Ptolemaic or Copernican?

I just ran across an old brief article (1913) by Norman Kemp Smith on the famous analogy between Kant’s philosophy and the Copernican revolution. He starts by describing the most common criticism of the analogy:

The reader very naturally conceives the Copernican revolution in terms of its main ultimate consequence, the reduction of the earth from its proud position of central pre-eminence. But that does not bear the least analogy to the intended consequences of the Critical philosophy. The direct opposite is indeed true…[Kant’s] aim is nothing less than the first establishment of what may perhaps be described as a Ptolemaic anthropocentric metaphysic.

This complaint still comes up today. Quentin Meillassoux revives it in After Finitude, for instance, and proposes that we replace the term “Copernican revolution” with “Ptolemaic Counter-Revolution.” He footnotes Alain Renaut’s 1997 book, Kant aujourd’hui, yet the specific phrase “Ptolemaic Counter-Revolution” seems to come from Bertrand Russell’s Human Knowledge,* and even Smith in 1913 presents the terminological quibble as more or less well worn. He mentions a late nineteenth-century work by Thomas Hill Green, for example, which I’ll get to in a second.

Usually the purpose behind a sentiment like “this has already been done” is to belittle the authority of recent variations, and to sound the familiar battle cry of setting the record straight against ignoramuses (Mikhail Emelianov wants to score a point against Meillassoux and “neo-realists,” for example.) But that’s not what I’m after here. Aside from outlining the two basic approaches to the analogy (we’ve now seen one of them), I’d like to think about what dismissing or defending the Copernican analogy might reveal about the author’s motivations. The way old arguments about semantics such as this one get updated speaks to real changes taking place just underneath.


Copernicus and Ptolemy shared a deep love of circles.

I think the quote by Smith captures what motivates the Ptolemy side, with a wide-angle interest in the “main ultimate consequence” of Kant’s philosophy and an appeal to terms like “anthropocentric.” Take the Thomas Hill Green book from the 1880s that Smith cites. Green contrasts Kantian philosophy with Copernicus’s twist on “the relative positions of the earth and the sun” (section 11). He finds Kant’s actual position on subjects and objects to be more ambiguous. What I find interesting with Green is that he wants to interrogate the baseline empiricism of his English intellectual milieu. That is, he wants to take seriously the basic question of what is real, of what revolves around what. He could care less about faithfully explaining the original context of the link between Kant and Copernicus; he uses that famous link to launch his argument.

By section 31, he notes that Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal is too often ignored in favor of nitpicking inconsistencies in the master’s logic. He believes critics of Kant instead ought to “enquire closely into his view of the relation between nature in his sense of the term and ‘things-in-themselves.’” Ultimately Green favors a version of idealism that he takes to be more nuanced than simple idealism. By odd coincidence, we see another premonition of Meillassoux’s terminology: “The true account of [the growth of knowledge] is held to be that the concrete whole…partially and gradually reproduces itself in us, communicating piece meal but in inseparable correlation, understanding and the facts understood, experience and experienced world.” Notice that Green’s doctrine of an inseparable correlation between human and world is maintained by someone who shares with modern anti-correlationists a skepticism about the “Copernican” side of the Copernican revolution.

Now let’s return to Smith. I quote his introduction at the top of this post, where he presents the Ptolemaic standpoint. He then moves on to a defense/explanation of the Copernican analogy, observing that Kant’s actual reference to Copernicus has nothing to do with moving from an earth-centered (subjective) universe to a sun-centered (objective) universe. Instead, Smith argues that Kant sees himself, like Copernicus, as attempting to guarantee the validity of “a subjective explanation of apparently objective motions.” If anything, a fixed site in the heavens – a thing-in-itself – might be assigned to the stars (“freed against the limitations of space and time”), whereas the spectator infers his own cosmic motion through his observed relations to heavenly bodies. Here, Smith describes Kant’s link with Copernicus in terms of an underlying mindset that accounts for subjective (“earthly”) conditions when making sense of phenomena. The method of the Renaissance scientist is at issue, not the new astronomical paradigm that he helped to institute.

