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German Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Kant by Allen W. Wood (Blackwell Great Minds: Blackwell Publishers) (Hardcover) The aim of this book is to introduce the philosophical thought of Immanuel Kant, especially to readers who are not yet familiar with it. Scholarly discussions and footnotes, therefore, have been kept to an absolute minimum. I have included some references to Kant's writings, but no more than I thought was minimally necessary to document my claims about what Kant says and enable the reader to look at the evidence in its proper context. The literature on Kant is vast, and much of it is of very high philosophical as well as scholarly quality. At the end of each chapter there are recommendations for further reading, aimed broadly at recommending the best books on the topics discussed in that chapter. They are in no sense bibliographies claiming to be complete or even particularly representative of the literature. The books I have re-commended are among those I think are best, but the recommendations are also biased toward recent literature, since bibliographies of older literature are readily available (for example, in Paul Guyer (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Kant; New York, 1992).

What is most remarkable about the philosophy of Kant, in my opinion, is the wide range of topics on which his thoughts repay careful study. In so many areas — not only in metaphysics but in natural science, history, morality, the critique of taste — he seems to have gone to the root of the matter, and at least raised for us the fundamental issues, whether or not we decide in the end that what he said about them is correct. In his brief, five-page essay on the question "What is Enlightenment?" for example, he locates the essence of enlightenment not in learning or the cultivation of our intellectual powers but in the courage and resolve to think for oneself, to emancipate oneself from tradition, prejudice, and every form of authority that offers us the comfort and security of letting someone else do our thinking for us. Kant's essay enables us to see that the issues raised by the challenge of the Enlightenment are still just as much with us as they were in the eighteenth century.

In a short book that attempts to cover the entire thought of such a wide-ranging philosopher, some things of importance are unavoidably omitted or slighted. Some things — notably, Kant's philosophy of naturalscience and his ethical outlook — are much more important to his philosophy than the space devoted to them in this book would suggest. About half of the following book (chapter 2 though chapter 5) deals with the Critique of Pure Reason — Kant's longest published work, also his most famous and arguably his greatest lasting contribution to philosophy. But I have also devoted proportionally more space to Kant's theoretical philosophy than I might have because I have already written about Kant's practical (or moral) philosophy extensively elsewhere, especially in Kant's Ethical Thought (New York, 1999). Some of the basic ideas in Kant's theory of the physical sciences are discussed in chapters 2 and 3, but a proper appreciation of Kant's philosophy would require a more extensive treatment than I can provide here of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786). Some new ideas about the relation of philosophy to physics, strikingly different from anything he had written previously, were also the focus of Kant's final, tentative thoughts in a fragmentary and incomplete work known (since early in the twentieth century) as the Opus Postumum. In this book I have hardly mentioned that final bold adventure in thinking on which Kant had embarked just before his mental powers were cruelly ravaged by old age and then silenced forever by death. For those who do want to explore this final phase of Kant's philosophical thinking, I recommend the books by Eckart Förster and Michael Friedman listed under "Further Reading" at the end of chapters 1 and 2 respectively.

The first chapter of this book is biographical. This way of beginning a book about a philosopher is, however, highly questionable, and calls for some discussion. I begin with Kant's life because someone studying Kant for the first time, especially someone who is a relative beginner to the study of philosophy itself, will probably have an initial curiosity about who he was and how he lived. This is perfectly understandable and healthy. Yet those who have studied philosophy and its history soon learn that familiarity with the character or personality of philosophers is seldom very helpful in understanding their contributions to philosophy. Kant's life is of authentic interest to those of us who study his philosophy because it helps us to understand his world, both intellectual and material, and the relatively immediate aims, personal or social, which may have influenced his thoughts. Knowing about this may help us to understand why he thought and said some of the things he did, and therefore aid us in interpreting his ideas. Beyond that, our interest in his life may be historical, or antiquarian, or it may be mere idle curiosity. But it has nothing at all to do with his philosophy.

Especially to be avoided is approaching Kant's life in a spirit of hero worship or hagiography — as though our interest in a philosopher's thoughts is, or ought to be, proportional to our admiration for the thinker as a human being. If there have been any true saints or heroes among important figures in the history of philosophy, we would do well entirely to ignore their heroism and saintliness in studying their philosophical thoughts. It is unhealthy and completely unphilosophical to venerate philosophers of the past as gurus at whose feet we should sit in order to absorb their wisdom. Such. an attitude toward any other person, whether living or dead, betrays a contemptible slavishness of mind that it is incompatible with doing philosophy at all. In holding this opinion, I am, incidentally, also being a good Kantian, since Kant regarded the practice of those who set up others as models for imitation as morally corrupt, tending sooner to produce either self-contempt or envy than virtue. But that is all the more reason to apply Kant's view on this matter to Kant himself. Even the view itself should be given no credit at all just because Kant held it, but should be held only because experience shows it to be true — and true even about Kant himself.

