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Reading Kant Topographically: From Critical Philosophy to Empirical Geography

posted on 2023-05-22, 13:36 authored by Jeffery MalpasJeffery Malpas, Zoller, G

The idea that the Kantian philosophy could be read 'topographically' that is, in a way that takes it to be centrally concerned with the delineation of a certain topos or place (Ort, Stelle)- is suggested by the very terminology that Kant uses in the development and articulation of his work, and by the ideas and images that he frequently deploys both in the critical works and elsewhere. Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly apparent than in the famous metaphor, in chapter III of the 'Analytic of Principles', in which he describes his project as one of surveying the 'land of truth'- a land that turns out to be an island surrounded by dangerous and deceptive seas.

Kantian topography, however, takes two forms: the first is what we might call a transcendental topography, in which the focus is on the exploration of the place that reason itself occupies (and so also on the delineation of the bounds and limits of that place); the second is an empirical topography that takes as its focus the specific character of human being in its relation to climate, geography and culture. The first project is pursued in Kant's critical works, most paradigmatically in the Critique of Pure Reason, while the second is undertaken in his Anthropology, and also, of particular importance here, in his Lectures on Physical Geography.

One might be tempted to suppose that these two projects would be in tension with one another, for surely recognition of the empirical differences between the ways in which human beings find themselves on the earth would tend to undermine the pretensions of the transcendental project to uncover the structures that obtain irrespective of empirical situations. Certainly some writers have suggested as much. Yet, although it is possible that the fact of diversity would incline one towards the abandonment of any notion of an over-arching transcendental structure, there is surely no necessity about this. Indeed, in the sense in which Kant employs the notion of the transcendental, there are no empirical facts that could undermine its claims to universality or necessity. Empirical investigation might reveal the inadequacy of some particular construal of the transcendental, but it cannot imply the necessary abandonment of the transcendental as such.

In fact, the empirical and transcendental projects are closely related. Not only does the transcendental project aim at establishing how it is that empirical inquiry can itself be possible, thereby also establishing the proper bounds of that inquiry, but the empirical project provides both the motivation as well as the material on which the transcendental project builds. In this latter respect, the transcendental project can be said to find its own possibility in the empirical, but the empirical also depends on the transcendental for its own self-understanding. Indeed, the idea of tapas itself provides the unifying conception that enables us to grasp the interconnection between the transcendental and the empirical here, since the place that is investigated transcendentally is nothing other than the structure that is also empirically instantiated in diverse forms - there is no topos, no place, that stands behind or apart from the place and places in which human beings find themselves.

Reading Kant topographically, then, enables us to think of the transcendental and empirical projects in an integrated fashion, not as in tension, but as approaching the place of human being from two different directions, and in a way that avoids any overstepping of the proper bounds of that place. Moreover, as the discussion here unfolds, it will also become evident that understanding the specifically topographical character of Kant's transcendental project may actually provide the means to identify a significant shortcoming in Kant's own understanding of the place-bound character of human being as it is empirically instantiated.


Publication title

Contemporary Kantian Metaphysics: New Essays on Space and Time


R Baiasu, G Bird, AW Moore






School of Humanities


Palgrave Macmillan

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Copyright 2012 Palgrave Macmillan

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