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Interview with artist and author Mark Julyan

Mark Julyan is an artist and writer with an interest in the transitions between text and image and a background in philosophy. He has just published a book related to these subjects called the History of The Heavens - a title derived from the book: The Universal Natural History And Theory Of The Heavens, by Immanuel Kant (1755). We have conducted an interview with Mark.

Mark Julyan
Mark Julyan

Who should read the History of The Heavens – what is it about?

Ultimately the book is about life, the universe, and everything but, although I think of myself primarily as a visual artist, the starting point emerges out of an interest in the expressive use of philosophical language. In particular, I take an example from a controversial statement in a previously obscure and for a couple of centuries usually unavailable appendix by Immanuel Kant in his book The Universal Natural History And Theory Of The Heavens, published in 1755.

This particular book by the early Kant occupies a unique place in the history of ideas and for several reasons. On the one hand, the evolutionary cosmology found in the main part of the text is renown in the history of science and often compared favourably with Newton. Also, the latter part has come to be regarded as anticipating the philosophies of embodied cognition that have emerged in the last couple of decades (Kant's solution to Descartes Mind/Body problem).

On the other hand, because a warehouse fire practically destroyed the first edition and Kant published the second edition with the last 56 pages missing, the full text didn't become available in English until 1981 when Stanley Jaki finally translated the full version. As he did this, Jaki made some very strong accusations that because Kant had proposed that the universe has an underlying purpose in the penultimate chapter, Kant's previous translators had engaged in a cover-up by continuing to suppress the ending long after it had been rediscovered.

And that's when the ironies set in.

My interest was initially sparked by the way that Jaki (1981) and the translator of the next edition (Johnston 1998), had either or both thereupon dramatized and in the case of Johnston intentionally negated what is by Kant, a statement to the effect that in the appendix he is writing this particular part of the book (it deals with the different kinds of beings we are likely to find on different planets as we move further away from the sun) as much for entertainment as he is attempting to explore the truth.

My book centres on and explores the implications that emerge as a consequence of this opening sentence of Kant's appendix. What Kant actually writes goes something like the following, yet somehow through the course of those previously published translations, the word 'if', which I would like to emphasize, is transformed into the word 'unless'.

What Kant tells us is: "In my view, it is a disgrace to the nature of philosophy when we use it to maintain with a kind of flippancy free-wheeling witty displays having some apparent truth, if we are immediately willing to explain that we are doing this only as an amusement".

What I think makes the case so compelling that Kant was intending to disconcert us here, as opposed to being merely careless, is that in the first instance this contextualizing opening sentence is itself inherently incongruous (hence why it was so obviously so problematic for the translators), and that furthermore Kant then goes on to reinforce and effectively underwrite this suggestion of writing for amusement at the end of the book in the conclusion. And he does so here in terms which are in fact categorically unequivocal.

Thus in the conclusion, after describing a scenario where human beings in the after-life become revitalised and explore the universe in terms of space travel from beyond the grave "with a swift leap," Kant directly contends that while no one would ever give credence to such "pictures of the imagination", that it is nevertheless permitted and proper to "amuse ourselves with such ideas".

Because the idea of embodying your amusement within the actual content of your philosophy is something that professional philosophers, both then and now, are likely to find existing outside their ordinary conceptual capacity for categorization, part of what I attempt to do in the later part of the book, albeit it with a broad brush, is to make a first attempt to explore some of the ways in which this might be interpreted within the scope of Kant's broader philosophy. In particular, Kant's concept of harmony (the penultimate chapter that Jaki claims was intentionally suppressed contends at length that the universe has a necessary underlying harmony) and his understanding of humour, at least as described by Kant in his later works, might obviously be considered as situated within the same organic categories. If humour is music is harmony and if the universe embodies harmony throughout, as science continually suggests that it does, perhaps then we might envisage the entire universe as something that is therefore potentially, at once harmonious and also quite perfectly humorous?

