Supposing your dog has five puppies. That's an easy number to reckon. After all, there are five fingers on most people's hands. No problem with that. It's all there in front of you. Five tiny adorable puppies, all doing what puppies like to do most - making sure they look cute for the camera. What could be simpler? But think of it for a moment. Five. What exactly is five? Well, I hear you reply, "Five is just five. What else do you want it to be?" If that is your answer, then perhaps you should think a little bit longer, for once you start examining five, you begin to realise that five is one of a series of numbers that stretches from nought to infinity and that it presupposes this series as its background. Without that potentially infinite series, five would simply collapse; it simply wouldn't be there. "But why bother," you continue, "if it enables us to count our adorable puppies?" Well, that's fine. No-one's asking you to go any further, but all you will have at the end of the day is an empirical number isolated from the series which ultimately makes it intelligible. This series, without which five could not exist, is what Kant might have called, the transcendental ground or horizon of five.
Every empirical fact presupposes a transcendental ground or horizon. According to some people God is the transcendental ground or horizon of the world. To others, the transcendental ground or horizon of the world might be an infinite number of other worlds or simply this one stretching forwards and backwards to infinity. To yet others, the transcendental ground of the world might just be themselves, or the world might be nothing before an evil demon masturbates it into existence. In fact, there may be any number of possible transcendental grounds of the world. The transcendental horizons of empirical things do not necessarily entail ‘real’ things-in-themselves, as realists would have us believe, for we have no access to ‘real’ things-in-themselves beyond what we actually perceive. So there’s a lot of room for manoeuvre and for the imagination to worm its way in here. What I am trying to do is get you to think beyond the empirical, beyond the perspective of "things as they are", to quote Wallace Stevens. "Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar." Because, for Stevens, the blue guitar was his instrument for arriving at the transcendental ground or horizon of "things as they are".
It seems to me that the bane of English poetry is this inability to go beyond the empirical, that vase, this house, these trees and those birds. Things as they are. So what has happened to the blue guitar of their transcendental horizon? The idea at the other side of the thing as it is? Rilke put it this way, “We are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accumulate it in the great golden hive of the invisible.” From the visible to the invisible - or from the empirical to the transcendental, in which the empirical has undergone a complete transformation en route.
The idea of the transcendental in poetry, though obviously of great concern to poets is - or should be perhaps - of even greater concern to critics, because, above all, it concerns the content of poetry, what the poem is actually saying through the medium of words which often seem to conceal or deflect what it is saying and which it is a critic's job to unravel. (Amazing how many critics actually flunk this part of their job. God forbid that they should have to think beyond their narrow horizons!) Do not, however, confuse the "transcendental" with the "transcendent". Nor with some kind of "transcendent reality". For Kant, the transcendental is simply that aspect of cognition which involves the intelligible faculty as opposed to the sensible - or should I say sensuous, since "sensible" can mean rational as well. The sensuous and the intelligible fuse in poetry. They can do this through both the imagery and music of the poem, both of which are sensuous. Poets are 'whole organisms' responding physically to a physical world on one level and mentally to a mental world on another, the two aspects going simultaneously in tandem. Kant himself saw it in terms of a synthesis. His circumlocutions - aimed at other philosophers - were not designed to make things easy for outsiders, but the basic idea is simple, and we don't need to be familiar with philosophy as a discipline to understand it. Nor do we have to agree with Kant's idealist metaphysics to find something of value in his 'Transcendentalism'.
