The Primordial Gound

by Justin E. H. Smith


The piece that follows displays a number of the signature characteristics of the classic nineteenth-century genre known as mystification. We have an author who takes us winningly into his confidence as he discusses an intricate tale of old texts lost and recovered, all the while tipping his hand concerning the ambiguous status of the source material at issue. Kant in Sumatra? The Third Critique and the cosmologies of Melanesia? What is going on? Read on, and make of all of this what you will (or can!). But a quick thought: much philosophy (Justin E. H. Smith’s stock-in-trade), like most argumentative writing in history and every other branch of learned endeavor, seeks to compel assent — to leave the reader as little room as possible for thought-escape. To think well in such a textual ecology demands the cultivation of a capacity to find what we might think of as “worm holes” in the world of learned scholarship: loci that drop open into the infinite space of other possibilities. Sometimes such trapdoors can be opened in a footnote or paratext, or, as here, in a tiny textual emendation, through which we are encouraged to glimpse a thoroughly different fundamental ground for all experience. I am not a Geisterseher, Professor Skrastiņš assures Professor Smith — not a ghost-seer. But is that what we need to be if we are to see clearly through the heavy curtains of erudition?
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

The Origins of the Controversy

In April, 2016, I posted the following text (to all appearances a sort of research note), on my personal website:

Benno Guerrier von Klopp (1816–1903) was a Baltic German philologist, of French Huguenot origin, who studied at the University of Saint Petersburg and made most of his career as an academician ordinarius, while also spending a good portion of his later career at Jena. Klopp is remembered principally for his contributions to the study of Baltic and Slavic linguistics, not least his 1836 dissertation on the disappearance of the neuter gender in Middle Latvian, and his groundbreaking 1868 study of the morphosyntax of the Old Church Slavonic verbal prefix, vz-.

Significantly less well known is Klopp’s work on the development of the mature philosophical system of Immanuel Kant, a fellow Baltic German who may have been more familiar with the languages and customs of that region than other scholars have detected. In fact, if Klopp is correct, Kant’s first-hand ethnolinguistic researches extend well beyond the Baltic. While Klopp’s 1873 book, Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants, is not found in the Library of Congress, or even in the supposedly comprehensive online WorldCat, I have been able to locate a copy of it in at least one place: the library of the faculty of Baltistik at the University of Greifswald in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.1

Klopp dedicates the book to his fellow Baltic-studies specialists, and yet it is Sumatra, not Latvia or Lithuania or historical Yotvingia, that is the principal focus of his study. The author’s central argument runs as follows. As many readers will know, Immanuel Kant is widely thought to have been an inflexible, even compulsive man, who was so devoted to his daily schedule that he never once left his home city of Königsberg (indeed, he was reported to be sufficiently afraid of breaking into a sweat that at the first perceived sign of perspiration he would instantly freeze and stand motionless until the danger passed). Yet according to Klopp, between 1773 and 1778 (Kant’s so-called “silent years”, after the reading of Hume had awakened him from his “dogmatic slumbers”, but before he would change the history of philosophy forever with the appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781), the German philosopher in fact departed, on a whim, to the far ends of the earth, at the invitation of his friend, Captain Sixtus Korg, on a ship traveling to the East Indies. It was there, Klopp maintained, and more precisely on the island of Sumatra, that Kant had the experiences that eventually led to his “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. Which is to say, the “critical turn” of the First Critique, according to Klopp, is properly understood as a work of travel literature.

Klopp records that in May of 1777 Kant’s ship suffered heavy damages in a storm in the South China Sea, and was permitted to stay in harbor by the magnanimity of the Sultan of Aceh for a period of several months. While the captain and his crew saw to the ship’s repair, the on-board philosopher was permitted to travel inland and to learn something of the local languages and customs. “Just make sure you don’t stay in the sun too long”, a deckhand told him, Klopp reports, as he set off. “You’ll come back jumping and quaking with lâtah, you will.”2 Klopp maintains that it was a Batak elder of the Sumatran highlands who explained to the German philosopher that the highest aim of lajbâh, or contemplation, is not to seek after truth in the study of the bûjnah (or the natural world), but rather to investigate the bâjnyat (categories) of the gajbuh (understanding), which determine the boundaries and the character of our luhteh (experience).

