Synthesis and Time

Part one of my commentary on Deleuze’s Kant seminars

This text is based on the first of Gilles Deleuze’s four 1978 seminars on Kant, in which he outlines Kant’s discovery of the realm of the transcendental a priori, and the revolution in thinking it leads to. A revolution which puts the human subject at its centre, legislating on what something is, by bringing together what it appears as and what we know independently of experience. An understanding which is founded on an “entirely new conception of time.”

Deleuze begins by detailing the structure of the a priori, that which we know independently of experience, in opposition to the a posteriori, that which is given in experience. The a posteriori gives us the immediate, the contingent, whereas the a priori gives us something universal and necessary, true at all times, past, present and future. 

The a priori, as universal and necessary, is independent of experience, yet it is said of objects of experience. The question then is; in what form is such a universal applied to the contingent a posteriori? The answer; it is given in the form of the category, a concept – which Deleuze calls a universal predicate. It is universal because it can be said of any object of possible experience. The categories are the conditions of all possible experience, whereas a posteriori or empirical concepts are the conditions of the immediate.

The categories form only one element of the a priori, in addition everything that appears, appears in space and in time. Yet whereas the categories are concepts, space and time are not. Instead Kant classifies space and time as presentations, and the categories as representations of what is presented. Deleuze says that this is something “very new” in philosophy, and will lead to “Kant’s work to distinguish presentation and representation” (1, 7).

Phenomenon and Apparition
Deleuze now goes on to detail a second area of Kant’s philosophical importance, his transformation of the notion of the phenomenon, that which appears in empirical experience. The classical understanding of the phenomenon is contained in what Deleuze calls the disjunctive couple of “appearance/essence.” What appears to the subject is appearance, hidden behind which is its essence. This arrangement implies a fundamental defect in the subject; the thing as it appears to the viewing subject is unreliable. This causes philosophers, such as Plato, to urge us to leave appearance behind in order to find the thing’s essence.

Kant defines what appears not as appearance but as apparition, of which Deleuze says it is; “…what appears in so far as it appears. Full stop. I don’t ask myself if there is something behind it, I don’t ask myself if it is false or not false” (1, 8). Here the disjunctive couple of appearance/essence is left behind, the conjunctive couple of apparition/sense takes its place. This leads Deleuze to say; “there is no longer the essence behind the appearance, there is the sense or non-sense of what appears.” (1, 9)

For Deleuze this is a fundamental reversal, we no longer spontaneously think in terms of appearance/essence, but in terms of the apparition/sense of what appears. The subject is thereby remade; on the one hand there is the transcendental subject; “constitutive of the conditions under what appears to it appears to it” (1, 10). On the other hand the empirical subject; “which is subordinated to appearances and which falls into sensory illusions” (ibid). The transcendental subject is the “unity of all the conditions under which something appears” to the empirical subject. The conditions of what appears are the categories and space and time, they are the forms of what appears, they are the forms of representations given to the empirical subject.

For classical philosophy the empirical subject interacts with what is given through the judgments it makes of what is before it. These judgments are of two types, they are either analytic, when a predicate is contained in the subject, “A is A,” or they are synthetic, when the concept is outside the subject, “A is B.” Furthermore analytic judgments are a priori, while synthetic judgments are a posteriori. This is because analytic judgments say what something is from the thing itself, so no need for experience to intervene, while synthetic judgments brings together (synthesise) heterogeneous concepts. 

Kant creates a third type of judgment which breaks the bounds of this dichotomy, the synthetic a priori. This is a judgment that brings together the universality and necessity of the a priori with the heterogeneity of the synthetic. Deleuze develops this theme through an appeal to geometry.

Deleuze’s geometrical proof of the a priori synthetic judgment
If we say a triangle is “three straight lines enclosing a space,” this is a standard analytical judgment, equivalent to saying “A is A,” the concept of the triangle is contained in its definiton. Yet there is another way a triangle as a triangle can be spoken, through Euclid’s proposition; “the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right-angles” (1, 17). This has the appearance of an analytical judgment, it is both universal, it is true of all triangles, and necessary, the figure must demonstrate this to be a triangle. Yet it is not contained within the concept of the triangle, therefore it is synthetic, i.e. a synthetic a priori judgment. This is a synthetic judgment that does not rely on exterior empirical experience for its proof; the action of drawing the proof is contained a priori within the judgment. Rather than a concept Deleuze describes the synthetic a priori judgment as a rule of construction; “the rule according to which one produces in experience an object which conforms to the concept” (1, 19).

Deleuze returns to the triangle as proof; the concept of the triangle; three straight lines enclosing a space, as an a priori judgment, does not give us its means of construction. This is given in the spatio-temporal synthesis of the concepts of the straight line and the circle, which together produce the triangle. The synthetic a priori thus combines concepts; straight line, circle, with what we know from experience, that together they can be used to construct a triangle. A further example of an a priori synthetic judgment; “the straight line is the shortest path between two points,” synthesises two concepts, that of the line and that of the curve, to give us the spatio-temporal attribute of “shortest path.” This leads Deleuze to say:

“The a priori synthesis goes from the concept to the spatio-temporal determination, and vice-versa…space and time have woven a network of determinations which can make two concepts…form necessary relations with each other. Thus space and time will acquire a constitutive power…the constitutive power of all possible experience.” (1, 24)

The Diversity of Space and of Time
Space and time are the forms of the apparition’s presentation, one which is characterised by diversity. What appears in space and in time is intrinsically diverse, each different from another. In addition space and time offer a diversity of spatial “heres” and temporal “moments.” The diversity of what appears is empirical, and therefore a posteriori, whereas the diversity of time and space are the a priori forms of presentation, which Kant calls forms of intuition. Intuition is the immediate, phenomena are immediately in time and space, time and space are the forms of this immediacy. This passive diverse immediacy of what appears as a presentation is mediated through the active representation of the concepts which brings about a unification. The prefix “re” indicates the activity of the concept. This leads Kant to say that space and time are the form of our receptivity, while the concept is the form of our spontaneity or our activity (1, 25).

From the foregoing Deleuze clarifies Kant’s contribution to a new understanding of time. The classical understanding of time is contained in the definition “time is the number of movement,” through which time is subordinated to that which it measures; change, movement. Deleuze likens time, in this definition, to a circle, eternal and repetitive. With Kant time and space are pure form, attached to and measuring nothing. Instead space is the form of exteriority; “everything which appears in space appears as exterior to whoever grasps it, and exterior from one thing to another” (1, 29). From this it follows that time is the form of interiority; “it’s the form under which we affect ourselves, it’s the form of auto-affection. Time is the affection of self by self” (ibid).

Rather than a circle, time is uncoiled as an endless line. Time is no longer subordinated to that which happens in it, rather everything is subordinated to time, including ourselves. Rather than a measure of the limit, time is the limit, the parameter towards which things go, without arriving, the endless line. Our consciousness of time gives a break, a “caesura” in the line of before and after, past and present.

Index of my posts on Deleuze’s Kant Seminars
Part One: Synthesis and Time
Part Two: More on Time
Part Three: The Schema

Part Four: The Symbolic and the Sublime