Faculty Interview: Michael Stevenson on Kant’s Critical Philosophy

Awoken, he said, from his dogmatic slumbers by the empiricism of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, Immanuel Kant embarked in his late 50s on a multi-work project to explain and justify the power of the human understanding to perceive and establish scientific and moral truth. The resulting body of philosophy, called collectively Kant’s “critical philosophy,” constitutes an epochal contribution to the philosophical literature – one with which contemporary philosophers, thinkers, writers, and artists continue to contend. In advance of his September course Kant’s Critical Philosophy (which starts September 11th at the Workmen’s Circle), we sat down with BISR core faculty member Michael Stevenson to discuss the nature of Kant’s work, Kant’s “tragic” moral insight, the problem of free will, the political implications of Kant’s ethical thought, and Kant’s continued relevance in a modern, “scientistic” world.

In calling a particular portion of Kant’s philosophizing his “critical philosophy,” what do we mean? What issues compelled Kant to take a “critical” turn, and how exactly do the Critiques answer or address them?

The so-called “critical” period begins with the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, when Kant was 57. The project of “critique” for Kant is about evaluating the extent and limits of reason, of our human rational capacities, both in a theoretical and a practical sense. What can using reason alone really tell us about objective reality—or nature—and about how we ought to be leading our lives? Kant came to think that the “rationalist” tradition in western philosophy—to which he had devoted most of his prior career—was ultimately empty and illegitimate. It made grandiose claims about the existence and nature of god and his creation, about the human soul and the afterlife, without first proving that human reason is really capable of going beyond the senses and our everyday experience to discover such things, that is, the ultimate structure of reality that lies at the ground of that experience. But he didn’t want to draw the conclusion of a thoroughgoing empiricist like David Hume, either—namely, that we are just then stuck with the world that we experience as it is without any hope of uncovering a deeper explanation of why things are the way they are, or why we must act in certain ways toward each other. What Kant calls “transcendental philosophy” is an attempt to see just what a suitably humbled reason—one that has given up on the possibility of insight into the “supernatural,” into god and the soul—can nevertheless still tell us about how nature itself must be and about how we must in fact treat each other as human beings.   

Kant was concerned with establishing not only the scope and limits of scientific knowledge, but also the character of moral knowledge and the obligations that follow therefrom. What, for Kant, constitutes our moral understanding, and what kind of ethics does it entail?

Kant’s philosophical concerns were both theoretical and practical. He wanted to know what human reason could tell us both about the structure of the cosmos and about how we ought to be acting and living our lives. He said famously that two things filled his mind with equal admiration and awe: “The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” But as you get to know Kant it becomes obvious that his chief concern is really the moral one. When he says, also famously, that he had to “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”—that is, deny the grandiose claims I mentioned before which the rationalists wanted to make about supernatural reality—the explicit reason is because such claims are “the true source of all unbelief conflicting with morality.” In other words, it was the patent irrationality of such ways of accounting for the meaning of human existence—grounded for the most part in traditional (Christian) religious and theological conceptions—that tended to undercut the very idea of their being a meaning of existence at all. He was worried about a kind of amoral nihilism that threatened once the traditional religious conceptions were shown to be the fantasies they were.

What I think really characterizes the particularity of Kant’s ethical view is a fascinating and perhaps disturbing hypothesis; I think of it almost as a kind of “tragic” insight. Every other theory in the history of western moral thinking, from the ancient Greeks to the Utilitarians, begins with the assumption that being good is ultimately about being happy, that the project of being a good person is identical to the project of becoming a happy person. Kant sees this as yet another unfounded prejudice or self-serving delusion, and one that our experience of life in fact belies everyday. We may want happiness to line up with morality, for the good to be rewarded and the “bad” punished, but that doesn’t seem to be how things in fact usually work, and there is no rationally discernible guarantee that they will ever end up that way, in some final judgment or manifestation of divine justice. And yet, for Kant, human reason requires that we eschew any amoral nihilism such a tragic view may seem to imply, by insisting that we must nevertheless respect the dignity of other human beings as persons and thus as (the only possible) sources of values. What is ultimately the source of moral significance for Kant is not happiness or “optimized results” but rather respect for human dignity and personhood.

In a previous interview, you noted Rousseau’s influence on Kant’s conception of freedom. Free will is something of a puzzle in Kant. On the one hand, the freedom to choose is fundamental to moral responsibility; on the other, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant says that every event has a cause – that the universe, in other words, is determined. How, for Kant, is the tension resolved? Is his solution successful?

