generated by the vibrations produced by the blackbird.

And I could not help avoiding the theme on my blog: ‘Ancient Greek and the interplay of consciousness and the subconscious’, posted on May 5.

And I could not help wondering, whether I had not done injustice to Kant, when after reading the ‘Preface’ to the 1st and 2nd edition of the Critique and the ‘Introduction’ to its 2nd edition I concluded that in his way of thinking there was no place for the subconscious. And so I asked my wife to order for me an English translation of it. ‘What translation?’ she asked. On Amazon, J. M. D. Meiklejohn’s translation figures as the first, with four stars rating; we ordered it.

When I got the translation, I wanted to confront my understanding of several passages in Kant’s ‘Prefaces’ to his 1st and 2nd edition of the Critique with Meiklejohn’s understanding of them. But Meiklejohn did not bother to translate the ‘Prefaces’; his translation opens with Kant’s ‘Introduction’. I thought about asking my wife to order me some other translations; with my state pension of £ 28.38 a week? How many other books, much more important for my work, should I ask my wife to order for me, beginning with Ast’s Lexicon Platonicum? Disgusted, I decided to forget about Kant.

But then I wrote an ‘Invitation’ to my ‘Afternoon at Balliol’ (posted on May 17) in which I could not fail to mention Kant in connection with my discussion of the subconscious, one of the themes I would have liked to discuss with my Oxford colleagues on the occasion:

The ability to produce the world of our consciousness, the ability we all have as human beings, could not be acquired by our individual activities in our early childhood. Think just how long it takes a child to learn its mother tongue. This ability must be the result of the evolutionary process that started with the first living organisms acquiring the capability of sensing and avoiding external danger, of sensing sources of sustenance outside of them and moving towards them. Only spiritual nature, however primitive it may have been in its initial stage, could produce within it what was outside these organisms, doing so on the basis of the effects that the environment had on those primitive organisms. Space and time, which Kant rightly views as a priori representations (a priori Vorstellungen), which precede and make possible all our sense perceptions (Empfindungen), are in fact the result of all this development, are its a posteriori. It is within the framework of this evolutionary development that we should view and appreciate human cultural development and the benefits that can be derived from Ancient Greek.’

Uncertain of how I should translate into English Kant’s Vorstellungen, I took recourse to Meiklejohn. The concept appears in the very first paragraph of the ‘Introduction’, not an easy read in Kant’s convoluted German. I was delighted with Meiklejohn’s lucid English: ‘That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt (Dass alle unsere Erkenntnis mit der Erfahrung anfange, daran ist gar kein Zweifel;) For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise (denn wodurch sollte das Erkenntnisvermögen sonst zur Ausübung erweckt werden,) otherwise than by means of objects (geshähe es nicht durch Gegenstände) which affect our senses (die unsere Sinne rühren), and partly of themselves produce representations (und teils von selbst Vorstellungen bewirken,), partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity (teils unsere Verstandestätigkeit in Bewegung bringen,), to compare to connect, or to separate these (diese zu vergleichen, sie zu verknüpfen oder zu trennen,), and so to convert the raw material of our sensuous impressions into a knowledge of objects (und so den rohen Stoff sinnlicher Eindrücke zu einer Erkenntnis der Gegenstände zu verarbeiten,), which is called experience (die Erfahrung heisst?)? In respect of time (Der Zeit nach), therefore, no knowledge of ours is antecedent to experience (geht also keine Erkenntnis in uns vor der Erfahrung vorher,), but begins with it (und mit dieser fängt alle an.).’

Concerning Meiklejohn’s translation of Kant’s Vorstellung as ‘representation’ I must make a corrective remark. It well corresponds to the view opened to me by modern science, physics and neurophysiology in particular – the outside world affects our sense organs, these effects are processed by our nerve system; on this basis our subconscious represents the outside world to our consciousness – but understood as such, it would thoroughly misrepresent Kant’s view. To clarify this point, let me quote the closing passage of the 1st section of Kant’s ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’, which is devoted to ‘Space’: ‘the transcendental conception of phenomena in space is a critical admonition (der transzendentale Begriff der Erscheinungen im Raume [ist] eine kritische Erinnerung,), that, in general, nothing which is intuited in space is a thing in itself, and that space is not a form which belongs as a property to things (dass überhaupt nichts, was im Raume angeschaut wird, eine Sache an sich, noch dass der Raum eine Form der Dinge sei, die ihnen etwa an sich selbst eigen wäre,); but that objects are quite unknown to us in themselves (sondern dass uns die Gegenstände an sich gar nicht bekannt sind,), and what we call outward objects (und, was wir äussere Gegenstände nennen), are nothing else but mere representations of our sensibility (nichts anderes als blosse Vorstellungen unserer Sinnlichkeit sind), whose form is space (deren Form der Raum ist), but whose real correlate, the thing in itself (deren wahres Korrelatum aber,d. i. das Ding an sich selbst), is not known by means of these representations (dadurch gar nicht erkannt wird,), nor ever can be (noch erkannt werden kann,), but respecting which, in experience, no inquiry is ever made (nach welchem aber auch in der Erfahrung niemals gefragt wird.).’

The English translation is again Meiklejohn’s. Concerning it I have only one serious objection. Meiklejohn translates Kant’s überhaupt nichts, was im Raume angeschaut wird, eine Sache an sich [ist] with the words ‘in general, nothing which is intuited in space is a thing in itself’. My Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary tells me that ‘in general’ means ‘usually’, ‘mainly’; Kant’s überhaupt nichts means ‘nothing at all’.

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