However, I must admit to having a sneaking suspicion that Kant's idea of the Transcendental was largely intellectual, and therefore primarily conscious. That the unconscious, as we now understand it, might form part of it was, of course, beyond his conceiving, since it was well before the discoveries of either Freud or Jung - to mention only the most obvious suspects. I suspect Kant would place art to its detriment in that category of synthesis which involves imagination rather than understanding, though, of course, it would still deserve to be called Transcendental. He made quite a clear distinction between these two types of synthesis. "By synthesis... I mean the act of putting different representations together, and of comprehending their manifoldness in one item of knowledge." Not long after, he elaborates on this, though his use the word "mere" in the context of "imagination" tends to suggest that he doesn't hold the imagination in too high a regard. "We shall see hereafter that synthesis in general is the mere result of the faculty of the imagination, a blind but indispensable function of the soul without which we would have no knowledge whatsoever, but of which we are scarcely even conscious." A little later, he continues, "To bring this synthesis to concepts is a function that belongs to the understanding and it is through this function that the understanding first supplies us with knowledge so called." So, according to Kant, the acquisition of knowledge takes place in the following two stages. 1) that of the imagination and 2) that of the understanding. Understanding is clearly the objective in all this, while imagination, although indispensable, is simply the stage which has to be passed through in order to reach understanding. This rather does tend to demote art, since it is clearly the imagination that is pre-eminent in artistic activity. It, of course, also suggests that mythopoeic thinking is inferior to rational philosophical or scientific thinking of the kind Kant himself engaged in. I don't know whether this means that, like Hegel, Kant believed that art was an activity which would eventually be superseded by philosophy. Thankfully, Kant was not too enamoured of dialectical thinking of that kind, so perhaps he's not guilty of that particular crime. What does seem to be certain is that Kant thinks that art is inferior to philosophy. But he was only able to arrive at this conclusion because he looked at the question exclusively from the limited and privileged point of view of the understanding. From the point of view of the imagination itself, it is obvious that art is vastly superior. It is clearly richer, more ambiguous and therefore more suggestive of multiple possibilities, while the concepts arrived at by the understanding, though much more definitive, are impoverished, univocal and rigidly circumscribed entities which, when all else is said and done, turn out to have no real life in them. Furthermore, the fact that the products of the imagination "are scarcely even conscious" means that they stand in a closer relation to the unconscious and absorb more of the latter's energy. In other words, they have a power to affect people in ways which no product of the understanding can possibly hope to achieve. It may be worth pointing out before we move on, that Kant also drew a distinction between productive imagination (transcendental) and reproductive imagination (empirical). However, that's not something we can deal with here.
In spite of all the negative aspects of Kant‘s transcendental philosophy, mainstream British philosophy still has to catch up with Kant's 'Copernican Revolution' in the field. It has remained firmly stuck in the empirical-analytical mould, assuming that anything outside of this mould is somehow meaningless. From this perspective, the idea that an infinite series of numbers is the transcendental ground of any one of them is meaningless, because an infinite series of anything - or indeed infinity itself - cannot fall within the scope of empirical experience and analysis therefrom. That is the limitation of the British analytical tradition. It is quite simply unambitious and boring compared to the continental tradition, and is so precisely because it is lacking in the other's larger horizons.
Jeremy Reed has noted something similar about English poetry, especially since the Second World War and the emergence of The Movement poets - Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis, John Wain and others. These poets trashed the idea of the imagination. Yeats, Rilke, Dylan Thomas and others somehow became persona non grata because the Romantic element in their poetry supposedly gave rise to fascism and Nazism and led directly to the gas-chambers. What we got instead was a poetry which was restricted to the empirical and the 'rational' - and other Augustan values. Furthermore, The Movement eschewed modernism and focussed on the purely English. Reed's own poetry is the very antithesis of this - as well as the antithesis of the work of later 'post-modernists' - such as Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, Blake Morrison, Tony Harrison, et al - who largely emanated from Academia. While little Englander poets like Larkin looked back to the work of Hardy, Reed was much more open to continental influences and recognised the much wider horizons of that tradition, going back through Rilke, Trakl, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Hölderlin - and also recent American poets like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. It is thus easy to see a parallel movement between English philosophy and poetry, both defined by their self-imposed limitations. This is not to say that there is not a much more interesting tradition, going back through Bunting, Hopkins and others, but it has hardly claimed centre-stage.
Of course, it would be idiotic to claim that there is a one to one relationship between a country's philosophical tradition and its poetic tradition, the imagination being a very different thing to the understanding. The imagination and the understanding may have some kind of knock-on effect on each other, but beyond that they exist in separate spheres. If an overlap exists, it is probably due to the pressure of wider cultural influences impacting on them simultaneously but independently. However, the question of why post-war English poetry developed in this insular way, immune to the most exciting developments which took place elsewhere, remains. I have tried to suggest that it has something to do with the poverty of its transcendental concerns and its blindness to wider horizons. Bearing in mind what Marx said about the ruling ideas of a society being the ideas of its ruling-class, I should add that this has nothing to do with being English as such, but everything to do with the way English culture has for so long served interests which feel threatened by larger horizons.