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Peasants in a Tavern (1665) by Adriaen Van Ostade. Courtesy the Royal Collection

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What can Kant tell us about the perils and promise of booze?

Peasants in a Tavern (1665) by Adriaen Van Ostade. Courtesy the Royal Collection

by Matthew Perkins-McVey + BIO

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Drinking like a philosopher: what does Immanuel Kant have to say about the role of intoxication in our overlooked lives?

Intoxication is a central component of the human experience. Drugs like opium, psilocybin mushrooms and peyote have served a wide array of social, cultural and religious functions throughout history. Meanwhile, brewing alcohol is seen by some historians as the source of civilisation itself. With such a colourful history, it is baffling that the dialogue surrounding intoxication and intoxicants is not more prominent in the fields of art, philosophy and literature. This is because the place of intoxication in the grand human story is not so much marginal as marginalised. The best example of this is a figure often caricatured as the antithesis of sensuous abandon: Immanuel Kant.

Kant is usually seen as the chief representative of a particularly cold, Teutonic brand of reason. He never left his hometown of Königsberg, where he was born in 1724, he never married, and he dedicated his life to exploring enduring philosophical quandaries. Kant was stingy with lavish prose or rhetorical flourish, instead electing for scintillating subheadings such as ‘The Logical Form of all Judgments Consists in the Objective Unity of Apperception of the Conceptions Contained Therein’. What, then, did this ascetic have to say about the pleasures of booze?

Intoxication is variously recreational, deviant or indulgent – in each case, nothing to be treated as the principal object of serious philosophical analysis. To be fair, Kant’s discussion of intoxication is brief and admittedly limited, confined almost exclusively to minor sections of The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) and Anthropology from a Practical Point of View (1798). Nevertheless, the place that these remarks about intoxication hold in Kant’s broader philosophical project is so peculiar, so unique, that they merit earnest consideration, and may be cause for reflection on the contradictory nature of our present-day understanding of intoxication.

When Kant first addresses the subject of intoxication by alcohol or opium in The Metaphysics of Morals, it is part of a greater discussion about the morality of stupefying the senses, which further extends to eating. Gorging yourself on food and not holding back at the bar both fall under what Kant considered abuses of the means of the body’s natural avenues of nourishment, to the end of finding enjoyment in one’s senses. For Kant, seeking enjoyment in the senses is potentially a debasement of your identity as a rational subject – as a human being. But this is only a fraction of the picture. For, while Kant proposes that excessive eating lulls the senses into passivity, it is intoxicants that instead stimulate the imagination, and bring it into a state of what he calls ‘active play’. It is in this language of ‘active play’ that Kant’s philosophy of intoxication comes alive.

Kant describes interacting with artwork as engendering a ‘free play’ of understanding and imagination

Intoxicants, Kant tells us, overwhelm the commonplace function of the imagination. The imagination is temporarily launched into a state of uncontrolled activity, stimulated to such a degree that it appears the sensory faculties themselves are eventually overpowered. It is in this sense that one might understand Kant’s remarks that opium and brandy produce a ‘dreamed-of wellbeing that renders you quiet, reserved, and untalkative’. A more analytic description is given in Anthropology from a Practical Point of View, where Kant declares that ‘drunkenness is the unnatural state of one’s inability to classify your senses according to the laws of experience’. Intoxication, of any type, is thus the byproduct of an artificial unfettering of the imagination, a disturbance in the regular operations of conscious life sufficient to the eventual disruption and disordering of the senses. Information on the precise nature of how Kant understood the influence of wayward imagination on the senses leaves a lot to be desired, but what is clear, thanks to both Kant’s published works and the notes of his friend Johann Friedrich Vigilantius, is that intoxicants produce their effects through the imagination.

We can learn a lot about what this means for Kant by taking this peculiar language of ‘play’ in relation to the imagination and contrasting it with similar expressions that can be found elsewhere in his work. It happens that there is another circumstance in which Kant uses the language of play: aesthetic experience. Beautiful works of art serve as an avenue of experience that is, at once, directly sensory and deeply imaginative. Kant describes interacting with such pieces of artwork as engendering a ‘free play’ of understanding and imagination. This is important for Kant because it underscores the subject’s radical freedom – a prerequisite for moral choices.

