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A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes

A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes

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by Witold Gombrowicz

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In a small literary gem full of sardonic wit, brilliant insights, and provocative criticism Witold Gombrowicz discusses Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger in six "one-hour" essays—and addresses Marxism in a "fifteen-minute" piece.

"Who hasn't wished for a painless way to find out what the big shots of philosophy—Hegel and


In a small literary gem full of sardonic wit, brilliant insights, and provocative criticism Witold Gombrowicz discusses Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger in six "one-hour" essays—and addresses Marxism in a "fifteen-minute" piece.

"Who hasn't wished for a painless way to find out what the big shots of philosophy—Hegel and Kant, Nietzsche and Sartre—thought of the human condition? It has never been easy reading such formidable thinkers, and most explainers and textbooks either get it wrong or massacre the language. So imagine my pleasure in opening Witold Gombrowicz's Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, an exceptional effort at summarizing concepts in bold, declarative sentences. . . . [This book] is like the course in philosophy you wish you had taken."—David Lehman, Bloomberg News

"A must for every reader of Gombrowicz."—Denis Hollier, New York University

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Margellos World Republic of Letters Series
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.50(d)

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A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes

By Witold Gombrowicz

Yale University Press

Copyright © 1971 Rita Gombrowicz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12368-5

Chapter One

First Lesson

Sunday, April 27, 1969 Referendum

Kant 1724-1804

Beginning of modern thought.

One could also say that this is Descartes (beginning of the 17th century).

Descartes: a single important idea: absolute doubt.

Here rationalism begins: subject everything to absolute doubt, until the moment when reason forces us to accept an idea.

(Basis for the phenomenology of Husserl) -subject: thinking self -object: opera glasses-table -the idea of an object which forms in my consciousness.

Descartes reduces these three aspects of knowledge.

I am certain that this is in my consciousness but does not correspond to reality. For example, the centaur.

Systematic doubt. Puts the world in doubt, in parentheses:

1. the object.

2. everything involving the object.

The only certainty is that they exist in my consciousness.

In parentheses:

the idea of God; the sciences which relate toreality (supposedly objective): sociology, psychology, except for the abstract sciences; mathematics and logic, because they do not concern the outside world, but are laws for my own consciousness.

What is Descartes' great error, "deviation" (to use Husserl's term)? Descartes feared the terrifying consequences of his ideas. He tries to show the objective reality of God-and therefore of the world (as God's creation).

Descartes' fear is similar to that of Sartre. Because of it, all his later philosophy was distorted. For Descartes, the important thing is Discourse on the Method. TO ELIMINATE THE OBJECT: Descartes' great idea.

Philosophy begins to deal with consciousness as something fundamental. Imagine an absolute night, with a single object. If this object does not encounter a consciousness capable of sensing its existence, then it does not exist.

There is no individual consciousness, but consciousness in general.

(The brain's consciousness, etc.)

The dog.

Descartes, precursor of modern thought.


Berkeley (rural youth) Hume.


Newton, especially.


Kant is based on rational knowledge, organized scientifically. Influenced by Newton.

Works: Critique of Pure Reason; Critique of Practical Reason

Kant's big thing: Critique of Pure Reason.

It is not about a critique of pure reason; we want to judge our own consciousness. Consciousness judged by consciousness. Example: can we be sure of the existence of God through philosophical deduction?

Questions: to what extent can one be sure about consciousness? To what extent can consciousness be authentic?

Kant's reasoning in the Critique of Pure Reason, even expressed obscurely, is:

Everything that we know about the world is expressed in judgments.

For example, "I exist," and a conditional judgment, "If I kick Dominique, he'll kick me twice."

This is the connection of causality.

Judgments are analytical or synthetic.

Analytical judgments are those which derive from analysis, dissecting a whole into its significant parts. Kant says that analytical judgments add nothing to our knowledge because they underscore an element of their definition.

Example, the definition of man: living being, mammal, etc. Take the notion "living": "man is a living being." Why? Because there is decomposition. It is a concept drawn from another concept, in other words, an element drawn from the definition.

Synthetic judgments. A different approach: adding something. Therefore they enrich our knowledge of the world.

Synthetic judgments have no a priori value (a priori: independent of any experience).

Synthetic judgments are a posteriori, in other words, based on experience.

Example: water boils when it reaches a certain degree of heat.

