Kant and Our Way of Thinking

Man Alone. A Reason Reduced but Absolute
To safeguard God’s “otherness,” he declared the impossibility of having an experience of Him, thus consigning the Mystery to an abyssal distance, leaving man alone with his reason as the measure of all things

by Costantino Esposito

Kant’s thought turned out to be truly the winner in the conflict of ideas that had accompanied the events of history for at least two centuries and directed the cultural tendencies of the modern and contemporary age. This judgment could perhaps seem a hazardous one, if we think of the developments in sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries, which no longer refer to the structures typical of Kant’s theory of cognition (I am thinking, for example, of non-Euclidean mathematics or of quantum physics). The verdict seems even more incomprehensible if we consider the distance that separates the rigorism of a formal ethic of duty for the sake of duty, as that of Kant, from the moral sense most widespread in our society, tied as it is to motives of instinct, of interest, and of power.
So what can we say? We can only go on giving this philosopher of Köningsberg the honor that is due to one of the founding fathers of classic modern thought, to the principal author of the great European illuministic plan which yet–we have to admit–was not realized according to his previsions. But we would, at the same time, be forced, on the insistence of those who consider themselves heirs and custodians of that plan (as frequently happens in recent times, for example in the debate over the cultural roots of the European constitution) to project the heritage of Kantian critical philosophy as a real “regulative ideal” on which to build our future. According to this ideal (and never as in this case does the “ideal” tend to distance itself, as an a priori law, from the empirical facts of experience), mankind would be called to self-determination on the basis of criteria of a reason that is abstract (one that does not take tradition as its starting point) and universal (that is to say, above the individual, and in which the individual is a casual function of the human race, which would then be the great subject of historical progress).

Rationalistic “ordering”
But reality continues clamorously to give the lie to this project of rationalistic “ordering” of the world. If, for example, one follows the tone of the majority of commentators on the present day cultural and political situation, what stands out clearly is the discrepancy between an effectual reality presented as a violent and immoral struggle for power and a model of critical rationality that is failing to direct experience towards higher ends, precisely because it is in its very epistemological structure not to start off from experience, but to have to “construct” it a priori. The bitter consequence of this is that often there are the same interests at play to be used, as arguments in one’s own favor, that are the reminder of an ideal of “pure” rationality, thereby justifying well-determined positions–to the point that someone is always ready to point to the scarcity of Kantian critical rigor as one of the profound motives for personal incoherence and public immorality in our culture.
But, if we look closer, it is precisely in this stall of critical philosophy that the sign of its victory must also be recognized. It can be noted, not only and not so much, obviously, in those who refer explicitly to the powerful program of rationalism of Kantian matrix, but also, and most of all, in those who seem to take other roads, towards territories that would be found beyond Kantian reason, if not against it: think of the many appeals that abound in our culture that space be given (for example, in pedagogy and psychology) to what goes beyond the cold and measurative–that is to say, objective rationality–and is more akin to feeling, emotion and faith, understood as a merely subjective faculty. So, we could say that Kant’s incredible geniality consisted in having molded not only his own followers, but even his adversaries, in the sense that he predetermined the horizon, the categories of judgment, and even the lexicon which laid the base for tackling or not tackling certain problems of philosophy and culture of our time.

The Kantian option
The most eloquent example we can give in this regard is that attitude of thought (very much present today, not only in a good deal of philosophy of religion, but in broad sectors of theology, even of Catholic theology) for which human reason, precisely in order to safeguard God’s otherness, cannot ever admit that the divine can make itself knowable and, furthermore, that the mystery can enter into the sphere of experience, without falling into idolatry and anthropocentric reduction. Well, all this would not be possible without the great Kantian option, in which one needs to “put aside thought to make room for faith.” And it is a significant fact that, separated from knowledge, the faith Kant speaks of–which is the pure moral faith of reason–ends up, paradoxically, converging with the defense of the inaccessibility of the divine spoken of by a theology disincarnated from experience. What is wanted “other” than reason has already been decided by reason itself.
But the question deserves to be reopened in its fundamental terms. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant has no doubts in pointing out the “stuff” of human reason in his question of the unconditioned: “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”

Finite and infinite
Yet, Kant continues (and here begins the great aporia of his questioning), these questions have such a range that they force reason to abandon experience because, on its part, experience is the domain of what one can measure sensibly only in space and time and what must be subjected to our a priori categories. If the unconditioned cannot be formalized in this way, it means that we can never know it. If, on one hand, therefore, reason is forced by its own nature to ask about real and infinite being, on the other hand, it is forced not to be able ever to meet it in experience. But in this way the finite would diverge more and more from the infinite, the measurements of science from the incommensurability of metaphysics and the empirical world of phenomena from the ideal world of freedom.
This therefore is the new “transcendental” metaphysics of Kant: “science of the limits of reason,” whose task is that of “staying on the boundaries,” determining–always a priori–not only what is found within these boundaries (objective experience, which is the work of the intellect), but also what lies beyond them, whose actual existence or non-existence is of less interest than its mental reality, its ideal immanence in reason itself. Here, the limits of reason are revealed as limits in reason: for, if it is true that the latter could not exist without tending to an infinite object, not being able to build this object as a “given,” it curves towards the same path as its question so as to reabsorb in itself–in the pure ideas of the soul, of the world and of God–that being which it was unable to know outside itself. Here, perhaps, where we would least expect it, we can find the first root of that disquieting phenomenon that we call nihilism.
(To be continued in the next issue. This is the first of two articles)

The Life
1724 Immanuel Kant is born on April 22th in Königsberg, capital of Eastern Prussia, the fourth of eleven children, six of whom died in childhood, of a family of modest extraction (his father was a saddler). His mother was a follower of “pietism,” a Lutheran sect which insisted on absolute rigor in religious practice. He attends the Collegium Fridericianum, of pietist inspiration, a school of very severe moral and religious formation.
1740 He enrolls at the Albertina University of Königsberg, where he studies philosophy, mathematics and theology.
1755 He earns his doctorate and lectureship at the same university. For fifteen years, he holds a large number of lessons in various disciplines, from logic to physical geography, and leads a very active social life.
1770 He is finally named Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg, where he remains teaching until 1796, refusing offers from other universities.
1794 After publishing two books (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and The End of All Things), he is prohibited by the Prussian government from continuing what was defined as a denigration of Christianity. Subsequently, however, when Frederic William III becomes king, in 1797, freedom of the press is restored and Kant is able to continue his activity, vindicating freedom of speech and thought.
1804 Kant dies on February 2nd in his poor house at Königsberg, after a period in which, struck down by old age, he loses the use of his mental faculties.