What does this tell us about ‘active play’? Intoxication is an aesthetic experience, albeit not in the same way as ‘free play’. Much as engaging with beautiful works of art inspires us – stimulating the imagination – intoxicants jostle one’s cognitive powers. The crucial difference is that, unlike in the state of intoxication, works that Kant considers beautiful are imaginative, but restrained. To be beautiful, art must reflect an underlying rule, one given by the artist. Perhaps most importantly for Kant, art can be beautiful only if imagination is tempered by taste. In this way, the imaginative wiles of the intoxicated mind might, instead, be likened to the creative indulgences of an unrestrained artistic genius.

Foregoing trivialities such as taste, many artistic minds have, wilfully or wantonly, cast their lot wholly with the imagination. The results are not what Kant would consider beautiful, but they do embody the distinguishing quality of the artist: a uniquely empowered imagination. Intoxication likewise displaces the imagination from the humdrum of everydayness, spurring it to new heights. For Kant, this could mean that intoxicants temporarily open up the imagination to the kind of aesthetic experience generally reserved for great artists, even if only analogously. It is this aesthetic dimension of intoxication that is also the source of its pleasurable effects, which Kant himself identifies as a welcome reprieve from the stresses of civilised life.

The way forward in the sober light of day emerges out of the imaginative uncertainty of intoxication

This is not to say that Kant endorses drunkenness. Far from it: he holds overindulgence to be not only dangerous, but morally problematic. Drinking too much could easily compromise one’s abilities to behave as a rational subject. Further still, the type of aesthetic experience attained by the state of intoxication at best reflects an artist’s total surrender to the imagination. Just as such instances of imaginative abandon never result in great works of art, the aesthetic experience of intoxication – however powerful – lacks the edifying qualities Kant attributed to ‘the beautiful’. It is on this account that Kant advocates for a temperate glass of wine over vivacious spirits or opium.

As for why Kant understands intoxication in this way, we are left to rely on the account of his friends, associates and confidants, particularly his secretary and executor Ehregott Andreas Christoph Wasianski. According to Wasianski, Kant was a disciple of the Brunonian system of medicine. A dominant influence among the German Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Brunonian system, in the simplest possible terms, understands the vast majority of illnesses to be the product of a deficiency in vital power, and saw intoxicants, such as opium and spirits, to be the most potent of vital stimulants. The Brunonian approach to therapeutics thus relied on the principle that intoxication itself was the effect of the extraordinary stimulating properties of certain substances. Kant’s words appear consistent with Wasianki’s accreditation to the Brunonian system, and it further explains why Kant understood the underlying effects of opium and alcohol to be functionally identical.

The nature of Kant’s insights and concerns surrounding intoxicants may read peculiarly to modern audiences. Since Friedrich Sertürner’s discovery of morphine in the early 19th century, the number of intoxicating substances has expanded enormously, a far cry from Kant’s paltry determination between the merits of opium, wine or spirits. Shaped by the sciences of pharmacology, neuroscience and addiction, the common discourse surrounding intoxication is increasingly composed of references to neurotransmitters, receptors and synapses, rather than vital stimulants.

Yet, for all these differences, inebriation is as ever-present in our time as it was in Kant’s, and the Old Man of Königsberg may yet give modern audiences the opportunity to conceive of intoxication in a new way. For us, Kant’s idea of ‘active play’ is a call to reimagine something as commonplace as a beer between friends as not only disruptive and dangerous, but profound and transformative. Momentarily setting aside Kant’s moral concerns, even occasional incidences of exceptional intoxication are not without their power, giving flight to the imagination and making new possibilities visible. Great works of beautiful art, which Kant held in such high esteem, don’t merely come into existence. They are the precipitate of a long developmental process, one colourfully blotted with bouts of failed artistic experimentation. So, too, might it be said of intoxication, that the way forward in the sober light of day emerges, at least in part, out of the imaginative uncertainty of intoxication.

Different intoxicants have fallen in and out of favour, but intoxication has never left us. Efforts to disprove this sentiment – among them the temperance movement and the war on drugs – all failed spectacularly. If anything, Kant’s message for modern readers isn’t that we need to get serious about sobriety, but that we don’t take intoxication seriously enough.

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1 February 2023