David Carr: The Paradox of Subjectivity

David Carr (1999). The Paradox of Subjectivity: The Self in the Transcendental Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 162p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written in May 2021.

This short book is a focused exposition of what Carr terms the “transcendental tradition” as observed in the works of Kant and Husserl. Key to this tradition is a methodological distinction between the empirical and the transcendental self—themselves incompatible (paradoxical) characterizations of our subjectivity—without settling for a metaphysical account which, in ‘resolving’ the tension, misses the point of transcendental reflection.

Carr situates the discussion in the ‘abolition’ of the subject in contemporary philosophy, both in materialist and in post-structuralist veins. He traces this tendency to Heidegger’s “sweeping” critique of the “metaphysics of the subject” in modern philosophy from Descartes to Nietzsche. While Carr concedes that this critique may apply to figures like Descartes, Locke, Fichte, and Hegel, he thinks that Kant and Husserl are exceptions which Heidegger failed to make.

True, Kant and Husserl focused on the question of subjectivity. However, the reason they did so was not that they wanted a metaphysical account of the subject. Instead, their inquiries were transcendental in the sense that, first, neither doubted the objective character of experience; they only questioned how objective experience ‘works’ or is constituted. Thus, they are distinguished from epistemological foundationalists like Descartes and epistemological skeptics like Hume.

Second, upon discovering the transcendental subject, both Kant and Husserl were careful enough not to make it a metaphysical first principle. Rather, they stuck to the sense (not being) of worldly objects and limited the use of the transcendental subject to this inquiry of conditions of possibility.

In this line of interpretation, Carr seeks to rehabilitate the discussion of subjectivity without making the transcendental subject a substance of representations, a move Heidegger accused Kant and Husserl of. The transcendental tradition is thus seen as separate from metaphysics and epistemology while critically engaging with, and problematizing, their trespasses.

For this purpose, Carr carries out nuanced and illuminating expositions of Kant and Husserl. Contextualizing their work under the transcendental problematics, Carr highlights, in each case, the way the philosopher distinguished between the transcendental self, which is subject for the sensible world, bestowing meaning to the latter, and the empirical self, which is an object embedded in the world.

To show the difference between the two, Carr focuses on the formula, “self-consciousness”, and asks: (a) what kind of self is involved? (b) What is the corresponding type of consciousness of this self?

Regarding (a), Carr argues that, for both Kant and Husserl, the empirical self is distinguished from the transcendental self because they are individuated (i.e., made distinct) differently. The empirical self is differentiated from other selves within the same world. The transcendental self, by contrast, is not articulated in contradistinction to other selves but in contradistinction to the entirety of objects of experience, as their ‘for whom’—personal individuality is irrelevant here. (54) This is summarized in a somewhat Fichtean claim: “there is only one world, and while there are many [empirical] selves, there is only one [transcendental] myself.” (55)

The relation of the empirical self to the world is a part-whole relation. The relation of the transcendental self to the world is an intentional relation. These are obviously incompatible descriptions, yet they are about the same self, except arising in inquiries different in kind. This leads us to (b). The empirical self arises when we reflect on ourselves while remaining in the natural attitude. What we thus discover is an ego, subject to spatiotemporal constraints and causal relations, which may be studied psychologically. The transcendental self, on the other hand, seems to arise only in a peculiar kind of transcendental reflection, which Husserl’s epoche was meant to bring about. In such a reflection, the object which is experienced is bracketed, while attention is paid to the object as experienced. Since this attitude does not arise very often from the natural attitude, Carr concludes that the transcendental subject would least of all imply a metaphysics of the subject but is almost a theoretical “fiction”, just like the freely falling body in Newtonian physics or the “average consumer” of statistics—necessary for the theory, while having no footing in reality. The reason is that reality as such is defined by categories and cannot absorb transcendental subjectivity, its own condition of possibility, into itself.