Part of the way I develop the writing is to focus on the ways that Kant's expressive use of language here seems to have impacted on later philosophers in a variety of suggestive ways. This is essentially an exploration of the very tangible ways that subsequent translators and philosophers have alluded to either this statement (or in the case of John L. Austin, perhaps to Kant's use of language more generally) in curiously colourful and evocative ways whilst in most cases (though not in the case of Austin), tending to avoid the implications of what is actually being contextualized.

As an example of this, I quote at length a passage from Austin (1962) where, whilst discussing the sorts of language other than the purely analytic for which philosophers themselves have tended to describe their writing in terms of, Austin does two quite distinct, very extraordinary things that strongly imply Austin is himself being suggestively witty in uniting form and content in an important self-defining passage of his own writing, whilst referencing Kant in a way that ostensibly draws attention to itself.

I think that to fully understand the significance of this you have to situate Austin's philosophy in the wider history of the philosophy of language. While it is well known that the Greeks often developed philosophical concepts out of ordinary language, the first attempts to systematically investigate the properties of all sorts of sentences we utter such as promises, commands and the like only began with a couple of philosophers (Reinach, Pfänder), working quite independently of each other at the Munich School of Phenomenology around the time of the First World War. However, because at that time the influence of Frege and Russell and afterwards Wittgenstein strongly focused philosophy in the opposite direction, their work was almost entirely ignored and quickly forgotten.

By the time Austin began his research into what became known as Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy in the 1940's therefore, he realised that he was on the verge of what he termed as "nothing short of a revolution in philosophy".

The history books, of course, make no mention of Immanuel Kant as ever having been involved in formally developing a theory of ordinary language – an astonishing prospect. Yet Austin, whilst analyzing the nature to which "apparent pseudo-statements really set out to be statements at all" and claiming that they are often better interpreted as "intended as something quite different", seems also to intentionally embody this locutionary aspect himself in claiming that Kant was the first to "systematically argue" such a thing - something that Austin obviously would have known was either not true or nonsense. Not only that, but in making this claim (I would suggest a knowing pseudo-statement intended to illustrate his theory on apparent pseudo-statements) Austin twice emphasizes Kant as KANT through capitalization of font, an extremely evocative and indicative pictorial colouration of language which goes quite against the sorts of conventional academic practise that somebody like Austin would've been absolutely steeped in.

I do not suggest that Austin was alluding to the specific statement I draw on from Kant's Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens when I mention this – we don't know why he did it and for my purposes it is not important. Whatever it was that Austin was referring to, it is enough that he makes a convincing case for the fact that sometimes the silent aspect of a statement is intended to be something quite different to its surface meaning in spite of grammatical conformity. There may be no such thing as a private language, but incongruity as violation of the public is such that we may, perhaps partially or temporarily be party, even if unknowingly, to a private joke.

For all of that, whilst the appendix to Kant's Universal Natural History and Theory of The Heavens was very obscure indeed, what Kant wrote in that first sentence to his appendix is extraordinary and disconcerting and once seen would never have been quite forgotten among those, mostly German professors of philosophy who had been made aware of it. As Austin spent decades writing a book that revolutionized philosophy in language, which was also hitherto previously begun by already forgotten students of Husserl (Göttingen) who were from Munich, it also would seem to be the case that he had been made aware of something Kant had written expressively here or elsewhere, that he then incorporated it into his philosophy linguistically, in a particularly evocative way.

In any case, finally, I examine the relationship between the 'if' that explodes this most controversial of philosophical statements with the "unless" that came to supplant it in translation by exploring what Kant writes about dilemmas in his book on logic. Of course, Kant's Logic was published many decades after the Universal Natural History, but the relevant part on dilemma's is something that essentially outlines a very ancient observation and which was contained in the standard German book on logic as taught to philosophy students in Germany as a matter of course. As I put it at the beginning of Chapter Three: "Although he condemns their use as “sophistical artifice”, Kant non-the-less incorporates the potential for generative development within hypothetical disjunctive syllogisms where: “dilemmas therefore, though consequential, are very captious or ensnaring” - and where the consequential effects specifically invoke the disjunction between 'IF' and 'IF + NEG' in creating the logical form of the oscillation between 'IF' and 'UNLESS', or the difference in the statements, as published, between Kant and Johnston".