These ethnographic insights did not begin in East Asia, however, but indeed were already in evidence in the earliest stages of the voyage. Chapter Two of Klopp’s work is entitled “Kants Tajmyraufenthalt in seinem Zusammenhang mit der Entstehung der Antinomie der reinen Vernunft” [“Kant’s sojourn on the Taimyr Peninsula in connection with the development of the antinomy of pure reason”]. Klopp writes that Kant spent the long and harsh winter of 1773-74, waiting with captain and crew for the ice along the Northeast passage to melt, among the Taimyr Pengyr. The Pengyr had been a small group of Paleo-Siberian reindeer herders who, according to Russian imperial sources, were completely exterminated by their Funno-Igric neighbors, the Samoyed, by sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Today, the Samoyed are called by the ethnonym “Nenets”, meaning “the people”, since their preferred self-description, “Saamid”, had been corrupted into Russian as “Samoyed”, and “Samoyed”, by some awful coincidence, just happens to mean, in Russian, “self-eater”. Earlier sources identify the Pengyr as “Snegoyeb”, evidently a deformation of the native designation “Isânäägoëb”, which, as in the case of “Samoyed”, generates a similar grievous instance of cross-linguistic contamination: the term translates in Russian, roughly, as “snowfucker”.

Kant left no notes from the Taimyr period, but, according to Klopp, Captain Korg kept extensive records of his conversations with the great Prussian philosopher, which Klopp dutifully recorded, giving us a rare glimpse of mundane conversation between these two men. Korg notes that in order to pass their time productively in the Pengyr settlement (to which harsh winter weather had already confined them for some months), Kant had begun to make forays into the Pengyrs’ world in order to inquire into the most fundamental elements of their belief system.

In mid-January of 1774, the ship’s crew was ordered to begin sleeping onshore, so that the vessel could undergo structural repairs to the hull. They were placed in makeshift reindeer-hide tents just next to the Pengyr winter settlement, and Kant and Korg shared a tent of their own. In early February, Korg notes in his journal, Kant returned one evening, after a day spent with the Pengyr, and announced that he had “the most remarkable antinomy” to relate to his new tentmate.

Decades earlier Korg had studied the chemical arts in the circle of Yakov Brius in Moscow, and at first he thought that the philosopher was trying to tell him that he had discovered antimony, which, given that they were separated from all of the earth’s elements by several feet of ice, the captain doubted greatly.3 “How could you have come across antimony in your idle conversations with the savages?” Korg asked. “Do they gnaw upon it for an afternoon collation, perhaps? Do they use molten antimony as a soup base?”

“Not antimony, Sixtus”, Kant replied. “Antinomy. Antimony is a silvery fusible metal. Antinomy is what happens when you’ve got two things that have to be true, but that can’t both be true together. I’ve happened upon a new antinomy. Do you want to hear it?” Korg had no idea what Kant was talking about, but didn’t have anything else to talk about either. They took turns reciting the opposing propositions that Kant had earlier written out on the inside back cover of his copy of Delisle’s Atlas Russicus, with the captain stating the thesis first, and the philosopher replying with the antithesis as though it were a punchline.4

Korg [thesis]: No body can remain forever different in its internal character from the bodies that surround it.
Kant [antithesis]: I’ve been freezing my hindquarters off for the past two months, yet here I am, calorifacient as ever.

“That’s a good one”, Korg laughed. “I like these antimonies”.
“Antinomies. Here’s another.”

Korg [thesis]: Every living body is nourished by sundry things, all of which are themselves obtained from living nature.
Kant [antithesis]: I’ve been eating nothing but salted whitefish ever since we arrived in this frozen wasteland.

Korg smiled faintly. “But what about the Pengyr?” he asked. “Did you learn any antimonies from them?” “Antinomies”, Kant corrected him again. “As a matter of fact I did. Are you ready?” “Nu davai”, Korg said in Russian, the language of his childhood, to which he reverted when he was happy. “Go ahead”. They reversed the order this time, with the philosopher reading out the thesis and the captain the antithesis.

Kant [thesis]: There are in the world causes through turguk.
Korg [antithesis]: There is no turguk, but all is näk.

