Kant, Schlegel, Derrida, and Negative Representation


What happens when the philosophical investigation reaches its limits? Why does the philosophical investigation strive to cross these same limits? How does such striving change the philosophical investigation itself?

I will give a very general outline of these problems as a preparatory work for future posts on the negativity in dialectical logic and more specifically in dialectic materialism. My focus is on three authors: Kant, Friedrich Schlegel, and Derrida viewed in their common effort to represent the unrepresentable or at least to define, within the horizon of what can be represented, the nature of the unrepresentable.

The starting point of my analysis is the Kantian notion of negative representation. I would like to show how both Schlegel’s and Derrida’s theories of poesy and metaphor are direct responses to the issues raised by Kant’s analytic of the sublime. In other words, Kant’s main challenge is the acknowledgment of the existence of a threshold beyond which the philosophical discourse is not able to go. This threshold is the figure of a negativity that potentially undermines the validity of truth of the philosophical discourse itself. From Kant, to Schlegel and then to Derrida, we observe a general movement that tends to progressively include this negativity within the borders of the philosophical discourse. In other words, the threshold of negativity is slowly turned from an ex-clusive border, into an in-clusive one. The three moments of this movement can be synthesized as follows.
PSM_V64_D532_Immanuel_KantIn Kant there is a form of retreat in front of the problem of negativity. The negativity is explored but at the same time is strategically put at the margins of the main stream of his argumentation (or at least this appears to be the intention of the author) in order to preserve the systematicity of the philosophical discourse. In contrast, in Schlegel, we observe the attempt to turn negativity, through the medium of the poetry, into a positive component of the philosophical discourse in order to make possible the coexistence of systematicity and non-systematicity. Along the same line, Derrida accomplishes what Schlegel started and the threshold of negativity, in the form of metaphors, becomes the unstable but only point through which philosophy may look into itself and turn its limits into a productive discourse. Thus, we need to start with a discussion of how negativity is brought into question in the Kantian philosophy.
In Kant, negativity is the moment in which the systematic discourse of philosophy is not able to represent its object. The problem of the representability emerges in regard of the discussion of the sublime but only in order to reinforce the symbolical value of the beautiful. The discussion of the aesthetical judgment in the Critique Of Judgment is a necessary moment in the Kantian philosophy since it has the function to bridge the gap between the “I” intended as sensible representation and the “I” intended as moral subject of reason. Kant needs to find a link between the realm of knowledge, and the realm of the moral good. In other words, Kant seeks a way to make recognizable by the human intellect the form of morality that, for Kant, has per se no scientific form, no human representability and thus is not intelligible according to the categories of human understanding. Kant finds this link in the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful. The judgment of the beautiful has the function of making understandable what is not understandable otherwise by the human intellect. Kant must then draw a connection within the beautiful and the good, since only through the unveiling of this connection the good might become understandable, clear, visible. In paragraph 59, Kant explicitly questions how to bring into light and exhibit this connection. He argues that there are two ways of presenting and illustrating ideas: through schemata or through symbols. Kant argues that the former is a direct way of representing, while the latter is an indirect way. In Kant’s words, in the indirect representation:
The judgment exercises a double function, first applying the concept to the object of a sensible intuition, and then applying the mere rule of the reflection made upon that intuition to a quite different object of which the first is only the symbol. (198)
To paraphrase, Kant states that through the medium of the symbol, the intellect accomplishes a double movement: recognizing sensibly the symbol, and connect a certain concept to it. The meaning of the symbol, since it requires this operation of reflection, is not direct, but indirect. Kant writes that the problem of the indirect representation “has not been sufficiently analyzed” (198) and this implies that Kant’s own reasoning is now stepping into an unexplored territory. Stated these premises, Kant openly declares that “the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good” (198) and passes to articulate in four points the nature of this analogy all based, in synthesis, on the sharing of the character of disinterest.
