Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kant: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

To say the writings of Immanuel Kant are complicated stuff is a significant understatement. Known for a duty-bound existence, charismatic lectures, and changing the course of philosophy with his Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason, his moral categorical imperative, his thoughts on beauty and many other things, Kant is a force to be reckoned with. I have thus far been happy to avoid them but I had often felt a deficit in understanding from my second hand encounters. Thus the impetus for reading Scruton's primer. In short, it's good stuff. In longer I first must say that while I read every word (and re-read many of them), I cannot do much evaluative justice as I don’t have the background to assess if: a) he covered all the bases; b) he did so appropriately; and c) he gave the correct weighting to disagreements and other interpretations. It seemed so given that even an admirer of Kant, Scruton does criticize and specifically state there many interpretative disagreements, but I don’t know.
Metaphysics and morality are tricky topics, let alone when the writings are hundreds of years old in a different language containing many terms invented or redefined by the author making the argument. Who doesn't love philosophy?
Here is the example sentence that overtly displays why people don't read this stuff (and this is Scruton's helpful summary): "[Transcendental Idealism] implies that the laws of the understanding, laid down in the subjective deduction, are the same as the a priori truths established in the objective deduction.”
Obscure? Yes. Obstuse? I don’t think so. Yet… so much new stuff is hard to assimilate without repeated references to previously defined words and phrases.
At least it seems Kant and I are interested in same questions: What can you know and how can you know it? What is a self, how might selves act in the world? Do we have freedom or must we just act as if we do?
Morally, shouldn’t we try to have a universal perspective that should appeal to all rational beings? Who deserves more credit: The person who is naturally inclined to be ‘moral’ or the one who has to struggle to do so?  As well, how are we to describe and analyze the different selves within us, given the frequent occurrences of part of us desiring something while another part or self imposes our duty to restrain?
That said, much of Kant's writing appears to rest on many assumptions about how the mind works and even hopes of how the world might be. Thus he can slip God in there and some morality and freedom. That said, one must give him credit for trying to use reason regarding religion and eschewing any anthropomorphization or simplistic following of dogma. That Kant highly valued the aesethetic is interesting, but how he supposes much of experience can occur without concepts is muddy. What is doing the thinking?  I often think of what great minds of the past would think if they had the current information provided by the modern scientific method.
Once again, I’m dependent on Scruton’s interpretation but I found a passage of his near the end helpful:
“There is no description of the world that can free itself from the reference to experience. Although the world that we know is not our creation, nor merely a synopsis of our perspective, it cannot be known except from the point of view which is ours. All attempts to break through the limits imposed by experience end in self-contradiction, and although we may have intimations of a ‘transcendental’ knowledge, that knowledge can never be ours. These intimations are confined to moral life and aesthetic experience, and while they tell us, in a sense, what we really are, they can be translated into words only to speak unintelligibly. Philosophy, which describes the limits of knowledge, is always tempted to transcend them.”
Happily, I am more informed about the work of Immanuel Kant. Happier still, I feel no compunction (duty even) to go through hours of mental and emotional strain to read the Critiques. For both those reasons, this was a great book.


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