Book Review: Kant & the Early Moderns

June 01, 2009

Book Review: Kant & the Early Moderns

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) created a paradigm shift in both science and theology. His theory that the mind plays an active role in constructing objective experience created a ‘Copernican revolution’ in epistemology by placing the human subject at the centre of epistemological inquiry. Kant’s work also represented a watershed in theology and apologetics. He famously asserted that while we cannot objectively demonstrate God’s existence, the idea of God is inseparably connected with the ideals of happiness, morality and the ‘supreme good’. He thus laid the foundations for a ‘natural religion’ based on reason and morality, which was the basis for the Liberal Theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Kant and the Early Moderns investigates the relationship of Kant’s epistemology to that of five of his early- modern forebears: Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley and Hume. The book consists of five pairs of essays by an impressive array of American and European scholars. In the first essay of each pair, a Kant scholar explains Kant’s view of his relationship with his early- modern predecessor. In the second essay, a specialist in that predecessor lays out that person’s philosophy and critiques Kant’s understanding and appropriation of  them.

Such work is necessary because Kant’s own interpretation, appropriation, and critique of his predecessors was consciously driven by his own system. Kant intended his transcendental idealism to be a grand united theory of everything, including the history of metaphysics itself. Kant’s system had to not only explain the possibilities and limitations of the metaphysical systems of the recent past, it had to explain how they prepared the way for his own, ultimate system. In one sense, such an assertion is commonplace. Of course a philosopher is going to assert the rightness of his own system, and critique everyone from within it. But Kant has so influenced philosophical thought that our current understanding of his predecessors may owe more to Kant’s reconstruction of them than the philosophers themselves. This book thus represents a search for the historical Kant, and a historical Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley and Hume.

The book demonstrates that Kant generally did not appreciate the depth and complexity of his predecessors’ thoughts. And in under-appreciating the achievements of his predecessors, he claimed too much for his own system. Jean-Marie Beysade (Ch. II) argues that Anja Jauernig (Ch. III) argues that Kant saw himself as recovering and defending Leibniz’s true philosophy against a Leibniz-Wolffian interpretative school, Daniel Garber (Ch. IV) replies that Kant could not possibly have properly interpreted Leibniz, because the texts that are now considered essential for interpreting Leibniz were published long after Kant’s death. Don Garrett (Ch. X) asserts that Kant misunderstood Hume’s famous scepticism concerning our ability to establish causality. Hume’s point, says Garrett, was that causal relations are subjectively necessary but not absolutely demonstrable because we cannot conflate subjectively observed causal relations with the absolute idea of causation.

However, this book still left me with the overall impression that Kant made a genuine advance on his predecessors’ thought. Kant either fills gaps in his predecessors’ systems, or expresses concepts that his predecessors’ systems could also express, but in a manner which I find clearer and more compelling. Beatrice  Longuenesse  (Ch. I) argues that Kant’s understanding of the role Descartes’ reasoning is nuanced whereas Kant reduces it to mere syllogisms. 

Of the metaphysical systems surveyed in this volume, I think Kant still provides the best explanation for the experience of human knowing—if we assume that human beings are essentially theologically agnostic, individualised, rationalistic units, who seek indubitable knowledge.

Such are modernity’s basic anthropological and epistemological assumptions. This volume does not deal with any of them explicitly,  least  of all questions of theology. Indeed, Longuenesse explicitly avoids discussing Kant’s critique of Descartes’ proof of God’s existence (p9). Nevertheless, theological questions do occasionally surface. We sometimes see the piety of the philosophers who saw no conflict between faith and reason. Leibniz viewed God as the most real and only independent entity in the universe (p218 n32). Locke praised the excellent ways of our creator, even though he has limited the boundaries of our sense perception (pp 89, 111). But more often, Christianity is presented in a negative manner. Kant criticised Locke for being inconsistent in conceiving of God, a non-sensible object, through concepts drawn entirely from the senses (p81). Lisa Downing records how Leibniz criticised Locke, when the latter ascribed the attractional power of gravity to God, as ‘threaten[ing] the hard-won advances of the new science by advocating a return to occult and inexplicable qualities’ (p111). Of Kant’s five predecessors, the one whose philosophy is presented as methodologically most suspect is Berkeley, a Bishop of the Church of England, who wrote extensively against agnosticism. Kenneth Winkler states that he initially found Kant’s comments on Berkley to be ‘dismayingly off the mark’ (p  142).

Kant was mistaken to interpret Berkley as asserting that objects are illusory: Berkley did not hold themto be illusory, but temporary and changeable,  therefore inferior to unchangeable ideals. Nevertheless, Winkler confesses, after deeper reading he realised that Kant was ‘in many respects profoundly right’ (p 142) to characterise Berkeley as being, to use Plato’s parable, on the side of the ‘gods’ of idealism, while Kant himself was on the side of the ‘giants’ of materialism.

This illustrates a basic problem with modernity in general, and Kant in particular: this assumption that humans are essentially theologically  agnostic,  and that epistemological questions are theologically neutral, is itself a theological statement. It assumes human beings are able to know God without knowing God. It gave rise, in the 19th century, to Liberal Theology, which rejected beliefs—such as the virgin birth, Jesus’ essential deity, the Trinity, the priority of God in the atonement, and the physical resurrection—that were ‘dogmatic’ and ‘supernatural’, therefore ‘unprovable’ and ‘irrational’. The fact that these beliefs had always been considered central to the Christian message was of little account. Liberal Theology replaced them with optimism concerning human ethical  progress—  an optimism drawn from Kant’s view of the universal moral imperative.

Modernism’s anthropological and epistemological assumptions are today considered highly problematic. Both Christian theology and postmodern philosophy assert, in different ways, that humans are relational, and complexly personal. We are constituted by our relationships—most of all, Christianly speaking, by our relationship with  God.

Even considered individually, we are a complex interaction of our mind,emotions and will, within our physical body. Postmodern philosophy rejects the search for indubitable knowledge. Christian theology asserts that truly indubitable knowledge is not merely rational, but relational: we can be absolutely confident that God loves us because he gave his son as a sacrifice for sin. This indubitable relational confidence is not irrational, for it is based on a thoughtful, reasoned appropriation of the Bible’s testimony. But neither is it merely rational: it is a coordinated, whole-person response to the character and work of God, revealed in Christ, as explained in the Scriptures. This is because Christianity  asserts that true  knowledge  is irreducibly theological. We cannot really know ourselves, or the world we live in, without first of all reckoning with the personal, relational God, who created both us—the subject who is seeking knowledge—and this world, the object we are seeking to know.

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