Analogy is what Kant is ultimately drawing. The nature of the good might be rendered sensible only by enacting an analogy between the aspects of the beautiful and the aspects of the moral law. In other words, Kant is producing an indirect representation of how, through the beautiful, the subject gains cognition of the good. Yet, this analogy is the moment which breaks a rift in the construction of the Kantian system.
The analogy Kant sets up is made readable by his own reflection. Kant is interpreter of his own analogy. Yet, the reader of the Critique Of Judgment remains somehow baffled with this unexpected conclusion. The climax of the Kantian critique, designed to join the two previous moments of pure and practical reason, consists in an analogy which is in contrast with the systematic character of the enterprise of the whole project of critique. This is however too hasty a conclusion, since Kant has in fact previously prepared the ground for his indirect representation. The ground I’m referring to is in the Analytic of the Sublime.
Kant needs the discussion of the sublime and the negative representation implied by it in order to bolster the theoretical basis of his conclusive analogy. In other words, Kant needs to show the necessity of negativity for the theory to accomplish its task but at the same time he retreats from the risks implied by negative representation indulging toward a more readable analogy. We need to focus on what exactly Kant intends for negative representation and discuss why the conclusive analogy of the critique of aesthetical judgment represents a retreat from the risks which a negative representation brings.
Kant considers the discussion of the sublime “a mere appendix” (85) to the discussion of the judgment of the beautiful. The reason is that while the beautiful reveals purposiveness in the nature outside ourselves, the sublime reveals a purposiveness only through an intuition of the mind. According to Kant, the beautiful “discovers to us a technique of nature which represents it as a system in accordance with laws, the principle of which we do not find in the whole of our faculty of understanding” (84). This principle is the principle of purposiveness which Kant believes “extends our concept of nature” (84) making it resemble art. Reversely, the sublime does not have the power to extend this concept and thus is not as important as the beautiful. To Kant, the sublime is a formless object in which “boundlessness is represented” (82) and which requires an “exercise of the imagination” (83) to be contained and represented as a totality. Kant considers this process a violence to the imagination which can give only a negative pleasure (83). Nevertheless, in his treatment of the sublime, Kant confers upon it a great number of outstanding qualities.
First of all, according to Kant, the aspect of the ocean during a storm (in itself horrible) may be called sublime only if the the mind is “already filled with manifold ideas if it is to be determined by such an intuition to a feeling itself sublime, as it is incited to abandon sensibility and to busy itself with ideas that involve higher purposiveness” (84). Kant states, in a word, that only through the conception of a higher purpose may the storm of the sea be called sublime. The sublime seems then to imply the possibility of transcending one’s sensibility.
Second, to call the storm of the ocean sublime implies the possibility of reducing to a totality what apparently seems to have no beginning and no end, what is formless. “Nevertheless” Kant writes, “the bare capability of thinking this infinite without contradiction requires in the human mind a faculty itself supersensible” (93). Kant argues that the pleasure of the sublime is the pleasure of the “extension of the imagination” (87). In judging the sublime man experiences how the whole power of imagination “is inadequate to its ideas”, but yet the fact itself of extending the imagination and conceiving a totality are supersensible faculties. The sublime has then the power of raising the man above its capabilities.
Third, in calling a storm sublime, men overcome their own fears. The sublime “exhibits our faculty of resistance” (100) and shows the possibility for men to raise above nature itself. As Kant writes, “sublimity does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind, in so far as we can become conscious that we are superior to nature within and therefore also to nature without us” (104). The sublime has the power to raise men above not only themselves but above nature.
In the sublime, then, men discover their ability to transcend their sensibilities, to possess some faculty which allows them to be raised above themselves and finally it shows men how they can rise above nature itself. For all these reason in paragraph 29, Kant writes: “the intellectual, in itself purposive, (moral) good, aesthetically judged, must be represented as sublime rather than beautiful” (112). The faculty of transcendence that the sublime reveals seems to make men closer to the moral good. Why then is the morally good later associated with the beautiful? What happens in between?

