Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Abbey Challenges Kant

Samantha Call

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.


Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: RosettaBooks, 2011.  Kindle Edition.

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

Kant, Immanuel, and J. M. D. Meiklejohn. Critique of Pure Reason. London: G. Bell, 1884.  Print.

McCormick, Matthew. "Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics." Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.


  1. I found the argument of the paper to be the last sentence of the opening paragraph; "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,". Evidence to support this claim is seen through a rather thorough examination of Kant's ideas (paragraphs 2 & 3), and an explanation of how Abbey essentially refutes this through statements such as "Abbey knows that his ideas are uncommon but doesn’t back off, even daring to call them 'Anti-Kantian,'". The argument I believe could be improved and made stronger is there was more of an emphasis not on the ideas of Kant and explanations of them, but more specific examples of how Abbey challenges Kant. I think less on Kant's foundational idea would aid in bringing a bit more of Abbey into the paper therefore helping give the argument more support. Additionally, I found the explanation of Kant is strong in that I thoroughly grasped his idea, but can easily be condensed in order to put a bit more about the text into the paper.


  2. A minor but important note - Desert Solitaire isn't a novel. Other than that, the introduction shows a good focus, and has a couple poetic touches. I especially like that you categorize Abbey as a "romantic" opponent of Kant - that's a good way of summarizing both what is appealing and what is troubling in Abbey's work.

    Your focused discussion of some relevant aspects of Kant's thought is excellent. There's also at least one missing citation, although I don't know whether it's to a passage in Kant, to a secondary source, or a mix of both. But unless you had previously read a lot of Kant, these are not conclusions you'd come to yourself with citation.

    Your argument that Abbey is really focused on change is great but underdeveloped. One thing that occurs to me is that he is really, really interested in the suddenness of change in the desert (for instance, flash floods), so I think there's a lot you could do here in a revision if you were so inclined. There might be a way of expressing this idea more clearly in the introduction, and then working with it in more detail throughout.

    The idea that Abbey is establishing authority by showing that he is educated is smart, and well worth integrating into a revision, but in the context of this draft I think it's a bit of a distraction - focusing more on *how* and *why* he believes that we can think outside of Kant's model, or how we can change to do so, is what would have pushed this to be a truly excellent essay. As it stands it's quite good (although the missing citation is an issue), but you don't substantially develop your best ideas.


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