In the course of preparing for my opening lecture on the Critique, which I shall deliver [and record] on August 29th, I have encountered a curious problem that may be of some interest to those of you who are serious students of early modern philosophy. In the philosophical world in which Kant came to intellectual maturity, there were two overlapping debates that had dominated the scene for more than a century, and much of Kant’s philosophical work can only be understood as an effort to arrive at a position midway between the two compering parties. The first of these debates was the metaphysical and scientific dispute between Leibniz and Newton, captured brilliantly in a series of five extended exchanges between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, a disciple of Newton. The second debate was the epistemological standoff between the rationalists – principally Descartes and Leibniz – and the empiricists – Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. The structure and organization of the Critique is a reflection of these two debates as Kant understood them and his effort to resolve them.
My problem is that three-quarters of a century of scholarship in the latter twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has made it clear that Kant’s view of the philosophical situation in which he found himself – a view widely shared at the time and for 150 years after his death – was in important ways wrong. Descartes, Leibniz, and Hume in particular have been the subject of deep and extensive reconsideration that has altered our contemporary understanding of their writings. Indeed, my own doctoral dissertation and the very first serious journal article I published were early contributions to that scholarship.
So, do I begin my lectures by explaining to my audience the philosophical situation as Kant understood it or the rather different view of things that all of this scholarship has provided to us? Clearly, I must choose one or the other if I am not completely to lose my audience before I have quite begun. I am making an enormous demand on those who attend the lectures or watch the videos by speaking at length and in detail about so difficult a book as the Critique. It would be intolerable to preface those lectures with five or ten hours of discussion about recent re-evaluations of Descartes or Leibniz or Locke or Hume.
Accordingly, I have decided to lay out Kant’s problematic as he saw it, not as we may think he ought to have seen it. I do hope I shall not be subjected to too much criticism by clued up viewers!