This is a list of writings that have influenced me, primarily political philosophy and spiritual writing. Additionally, there are lots of links to information about the various writers and topics.
Eric Voegelin is for me the most important political philosopher of the last two hundred years. He came to America from Germany and settled in Baton Rouge, LA. This is a discussion of his book The New Science of Politics.
My own summary: In this relatively short book, Voegelin gives a brilliant interpretation of the spiritual, intellectual and moral development of the west. Here is his thesis in a nutshell: We can enter into a way of understanding the west by looking to Jesus’ claim that “the Kingdom of God is at hand”. Voegelin argues that this claim is interpreted in two distinct ways in Western development, and that one of the ways is “gnostic”. Voegelin understands gnosticism in a very specific way, and sees it as a spiritually unhealthy and dangerous side to the western mind. On the one hand, the claim that the kingdom of God is at hand can be interpreted politically, to refer to a qualitatively and not simply quantitative transformation of society in the here and now. In this view, the kingdom is something we are to expect to be fully attained in time and space. On the other hand, the statement can be understood to point to a telos, or goal, which when man properly understands it he can orient his life by. In this second interpretation of the kingdom of God, this moral and spiritual object articulated by Jesus is not attained at some discrete point in time, but is rather pursued throughout the life of the individual as well as society. Voegelin argues that St. Augustine sucessfully supressed an “immanentist” reading of Jesus’ claim with his book “The City of God”: the claim that the highest moral and spiritual object of man’s seeking could and would be attained at some discrete point in history. As time went by, however, the culture became more confident and impatient with a goal that was always beyond the horizon. The scientific revolution, followed by the Reformation and poltical revolutions in the west, are for Voegelin a manifestation of an attempt to “immanentize the eschaton”, or that is, bring down into time and space by sheer will the reality referred to by the concept of the “kingdom of God”. This attempt peaked in the form of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, or a secularized, rationalized version of God.
All of this bodes ill for Voegelin and he believes that any understanding of the highest good which makes it fully realizable in the here and now is akin to a virus to the spirit of man.
Other author reviews:
“This book must be considered one of the most enlightening essays on the character of European politics that has appeared in half a century. . . . This is a book powerful and vivid enough to make agreement or disagreement with even its main thesis relatively unimportant.”–Times Literary Supplement
“Voegelin . . . is one of the most distinguished interpreters to Americans of the non-liberal streams of European thought. . . . He brings a remarkable breadth of knowledge, and a historical imagination that ranges frequently into brilliant insights and generalizations.”–Francis G. Wilson, American Political Science Review
“This book is beautifully constructed . . . his erudition constantly brings a startling illumination.”–Martin Wright, International Affairs
“A lodestar to thinking men who seek a restoration of political science on the classic and Christian basis . . . a significant accomplishment in the retheorization of our age.”–Anthony Harrigan, Christian Century
Discussion of Voegelin’s article Reason: The Classic Experience, in Vol. 12 of his Collected Works.
This article is in Vol. 12 of the Collected Works. Here is an excerpt from the opening discussion “The life of Reason is not a treasure of information to be stored away, it is the struggle in the metaxy for the immortalizing order of the psyche in resistance to the mortalizing forces of the apeirontic lust of being in Time. Existence in the In-Between of divine and human, of perfection and imperfection, of reason and passions, of knowledge and ignorance, of immortality and mortality is not abolished when it becomes luminous to itself. What did change through the differentiation of Reason was the level of critical consciousness concerning the order of existence.
The classic philosophers were conscious of this change as an epochal event; they were fully aware of the educational, diagnostic, and therapeutic functions of their discoveries; and they laid the foundations of a critical psychopathology that was further elaborated by the Stoics. They could not foresee, however, the vicissitudes to which their achievement would be exposed once it had entered history and become an integral factor in the cultures of Hellenistic, Christian, Islamic, and modern Western societies.
They could not foresee the incorporation of philosophy into various revelatory theologies, nor the transformation of philosophy into propositional metaphysics. And above all, they could not foresee the radical separation of the noetic symbolism they had created from its experiential context, so that the philosophical vocabulary would be set free to endow the attack on Reason with the appearance of Reason.