Overall, Carr does an excellent job articulating the ‘research program’ of transcendental philosophy. The image of an irreconcilable paradox, which leads to metaphysics when one looks for relief, is especially powerful. The expositions of Kant and Husserl have their merit beyond the book’s thesis. It is also illuminating to place figures like Sartre, the early Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Nagel along the transcendental lineage.

I will now turn to the more problematic sides of Carr’s account, not for the sake of nit-picking, but because they would spark further discussion. First, Carr’s interpretation of Heidegger is sometimes distracted by the ‘steam’ which postmodernists and some ‘Heideggerians’ spread over Heidegger himself. Generic comments of modernity and technology, themselves elements of Heidegger’s thought which were first popularized (and this quite understandably), are highlighted by Carr as supporting a serious attack on Kant and Husserl. While this ‘simplified’ Heidegger would certainly fall prey to Carr’s critique—and Carr takes him as a chef de file of postmodernism—the real Heidegger had a more complicated and much more interesting view on the issue of transcendental philosophy. Without going into the details, let it be noted that the Heideggerian Dasein remains a concrete expression of the transcendental self, one which avoids Carr’s Sartreanism, of which I will speak shortly.

In characterizing the transcendental subject as a theoretical fiction, Carr renders it a product of abstraction, just life the freely falling body or the average consumer. This volatizes the transcendental subject despite the vastness of its philosophical significance: for one thing, the transcendental subject cannot just be a product of abstraction because it underlies even the act of abstraction itself. It is not obvious how volatization is the only alternative to “ontologizing” the transcendental subject, i.e., giving it characteristics independent of the procedure of transcendental reflection. (97)

More importantly, if Carr thinks it possible to take the transcendental subject properly as a theoretical fiction, then he assumes our freedom from taking the fiction ‘too seriously’, i.e., from being engulfed by the verisimilitude [vraisemblance] of the fiction, hence from going off a ‘metaphysical tangent’. The assumption of this freedom on our part is evident in Carr’s belief that one can neatly distinguish between a methodological focus on the sense of objects and the metaphysical claim that objects are nothing else than the way they appear to us. (110) If the transcendental program involves only the former, then the philosopher must refrain from the latter. Without another metaphysical conception of the ‘excess’ of objects over the sense in which we take them (which Carr would certainly not want), the only way to refrain from being ‘too serious’ about the identification of objects with their sense is to have, totally at one’s disposal, the transcendental method like a ‘tool’, being able to control the span and extent of its application.

To be sure, Carr addresses this issue by arguing that the transcendental method is a ceaseless self-critical undertaking (113), such that the transcendental subject it discovers avoids being carried in to a foundationalist metaphysics. Meanwhile, the assumption is kept of a freely investigating subject (the philosopher, so to speak) who stands above and ‘fuels’ this infinite striving. Underlying the talk of “method” is therefore an instrumentalism which suggests a further subject “for whom” the method, along with the fiction of the transcendental self, is an instrument at disposal. (121)

Carr is aware of the risk of instrumentalism, and his critique of Dennett serves to distance himself from that position. The way he mitigates instrumentalism is to argue that the transcendental subject does not only arise in a gratuitous theoretical reflection, gratuitous because uncalled for in the natural attitude; rather, the phenomenon of anguish [angoisse], such as in Sartre’s account, discloses an instability in the natural attitude itself which may lead to transcendental reflection. This reflection is thus not utterly gratuitous. Underlying the theoretical endeavor and feeding into it is a pre-theoretical awareness of our “exemption” from the “general conditions of worldliness,” of “the sheer contingency of things in general.” (127) This idea of exemption or contingency, then, is consolidated in the notion of the transcendental subject.

Here, we reach the basic orientation of Carr’s account of the “transcendental tradition”. His line of inquiry demands “exemption” and “contingency” because they are felt in affective life. He thus puts spontaneity and freedom, themselves having no place in the “general conditions of worldliness,” in the transcendental subject, but he is careful enough (here we observe again the methodological confidence in self-control) not to make a positive metaphysical account of the transcendental subject but rather lets it remain volatile.