Because Kant does indeed incorporate the potential for generative development emerging out of the dis-junction between 'if' and 'unless' (the universal form of a dilemma, tri-lemma, tetra-lemma etc) in his description of hypothetically disjunctive lemma's, the rest of the book takes everything to its logical conclusion, and this is where logic, science, art, philosophy and space travel collide into something you need to read the book to fully comprehend.

How did you come to write it?

I met an American philosopher in Oxford in the early 90's the day he met Sir Professor Bernard Williams the first time (although Williams wasn't knighted then). For the rest of the decade I was lucky enough to overhear this fellow of philosophy offload varieties of inspiration and cognitive dissonance after he met Bernard Williams as they conversed their way through a whole variety of interesting subjects, until Williams got cancer and retired. Perhaps ironically in the present context, several of Williams' obituary writers remembered him as someone whose inappropriate humour occasionally raised eyebrows amongst colleagues.

Nowadays, in addition to his published writing, Williams is also remembered for the impact he had upon that revolution in philosophy that occurred in the early years of the 21st century known as embodied cognition – the idea that the form of the body is necessary for abstract thinking. At a time when it was widely believed that, culturally at least everything that could be investigated had already been saturated to the degree that there were no interesting subjects left, I'd describe Williams as someone whose approach to philosophy posited him as a sort of research project generator. Apart from anything else, many of the science papers published in the 2,000's dealing with the neurosciences and related areas owe their origins to what Bernard Williams had been talking about in the 90's. The whole decade was an incredible experience, not least because it meant I got to read many of the conversations we'd developed reach their culmination in various ground-breaking papers published 10 or so years later.

In the sense described above then Kant, alongside Aristotle, Heidegger and Turing is one of those thinkers regarded as anticipating at least the first premise of embodied cognition and therefore, a precursor to much of what was developed in the early years of this century. It was this factor that first inspired me to read Kant's book even if I was surprised at the content.

History of the Heavens

What sort of writer are you?

As a writer, with me the first draft is sometimes fragmented, the second draft is rarely overstated and the final draft is ready.

How does this tie in with your work as an artist?

As well as a long term interest in the nature of the body, I'm also interested in numerous abstractions in language – and especially the transitions between these linguistic aspects and the pictorial. Such transitions might include those from the stated into silent speech, the difference between a sign and a mark, processes of notarization from private through provisional to public, reverse meanings and substance through negation, double aspects or entendre, varieties of intentionality and ambiguity and their consequence and so forth. The History of The Heavens enabled me to cover some of these aspects in a way whilst also engaging a long term interest in the history of philosophy.

What exactly is interesting for you in the transitions between text and image?

I think my interest in this was initially sparked by the way my own individual thought processes deal with language generally. Somehow and for whatever reason the right side of my brain tends to deal with a large part of my own personal language function. I think that it is always an interesting prospect for any artist to get to explore the nature and form of their own inherent thought processes, and this is why I made the decision to focus upon this aspect of things in my own contemporary practise.

I'm curious. What are your perspectives on life the universe and everything?

One thing I mentioned previously is the fact that a profound harmony seems to envelope physical reality to the extent that many people in the physical sciences now, as indeed Kant did, consider this to be a universal constant. What I mean is that a number of physicists and mathematicians have recently published papers to the extent that such things as the Golden Mean and the Fibonacci series are fundamental to the way the entire universe is constructed from the sub-atomic level right through to the structure of DNA and observable natural forms all the way up to the way that galaxies and solar systems and so forth are formed. Whilst Fibonacci has been known since the thirteenth century, the Golden Mean was described by Pythagoras and both describe an essentially harmonic mathematical ratio that underlies many forms in nature and musical intervals and so on. For hundreds of years no one ever mentioned this because to do so was regarded as a form of amateurism. What changed is that the sheer pervasiveness of these harmonic phenomena became so apparent across such a broad range that scientists quite simply incorporated it into their existing understanding by describing this harmonic relationship as a universal constant.

