Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The Philosophical Situation as Kant Saw It

It is essential, in approaching any great philosophical work, to begin with a reasonably clear picture of the philosophical state of play as it was understood by the author at the time he or she was writing. All philosophy is written in a context of argument and debate into which the author seeks to insert himself or herself. Questions may appear urgent or unavoidable to the author that strike us, many centuries later, as marginal or even incomprehensible. What makes a work of philosophy great is that it seizes on this debate and wrests from it an entirely new and revolutionary insight.

I begin with this banal observation because Kant's conception of what was happening in late eighteenth century European philosophy is now widely thought to have been, in a number of respects, inaccurate or just wrong. But it was Kant's understanding of the theoretical situation, and his grand plan for a Critical Philosophy, at least initially, was entirely informed and guided by that understanding.

Briefly, the story is that for almost two centuries, a great debate had been taking place between Rationalists and Empiricists about a wide range of great questions, including the existence of God, the nature of space, time, and causation, whether reason or sensibility is the source of human knowledge, and the scope, limits, even the very possibility of such knowledge. The debate was launched by Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. The principal voices on the rationalist side of the debate were those of Descartes himself and Leibniz, together with such lesser figures as Christian Wolff, whose version of the rationalist position had a very great influence on Kant during his formative years. On the empiricist side the major figures were the great trio of British philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume [or as my old professor Henry Aiken used to like to refer to them, Locke, Stock, and Barrel.] The rationalists claimed that the distinguishing mark of genuine knowledge is certainty, that the faculty of reason is the source of knowledge, that sense perception is a faulty source of knowledge, yielding inadequate or even contradictory beliefs, and that by the proper use of reason we can in fact know the existence and nature of God and the fundamental laws of the physical universe, as well as the truths of mathematics. The empiricists claimed that all knowledge derives from sense perception, reason merely being a tool for comparing and rearranging the ideas we derive from the senses, that sense perception cannot give us knowledge of God, indeed, that it may even be unable to give us certain and indubitable knowledge of the causal relations of objects in space and time. Because of the accident of their nationalities, the debate was thought of as taking place between Continental Rationalists and British Empiricists. When I was a lad, Philosophy Departments in the United States routinely offered courses on Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism, as though the disputes between the two groups of thinkers were political and territorial rather than philosophical.

A great deal of fine scholarly work in the past half century has called this picture thoroughly into question [including my own work on Hume -- see my early paper, "Hume's Theory of Mental Activity," derived from my doctoral dissertation] , but Kant accepted it pretty much lock, stock, and barrel [I could not resist]. He referred to it as a contest between Dogmatism and Scepticism. As have said, his philosophical education at the provincial University of Konigsberg was grounded in Leibnizean rationalism, in the version advanced by Christian Wolff and taught to Kant by a Wolffian disciple, Martin Knutzen. Kant's earliest published writings are forays into the debate very much from a Leibnizean point of view.

As a young philosopher, Kant conceived a rather neat and facile way of representing the state of the debate between the Dogmatists and the Sceptics. [I apologize for going on at this length before even approaching the Critique -- I realize now that this purely introductory series of posts is going to run on a good deal longer than I had originally thought. Oh well, you are warned.] He conceived the dispute as having settled by the middle of the eighteenth century into what he called an Antinomy -- that is to say, a debate in which each side is adept at refuting the claims of its opponents, but unable to defend itself against its opponents' refutations. The customary way to analyze an antinomy of this sort is to identify some unacknowledged premise on which both sides are basing their arguments, and, after bringing it to light, showing it to be false, thus undermining the positions of both camps. Although by the time he published the Critique Kant had moved far beyond the terms of this debate, he never gave up his neat formulaic way of understanding the positions of his predecessors, and as readers already familiar with the text of the Critique are aware, there is a rich, complex one hundred page section of the work entitled "The Antinomy of Pure Reason," in the course of which he puts to rest many of the old disputes.

[A brief aside: There is a long tradition in philosophy of great thinkers misrepresenting the views of their predecessors for their own purposes. One need only look at the opening sections of Aristotle's Physics.]

Kant's entire life was spent in the port city of Konigsberg [now Kaliningrad], on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in what was then Prussia. After an early stint as a tutor to the sons of a Prussian Junker [one would like to have been a fly on that wall!], he secured a position as a privatdozent, or authorized lecturer, at the University of Konigsberg. His early writings gained him sufficient recognition to lead to at least one offer of a Professorship [of poetry!!] at another university, but Kant chose to remain in his home town, and in 1770, he was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. The formal ceremonies of installation called for the candidate to present a public lecture in Latin, an "Inaugural Dissertation," and Kant used the opportunity to lay before his audience a quite new doctrine designed to resolve the dispute between Rationalism and Empiricism. The Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, as it is always referred to, was the very first version of what would become, in the Critique, The Critical Philosophy.

Tomorrow: Kant's first bite at the apple.


Oyster Monkey said...

This is great. I am currently in the midst of re-reading the Critique and am glad I stumbled on to this blog today. I'm looking forward to the whole series.

Michael said...

This is fascinating, especially since my summer project was going to be to read through Hume's Essays (it's like a preview of what's coming next). Out of curiosity--since he's the philosopher mentioned of whom I know the least about--what Leibnizian ideas or texts would be most helpful to understanding Kant? Or can one just jump in?

Chris said...

A few months ago I tried reading the critique and set it down after reading 2/5. I simply couldn't proceed. I had just finished Capital soni thought I could tackle the world!

Anyway I just retarded the critique this week and am delighted it fortuitously lines up with your tutorial.

I had two questions that I think might be giving me serious trouble with the book.
First, what do you think of the JMD Meiklejohn translation?
Second, no matter how many times I rereading the opening to the transcendental aesthetic, I have no frigging clue what he means by "intuition"!


Chris said...

Restarted not retarded.
Sorry typing from cell in an airport

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I think the Kemp-Smith translation is much superior. And if you will wait several days, I will explain exactly what he means by intuition. That is one of those technical terms that his contemporary readers would have understood.

Michael said...

While I'm sure you will get to it, I'm a little unsure of what he means by Idea too (having just read "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View"). Am I over-thinking it because of the capitalization, or is it too jargon?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The essential thing to read by Leibniz is of course the Monadology.
Idea for Kant has a special meaning. It is for him a technical term. But that will take us a long time to get to. Oh God, this could run on forever!

Chris said...

Let it run forever!

Chris said...

I'm ordering a new copy by Kempth Smith, and looking forward to reading alongside this lecture.

Murfmensch said...

Did you ever deal with Kant's unfortunate Applied Anthropology? I tend to separate it from his epistemology and ethics. Robert Bernasconi argues that Locke and Kant were very important racist influences on future theories of race.

I only ask this b/c I imagine it came up while you were working in Philosophy and Black Studies.