No Rest in This World or the World to Come, Research Time, 25/01/2018

If you're wondering why the puppy is here, it'll
become important later. Right now, the puppy
wants to remind you of an old Talmudic saying
which was the closing sentence of one of
Salomon Maimon's first books.
Scholars of wisdom have no rest in this
world, or in the world to come.
You know what I love about Salomon Maimon? He was a dirty, smelly, drunk who sat in a bar for years, barely employed, pretty damn poor – but he could still get an essay out to one of the leading philosophers of the era to make an incisive critique of his work that still stands up centuries later.

Maimon was a scholar of Torah and Talmud for most of his life – teaching, writing essays on the great Jewish theologians, commentary on Kabbalah, textbooks on the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language, and works of original philosophy.

But Christian-descended people know him best for his critique of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Why his critique became so famous is actually a beautiful story.

Maimon was a fairly minor figure in German intellectual circles of the time, but knew some of the well-connected folks. Maimon knew a guy named Markus Herz, who also knew Immanuel Kant. Maimon read the Critique of Pure Reason shortly after it was published, and had some brilliant critical things of his own to say about it.

He wrote these ideas in a fairly long letter, which Herz passed along to Kant. Kant read it, and it blew him away. He publicly thanked Maimon, and praised him in public appearances as one of the only critics of his new work who was actually picking up what he was throwing down.

That any intellectual at the top of his game in creativity and public profile would do that is remarkable. That Kant would do that to a pretty obscure Jewish person – in 1780s Prussia, where Jews were pretty deeply racialized and persecuted – is a moment of ethical beauty.

I'm not exactly a Kantian, or a devotee of his philosophy. But I have a lot of praise for him as a person.

Maimon is the subject of an essay in Deleuze’s Philosophical Legacy, the book that’s been inspiring my last few posts – even the ones that got more than a little weird and creative. So what was the main idea in Maimon's thinking that could be said to have influenced Deleuze’s thinking most?

After a fashion, we can't see it if it doesn't move either.
It’s an understanding of how perception works that broke radically with what was taken for granted in the intellectual and scientific culture and knowledge base of Maimon’s time, the last decades of the 18th century.

Kant’s discussion of perception – and pretty much every philosophical and scientific discussion of perception – rested on an assumption that appears pretty common sense. Assume that you see things in the world.

I'm not making some kind of skeptical argument. I’m talking about objects. I see a tree. I see a bus. I see a field of grass. I see a fence. I see a puppy. I see a person. When I see a puppy, I immediately experience the puppy as a whole.

Each of these wholes in our perception – the puppy, the fence, the tree, the bus – is a stable identity in our experience.

Here was Maimon’s alternative. We don’t see wholes with stable, unambiguous identities. We perceieve actions, movements, fluctuations of differences, changes, that our perceptual apparatus – the sense organs and nervous system – assembles into what we perceive as objects.

A puppy comes into our room. We first perceive the puppy through changes. Where there was silence, there’s now skittering and yipping. Where there was an empty room, there’s now this beige-and-white speckled vision. A faint odour of dog breath creeps into your nose.

There isn’t just that one change. The whole scene continues to fluctuate. Barks alternate breathing, paws pound the floor in rhythm. The shape of the dog in our field of vision grows larger as it approaches. Its legs and ears flop and fly about. At every instance, we perceive changes.

Our real experience of the material world isn’t the objects in it – it’s the changes in it, the differentials, the fluxes. You look at pretty much all contemporary science of perception – with input from neurology, medicine, biology, robotics – and they’ve pretty much proven Maimon’s argument. At least in a kind of essence.

Our world is material and real, but what’s most material – most easily grasped by an organism in perception – are its changes, its movements.

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