It has been suggested recently, for example, that one possible reason for this is that ultimately reality is composed of 8 dimensions which are then refracted in terms of a ratio that corresponds to the Golden Mean into something that we perceive in three dimensional terms. It's more complicated than that, but that's the essential feature. The example Plato gives of the people sitting inside the cave, who witness two dimensional shadows on the wall that are in fact representations of a three dimensional reality that exists outside the scope of their awareness is the perfect analogy to describe what many scientists have said recently about our relationship with the grand totality of the universe, as it exists beyond the veil of our limited perception.

Perhaps I should reiterate here that I am in no way a scientific person with any kind of technical expertise. My background is in philosophy and the arts. I have no way to judge between competing scientific theories. My project is an historically situated philosophical one which is an attempt to describe the significance of certain matters as they are variously oriented in terms of their relevant conceptual categories, and I have no desire to develop other things that are clearly beyond my scope.

The point is that such things as the arcs of spirals in shells or the way that planetary motions or sub-atomic particles conform to Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Mean indicate the universe as something either containing within it or emerging out of the aesthetic, such as to suggest that whilst unconventional, Kant, his critics and narrowly scientific defenders to the contrary notwithstanding, was in fact quite justified in bringing aesthetic considerations into a scientific book that was ostensibly about the mechanistic structure and evolutionary development of the universe.

I would also mention that the simple fact of this doesn't really have in itself a religious significance. If harmony pervades the universe as a mathematical constant it's just the way it is. It's like the difference between trying to understand what something is and then asking why it should be. Questions as to why the universe exists or why it exists in the way that it does are a completely different area of interest and something far outside my remit.

Although Kant does bring theological considerations into his book in the final stages, what I would maintain is that those ideas and concepts which relate to a universal harmony would seem to be pretty much compatible with any particular religious belief. It doesn't disqualify anything in a religious sense and is therefore not theologically controversial, except that it probably extends the intuitive sense that anyone ordinarily exhibits from the extent of their subjective base into the wider sphere of the whole of nature. Whilst Kant was always very obviously distrustful of organized religion to the extent that he was eventually banned from writing about it, his writing on the broader significant aspects has always been regarded of such a kind that it naturally lends itself open to a wide variety of different interpretations. To the extent that anyone has a religious conviction or otherwise, they can quite simply graft the idea that science suggests an underlying natural harmony onto their already existing understanding in seamless fashion. Such a view may enlarge us spiritually – at least it does so conceptually – but I can't myself really see how it contradicts any broad theological outlook as such.

The person who has done the most to bring the work of the early Kant into the contemporary academy as a subject of philosophical as opposed to merely historical interest is Martin Schönfeld. I couldn't have written the History of the Heavens with anything like as much depth as I did if it wasn't for Schönfeld, as I hope my book makes clear. But then Schönfeld also seems perfectly oblivious to some of the essential historical and literary features that are key to interpreting Kant's appendix. I would suggest that in his Universal Natural History Kant describes the form of his reasoning as being developed in the first place out of observations from within aesthetic categories. This is why for example, Kant is able to suggest that the Chain of Nature – a concept he borrows from the poetry of Alexander Pope and which clearly informs his vision at a fundamental level – is something where the lowliest forms in nature are of no lesser significance or difference in essential kind to the most lofty, such that through this original poetic understanding, and thereafter through inductive reasoning, he is able to develop his bigger picture of the whole.

One of the ways that Kant proceeds in his book in terms of linguistic and conceptual relationships, which let us not forget is an attempt to develop an evolutionary cosmology out of Newtonian physics, is that in the main part of the text he refers to the heavens through the German word 'Himmels' meaning skies in the cosmological sense. In the latter parts however, he then makes a subtle yet significant shift from this, to the word 'Himmeln' meaning Heavens in a theological sense. For my purposes this is neither an accidental or incidental change, but indicates that he has developed the focus of his interest from an epistemological consideration into an aesthetic or theological one even if this theological aspect has a satiric edge, and that therefore it is necessary for readers to adjust their categories of interpretation accordingly in order to understand it.

