LAWRENCE PASTERNACK | Guidebook to Kant on Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason | Routledge 2014


By Lawrence Pasternack

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to Allen Wood for his lengthy comments (here and here). While Wood frequently remarks (especially early on in his comments) that we are in general agreement about the Religion, as he moves forward, more disagreements arise. With some of these disagreements, Wood and I simply come down on different sides of an issue. However, with other points of disagreement, I fear that he sometimes misconstrued my views. As the author, I have to take some responsibility for these misunderstandings and so I hope through these comments, my arguments and analyses will become all the more clear. I am thus appreciative of this opportunity for exchange and hope that it will further our collective understanding of the Pure Rational System of Religion.

I. Deism, agnosticism, and pure rationalism

Wood begins by discussing Deism and agnosticism, and I take it there are no substantive disagreements between us on these issues. He then moves on to the meaning of Kant’s ‘Pure Rationalism’, and accepts my criticism of his reading of this term as found in his essay ‘Kant’s Deism’ (Wood 1991). In that essay, Wood rejects the category of Pure Rationalism. He neither thinks it is the position that Kant himself endorsed nor one that anyone would ever accept. As Wood there wrote, “it is hard to imagine anyone who would hold to it [i.e., that there are divine commands of piety vs. morality]” (Wood 1991:11).

By contrast, in his present comments on my book, Wood acknowledges a “more sympathetic interpretation” of Pure Rationalism, which includes “the possibility of a divine revelation whose acceptance may not be necessary for saving faith”. This is certainly part of how I see Kant’s Pure Rationalism, but there is still more to be added.

In opposition to Wood’s earlier rejection of the view that there may be divine commands that fall outside morality (i.e., commands of piety vs. morality), I point to various passages where Kant affirms the possibility of such commands (e.g. AA 6:84, 109). In fact, I take it that most religious traditions recognize rules of piety that are distinct from morality. Consider, for example, High Church liturgy, dietary restrictions in Judaism and Islam, as well as much else within the rituals and practices of historical faiths. We routinely see such rules of piety treated as divinely commanded and yet still separated from morality proper. Some traditions, in fact, even describe the Ten Commandments as divided between its rules of piety (first five) vs. morality (second five).

Hence, with Pure Rationalism’s allowance for revelation, we likewise can see Kant’s openness to revelatory contents that extend beyond the ‘vehicles’ for the Pure Rational System of Religion (henceforth PRSR). These contents, what we may take to be beyond the ‘narrower sphere’ described in the Religion’s Second Preface, although ‘intrinsically contingent’ aspects of religion, are not to be considered false or irrelevant. Not only do we see Kant, particularly in the ecclesiology of Part Four, exploring how rituals and rules of piety can still find a proper place in religious life, but we see as well an openness to their having a divine origin (e.g., AA 6:105). That is, while we cannot know which elements of historical faith are genuinely divine in nature, Kant nevertheless rejects the reductionism that would ‘peremptorily’ deny the possibility. Pure Rationalism, and Kant’s philosophical theology, is thus hardly as reductive as it is often portrayed.

While morality remains at the core of what is essential to religion, it is important to see that Kant does not reduce religion to morality. Such a criticism is more the result of inadequate exposure to the broader corpus, or even to the Third and Fourth Parts of the Religion. Hardly does Kant see religion as no more than the highest good and its postulates, for he also explores at length the role of the church, its doctrines and practices—some of which (as is often believed among the followers of the tradition) may be of divine origin. Readers interested in this topic may wish to refer to Chapter 7’s exploration of the question ‘Does Kant Reduce Religion to Morality?’. In addition, I am also currently writing a paper on historical faith for Cambridge University Press. Interested readers may request a copy.

A second issue that comes up in Wood’s discussion of my interpretation of Kant’s Pure Rationalism is that, according to him, my interpretation leaves Kant open to an objection from Bishop Butler (an objection Wood likewise discusses in his 1991 Deism essay). According to this objection: (a) rational religion is, just like its historical counterpart, only available through its dissemination via texts and instruction; (b) such instruction is less available than the Gospels; therefore, (c) the latter versus the former remains the better means to bring religious truth to humanity.

