Over the last decade (eight years, to be precise), I have made two unsuccessful attempts at reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – the first time was with the help of a gutenberg text; the second time – it was the Norman Kemp translation that I had picked up at a second hand book store. While I am by no means a ‘genius’, I am not dumb either. So I was not happy when I realized that I couldn’t make sense of a single paragraph of what he had written – at least the first few pages (it was much later that I came across descriptions of him and his pedantic style of writing, and also the fact that some terms have different meanings in philosophy than in ‘normal’ life, something that still bugs me). That was the end of my curiosity, for the time being.

Will Durant, in his The Story of Philosophy, mentions a few authors in a footnote to the chapter on Kant. Friedrich Paulsen and Arthur Schopenhauer find favorable mention. The problem with Schopenhauer is that at the very outset – in the introduction to his The World as Will and Idea – he says that to understand his work, you have to read it twice. Not only that you also have to read two other books of his, and also Kant in the original. About his critique of Kant, which he has included in an appendix to his book, he says that it contains references to his own work – a case of running around in circles. Hence, no point even trying that, unless you are a professional philosopher. The only sound option then is Paulsen’s Immanuel Kant – His life and doctrine. This book falls in the intermediate category – its not simple, and its not cryptic. I am presently on the verge of finishing the biographical part, and that’s what I feel.

So, if you haven’t read much about and of Kant, its a good book to try. A warning on Kant though. Ayn Rand deeply hated Kant and his philosophy; “Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history,” she said. And she has her reasons. I have this habit of paying more attention to a philosopher’s life than to the philosophy (Schopenhauer does not approve of it) – its root lies in the question – does he practice what he preaches? (why should he, Schopenhauer asks). So I can’t help but notice ‘some’ similarities in Kant’s and Rand’s attitudes-

He had little patience with other people’s thoughts, but interpreted them directly according to his own theories, from this standpoint adopting or rejecting them. It is said that he was not inclined to discuss philosophical matters in private conversation, probably because he was conscious that he had not the capacity to listen, but only to teach. The same is true of his relation to other authors : he was not able to listen. Kant had reflected long and deeply, ever turning his thoughts on this side and on that, but in the philosophical field he had not read widely, and not with proper attention to the texts. He was not lacking in a general knowledge of the history of philosophy, both ancient and modern, and he understood also how to use this knowledge aptly. But he instantly subordinates the doctrines of others to his own purposes, and especially to the purpose of refutation. This is true of his treatment of Leibniz and Wolff, as well as of Hume and Berkeley. Those among his contemporaries who opposed his views, e. g., Feder and Eberhard, had a similar experience. It was vain to expect from Kant any real consideration of the doubts and objections which they raised. He was not able to listen or understand, but felt only the contradiction. Against this he rose with a sharp remonstrance, and then proceeded to set forth his views again as the truth and the only truth. Indeed, he cannot understand why every one does not find these views convincing, and is therefore quick to reproach others with intentional misunderstanding and misrepresentation. In the end, even Kant’s disciples, like Fichte and Beck, experienced this kind of treatment. Kant insists strongly on subordination and unconditional acceptance of his views. So long as his disciples confined themselves to appropriating and expounding his system in its original form, as his first and only faithful commentator Schultze did, they had Kant’s approbation. But so soon as they began to handle the thoughts more freely and independently, or to transform them in accordance with an internal necessity or the spirit of the system, he reprimanded them sharply. The Critique is to be understood according to its letter, not according to a pretended spirit. Indeed, he finally turned away from such disciples as from false friends, with suspicion and dislike, and announced his position in unrelenting public explanations.

Enough about Rand. And that’s all about Kant.

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  • Abhishek  On December 24, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Your post reminded me of this classic EY post I had read a long time ago.


  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 24, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Read it, and my brain kept telling me I have read it previously. This comment over there – “Is it just me or do others too notice that the quality of comments and dialog here is much higher than on most blogs?” – confirmed it.

    – – –

    There is a lot of truth in what EY talks about with regard to progress, and science, and math. But I am not willing to accept the same argument regarding philosophy. Unless we discover something truly remarkable about man and the human brain, or we mutate significantly, philosophy – at least epistemology, ethics and politics (the last two are heavily dependent on your view of metaphysics and epistemology)- won’t change much. Metaphysics is open to debate in a limited sense (will come to that), but I will follow Aristotle and Rand on this one; I never did believe in “the great illusion” in the first place, even when I was ‘religious’. No one can tell me I don’t exist or what I see is not ‘real’, and get away with it very easily – simple.

    There are some problems however, and philosophers have been at it for millennia. It concerns the limits of knowledge and its effect on the way we perceive things, the way we create and understand concepts, something Kant deals with – and badly, from what little I have read about him. Mukul Sharma had a short but very interesting article about it in the Cosmic Uplink column in ET a few days back.

    Physics, and metaphysics. There are many things that I find incomprehensible. When I was six, it was the apparent limitlessness of the universe; I made peace with it once I grasped the concept of infinity. It helped when I met numbers; I think its the other way round. Then there is light – it can be both waveform as well as particle form; I am not the least bit ashamed to say that I don’t understand why that is so. Then, space ‘bends’, or it ‘curves’ – relativity, electrons can be in two places at the same time – quantum mechanics – what does that even mean? I cannot conceive of anything beyond a three-dimensional infinite space; everything that goes against this – I find strange. All this concerns physics, and therefore it concerns the very nature of reality – metaphysics. Kant tries to explain this away saying space and time are mere perceptions, which I find absurd (space is out there you idiot, I want to scream). These are huge elephants in the room, and science needs to provide ‘rational’ explanations for them. “Its all God” or some form of Kantian voodoo is not the answer.

    Politics and ethics are comparatively easier to deal with; metaphysics and epistemology not so much. No wonder not many people dabble in philosophy. I think they fear they will go mad. In moments of weakness, I surely do.

  • Pramod Biligiri  On December 24, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I think most philosophers are overrated. I saw some Wittgenstein videos and boy was he a joke or what? Scientists convey so many complex concepts easily. Philosophers who can’t communicate are sloppy thinkers. Period.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 24, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Wittgenstein – you just have to read the first page of Tractatus… he’s either mad, or he’s too far ahead of his time.

    You are right about clarity. If a philosopher has something to say, he should say it in a simple manner. Bombarding the reader with thousands of technical terms, inventing words and concepts to bloat the work, using established terms by giving it a completely different spin – its crazy. But I am not sure if philosophy will ever manage that – clarity. Science and philosophy perform two completely different functions. Science discovers the reasons behind natural phenomenon; it investigates reality; philosophy explains the whole of human existence – its wider in scope as compared to science.

  • Sharon  On December 14, 2009 at 4:36 am

    As much as I do hate Kant, its for his obtuse complex style, not his ideas. And please don’t take Ayn Rand (an intriguing and important novelist) or her followers as correct interpreters of Kant; they are as far off as possible. Please see the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, basically any legitimate reference book, for a more accurate view.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On December 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

      Oh I have said some horrible things about him based on the Randian interpretation. But Mises being a Kantian means I should at least read him once before criticizing him.

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