Today I was sitting in a coffee shop, dressed in my finest sunday clothes, with my favorite pen and my favorite notebook, and I was reaching such rapturous heights of intellectual ecstasy that creativity burst from my pen. I immediately wrote down an emotional remembrance, a phrase of music and a poem. What could have spurred me to such a height? A sentence from "The Critique of Pure Reason," by Immanuel Kant.
Then there are the low points. The very first page, two and a half paragraphs in all, supplies you with eleven definitions - intricately interlocked like a crystalline tower of thought built to allow for as few handholds as possible. It must have taken me half an our to surmount that challenge, but the payoff is great. From there you get a view to at least a few pages, and far into the philosophy of science in the 20th century.
I feel incredibly lucky to have a friend in Sweden going through this book with me. We call each other each tuesday to tear our hair out, and to critique and marvel at the words of this small prussian man. As we are both parents, we must steal moments from the busywork of everyday life to delve into the mind of this enlightenment thinker, hoping thereby to feed our starved brains with enough matter to last us through the week. And, it generally does.
To a modern reader, Kant is maybe not as difficult as we have been lead to believe. Once it was perhaps strange to think that the real world is not naively presented to us as we see it; but since Kant, we've had Freud and neuroscience and nature show on tv; heck, we've had Darwin and biology and all of modern science. We've had analytical philosophy, philosophy of the mind, Wittgenstein and even out of body experiences in the form of tv and games, training your mind to survey the landscape of reality from a third person point of view. We are as born for reading Kant. So when Kant writes that "our understanding makes a concept which is the form appearance of a thing that we really cannot see directly," we just go "Oh, you mean that we are like the photochip in my camera that catches the light? - got it!".
That chip, by the way, is an excellent metaphor for much of what Kant talks about. The aim of his "Critique of pure reason", is to create for us an account of the mind which is a bit like an engineer's schematic for the camera chip - a guidebook for the perplexed in matters most perplexing. The thing that makes the book great though, is that he also tries to do two other things; to tell us how to know there is a reality outside of what the "chip" catches of the light, and also to tell us that, by knowing how it works, we are also better prepared to use our understanding as we see fit. And if we are freer to use our minds, then we reckon, we are more free.
As an enlightenment thinker, Kant was not only contributing to the scientific movement, but also to the political movement for intellectual freedom. In his essay "What is the enlightenment?" he gives direct answers to some of these questions. How can one have intellectual freedom? To do that one must be able to separate the lies of those that wish to manipulate us from the truths that we encounter. And to do that we must be able to say what truth is. The political answer is that we must be free to give time to thought, and to voice our opinion; but then there is the practical question: How do we know? How do we answer the question "What is truth?"
And that is the first question Kant asks when we have fully surmounted that glass tower. Only, the answer you see from there is not the one you want; Which is that is that the question "What is truth?" is itself a falsity. Kant attacked the problem by attacking the foundation of thinking itself. By writing The Critique of Pure Reason he was trying to show us what it was possible to know; and then comes the road to liberation. The follow up work to the Critique of Pure Reason, was The Critique of Practical Reason; Which is about how to use your newfound powers of thought; or in other words; ethics.
It was about at this stage in my reading that my amygdala started pumping out happy-hormones, which would wash into my general bloodstream - there to mix with freshly imbibed caffeine to create an innocent high so high music flowed from my pen (read, scribbled notes laboriously.) This buzz also totally broke my concentration, but, still... worth it.
It is wonderful that a metaphysical work such as this should have such a simple and wonderful aim; to free us. It is, in a sense, a religious work. A work exploring the nature of reality, of the soul and of the furthest reaches of understanding - and, in this he is not alone. Plato had his "Timaeus", Aristotle his "Metaphysics". Both works of a religious nature according to the authors. Then there was, at a later date, Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra", and perhaps Wittgenstein's two works "Tractatus Logico Philosophicus" and "Philosophische Untersuchungen". Or, in the east the third basked of the "Tripitaka", the "Chuang Tsu" or "Lao Tsu" of the taoists, or "Treasury of the true Dharma eye" by Dogen.
And, I must confess, reading such works is like a religious experience for me too. Not a mystical experience, or magical or anything like that; but it is in such works that I find that I am able to think most deeply about the nature of our relationship to everything, in the sense that these authors connect their world-view, often complex and philosophical, to their ethical view, to the view of life as experienced. Such books seem to me like the expression of the act of giving, where they wish to give others understanding in both connotations; intellectual understanding and compassion.
I don't know if these are the emotions you are looking for, or the questions or the answers. I can only tell you that, for me; such are the joys of reading Kant.