In another article focusing on original sources (this time in 1959), Norwood Russel Hanson also argues that Kant analogizes his approach to philosophy with the revolutionary scientific method, rather than with the heliocentric doctrine itself (“Copernicus’ Role in Kant’s Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas 20/2). Hanson is pricklier than Smith, and builds his case legalistically with a gradual progression of smaller steps. He believes a good account of the Kant-Copernicus affiliation ought to start with the most obvious and unassailable goals that can be gleaned from Kant’s small number of words about Copernicus. “The name ‘Copernicus’ is brought in only to illustrate the propriety of making trial of an untested hypothesis, particularly when extant theories seem fruitless.” Copernicus at this strictest stage of interpretation is a rhetorical figure supporting Kant’s claim that it’s good to mix things up when everyone gets stuck, since a new underlying vision might get better results. Hanson then further deciphers Kant’s shout-out to Copernicus in terms of their shared “ways of thinking,” or method. Specifically, he views the analogy as Kant’s desire to ground knowledge on a priori conditions of its construction. “Kant therefore suggests that we at least try the hypothesis that objects must somehow conform to the structure of our knowledge.”

Smith and Hanson both believe that analogizing the famous results of Kant with the famous results of Copernicus is bad scholarship. For them, anyone who would complain about the Copernicus analogy ought to stick with the original context of its appearance in the First Critique. As Hanson writes, the sheer historical burden of the Copernican nickname is enough to “encourage further questions about interpretation.” Plus it’s a great chance to show off scholarly chops. (Kant lectured on scientific method in 1759 and 1760! Kant only mentions Copernicus twice! And so on…)

To me, the debate is a (minor) drama of mistaken identity in the history of philosophy. As Hanson himself notes, the phrase “Copernican revolution” became associated over time with Kant’s philosophy as a whole, with both its historical importance and its handling of the basic philosophical views of major forebears. At the same time, though, Kant’s most “academic” readers keep getting annoyed at the perceived loss of a particular meaning attached to the original references to Copernicus. This is not just imprecision that arises from metonymy, from taking Kant’s reference to Copernicus as a stand-in for Kant’s philosophy as a whole. Rather, I see it as two different terminological entities having split from each other. There’s (1) the Copernicus who very briefly circulates in Kant’s writing as a learned and subtle appeal to authority (more or less in keeping with Kant’s attempt to draw objective certainty from a subjective standpoint), and then there’s (2) the famous revolutionary Copernicus who circulates in talk about Kant’s famous revolutionary doctrine (an analogy which doesn’t quite work).

In the first approach, you compare the methods of Copernicus with Kant’s own epistemological concerns. The comparison seems historically grounded, yet vague: a mere ornament in terms of its actual significance for Kant. The philosopher barely mentions Copernicus, after all. For that reason, taking the analogy too seriously risks coming across as a precious attempt to import scientific and mathematical authority into the very essence of Kant’s philosophy. Doing so works best as a didactic strategy in a classroom setting, creating a rich string of associations between the scientific revolution and the philosophical critique of reason and experience in the Enlightenment.

In the alternative approach (Meillassoux and others), you compare the basic worldviews of Copernicus and Kant. This invites you to question whether the gravity well of the transcendental subject even relates to the cosmological turn away from a motionless, centralized Earth. A rebuttal against the term “Copernican revolution” associated with Kant risks coming across as too easy and hipsterish if not otherwise treated as a lead-in to an alternative philosophical standpoint. The latter strategy is precisely what folks like Thomas Hill Green, Quentin Meillassoux, Bruno Latour (Pandora’s Hope 6, 16, and glossary), and so many others expertly demonstrate.

[* Russell partly anticipates the bifurcation that I endorse in this post in his introduction: “Kant spoke of himself as having effected a ‘Copernican revolution’, but he would have been more accurate if he had spoken of a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’, since he put Man back at the centre from which Copernicus had dethroned him. But when we ask, not ‘what sort of world do we live in?’ but ‘how do we come by our knowledge about the world?’ subjectivity is in order.” Before that, he notes that “knowledge is an unimportant feature of the universe.”]

[A couple addenda, Feb 18: (1) I looked up Mikhail Emilianov and realized the name is a pseudonym. Nothing wrong with that, but I certainly had the incorrect impression and didn’t mean to mislead anyone else. (2) There’s perhaps an obvious reconciliation of the two approaches to the Copernicus analogy that I didn’t mention or even think of. Namely, it can be understood as indexing a new phase in Kant’s thinking (or even as an active ingredient in that “final form”), a light that turned on when he closely studied contemporary approaches to physics and geometry. This would preserve the sense of a life-shaking turning point worthy of endless biographical reproduction, even when the analogy breaks down in a comparison of results.]

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