I am back from a bracing walk – it was 34° – and ready to
spend some time responding to a number of interesting comments on my blog post
concerning what I see as a fundamental incompatibility between Kant’s theory of
knowledge and his ethical theory. I will begin by repeating and expanding on my
account of how I approach a philosophical text, this time using as an example not
the Critique of Pure Reason but rather a contemporary text with which, I
imagine, many of you are familiar, namely A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.
What interests me about a philosophical text are not the
opinions of the author or the relationship of those opinions to the opinions of
other thinkers but rather a powerful and deep argument that I find in the text.
When I cannot find that sort of argument, I set the book aside as
uninteresting. I am not at all claiming that this is the only or the best way
to read a philosophical work. I am simply reporting that is the way I read one.
Almost always, when I grapple with a great work of philosophy or even one not
so great, I find that there is a great deal in the text that is ancillary to
the argument I am interested in and frequently even in conflict with it. For
the most part, I simply set aside those portions of the text as irrelevant to
my inquiry. Quite obviously my identification of what I consider an interesting
argument is subjective and personal and my view may not be shared by other
readers, many of whom of course may be far more accomplished scholars than I.
But that is what I do and when I have completed my investigation and have published
it, I simply hope that what I have to say will find readers who consider it
interesting or helpful.
A good example of this approach is my engagement with the
work of John Rawls as set forth in my book Understanding Rawls. Some of you may
be quite familiar with my take on Rawls and to you I apologize for repeating
myself but as Socrates replies to Callicles, who complains that Socrates is
talking about the same things over and over again, “yes, Callicles, and in the
same way too.”
Rawls began in the 1950s with a problem and a brilliant idea
for its solution. The problem was the seemingly endless and irresoluble conflict
between the two major schools of Anglo-American ethical theory, Utilitarianism
and Intuitionism. Rawls’ idea was to reach back to the social contract
tradition of political theory and marry it to the quite modern discipline of
Game Theory. He claimed in his early article, Justice As Fairness, that he
could prove, as a theorem, that a group of rationally self-interested
individuals situated roughly in the condition of those posited by social contract
theory would arrive at a unanimous agreement on two principles to regulate
their social interactions, and these principles Rawls described as the
principles of justice. It was, as I say, a brilliant idea which seemed to offer
the possibility of resolving the conflict between utilitarianism and
intuitionism while preserving what was appealing and powerful in each. Problems
with his first formulation, which undermined his claim to be able to prove the
theorem in Game Theory, led Rawls to introduce a number of revisions into his
theory, including most famously what he called the Veil of Ignorance.
By the time Rawls published A Theory of Justice the journal
article had ballooned into a 400 page book with seemingly a thousand words on
every page. Rawls had elaborate and interesting things to say about an
extraordinarily wide variety of subjects, all of which he attempted to hang on
or connect with or derive from his core idea.
I was not powerfully drawn to Rawls’s vision of a just
society – to put it as simply as I can, he had learned nothing from Marx. But I
thought his core idea was brilliant and fascinating and so I engaged with it,
ignoring all of the ancillary materials that stuffed his big book. (Not in my
commentary, but more recently, I have taken to describing the book as a slender
monograph wearing what in the film world is called a fat suit, but that, I am
afraid, is somewhat unkind.) I thought about Rawls’ central argument carefully
and came to the conclusion that, for a variety of technical reasons which
interested me, the argument did not work. And I demonstrated that in my book.
But that was not the way Rawls’ book was read by most of the very wide
readership which spanned a number of different disciplines. I did not care.
What interested me was the core argument, with which I engaged quite seriously,
and once I had demonstrated to my satisfaction that the argument simply did not
succeed in demonstrating what it sought to demonstrate, I published and stop
thinking about Rawls.
I do not by any stretch of the imagination mean to suggest
that Rawls and Kant occupy the same philosophical universe. But I approached
their work in the same way. It took me years to work through Kant’s arguments
and come to conclusions that I did. It only took me about three weeks to do the
same with the arguments of Rawls.
Now let me turn to the comments on my blog post. When I had finished my engagement with Kant’s
ethical theory and had published my thoughts in a book called The Autonomy of
Reason, it occurred to me that there was an irresoluble conflict between the
argument I had succeeded in finding in The Critique of Pure Reason and the
claims Kant was making in his ethical writings. I was fairly confident that
Kant himself had not seen this conflict, and I even had some idea why that
might be, but a conflict it clearly was and I articulated it in the rather
obscure article that I referenced in my blog post.
Now it is one thing for me to say that Rawls’ argument does
not work. I am not nearly as important a philosopher as Rawls but we inhabited
the same universe of late 20th century American philosophy. So it
is, one might say, a fair fight. But when I say the same thing about Kant, that
has somewhat the comic air of a flea crawling up the hind leg of a female
elephant and yelling” Rape!” Not only am I clear that Kant does not see the
problem that I claim to see. The major philosophical tendencies of the past 2 ½
centuries do not see it and instead find countlessly many other things of
interest in Kant’s great writings.
Let me get right to the central issue, which is whether two
noumenal agents can encounter one another in the field of experience. Clearly
Kant believes they can. That is not the issue. My question is whether it is
logically compatible with his central argument to say that they can. I take it
as not in dispute that Kant’s ethical theory requires that they can, because it
is as moral agents, as selves in themselves, so to speak, that they have
binding obligations to one another, obligations to tell the truth, to keep
their promises, to treat one another as ends always and not merely as means.
As I argue at length in my book, Kant’s Theory of Mental
Activity, and also in my nine part series of lectures posted on YouTube, one
can only make sense of the central argument of the Transcendental Deduction by
taking seriously the argument from the first edition in what is usually
referred to as the Subjective Deduction concerning the so-called threefold
synthesis of apprehension, reproduction, and recognition. And if one spells
that argument out precisely, it follows, as I explained in my original post,
that no Transcendental Ego can encounter another Transcendental Ego in the
field of experience. That was the point of my example about the creative
writing class in which the students write stories about the class.
One commentator noted that my interpretation of Kant made
his views incompatible with the modern understanding of the natural sciences as
a collective undertaking, and that is absolutely correct. Kant’s conception of
science is derived from the work of people like Newton. He has no idea
whatsoever of a group of researchers led by a principal researcher going into a
laboratory together, doing collaborative experimental investigations,
publishing them collectively, and interacting with other groups of researchers
to arrive at some advance in our scientific understanding of the universe. I do
not think the core argument of the Critique can be made compatible with such a
conception of scientific research, to which one can only say, so much the worse
for the Critique.
Well, I will stop there. Perhaps I can conclude with a little
story about Hannah Arendt which I have told before. Back when I was teaching at
Columbia, I gave a lecture attacking the views of John Stuart Mill. Arendt was
in the audience and came up afterward to say hello. She was pretty obviously
not thrilled with the talk but she politely asked me what I was working on and
I replied that I was writing a book on Kant’s ethical theory. She brightened
and said, “Ah, it is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant.”
I can only say that it has been more pleasant spending time
with Kant that obsessing about the results that will come in this evening.