Galileo, Kant, Nkrumah, Biko and the Enlightenment…….

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John Van Breda’s reply to Eve

Last week while Eve was putting the final touches to Chapter 2 of our book Just Transitions, she came across a paragraph I had written in a rather cavalier style that worried her. So she sent it off to John Van Breda, our colleague who coordinators the TsamaHub. Mark

Eve wrote:

“hi john,

can one use kant in this way:

The revolutionary Enlightenment intellectuals (with origins in Galileo’s [1564-1642] battle against the Catholic Church in defence of Copernicus) were struggling against a universalizing cosmological order that was legitimized and institutionalized by the Church. Starting with Descartes (1596 – 1650) and ending with Habermas (1929 – ) today, they needed to assert that the mere act of thinking constituted an act of rebellion and therefore of self-identity – the famous “I think, therefore I am”. This liberatory aspiration centred in the endogenous rights that stem from being human was captured in the African context by Kwame Nkrumah’s “I speak of freedom” and Steve Biko’s “I write what I like”. It was the humanism of this aspiration and the legacy of Kant’s conception of rationality that established the notion that the rational mind was capable of grasping a set of objective realities via the application of predetermined analytical procedures. This, in turn, paved the way for the mind-body split, with the body associated with nature and the mind isolated as the exclusive means of knowing and doing. It also opened up the space for Western intellectual culture to part ways with sophisticated knowledge systems that had evolved in Asia and Africa over at least the previous thousand years that did not depend on the modalities of the West European mind/body split.

what do you think?”

For John’s reply click on the link that follows:


John’s reply to Eve:

Hi Eve,
Sjoe! You are addressing quite a number of ‘big ideas’ in this one paragraph, but it seems that it is the mind-body split that you, in the final two sentences, want to drive towards. However, since you asked the question about whether Kant can be used in the way you did, let me just try and make a few general remarks about (how I understand) him. Let me just say immediately that he is probably one of the most difficult philosophers to understand, given the complexity and even obscurity of this thinking. So one should approach him with the necessary respect and circumspection …

It’s my understanding that Kant, Descartes, in fact all the Modernist thinkers, shared one ultimate goal: to get rid of the ‘false’ certainty provided by Theology (and the Church) and to replace this with another form absolute certain knowledge: produced by the human (the start of humanism / anthropocentrism). As we know, Galileo, Newton, Boyle and other important modern scientists contributed to this through the development and establishment of the scientific method that could publicly demonstrate the production of universally valid knowledge (irrespective of context). But it was Descartes (although a well-known mathematician, not in the same class as a scientist as Galileo and Newton) who, through his philosophy of science, established a way of thinking that contributed hugely to the mind-body split. His way of thinking (method) was that of radical doubt, doubting everything (even the intransitive existence of the objective world / nature), except the fact that the ‘I’ can doubt. This meant that the locus for absolute certain knowledge was situated in the individual Self, the self-conscious thinking Self. But how to move from this subject position of the thinking ‘I’ to producing universally valid knowledge, that is absolutely certain? This is the problem of solipsism, and Descartes never really solved it. What this problem did, however, achieve was to give rise to the two traditions of ’empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’ that followed him. David Hume was probably the most articulate / famous exponent of empiricism with his dictum that there can be no ideas / knowledge without experience. In other words, the thinking ‘I’ of Descartes was replaced with experience, or the experiencing Self (using the senses). However, empiricism fell into the same trap of solipsism that Descartes created in the first place. At least this was critique from the rationalists, such as Leibniz and Spinoza. They completely rejected the notion that the locus / starting point for universally valid knowledge can ever be situated in the Self, whether of the Cartesian or Humean version. For them, objective knowledge could only reside in the universally existing ideas that can ONLY be accessed by reason / the human mind. Human experience and the senses can never be trusted and our efforts to produce objective / certain knowledge will only be lead astray if we make experience and the senses the foundation of all knowledge. (To fully appreciate the force of rationalist critique and reasoning, which I’m doing injustice to here with these cryptic remarks, it is really worthwhile to read Spinoza and Leibniz–amazingly powerful thinkers indeed).

