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On the Thing-in-Itself

Karatani Kojin
This talk on Kant and his concept of the "thing-in-itself" is closely related to the
questions about the Cartesian cogito which I raised two years ago in my presentation at
the Anyone conference. At that time I made two points on the theme: first, that the
Cartesian cogito is neither a psychological self nor a transcendental subject in the
Kantian sense. Descartes' doubt begins with an acknowledgement that what people
believe to be a solid, indisputable truth is a mere construct by the custom of community,
or common rule, therefore it originates in the gap between communities and it comes
from Descartes' own situatedness in-between. If these propositions are true, then
what cogito connotes is a consciousness of the difference between systems, and what it
points to in sum total is 'being in-between,' namely, external existence.
My second point was that as long as there is a confusion between the
Cartesian cogito and an empirical or transcendental ego, thinkers who attempt to be
external beings might well deny Descartes and the cogito. However, I think these
thinkers themselves are in fact cogito by virtue of their very own will of being external.
Therefore, the essence of cogito appears paradoxically in such thinkers as Spinoza,
Marx, Nietzsche and others, who criticized Descartes and his cogito.
Now I would like to consider the case of Kant, whom I had disregarded untill recently.
Kant criticized Descartes's cogito ergo sum as a case of false reasoning by stating that
the cogito is no more than a "transcendental subject X" which accompanies any thinking
subject. Yet, as I have already mentioned, the Cartesian cogito cannot be reduced to a
neutral apperception. It was Husserl who borrowed Kant's term, "transcendental," while
at the same time as criticizing him, and then extracted the "transcendental cogito" from
Descartes, who had never himself used the term. However, Husserl took the
transcendental cogito as something 'positive,' and this position resulted in a kind of
solipsism, albeit a methodological one.
It is true that Kant disposed of the Cartesian cogito as a neutral function, but that is not
to say that he ignored it. As might be argued in the case of Spinoza, Kant's question
of cogito lies in what he did not write, because the cogito is not something that appears
when it is mentioned; rather, it is embodied in the stance of the transcendental critique
itself. For example, the Kantian critique is a self-examination of three human faculties:
cognition, desire, and pleasure/displeasure. It is generally accepted that the three
"critiques" are meant to examine the realms and limits of those faculties. Kant, however,
never spoke of what might enable the critique or where it might be located.
"The critique which deals with what our cognitive faculties are capable of yielding a
priori has, properly speaking, no realm with respect to Objects; for it is not a doctrine, its
sole business being to investigate whether, having regard to the general bearings of our

faculties, a doctrine is possible by their means, and if so, how. Its field extends to all
their pretensions, with a view to confining them within their legitimate bounds." (The
Critique of Judgement, p. 15)
Where is this transcendental critique located if it is distinct from sensibility,
understanding, and reason? Ever since Fichte, romantics have raised this faculty up to
the height of a Fichtean "self" or a Hegelian "spirit." Kant, however, did not posit the
transcendental critique as either above nor outside the other faculties. Or more precisely,
for him it has no locus other than being "difference." Whence, then, the critique of
reason by reason? Never from reason, but from pure "difference." It can be called the
Kantian cogito.
We should not speak of this locus in empirical terms; yet, practically speaking, Kant was
placed in an interstice. He remained in Konigsberg, the colony of Prussia, his whole life,
refusing to go to especially Berlin - then the political center of Prussia. In contrast to
Berlin, Konigsberg was neither a political center nor a provincial town, but a free
commercial center on the coast of the Baltic sea. The role this locus played for Kant was
somewhat parallel to that which Amsterdam did for Descartes - namely, it was the
"communicative space (Verkehrsraum)" to use the Marxian term.
To repeat, the question of a cogito can be detected in certain thinkers who were mute on
the subject or even denied it. This applies to Kant as well. And, although Kant's works
have been read and criticized as doctrines, they are in fact critiques and not doctrines as
he clearly stated. Therefore, as long as we are attempting a reading of Kant, we should
return to this 'atopia' - his interstice.
Kant made a distinction between the terms "transcendental" and "transcendent." For him
"transcendental" indicates a questioning of the mode of recognition rather than a
questioning of the content. I would like to use this term in a broader sense than did
Husserl. I would address the questioning of the very conditions which constitute our
recognition - that which we take for granted. In this sense, the "transcendental" is not
confined to narrow epistemological questions. For instance, Nietzschean genealogy
could be called "transcendental," because his genealogy is not an empirical historical
retrospection, but a sort of retrospection that poses radical questions about the historicist
premises upon which we are always dependent, when we begin our speculations.
Furthermore, we can also regard Marx's Das Kapital as a transcendental critique of the
market economy or money, both of which Classical economists had taken for granted. In
fact, the subtitle of the book, "Critique of Political Economy," ought to be read in a
Kantian sense. Instead of denying Classical economics, Marx deconstructed it at the
same time he uses it as the base. In a like manner, Das Kapitaldeconstructs Hegelian
logic by following its procedure. Thus, the Marxian stance can be also called a
"transcendental critique."
So too, can Freudian psychoanalysis be illuminated under this light; after all, it is not
psychology, but a meta-psychology - that which is transcendental. Such concepts as ego,

