what is left of Kant?

I have stumbled across a most interesting set of mini (blog-post-length) interviews with prominent Kant Scholars about Kant. Three questions were asked:

1. In your opinion, which of Kants ideas have universal value?

2. What, in your opinion, was Kant’s main mistake.

3. Do we understand Kant better than 100 years ago. 

(Note: i’m linking to the Google cache because the actual files are not properly formatted HTML files and don’t display.)

I’ve only made it through the first question. The very best, and at the same time most representative, answer is probably the last, that of Alan Wood:

Allen Wood: Kant’s two most valuable and enduring ideas were these: First, that rational nature in human beings is an end in itself, and the foundation of all value. Even the value of human happiness is grounded on this. Second, that it is important to understand the contribution of our free activity as theorizers to the structure of scientific knowledge. This is the basic correction to empiricism that is needed to prevent empiricist prejudices from distorting our view of science.

Most of the respondents thought of Kant’s Ethics exclusively, and namely his idea of free individuals who have value in themselves, who are ends and not only means, as his most important contribution:

Maria Borges: I think Kant is still contemporary, because his morality is based on three powerful concepts that people actually use in their moral judgments. These three concepts are autonomy, humanity and the idea that moral rightness is based on reason. Kant´s moral ideas have an universal and enduring value, because they grasp the three main features of what we still call morality. First, we should be autonomous human beings, in order to freely decide to enter in any personal or social relationship. Second, that we should respect the intrinsic value of human beings and think about them as an end in themselves, not only as a means. Third, that what is right should be reasonable for everyone. Also, Kant has showed that morality is not about utility or consequences, but about what we can consider reasonable for everyone.

Monique Castillo: The Kantian conception of universality (different from the empirical, sociological or pragmatical generality) is able to have an universal and enduring value, because it is not a possessive but a transcendental conception. Universality can’t be owned (neither by the western civilisation nor by another culture). The use of universality (in theory as well as in practice) creates a possible and virtual public, and doesn’t consist of an empirical interest for a particular group (scholars or politicians). It is the same for the concept of peace, for example. This concept has no owner, but a possible and virtual public can use it: the circumstances don’t change its value, its meaning, its perpetual possibility.

Some also pointed to kant’s work in the Critique of Pure reason. Christine Korsgaard summarises many of the respondents when she says:

Christine Korsgaard: Many of Kant’s ideas have an enduring value. I suppose I would place two at the top of the list.

The first is the idea embodied in Kant’s Formula of Humanity, the idea that every human being is to be treated as an end in himself or herself. This way of expressing the categorical imperative sets a high ideal for human relationships and interaction, and yet at the same time resonates with people’s actual moral experience. It captures something very important about the kind of treatment we hope for from one another. Of course the Formula of Humanity rules out certain obvious ways of treating others badly: treating another as a mere means, or running roughshod over her interests and concerns. But it also rules out treating others “well” in the wrong way – treating another with paternalism and disrespect, treating her like a child or a pet who cannot be expected to know what is best. Kant’s ethics commands not only that we avoid taking our interests to be more important than the interests of others, but also that we avoid assuming that our judgment is better than the judgment of others. It commands that we share decisions as equals. I think that Kant’s is the only ethical theory that commands that human beings treat one another as adults who share both the right and the responsibility of determining the fate of humanity and through humanity of the world.

The other is the basic idea of the Copernican Revolution itself. I take that basic idea to be that the laws of reason are our laws, human laws. The laws of reason are laws that we impose upon nature rather than laws that we find already realized there. This idea is associated with a kind of metaphysical modesty – we cannot just assume that nature will meet the standards that seem intelligible to us – and at the same time with an assumption of responsibility: it is up to us to make sense both of the world and of our relations with each other; it is up to us, to human beings, to make the world a rational place. Although Kant himself attached a doctrine of faith to these ideas, I take the basic idea to capture an essentially secular vision of the human plight, and one to which most of humanity has yet to face up.

These two ideas come together in one of my favorite remarks from the Critique of Pure Reason:

“Reason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express…his objections or even his veto.” (A738-9/B766-7).

That remark embodies a radically modern, frightening, inspiring, vision of where human beings stand in the world and to each other.

and i cannot leave out my own Doktorvater’s contribution:

Otfried Höffe: Die Hauptbedeutung liegt in seinem vieldimensionalen Kosmopolitismus; Kant ist das Muster eines wahrhaft philosophischen Weltbürgers und damit ein intellektuelles Vorbild für unser Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Als erstes ist Kant in dem Sinn Weltbürger, daß er sich über eine Neugier auf so gut wie alles, was in der Welt geschieht, in der Welt der Politik ebenso wie in der der Wissenschaft und Geschichte, eine ungewöhnlich breite Weltkenntnis erwirbt. Auch deshalb verfaßt er höchst erfahrungsgesättigte Schriften und kann sogar naturwissenschaftliche Vorlesungen halten. In noch höherem Maß ist er Weltbürger, weil er mit seiner kritischen Transzendentalphilosophie für die wichtigsten Bausteine einer jeden Kultur, für das Wissen, die Moral und das Recht, nicht zuletzt für das Schöne und das Erhabene, ein Denken entwickelt, die zwar geschichtlich betrachtet, europäische Wurzeln hat, aus ihnen aber eine globalisierungsfähige, für die verschiedenen Kulturen gleichermaßen gültige Philosophie wachsen läßt: Wir verdanken Kant die Philosophie eines Weltbürgers erstens im Wissen, zweitens in der Moral, auf deren Grundlage drittens hinsichtlich einer weltumfassenden, globalen Rechts- und Friedensordnung, schließlich auch für das Natur- und Kunstschöne.

