On the Reality of Spirits (Part II)


[Work in Progress!]

2 The concepts in play


Kant, as I said, opens his investigation by searching for a definition of spirit, but his efforts are not spent fruitfully (see further below). In my view, it is more responsible to scrutinize all the major concepts we are working with, and so gain a better contextual understanding of the issue, before proceeding to the work of definition. Kant too, after all, expects us to have some sense of what he means by the term before he gives us his lopsided definition.


Now, firstly, I think that Kant has already biased the investigation by framing it as one in which the philosopher stands between “firmly convinced” people who make “solemn assertions”, on the one hand, and a sense of “insurmountable doubt”, on the other, where assent to one or the other leads to denial or acceptance of the reality of spirits. The only escape from the binary, for him, is to simply refuse considering the topic at all.

not quite true!

solemn assertions of believers → acceptance of spirits
insurmountable doubt → denial of spirits
refusal of the question → suspension of belief

This abstract threefold distinction is neat but implausible. In reality, I should think, our doubt is not only surmountable but also multidirectional: it variously attaches itself to belief and disbelief, and to one belief over another, without clear aim. On the flipside, believers are not always so firmly convinced that they make definite assertions, and often only convinced that there is something, without knowing exactly what it is. They may be convinced of the unreality of spirits without repudiating any of their uncanny experiences (perhaps they were caused by aliens, telepathy, the collective unconscious, etc.). That we can cut through this confusion one way or another, armed only with a clear-eyed definition and some critical commonsense, seems overconfident; that we can only be true to one impulse and reach only one conclusion is overly rigid.

We might, for instance, give in to both belief and doubt, and thus reach a suspension of judgment in a different manner: not by refusing the question but by exhausting it. Or perhaps we will accept the reality of spirits in one sense and deny it in another, because there are two good definitions leading to different conclusions. Another possibility is that, in keeping with “the useful” (as Kant calls it), we might have reason not to set aside spirits, but on the contrary to postulate their reality in practice, regardless of whether we can demonstrate it by rational argument. At any rate, Kant admits such a bifurcation of practical and theoretical philosophy in regard to the immortality of the soul.¹ Consequently, we have to develop our conception of spirits and the useful in concert, rather than presupposing that concerning orselves spirits runs counter to utility, as is done in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.

Another concept to consider is rationality or, translating the German Vernunft a little more loosely, reasonableness. Kant regards it as reasonable to say, “I do not know”,² but also thinks that, after his investigation, any unbiased “reasonable person” will attribute the “few alleged experiences” of spiritual apparitions, “which in most cases are not unusual, to self-deception and invention”.³ But since he does not demonstrate that such experiences are in fact rare or untrustworthy, this sense of reasonableness is insular. For those people who have had many such experiences and found them deeply unusual, it will not seem reasonable at all to dismiss them as self-deception or invention just because Kant cannot fit them into his philosophical system. The rational arguments he provides must seem rhetorical rather than demonstrative to them. So, it is necessary to take the standpoint of “spirit-seers” into account as well, and to see whether there is an overarching rationality that can incorporate it alongside the Kantian standpoint, or whether there are competing rationalities—and if so, how they relate to each other.

… the aforementioned conclusion (that empirical knowledge of spirits is necessarily impossible) …

1: For Kant, “the necessity of postulating the immortality of the soul in practical philosophy does not constitute a theoretical proof of the immortality of the soul” (J. Colin McQuillan, “Reading and Misreading Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer”, in: Kant Studies Online 2015, p. 183, fn. 20)
2: Träume eines Geistersehers, p. 925.
3: From the same work, p. 960.

duties – Confucian and Platonic/Stoic notions

Kant has artfully extricated himself from such ethical relations and duties

rejection of ‚historical‘ religion

Kant: purist, universalist, etc. In fact these beliefs and practices are under/overdetermined

if Kant can garner approval for his postulations, then we must not be ashamed to posit divination, gods, etc. as commonplace, so long as we are not dogmatic.

what the New Confucian guy says about spirits

Acceptance, denial and suspension we must treat as variable affects in our dealings with spirit and utility, not as definite outcomes.

Analects 3.12. ‚As if‘. Classic of Rites.

firstly: Kant on immortal soul -> cf. Confucius. (Quotes.)

Although no shared concept, let alone definition, recognizably the same issue. (Swedenborg, proto-Daoism, etc.). Xunzi. Confucians on the useful.

As a matter of practicality, divination and spirit apparitions must not be inaccessible or out of the ordinary; they need also not be consistent, since we do not know how the practical matters „map“ onto any truths. (‚Without how‘). Example

outside of Kant’s familiar tradition, relation to spirits and gods are foundational

what is the term I always forget for that mode of philosophy?

Guandi revelation

McQuillanColin02315: 195-199

Reasonable bounds: ‚Dictionary‘ – what is and is not reasonable; Sextus likewise (power of Earth); vs. Plotinus?

Ge Hong, the Neoplatonists, vs. other Greco-Roman writers; Palaephatus e.g.

ghost stories revel in unbelievability and uncertainty – their emptiness is precisely the point (thus Kant is misquoting the Latin poets)


-God Guandi Judges the Case; Prince Lie Jie; Patriarch of the Fox Spirits; Wutong God Treated People Differently; The God Guandi Descended to the Planchette; Guandi Behaves Like People Today; Mr. Qiu Wenda is the Water God; Records of Sui Garden!; Green Eyes See the Ghost; Wind Disaster in Shanyin; The Number One Scholar of Fujian; Not Only the Virtuous Become Immortals; Crane Carrying a Carriage; Ancient Grave in the Confucius Cemetery

rationality – refutation (argument, investigation) -, eyewitness/seeing and hearing, curiosity/idleness, ridicule ineffective (belief in spirits partly motivated by the ridiculousness, or consisting wholly in ridiculousness). standpoint epistemology, demonstrative vs. rhetorical argumentation: Is it necessarily irrational to believe in what has no clear definition, no clear arguments in its favor, etc.? Common notions, Ibn Taymiyyah, Iamblichus, etc.

Concept: erschlichene Begriffe. Victorinus‘ kinds of definition?

Man wird vermutlich fragen, was mich doch immer habe bewegen können, ein so verachtetes Geschäfte zu übernehmen, als dieses ist, Märchen weiter zu bringen, die ein Vernünftiger Bedenken trägt mit Geduld anzuhören, ja solche gar zum Text philosophischer Untersuchungen zu machen. Allein da die Philosophie, welche wir voranschickten, eben so wohl ein Märchen war aus dem Schlaraffenlande der Metaphysik, so sehe ich nichts Unschickliches darin, beide in Verbindung auftreten zu lassen; und warum sollte es auch eben rühmlicher sein, sich durch das blinde Vertrauen in die Scheingründe der Vernunft, als durch unbehutsamen Glauben an betrügliche Erzählungen, hintergehen zu lassen?[

Japanese philosophy death/ghost paper

Lexicon of Neo-Confucianism