On the surface level in other words, it might superficially look as if Kant in the appendix is developing a relatively straightforward theory about the nature of beings on other planets within this or other solar systems, as an essentially conventional if somewhat eccentric scientific hypothesis. We have to remember however, that Kant held high hopes for this publication to the extent that he dedicated it to Frederick II (The Great), the 'scholar King' who at the time had surrounded himself with intellectuals, had already published a book 'The Anti-Machiavelli', and who was involved in a long-term correspondence with Voltaire.

Especially with regard to Voltaire, it should be noted that in the years leading up to Kant publishing his Universal Natural History And Theory Of The Heavens in 1755, that in 1750 Frederick II made Voltaire (also a long term and very vocal advocate of Newtonian physics), his Secretary of Literature, with residence in the royal palace in Berlin, the rank of chamberlain and a salary of 20,000 – something that previous commentators on Kant's book seem either not to have noticed or otherwise neglected. Yet while in Berlin Voltaire wrote a philosophical comedy (Micromégas, 1752), that describes how physically gigantic alien philosophers visit earth and witness the follies of humankind, and which in fact seems to have profoundly inspired Kant. As a case in point, Voltaire tells us that Micromégas's space-travel expedition originated after he was condemned by judges because "The mufti of the nation, though very old and very ignorant, made shift to discover in his book certain lemmas that were suspicious, unseemly, rash, heretic, and unsound, and prosecuted him with great animosity; for the subject of the author's inquiry was whether, in the world of Sirius, there was any difference between the substantial forms of a flea and a snail". Concurrently, numerous conflicts erupted on several fronts between Voltaire and various others with Voltaire fleeing Prussia in March 1752, chased by the King's agents and still in dispute with the King about the loan of a book of poetry but in such a way that they non-the-less remained in correspondence thereafter.

Whilst there is no evidence that Frederick II ever read Kant's book, and while we can ascertain from Kant's previous and subsequent publications that his scientific and philosophical agenda was deep rooted and very much his own, I might suggest for those who believe that abstract philosophical innovations have their genesis in socially instituted forms, that the combination of interests and strategies we find in the later stages of Kant's Universal Natural History And Theory Of The Heavens suggest a Voltairian influence relative to Frederick II. Both Kant and Voltaire can be described as sharing common ground in terms of an adherence to Newtonian physics and a philosophical insight as to the nature of the relationships between things in nature as derived from the poetry of Alexander Pope. The explicit content, form of the lemmas and hermeneutically oriented switch in writing from 'Himmels' to 'Himmln' as well as Kant's unusually ambitious choice of dedication all point us in this direction. In this interpretation, Kant initiated shifts in language categories and silent speech lemma's into his text because he was consciously adopting a literary stance that directly mirrored the forms delineated by Voltaire in the fictional book of his protagonist Micromégas.

Although Voltaire's story is quite short, aside from switches in linguistic forms and lemma's, Kant directly echoes every individual aspect of the theory of life and the universe that Micromégas spells out in his conversation with the Saturnian. Thus Kant introduces his ideas about the inter-relatedness of things with a witticism told about a Dutch flea from The Hague (Den Haag); Kant repeats Micromégas's claim that death merely changes but does not destroy the body; Kant's theory is a development of Voltaire's statement as uttered by Micromégas that matter has different qualities on different planets; Kant's book ends with the prospect of a space travel expedition powered by non-mechanical means (with a swift leap), similar to the one undertaken by Micromégas (leaps, judicious gravitational pulls, riding on sunbeams, etc). Because these contextual aspects relative to Voltaire were specific to the audience of Frederick II seemingly in the form a a private joke, Kant probably decided they were no longer relevant when he came to publish the second edition 40 years later, and this also potentially played a part in his choosing to redact the final pages of the book at that later stage.

