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On the real and the imaginary

Lecturer: Lachlan Ross

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 2 2018

This 12-week unit is a study of several different conceptualisations of ‘the real’, from Plato’s realm of forms, to Kant’s noumenal realm, to Heidegger’s untranslatable vorhandenheit, and then beyond. Following Nietzsche, this unit will take a critical stance against two different ways conceptualising ‘the real’. Firstly, I will critique any way of thinking about ‘the real’ in which the ‘real world’ is not the one that we live in (any ‘flight from reality’). This covers a lot, from Plato’s idea that matter is not ‘real’ and our soul is confused by our bodies, to Foucault’s idea that our world is composed of ‘interpretations of interpretations’, to the common Christian idea that one’s real life begins after death. Secondly, this unit will critique any concept of ‘the real’ in which the ‘real world’ is considered to have a form independent of our attempts to understand it. This also covers a lot, from ‘naive realism’ (any belief that ‘objectivity’ is the key to seeing the world ‘as it is’), to more sophisticated forms of realism such as Freud’s (Freud says very clearly that what we think has nothing to do with what ‘is’, and to believe that what we think can have a ‘real effect’ is to regress into savagery). What is left is not phenomenology, but rather the idea of a world that is produced and real, an idea that troubled Nietzsche, but that he bestowed to us regardless, a kind of ‘noumenology’. This unit will also study the role of the imagination in the creation of the world, beginning with Kant’s idea of the creative imagination—which all but disappears between the A and the B editions of The Critique of Pure Reason.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Kant and classical metaphysics (with and against Plato)

This week studies the two realms of classical metaphysics, the ‘real’ and ‘apparent’, looking at Plato’s version (the visible and the invisible) and then Kant’s. This week will also look at Kant’s ideas of the imagination, from the creative to the productive to the merely ‘re-productive’.

  • Reading: Plato, Pheado.

Week 2: Nietzsche and the call to the real

This week studies Nietzsche’s prediction that metaphysics will be overcome, that we will be done with the idea of the ‘real world’ that is ‘out there’ and that our experienced world will become real.

  • Reading: Nietzsche, excerpt from Twilight of the Idols

Week 3: On the problem of the manifold real

This week studies a problem with Nietzsche’s idea that reality is real and affected by us: we lose any yardstick by which to prefer one world to another (they are all real). Nietzsche’s answer is presented: all worlds are real, but the best worlds are the ones in which ‘man’ is vital.

  • Readings: Excerpts from Human, all too Human and Beyond Good and Evil.

Week 4: Marx’s real qua product

This week studies a surprise in Marx’s work, that for him, the world is a product not just of labour but also of the human imagination. Nietzsche’s mistrust of the imagination will be discussed after this, and we will talk about how for Marx, labour creates the world, and how for Nietzsche, error creates the world.

  • Reading: mixed excerpts.

Week 5: The existential compromise: we are responsible for the world, but we don’t make it (Sartre and Hegel)

This week will begin three weeks on phenomenology. This week, we will look at a) the roots of phenomenology in idealism (from das ding an-sich to sein an-sich to être-en-soi), and b) Sartre’s rejection of the imagination and his regression into materialism.

  • Reading: except from Being and Nothingness

Week 6: Heidegger’s phenomenology (In der Welt Sein)

This week looks at the relation between ‘man’ and ‘world’, and Heidegger’s more active paradigm of the creation of the world, i.e., the properties of Da-sein lead to the world being as it is. We will also study Marx’s influence on Heidegger, which is for me larger than usually recognised.

  • Reading: excerpt from Being and Time

Week 7: Heidegger’s retreat from the imagination (following Kant)

This week studies Heidegger’s interest in Kant’s retreat from the imagination, and then goes on to look at his own similar trajectory.

  • Reading: excerpt from Kant and the problem of metaphysics.

Week 8: The post-structuralist revival of Kant

This week looks at the similarities between idealism and various forms of post-structuralism on the question of ‘the real’.

  • Reading: TBA.

Week 9: The imaginary turn

This week studies a turn towards the imagination in philosophy, especially in the work of Castoriadis. We will look at Castoriadis’ basic model of the subject and his claim that Aristotle invented the modern concept of the imagination.

  • Reading: excerpt from The Imaginary Institution of Society

Week 10: The materialist imagination (solving the problem of the manifold real)

This week draws on an original idea, my materialist imagination, which follows on from Nietzsche’s work on the nature of the produced real.

Week 11: A materialist attempt to get beyond Kant

This week is a study of Quentin Meillassoux’s attempt to get beyond metaphysics. Freud’s realist objections to the project of this unit will also be discussed.

  • Reading: excerpt from After Finitude

Week 12: On the possibility of noumenology today

This week reviews all of the attempts above to get rid of metaphysics, and reminds us that Nietzsche didn’t want to get rid of ‘the real’: he wanted us to embrace it.