I find it odd that Wood levies this objection against my interpretation of Pure Rationalism. Wood notes that the principles of rational religion can be comprehended and accepted by “any human being whose intellect has been sufficiently developed”. Hence, as Wood defends Kant against Butler, the principles of rational religion do not demand the sort of erudition that Butler assumes.

I wholly agree with Wood’s reading of Kant on this point, and think that he should have recognized that I likewise present Kant as he does. For example, in the Introduction to my book, I discuss how the PRSR must be “discoverable through reason alone”. I also ground Kant’s broader religious agenda upon the claims in the B-Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason where he seeks to remove religion from the “monopoly of the schools” and set it on a footing suitable to “the common human understanding” (Bxxxii). Hence, I believe I am quite clear that Kant links the PRSR to the nascent capacities of ordinary men and women.

Moreover, I return again to these issues later in the book, in the context of exploring Kant’s views on religious testimony. There, I develop some of the social aspects of Kant’s epistemology and their roots in our common rationality. I thus see no passages in my book where my reading of Kant on religious communication falls prey to Butler’s objection. Quite in contrast to Butler’s objection, I not only present Kant as Wood does, as having rational religion available to all without the “need to strain the intellect of an honest person” (Wood 1991:9), but I also go farther, presenting the philosophical grounds for this view and how it relates to religious belief.

II. Publication of the Religion

In this section of Wood’s Introductory comments, he takes issue with my claim that Kant prevaricates in his response to the Royal Rescript of 1794. In his letter, Kant asserts that he “makes no ‘appraisal’ of Christianity”, and yet I suggest otherwise. Wood rebuts that the Religion offers only a “purely philosophical exercise, aiming only at the possibility of reconciling Christianity as a revealed religion with the pure religion of reason”. Of course, that is what Kant claimed, but I argue that he did not hold true to his professed commitment to maintain the boundaries between philosophy and theology.

I take it as non-controversial that Kant sought to compare Christian doctrine with the PRSR. The question then is whether this comparison led Kant to any ‘appraisal’—by which I mean judgements about the truth or falsehood of any doctrines, their practical worth, and even whether or not some Christian doctrines should be removed from public religion. In my view, the evidence is overwhelming that Kant did make such ‘appraisals’. While Kant does suggest what Wood calls a “purely philosophical exercise” in the Preface to the Religion, he knew he had to work around the Prussian Censors and, I suspect, was using their reasons for approving the publication of the first Essay (Part One) as cover for the entire project.

Readers interested in this topic, can consult my recent paper ‘Kant’s “Appraisal” of Christianity: Biblical Interpretation and the Pure Rational System of Religion’ (Pasternack 2015). In it, I provide a systematic analysis of the question as to whether or not there is an appraisal of Christianity in the Religion, as well as the principles that Kant allegedly versus actually uses when discussing Christian doctrine. But let me here mention just a few items as evidence for my claim that Kant did, in fact, ‘appraise’ core Christian doctrines.

Perhaps the most blatant example comes from what Kant says about the Crucifixion—particularly the issue of vicarious atonement, i.e., whether the debt of sin can be a “transmissible liability” (AA 6:72). The prevailing reading of the Crucifixion has Christ’s death as payment for our sin. Yet, Kant claims that the debt of sin cannot work this way. That is, Kant explicitly deviates from the doctrine of vicarious atonement, providing an argument as to why it is wrong.

By contrast, Wood (I assume) takes Kant to be merely comparing the standard reading of the Crucifixion against how the PRSR understands the nature of sin and debt. Readers familiar with the secondary literature on this topic know that many Christian philosophers have criticized Kant on this issue, whereas both Wood and I come to Kant’s defence. In Wood’s case, he seems to reject the notion that Kant is really doing theology in a way that has any import for Christian theologians and philosophers. I, on the other hand, focus on the internal consistency of Kant’s view and while conceding that Kant deviates from the tradition, I still explore the merits of Kant’s treatment of sin and salvation.

