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Alexander Schlutz. Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2009. ISBN 9780295988931. Price: US$30

  • David M. Baulch

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  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

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Alexander Schlutz’s Mind’s World is not so much the history of the Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism its subtitle suggests, as it is a series of deeply intelligent, detailed readings of the imagination and its influence on theories of subjectivity in the work of René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. From chapters that function largely as independent engagements with the imagination and subjectivity in a given writer’s work, a series of complex critical interrelationships emerge. Wisely eschewing any sort of unifying statement about the imagination, Mind’s World begins from the premise that “one cannot hope to establish a stable meaning for the concept of the imagination through a study of its history. Nor should one expect to uncover a teleological development that might unify such heterogeneous assessments by relating them to the overarching logic of a historical plot”(5). Thus Schlutz’s study implicitly sets itself apart from James Engell’s landmark The Creative Imagination (1981). Yet, if Mind’s World avoids the totalizing threats implicit in a history of the imagination, it does provide a selective genealogy of one of romanticism’s most infamously vexed terms.

Mind’s World begins its inquiry into the imagination and subjectivity with a brief chapter emphasizing that there is “no direct way from the concept of phantasia [in Greek and Roman thought] to Romantic views of the imagination” (34). While it might seem like something of a false start to spend time with classical texts only to establish that they are not talking about what concerns the Mind’s World directly, Schlutz nevertheless finds the paradigmatic conflict for his subsequent discussion of theories of the imagination in the friction between the concepts of phantasia and mimesis in these writings. Potentially delusive, phantasmata, much like the products of later constructions of the imagination, are not securely grounded in the material world, while mimesis is often limited to the status of a mere copy of material objects. While there is often an implicit, uneasy tension between phantasia and mimesis in earlier discourses of the imagination, the opposition between them is only formalized in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana in the 3rd century A.D. In these competing views, the imagination is, on the one hand, inimical to reason, and on the other, the very condition of the possibility of the subject and of reason.

Leaping forward over 1,300 years, Mind’s World traces René Descartes’ shifting position on the role of the imagination in the production of the autonomous subject. Focusing on Meditations on First Philosophy and the Discourse on Method as they developed out of earlier work such as Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Mind’s World finds that modern subjectivity develops initially “in direct relation to the Cartesian concept of the imagination,” even if Descartes ultimately opposes the cogito to the imagination (36). As far as the development of Descartes’ career goes, Schlutz observes, “Descartes, in different stages of his life, is very much a man of [two very different] epistemological ages” (59). What is admirable in this chapter is Schlutz’s challenge to the common assumptions about Descartes’ emphasis on reason and reservations about the imagination. In Mind’s World, Descartes’ struggle to exclude the imagination from a first principle in philosophy is never completely successful. Indeed, it is Descartes’ failure to recognize how much his first principle owes to the imagination that sets the stage for the imagination’s forceful return at the center of German idealism. For Schlutz’s reading of Descartes, the autonomous subject of reason is fractured at its very inception by the lawless imagination. Highlighting this tacit persistence of the imagination in Descartes’ development of the cogito, Schlutz identifies what he calls a “peculiar double relationship with regard to the imagination as an essential condition of modern subjectivity” (37). Thus while the cogito is, for Descartes, the fundamental fact that can be discovered about one’s existence, nevertheless “[it] is discovered by pushing a method of imaginary, fictional construction to its seeming extreme end point” (78). While Schlutz’s argument for the imagination’s persistence in the emergence of the cogito is, as he puts it, outside of “Descartes’ field of vision,” it nonetheless allows for a proleptic gesture towards the real center of Mind’s World: its discussions of Kant, Fichte, Hardenberg, and Coleridge.

