Friday, January 23, 2009

Setting the Record Straight

I finished Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View some time ago. A review may follow but likely will not. What will follow, directly below, is a common-sense refutation of weird academic wishful thinking.

Here's the situation: among Kant's correspondence is a 1762 letter received from Maria Charlotta Jacobi, which includes the line: "Well good, we shall await you and then my watch will get wound." This remark is cryptic to say the least.

Two interpretations are current.

First: it's a reference to Tristram Shandy. In the words of Arnulf Zweig, editor of the Cambridge edition of the Correspondence, "Tristram's father would wind the house-clock every Sunday night, in time to attend to his marital duties."

Second: it's a reference to a comment Kant makes in Anthropology. "As concerns scholarly women: they use their books somewhat like their watch, that is, they carry one so that it will be seen that they have one; though it is usually not running or not set by the sun."

The supposed refutation of the second theory is that the Anthropology was published in 1798, thirty-six years after the letter was sent. This attempted refutation falls short of the mark for two reasons. First, though the book wasn't published until decades later, the joke itself may have been current in Kant's social circle for a long time. Second, the Anthropology was a collection and revision, by Kant, of his lecture notes for the anthropology course he taught from 1772 to 1798. To suggest that its contents only received wide distribution following the publication of the book ignores that much of the anecdotes and substantive matter must have been known at least to Kant's students.

So what's more probable? An obscure, strictly incorrect, barely comprehensible reference to Tristram Shandy, or a teasing allusion to one of Kant's off-color jokes? I know that scholarship in the humanities is driven to uncover any evidence of sexual scandal it can find, but be reasonable.

Frau Jacobi was...Frau Jacobi, incidentally. I'm sure it would have been contrary to duty to, you know...wind her watch. So I must remain unconvinced by this supposed evidence of Kant's having had a sex life.


At 7:30 PM, January 24, 2009 , Blogger Nick Milne said...

I always enjoy this blog, but posts like this serve to remind me of exactly why that is. Well done. Well done! Well done indeed.

Only lslighty drunk here

At 9:16 AM, January 26, 2009 , Blogger Kenny said...

Oy vey, who cares if Kant even HAD a sex life?

This is another species of the "Who wrote the Iliad: Homer, or another guy named Homer?" syndrome. I hate modern scholarship sometimes. OK, a lot of the time . . .


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