Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Desert Solitaire and Kant

Jonathan Lee
Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
September 1, 2014


In “The First Morning” Abbey writes: “I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description.” Look up who Kant is, familiarize yourself with the basics, and then read a few pages of either The Critique of Pure Reason or Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. The point here isn’t to master Kant: the point here is, first, to be able to explain what Abbey means by “Anti-Kantian” and, second, to explain how understanding that term helps us understand Abbey’s larger agenda.

Desert Solitaire and Kant
The word “anti-Kantian” alone can refer to any idea that disputes the assertions of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Naturally, this particular word could be referring to any number of things, as Kant explores, in his many works, topics ranging from aesthetics, ethics, to religion and epistemology.  Provided with the context, however, it is my assumption that Abbey wants to rid his perspective of Kant’s notion of metaphysics.  In other words, Abbey wants to accept and embrace his own immediate experience, in lieu of any a priori, Platonic ideals; he yearns to see the world without Kant’s assumption that there is a true reality behind the immediate one.  Abbey feels that in order to escape this frame of mind, he has to remove himself from society and thrust himself into nature; and this escape is absolutely imperative for him in order to “look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz,” etc., stripped bare of any artificial abstraction that society has instilled in him.
In my understanding of it, metaphysics is the study of the world beyond the physical.  Kant is widely held responsible for the reconciliation between the rationalists and empiricists, forging the two into “transcendental idealism,” wherein the mind acquires knowledge through experience, and also builds more knowledge through what Kant calls “pure Reason.” The beginning of Kant’s Prolegomena, the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics is presented.   In section one of the preamble, Kant writes of the sources of metaphysical cognition, “Its principles (including not only its maxims but its basic notions) must never be derived from experience. It must not be physical but metaphysical knowledge, viz., knowledge lying beyond experience.”  This entails that everything me see, every juniper tree, piece of quartz, we experience in the immediate sense as well as the metaphysical sense.  Our immediate experience of these objects is constituted of our intuitive understanding, as well our past experience.  Our metaphysical experience of the object, however, extends far beyond what we see before us.  When we see that particular juniper tree, we have also in our minds the concept of the “perfect,” idealized juniper tree, the notion of what it means to be a juniper tree.  This harkens back to Plato’s allegory of the cave, wherein all of the Platonic ideals can be found if one frees his own mind and perception.  This is the essence of Kant’s ideology that Abbey finds so undesirable.
Abbey yearns to free his mind from metaphysics.  He aspires “To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself” (6).  Here he implies that a metaphysical perspective is perhaps universally human, and even so he wants to free himself from it.  In lieu of a metaphysical understanding, Abbey would put in place “a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate” (6). 

Although his motives are up to interpretation, Abbey’s abhorrence of Kant’s understanding of metaphysics is unequivocal.  Throughout much of the beginning of Desert Solitaire, Abbey chides himself for ascribing human qualities to objects he encounters in nature.  This is because he is actively trying to cast off the metaphysical perspective which he thinks is ingrained in him; this is why Abbey would consider himself to be anti-Kantian.


  1. You seem to have solid evidence for your argument, but you need to elaborate on what your argument is. More specifically, you need to more clearly define what it means for something to be Kantian, and what it means for something to be against that. There are one or two sentences in the introduction that briefly define "Kantian", but it's a somewhat vague definition. The evidence would hold more weight if you went a bit more in-depth into what Kant's ideals were. Give examples, and so on.

    Also, when describing Kant's ideals, I would hold off on using the word "metaphysical" so much. This is a personal bias, but it's the kind of word that gets thrown around a lot (like "quantum") so much that it can lose its meaning. Mix in some other words (preferably colliqual ones) to describe his ideals, like "abstract" and so on.

  2. I think people are a little confused on which essay they are supposed to be looking at. This one was posted directly before mine so I believe that I am supposed to be making comments on it.

    Your essay has a solid grasp on the concepts behind Kant's theories and on Abbey's opposition to them. However, much of the explanation of the theories seems to ramble on and several sentence fragments could have been omitted such as, "Kant is widely held responsible for the reconciliation between the rationalists and empiricists, forging the two into 'transcendental idealism,' wherein." In order to understand the idea behind the word anti-Kant, I don't think we need to be so well versed in the details.

    The evidence provided from both Kant and Abbey's writing is applicable to the prompt but I don't know that you analyzed and explained it enough to address how the mention of being anti-Kantian contributed to the meaning or the message of Abbey's book.

  3. Your introduction is good & focused, and shows a good understanding of Kant. It might be a little long for what you actually accomplish in it. You do a lot in the 2nd paragraph, and I'm pretty happy with it. If this were a final project I'd want some of the steps you take in this paragraph to be more detailed - for instance, the move from Kant to Plato requires some justification (and is presumably driven by your relative familiarity with Plato). But within the context of this assignment, it's quite good.

    Question: what does it mean to meet God or Medusa *without* metaphysics. Usually we'd say that God *is* metaphysical. That doesn't mean your reading is wrong - in fact, I think it has merit. However, you're not thinking hard enough of what God & Medusa mean in this context.

    Overall: This is quite good, given the difficulty of the assignment and the limited space you have to work in. If you revise it I would want to see you range much more widely in the book, examining ways in which he is (or is not) anti-Kantian; the limitations of your examination of what it means to see God or Medusa without Kantian (or if you prefer, Platonic) idealism is also problematic to me.


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