“Turguk”, according to Klopp, was the Pengyr word for human agency, though it also translates as “wind”; while “näk” meant for them something like “nature”, or perhaps “fate”, or, in certain contexts, “weather”. This antinomy, then, was nothing less than the Pengyr version of the belief that human freedom is strictly incompatible with the determinism of nature. Klopp recorded that, at least as reflected in Korg’s account in his journal, the Pengyr would spend cold winter nights around the fire, as the elders debated the respective reasons for holding one or the other of these opposing views, and the young men listened and learned while the women pretended not to understand. Klopp speculated that it was in listening to these freewheeling fireside disputationes — which always ended with a ritualistic declaration by the eldest shaman of the words “Who cares?!” after which the entire community took part in a great communal orgy — that Kant first saw a glimpse of a possible critical overcoming of the dogmatic dead-ends of the philosophical tradition.

By the time of the Critique of Judgment of 1790, Kant was much less careful to conceal the riches of his circumnavigation of Eurasia. Thus he there relates a joke that he heard in an inn in Surat, in order to illustrate his definition of the structure of all jokes as “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” [die plötzliche Verwandlung einer gespannten Erwartung in nichts] (§53, 5: 333); he further describes the tattoos on the faces of Maori sailors (§16, 5: 230); and he recalls with disdain the rudimentary social organization of the “New Hollanders”, a generic name used to describe both the Australian aborigines as well as those we would today call “New Guinean” (§67, 5: 378). Significantly, by contrast, when Kant mentions the Iroquois (whom he would not have met on his voyage), he draws on Rousseau as the authority. Only when speaking of various Asian, Polynesian, and Melanesian peoples does he omit such citations. Why is this? Kant was, in these instances, according to Klopp, drawing on his first hand experience. In view of all this first-hand reportage, Klopp concluded his book marveling that the Third Critique, indeed Kant’s critical project as a whole, had never been read as a straightforward travelogue.


In late 2016, in the wake of the ignominious rise of Donald Trump, a man propelled on a vertiginous ascendancy by the sheer power of his mendacity and that of others, I promised myself I would stop writing about Kant’s circumnavigation of Eurasia. It had grown too confusing, too dangerous for my academic career, and too morally doubtful as an enterprise. After the great scandal earlier that year, when it was reported on the Luegner Report blog (a sort of industry standard-bearer and watchdog in Anglophone academic philosophy), that I had fabricated evidence of a journey taken by Immanuel Kant to the island of Sumatra in 1773, I learned that my scholarly community has no patience for even a hint of mischief. They all thought I was hoping to pass it off in earnest.

So I’m done with that, now, and in this new era, in which we are living out the consequences of “birtherism”, in which Alex Jones and others of the American president’s most faithful media servants enthusiastically help to propagate utter lies about chemtrails and the Illuminati, I really have no interest in revisiting those reckless stunts that I undertook in a past and more innocent age. My justification for them at the time, in as much as I can recall it across the trauma of the last US election cycle, was that I believed I was in some way retroactively creating a new reality through the spinning out of such a tale. By conjuring an alternative past, I thought, I was hoping to position my readers to see that history is only ever in the telling. In such a lesson, I hoped to convey something akin to a liberation of the spirit, the means to transcend the merely given. I imagined myself something like the great pseudohistoriador Jerónimo Román de la Higuera with his Falsos cronicones of 1594, which conjured an ancient Christian history for the Iberian peninsula (a history that it had previously lacked).5 When his invention was revealed, he was condemned by some; but many, in turn, held him up to have done something even greater than a true historian. He had not simply reported on the ancientness of Spanish Christianity. He had, some thought, made ancient Iberia Christian.

But of course he did no such thing, and he was never, in truth, anything more than a fake news channel for the Spanish Renaissance. What later crimes (of religious savagery and ethnic truculence) might be laid at his feet? I deleted every public trace of the whole Kant voyage nonsense over which I had control, and I repented.

And I would have no occasion to return again to my reckless stunt, had farce and reality not, once again, as they so often do, conspired in a convergence.

Again, I insist, let me be clear: I made the whole Sumatra voyage up. It was a total fabrication. You can therefore imagine my surprise when, just last week, I received a message from Professor Ivars Skrastiņš of the department of Baltic studies at Daugavpils University in Latvia with the dismaying subject heading, “KANT’S SUMATRA VOYAGE: A POSTSCRIPT”.

