Kant on Tattoos

Immanuel Kant: Curmudgeon & loving it

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is one of my philosophical specialities and a personal favorite (yup, I admit it out loud), and in his Critique of the Power of Judgment he briefly speaks about the tattoos of the Maori. Now, as expected, he doesn’t approve of tattooing …. yes, once again Herr Kant sounds like an old fuddy-duddy whose conservative ignorance is showing through. I say this not only because Kant’s arguments in §16 of the work fail to be convincing or strong but more importantly, he is talking about something he has no experience of: Kant never went to New Zealand to see the Maori, in fact he never left his town of Königsberg, and he never got a tattoo. Tisk, tisk!

In §16, Kant describes two kinds of beauty: free and appendant. Free beauty is beauty according to form, that is without a definite concept to fall under. A great example of this is jazz improvisation, where the music flows without a given script. Kant includes foliage and flowers as free beauties. People, buildings, animals, etc., on the other hand, are all examples of appendant beauty because they are judged according to presupposed concepts of what they have to be (by definition, their purpose), and this concept includes the concept of each thing’s perfection. Next he adds, that it is inappropriate to combine the two: “A figure might be beautified with all manner of flourishes and light but regular lines, as is done by the New Zealanders with their tattooing, were we dealing with anything but the figure of a human being. And here is one whose rugged features might be softened and given a more pleasing aspect, only he has got to be a man, or is, perhaps, a warrior that has to have a warlike appearance.” But why is it inappropriate to add something of free beauty (a tattoo design) to something of adherent beauty (a person)? Is it morally bad? Aesthetically bad? Is it like using a Bedazzler on … anything (which I am sure Kant is glad he didn’t see in his lifetime)? He never provides, at least to my standards, a satisfactory answer and I am not the only one who feels this way. Tom Leddy feels the same confusion: “Perhaps Kant disapproves of tattoos because they permit a charm of sense to be linked with the human figure. In section 17 he refers to the human figure as the ideal of beauty. Could tattooing interfere with this ideal in some way? But remember that, for Kant, tattoos are in the same category as objects of pure beauty, and therefore are not mere matters of charms of sense, except insofar as they feature bright colors. Some tattoos have elaborate designs and thus meet Kant’s requirement for beauty quite well. They too can set the imagination and the understanding into free and harmonious play. Kant must, therefore, have thought that a tattoo somehow interferes with the expression of the moral which is characteristic of the ideal of the beautiful, and which he associates with the human body and its representation. He just never says how.” It would be interesting to see what Kant would have to say when looking at today’s tattooing techniques, colours, and styles, especially when compared to the textbook drawings of traditional Maori tattoos he was looking at. However, I think Kant would still feel the same way about tattoos since the act of tattooing is one of applying free beauty to something of adherent beauty, and no evolution in tattooing technique or colour can change that. And Kant being the anal retentive guy he was, and one who lived a life filled with maxims (yes, he practiced what he preached), he isn’t likely to have some hidden sweet ink of Rousseau under those britches. Damn!

Traditional Maori Body Tattoos

Traditional Maori Body Tattoos

A Riddle & A Forearm

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare. …….

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `that’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

Alice sighed wearily. `I think you might do something better with the time,’ she said, `than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.’

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , Ch. VII

Carroll provided no answer to this tea party riddle in the original 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and people have attempted ever since to answer it:   “Poe wrote on both”, “one is a rest for pens, the other a pest for wrens”, “The higher the fewer”, “One may communicate to the dead through either”, and “both have inky quills”.  Carroll eventually did respond to the demand for an answer, when in the 1896 preface to Alice he wrote “Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: ‘Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

I have been asked many, many times why I tattooed this riddle on my forearm. And I guess here I get to explain myself, providing a more thorough answer than simply my deep admiration for Lewis Carroll. First, I am a philosopher by trade and as one I spend a lot of my time attempting to solve riddles or paradoxes there are no answers to. For example, What is the meaning of life?, or What is Justice?, How can some thing change and yet be the same thing? or the Ship of Theseus paradox. Second, riddles like the raven and the writing desk require knowledge of what is essential to each and states of affairs. I study the realist phenomenology of Adolf Reinach, and that work focuses largely on essences (timeless, changeless entities; primordial source for all meaning and intelligibility) and states of affairs (a thing’s necessary, essential predicates). That’s all I am saying on that. If you want to know more, you can either search the internet, read my book or articles, or you can invite me to coffee and i can tell you more.