Some others who might be of interest:

Onora O’Neill: I think that Kantian ideas that have proved enduring and fertile include:

that practical reason is not reducible either to instrumental reasoning or to (some reflection of) received views

that the fundamental principle of practical and theoretical reasoning is one and the same

that there are systematic things to be said about the limits of knowledge claims, but that the limits of intellectually coherent thought may be wider than these;

that the metaphysical distinction necessary/contingent is distinct from the epistemological distinction a priori/a posteriori and both are distinct from the semantic distinction analytic/ synthetic

that we do not have to be metaphysical realists in order to think that there are clear distinctions to be made between objective knowledge and conjecture

that a serious account of theoretical knowledge cannot be given without advancing a serious account of practice and action, and conversely

that developing a systematic account of human knowledge may require regulative principles whose truth we cannot establish by epistemological arguments

that accounts of justice in one state (domestic justice) may be systematically incomplete pending an account of cosmopolitan justice

that there may be deep parallels between practical thinking about history, politics and religion

that the aim of social inquiry may be primarily practical rather than explanatory and predictive

that mathematical knowledge may be understood as constructive

that respect for persons provides an intuitive way of looking at reasoned constraints on action well; there are surely many more, but I will go on to the second question, but with the thought that Kant may have made more than one big mistake.


Stephen Palmquist: Kant’s mature philosophy (1781 onwards) forms a systematic whole, the statement of a single idea with many facets, implications and applications. To appreciate fully the enduring value of this idea, we must value all parts of this whole equally, even though Kant explained and defended some parts more clearly and forcefully than others. The Copernican revolution (i.e., the Transcendental Perspective from which the subject determines the object, not vice versa) is Kant’s over-arching idea. When properly understood, it reveals Kant’s theoretical philosophy (especially the transcendental idealism / empirical realism paradox) to be the impetus for the revolutions in the sciences that have taken place in the past 150 years; likewise, it enables us to view Kant’s practical philosophy (especially freedom and the moral law) in a way that is consistent with a thoroughly modern, even existential, appreciation for cultural pluralism; and it helps us grasp the deeper implications of the diverse aspects of Kant’s judicial philosophy (especially his theories of beauty, natural purposiveness, the power of being religious, and the path to an enduring political peace). Kant’s ideas prior to 1781 are of value mainly insofar as they shed light on how Kant’s thinking developed in the way it did; had Kant died in 1770, few, if any, of his ideas would have had anything more than historical interest today.

Richard Rorty: I think that the Enlightenment ideal of individual freedom that Kant shared with many other figures of the Eighteenth century is an ideal that ought to spread around the world and take root in the hearts of all human beings – not because it is based in reason, as Kant thought, but because its adoption would greatly increase human happiness. However, I do not think that any of the ideas in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason have universal value. The theoretical part of his philosophy is based on a Cartesian notion of the mind that ought to have been rejected rather than refurbished.

Peter Strawson: When suitably interpreted, both his doctrine of the forms of intuition and his views on the categories of substance and cause are of lasting and universal value.


Barry Stroud: I think all of Kant’s ideas are of universal and lasting value. Kant was one of the most profound, most penetrating, and most innovative thinkers in the history of the human race. There is no telling in advance what value might be derived from the close study of everything he said and why he said it. Even to study the ways in which it is now widely believed that he went wrong can be of great value, especially if we understand clearly the sources of his errors and the true force of the pressures that led him to them. If the question is rather which of Kant’s doctrines have the greatest chance of being correct and so enshrined among the permanent truths that philosophy in its long career will finally have discovered, I can only say that I do not regard such a question as an appropriate or fruitful way to assess the significance of the work of a great philosopher.


Robert Theis: La pensée philosophique contemporaine est une pensée éclatée, sans paradigme dominant. Face à cet état de choses, il semble difficile de répondre à une question au sujet de la pertinence ainsi que de la valeur universelle et durable de certaines idées d’un philosophe, en l’occurrence de Kant. On peut constater, historiquement, que plusieurs idées maîtresses de Kant ont marqué durablement la pensée philosophique : la notion d’a priori et ses implications quant à une théorie de la constitution de l’expérience au niveau de la philosophie théorique ; la thèse de l’autonomie de la raison et d’un impératif inconditionnel au niveau de la raison pratique ; l’idée u’une république mondiale au niveau de la pensée politique. Il s’agit là de thèses isolées qui, par ailleurs, n’ont pas été reçues de manière statique, inconditionnelle, mais qui ont servi comme ferments dans des élaborations philosophiques postérieures.

Il semble préférable, non pas de parler de valeur durable de certains « philosophèmes » de Kant, mais plutôt d’un certain type de pensée que Kant a inauguré et qui peut fonctionner de façon universelle, à savoir celui d’une rationalité critique dont le projet demeure infini.

Michael Wolff: Es ist Kants unerschöpflicher Ideenreichtum, was universelle und fortdauernde Bedeutung hat, – es sind nicht bloss einzelne seiner Ideen, die eine solche Bedeutung haben. Am nachhaltigsten wird sich vermutlich auswirken, was Kant zu Fragen der systematischen Methode im Hinblick auf fast alle Bereiche der Philosophie gesagt hat.

Allen Wood: Kant’s two most valuable and enduring ideas were these: First, that rational nature in human beings is an end in itself, and the foundation of all value. Even the value of human happiness is grounded on this. Second, that it is important to understand the contribution of our free activity as theorizers to the structure of scientific knowledge. This is the basic correction to empiricism that is needed to prevent empiricist prejudices from distorting our view of science.




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