Dr. Adam Johns
English Seminar 0200
September 3, 2014
Abbey Challenges Kant
Edward Abbey, in his novel, Desert Solitaire, establishes his thoughts on the relationship most humans have with nature and the relationship he believes they ought to have with nature. While he watches his fellow humans superficially enjoying nature, Abbey longs to connect with it on a deeper, more native level. The dream for him is to “…be able to look into a juniper tree… and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description” (page 6, Abbey). Stripped down, bare, unmolded. That is how Abbey would like to experience nature, and he believes that it is completely achievable. That appealing and romantic sounding idea is something Immanuel Kant theorized as being impossible. The representation and dismissal of Kant’s opposing theory of human interaction with nature serves to emphasize the strength of Abbey’s convictions and persuade his audience to accept the validity of those convictions.
As Abbey believes in the ability to see nature as it is in its simplest form, it stands that Kant believes the opposite. Kant’s theory is based on the idea that human beings are not able to think about or comprehend anything that they have not previously been exposed to. In his essay, The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant asserts “That all our knowledge begins with experience…” (Introduction Section I, Kant). Experience is the lens through which we can judge and interpret objects, emotions, or anything conceivable. How then can we understand anything if we begin with no experiences?
Kant’s answer to this question lies in the brain. He speculates that the mind is equipped to allow experience by its structure. The mind compartmentalizes itself and build its own type of lower level experiences. The compartments are created to hold certain types of experiences and knowledge, and only those kinds of experiences and knowledge can be stored there. That greatly limits the extent to which we as humans can understand the world around us. We only see things that our brain can take in and sort, so any characteristics that go beyond our brain’s capacity are forever lost to us. We arrive at the point that it is impossible to view the world as it truly is. Therefore, Abbey’s dream to see the environment in its purest form, as it truly is, is crushed in Kant’s eyes.
Abbey is aware of the theory fighting against him but is unfazed by it, just as he is unfazed by other people who don’t appreciate nature in the same way that he does. Abbey has his own theory: the mind is capable of change and if you achieve the correct mindset, you will be able to experience things you never would have been able to before. This is expressed specifically by Abbey when he writes, “…I will venture to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful-that which is full of wonder” (page 37, Desert Solitaire). With his mind clearly made up as to what he thinks is possible for the human mind, bringing in the opinions of a great and well known philosopher, such as Kant, serves to show his confidence. Even when compared to the respected ideas of Kant, Abbey believes that his convictions hold strong and is willing to disregard what is commonly accepted. Abbey knows that his ideas are uncommon but doesn’t back off, even daring to call them “Anti-Kantian.”
Placing a Kantian reference in the text of Desert Solitaire also serves as a device to enhance Abbey’s ethos. While Abbey’s ideas may be valid, his ethos is what helps build the trust of his readers and allows them to consider his ideas as possible truths. Bringing in Kant’s name establishes a more sophisticated persona for Abbey. He could have been seen as just some crazy whack job that decided to live alone in the middle of a nearly deserted park, but that concern is diminished by mentioning Kant. This shows that Abbey is at least somewhat educated in philosophy and has a little bit of background that could have impacted the development of his own ideas. He is no longer necessarily a whack job, he could now be a well-read man who has made an educated decision to live his life in a way that he feels will be the most beneficial to his mind and soul. By referencing Kant, a prolific 18th century philosopher, Abbey augments his credibility.
Alluding to the superiority of his thoughts over those of Kant, Abbey opens the door for discussion and possible acceptance of his views. With heightened confidence and credibility, two major barriers to his success are broken down. Others now may see his message with slightly less veiled eyes and maybe consider his positions. Abbey may be joined by people who were convinced by his subtle little mention of Kant and who hope to also find their place in nature and see it as more than just a picture painted by preconceived notions and human culture.
Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.