COLIN MCQUILLAN | Immanuel Kant: The Very Idea of a Critique of Pure Reason | Northwestern University Press 2016


 

By J. Colin McQuillan

I would like to thank Michael Olson for the clear and accurate summary of my book Immanuel Kant: The Very Idea of a Critique of Pure Reason that he provides in the first part of his review. He has clearly understood the general point I want to make in the book, the arguments I use to make that point, and the evidence I use to support it. Indeed, I think he has understood the book so well that he has seen the limitations of the methodological decision I make at the end of Chapter 3. Olson is right to question my claim that we are ‘forced’ to fall back on the programmatic statements Kant makes in the Preface and Introduction to the first (A) and second (B) edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in the second part of his review. He is also right that we ought to be careful and critical about the authority we grant to the definitions of a critique of pure reason that Kant proposes. Finally, he is right that there are other ways to respond to the question “What is a Critique of Pure Reason?” and other sources we might use to answer that question than the ones I have employed. Ultimately, I do not think these sources provide as clear or compelling an answer to the question as the definitions Kant provides in his prefaces and introductions, but Olson’s questions challenge me to justify the methodological decisions I have made and to address alternatives that I did not pursue in the book.

Responding to this challenge will not be easy, but I would like to begin by clarifying my claim that

we are forced to look at the definitions of a critique of pure reason that Kant provides in the work bearing that title, if we want to understand what Kant’s critique is and why he thought it was the only way to set metaphysics on the sure path of science. (p. 115)

I make this claim in the conclusion of the book, in a summary of Chapter 3 that explains the transition from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4. The former is concerned with Kant’s correspondence with Herz during the 1770s, while the latter examines the definitions of a critique of pure reason that Kant proposes in the prefaces and introductions to the first (A) and second (B) editions of the First Critique. My claim is a response to the obscurity of Kant’s references to his critique in his correspondence during the 1770s and the absence of a definitive answer to the question “What is a critique of pure reason?”. Because Kant never actually wrote a work that provides a definitive answer to this question, I say we are “forced” to look at the definitions he offers in the First Critique.

To be clear, the ‘force’ to which I refer is not the force of necessity. It is not necessary that we answer the question “What is a Critique of Pure Reason?” at all—though it might be of interest to scholars. Nor is it necessary that we base our answers on textual evidence—some philosophers seem to think a passing familiarity with Kant and a few generalisations about the place his Critical philosophy occupies in the history of modern European philosophy are sufficient to answer questions about his critique. Finally, it is not necessary to use any particular set of texts or sources to answer the question—it is possible that other sources would lead to better and more interesting answers to the question “What is a critique of pure reason?” than the ones I have used. Yet I do not think Olson wants us to ignore the question, engage in baseless speculation, or choose randomly among the various sources available to us. I am sure he would agree that, when we take it upon ourselves to answer a question, we are ‘forced’ to find the best way to answer it, even when we are not compelled by strict necessity.

Even if Olson and I agree on this last point, the question remains: Are the definitions Kant presents and the programmatic statements he makes really the best way to answer the question “What is a critique of pure reason?” Olson recognises that there are good reasons not to answer that question in the affirmative. He correctly discerns that I am wary about taking philosophers at their word, even about their own work, from some sceptical comments I make about the programmatic statements in the first section of Kant’s inaugural dissertation On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World; Kant’s account of the differences between the first (A) and second (B) editions of the First Critique; his boasts about the completeness of his system in his Declaration Concerning Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre; and claims made by philosophers who consider their own systems the culmination of philosophical history, whether these claims are found in Kant, the German idealists, or our contemporaries. This leads Olson to wonder why I place so much weight on the definitions Kant proposes and the programmatic statements he makes, when I so obviously think “how philosophers describe their own work […] can obscure the historical record”. Why do I trust Kant’s definitions and the programmatic statements he makes about his critique, when I am so suspicious about the rest of his definitions and the programmatic statement philosophers make elsewhere?