Let me add a few more points. The first is just a matter of impression, one that I presume most readers would share: namely, that the general tenor of Kant’s discussion of the Crucifixion seems to genuinely object to established doctrine. He clearly engages with the traditional debates while being quite vehement that the debt of sin is not a “transmissible liability” and “cannot be erased by somebody else” (AA 6:72). Second, Kant’s objections to vicarious atonement are not limited to the theoretical, for he eventually moves on to criticize the ‘priestcraft’ and ‘counterfeit service’ that employs the doctrine.

Public religion includes rituals meant to facilitate the transmission of our debt. This includes (depending upon the particular denomination) baptism, communion, confession, prayer, and so forth. While each of these practices could find their proper place in ‘moral religion’, we see through Part Four a sustained critique of their corruption into forms of ‘sorcery’ that serve as substitutes for the moral efforts that Kant presents as the only genuine means for us to become ‘well-pleasing-to-God’. Hence, the critic of vicarious atonement in Part Two (and the ‘remarkable antinomy’ of Part Three) plays an important role in setting the stage for the ecclesiology of Parts Three and Four. In effect, for ‘moral religion’ to advance, Kant needs to critique vicarious atonement, for in doing so, he provides grounds for why the rituals traditionally used to facilitate the transfer of the debt must be either abandoned as ‘priestcraft’ and ‘counterfeit service’, or at least as reconceived to better suit ‘moral religion’.

There’s considerable evidence to support my thesis that the Religion was not just an academic study but a manifesto for religious reform. This should be abundantly clear from Part Four, but consider as well (a) what Kant has to say about the doctrine of eternal damnation in Part Two and (b) his views on the proper use of the Bible as expressed in Part Three (as well as in the Conflict of the Faculties). For the former, we may look to AA 6:69n., where Kant raises the problem that the doctrine of eternal damnation, rather than helping to motivate us, instead can backfire. He discusses the problem that soft-hearted clergy, not wanting their congregant to be damned for all eternity, will feel the need to offer them a death-bed absolution. However, in doing so, congregants can then feel protected and continue on in their sinful lives rather than being moved to change. Hardly is this just about academic or theoretical matters, but rather is clearly a recommendation regarding clerical practice.

Regarding the Bible, we find numerous discussions of how it is to be interpreted as well as its proper use in sermons. For example, Kant writes that

the final purpose of even the reading of these holy books, or the investigation of their content, is to make better human beings, whereas their historical element, which contributes nothing to this end, is something in itself quite indifferent, and one can do with it what one wills. (AA 6:111)

That is, the Bible’s value, like other vehicles of historical faith, is in its capacity to help further humanity’s moral development—and thus “[o]nly a moral interpretation […] is really an authentic one” (AA 7:48). Its authority is “drawn from the pure spring of universal rational religion dwelling in every ordinary human being” (AA 7:63).

Kant further asserts that there is “no other expositor of it [the Bible] except the religion of reason and scholarship” (AA 6:114)—the former, of course, being within the aegises of the philosophical theologian. And if this is still not sufficiently direct, in the Conflict of the Faculties, Kant asserts that “when conflict arises, about the sense of a scriptural text, philosophy […] claims the prerogative of deciding its meaning” (AA 7:38). Hence, I think there is considerable merit to my charge that Kant prevaricated when facing his Prussian censors.

Finally, consider that throughout the Religion Kant constantly distinguishes between what he takes to be ‘mystical cover’ versus the actual tenet of religious significance. Even in this distinction, Kant ‘appraises’ Christianity, for he maintains that what really matters, what Christian doctrines really mean, what is essential to our salvation, is not that which he deems ‘mystical cover’ but its underlying significance to the PRSR, one and all, tenets that “can be convincingly communicated to everyone” (AA 6:103). Readers might want to consider my exchange with Insole on this issue as well—where Insole, even more so than I, takes Kant to be critical of traditional Christianity.

