Rose-tinted spectacles

Reading Kant’s first Critique provoked Heinrich von Kleist’s famous “Kant crisis”, because if he could only see things as they appeared to him, how could he know anything at all? This early example from a long line of misreadings (arguably including much of subsequent German philosophy) shows just how radical Kant’s critical system then appeared once grasped, even if in misapprehension. In my previous post I made the ex cathedra assertion that Kant was not an idealist, whereas Kant’s own term for his position was “transcendental idealism”. Such labels inevitably mislead if they give the impression that each one of the broad range of possible positions is monolithic, eliding the specific insight of all individual philosophers. Kant wrote a rebuttal of a review assimilating his position to that of Bishop Berkeley, which as I remember found its way into the second edition of the Critique. Nonetheless, Kant interpretations are manifold, and mine is based not on extrapolation (put more kindly, exploring the possible ramifications of the arguments in detail, especially when these are corrected to remedy some supposed error), but on a sense of the broad aims and context of the project as a whole. As the Introduction makes clear, Kant sought to keep reason’s feet on the ground, provide a firm foundation for the scientific method, and close the door to flights of speculation. In particular, most of the perennial questions of philosophy are dismissed as beyond our ken: free will versus determinism, whether the world is finite, the existence of God. However, Kant did not thereby intend to open the door to relativism or subjectivism — on the contrary, he sought to secure objectivity even without relying on epistemological access to things in themselves, and that tour de force was his “Copernican Revolution”. Though Kant’s epistemology stands or falls independently of whatever such concerns motivated it, they constitute strong circumstantial evidence if the interpretation of the philosophical arguments themselves is in doubt. For that reason, it seemed natural to allude to Arnold’s Dover Beach, even though the poem isn’t about epistemology.

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