Naturally, I dreaded opening it. The whole foolish legend had gotten me into enough trouble already. But of course I could not not open it either. I am a sucker for this sort of stuff. Some people get drawn into Nigerian 419 scams; I get drawn into ruses of my very own invention.

I think that in order to avoid getting drawn in any more than necessary, the best thing for me to do here will be to simply relate to you the message in full, without editorial intervention or commentary. I convey it to you here exactly as Skrastiņš sent it (expurgating only the email addresses, at the insistence of The Public Domain Review’s legal counsel):

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Ivars Skrastins <i****** >
To: Justin Smith <j*******@* >
Date: Fri, 6 Nov 2016 16:01:27 +0200

Dear Professor Smith,

Are you aware of that passage of the Critique of Judgment, which Paul Guyer translates in his Cambridge edition of the work as follows?

For that the [things in themselves] cannot be inferred from [human understanding], hence that those propositions are certainly valid of objects insofar as our cognitive faculty, as sensibly conditioned, is concerned with objects of these senses, but are not valid of objects in general, is evident from the unremitting demand of reason to assume some sort of thing (the original ground) as existing absolutely necessarily.6

As you may know, Guyer provides the following footnote, signaling a correction to the phrase that occurs between parentheses toward the end of the citation:

urgund kant
This would seem an obvious editorial decision: the Riga typesetter had carelessly left out an r, generating a nonsense word, Urgund, that subsequent editors were obligated to correct. Urgrund brings together two semantic units: Ur-, which is a prefix meaning “original”, “fundamental”, or “primordial”; and Grund, which means “ground” or “foundation”. Urgund by contrast attaches the same prefix to a meaningless sound.

Or does it? I had long been perfectly satisfied with Guyer’s correction, until I happened to come across a curious facsimile edition, in a Riga antiquariat, of the copy of the first edition of the Kritik der Urtheilskraft in which none other than Thomas De Quincey had written his own marginal notes a few years prior to the publication of his 1827 essay, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant.7 I had hitherto been dismissive of this work, as it is more or less an uncredited paraphrase of Ehregott Wasianski’s vastly superior and more intimate work, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren, first published in 1804.8 But what struck me was a single morsel of marginalia right next to the word Urgund. In rough but unmistakable letters, De Quincey had written, in English: “Primordial Gound”.

What on earth, I thought, could this be about? Naturally, as a specialist in what the Germans call Baltistik, I immediately thought of Gūnd, the pagan god of fennel who is widely attested in inscriptions throughout the broader historical region of the Baltic tribes. Gūnd seems to have been invoked particularly at harvest time, and to have been associated with the fertility rituals that involved reciprocal beatings with bushy stalks of foeniculum vulgare by young couples who slip away at dusk amidst the high-festival chaos of the reaping season. According to Cornelius Popp’s Heidnische Ritualdynamik im Baltikum im hohen Mittelalter, Baltic ritual associated with fennel died out in most of Latvia and Lithuania by the late thirteenth century, but may have endured among at least a few isolated pockets of Yotvingians in the Königsberg region until the middle of the eighteenth century.9 We may at least speculate that Kant came into contact with some of these people during his physical-geographical surveys of the region, and that what he learned of the rituals in honor of Gūnd left a deep impression, perhaps subconscious, which resurfaced years later while writing the Third Critique.

Another possible explanation has to do with the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰōnd-, which may be related to the modern Latvian gārnis [“egret”], but is clearly well attested in both Hittite and Tocharian inscriptions as, variously, *ghond and *gand, and which denotes a sort of firebird or phoenix common to Indo-European legend, who lays giant eggs that are fertilized by the fire itself and have no other father than it. Some of these virgin-born eggs grow up into great warriors (mounted archers to be precise), while others are simply cooked by the fire, and then stolen away by moles and desmans and other lowly creatures to be gnawed down to the very yoke. There is of course something primordial about eggs, but beyond this it is hard to see how these could possibly have been on Kant’s mind during the composition of the Critique of Judgment.