The final concern of Wood’s ‘Introductory’ has to do with my discussion of the highest good in Chapter 1 of my book. Wood sees it as “both too brief and too ambitious”. Here, I agree. It is both brief and ambitious, but the discussion nevertheless has more relevance than Wood recognized. My impression is that he did not read the book in its entirety, and thus did not see how I develop the highest good in relation to the universal Church through Chapters 5 and 6. Likewise, by not reading these later chapters, he did not see how my discussion of the highest good served as the principle through which I explained the relationship between Religion’s parts, especially how to interpret the relationship of Parts One and Two with Parts Three and Four.

While I grant that my initial chapter on the highest good feels incomplete, that is at least in part due to its serving as a preliminary chapter, one then utilized later in the book. Let me also grant that the sense of ambition that Wood noted regarding this chapter is accurate. The chapter likely reads as one where I wanted still to do more—and in fact I do. If and when life permits, I would like to write a book on the highest good, and some of my eagerness for a thorough study of the doctrine might have influenced how I approached it there.

Part One of the Religion
I. Radical Evil

After a lengthy summary, Wood turns to the issue as to whether or not there could be an a priori proof that humanity as a species has a Propensity to Evil. While Wood and I are in general agreement that there are various empirical elements within Kant’s presentation of the moral status of the species, he is very critical of any claim that there could also be any (non-analytic) a priori elements.

Of course, many (if not most) interpreters hold that the propensity can be established through an a priori argument. However, my more modest view is that the argument has both a priori and empirical elements—but even that Wood does not like. Although I can see that my position is perhaps somewhere between that of Wood’s and what is likely the mainstream reading, I am not sure why he is so adamant that there is nothing a priori (beyond the analytic) operative in Kant’s argument.

My suspicion is that he wants the ‘radical’ character of radical evil to mean that evil is outright inexplicable. Although Kant does make a number of gestures in this regard (e.g., AA 6:43, 45), there is a difference between claiming that human evil is completely inexplicable versus its not being fully explicable. I take it that the latter more accurately captures Kant’s ultimate view, since he (a) discusses evil in relation to an ‘inner perfidy’, (b) contrasts it against a privation model, (c) claims that it must have its own ‘seed’, etc. That is, Kant does much to explain evil, even though the explanation is (perhaps necessarily) incomplete.

Note further that the above points of explanation are not empirical claims. They are not objects of observation or even objects of possible experience, but are rather concepts used to account for what is observed. Hence, Kant appeals to various conceptual resources to help explain what he can about human evil. I take it thus that the argument contains various a priori elements, and do not see why this would be objectionable. Wood might also wish to review the discussion of moral evil in Kant’s 1791 ‘Theodicy’ essay, and consider whether there are within it any a priori claims about the nature of evil.

Additionally, I believe that Wood takes a position I develop in this chapter out of context, as if it were a stand-alone assertion. He attributes the following claim to me: “[W]e can infer a priori that if a human being commits moral evil, then he must have a propensity to do so.” Wood calls this inference “invalid”. Of course the antecedent does not on its own entail the consequent. I do not claim that it does. Rather, I devote ten pages to why Kant holds that human immorality depends upon our having a Propensity to Evil.

That there is such a propensity behind human evil, I take to be non-controversial, clearly asserted in the text, and routinely affirmed by Kant scholars. Accordingly, I provide a lengthy account of the nature of this propensity and why Kant sees it as necessary. Perhaps Wood’s concern comes out of his claim that there are no a priori elements within Kant’s argument for the Propensity to Evil, but I cannot see how Kant’s move from the fact of human evil to the propensity is empirical.

Right after the above, Wood makes a baffling comment—criticizing me for “mistranslat[ing] unvertilgbar as ‘inextricable’”. What makes this so baffling is that the above is not even my translation. It is, rather, from Di Giovanni’s translation of the Religion, a translation edited and endorsed by Wood, in his series for Cambridge. I’ll not say more here about this unfortunate moment, but… if it is any consolation to Wood, let me note that Pluhar too translated the above in the exact same way.