superego, and id are not empirical objects, but a structural set of functions that are
grasped transcendentally in order to rebuke a psychology which begins with empirical
facts. In Kant's case, concepts of sensuality, understanding, and reason are simply the
names for the terms of this structure that had nothing to do with psychology. It was
Jacques Lacan who attempted to retrieve this faculty of "transcendental critique" from a
psychoanalysis that had turned into an empirical or imaginary psychology. It is no
coincidence that the concepts Lacan constructed are similar to those of Kant; that is to
say, the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary correspond to the thing-in-itself,
phenomenon, and Idea.
Kant often used such metaphors as juridicial court and the architectonic, which came to
dominantly characterize his rhetoric. But they were less of rhetorical than of practical
requisite in order for him to transform traditional concepts into a new relational
structure. It follows that any of Kant's concepts should be understood in the context of
this structuring, and thus the name of each term is alterable, what counts here is that the
word can be replaced freely, at will, but only insofar as the relational structure is
maintained. The romantics, for example, who discarded the concept of the "thing-initself," eventually lost sight of the crucial sense of structure Kant had once designed.
Here I would like to take up this triad of concepts: the "thing-in-itself," "phenomenon,"
and "idea." In the first place, "phenomenon (Erscheinung)" is that which is commonly
known as the objective world. Instead of thinking that there is an objective world
substantively existing outside us, Kant insists that this "world" is constituted by our
throwing "forms and categories a priori" onto the sensible, and not vice versa. Kant
likened this reversal to the one elaborated by Copernicus. Meanwhile, this way of
thinking can be expanded: For instance, Ernest Cassierer, a neo-Kantian, interpreted
Kantian "forms a priori" more generally as the symbolic form. In the same way, we may
also regard structuralism, semiotics, and the paradigm theory of scientific knowledge as
new versions of Kant's "Copernican turn." Needless to say, Richard Rorty's "linguistic
turn of philosophy" might be included in this. But was it really a Copernican turn?
Suppose the world is constituted by the human subject, and not vice versa. This will
necessarily lead one to subjectivism, idealism, or textual idealism (Rorty). To put it
differently, human beings = earth will remain eternally as the center. On the other hand,
Kant's Copernican turn should lie in the fact that the "thing-in-itself" was placed in the
center, displacing reason. Kant attached more importance to human 'passivity' within
this world - the thing-in-itself - and less to the human 'activity' that constitutes the world
as phenomenon.
However, at the same time, it would be wrong to dwell on the determination of center.
For Copernicus, the question of center was not an issue, since he merely proposed a
relational structure of planetary motion which even anti-Copernicans later came to rely
on. Likewise, what is important in Kant is that he proposed these concepts as a set of
inseparable relational structures.
Theories which came after Kant are always missing one indispensable factor from
Kant's structure, that is, the "thing-in-itself," or same such function even if named

differently. It is important that the "thing-in-itself" is outside the phenomenon we


