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Wednesday, July 20, 2011


A Preface to My Readers

With this initial post, I begin what I conceive as a series of introductory suggestions for the study of Immanuel Kant's great work, the Critique of Pure Reason. These suggestions are in no way a substitute for the serious study of what is arguably the greatest work of philosophy ever written, but they may be of interest, or even of use, to readers of this blog, and it is with that hope that I offer them.

I imagine myself to be addressing three audiences. The first audience, undoubtedly small, if not the null set, consists of serious scholars and students of the philosophy of Kant who have long since engaged deeply with the text, but may find it enjoyable to hear the old songs sung once again -- scholars for whom the reading of these suggestions will be, in Kant's words from the end of the Preface of the First Edition, "a task which is rather an amusement than a labour." [A xxi. A word about citations. Kant published the Critique in 1781, and brought out a second edition very much revised in certain respects in 1787. Since the texts of both editions are essential to understanding his meaning, scholars have adopted the practice of referring to the first edition as the A edition and the second edition as the B edition. Many modern editions and translations, including the translation by Norman Kemp Smith to which I shall be referring, put the A and B pagination from the original editions in the margins so that one can immediately identify the page in the original first or second edition being translated. Thus, to choose one example at random, the Second Antinomy in the Transcendental Dialectic starts at A434=B462, which is to say page 434 in the First Edition and page 462 in the Second Edition.]

The second audience to whom I address these remarks is composed of those who have had some engagement with the philosophy of Kant but have, perhaps, read no more than selections from the Critique, if even that. They may have been intimidated by the famous difficulty of the text, but would like a gently paced introduction to its mysteries, perhaps in the hopes of some day tackling it. Judging from the comments to previous blog posts, I imagine there may be a number of readers who fall into this category.

Finally, I should like to think that these remarks will attract a number of readers who are completely innocent of any knowledge of Kant's thought but have heard him praised and would very much like to have some idea what all the fuss is about. My fondest wish is that there might be some of you who start in this third group and are encouraged, dare I say inspired, to advance to the second or even the first group.

Some reading suggestions: First, of course, if you have the time and the stomach for it, haul out your dog-eared copy of the Critique, or buy a new one in paper from The German is preferable, but I shall at all times be referring to the Kemp-Smith translation. [Do not waste time with the old Max Muller translation.] These "suggestions" will not in any way be a commentary on the text, nor will I assume that you have so much as looked at the book, but if you want a close commentary on, and explication of, the central portion of the Critique, I would of course recommend that you obtain a copy of my 1963 book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity. There is a vast library of commentaries on Kant's philosophy, and I certainly do not intend to spend time guiding you to my competitors, but if you are interested, you might look at Peter Strawson's The Bounds of Sense, which is by a philosopher who was important in his own right, and whose book offers a view of Kant's central arguments that is in certain ways the polar opposite of my own.

Four Sources of the Difficulty of the Critique

Contrary to popular opinion, the Critique is actually written in a clear and accessible style, unlike some works written by Germans considered his philosophical heirs [hem, hem.] But for four reasons, it is a very difficult book to master, and it might be useful for me to identify those reasons and say a few words about them.

First of all, the Critique is very much a work of professional philosophy, addressed to the relatively small world of serious students of the subject, and Kant uses the specialist vocabulary that was current in his day. In this respect, his work differs from that of Plato or Rousseau or even Hume, but is like that of Aristotle or Aquinas or Descartes. Contemporary readers would have found much of what Kant says familiar and comprehensible, but two hundred thirty years have passed since the First Edition burst upon the scene, and fashions change. So if we wish to engage with Kant's thought, we must, in the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert, "learn up all the germs of the transcendental terms."

The second problem is that Kant was a hypochondriac. Although he lived to be eighty [his dates are 1724-1804], Kant was beset by fears about his health. In the late 1770's, when he was in his fifties and hard at work simultaneously on an extraordinary array of fundamental philosophical problems, he grew fearful that he would not live long enough to get it all in paper. So in 1780-81, he rushed to "bring the Critique to completion," using lengthy chapters and passages that he had in some cases written a decade earlier. The first part of the Critique, for example, usually referred to as "The Aesthetic," contains entire segments taken word for word from the Inaugural Dissertation written in 1770 [more of that later], despite the fact that in the intervening time Kant had completely changed his position on almost all of the most basic questions of epistemology and metaphysics. The result is that the text of the First Edition [and also of the Second Edition] is replete with internal contradictions and incompatibilities. One must simply be aware of this fact in reading the text and make allowances for it.

[Brief digression: When I was a graduate student, we used to play a game that consisted in filling in the blanks in the following matrix: "I am now older than ___ was when he wrote ___." Bishop Berkeley was a real downer, having written the Principles at age twenty-one! Hume was not much better, inasmuch as he published the three volumes of the Treatise, arguably the greatest work of philosophy in the English language, when he was twenty-eight and twenty-nine. But we all held out hopes for Kant, who was fifty-seven when the Critique appeared, and good old Locke, who did not bring out the Essay until he was fifty-eight.]