In many ways this is indeed the central tension that motivates (and besets) transcendental philosophy as a whole. Kant thinks of it as an apparent contradiction within human reason itself that must be reconciled, between its “theoretical” and “practical” uses. On the one hand we can use our reason for “theoretical” purposes, that is, in order to investigate nature, as we do in scientific inquiry. But science must assume that nature is a closed system of general laws, that is, that everything happens as the result of a natural causal process which is describable in terms of a general physical law, a mathematical equation, that does not admit of exception. To deny this is to count enance the possibility of miracles and return to an irrational, superstitious world-view. On the other hand, when we try to use reason “practically”, that is, in order to deliberate and figure out how to lead our lives, we realize that in order to ascribe responsibility for and thus moral relevance to an action, it can’t be the result of purely natural forces and physical laws.

Reason is as it were divided here; it gives us two seemingly inconsistent views on the world: the natural world-order that science gives us and the moral world-order that our demands for a just world require. Squaring these two things—the way things in fact are and the way they ought to be—and thus unifying or harmonizing reason with itself, is Kant’s main philosophical concern. And he gives multiple attempts to solve the problem throughout his career, some of which we’ll consider in class. If you ask me if I think he ever really manages to give a completely satisfying answer, I’d say no, but those attempts are for me among the most interesting and insightful ever made, and his near misses have given rise to whole schools of thought. As an example, Kant’s last attempt is to claim that we can unify nature and morality through aesthetic experience, which then becomes the basis of German Romanticism. As the poet Hölderlin wrote, “Truth and Goodness are sisters only in Beauty.” That’s a marvelous way to capture Kant’s mature philosophical view.

What sort of politics or political philosophy follows from Kant’s ethical views? Kant’s ideas are famously central to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which argues for a kind of egalitarian liberalism. Is liberalism Kant’s logical end point, or can the work underpin a more radical (or reactionary) politics?

I’m not sure there’s a single logical end point, politically speaking; and I think the richness and perhaps ambiguity or even malleability of his views in this regard are part of their appeal and interest. The emphasis in his moral theory on respect for human dignity, as I mentioned above, can certainly serve to underpin traditional liberal concerns like equality before the law and protection of human rights. Personally I like to see Kant rather as a part of the continued development of a tradition that begins with Rousseau and flows right through Marx up to the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School and beyond. I think what unites this strain of thought is a Rousseauian insistence on a divide between the human—and thus the rational and the social—on the one hand and the wholly natural on the other. This is reflected in Marx’s description of human “species-being” as consisting in the unique ability to transform and incorporate the objective world of nature into a human social world through free, conscious activity. The problem is that this division tends to get lost again;  human The common thread is a preoccupation with how social relations become misunderstood as wholly natural, fixed and unchangeable. And what sustains this ideological illusion is a certain diminishment of our rational capacities, or an “eclipse of reason”, as Horkheimer referred to it. When Horkheimer complains that in capitalist modernity, reason has sunk into “mere instrumentality,” thereby losing its original purpose, namely as “the power by which the meaning of all things is perceived,” I see this as essentially a Kantian lament.  Reason in a “disenchanted” age becomes restricted to the rationality of the engineer, entrepreneur and technician, or in Kant’s terms, the normativity of reason is wholly captured in mere “hypothetical imperatives”: If you want to harness these natural resources or make this smartphone, then this is the most efficient, cost-effective way. But reason’s ability to reflect on the purpose of this or where it leads, to ask “for whom and for what” (to borrow a phrase from Marcuse), becomes at the same time severely curtailed. For Kant, reason’s real purpose is just this; it is, again in Marcuse’s words, the “capacity to envisage another mode of human existence within reality,” to transform our social existence into a more human, and humane, world.  

Kant’s works are several hundred years old, and are famously (or, perhaps, infamously) dense, technical and difficult. Why should non-specialists – thoughtful people contending with the common problems of modern life – read and care about Kant?

To begin with, I think the main hurdle with reading Kant is terminological. Unlike say Hegel, Kant can be a remarkably clear writer once you get a handle on the jargon. With regard to his continued significance, Kant says at the end of the “Prolegomena” that he hopes at the least that his philosophy can serve to dissuade us from the “impudent assertions of materialism, naturalism, and fatalism.” I think now, even more so than in Kant’s time, there is an unfortunate polarizing pressure in our culture. One can feel they must either accept science and scientific materialism as the exclusive domain of intelligible and reasonable discourse, or else be pushed into irrational and dangerous fundamentalism. Kant’s philosophy can help us see that this is a false dichotomy. It is an attempt to be respectful of science and acknowledge its legitimacy without becoming “scientistic,” to recognize a rational discourse that can engage with humanistic concerns that extend beyond the narrow concerns of the natural sciences, about moral and aesthetic and “existential” issues regarding the meaning and purpose of human individual and collective life. Kant’s philosophy is an arch-humanism, and one of the most well-argued and appealing that the tradition has given us. So, for both those attracted to this and who feel it is missing and needed in our culture, and for those who think we need to precisely move beyond humanism into a post- or trans-humanist future, Kant needs contending with still.


If you want to learn more about this topic, please join us for Michael’s upcoming course, Kant: Metaphysics and Morality, which begins on Monday, September 10th at Goethe-Institut New York.

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