It is a sometimes uncomfortable fact that the philosophers of the past whose thoughts we study with most profit were not especially fine human beings. The only way to deal with this fact is to face up squarely to the cognitive dissonance it occasions and then to resolve to set it aside as irrelevant to anything that could be of legitimate interest in deciding which. philosophers to study. If a past philosopher, Kant for instance, was an admirable person, that still gives us no reason to study his philosophical thoughts if they were unoriginal or mediocre and do not repay our careful investigation and critical reflection. If the philosopher was a thoroughly unattractive character, or even if some of his opinions on morality or politics offend enlightened people today, it may still be true that his contributions to philosophy are indispensable to our understanding of philosophical problems and of the history of people's reflections on them. If we study the writings of the admirable philosopher in order to honor his virtuous character, then we are merely wasting time and effort that could have been better employed. By the same token, if we refuse to study the writings of the personally repulsive philosopher either because we think our neglect justly punishes him for his misdeeds or his evil opinions, or because we want to avoid being influenced by such a pernicious character, then all we accomplish by this foolish exercise in self-righteousness and closed-mindedness is to deprive ourselves of what we might have learned both from attaining to his insights and from exposing his errors. It is always sad to see philosophy students, and sometimes even professional philosophers, missing out on many things they might have learned on account of their moral or political approval or disapproval of the personality or opinions of some long-dead philosopher, who is far beyond their poor power to reward or punish. The only people we punish in this way are ourselves, and also those around us, or in the future, whom we might have influenced for the better if we had educated ourselves more wisely.

In Kant's case, I do not think that he was either a particularly admirable or a particularly unlikable human being. Rather, like most human beings, especially interesting ones, his character contained a rich mixture of attractive and unattractive traits. He was hard-working, patient, and utterly devoted to his work as a scientist, scholar, and philosopher, but he was also both shrewd and ambitious, never missing out on the personal advantages he gained through the professional success and prosperity he eventually achieved. He was a gregarious, sociable man, but sometimes quarreled with his friends and a number of his friendships came to an abrupt end. Though Kant believed above all in thinking for oneself, in his habits and lifestyle he seems at times to have been curiously open to the influence of certain friends — early in life, to Daniel Funk, later in life to Joseph Green. He had a fierce love of and search for truth and of independent thinking, but he could also be jealous of his reputation, and mean-spirited toward students or followers he thought had personally betrayed him. He was not always above the intellectual cliquishness and academic backbiting characteristic of his time (and of intellectuals and academics of any time). Kant was a partisan of liberal reforms in education and especially in religion. He was a proponent of republicanism in politics, and of the proposition that states should relinquish some of their sovereign independence to 'world-federation in the interests of international peace and the progressive development of the human species. He also uncompromisingly condemned European imperialism in other parts of the world, regarding all the pretended attempts of Europeans to 'liberate' or 'civilize' others as inherently unjust and hypocritical. But he also fully accepted and advocated the inferior status of women in society, and he held some views about non-European cultures and peoples that can be described only as racist. On the whole, Kant's was among the most progressive minds of his age in social and political matters. Yet some of his opinions on moral and political issues are either shocking or laughable to all enlightened people today. Rather than taking that as an occasion for venomous thoughts against Kant, we would be wiser to see it as a measure of the success of minds like his, philosophers who hoped they could promote better ways of thinking for the future, even if that might include the rejection of some of their own dearly held opinions. Whatever Kant's errors or vices, we would most definitely not be wrong in thinking of him as a philosopher for whom such hopes were an important spring of his own philosophical activity.

It is of course relevant to evaluating Kant's philosophy what his opinions were. But we are guaranteed to learn nothing from studying philosophy if we approach the writings of philosophers with the sole aim of trying to decide the extent to which the views expressed in them are in agreement with what we have decided beforehand that all people of good will must believe. If this is the only spirit in which you can read works in the history of philosophy, then both you and the world at large would be better off if you simply remained ignorant of the history of philosophy and did not put on a show of knowing anything about it.

The true measure of Kant's value as an object of study by philosophers is the richness of the thoughts we have when we make the attempt to understand and also critically evaluate what he wrote and thought, and to relate those thoughts and our critical reflections on them to the philosophical problems that still occupy us. By that measure, to those who know him Kant is among the greatest philosophers who ever lived, whatever sort of man he may have been, and whatever we may think of his opinions on topics we care about.

I will also admit that the boldness of Kant's insights and the power of his arguments sometimes awaken in me feelings of admiration toward him. If I have been successful in presenting Kant in this book, then my exposition may perhaps awaken such feelings toward him in my readers as well. Anticipating the possibility of such success, I therefore issue the following advice, drawn from my own experience: When I find myself beginning to read Kant, or any philosopher, in a spirit of veneration, then that's a sign that I should stop reading him for a while and choose instead the writings of some other great philosopher (Hume, say, or Hegel) regarding whom such exceedingly anti-philosophical sentiments are not presently sapping my critical powers and clouding my good judgment.

Kant und Swedenborg: Zugänge zu einem umstrittenen Verhältnis by Friedemann Herausgeber v. Stengel (Max Niemeyer Verlag) Kant as the leading representative of the philosophical enlightenment and the seer Swedenborg, regarded as the father of modern esotericism, would appear at first sight to be two diametrically opposed 18th century figures. At the same time, Swedenborg was one of the few authors to whom Kant dedicated a work of his own – the Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Since then, controversy has surrounded Swedenborg’s significance for Kant’s philosophical biography and the history of his works. In the present volume, philosophers, religious scholars, theologians and literary scholars from six countries present their – far from consensual – interpretations of the relationship between Kant’s critical philosophy and Swedenborg’s “visionary realism”.