The dynamics of their resistance moved from the decay of the cosmological myth and from the Sophistic revolt toward the “love of wisdom”; they did not anticipate a distant future in which the egophanic revolt would have perverted the meaning of the noetic symbols, the extensive degradation des symboles as Mircea Eliade has called this modern phenomenon, so that the dynamics of resistance would have to move from the system of thinkers in a state of alienation again toward noetic consciousness.
To present the classic insights as doxographic relics not only would be pointless, it would destroy their very meaning as the expression of man’s resistance to the mortalizing disorder of the age. Not the insights are to be remembered, but the resistance against the “climate of opinion” (Whitehead) is to be continued, if the life of Reason is to be kept truly alive.”
Leo Strauss’ What is Political Philosophy
Quote from the text: “All political action has . . . in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or of the good society. For the good society is the complete political good. If this directedness becomes explicit, if men make it their explicit goal to acquire knowledge of the good life and of the good society, political philosophy emerges. . . . The theme of political philosophy is mankind’s great objectives, freedom and government or empire–objectives which are capable of lifting all men beyond their poor selves. Political philosophy is that branch of philosophy which is closest to political life, to non-philosophic life, to human life.”–From What Is Political Philosophy? in the book What Is Political Philosophy?–a collection of ten essays and lectures and sixteen book reviews written between 1943 and 1957–contains some of Leo Strauss’s most famous writings and some of his most explicit statements of the themes that made him famous. The title essay records Strauss’s sole extended articulation of the meaning of political philosophy itself. Other essays discuss the relation of political philosophy to history, give an account of the political philosophy of the non-Christian Middle Ages and of classic European modernity, and present his theory of esoteric writing.
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity
My remarks: This book had a particular effect on me, helping me get insight into the manner and degree to which modern intellectuals heavily stress certitude. I became interested in this when I realized that religious phenomena do not require certainty, and moreover, that if one wishes to live a spiritual life, they cannot focus on being intellectually certain that what they are doing is truthful. This point is all the more important if one is unwittingly trying to adhere to a religious tradition and influenced by the Cartesian sense of “truthful”.
Description from the book: In the seventeenth century, a vision arose which was to captivate the Western imagination for the next three hundred years: the vision of Cosmopolis, a society as rationally ordered as the Newtonian view of nature. While fueling extraordinary advances in all fields of human endeavor, this vision perpetuated a hidden yet persistent agenda: the delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories. Stephen Toulmin confronts that agenda–its illusions and its consequences for our present and future world.
“By showing how different the last three centuries would have been if Montaigne, rather than Descartes, had been taken as a starting point, Toulmin helps destroy the illusion that the Cartesian quest for certainty is intrinsic to the nature of science or philosophy.”–Richard M. Rorty, University of Virginia
“[Toulmin] has now tackled perhaps his most ambitious theme of all. . . . His aim is nothing less than to lay before us an account of both the origins and the prospects of our distinctively modern world. By charting the evolution of modernity, he hopes to show us what intellectual posture we ought to adopt as we confront the coming millennium.”–Quentin Skinner, New York Review of Books
Quote from Toulmin in discussion linked below. Speaking of his book, he says:
The central thing, which was the one I found most attractive to attack, is the belief that rationality has to be understood in terms of formal argumentation, in terms of rather strict ideals of argument, which, in the ideal case, should become geometrical in the kind of way that Plato explains — whether he advocates it or not is another matter — in antiquity, and which Descartes makes explicit in his discourse.
Hackney: You use the term “the quest for certainty” or “the search for certainty.”
Toulmin: Yes. I’m consciously associating myself with John Dewey, who also, in the late 1920s, picked on the quest for certainty as a perennial disease of modern thought, although he never sat down and thought enough from a historical point of view about why this quest for certainty had the kinds of attractions it had in the first half of the seventeenth century and provided the kind of mold or template on which modern science, modern politics, modern philosophy were shaped.
To this extent — and we know that Descartes and his colleagues were exposed to this terrible final religious war between rulers of different European states who professed to be defending the interests of Protestantism on the one side, Catholicism on the other — we know that this made a deep impression on Descartes and Leibniz. It’s been naive of a lot of us to think that Descartes and Leibniz and their successors could dissociate the arguments they put forward entirely from the rest of the experience they had, which must have been a searing and indigestible kind of experience.
Hackney: Yes, making the search for certainty more attractive.
