Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2016

Interview with Howard Caygill

Rowynn Dumont, Cohort ’13

RD: Can you start off with talking a little bit about this last text on Kant, which is highly unknown, that you have been working on. Are you directly translating that from High German yourself?

HC: The last work that Kant did is called Opus Postumum, made up of 12 convolutes. He wrote it from about 1795-1803. It is after the critical philosophy. It is a remarkable text, he considered it to be his main work and he was working to finish it. There are kind of three works in it, three books. What survived were the notes that he took. He would write notes, and collect them in little kind of folders, and then he would stand with this bit of paper, so he would have sheets in a folder, so he would stand with these sheets, and he would do what I am doing now, which is just talking to an amanuensis; the guy’s name was Worm.

Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2015. Photo by Louise Carrie Wales
Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2015. Photo by Louise Carrie Wales

RD: You even know his name?

HC: Yah, he appears in the manuscripts, Worm. So he would dictate and then a fair copy would be written, he would do it again, and then it would be written up into a book. So that is how [Kant] used to work. So the Opus Postumum is what is left of this last book, of what he was working on up until his 80th years. It is the very last Kant, and his literary executives after he died thought, “Kant has gone mad. He is throwing away everything in the critical philosophy.” And the text disappeared for about 70 years. It was never published until the 1930’s and is almost never discussed. It has only been translated partially; it has been only about 20-30% translated into English, same in French and Italian.

My project in this is I started to work on a translation of this and now I am thinking about doing it again, but in a way that respects the original translation as a facsimile, with the texts and the margins, exactly how the manuscript originally was. I hope to start that next year, with Nicholas Walker.

RD: So you are working as a team on it?

HC: Yes, I am.

RD: You mentioned to me in an email that you and some students from your Paris school are reading a sheet a week of this Kant text. How does that differentiate from the methodology that we utilize at IDSVA?

Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2014. Photo by Paige Lunde
Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2014. Photo by Paige Lunde

HC: In answer to your question about the difference in style between the French system and IDSVA, at the University of Paris you are required to teach your current research. We do not have a curriculum, like you would have at IDSVA or like universities in the UK. What they have are professors that teach their current research.

I am teaching Opus Postumum, sheet by sheet. So each week we go over a single sheet. What I have done is take the last folder that Kant had prepared, the last book that is from 1801-1803, so it is Kant as a 19th century philosopher. He already knows Fichte, he knows Shelling, Schiller, all of those post-Kantian critics. It is like a post-Kantian, post-19th century Kant.

The particular text is called the “Convolute” and in this folder there were 12 sheets. And this is the first time that this particular work has been taught anywhere in the world, because (Kant) was considered to be senile. It was basically assumed that he was mad the last five years of his life, certainly the last three, while he was writing this text.

RD: Do you think that he was mad?

HC: Absolutely not! So this is part of a test for the students, you have to read it sheet by sheet for 12 weeks. It is close reading, pretty much line by line, which shows how it is different from any other text that Kant has written, completely different from The Critique of Pure Reason.

RD: So it is not something you could read through quickly?

HC: No, the course is actually to introduce students how to read Kant, this is the final stage before it was dictated. We are looking at what Kant would have dictated from. There is a difference between philosophy and philosophizing. This is an insight into [his] philosophizing. You can see him in the act of actually thinking, it is very extraordinary.

RD: So you are teaching your students in France how to learn how to read his philosophizing?

HC: Yes, they have to learn how to read it. And another thing they also have to learn as well is, is the last that they used as this kind of typeface, Gothic typography, in Nazi Germany. It was published in sponsorship with the SS as well. So that is another reason why it has been relatively unknown then. Even though Kant wrote it 130 years before, but I do not exactly understand why that happened.

A new edition is being made, they are re-editing it in Germany. So that is the project, but what it does is, it completely reverses the understanding that we had before. So to give you one example of what the text is: the project that I am working on is called Kant’s ‘cosmological turn’, because remember in the Critique of Reason it is all about the Subject, that is the Subject of knowledge, so it is not about what Being is, but how the Subject perceives experiences. In the Opus Postumum there is no Subject.

RD: That is why you said at our residency in Berlin, there is no Subject. There is no Subject and there are no direct references to Consciousness. But what there is, is the play between attraction and opposing forces; there is a battle of forces. So he is pulling cosmology … we get to understand Ontology as the way of Being. In the Critique of Pure Reason he says that psychology, or the Subject, is the way that we get to understand Ontology. So it is about the abolition of the Subject. It sounds like he has even transcended the perspective from the body…

HC: Yah, that is right, he is sort of saying that we are just balances between attracting and opposing forces. He even talks about the destruction of stars and supernovas, the speed of light, the idea that if there were only attractive forces in the universe we would just be a singularity, in a black hole. And as repulsive forces, we would just be scattered, but in both cases there would be no events. So it is really cosmological.

RD: Can you tell me about your relationship with IDSVA, what you think of the program, where it is going and what it is trying to do with this notion of the artist-philosopher?

HC: I have been with IDSVA since almost the beginning, the second year, and I was always attracted by that idea of the artist-philosopher. Plato expelled the artist and now the philosopher has made the return to art. It is very nice that IDSVA is going to Athens this year, so it is the first time that the artist-philosophers are returning to that place in which they were expelled 2.5 thousand years ago. The program very ambitiously takes students who work in the art world, and really gives them rigorous training in philosophy to create this next level of philosophy.

RD: Can you share something about your newest work on Kafka? Anything brief that you would like to say about it? Maybe a little background of why you became so interested in Kafka to begin with and what led you down the path of this project?

HC: The book on Kafka is coming out in about 6 to 7 months. It was meant to be the first in three books on critical philosophy. These books are focused on instead of trying to get pure judgments, to achieve legitimate knowledge like Kant does, [these text] do the opposite. That is to start with defiance, what happens to philosophizing when you start with defiance. What insecurities and reason become endangered, instead of secured, like with Kant. These three texts mirror the critical philosophy texts of Kant.

The first text is about what truth looks like under the conditions of defiance. In relationship of looking towards law or reason, we look at accidents. It asks the question: what does truth look like through the lens of Kafka in relationship to an accident? It takes Kafka’s insurance writing and says he is not the writer of domination, and bureaucratic subjugation, but in fact he is writing about accidents. So basically it is an ontology of the accident. What happens to truth when it is just a matter of an accident?

The second one you know, On Resistance, which is based off of The Critique of Practical Reason. So it asks, what should we do and how should we act? So instead of saying we should be more abiding citizens, it is saying that resistance is first and it is the law that is dictated in order to forestall resistance. Defiance comes first and the law comes after.

The third volume, which I am working on, is called The Aesthetics of Madness. And it is looking at the art made in mad houses in the first half of the 20th century. So I was looking at the way in which art objects were produced by people who have lost their reason, [who] have entered the art market as Art Brut, with Dubuffet and how that happened. Basically it is breaking the link between what Kant talks about in the third critique between beauty and reason. It asks what works as beauty when reason is endangered?

Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2015. Photo by Louise Carrie Wales
Howard Caygill in Berlin with IDSVA, Summer 2015. Photo by Louise Carrie Wales

RD: Clever!

HC: So it is a perversion of the Critique. It asks why are these objects that these people [with no reason] made classify as art? How did they challenge our understanding of art and its relationship to philosophy? So [as a whole] it is three critiques but done backwards. So the Kafka book will be out next fall and the last text the following fall. When I finish that last book that will probably be it for me.

RD: You say that now…

HC: I say that now, but obviously, well!

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