What happens is that Kant finds out that this representability of the moral good through the sublime is impossible unless there is a surrender of the philosophical discourse to poetry. The negative pleasure is representable only through an “abstract mode of representation which is quite negative in respect of what is sensible” (115). In other words, this feeling of elevation (the etymological meaning of sublime) implies a losing ground with the earthly expression that, translated in Kantian terms, means that the philosophical discourse systematically organized is endangered at its basis. The expression of the sublime implies a different language which the critical philosophy does not seem able to provide. This is the language of poetry.
From Kant’s side, negative representation means to express the inexpressible. The examples he provides suggest how in Kant’s view, the negation may be represented only by a negation. Somehow, Kant identifies himself with the prohibition of reproducing images. As he writes, “to call the ocean sublime, we must regard it as poets do” (110-111). Kant refuses to look at the sublime as a poet and retreats from the danger of a representation which can only be abstract and thus, in its language, metaphysical and thus non-critical. At stake for Kant is the accomplishment of his own system. Through the sublime Kant justifies somehow the deployment of analogies to express what is not self-evident. Yet, this analogy takes place in the much more comfortable field of the beautiful where the steps are secure and where the analogy itself may be easily teased out. In the familiar place of the beautiful Kant does not need to resort to any obscure symbol that would require a poetical interpretation.

In Kant, the negative representation marks the threshold which the philosophical discourse, intended as a system, does not dare to cross. At the same time this threshold resembles a windowsill from which Kant himself leans over to peek into the unspeakable. For Kant, negativity must be investigated only to securely return afterward to the borders of familiar places and to renounce to look at the formless as a poet would do. The risk represented by the negativity of the poetic language does not permit Kant to accomplish the analogy between the higher purposiveness of the sublime and the moral good. Where Kant does not intend to look at negativity as a poet, Friedrich Schlegel intends to turn poetry into the basis of the philosophical discourse. Programmatically, at the beginning of the Atheneum Fragments we read: “Kant introduced the concept of the negative into philosophy. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile trying now to introduce the concept of the positive into philosophy as well?” Schlegel’s objective is to cross the threshold of negativity that Kant draws and to make poetry the inclusive horizon in which philosophy becomes a sensible representation, and negativity becomes the source of a new mythology. At stake for Schlegel is the critique of the systematic philosophy and its language. Schlegel turns Kant’s concept of negativity into the positive concept of fragment.

The fragment is the instrument through which the philosophical discourse is de-systematized, philosophy is turned into poetry, and the intellectual is made sensible. Through the notion of the fragment Schlegel attempts to realize what Kant is unable to do, or in other words, to sensibly represent what transcends human understanding. Thus, Schlegel articulates his own discourse not in an organized critique, but in a series of fragments that are romantically self-reflexive. Fragments are scattered pieces of a totality not immediately visible but at the same time, each of them is a totality in itself. In Schlegel’s view, this is the double power of the fragment: being at the same time a negation of totality and a totality in itself. As Schlegel writes, “a fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine” (45). Fragments are in a middle position, they stand between completeness and incompleteness. From within they are complete, but partial and isolated from without. Yet, according to Schlegel, this transitory state is what confers upon the fragment a poetical power, a power of conjunction of sensible and intellectual, of ideal and real, and of natural and artistic. The definition of poetry as fragment is also the definition of fragment as poetry: the process is opened in both directions. In order to define poetry, Schlegel needs the notion of the fragment, but at the same time the notion of fragment becomes intelligible only through poetry. In some way, Schlegel realizes in his Atheneum Fragments the fusion of philosophy and poetry, through a writing that, developing in fragments, is not merely illustrative but that instead it performs its own theory.
According to Schlegel, the fragment is like a work of art and a work is what is “everywhere sharply delimited, but within those limits limitless and inexhaustible” (59). In Kantian terms, we could argue that fragments merge the form of the beautiful and the formlessness of the sublime or of purposiveness and higher purposiveness. In a word, the fragment merges the visible and the invisible, the sensible and the intellectual, the concrete and the abstract. The coexistence of these two dimensions is possible only through a movement of poiesis, the creation of a form in which the infinite of the nature (the sublime) is reduced to the finiteness of the subject (the beautiful) or, in more romantic terms, the ideal of the subject meets the real of the nature. This movement of poiesis, is romantic poetry.