Admirably balancing clarity and complexity, Mind’s World’s treatment of the place of the imagination in Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy is where Schlutz’s project truly finds its subject. Beginning with an exploration of the imagination’s role in Kant’s argument for a first principle in philosophy in the Critique of Pure Reason, Schultz engages with some of the central problems concerning Kant’s critical project. The imagination is essential to Kant’s attempts to theorize the unity of consciousness, even as it is a potential threat to the empirical grounding of the understanding and the supremacy of reason’s unlimited concepts, a problem that Schlutz identifies as “symptomatic of a tension at the heart of the Kantian project” (98). Schlutz’s reading of the role of the imagination in the A and B texts of “The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding” in the Critique of Pure Reason follows along the lines of Heidegger’s influential Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics in seeing the B edition of the Critique of Pure Reason as an attempt to restate the role of the imagination in the constitution of subjectivity and its self-reflective capacity. However, Mind’s World stops short of the extremes of Heidegger’s claim that Kant tried to hide the ontological role of the imagination in the transcendental deduction the imagination, largely because it recognizes Heidegger’s failure to “give a convincing explanation for the anxiety provoked by the transcendental encounter with the imagination” (104). Likewise, Schlutz is critical of Slavoj Žižek’s argument for a “radical and revolutionary freedom [in] the true abyss of the imagination” because of its imposition of a significantly more disruptive Hegelian imagination on Kant’s text (106). Rather Mind’s World addresses the debate about Kant’s treatment of the imagination from the perspective of Kant’s own Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, “in which Kant directly discusses the dangers of an uncontrolled and unruly imagination, which threatens the laws of rational control” (107). By exploring section 28 and sections 57-59 of Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Mind’s World elects to intensify—rather than resolve—the problem by revealing what is at stake in the imagination for Kant. Far from stabilizing the concept of the imagination, Kant’s work emerges as irrevocably split: tantalized by the potential of the idea of the imagination, Kant cannot isolate and remove its potential to spread political unrest or undermine reason’s supremacy.

By far the briefest chapter in Mind’s World, Schlutz’s account of Fichte’s idealist revisions to Kantian philosophy is actually more of a long introduction necessary for an already lengthy, but masterful, chapter on Friedrich von Hardenberg. Fichte’s Science of Knowledge is essential to the ever-shifting discourse of the imagination Mind’s World traces, yet Fichte’s rush to embrace the absolute subject presents little of the tension that characterizes all the other treatments of the imagination in the book. For Fichte, the imagination’s “synthetic capacity can be fully exalted, since, completely domesticated, it no longer carries the traces of a disruptive power that could challenge the primacy of reason” (142). While Fichte’s confidence in the imagination’s philosophical utility in the service of reason’s supremacy is as close to an unqualified victory for the imagination as the book provides, it does not occasion the sort of intellectual crisis to which Mind’s World is devoted. But if Fichte’s solution to Kant’s struggles with the imagination is not terribly fertile ground for Mind’s World, Hardenberg’s subsequent disassembly and radical reinterpretation of it turns out to be extremely rich terrain.

The abbreviated treatment of Fichte pays significant dividends in Schlutz’s excellent chapter on Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis). Hardenberg’s Fichte Studies allows Mind’s World to carefully track Hardenberg’s reading of Fichte and its implications for the complexities of the philosophical novel The Disciples of Sais. The first step Mind’s World traces is what amounts to Hardenberg’s fearless return (through Fichte) to Kant’s fears about the imagination to establish a first principle of philosophy and then to the more extreme abandonment of a first principle altogether. Schlutz sees Fichte Studies as a text that “inhabits” Fichte’s terms even as Hardenberg “decenters and wrests them from their place in order to create something new” (163). Fichte Studies’ reading of The Science of Knowledge transforms Fichte into the philosophical cornerstone into of Hardenberg’s particular style of early German Romanticism. While Fichte had attached the imagination’s movement between the Kantian understanding and reason firmly in the service of the latter to achieve the Absolute I, Hardenberg’s Fichte Studies finds in the imagination’s freedom to oscillate between “the universe and the (self-) contemplating subject” the fullest realization of the I’s being (164). In this way, “Hardenberg thus presents a radicalized version of Fichte’s argument in the Science of Knowledge when he comes to the conclusion that the foundation of a transcendental philosophy in the Kantian sense can only be provided as a product of imagination” (165). Perhaps Hardenberg’s most radical step is to abandon the notion of foundation altogether. Schlutz describes “the paradoxical simultaneity of conflicting movements” initiated by the imagination to construct consciousness “as an ordo inversus, a hall of mirrors, where half appears whole and up appears down, where nothing is what it seems, while the ultimate source of reflection remains ever elusive” (170). By decentering a Fichtean first principle, Hardenberg also abjures the stability of the Absolute I central to Fichte’s philosophical project.

