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Answering a Call for Papers
from the Long Island Philosophical Society
May 2, 2011
Last November, when the Long Island Philosophical Society issued a call for papers, I decided to give it a shot. My subject would be an essay by Immanuel Kant titled Dreams of a Spirit Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics. Its obscurity gave me confidence that my ignorance would not be broadly exposed, and its brevity gave me hope that I might master it before the March due date.

I ran across Kant's essay by accident. One evening, while teaching Introduction to Ethics, I set out to explain Kant's dictum that "It is impossible to conceive anything at all… which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will." As I was underlining 'good will' on the board, a student piped up from the back of the room: "What about God?"

"A good question, Sean," I replied. "Let's look it up and talk about it next week."

Sean's query led me to James Collins' A History of Modern European Philosophy, which contains a mention of Dreams. I tracked down a copy of the essay in the Stony Brook University Library, and later discovered a paper-bound version edited by Gregory Johnson, which contains virtually every primary-source document related to the essay. Very handy and well worth $19.95 from the Swedenborg Foundation Press.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Kant's quirky essay is a exploration of Emanuel Swedenborg's claims that he could communicate with the dead. Kant, it seems, had more than a passing interest in the paranormal, and when reports of Swedenborg's psychic feats began to circulate through Prussian society, Kant was called on by his friends to determine if they were authentic or not. After circumambulating the question several times, he came down on the 'not' side—although along the way he spun out an intriguing theory of the spirit world and an explanation of sensory delusion that I had not encountered before.

After three or four attempts, I settled on an interpretation which was as close as I was going to get before March. I worked it up and sent it in. Next day I got an e-mail from Glenn Statile, the conference organizer, saying, "Thanks for the truly first rate submission." Whether my paper is truly first rate I leave to the reader, but I was in.

Saturday April 16 found me on the 5:57 AM from St. James bound for St. Francis College in Brooklyn. After breakfast and a walk to the waterfront, I found my way to the conference and logged in. The thirty-odd philosophers milling about formed a disparate gaggle of seasoned professionals, recent graduates, and deep-in-tortured-thought graduate students.

Just before ten, we trudged upstairs to present our papers in small group sessions. Mine was the first in the 'Kantian Investigations' session. Though only a few people were there, I was heartened to see two associate professor types in addition to the other presenters and moderator. My presentation went longer than I rehearsed, but it was well-received. The audience nodded and smiled appropriately; relevant questions were asked and answered; thoughtful comments about Kant's later writings were put forward.

Up next, Daniel Murphy presented a paper on virtue ethics in Kant and Kierkegaard, and Anna Aloisia Moser gave a presentation on Kantian think acts. She argued that the categories are not static structures for organizing ideas, but mental performances. She was not quite sure whether she read this in Kant or into Kant, but she was confident that this is the way thought happens.

I stayed long enough into the afternoon to hear a lucid and informative paper by Allegra de Laurentiis from Stony Brook on the relationship between Aristotle's De Anima and Hegel's Phenomenology. Then it was out the door, through the rain and onto the train to Atlantic Terminal and thence to St. James. I arrived at 6:30, wetter, wiser and considerably less anxious.

By the way, when I asked Sean the next week if he found the answer to his question, he vaguely remembered having asked it and certainly did not remember having committed to answer it. James Collins, however, provided a clue. Because Kant concluded that a scientific knowledge of the existence and nature of God is beyond the reach of human knowledge, he could not use the concept of God in the construction his ethical theory, which he based on the internal perfection of the will instead.