The answer is that I do not think I have trusted Kant’s definitions or the programmatic statements he makes about his critique. The fact that I consider four of them, all of which differ in non-trivial ways, suggests that I do not regard any one of them as definitive. The conclusions I draw about the nature of Kant’s critique are based on a comparison of these four definitions of a critique of pure reason and a careful examination of their meaning, both in the context in which they appear and in relation to the rest of Kant’s writings. My conclusion, that Kant intended his critique to (1) secure reason’s rightful claims, (2) demonstrate the possibility of metaphysics, (3) provide metaphysics with a new and better method, and (4) pave the way for a complete system of transcendental philosophy (p. 121), is drawn from this comparative and contextual analysis. We are not “forced” to accept that conclusion by necessity, but I think the preponderance of the evidence makes it far more likely to be true than other accounts one finds in the scholarly literature—the idea that the critique of pure reason is an attack on metaphysics in general, an attempt to overcome dogmatism and scepticism, an alternative to rationalism and empiricism or a foundation for the natural sciences. Insofar as they provide compelling evidence against these other possibilities, we are ‘forced’ to consider the definitions and programmatic statements Kant makes in his prefaces and introductions.

I would happily embrace Olson’s suggestion that we should allow “Kant’s general remarks about the nature of critique recede into the background in order to highlight the fruits this new method bears when applied to specific questions”, just as I would welcome scholarship that compares “Kant’s conception of critique with […] closely related ideas that have received greater scholarly attention”. Both are important undertakings that would make important contributions to the scholarly literature; yet I do not think they are viable alternatives to the approach I adopt at the end of Chapter 3. Both presuppose that we know what a critique of pure reason is—only then can we allow it to recede into the background or compare it to other important ideas in the history of philosophy. Neither can answer the question before us in my The Very Idea of a Critique of Pure Reason—“What is a critique of pure reason?”—so I do not think it would be responsible to adopt either of the alternatives Olson proposes. We are ‘forced’ to answer basic questions about the nature of Kant’s critique, and to use sources that help us answer those basic questions, before turning our attention to other concerns about what his critique does and how it relates to other things.

There is one more reason I think we are ‘forced’ to consider the definitions of a critique of pure reason Kant proposes and the programmatic statements he makes—one that is primarily ethical, as improbable as that might seem. I think we have an obligation, when we listen to others speak and read the words they have written, to try to understand them in their own terms—without putting our own words in their mouths. That is not an easy task—too often we assume we know what someone is saying, or what their writing means, without really paying them the attention they deserve or asking ourselves whether we have done justice to what they have said or written. Our responsibility to try to understand others does not prevent us from being critical of the terms they use or questioning the testimony they give on their own behalf—there are times when it is appropriate to raise critical questions, as I indicate when I question the claims Kant and other philosophers make about their own work. But I do not think these critical questions should precede listening and understanding—they should follow them. Applied to the history of philosophy, this principle suggests that we should pay close attention to what philosophers have said and written, try to understand them in their own terms, and do justice to them as best we can. Historians of philosophy studying Kant are ‘forced’ to consider the definitions he employs and the way he describes what he is doing in order to fulfil this obligation, even if they later conclude that these statements are not the best way to understand his critique.

For these reasons, I do not think I “oversell” the necessity of focusing on the definitions and programmatic statements about his critique, as Olson suggests. I do not argue that this approach is necessary or that it is the only one that Kant scholars should adopt. When I say “we are forced to look at the definitions of a critique of pure reason that Kant provides in the work bearing that title, if we want to understand what Kant’s critique is and why he thought it was the only way to set metaphysics on the sure path of science”, I mean that there is no definitive answer to questions about the nature of Kant’s critique available to us; that we need to consider the sources that will provide the best possible answer to those questions; that some alternatives should be excluded because they do not help us answer those questions; and, finally, that we are obligated to consider what Kant said his critique is when we try to answer those questions, even if we are critical of the definitions he proposes and the statements he makes. I grant Olson that this approach does not answer every question we might ask—it does not explain what Kant’s critique does or how it relates to other things—but I hope we shall be able to work together to answer those questions in the future.

Received: 5 September 2016.

© J. Colin McQuillan, 2016.


Colin McQuillan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, USA. He obtained his Ph.D. from Emory University in 2010. His research interests include Kant, early modern philosophy and contemporary continental philosophy. McQuillan has published in Philosophy Compass, Idealistic Studies, Journal of the History of Ideas and Foucault Studies. His Early Modern Aesthetics came out with Rowman & Littlefield in 2015. He is also the co-editor of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Aesthetics (Bloomsbury, 2012).

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