Enrichment of our knowledge. New phenomenon in our understanding of the world.

A posteriori judgments are not always accurate. Example: there is no guarantee that water will begin to boil again on the 10,000th try.

Kant seeks precision. He grips reality. A solid mind.

Nevertheless, there are some synthetic judgments which are a priori, which add something to reality, but at the same time one is convinced of their infallibility. Newton's influence.

Example: the action is equivalent to the reaction.

From the moment that we discovered this, we are certain that it will always be that way.

Example: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Yet for Einstein, the shortest distance between two points is a curved line. But that does not change anything, because it is a different reality from that of Newton. If you accept all of Newton's premises, then Newton's laws are absolute in the context of his reality.

Some synthetic judgments are:

A priori-which increase our knowledge-and which are absolute and valid for all of humanity.

The whole problem of Kantian philosophy thus resides in a single question: how are a priori synthetic judgments possible?

Kant asks this question because such judgments, without being accidental or based on experience, nevertheless enrich our knowledge, without being accidental or based on experience. Synthetic -which provides an eternal novelty.

Kant proceeds with three analyses three sections of the Critique of Pure Reason.

But since the subject is reason, or organized knowledge, everything must be based on synthetic knowledge.

It is science which formulates synthetic, a priori judgments (that is, eternal).

First part: Transcendental Aesthetics.

(Transcendent means something outside of the self ).

Aesthetics used in the mathematical sense.

Mathematics: science of forms and relationships.

In this first part: How are synthetic a priori judgments possible in mathematics?

Second part: Transcendental Analytics.

We treat judgments in physics. Everything that we know about the subject of things (behavior, reactions). All that is the object of physics.

It is the science of things.

Third part: Transcendental Dialectics, where he deals with metaphysical problems such as that of the "existence of God."

With Kant begins the great reduction of thought, a process which lasts to the present day.

For the first time consciousness asks the question: What are the limits of consciousness (of reason)?

Kant's great coup. He had some stunning ideas that completely changed everything.

Question: How are a priori synthetic judgments possible?

Answer: A priori synthetic judgments are possible in general and therefore in transcendental aesthetics, because time and space are not a property of things but rather a property of the subject.

In order for something to exist for us, we must inject it with time and space.

And here Kantian reasoning is simple.

He says, "There are three reasons why space does not exist in the objective world outside us, but is an integral part of our consciousness."

First argument. Space does not come from an experience, but is the inevitable condition of all experience. Space is not an object but the condition of the existence of the object. Space does not derive from experience.

Second argument. Space is not a concept obtained by deduction. We cannot understand it as concrete, because it is not an object. Space is pure intuition. In other words, space is not a thing but the condition of a thing, because we possess it within ourselves.

Third argument (or rather, consequence). The intuition of space is the inevitable condition of our a priori synthetic judgments, conferring objective reality on things.

Without it, these are merely impressions (parallel to Descartes).

Example: geometry, resting on constructions in space, on figures, is not based on experience but valid because [sentence incomplete in the text].


We have demonstrated that Kant's a priori synthetic judgments are in fact analytical judgments.

This splendid construction collapses.

And Kant's idea of the categories of pure reason will collapse as well.

That is the fate of all philosophy. No system endures. Through philosophy, human consciousness in progress discovers itself for itself, as Hegel will say so magnificently.

-There is no point in asking whether one should do philosophy or not. We do philosophy because we must. It is inevitable. Our consciousness asks us questions and we must try to resolve them. Philosophy is a necessary thing.

What was the most profound vision of the world in the 18th century? One finds it in Kant, without whom it would be impossible to know the development of consciousness through the centuries. Philosophy is needed for a global view of culture. It is important for writers.

Philosophy allows us to organize culture, to introduce order, to find ourselves, and to attain intellectual confidence.

Second Lesson

Monday, April 28, 1969

Kant: The Categories

Two elements do not belong to external reality, but are injected by us into the object: space and time.

Space is not an object, but the condition for every possible object.

The reasoning is the same for time.

Time is not a thing that can be tested, but all things are in time.

One can very well imagine time without phenomena, but it is impossible to imagine a phenomenon without time.

Same argument for space.

One cannot imagine different time (like objects: table, chair). Time is always the same. It does not derive from our observation of the external world but is a direct intuition, an intuitive knowledge, that is, an immediate knowledge.