My favorite riddle done by Mac @ Nighthawk

My favorite riddle done by Mac @ Nighthawk

Must it mean something?

Through The Looking Glass

Humpty Dumpty: What does it all mean?

`Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,’ Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, `but tell me your name and your business.’

`My name is Alice, but –‘

`It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. `What does it mean?’

`Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

`Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: `my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.'”

—– Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass, Chapter VI,
Humpty Dumpty

It’s no secret, I LOVE Lewis Carroll’s writings. I loved the Alice books as a child, before I realized how philosophical they actually were. And what does Humpty Dumpty have to do with being tattooed? Well, anyone who has even one tattoo has probably been asked by another person, “what does it mean?” There seems to be an implication too that getting a tattoo means something, that it must signify some event, some special person, or some feeling. The TLC tattoo TV shows Miami Ink and LA Ink reinforce this notion since every client tells you during the tattoo or at the end of it, what it means to them. Granted, a tattoo isn’t always a word or words, but can be a symbol (a picture or design, etc.), so that makes it slightly different to what Humpty Dumpty is talking about with names. However, what is at stake whether it be a tattoo or a name is meaning. MUST a tattoo always mean something? Can someone get a tattoo “just for the hell of it” or because they simply like the design, nothing more? I think so, god knows I’ve done it. Haven’t you? Further, must a tattoo mean only one thing? But this seems to imply that a meaning is fixed and concrete. Since even words change meaning over time, geography, and with usage (example that comes to mind is the word ‘pimp’), I don’t think any or all meanings remain fixed, and I don’t think most meanings are singular or simple. And who makes things mean what they do? I could open the door to Wittgenstein here, talk of meanings and usage, but I’ll leave him on the step to sit. Does any given tattoo mean the same thing always? The short answer seems to be: no, not always. Those people with a list of ex-partner names down their arm or chest, many crossed out, could pipe in here as I am sure the significance of the name (and the feelings) have changed. And then there are those who remove or cover a tattoo, and not simply because it was done by an untalented artist.

I could try to say that the meaning a tattoo has is purely personal, but even that isn’t right. When displayed to the public arena, tattoos become interpreted, and how you are treated by the public results from such interpretations. For example, you might tattoo a pentagram on your forearm because you love The Sisters of Mercy, but someone else who sees it might think you’re a Wiccan or even (ignorantly) a Satanist. And if the meaning was purely personal, there wouldn’t be an issue with someone getting a swastika or some piece of hate propaganda on their forehead. (I know a few artists who would refuse to tattoo certain things like swastikas on people, because they know the meaning would end up tied to themselves. There is a tattooing ethics at work, but that is another day’s topic.) Even when the public interpretation conflicts with the personal one, I think the question remains: does a tattoo have to mean something, and in this case is there one meaning more correct than another? I want to say ‘No’ on all counts.

Returning to Mr. Humpty Dumpty:
“`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.'”

Humpty Dumpty’s position on meaning is this: words/names must mean something, and that meaning is what I make. Of course, with words that would make it hard to communicate with others since we have no guarantee everyone would arrive at the same meanings for the words needed to be used. However, with tattoos it looks to work better: what you put on your body is defined by the meaning you give it, and that personal meaning is far more important than what other people think. After all, you live in your body, and they do not. Now, if you are a person like me who thinks not every tattoo or thing must have meaning, then you push Humpty Dumpty off that wall for bringing this up, and you tell him you meant it.

Nietzsche on Megan Fox?

If Megan Fox had tattooed this on her side, no one would mistake it for something other than Nietzsche

A colleague of mine sent me this link a while back, not only because he knows about my tattoos, but he also knows i admire Nietzsche in many ways. I will admit at first i was surprised to hear Megan Fox had tattoos (9 to be exact), and even more surprised that it wasn’t something like lower back/ass crack tribal or a delicate flower on her ankle.  I was impressed too that a young hollywood actress would pick something so thought-provoking and insightful to put on her body …. how very non-Lindsay Lohan.  Now, i will mention that upon further inspection of the quote, I’m sorry to say it isn’t Nietzsche’s own.  The quote is credited originally to a Persian poet and philosopher named Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi) who wrote it in the 13th-Century.  Nietzsche admired the Persians, that is well-known, and quite a bit of his philosophy was inspired by their work. If Nietzsche used it, he borrowed it.  But I digress …..