Toulmin: Making it seem more urgent. Leibniz, who was born right at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, long after Descartes by humane standards, spent the whole of his career afraid that the argument might go in a way that enabled the religious wars to break out again. Since his family had seen much of Germany destroyed and about a third of the population of Germany killed in the course of those thirty years, it’s understandable that he felt an intellectual mission to create a basis for people to agree on foundations about which they need no longer fight.
Alasdaire MacIntyre: After Virtue
Morality, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, is not what it used to be. In the Aristotelian tradition of ancient Greece and medieval Europe, morality enabled the transformation from untutored human nature as it happened to be to human nature as it could be if it realized its telos (fundamental goal). Eventually, belief in Aristotelian teleology waned, leaving the idea of imperfect human nature in conflict with the perfectionist aims of morality. The conflict dooms to failure any attempt to justify the claims of morality, whether based on emotion, such as Hume’s was, or on reason, as in the case of Kant. The result is that moral discourse and practice in the contemporary world is hollow: although the language and appearance of morality remains, the substance is no longer there. Disagreements on moral matters appeal to incommensurable values and so are interminable; the only use of moral language is manipulative.
The claims presented in After Virtue are certainly audacious, but the historical erudition and philosophical acuity behind MacIntyre’s powerful critique of modern moral philosophy cannot be disregarded. Moreover, independently of its principal claims, the book, first published in 1981, helped to stimulate philosophical work on the virtues, to reinvigorate traditionalist and communitarian thought, and to provoke valuable discussion in the history of moral philosophy. It was so widely discussed that MacIntyre added another chapter to the second edition in order to reply to his critics. After Virtue continues to deserve attention from philosophers, historians, and anyone interested in moral philosophy and its history. –Glenn Branch
Alan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind
My remarks: This book had a tremendous impact on me and continues to influence the way I teach. Two chapters in particular influenced me to think about the foundations of the United States in a way I had not heretofore done, namely “Two Revolutions and Two States of Nature”, and “The German Connection”. Ironically, Bloom has been interpreted as far to the right. However, if one looks closely at these two chapters in particular, there is a highly insightful evocation of a Socratic questioning of the foundations of the United States. In particular, Bloom, with Thomas Pangle, bring the careful reader to question the assumption that the modern definition of happiness does indeed lead us to the deep good, the relevant point being that the United States is thoroughly modern in its founding ideals.
Review: When The Closing of The American Mind was published in 1987, it instantly ignited a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Conservatives hailed it as vindication of their long-ignored criticisms about American culture in general and higher education in particular. Liberals denounced it as elitist and intolerant, and they said Bloom wanted to keep students ignorant of other cultures so he could indoctrinate them with his. Neither side had it right. The Closing of The American Mind is, as Bloom put it in his preface, “a meditation on the state of our souls.”
Both sides were wrong about the book because they didn’t read it carefully enough. Liberals read Bloom’s argument for philosophy as an attempt to purge non-white, non-European writers from the cannon on grounds of cultural purity. Conservatives read his plea as an attempt to run all the liberal professors out of academia and replace them with conservatives. But a careful reading of Bloom would quickly prove both of these interpretations false.
Bloom believed Plato’s cave was culture, whether that culture was western or not (after all, it was Plato’s description of his own culture that created the idea of the cave). Bloom’s argument was that students should be forced to read the works of the great philosophers because those writers are the only ones who dealt with the fundamental question of life: what is man. Bloom believed it was the university’s mission to equip students with the tools that would enable them to seek the answer to this question and to lead a philosophical life. Only the great philosophers were capable of introducing students to the deepest and most profound life, and without this introduction, students would forever remain in their respective caves.
Bloom never was a conservative, nor was he one who wished to impose his “culture” on others. Simply put, he was a scholar who wished to make his students think – to truly think – about the nature of their existence and of society. The goal of Bloom’s book was to show how Americans of all political persuasions, social backgrounds and economic conditions are debating within a narrow modern world-view and have simply accepted as fact a mushy blend of modern theory that repeatedly contradicts itself and stands in sharp contrast to an almost entirely forgotten world of opposing thought: that of the ancients.
In other words, Americans are incapable of true self-examination and self-understanding because they are ignorant of ancient philosophy, which poses the only alternative to the modern concept of man. What Bloom does with The Closing of The American Mind is expose the great Oz by asking him life’s deepest questions. Bloom asks the same questions of today’s professors and students that the ancient philosophers asked of themselves and their students. He finds that not only does no one have an answer, but no one even understands the questions.