We need to add that time permits a priori synthetic judgments in arithmetic. The impressions that we have of the external world follow each other in succession; this is what arithmetic is about: 1-2-3-4. It is a sequence.

A priori synthetic judgments are confirmed in experience because they are carried out in time. In the same way, all judgments related to mathematics are a priori synthetic judgments, confirmed by experience.

Transcendental Analysis

Transcendental analysis takes the physical sciences as its object, since physics unites everything that we know about the world.

I repeat: Kant does not speak much about consciousness, but rather about pure reason.


Because it involves an organized, rational knowledge, which appears in science. Here we arrive at a very beautiful Kantian inspiration which resembles the Copernican revolution. Just as Copernicus immobilized the sun and made the earth move, Kant demonstrates that only the co-relativity of subject and object can form a reality. The object must be seized by consciousness in order to form reality in time and space. In physics (Newton), we have direct knowledge about a priori things.

Example, we can affirm forever (absolute) that all phenomena are subject to the law of causality and Newton's famous law that action equals reaction, for instance [sentence incomplete]. Once again: how can a priori synthetic judgments be possible in physics?

Kant's great coup: our knowledge pertaining to such things is expressed by judgments.

Kant took up the classification of judgments according to Aristotelian logic (which was valid in Kant's day). Aristotle's judgments can be classified by the following criteria:

1. Quantity. Example: individual judgments which relate to a single phenomenon. But if you make a judgment like: certain men are white, then you express a particular judgment.

One can also express as judgment that all men are mortal.

2. Quality. Affirmative judgments A. negative ones B. infinitive ones C.

(which lead to an infinite judgment: example, fish are not birds).

Kant's discovery consists in deducing-in eliciting-a category from each of these judgments.

Example: A. affirmative judgment: "You are French."

(category: UNITY).

B. particular judgment: "Certain men are mortal."

(category of MULTIPLE)

C. universal judgment: "All men are mortal."

(category of the set: TOTALITY).

Consciousness is the fundamental thing.

Object-subject: nothing more.

1. consciousness cannot be a mechanism, nor broken up into parts, because it has no parts. It is a whole.

2. consciousness cannot be conditioned by science. It is what permits science, but science cannot explain something to us about consciousness.

Consciousness is not the brain, nor the body, because I am conscious of my brain, but the brain cannot be conscious.

TAKE CARE not to imagine consciousness as an organism or an animal.

There is an important boundary between science and philosophy. Science establishes its methods, its laws by experience. But it is valid only in the world of phenomena. Science can give us the connection between things, but not direct knowledge about the essence of things.

In appearance, there is a contradiction, because if consciousness is the basic element, how can it have categories? How can one divide it like a scientifically analyzed mechanism?

Categories, judgments, cannot belong to consciousness.

In the Kantian corpus, consciousness judges itself. Kant's fundamental problem is: How is our knowledge of the world possible? It is precisely our consciousness that realizes the limits of our consciousness. Here one could imagine that one takes a step back to form another consciousness, which judges the first. In that case a third consciousness must judge the second one, etc. (Husserl).

But consciousness cannot be a judge. Consciousness (following Alain's definition) means knowing what one knows, and nothing more. Even this definition is bad, because it divides consciousness. Consciousness is indivisible and unconditional. To tell the truth, in philosophy, one cannot say anything.

What are Kant's categories?

Are these the conditions that make consciousness possible?

In Kant (as I see it) there is this process: consciousness is judged from a distance by another consciousness. It is merely a question of establishing what the conditions of this first consciousness are for the second.

It is only a matter of knowing what the indispensable conditions for this second consciousness are, in order that the first consciousness may be thought about without its elements. Consciousness is impossible for us to imagine.

Kantian categories are the condition for a subject to be conscious of an object. But these conditions cannot have an absolute sense. Categories seem to us like the condition for every judgment about reality.

It must be said (as with time) that the categories are within us. It is we who can capture reality by injecting categories.

Nothing has remained of Kant's fine theories, not even the most important category which comes from conditional judgment (hypothetical), for example:

if I ...

therefore I ...

did not stay.


Excerpted from A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes by Witold Gombrowicz Copyright © 1971 by Rita Gombrowicz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969) is the author of Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Cosmos, and Pornografia, the first three available from Yale University Press. These, along with his plays and his Diary, have been translated into more than thirty languages. Benjamin Ivry is an American writer on the arts, broadcaster, and translator.

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