If some writers of recent science histories have described the main part of the text as a work where Kant "out-Newtoned Newton", I might also add that in the appendix Kant intentionally set out to, and quite possibly conceptually and humorously indeed 'out-Voltaired Voltaire'. Certainly we have to admit that aside from the ambitious content of the main part, Kant's theory of life on other planets is a significant improvement on the way that previous German thinkers such those from the school of Wolff, for example (who were themselves quite plausibly the source of Voltaire's themes), had suggested that we should anticipate the inhabitants of Jupiter or Saturn as being giants whose massive bodies naturally corresponded to the size of their planet. Voltaire claims this idea as a given on the one hand, whilst also taking it to absurd lengths in inferring for example, that the increase in size corresponds with similar extensions in the number of geometric principles and mathematical rules found on the differently sized planets.

In addition to this socially indexed interpretation however, I would also suggest that Kant was sufficiently expansive in terms of his philosophical acumen such that he was also quite capable and indeed likely to innovate perspectives that extended beyond his origins of input - whatever the nature of his aspiration. Although my book embodies appropriate artistic and literary repeats relative to Voltaire, Kant and Kant's translators, I cannot even claim, as Deleuze might have done with respect to such things as repetition within the traditions of philosophy, to have attempted anything like a radically different interpretation here, simply because no commentator on the Universal Natural History And Theory Of The Heavens has ever mentioned these elements even as they are ostensibly situated within the text. The traditions of writing, such that they exist, have rather been ones of either perhaps knowing looks from a distance (Austin?), denial (Jaki, Johnston) or exhibited absence through suggestive silence (otherwise).

In particular, Kant goes on to generate a conception of the relationship between the human and the "Highest Original Being", such that if the structure of the universe contains within it a fundamental harmony, that this harmony is also similarly infused through categorical necessity in terms of a natural underlying correlation where the interaction amidst the exchange also contains within it the potential for reciprocity in humour between these distinct figures. We presume that in the primary instance, the "Highest Original Being" is something which relates to an Omnipresent Being in a theological sense (although Kant never does quite tell us where this Being is situated). In addition to this however we note that in a literary or social sense, relative to the text, albeit it somewhat subversively to religious and scientific traditions alike, "Highest Original Being" could also coherently describe Voltaire. In any case, this is Kant's conclusion.

Is it possible then that the ultimate meaning of the universe contains within it a humorous aspect? Kant suggests that it might have to the extent that he riddles it into one. Kant also develops much that is quite serious alongside this humorous aspect however, such as his solution to Descartes mind/body problem - a categorical juxtaposition that, when interpreted in the context of Kant's estimation of the human in general, places the essence of such creatures within the realm of the comedic, a perhaps not entirely uncharacteristic categorization, not least in terms of our ultimate predicament.

We can speculate. In terms of just how expedient Kant was we might reflect upon the idea that if on the one hand contemporary scientists have argued that the angle of incidence between the ultimate reality and what we as humans perceive is of the harmonic ratio, Kant introduces himself, in an unusual and self-referential way in his appendix in such a fashion, where he incorporates a relational aspect within his statement, where the rhetorical angle of incidence relative to what is uttered is: "with a kind of flippancy". We have been conditioned to think of the Golden Mean as an essentially mathematical ratio. Kant, to the extent that we interpret him here literally, also seems to make something that corresponds to the nature of this fit, rhetorically, into an attitudinal one. The fact that Kant then goes on to re-emphasize this essentially dispositional aspect in the conclusion, except in this instance refracted back onto the speaker from the "Highest Original Being" in terms of a necessary corresponding harmony is at least a notable variation on the theological tradition.

There are those, of course who will say that to suggest such a thing is to project an essentially human, linguistically orientated disposition onto the fabric of the universe. It might also be suggested to the contrary, that if the fabric of the universe is such that it is at root a fundamental harmony, that it is rather perhaps the case that these capacities for humour are themselves the natural relational harmonic consequence in the form of human thinking, of certain formulations that have evolved out of that ground rather than the other way around - an interpretation which while naturalistic, does in fact still conform to the specifics of the relationship Kant contends exists between the human, the comedic, the universe and the divine.

In terms of what this means to me personally I would say: Do not think that because you have discovered the hidden orders and meanings in Jupiter this makes you Jupiter.


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