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Sawyer Seminar at the University of Chicago
The Problem of Non-Discursive Thought from Goethe to Wittgenstein

James Conant, Department of Philosophy
David E. Wellbery, Department of Germanic Studies

“Philosophy and poetry must become one.” Friedrich Schlegel

The problem of non-discursive representation emerged as a central issue on the intellectual agenda of post-Kantian philosophy, aesthetics, and scientific theory in response most specifically to considerations put forward by Kant in two notoriously difficult sections, §§76 and 77, of his Critique of Judgment. Kant here tries to refine and clarify his earlier distinction between discursive understanding (which forms judgments through the application of concepts to an intuited sensuous material) and what he alternately refers to as “intuitive understanding” or “intellectual intuition,” types of cognition which, although they can be conceived and perhaps attributed to a divine intellect, are not available to the human intellect. Intended by Kant to cement his earlier distinction between two mutually exclusive forms of representation, sensible intuition, on the one hand, and discursive understanding, on the other, these reflections had in fact the opposite effect: they proved immensely suggestive to subsequent generations of philosophers, poets, and scientists, beginning with Goethe, who endeavored to think beyond Kant’s strictures on human cognition. Building on Goethe’s claim that an “intuitive understanding” (anschauende Urteilskraft) is central to the method of natural science (especially morphology and optics), Hegel extends the point to several other areas of human inquiry. The first step is taken, in Faith and Knowledge, in a passage devoted to the elucidation of the concept of beauty. Hegel writes: “Since beauty is the Idea as experienced, or more correctly, as intuited, the form of opposition between intuition and concept falls away. Kant recognizes this vanishing of the antithesis negatively in the concept of a supersensuous realm in general. But he does not recognize that, as beauty, it is positive, it is intuited, or, to use his own language, it is given in experience.” If, as Hegel claims here, the distinction between intuition and concept “falls away,” then so does the limitation Kant imposed on the human intellect by restricting it to discursive cognition. Similar attacks on the Kantian strictures can be found in all the major post-Kantian thinkers, chief among them Fichte, Schelling, and Schopenhauer.

These attacks, however, faced a difficult obstacle. Kant introduced his distinction between intuitions and concepts in order to overcome the limitations of both traditional empiricism and traditional rationalism, summarized in his slogan “Leibniz intellectualized appearances, just as Locke completely sensualized the concepts of the understanding” (Critique of Pure Reason). The possibility of finding a coherent philosophical conception that is able simultaneously to preserve Kant’s achievement and make room for Goethe’s and Hegel’s insights – that is, a conception that can allow the strict opposition between intuition and concept to “fall away,” without either sensualizing the understanding or intellectualizing sensory experience – remains a central issue throughout every subsequent stage of post-Kantian German philosophy. It forms the central theoretical background of German Romanticism. A century later, it is no less important to the striking panoply of attempts to revive this tradition in the work of figures as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. And it reemerges in the current Anglo-American philosophical landscape, perhaps most conspicuously in the reception of Wittgenstein’s work. In many areas of his thought Wittgenstein can be seen as addressing concerns very similar to those that preoccupied German Idealists generally, and Goethe and Hegel in particular. Among these are his account of aspectual seeing, his elucidation of what it is to grasp a meaning, his conception of philosophical inquiry as attaining to a kind of perspicuous overview, and his understanding of how shareable forms of intelligibility are bound up with shared forms of life. These concerns become, if anything, even more pronounced in recent attempts to appropriate Wittgenstein, notably in Stanley Cavell’s account of the relation between criteria and necessity, Cora Diamond’s reflections on what is involved in perceiving the face of necessity, and John McDowell’s insistence on the mutual interdependence of our sensible and intellectual faculties.

The Sawyer Seminar explores this complex of problems both historically and systematically. We trace its emergence in the early responses to Kant, and investigate its manifestations in a variety of different contexts. Among others, these include the theory of colors, accounts of pictorial representation and aesthetic judgment, philosophical theories of perception, as well as questions about practical knowledge. To address these concerns, the Seminar draws on the resources of several disciplines, including philosophy, literary studies, art history, and the history of science.

Organizational Structure
The Sawyer Seminar has a three-part structure, consisting of two conferences and a two-quarter long graduate seminar:
(a) Opening Conference, October 6-8, 2006
(b) Graduate Seminar, Fall Quarter ‘06 and Winter Quarter ’07
(c) Concluding Conference, October 12-14, 2007

All of the project’s core participants are involved in each of the three parts. The aim of this structure is to have an initial event at which central questions of our topic are first broached (Opening Conference); then to discuss each participant’s contribution in greater depth (Graduate Seminar); and finally to have a concluding discussion of the findings of the entire project (Concluding Conference).

All events take place at the University of Chicago.

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