A correspondent wrote to ask whether I could explain concisely Kant’s influence on European thought. The short answer, of course, was “no.” Still, it’s good mental exercise to give a 25-words-or-less response to an impossibly complicated question that demands more knowledge than you’ll ever have. If nothing else, it helps clarify and order your thought. And besides, I’ve been complaining a lot about Descartes lately so why not vary things? So here, more or less, is my reply:
- Kant says you can’t know things in themselves, so the objects of our knowledge—that is to say, the world of our experience—are largely constructed by the human mind. Kant of course thought that happened through the application of particular specifiable categories of thought (like time, space and causality) to sense experience. We receive an unorganized manifold of sensory experience and the categories of our minds organize it and turn it into objects in space and time.
- Since for Kant the categories of thought are the same and apply the same way for everyone it follows that the world and our knowledge of it remain objective in the sense that they’re the same for all rational human beings. But one could also claim contra Kant that the categories of thought aren’t fixed once for all but depend on time or place or choice. So Kantianism sets the stage for radical historicism, social constructivism, cultural relativism and the view that since we choose our scheme of categories it’s really human choice—in effect, will and power—that constructs reality.
- Since all that’s given us is sense experience and the categories of our own thought, nothing transcending us and our thoughts and experience can tell us anything or be relevant to what we know or do. That state of affairs does away with God as a knowable reality and with substantive revelation, although the concept of God can remain as a regulatory concept that stands for the ideal completion of our system of knowlege and morality. So instead of the ens realissimum God becomes the conception that guides our striving by holding up an image of completion as a goal. He’s thus a human construction for the purposes of human life. Hence liberal religion.
- Morality based on substantive understandings of what’s good that aren’t simply a matter of subjective taste becomes impossible, since all we have is sense, which is whatever it is but points nowhere, and the formal categories of our own thought. The only possible basis of morality then becomes the categorical imperative, the principle of acting in accordance with the formal concept of lawfulness, meaning that we should act on principles we are able coherently to will to apply universally. In effect, “don’t cheat” becomes the principle of all morality.
- There are problems with that view: it’s hard to apply, and it’s not clear that it gives unequivocal results. It seems clear that the categorical imperative in general says “don’t lie,” because if people always felt free to lie then lying would lose most of its point. But does it say “don’t tell little white lies in social settings”? Kant would say yes, he’s an absolutist on lying and many other things, but it’s not obvious to me he’s right. Also, it’s hard to see why on his understanding of morality anyone would act morally. Where does motive come in when for Kant all our desires are non-moral and morality is just a matter of formal definition?
- So it seems that by being hyper-rationalistic Kantian morality pushes us toward either dogmatism or toward skepticism, and in any case away from common sense and tradition and so perhaps toward the possibility of ideological rationalizations for outrageous behavior. As to dogmatism, it seems that one effect of Kant’s view has been the tendency to extract more and more of morality from content-free concepts like freedom and equality, to insist on applying those concepts universally, and to sacrifice substantive goods to them.
In general it seems what Kant did was follow Descartes in exploring the skeptical and even solipsist argument that we only know the contents of our own minds. Descartes tried to answer the argument by proving the existence of God and then arguing that since God’s a nice guy He wouldn’t let us be totally deceived about the external world. Kant isn’t convinced by those arguments so he accepts that we just know our experience but says that’s enough because our experience has the necessary coherence and stability to stand on its own without reference to anything outside it. It seems that doesn’t work either, so now we have postmodern irony—a condition in which people try to get by without even believing their own beliefs. Maybe we need to start over again.