That’s one aspect of what Gilles Deleuze calls the conceptual persona – what a thinker becomes in the tradition through his influence. It’s sometimes hard to get past this, because the whole field of influence includes how we’re taught about a thinker.
How they’re presented in class – Analytic or Continental? Rationalist or Empiricist? Liberal or Communitarian? – is part of that influence. But that influence also happens outside universities, through the general influence their ideas have had on everyday discourse.
|To be most human, we have to be the most rational. Another twist on the|
old definition from Aristotle, the rational animal? Ten Thousand Doctoral
Theses have been written on the subject. Do we need to prove it? Or
simply note the similarity of the ideas, and move on to more
Image by Renee Bolinger
That’s how we’re taught. If I want to dig into the heart of Deleuze’s idea – the conceptual persona – here’s a question I should ask. Having figured out their own core concepts, how did a great thinker use them?
Example. When did Kant become a Kantian? When he wrote The Metaphysics of Morals. That’s clear enough to me. The process goes like this.
In 1785, he publishes The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. It lays out in really simple language* the basic guiding principles he’ll use to build a comprehensive set of moral laws for his society. The moral imperatives of reason, which we have a duty to follow wherever they lead us in life – because reason is the highest human power.
* Compared to the Critique of Pure Reason anyway.
Three years later, he drops the Critique of Practical Reason, in 1788. It’s the shortest of all the Critiques, but incredibly dense. The entire book is, as far as this example is concerned, a single argument that the basic laws of human reason, expressed in the most abstract moral context,** describes a universal moral imperative.
** Or maybe call it a plane?
What did I just say? The argument is that we know there’s a moral law, and reason is how we deduce it. Reason, like Kant said in 1781’s Critique of Pure Reason, can’t apply to understanding how the world works because the physical world doesn’t run according to laws of logical deduction.***
But morality works according to laws, Kant says. Let’s build a concept of moral law where the logical operations of reason show what actions you should do – show you your duty.
The Metaphysics of Morals is Kant, at extreme length, applying the duty of reason every moral law he could identify – from murder and lying through marriage and masturbation. It takes him nearly a decade to pound this one out.
So the project’s introduction is in 1785, he lays out the key principles in 1788, then spends – on and off – until 1797 on a massive application of those principles.
In 1785, the Groundwork was released to help create a few Kantians in the world. In 1788, Kant releases a work of profound and complex philosophy – Kant the person becoming Kant the philosopher. Then in 1797, Kant becomes a Kantian.
As a Kantian, Kant knew his own concepts better than anyone, so could apply them most faithfully and rigorously. In that, he was speaking through his conceptual persona – he was at the smallest possible remove from Kant as conceptual persona.
Most Kantians – all the ones who weren’t Kant – could be as rigorous as they wanted, but they’d inevitably put their own spin on becoming a Kantian. To be a Kantian is to think with the conceptual persona Kant created.
Hans is becoming a Kantian philosopher. Apply the machinery of Kant’s concepts to your own thinking and investigations – let the concepts he established become the framework of your thought. That’s what it is to adopt a conceptual persona.
How is a conceptual persona created in the first place? My next example will be about what Kant was doing in 1788.