After the above, Wood then criticizes me for claiming that the Change of Heart must be a datable event and then asserts that “innateness” is to be understood as a “fact beyond our choosing”. With regard to the former, I do tend to see the Change of Heart as dateable (i.e., there is a ‘before the change’ and an ‘after the change’ in an individual’s life). I make this claim for both textual and philosophical reasons. Textually, consider AA 6:47–8, where Kant contrasts the “revolution” of a “single and unalterable decision” versus a “gradual reformation”. Consider as well the footnote at AA 6:75n., where Kant discusses how the New Man seeks to “test and exercise his disposition for the good”. There are many more such discussions of a before-and-after regarding the Change of Heart—so while one may not know the date of this change, nor even know if such a change has taken place, Kant does present it as an abrupt transition in time from one moral state to another.

As for the philosophical issues behind this, consider the relevance of Rigorism here: our Gesinnung is either good or evil, nothing in between… so no “gradual reformation”, as is the case with virtue’s degrees. If Wood, instead, wants the Change of Heart to be “gradual”, he would be hard pressed to reconcile this with Rigorism—as well as with how Kant repeatedly presents this Change in contrast to the “gradual reform”.

Regarding my “confusion” about innateness, I think Wood missed an important distinction I make. Throughout Part One, Kant presents the Propensity to Evil as both innate and as chosen. According to Wood, the former means merely “that there is no identifiable point in our lives when acquired”. I, however, do not see Kant as using the term so narrowly, for he further writes that we call our guilt “innate […] because it is detectable as early as the first manifestation of the exercise of freedom” (AA 6:38). Hence, “innate” is not merely what Wood claims. It is not dateable for a particular reason, that reason being that it is already operative at “the first manifestation of the exercise of freedom”.

But further, Wood, I fear, missed my main point regarding the innateness of the propensity. Kant sets up a problem for us having to do with the imputability of an innate propensity. I offer a resolution, one that distinguishes between the fact of this propensity versus the role we allow it to have in our lives. This distinction, I believe, does much to explain how the Propensity to Evil can be both innate and chosen, both a feature of our humanity yet one for which we can be held responsible. Let me refer interested readers to my lengthy discussion of the Propensity to Evil, on pages 96—118 of my book.

II. Diabolical evil

Wood finds it “puzzling and disappointing” that I appear to agree with those who criticize Kant for denying the possibility of a diabolical will. Wood puts together two passages, one where Kant writes of an evil will whose “resistance [to the moral law] is raised to an incentive”. From this, Wood takes it to follow that such a being would be “exonerated [freisprechende] from the moral law” (AA 6:35). The order here, though, is reversed from the text. Kant writes that a “reason exonerated from the moral law, an evil reason as it were […] [is one where] resistance to the law would itself be elevated to incentive” (AA 6:35).

The passage, I well grant, is ambiguous, but since the first clause describes what “an evil reason” is like, I do not see it as obvious that Kant then takes an “evil reason” to be impossible. However, it is not my aim here (nor in my book) to prove that Kant regards such an evil as possible. I suspect that he does believe it to be possible, but I explicitly state in my book that I want to leave it as an open question.

Although Kant does make it clear that such a will is not a possibility for us (since the moral law will remain an incentive for us), I do not think that the text can settle the question at issue. Kant might have seen it as impossible, but that is not what he claims. His claim, rather, is that it is not something we are capable of (i.e., impossible for us). Whether or not it is metaphysically possible (i.e., possible for any being) will depend upon a variety of additional issues, some of which I discuss in the book (e.g., motivational internalism vs. externalism). So, while Kant presents the diabolical will as one that is “exonerated [freisprechende] from the moral law”, it neither follows that such a will is impossible, nor impossible because we cannot call it truly ‘evil’. After all, despite being “exonerated”—whatever exactly Kant means by this, the will in question is still ‘evil’.