Romantic poetry is the moment in which the negative is turned into positive affirmation of the subject as a fragment of a natural totality. Poetry is the moment in which the finitude transcends itself and mirror itself in the infinite movement of the totality of nature. The Kantian opposition between the positive language of philosophy and negative language of poetry is overcome by romantic poetry. Poetry “hovers at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors” (32). The shift from the Kantian notion of negative representation could not be more drastic.
Whereas in Kant the reflection of the subject is considered as a negative moment that can give only an indirect pleasure, in Schlegel the reflection of the subject is the moment that marks the identification with the infiniteness of nature. Romantic poetry has the power of turning the reflection from an intellectual moment into a sensible one. Reflection is not a stepping back from the object, but an immersing into it, a fusion with it and an endless movement of reciprocal definition. The negative intended as a moment of not representability becomes a constitutive principle of the philosophical discourse.

Through poetry, the natural is made intellectual and the intellectual sensible. The fragment is the suspended moment in which this movement takes place. The fragment as an isolated totality is a negation of a system but, at the same time, the foundation of a new and different system, based not on rigor but on endless exchange of subject and object. For this reason, Schlegel may paradoxically argues that “it’s equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two” (24). The fragment is this combination.
The danger of looking at things as poets is the ground on which Schlegel bases his aesthetics. In doing so, the idealist program of creating a new mythology is realized. Making the intellectual sensible through the images of poetry, and making images of poetry intellectually valuable through a philosophical investment means to create a new form of philosophy and a new form of poetry. This form is the form of a new myth, intended as mythos, story, narrative, and conversation. The form of the systematic discourse is broken into pieces. The philosophical inquiry becomes the story of a narrative in which the figural and intellectual are not in contradiction and in which poetry is put in “in touch with philosophy and rhetoric” and mixes “poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature” (31). Rhetoric and philosophy become one and the same. The theory of philosophy becomes the theory of the literary and the literary becomes a philosophical theory. The negative of the figural discourse becomes an inclusive horizon, the positive ground of a new mythology.

This new mythology is a leap beyond the threshold traced by Kant. It is not just a peek into the unspeakable but a giving voice to the unnamable. The coexistence of rhetoric and philosophy through the medium of poetry generates a new form of the beautiful, which becomes “what is at once charming and sublime” (30). The rhetoric of poetry turns philosophy into a system of images in which the horrible coexists with the attractive, the formless with the delimited, the finite with the infinite. Philosophy itself becomes an oxymoronic figure, a sublime moment of higher purposiveness.

The figural nature of the philosophical discourse is exactly what is at stake in Derrida’s analysis of metaphor in White Mythology. Like Kant and Schlegel, Derrida tries to come to terms with the problem of the representation in and of philosophical discourse. The starting point of his analysis is the assumption of the necessity for philosophy to rely on the usage of metaphors and figural language in order to build its own discourse. Indirectly, the problem of the philosophical definition of metaphor and the definition of the metaphor in philosophy is a response to the problem of analogy and indirect representation that Kant raises in the Analytic of the Sublime and in paragraph n. 59. Derrida’s argument develops in the space designed by Schlegel in which philosophy and rhetoric are joined through poetry. Derrida’s discourse on metaphor is carried out through the deployment of metaphors. This fact renders his argument romantically self-reflexive, but at the same time, with much more consequences, effectively assimilates philosophy to the realm of poetry.