Back to Megan Fox and the article. There was one line that did capture my eye:  “Her tattoo was fresh confirmation of his status”, and the article speaks to Nietzsche’s popularity in Hollywood.  The author contends that Nietzsche is the entertainment world’s favorite philosopher, as evidenced by mentions in films like Little Miss Sunshine, Good Will Hunting, Groundhog Day, and so on, and now this new appearance on Megan Fox’s body.  There are things the article mentions that made my eyes roll, such as a rumor about an incestuous relationship with his sister (yeah, right) and the horse kissing incident in Turin, but I won’t get into these as this posting will turn into a rant about the need to properly fact check and to not perpetuate false rumors about poor Nietzsche.  Too off topic for here.  After reading the article, once my eyes stopped rolling around, the first thing I thought of was:  what would Nietzsche think of the Hollywood attention?  What would he think about his words, or anything about him for that matter, being tattooed on a Hollywood hottie? Anyone who has studied Nietzsche would have some ideas as to his reaction — he’d be annoyed by it, maybe in the very least indifferent, but the simple truth is he wouldn’t be enjoying it.  The feeling I always got from Nietzsche was that he liked being a bit of an outcast, he smiled at being the ‘untimely man’ (his words).  The Übermensch is an individual who constantly self-creates, overcomes, and invents. This person creates new values and beliefs, and is one who lives away from the societal herd. The Übermensch is also not a fan of religion, since that inspires and preserves a herd of worshipers.  It always seemed pretty obvious to me that the Übermensch was Nietzsche’s way of coming to terms with his own situation, a bright mind in a failing body: the Übermensch is about intellectual powers and about overcoming the physical/material, things less substantial, and it has a tinge of self-justification when you read about its author and his ill health since childhood. Anyway …. It’s pretty much common knowledge that Nietzsche loudly objected to any form of herd mentality, and hollywood is all about following the popular trend of the day.  Sadly, tattoos are popular right now and even when the art is an individual choice, the act itself (including the acceptability of the act) is at this moment a product of the trend.  The fact that there have recently been TV shows (if you can call them ‘reality’) about tattooing, from Miami to LA to Vegas and a touring tattoo bus, demonstrates that tattooing is now a major part of pop culture.  So, even though Megan got a cool piece, a great quote that was said to be Nietzsche’s, she acted in accordance with the trendy hear on two counts — (1) she got a tattoo, and (2) Nietzsche is cool in Hollywood.  I can feel Nietzsche reaching for his big eraser, or in this case laser I guess, or maybe just that big hammer.

The second question that occurred to me dealt with the ‘fresh confirmation’ of Nietzsche’s status — what exactly are we confirming about Nietzsche’s status anyway?  Is anything worthwhile about him being confirmed?  If I am to gather this answer from the Fulford article, then I’d have to say the status consists of rumors and half-truths, and these things need no further discussion.  The rumor of kissing the horse is unsubstantiated, just as the one about a love affair with his sister (gagging, not only because she was a terrible person, but i cannot imagine him thinking of her in that way).  Most of the public believes he died from syphilis, supposedly contracted at a brothel or while working as a medic, none of which is true.  Nietzsche, according to recent study of his notes and his medical history, died from brain cancer.  The whole idea of Nietzsche’s madness being the result of syphilis can be sourced back to a posthumous anti-Nazis smear campaign lead by Wilhelm Lange-Eichbaum, an academic and vociferous critic.  Many intellectuals accepted it as a fact in order to discredit Nietzsche and smash his good name and philosophical credibility.  Now, here is the stupidity of it all:  Nietzsche was long dead by the time the Nazis arrived on the scene, and he would have grossly objected to their ideas and politics, but being that his writings are brilliant but open to interpretation, the Nazis propaganda machine took desired sections out of context and bent them for their own purposes.  Specifically, Nietzsche’s writings on Übermensch and Will to Power.  So, one could say Nietzsche suffered two smearings at the hands of intellectuals:  (1) by Germans seeking to make the Nazis propaganda sound intelligent (ohhh look,  it’s supported by a philosopher!) and (2) by post-war haters seeking to tear down anything that sounded Nazis (so, umm, why not attack Heidegger?). Okay, that went off topic but the question still remains: what are we confirming about Nietzsche?   It seems here, once again, what we confirm is that we don’t know shit about Nietzsche. What the general public ‘knows’, the public who uses him or his ideas in movies or articles, are things about him that aren’t true, aren’t fact, aren’t real. And, to make matters worse, Megan Fox’s tattoo seems to confirm that they don’t even know what he actually said. Maybe, like Socrates did, they should just confirm that they know nothing.  It might be safer, especially for Nietzsche.