So, in contrast to Wood’s insistence that Kant does directly assert impossibility—a claim I cannot find in the text—I instead offer a more balanced view, one that recognizes (a) that Kant’s stated denial is not of its possibility outright, but just that it is not possible for us; (b) that he entertains the possibility of a diabolical will elsewhere (e.g., AA 6:86); (c) that its possibility depends upon further considerations such as between motivational internalism and externalism; (d) that much of the literature (including Kantian literature) takes it that such a will is possible; and (e) I give due regard to competing views, rather than issuing rebarbative attacks on what I do not personally support. This is hardly, as Wood claims, my “insisting” on such a possibility. But rather, as expressed on p. 122 of my book, a decision to “leave the issue” open.

Part Two of the Religion
I. Change of Heart

Wood returns to his concern that I treat the Change of Heart “as a determinate event occurring in time during the life of the sinner”. Wood notes that the question as to whether or not the Change of Heart is gradual is, for Kant, “adiaphoron”, i.e., it has no moral or religious significance whatsoever. This, however, is incorrect, as illustrated by the Rigorism Kant develops in Part One. At any given point in time (from our youth on), we bear one or another moral disposition: either we give priority to morality over self-interest, or prioritize self-interest over morality. If the transition from one state to the other were gradual, if the Change of Heart were not a “single and unalterable decision”, a “revolution”, a “new creation” (AA 6:47), in which there is a complete transition from one supreme maxim to the other, then Kant’s Rigorism would be compromised.

This, however, should not be taken to mean that our moral development in no way involves any “gradual reform” (AA 6:47). Rather, Kant contrasts the spontaneity of the Change of Heart from such “gradual” sorts of changes. The latter includes, I presume, efforts that might help prepare one for the change itself, as well as—quite importantly—the gradual development of moral virtue (psychological disciplines of moral strength, self-control, etc.). Although more casual readers tend to confuse the Change of Heart with virtue, Kant very explicitly and repeatedly contrasts them throughout the Religion.

II. Virtue

Again, the above distinction should not be taken to mean that Kant dismisses virtue, though he does engage in a polemic against it through Part One and at the opening of Part Two. Kant does not use this polemic to reject virtue outright, but rather to challenge various misunderstandings as to its proper place as well as to make clear that it is not the same as the Change of Heart. Hence, the issues here are hardly “adiaphoron”, for Kant explains that a model of moral transformation built upon the virtues will fail to achieve what is really needed. Referencing the Stoics, he writes that they “mistook their enemy” (AA 6:57) by presuming that the development of virtue is what is decisive for our moral advance. This does not mean, of course, that virtue is irrelevant, but rather that it must be differentiated from the Change of Heart: the “gradual reform” of the former targets issues of character and inclination whereas the “revolution” of the later addresses our Supreme Maxim. To confuse the two, to presume that the development of virtue is the Change that Kant calls for is a grave error, for it mistakes one’s enemy by promoting a “gradual reform” whose focus is combating inclination versus the “single and unalterable decision” (AA 6:48) through which we counter our Propensity to Evil. This, in short, is the essence of Kant’s critique of virtue at the opening of Part Two.

Let me here add that Kant’s relationship to virtue is more complex than most recognize. Since the Virtue Revolution of the 1980s, many Kantians, I think, have felt the power of this movement and felt the need to bring Kant into the fold. While I certainly agree that there is a positive role for virtue in Kant, there is also a negative treatment of it as well. We see this not only in Parts One and Two of the Religion, but consider as well the opening of Groundwork I and even how the habits of character are presented in the Anthropology (consider Kant on Sulla for instance). So, in short, I do not claim that Kant rejects virtue, but I also do not claim that it is the highest point of his moral theory. It is a piece of the picture and what is most important is to see where it properly fits.

III. The second difficulty

Beyond Wood’s objections to how I present the relationship between virtue and the Change of Heart, he is also dissatisfied with my treatment of the second and third difficulties of Part Two. Regarding the former, he complains that I “completely miss” Kant’s claim that we are “entitled to be confident only to the degree that we actually see improvement in our day-to-day conduct”. Wood, however, unfortunately fails to take into consideration Kant’s stated worry that “one is never more easily deceived than in what promotes a good opinion of oneself” (AA 6:68). So, despite Wood’s confidence in our introspective powers, Kant is far less optimistic. This is also why Kant begins to discuss the afterlife here, for he uses it to help us gain clarity about what is at stake, and thereby help wrest us from our tendency to exaggerate our moral standing.