There are three issues at stake in Derrida’s analysis of the metaphor. First, Derrida intends to show how philosophy is nothing but a metaphorical discourse. Second, he argues how conversely each metaphorical discourse is nothing but a philosophical thesis. Third, Derrida’s description of this double bind of philosophy aims to show how the blind spot of the metaphor is the only moment of insight into the true object of philosophy.

In the opening of the essay, Derrida implicitly claims the necessity of a negative representation to discuss the usage of metaphor in philosophy. To explain what usage of metaphor means, Derrida constructs a chain of metaphoric association based on the root of the word usage that is the same as the French word usure in the double meaning of usury and use up. Using metaphor means then wearing something out but, at the same time, gaining a plus-value of something. If we read this statement self-reflexively, we might argue that also Derrida’s discourse is a wearing out and a gaining of something. The challenge of the text is to make visible the paradox of the metaphor that requires, in order to be showed, the deployment of other metaphors. Derrida asks: “How can we make this sensible except by metaphor?” As for Kant and Schlegel, Derrida’s concern is to make visible and perceivable the dynamic of a language that is not self-evident.
To Derrida, philosophy is a metaphorical discourse. He argues that every word, whenever “put into circulation” (211) by philosophy loses its transparent meaning and becomes a palimpsest. The palimpsest philosophy operates on words is a metaphoric displacement. Philosophy writes a new meaning on each word and, using them it covers their original meaning depriving them of their original power. This process is what Derrida calls the formation of a white mythology. Words are deprived of their vital power and become “anemic” (213), in the sense that are turned by a metaphoric translation to signify something other than what they original meant. According to Derrida, differently than the romantic poetry, the tropic metamorphosis of language operated by philosophy made in-sensible the intelligible. The white mythology is the reversal of the new mythology theorized by the romantics.

Metaphysics is the discipline that more than any other has contributed to this metaphorical displacement. Derrida takes the example of the word logos, from which word and discourse has come to signify western reason. This is a process of catachresis (235): a word passes from signifying a concrete thing, to signify an abstract concept. All the key concepts of western philosophy like idea, and aletheia, are offspring of this process. The anemic discourse of metaphysics produces this white mythology intended as language unable to sensibly represent its meaning. The inquiry into the metaphor in the philosophical discourse then becomes paradoxical. If idea itself is a metaphor, how can we explain the idea of the metaphor in the philosophical text? Or in other words: how can we represent this problem if not through metaphors? If philosophy is in itself a figural language (anemic, but always figural) each representation is nothing but a figuration that “opens the wider space of a discourse on figuration” (216). This double bind of the philosophical discourse is a negativity that needs to seek a way out. Differently than Kant, and in the way opened by Schlegel, Derrida decides to linger on the threshold of this negativity. The problem may be worked out only from a perspective from within. If philosophy is based on the metaphysical turn imposed upon words, philosophy itself must perform the inverse operation and re-turn these words into their vivid and full meaning. Yet, this task may be accomplished only through a metaphorical process, metaphor being a “philosophical thesis” based on the “opposition of the proper and the non-proper, of essence and accident” (229). The negativity of the metaphor is the only possible way of restoring the original palimpsest. To dig into metaphors means to dig into the formation of what we call meaning.

This is possible because to Derrida metaphor is in itself a philosophical thesis. Metaphor brings into question what is proper and what is not, what fits a representation and what does not. Metaphor is a matter of mimesis, of representation. The two drives which rule the metaphoric process are knowledge and pleasure (238). The metaphor disguises an object in a form apparently unrecognizable. The process of unveiling of the analogy underlining the two parts of the metaphor gives pleasure satisfying a thirst of knowledge. To reconstruct the origin of a metaphor means to trace back an analogy. In this sense, analogy is the clear version of a comparison that has a mystifying form in metaphor. As Derrida writes, “metaphor sets before us, vivaciously, what the comparison more haltingly reconstitutes indirectly” 239).

In paragraph 59 of his Critique of Judgment, Kant uses an analogy instead of a metaphor because a metaphor would have required a work of interpretation. Analogy, in contrast, is an indirect representation but in which the terms of the comparison are clearly isolated. A systematic discourse may not be endangered by an analogy, but may be completely undermined by the use of metaphors. In contrast, like Schlegel, Derrida considers this negativity as the highest moment of insight. Metaphor is a “blind spot” (228) that reveals its truth through an “energetic absence” (239). This absence is the lack of clearness that regulates the surface of the metaphorical discourse. Yet, this absence “tells tales”, unfolds a “ secret narrative” (243). Metaphor is then a myth, a story, an unfolding of secret events that lead to the solution of a mystery.

Differently than Schlegel, to Derrida this myth is not the revelation of a unity between subject and nature, but an abyss which “will never cease to stratify itself, simultaneously widening and consolidating itself” 253). Yet, this abyss, this blind spot reveals the hidden nature of philosophy as metaphor. Negativity again is turned into a positive element of revelation. The task of the philosopher becomes then to peel away the layers of metaphors tracing the origin of the original palimpsest. The turn which must be given to get out of the paradox of the metaphor is to avoid imposing over metaphor another metaphor, not to express the concept through an idea, both being catachresis, metaphors themselves. To use Kantian terms, the defined form of a metaphor (beautiful) may only reveal at its depths the formless aspect of an abyss (sublime). The only way out for philosophy is then surrendering its own language and embracing the inevitable negativity. After all, Derrida’s own inquiry carries metaphor as title, white mythology. Romantically, it performs its own theory. The truth of the metaphor is then the impossibility of stopping the endless turning of the language. As Derrida concludes “metaphor always carries its death within itself. And this death, surely, is also the death of philosophy” (271). Ultimately, metaphor reveals the negative as ultimate truth.

From Kant, to Schlegel, to Derrida, negativity moves from being an unbreakable limit, to a figure of the philosophy itself. A sort of dialectical movement seems to link the three. In front of the threshold of negativity, Kant steps back to the more secure territory of the philosophical system. Schlegel, in contrast, crosses that threshold to turn negativity into positive through the medium of poetry. Derrida, finally, decides to linger on the threshold. The death the metaphor carries with itself is the impossibility of stepping in or out, of staying within or without. The challenge of philosophy is always to play with the negativity that metaphor represents, or in other words, to accept being a poetical discourse, a system of tropes, figures, indirect representations.
Yet, the construction itself of a dialectical figure to organically relate Kant, Schlegel, and Derrida, resembles in itself a metaphorical process, since it brings together what seems to be far apart and tends to show an idea through a metaphor, forgetting that any idea is nothing but a metaphor itself. If our own discourse becomes then forgetful of its own object it is maybe an effect of the hidden narrative that each metaphor hides, a narrative “which nothing assures us will lead us back to the proper name” (Derrida 243).

In this instance, negativity is the limit of language to name and find correspondence between itself and its object. Analogies become cryptic metaphors to be deciphered and poetry the necessary resistance to the dispersion of meaning. Negativity is the threshold of the non-perfectibility of discourse. Yet, the only way to turn this negativity and non-perfectibility into a positive movement is to look at is as poet would do, considering it as the necessary limit in which language strives to overcome itself. In last instance, to question the negative is nothing but a form of self-criticism, a way to accept the endless becoming of our language. Romantically, as Schlegel writes, to linger on the threshold of negativity is recognizing that perfection can truly exist only in death.


Kant, Immanuel. Critique Of Judgment. Trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951. (197)

Schlegel, Friedrich. Atheneum Fragments. trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1991. (18)

 Earliest Program for a System of German Idealism. trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “White Mythology” in Margins Of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1982. (209)


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