constitute, yet it is also not the hindworld (Hinterwelt) nor the true world. It is
something that affects us through our senses, but remains beyond our constitution. I
think the "thing-in-itself" can be likened to what Spinoza called nature=world=God.
Kant proposed the word "transcendental" as distinct from "transcendent" to indicate that
the former is to regard any transcendence as the imaginary - what he called
"Schein (appearance)." Spinoza held that the transcendent being outside this
world=nature is a mere composite of representations that are produced within this world.
In my view, the Kantian "thing-in-itself" corresponds to Spinoza's "nature=world." The
fact that "thing-in-itself" is neither hindworld nor a true world also distinguishes it from
the Platonic idea, and Kant posed it precisely in order to deconstruct such traditional
Platonic dichotomies as false world and true world, or phenomenon and essence. And if
not for this "thing-in-itself," no matter how it is rublicated, the semiotic or linguistic turn
that I mentioned earlier would fall into the Platonic position, that of true invisible
structure and false imaginary appearance.
Thirdly, I refer to the Idea (Idee), which Kant borrowed from Plato. The Kantian Idee,
however, is not something that invites an attempt of theoretical proof, precisely because
it is nothing but a Schein. Yet he maintained that, in practice, human beings cannot
dispense with Idee, and also that it works only "regulatively." It is exactly the reason
why, if it were to be used "constitutively," the result would be disastrous.
As I said before, Kant's set of concepts can be paraphrased if and only if the overall
structure is sustained. Therefore, if the "thing-in-itself" in particular is omitted, the
edifice would slip back to the pre-Kantian stage. "Thing-in-itself" is something exterior
to the "phenomenon" which is constituted through form, system, or paradigm. In this
regard it is possible to say that, as opposed to the structuralists or phenomenologists,
what Post-structuralists attempted to retrieve was nothing other than this "thing-initself." It is that which Derrida called "text" and Deleuze called "manifold."
In my view, if cogito is a consciousness of difference, then the "thing-in-itself" is the
difference or exteriority that can never be assimilated or internalized. It is in this sense
that the Kantian cogito, unacknowledged by Kant himself, is inseparable from the
"thing-in-itself."
German idealists and romantics since Fichte have discarded the "thing-in-itself," and the
aparent outcome has been a loss of the position from which to view Idea as Schein.
"Idea" for Kant is, above all, the imaginary that is indispensable yet unattainable. Of
course, Hegel mocked the Kantian Idea and thing-in-itself; it follows that for Hegel,
what is actual would be ideal, and what is real would be actual. Hence the world history
as a self-realization of the Idea. The so-called Marxist view of history is a variant of this,
though it is materialistically reversed.
In conclusion, I would like to interject this problem into the contemporary context.
When, for instance, the Soviet Empire collapsed, people talked about the ruin of
communism as Idea, or as a grand narrative of history. This ruin, however, does not

amount to the end of all narratives, because, even since then, other surviving narratives
have appeared. Among them is Francis Fukuyama's "the End of History," which claims
that the collapse of communism is a self-realization of the Western Idea of freedom and
democracy. Of course, this simply is another variation of the Hegelian stance.
No matter how materialistic it may sound, the early work of Marx retained an Hegelian
view of history. After German Ideology, however, Marx came to deny communism as a
program for the future - an idea to be realized. He argued that communism was nothing
other than a continual move to overcome 'actual' contradictions brought on by 'actual'
historical conditions. The pivotal point of the Marxian critique of Hegel lies in the fact
that he brought into history the "thing-in-itself" that remains beyond the reach of our
constitution or any sort of narrative. This could be called Marx's "Copernican turn."
In German Ideology, he introduced the concept of naturwchsigkeit - the development
by nature - that is caused by a social inter-crossing intercourse (Verker); it is this concept
that functions to dismantle the Hegelian perspective which constitutes world history
from a cycloptic view point.
It was for this very reason that Marx rejected any programming for the future. Yet at the
same time, he never abandoned communism as an Idea in the Kantian sense. This is
clearly evident in the fact that he simply refused to use Idea "constitutively" - a position
he had come to in his youth under the influence of the Young Hegelians and maintained
throughout his life. Take, for instance, his famous but usually misinterpreted passage in
which he claims that religion is an opium of people. By this he did not mean to criticize
religion, since he thought that the critique of religion itself had already been done;
instead, he was criticizing the enlightenment thinkers who still believed that a rational
critique could dissolve religion. For Marx, religion was something that could sustain
itself so long as the actual pain of life remained. Religion could encompass a protest to
reality, a protest that would attract people to religion. And the same sort of power resides
in the Idea.
The Idea surely has, at this point, collapsed in the advanced nations. There we see not
only cynics who deride any Idea whatsoever because they have been deeply hurt by the
idea to be realized, but also pre-Kantian enlightenment thinkers who posit human rights
as pass and appeal to public dialogue for the sake of recovering reason. Meanwhile, in
hopelessly underdeveloped areas, a variety of fundamentalist movements have surfaced.
To be sure, this is none other than Schein. At the same time, though, such movements
will never be dissolved, at least, by virtue of the enlightenment dialogue as such.
Nevertheless these are not separate phenomena; they are both part of the structure
incessantly formed and reformed by today's world capital movements. There is no way
for us to transcend this reality which might be called "thing-in-itself." I believe,
therefore, that we ought to repeat the Kantian critique in our present context.

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