From Kant to cant

Roger Kimball in New Criterion:

ImagesIn The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, Stephen Kern sets out to show how the burst of technological, intellectual, and artistic innovation around the turn of the century “created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space.” This challenging task will attract anyone who is interested in modernism, though it is worth noting at the outset that Mr. Kern's “distinctive new modes” of experience are not really new but have their foundation in the revolutionary view of man's relation to nature that Descartes crystalized in the seventeenth century. Near the end of the Discourse on Method, Descartes notes that his study of philosophy has led him to a “knowledge that is most useful in life.” That knowledge is first of all not contemplative or theoretical but practical. It excludes the traditional idea that the world is a system of final causes in which man's destiny is figuratively writ, and it views nature as material to be grasped and manipulated according to human designs. The model is the artisan's knowledge of his craft: we really know something when we know how to make it. The index of such knowledge is the power and control it affords. Descartes thus envisions the growth of a “practical philosophy” that, unlike the speculative philosophy of the scholastics, can explain natural phenomena by explaining how things work. Hence the famous declaration that his method will render man “the master and possessor of nature.”

The success of modern technology has shown that Descartes's vision was not idle. For in an important sense, technology has remade the world, bringing close what was far away, delivering up the past to the inspection of the present. “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” Heidegger wrote in a late essay,

Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all . . . Distant sites of the most ancient cultures are shown on film as if they stood this very moment amidst today's street traffic . . . The peak of this abolition of every possible remoteness is reached by television, which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.

It may be, as Heidegger is at pains to argue, that this conquest of time and space brings with it a new sense of distance, one less susceptible of technological abridgement. “Short distance,” he observes, “is not in itself nearness.” In taking charge of reality, man has not yet defeated distance. Instead, the speed and effectiveness with which he manipulates the world make genuine community and intimacy more elusive than ever. The dream of a “global village” remains unrealized.

More here.