Thanks, Hume.

Only a rebel Scotsman would prefer to rock a turban over a giant wig.

This being my first blog and all, i thought maybe i should explain some things. I have thought about blogging for a few years now, but I couldn’t think of anything to talk about that seemed at all worthwhile. Nor did I have the time really, i was busy trying to get a university job (still looking for that tenure track professorship), and plumping up my CV with publications, conferences, and other scholarly activities. I have a PhD in philosophy, my dissertation focused on an obscure figure named Adolf Reinach who died in 1917 at the age of 34. Most of my work for the past decade has been devoted to Reinach, to early German Phenomenology (1900 to 1917), and I also devote my time and efforts to the Austrian School of Philosophy (Bolzano, Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, etc.), and to history of philosophy (bacon to Nietzsche). My interests and work could be described as ontological based. And what I have found is a small circle of friends/colleagues who share my interests, which is wonderful, but everyone else in my life does not really get what i do, nor even want to understand what i do. In fact, I find that most people outside academia think that philosophy is simply an old ‘ivory tower’ study that, unless it has to do with ethics (medical, business, etc.) or critical thinking, has no bearing on the real world or could benefit their lives in any way. Now, as much as I will admit I do study some obscure things and people, I refuse to concede the point that absolutely none of it has any benefit to life outside university endeavors — all of it has bearing and benefit to life. Philosophy IS about life itself and the world around us. In philosophy you search for wisdom and truth, you ask the big questions, and when needed you accept the grey areas. And, FYI, before physics and natural sciences were considered branches of science they were branches of philosophy. Figures like Newton and Galileo are considered philosophers. Many famous mathematicians were philosophers — Pythagoras, Descartes, Leibniz, and Mach. Einstein hung out with Philosophers too. I have grown rather sick of this notion that philosophy is something divorced from real life, that the ideas of Aristotle, Plato, Hume or Kant have nothing to offer modern man. I have also grown tired of the idea that education ought ONLY to be pursued for a prospective job, and this includes the education system as just another consumer relationship. What happened to enlightenment and wisdom for their own sake and personal enrichment? Grrrrr …. Ok, I’m ranting now.

Now, the other thread to this story is that I have been getting tattooed since I was 17. I am now 32. For quite a while it felt like I had two lives: one outside and one inside academia. When I taught, my tattoos were under my professional clothes and I didn’t talk about them, in fact I thought they had nothing to do with my philosophical interests. But over the last year or so, I have noticed that in fact my tattoos have a large philosophical significance to me and what I once thought were two separate lives are really two sides of one coin. How very Schopenhauer of me (yup, I’m a super geek). I now no longer hide my tattoos when I am on campus or teach, I show what I want to and have an inner giggle when the old professors stair or look shocked. I guess this blog is one more way I reconcile my two halves, and I now get to talk about two topics that as of yet never really appeared together: tattooing and philosophy.

Now, one of the moments of enlightenment I had about philosophy and tattooing I can credit to David Hume. Yes, Hume woke me from my dogmatic slumber. How Kantian of me (i seem to be having a German Idealist day here). Specifically Hume’s counter example of the missing shade of blue, a favorite of mine. I was sitting in Wayne’s chair several months back for a touch up, and he asked me what colour of blue I would like to use in the background, and i answered without a second thought “Hume’s missing shade of blue”. Of course, Wayne gave me a slightly puzzled face and asked me what I was talking about. I explained it, its significance, and he seemed to enjoy the discussion (asking questions and even asking me for some further reading on it). I love the philosophy of Hume; I find it something that is very accessible, highly relevant, and fun (yes, i said fun). Hume was the ultimate shit disturber, and his skepticism still holds water. Now, when I mentioned Hume’s missing blue I immediately wondered if he would ever get a tattoo or had one hiding under those lovely garments. And, I bet you he would. Hume was a bit of a badass in his time, so I bet out of any of the ‘big wigs’ of his time Hume would be the one to have a little ink. Maybe, even coloured with some blue … missing blue. 😉 So, there you go, a great example of how philosophy is not only something everybody can discuss if given the opportunity, but also has some relevance to the world of tattooing. Now this is something worth talking about (and with a lot less ‘me talk’ in the future, since I hate being anywhere near self-absorbed sounding).

%d bloggers like this: