A German philosopher of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) made significant contributions to the field of philosophy and has had a deep impact on ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and aesthetics. He remains one of the most influential figures in modern philosophy.
Henry Allison, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and at Boston University, is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Kant. Allison has written several books on Kant and Kantian themes and has edited and translated a number of Kant’s works into English. His Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (Yale University Press) is widely considered to be one of the most significant works in Kant scholarship.
Simply Charly: Your book, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense marked a turning point in Kant scholarship. What did you hope to accomplish with your own contribution to the advancement of Kant’s ideas?
Henry Allison: If, as you generously suggest, the initial publication of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism “marked a turning point in Kant scholarship,” it was because it attempted to rehabilitate the idealism, which, in my view, constitutes the core of Kant’s theoretical philosophy. At least in the Anglo-American, i.e., “analytic,” philosophical community, interest in Kant’s theoretical philosophy and, indeed, in the history of philosophy, had been in decline for much of the 20th century, being replaced by various forms of positivism and linguistically based philosophies, oriented either towards ordinary language (Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin) or logic and the natural sciences (Willard Van Orman Quine). In 1966, however, the distinguished Oxford philosopher, P. F. Strawson, reawakened interest in Kant with the publication of The Bounds of Sense, in which he defended certain claims of Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason regarding the structure of any experience that is recognizably ours. However, he dismissed the underlying idealism as an unintelligible metaphysical theory that affirms the unknowability of “real” things (Kant’s things in themselves) and relegates knowledge to the purely subjective realm of mental representations (Kant’s appearances). This proved to be influential because it showed analytical philosophers that there are viable arguments in Kant regarding the necessity of assuming regularities in experience, which can be used to counter certain forms of skepticism, and that these arguments do not rely on idealistic premises. In short, one can have one’s cake and eat it too. I look upon my contribution to the subject as helping to initiate the next stage in the dialectic by presenting a positive, textually based interpretation and defense of transcendental idealism, which attempts to show that it underlies Kant’s central arguments, and, therefore, cannot be pruned away, as Strawson and others contend.
Given the complexities of Kant’s idealism and the variety of interpretations in the literature, I’d like to point out that, rather than regarding it as a subjective idealism in the manner of Berkeley, according to which the objects of human cognition (appearances) are considered to be merely ideas in the mind and are contrasted with an unknowable and ontologically distinct domain of things in themselves—which was not only Strawson’s view but for a long time the standard picture—I argued that it is to be understood in epistemological terms as a theory about the conditions and scope of human cognition. Very roughly, the basic idea is that our knowledge is governed by two sets of a priori conditions: forms of sensibility (space and time) and pure concepts of the understanding or categories, which I call “epistemic conditions” because they are conditions of the cognitions of things rather than of their existence. In this view, sometimes referred to as the “two-aspect view” (in contrast to the “two-world” or “two-object view”) Kant’s transcendental idealism, which he insisted is also an empirical realism, maintains that the objects of human cognition are mind-independent entities, though we can cognize them only as they are given in sensible intuition, not as they may be in themselves apart from their relation to our forms of cognition. And while this view involves a number of philosophical difficulties, which have not gone unnoticed in the literature, and is not universally accepted even as a reading of Kant, I believe that it has helped to demystify Kant’s idealism. This was my major intent, thereby opening the way for a new approach to the doctrines in the Critique that are inseparably intertwined with it.
SC: Since its original publication in 1983, you’ve revised and expanded Kant’s Transcendental Idealism with an enlarged edition. You’ve also published several books on Kant since then. How has the world’s understanding of Kant changed in the past few decades?
HA: Although I do not believe that I am in a position to speak of “the world’s understanding of Kant,” I can say with some confidence that there appears to be a growing and widespread interest in Kant among philosophers in many parts of the world. As evidence for this, I cite three factors. First, recent years have seen the creation of several journals devoted specifically to the study of Kant and his influence. Previously, there had been the venerable journal Kant-Studien, founded at the end of the 19th century, but recent years have seen many new ones, including, but not limited to, The Kantian Review, Studi Kantiani, and Kant Yearbook. Second, many English-language books on Kant, including some of my own, have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese. Third, the last three sessions of the International Kant Congress in which I participated (Berlin 2000, Sao Paulo, 2005, and Pisa 20010) each had several hundred attendees from all parts of the world. Within the English-speaking portion of the world, however, the most important recent development has been the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, which has given Anglophone students of Kant access to a major portion of the Kantian corpus, which, in addition to his major writings, includes his extensive philosophical correspondence, a representative same sample of his lectures on ethics, logic, and metaphysics, (which Kant regularly delivered during his tenure as a professor at the University of Königsberg and which are preserved in students’ notes), and many of his most important notes or jottings, which shed important light on the development of Kant’s thought. The result has been an immediate and noticeable increase in the sophistication of Anglophone Kant scholarship, since authors, in most cases, can no longer get by referring merely to Kant’s best-known writings—the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomena for Kant’s theoretical philosophy, and the Critique of Practical Reason and the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals for his moral philosophy—but must demonstrate a comprehensive grasp of the corpus.
SC: Kant was raised in a religious background. What was his philosophical relationship with Christianity and other religions?
HA: Kant was raised in a pietistic household in Königsberg and educated at a pietistic school. Pietism was a form of Lutheranism that emphasized moral purity, personal devotion, and individual autonomy in the interpretation of the Bible rather than doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority, which had become features of official Lutheranism in Germany at the time. Although he cannot be said to have been deeply religious, vestiges of these features of Pietism can be found in Kant’s philosophical thought, particularly his emphasis on personal autonomy and the view that the essence of religion is morality, where they are combined with both a commitment to the Enlightenment’s subordination of faith to reason and his own deeper form of rationalism that is manifested in his three Critiques. In his writings in the 1750s and 60s, the young Kant developed a highly original and sophisticated speculative argument for the existence of God, which he later rejected. In addition, he lectured on rational theology throughout his career, replacing the rejected speculative argument to which he nonetheless retained a certain attachment, with a moral argument in which belief in the existence of God and an afterlife are regarded as necessary conditions of the attainment of the highest good (defined as the unity of virtue and happiness). He also formulated his famous critique of the traditional speculative arguments for the existence of God (the ontological, cosmological, and teleological) in the Critique of Pure Reason.
It was only late in his career (1792–93) that Kant published a work devoted specifically to religion, which he entitled Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. In it, he provided his famous definition of religion (subjectively considered) as “the recognition of all our duties as divine commands,” which, taken out of context, is easily misunderstood. The problem is that the expression “divine commands” in connection with duties suggests what is commonly referred to as a “divine command theory of morality.” This view holds that “divine commands” come from God, who has the power to punish whoever violates them, which gives binding force to these moral requirements. But Kant, who grounded morality in the autonomy of the rational will, intended precisely the opposite in his definition. Rather than claiming that something is obligatory only because God commanded it, Kant took it to mean that we should consider God as commanding it because it is recognized as intrinsically obligatory. This effectively makes reason, rather than God, the ground of moral obligation and regards duties being commanded by God as an indication of their holiness. In the body of this book, Kant provides what we today might regard as a rational reconstruction of traditional Christian doctrines such as original sin, the Atonement, and the Trinity, which, on the one hand, angered the more radical proponents of the Enlightenment in Berlin for its sympathetic treatment of what they regarded as discredited dogmas, while, on the other hand, drew the wrath of the conservative civil authorities in Prussia for its free-wheeling rationalistic treatment of these (and other) doctrines, which led to a royal decree in 1794 prohibiting Kant from further publications dealing with religion. In response, Kant defended his writings on the grounds that he was proceeding as a philosopher rather than a theologian (who would be bound to Church doctrine) but promised to acquiesce to the decree and not publish on religion in the future. But since the promise was made to King Frederick Wilhelm II, after the king’s death in 1797 Kant felt that he was no longer bound by his oath and published The Conflict of the Faculties, the first part of which contains a defense of his rationalistic approach to religion that is framed in terms of the relation between the philosophy and the theology faculties in the University.
An additional significant feature of Kant’s approach to religion, which bears on his views concerning the relationship between Christianity and other religions, and which he shared with other pre-eminent Enlightenment thinkers such as G. E. Lessing, is the embedding of his philosophy of religion in a philosophy of history. Kant viewed history as a teleological process in which humanity will be led after much conflict and virtually against its will (think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s being “forced to be free”) to the realization of an ethical community he characterized as “a kingdom of God on earth,” in which each member will respect the dignity and autonomy of everyone. Since Kant thought that this community must take the form of a church or “a people of God who recognize all duties as divine commands,” he gave an essential role to religion—and Christianity because of its moral core—as the vehicle through which this ideal condition can alone be realized. But for Kant, this task could not be accomplished by Christianity in its past or present form, since it combined a pure morality with an extraneous belief in a historical revelation, many doctrines with only a tenuous connection with morality, and a set of morally indifferent ceremonies such as baptism. Unlike more radical critics of traditional Christianity such as the deists, Kant, like Lessing, gave these elements—as a concession to human nature—a preparatory function as pre-conditions of a pure moral religion, but insisted that if the latter is to be attained, they must eventually be discarded.
SC: Kant’s work is reputed to have sparked the school of German Idealism. What does this school of philosophy entail?
HA: Since a useful answer to this question would require a lengthy essay, if not a book, I shall simply note that it is deeply misleading to characterize German idealism as a school. Rather, they were a group of philosophers, the most prominent of whom were J. G. Fichte, F.W. G. Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel, who at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries developed various aspects of Kant’s philosophy in more radical directions than Kant had intended. Where Kant had been content to offer dualities—for example, form and matter, sensibility and understanding, appearances in things in themselves—these thinkers (and several others who are generally associated with German idealism) attempted to overcome these dualities in the direction of a more monistic system than Kant provided. Apart from Kant, a major influence on these thinkers was Baruch Spinoza, whose work received renewed attention at the time. Readers who are interested in further information on the subject might wish to consult The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, edited by Karl Ameriks.
SC: Kant’s texts are notoriously difficult for new readers. Which of his works do you recommend to those looking to study his philosophy?
HA: Yes, Kant’s major works, namely, the three Critiques and the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, are quite difficult for the neophyte and, indeed, even for many with some training in philosophy. There are many reasons for this: Kant’s vocabulary, which contains many unfamiliar technical terms with various shades of meaning, such as “transcendental” and some familiar terms, like “intuition” [Anschauung], which Kant used in a way that is remote from our current understanding of the term; his complex, sometimes convoluted, manner of arguing, and, most of all, the sheer difficulty of the issues with which he dealt. Perhaps no one was more aware of this than Kant himself, who, though not a great stylist in an 18th-century manner, did write a number of “popular” essays, the most important of which is “An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?” Thus, I would recommend that the beginner starts with this brief essay. As far as access to Kant`s major works is concerned, the best introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason is the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that will be able to come forward as science, which Kant intended to fill this function. In the field of moral philosophy Kant’s foundational work is the above-mentioned Groundwork, which has the advantage of brevity, but, as is evident from the wildly diverse interpretations that it has received (including my own), is quite formidable. For this reason, I recommend that one begin with the essay “On the common saying: ‘That may be correct in theory, but is of no use in practice’.”
SC: Kant, who, by his own admission, was awoken from his “dogmatic slumbers” by the work of Scottish philosopher David Hume, criticized many of the ideas presented in his Treatise on Human Nature. What were some of these ideas he assailed?
HA: Although Kant was a critic of Hume, he was a deeply respectful one, as is evident from the famous statement in the Prolegomena that it was his recollection of David Hume that first interrupted his dogmatic slumber. As Kant describes the situation, this interruption or awakening consisted in making him aware of a problem that gave a totally new direction to his thought. The reference is to Hume’s analysis of the causal relation, that is, the nature of the connection between cause and effect. The relation is commonly regarded as a necessary one, meaning that if “a” is the cause of “b,” given “a,” “b” will necessarily follow. Hume, however, challenged the grounds for this necessity claim by denying that it could be either a matter of logic (since there is no contradiction in the thought that “a” is not followed by “b”) or established by appealing to experience (since experience can never establish a necessary connection). And after thus denying that claims of such a necessary connection have a rational grounding, Hume provided what he called a “skeptical solution,” by which he meant the proposition that the belief in a necessary connection between two objects or occurrences is the result of custom or habit. Although Kant rejected Hume’s solution on the grounds that it failed to do justice to the nature of causation, he credited him with inadvertently calling attention to a question on which the very possibility of metaphysics rests: How are synthetic judgments (those not based on the principle of contradiction) possible a priori (independently of experience)? According to Kant, this query arises inevitably from the natural extension of Hume’s question regarding the causal relation to other necessity claims, including those in mathematics, which, as Kant viewed it, were not based solely on the principle of contradiction, and in order to clarify the point he introduced the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, which neither Hume nor any previous philosophers had fully grasped. In sum, then, Hume was criticized by Kant for a failure to realize the full implications of his insight concerning the problematic nature of necessary connection, but also credited with calling attention to a question to which he devoted virtually the entirety of the Critique of Pure Reason to answer in its full breadth. I invite readers who are interested in a detailed account of the relation between the theoretical philosophy of Hume and Kant to consult my Custom and Reason in Hume: A Kantian Reading of the First Book of the Treatise (Oxford University Press, 2006, 2008).
SC: In addition to Hume, who were some other great philosophers whose works impacted Kant’s own?
HA: It is fair to say that all the “great philosophers” who preceded Kant had a significant impact on his work, both directly and indirectly, since having such an impact is a recognized criterion of philosophical greatness. This includes Plato and Aristotle, to whom Kant referred in the Critique of Pure Reason: the former, for his conception of an Idea, which Kant adopted in a modified form; the latter for his conception of categories, for which Kant attempted to provide a foundation in the nature of human reason. But though all preceding great philosophers had an impact on Kant’s thought, it is also the case that some had a greater impact than others. And among the moderns who had the greatest impact (in addition to Hume) were Gottfried von Leibniz, John Locke, and Rousseau. Indeed, with respect to Rousseau, who exerted a profound influence on Kant’s early work, it is said that when he received a copy of the newly published Émile in 1762, he refrained from his regular afternoon walk to begin reading it.
SC: Philosophy and science tended to blend quite a bit in Kant’s time. What contributions did Kant make to his generation’s understanding of science?
HA: Like all philosophers at the time, Kant was greatly influenced by Isaac Newton, and he attempted to integrate the basic principles of Newtonian physics into his “critical philosophy” in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786). During his career, but particularly in the early years (the 1750s and 1760s), Kant published some essays on various scientific topics, including the causes of earthquakes, the rotation of the earth, the nature of fire, and volcanoes on the moon. His major contribution to science, however, was his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), in which he formulated what has been termed the “nebular hypothesis,” according to which the origin of the solar system (indeed the physical universe) is explained as the result of the rotation of gaseous clouds (nebulae), which being flattened through the force of gravity eventually form the stars and planets. Kant described this work as an application of Newtonian principles to the question of the origin of the universe, and its significance stems from the fact that, unlike Newton, who found it necessary to appeal to God as the first cause, Kant explained its origin entirely in naturalistic terms. In this respect, he anticipated Pierre-Simon Laplace, who reportedly said to Napoleon at the end of the 18th century that he did not need that hypothesis.
SC: Kant once remarked: “From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned.” What did he mean by this? And would you ultimately describe Kant as an idealist or a cynic?
HA: This oft-quoted statement regarding human nature is contained in Kant’s 1874 essay “The Idea of Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim.” As in his other forays into the philosophy of history, most notably “Toward Perpetual Peace” (1795), his aim was to describe a teleological process through which humanity will be led by nature, particularly human nature, to a political goal: the establishment among nation states of republican constitutions, which ensure the greatest possible freedom of each under the law that is compatible with the freedom of all, which Kant viewed as a necessary condition of a cosmopolitan order that is capable of grounding a perpetual peace. As already noted (see my answer to question 3), Kant, unlike many Enlightenment thinkers, did not envision humankind arriving at this ideal state of affairs through its own enlightened self-interest, much less through purely moral considerations, but, as it were, in spite of itself. Once again, it is a matter of being forced to be free á la Rousseau. The citation in question must be seen in this context and, so considered, was a statement of Kant’s view that humankind is incapable of attaining this end merely through the use of reason. Since Kant thought it reasonable to think humankind would eventually attain this end, he can hardly be considered a cynic. In fact, since the cynic for Kant was one who thinks that such lofty goals are fine in theory but will never be achieved in practice, i.e.,—“the real world”—his philosophy of history can be seen as a sustained attack on cynicism. This may make him an idealist, but of a peculiar sort, since his idealism about what ought to be and its eventual attainability was combined with hard-headed realism about human nature.
SC: Beyond your own works, who are some other scholars working to expand Kant’s legacy today?
HA: Since, as already noted, Kant studies today are a burgeoning area of inquiry, there are many scholars doing important work from a variety of perspectives and encompassing the full range of Kant’s thought. But limiting ourselves to Anglophone scholarship, and setting aside those working primarily in specific areas of Kant’s thought, such as aesthetics, political theory, and the philosophy of religion, I think the main contributors can be divided into three groups: Those, like myself, who have written extensively across a broad spectrum of Kant’s thought, including both his theoretical and practical philosophy; those who have focused primarily on Kant’s theoretical philosophy, and those who work mainly on his practical philosophy. In the first group, I would place Karl Ameriks and Paul Guyer, in the second Béatrice Longuenesse; and in the third Barbara Herman, Onora O’Neill, and Allen Wood as the leading figures writing today. I also wish to point out, however, that there is an emerging new generation of Kant scholars, who have already done some important work and who promise to keep the field flourishing for the foreseeable future.