Hence, where Wood sees Kant as settling the second difficulty through our ‘entitlement’ to morally assess ourselves, it is, rather, why (or at least half of why) there is a ‘difficulty’ here: “[E]mpirical proofs of the genuineness of an improved disposition are entirely lacking” (AA 6:71). More fully, the second difficulty places us between a Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, if we had no way to raise our confidence in our having undergone moral improvement, there is a risk of despair. On the other hand, if we bring ourselves to an unjustified level of confidence, our continued efforts are jeopardized. Unfortunately, I think Wood only saw half the picture here—and because of this, he also did not recognize why Kant moves into a discussion of the afterlife as part of his solution to the second difficulty.

IV. The third difficulty

As for the third difficulty, Wood raises a few different issues, most of which centre on whether or not Kant has God making a voluntary choice to forgive our debt of sin. There is considerable literature on this topic, with the common objection being that Kant’s conception of divine justice is incompatible with forgiveness. I briefly engage with this literature in my book, but unfortunately Wood did not seem to reach Chapter 8, where the issue is more fully discussed (and all the more so in my ‘Kant on the Debt of Sin‘ [Pasternack 2012]).

While Wood seems to like the idea of voluntary Divine forgiveness, stating that it would help make Kant more appealing to contemporary readers, I just do not see this as the actual view found in the Religion. It is, as I discuss, Kant’s position in the Second Critique, but for a variety of reasons (see my book, pp. 142–8, 153–8), I believe that Kant reshaped his view by the time of the Religion.

I also wonder how Kant would understand the claim that God has “voluntary choice” in the matter. According to Wood, “God [is] free either to issue the decree of grace or not issue it”. I find this philosophically problematic, with so much that reaches beyond the text, that it does not strike me as a suitable route for interpretation. Also, while forgiveness is, of course, a common theme in Christian apologetics, it does not guide Kant’s response to the third difficulty. As the secondary literature has discussed at length, forgiveness would violate Kant’s views on Divine justice (including his formation of the highest good as the distribution of happiness in accordance with moral worth). I agree with this concern, but argue that Kant does not fall prey to a problem here. Instead, attentive to the issues at stake, his solution to the difficulty is one that acknowledges that “satisfaction must be rendered to Supreme Justice” (AA 6:73) for the debt of sin.

Wood’s solution, unfortunately, did not address Kant’s requirements for a solution, nor the issues amply debated in the literature. He thus overlooked the extent to which my reading of the text was informed both by the debates in the literature as well as Kant’s own explicit commitment to Divine justice. Accordingly, Wood’s solution—that God offers his forgiveness as an act of generosity that grants the sinner a reprieve not deserved—is a position already debated and rejected in the literature.

Kant’s solution is instead developed in light of his claim that Divine justice must be given its due, and so rather than importing something into the text because of its appeal to contemporary readers (a reason Wood gives for his preference), I offer what Kant himself proposes: that the debt is not forgiven but ‘relieved’ (entschlagen). Kant explains this point and offers it as his solution. It is, moreover, a solution that can overcome the extensive criticisms of Kant’s soteriology found in the words of Quinn, Wolterstorff, Hare, etc. I discuss this on pages 153–8 of my book, and all the more fully in my ‘Kant on the Debt of Sin’.

Lastly, Wood complains that the distinction between our perspective and God’s makes the latter “merely illusory”. First, Kant is clear that the resolution of this difficulty “rests on the following consideration”:

The judicial verdict of one who knows the heart of the accused must be based on the universal disposition of the latter, not on the appearance of his disposition (AA 6:72–3).