But this ‘transcendental asceticism’ is needed, only because the “general conditions of worldliness” has received a narrow and rigid conception in the first place, so that the transcendental subject can now only arise as an “exemption”, which, unsurprisingly, must remain paradoxical.

This orientation is already evident in Carr’s heavy reliance on Kant’s Third Antinomy when arguing that the transcendental self can have no ontological weight. A framework is presupposed in which to be simply is to fit into Kantian objecthood, i.e., spatiotemporality and subsumption under the categories—above all, under the rigid causality of nature. The empirical self, of course, is no exception to this overarching rule, as long as it appears as worldly object. If the transcendental self in principle cannot appear so, then it must be expelled to a ‘grey zone’ of existence, i.e., that of a methodological fiction having as its substance the empirical self of the inquiring philosopher.

When it comes to Husserl, things get complicated, because Husserl, unlike Kant, did not believe in the overarching rule of causality. While Carr is ready to admit that the Husserlian notion of empirical self is rich and multi-layered, he continues to interpret the transcendental self as an exception to the way we “must take the world to be.” (60) Husserl’s idea that the world is the universal field of happening is interpreted towards a closure or an immanence of this universal field; the transcendental self, because world-constituting, cannot be found within this world.

So, when Carr resists the ‘Heideggerian slippage’ into an ontological conception of the transcendental subject—such as in an ontology of Dasein—he identifies being with being-within-the-world [Innerweltlichkeit] and further (in a Kantian framework) with being spatiotemporal and subject to causality. Only so must an onto-logy of the transcendental subject, i.e., a discourse of its being, be prohibited.

Interestingly, what happens here is very similar to that in Sartre (from whom Carr borrows occasionally but whose influence is apparently beyond the sporadic references): the plenum of being (the in-itself), strictly determined according to causality, is presumed; then, the transcendental subject (the for-itself) can only arise as an exemption, an absence—in Sartre’s language, a nothingness. The language of contingency presumes regularity as a norm (the in-itself-for-itself), except that contingent being (the transcendental subject) fails to fit into this norm. The failure attests to its reign.

We might say that, beneath Carr’s powerful image of paradox, there is an impoverishment of the multitude of meaning of being; the transcendental subject may well ‘be’ in a radically different way, and this need not be defined in the privative of the ‘regular’ being of extant nature. It is possible that the way of being of the transcendental subject is more basic: otherwise, how do we imagine that an “absence” from or “exemption” from the world should make that world possible? (134)

Another issue with the seemingly neat separation between the empirical and the transcendental self is that it restricts our positive statements about the empirical self to those offered by the sciences, which focus on intra-worldly characters while omitting that the self is also freedom and spontaneity. This would make it difficult to develop, for example, a concrete ethics in the descriptive sense, which necessitates a much richer conception of the empirical self in continuity with transcendental freedom and spontaneity. The Husserlian enrichment of the empirical self already borrows from its “paradoxical” identity with the transcendental self; and it is not very informative merely to point to this paradoxical character. This pushes us to ask whether it is possible to imagine a continuity between the two senses of the self without absorbing one into the other, such as seen in Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur, both of whom Carr mentions in passing. (139)

At the end of the day, it may be that Heidegger’s problematization of subjectivism was aimed not so much at dissolving subjectivity altogether—Heidegger kept the word Dasein till the end of his career—as at rehabilitating the continuity of the two senses of the self, which the “transcendental tradition” seems to have set apart. What Heidegger put into question in this tradition was not what was made of the transcendental subject—for mistakes on that account would have been obvious—but rather the subjectivity lurking behind supposedly clear-cut distinctions while free to choose from the alternatives. Subjective in this tradition is not the transcendental conditions per se but that which claims to have seen the transcendental—or that which claims nobody can see the transcendental, for that matter. In this sense, we may term transcendental philosophy, in a way that suits Carr’s exposition, a “methodological subjectivism”.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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