Kant wrote three major works: :  “The Critique of Pure Reason” (metaphysics and epistemology), “Critique of Practical Reason” (ethics) and “Critique of Judgement” (aesthetics). In the Critique of Pure Reason he develops a synthesis position to overcome the empiricism vs. rationalism conundrum. As the title of this  book indicates he critiques the rationalist position that knowledge can be attained through reason alone (the Leibniz / Spinoza argument) and argues that knowledge can (or should) only be perceived as both empiricist and rationalist at once, at the same time. He says that by elevating experience over reasoning empiricism deprives itself of the concepts with which to describe experience, and, in the same manner, by elevating reasoning at the expense of experience, rationalism starves itself of the very subject matter of knowledge. Knowledge for him is achieved thru a synthesis of concept and experience. This synthesis he called ‘transcendental’ idealism, because this process of ‘synthesis’ can never be empirically observed, it can only be presupposed as a result. For Kant, such synthetic knowledge was indeed possible because experience (the subject matter of the synthesis) must conform to the categories of reasoning. These categories are the fundamental ‘forms’ of thought, the a priori concepts that underpin all empirical concepts with which we can describe experience. For example: the concept of ‘table’ is subsumed under the concept ‘artefact’, which in turn is subsumed under the concept ‘object’ which in turn is underpinned by the concept ‘substance’. ‘Substance’, in this example, is fundamental, we can go no further, it belongs to the fundamental strata of a priori concepts that makes knowledge of anything, any experience, possible. Kant’s project was to answer the fundamental question: how is knowledge at all, per se, possible?

So, to come back to your question: I would argue that the mind-body split probably had its ‘origins’ (if this is important to state) in Cartesian rationalism, was amplified by the ensuing empiricist and rationalist positions and was not resolved by Kant’s synthetic / transcendental idealism. Of course, the debate did not stop with Kant. After him came Hegel, Schopenhauer, Schlegel and Goethe (the Romantic Idealists), Heidegger, Husserl, Heidegger and the whole interpretivist-hermeneutic tradition etc. etc. Whether the mind-body split was ‘overcome’ by any of these Western thinkers remains a moot point. Maybe not. For this, maybe one does need to go and look at the Eastern, African, and other non-Western, traditions of thought.

I just need to say one more thing: i.e. that my own broad-sweep representation of Western thought does not capture the subtleties of any of the thinkers I mentioned. For example, Descartes is not anti-experience in the sense that he completely negates experience per se. For him it is more a matter of bringing experience under the control of reason. He illustrates this with his own personal experience: he tells the story that as a young boy he fell in love with a girl who have a slight squint in her eyes. Many years after this experience he still felt attracted to any girl that he would come across who had a similar squint in her eyes. This was until he became aware of this, and through reasoning he could bring these feelings of attraction to (foreign) squint-eyed girls under rational control. So, as said, Descartes does not negate experience per se, but argues for bringing it under control by reason.

I’m attaching for you Michel Serres book on “The Five Senses”. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician, and please see how he deals with this complex problem of including experience and the senses in our knowing and understanding of the world. In an interview with Latour (in another book) he relates his own personal experience. The first time that he saw the naked body of a girl was during the World War II, when (as young boy himself) he witnessed how a young Jewish girl was burnt alive by the SS. He could smell the burning of her flesh, hear her screams etc. An experience completely different to that of Descartes’ falling in love with a squint-eyed girl, an experience that he could never bring under rational control as it were. Having experienced a world being torn apart during the War has had a permanent impact on this thinking, the development of his thoughts, that is why he sees himself as a Hermes type of thinker … who wants to ‘bring together’ vs. ‘separating’, ‘splitting up’ etc.

Anyway, I hope that you can find something ‘useful’ in my response to your question. I would certainly like to hear your thoughts and discuss some more 🙂