My own preferred theory builds on the crucial work of Benno Klopp in his Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants, which you brought back to light in your own invaluable research, and which is the reason why I am contacting you today, Professor Smith. You see, after much serious inquiry and deep meditation I am now convinced that not only did Kant go to Sumatra: he went even further.

Let me explain. In George Bowman’s classic article, “When Is a Yam a Bat?” we learn quite a bit about the extremely unfamiliar classificatory system of the Mount Hagen peoples of inland New Guinea.10 Among other fundamental taxonomic categories (“grounding categories”, you might say), we are introduced to the concept of gound (alternatively, goundh or goumd), which establishes a basic identity relation between the following entities:

    The sweet potato
    The fruit bat
    Light (as it shines through the thatched walls of a hut)
    The nostrils
    An outrigger canoe
    A mother’s pregnant belly

I believe that Kant made it all the way to New Holland, and in his voyage he encountered these people. He endeavored to understand their concept of gound, and concluded (somewhat naively) that it must be something like the Anaximandrean apeiron, the storehouse of the multiplicity of diverse forms that come forth in this world — the fragmented glow that shines and breathes and spills out, as nature, from the dark unity behind it.

Consider again the passage from the Critique of Judgment, this time corrected back, so as to reverse the incorrect correction of the supposed typographical error:

For that the [things in themselves] cannot be inferred from [human understanding], hence that those propositions are certainly valid of objects insofar as our cognitive faculty, as sensibly conditioned, is concerned with objects of these senses, but are not valid of objects in general, is evident from the unremitting demand of reason to assume some sort of thing (the primordial Gound) as existing absolutely necessarily.

Please do not suppose I am some Geisterseher, Professor Smith. I know you’ve received plenty of messages from real lunatics, and I know you know how to tell the difference. I believed you about Sumatra, and now I’m asking you to believe me about the Gound. We think alike, you and me.

Yours truly,

Ivars Skrastiņš
Daugavpils, Latvia

* * *


The Luegner Report
May 3, 2016

Another Bizarre Tale from “Philosopher” Justin Smith
He’s at it again. The unhinged Justin E. H. Smith (Paris) is now trying to convince us that Immanuel Kant took a trip around Asia, going all the way to Sumatra, and that that’s where he got his idea for the Critique of Pure Reason. Nonsense! Everybody who’s taken even a single intro course in philosophy knows that Kant never left Königsberg in his entire life. Smith takes us all for a bunch of chumps! What an embarrassment to the profession.

Justin E. H. Smith is a philosopher and he lives in Paris.

1. Benno von Klopp, Die geheime Sumatrareise Immanuel Kants, Reval [Tallinn]: J. C. Böhtlingk, 1873.
2. See Robert L. Winzeler, Latah in Southeast Asia: The History and Ethnography of a Culture-Bound Syndrome, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
3. Yakov Brius (also known as Jacob Bruce, 1669-1735), was a Russian statesman and scientist. Like Kant, he was of Scottish ancestry. He conducted astronomical observations from the Sukharev Tower in Moscow. It was rumoured among Muscovites that Brius practiced black magic in the tower.
4. Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, Atlas Russicus – Russischer Atlas, welcher in einer General-Charte und neunzehn Spezial-Charten das gesamte Russische Reich… vorstellig macht, St. Petersburg, 1745.
5. See José Godoy Alcántara, Historia crítica de los falsos cronicones, Madrid: Imprenta y estereotipia de M. Rivadeneyra, 1868.
6. See Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. and tr. Paul Guyer, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
7. Thomas de Quincey, The Last Days of Immanuel Kant; and Other Writings, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1862.
8. Ehregott Wasianski, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis seines Charakters und seines häuslichen Lebens, Königsberg: Friedrich Nicolovius, 1804.
9. Cornelius Popp, Heidnische Ritualdynamik im Baltikum im hohen Mittelalter, Greifswald: Universitätspresse der Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Universität zu Greifswald, 2004.
10. George Bowman, “When Is a Yam a Bat?” American Ethnologist 24, 1 (1972): 73-96.

This essay is the sixth offering from our new Conjectures series, a venue meant to serve as a laboratory for experiments with historical form and method. The reader is asked to keep a live eye on these texts, which thread between past and present, between the imagination and the archive, between dreams and data. The Series Editor is D. Graham Burnett.

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