Hence, Kant invokes this distinction, identifying it as the “consideration” upon which the resolution is based. Second, just as with the noumenal/phenomenal distinction, the latter is not mere “illusion”, something I hope Wood has not forgotten after all these years. Third, hardly are we to simply ignore the phenomenal side, the issues related to our gradual reform. This is a point I discuss, primarily through a long exposition of AA 6:75n., on pages 158–60 of my book as well as towards the end of ‘Kant on the Debt of Sin’.

Appendix: Kant on Judaism

Wood adds to his comments an appendix which discusses Kant’s critique of Judaism. For the most part, this discussion moves away from my commentary on the Religion and focuses more on Kant’s reactions to Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem. I certainly appreciate Wood’s valuable discussion of Mendelssohn’s influence on Kant. But let me here limit my comments to our respective readings of Kant’s critique of Judaism.

According to Wood, I have overlooked the fact that Kant’s critique was directed specifically to ancient Judaism, Judaism “as originally established” (AA 6:125), rather than the Judaism since the time of Jesus. As Wood points out, Kant indicates that Greek thought eventually influenced Judaism and made it “ready for revolutions” (AA 6:128). However, by my reading, this “revolution” was not internal to Judaism, but rather pertains to the emergence of Christianity.

Wood, however, uses this and other passages to claim that Kant’s criticisms were limited to ancient Judaism. While I see why Wood wants to read AA 6:127–8 this way, I take the passage to be more ambiguous. Hence, I looked to other texts where Kant discusses Judaism, to see whether his criticisms are limited only to its ancient form. Consider, for example, where in the Conflict of the Faculties Kant writes that it is only “now happening [that] purified religious concepts awaken among them” (AA 7:52); and then shortly after, he adds that once Judaism has finally been transformed into a “pure moral religion”, that will mean its “euthanasia” as it will then be freed from “the ancient statutory teachings” that so far have defined it (AA 7:53). This may even be implied in the Religion itself, where Kant writes that “whatever moral additions were appended to it […] do not in any way belong to Judaism as such” (AA 6:125).

Hence, if in the Conflict of the Faculties Kant saw modern Judaism as still subject to the same criticisms as its ancient counterpart, we must rethink Wood’s paraphrase, where he claims that for Kant, Judaism had “already become a moral religion”. While I agree that the text of the Religion is unclear, I do not think that this was Kant’s meaning, for when he writes of the establishment of a “pure moral religion in place of an old cult” (AA 6:127), he is not discussing Judaism, but rather the emergence of Christianity.

It is regrettable that Kant continued to see Judaism through the long-standing Pauline attack on its empty legalism, an attack that was all the more amplified through Germanic states as a consequence of Luther’s polemics after he tried and failed to win over regional Jewry. While it is understandable to hold on to the wish that Kant was an exception to Europe’s legacy of anti-Semitism, I am not at all persuaded that this was the case. It is, I agree, some consolation that Kant did champion the causes of his Jewish students and colleagues. But still, his understanding of Judaism did not deviate from the prevailing views of his day. In my book (pp. 196–201), I thus criticize Kant, focusing on the three objections to Judaism he raises at AA 6:126–7, and argue that they are based upon an erroneous understanding of Judaism (ancient and modern alike). So, despite the fact that my book is overwhelmingly a defence of Kant’s philosophical theology, there are times, such as in his treatment of Judaism, where I believe that he erred.


Pasternack, L. (2012), ‘Kant on the Debt of Sin’, Faith and Philosophy 29(1): 30–52.

—— (2015), ‘Kant’s “Appraisal” of Christianity: Biblical Interpretation and the Pure Rational System of Religion’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 53(3): 485–506.

Wood, A. (1991), ‘Kant’s Deism’, in P. Rossi & M. Wreen (eds), Kant’s Philosophy of Religion Reconsidered (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP), pp. 1–21.

© Lawrence Pasternack, 2015.

Lawrence Pasternack is Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He specialises in Kant, ethics, and philosophy of religion. Among many book contributions, he has recently published in the journals Journal of the History of Philosophy (forthcoming), Kant-Studien, and Religious Studies, and wrote the current entry on Kant’s philosophy of religion for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He is also series editor of the Bloomsbury series Immanuel Kant’s Sources in Translation.