The third problem in reading the Critique is The Architectonic. Kant was a compulsive, enormously imaginative systematizer, constantly thinking up elaborate schemata into which to fit the myriad of philosophical doctrines that he was unfolding. One can understand his need for these pigeonholes and hat racks, because he was attempting, simultaneously, to set out an integrated theory of just about everything: Epistemology, Metaphysics, Rational Theology, Logic, Mathematics, Ethics, Politics, Law, Art. The problem is that he was never satisfied with just one way of organizing things -- he had four or five, each of which he asserted with absolute confidence was the objective, necessary, indubitable, and only way of arranging his teachings. The Critique itself exhibits at least three different and incompatible principles of organization. What is more, Kant was so pleased with his Architectonic that he trumpeted its supposed completeness as a proof of its correctness. Here he is again in the Preface in A [Axiii]:

"In this enquiry I have made completeness my chief aim, and I venture to assert that there is not a single metaphysical problem which has not been solved, or for the solution of which the key has not been supplied. Pure reason is, indeed, so perfect a unity that if its principle were insufficient for the solution of even a single one of all the questions to which it itself gives birth we should have no alternative but to reject the principle, since we should then no longer be able to place implicit reliance upon it in dealing with any one of the other questions."

Now, "a place for everything and everything in its place" is not much of an argument for the fundamental principles of all knowledge, but Kant really seems to have placed great store by this claim, and so we must note it, and then just move on.

Finally, we come to the fourth and most difficult problem in reading the Critique: the sheer depth and difficulty of his most important philosophical arguments, and their incompatibility with the more superficial premises of the Architectonic. Early in his development of what eventually came to be called The Critical Philosophy, Kant worked out in his mind a grand bargain between Science and Ethics that allowed a place for both Newtonian Physics and the absolutely universal, objective, necessary First Principle of Morality, the Categorical Imperative. This bargain [if I may continue to speak in this manner] rested on certain theses about the nature of concepts and the limits of human knowledge, and also on a distinction, taken over from the ancient Greeks, between Appearance and Reality. Kant needed this bargain to demonstrate in the First Critique the cognitive validity of Euclidean Geometry [which was mathematics, to Kant] and Newtonian physics [which was science to just about everybody in those days], while also leaving room in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason for the demonstration of the validity of the principles of morality.

Had Kant simply stuck to his original plan, and laid things out in accordance with this grand bargain, he would be remembered as one of the greatest philosophers ever to live. But in the course of writing the central portion of the First Critique, Kant saw and struggled with certain very deep problems with the central theses and concepts of his grand bargain. Like Jacob, who wrestled all night with the Angel of the Lord and would not let him go until he blessed him, Kant wrestled with these problems, and emerged with a new understanding of the nature of consciousness, reason, and knowledge that for all time totally transformed all of Western philosophy.

But Kant was not a young man, he was frantic to get his entire magnificent vision on paper, and it was too late for him to throw out the entire grand bargain and reconsider it from the ground up. So once he resurfaced after his plunge into the depths of the problems [one thinks of Gandalf the Grey emerging from his battle with the Borlag and transformed into Gandalf the White], Kant reverted to the comforting neatness of The Architectonic and went on writing as though the old premises and understandings were still in place, unquestioned.

This fact poses a fundamental problem for the interpreter of The Critical Philosophy. One can simply take Kant at his word, and trot along beside him, repeating contradictory things as though they were compatible. Or, one can confront the profound reality of what is going on in the Critique and make a series of decisions about which parts of Kant's philosophy to embrace and which to scuttle. No matter what choices one makes, one will be untrue to Kant in some way or other, and critics will have no trouble quoting chapter and verse to demonstrate that one has misread Kant. This is the problem I confronted fifty years ago when, as a young man, I strove to wrestle with the Critique and make it yield up its secrets to me. Other commentators have made different choices, driven by their different philosophical concerns and convictions. It is a testament to the greatness of Kant's great work that it can sustain a number of incompatible strong readings, as the literary critics would put it.

So much for a clearing of the throat. Now let us begin.


Paulus said...

A great start! I'm one of those who, far from the U.S (I live in Halle (Saale)), read along using Google Reader and are not counted in your page views. The posts about Freud - the few I managed to read - were very interesting, but a guide to reading the First Critique is fascinating.

Tim said...

Wonderful! I will be following along. Thank you.

John S. Wilkins said...

I have never formally studied Kant, so this is the reading group I wish I could have had. I shall be reading closely as time permits.

Michael said...

My 27th birthday was this past Saturday. I guess that gives me a year to catch up with Hume. (Or at least to finish my dissertation.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Happy Birthday, Michael. Twenty-seven is a fine year in which to get a doctorate!

Anonymous said...

I am firmly in the third, "innocent" group that you address. I am deeply intrigued—the Prolegomena is on my ẗo read" list—and I already have a couple of questions.

[a] I do not read German, and I wonder why you recommend Kemp Smith but warn against Müller.

[b] Aside from the publication dates, what are the differences between the first and second editions?

Demo said...

Just discovered these posts after placing an order for your "Kant: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals: Text and Critical Essays" led me to think of your blog and wonder what your views are on the latest Republican-made crisis. What a pleasant surprise! I look forward to posting comments on the content as I work through it over the weekend.

Vielen Dank und schöne Grüße aus Tübingen!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

willkomen! und viele danke. [And that about exhausts my miserable grasp of the great German language.]

paulataua said...

I'm In Thailand and really enjoying your Kant lectures. Please keep them coming!