The endless oscillations driven by the productive imagination in Hardenberg’s ordo inversus constitute the site of Mind’s World’s most provocative insights into the discourse of the imagination emerging from Germany’s Idealist tradition in the late eighteenth-century. Hardenberg’s step beyond the foundations of a stable first principle and a philosophical absolute in Fichte Studies makes possible his fully realized response to Fichte’s Science of Knowledge in The Disciples of Sais. Schlutz states the relationship this way: “If the Science of Knowledge has the structure of a philosophical novel, a Bildungsroman for the cogito, which leads the I from its illusory empirical state to its origin as the absolute subject by way of a philosophical narrative, Hardenberg’s text openly realizes the imaginative return of the I to itself through the intermediary engagement of nature as a narrative construction” (180). Here, Hardenberg’s treatment of Fichtean philosophy is simultaneously the crossing of the discourse of the imagination from Idealism to Romanticism. Through Sais’ narrative hall of mirrors, Hardenberg’s fictional disciples and—crucially for Schlutz—Hardenberg’s readers must experience the endless series of illusions that is the only possible expression of subjectivity. In a sense, Hardenberg’s Sais is an unacknowledged response to Kant’s third Critique. There, the temple’s inscription, “‘I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be, and no mortal hath raised the veil before my face,’” caused Kant to write, “there has never been a more sublime utterance, or a thought more sublimely expressed” (179). In Hardenberg’s Sais this play between nature and the absolute in the production of subjectivity is not merely an instance of an intellectual concept animating a representation of sense “with the idea of the supersensible” as Kant would have it (179). For Hardenberg, the task of an endless unveiling is both a narrative principle and the full presence of philosophical truth. Although Kantian philosophy denied us the ability to lift the veil to gain access to the realm of freedom in the supersensible, Hardenberg’s narrative of the disciple’s journey allows for the realization that, “[t]he inscription on the statue of Sais, the veil to be lifted, the common language of human beings and nature, is thus this self-reflexive movement of the text, in which the reflexive I realizes the illusory nature of its own consciousness,” as Schlutz puts it (187).

While Kant and Fichte served as the grandparent and parent of Hardenberg’s engagement with the imagination, Kant and Schelling are the progenitors of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s treatment of the imagination in the final chapter of Mind’s World. Concentrating on Coleridge’s The Friend and the Biographia Literaria, Schlutz focuses on the way Schelling’s philosophical system gave Coleridge a sense of both art and the activity of the imagination as a “mediatory power able to reconcile both subject and object, mind and nature, in an aesthetic representation of the Absolute” (217). Despite the powerful attraction of the position Schelling accords the imagination, Schlutz finds in Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination in chapter 13 of the Biographia “a knowledge of the dangerous potential of the faculty that made both Descartes and Kant so reluctant or rather emphatically unwilling to admit it as a constitutive principle of the self” (229). In Schlutz’s treatment of Descartes and Kant the problems presented by the imagination’s fundamental ungovernability are largely philosophical concerns. For Coleridge it is presented as the source of a deeply personal/spiritual crisis. Most interestingly a cryptic notebook entry from 1807 shows Coleridge claiming that the imagination’s activity in his dreams “‘has given place and seat of manifestation [to] a shechinah in the heart’” (243). The imagination’s ability to produce a Shekhinah encapsulates Coleridge’s divided view of the imagination. As Schlutz explains, the Judaic concept of the “Shekhinah can be seen alternatively as a source of salvation and a source of evil;” it is both the place of God’s dwelling in the world and “the exile of the people of Israel” (245). As such the Shekhinah ideally describes Mind’s World’s view of Coleridge’s struggle to conceive of the imagination as both a god-like power and the source of the morally inappropriate dream visions that convey the human need for redemption

The clarity and precision with which Mind’s World addresses philosophical constructions of the imagination and their implications for theories of the subject make it an invaluable resource. While the book avoids a unifying critical conclusion, it does close with a provocative retrospective gesture: a reflection on the three narrative strands that structure its analyses.

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