Bloom’s confrontation exposes the modern American university for what it really is: one big self-esteem seminar where students are taught self-validation instead of self-examination. Professors are not forcing students to confront the most serious questions of life, but rather are handing them scrolls of paper certifying that the university has bestowed on them qualities which, in fact, they already possessed, those being “openness” and “tolerance.”
The university, he shows, does nothing to contest this belief, but feeds it instead. The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only “lifestyle.”
There exist in the world polar opposites. Bloom lists “reason-revelation, freedom-necessity, democracy-aristocracy, good-evil, body-soul, self-other, city-man, eternity-time, being-nothing.” Serious thought requires recognition of the existence of these opposites and the choice of one over the other. “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear,” Bloom says.
He argues persuasively that the modern university does not force students to confront these alternatives at all, much less seriously think about them. Therefore, the modern university fails in its purpose, which is to create students aware of the vast array of possibilities that life offers and capable of choosing the good life.
Bloom has been harshly, and is still continually, accused of trying to force his own ideology on his students. But even a cursory reading of The Closing of The American Mind will disprove this silly accusation. Bloom simply wanted to make students think, to make them understand that there are different ideas of what man is and that they must confront these ideas if they wish to lead a meaningful life. This, he believed, was the university’s purpose because it is there and only there that students would be exposed to alternatives to the prevailing intellectual trends. Life will happen to the students, he said, they don’t need the university to provide it for them. They need the university to equip them for making the choices that will lead them to the best, most fulfilling life – the philosophical life. It is precisely for this reason that universities exist, and it is precisely this task that they now fail to accomplish.
Bloom’s book remains important after its publication because of the depth of Bloom’s intellect and the thoroughness of his analysis. Only the last third of The Closing of The American Mind focuses on the modern university. Bloom spends the first two-thirds of the book explaining the modern mind-set and contrasting it with the ancient and the enlightened. He demonstrates the shallowness of the modern mind by repeatedly beating it about the head with Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. With this tactic, Bloom tears apart the vapid pop psychology that passes as deep thought and holds up the shreds for the reader to see their thinness.
But Bloom’s attack is also instruction. Through it he takes the reader on an intellectual history tour in which he tracks the evolution of modern thought. Focusing on key words in today’s usage, such as “lifestyle,” “relationship” and “commitment,” he retraces them through history to discover their origins and their true meanings. He then contrasts these words with the ones they replaced, such as “duty,” “honor,” “love.” The depth and complexity of the ancient concepts overpowers the shallow convenience of the modern ones. Bloom tells how, when he showed this contrast to his students, they didn’t care. Worse, they recoiled at the very thought of being bound by duty or honor or love as opposed to being committed to relationships via contract.
This contrast is at the heart of Bloom’s book: whether humans are truth-seeking creatures who live for the purpose of pleasing God and discovering the good, or whether they are truth-creating creatures who live only for the purpose of satisfying their animal needs and preventing the bad. Bloom believes the former, modernity the latter. Bloom knew that his book would not solve the question or ennoble America. But it would reintroduce the question, which is all that he wanted the university to do. It is tragic that, as he predicted, the universities would cast him out as a heretic instead of making themselves his disciples.
Rousseau: First Political Discourse, which seeks to answer the question: “Has the Enlightenment Restored Morals or Harmed Them?”
My remarks: This short essay by Rousseau is perhaps the first critique of the Enligthenment. As this critique relates to the primary theme of this site – the tension between the deep good for the individual and the good for society as a whole – Rousseau is the first to reveal this tension for us in modernity. It is in relation to this tension that Rousseau offers a ‘critique par excellence’ of modernity. As such he points a way for us as single individuals to reflect upon the meaning of the deep good. For contrasting views, see the three texts on the left hand side of the home page. On-line Analyses: Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption; everything that civilized people have regarded as progress&emdash;urbanization, technology, science, and so on&emdash;has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity. For Rousseau, the natural moral state of human beings is to be compassionate; civilization has made us cruel, selfish, and bloodthirsty. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau also argued that civilization has robbed us of our natural freedom. While semi-civilized humanity looked to itself for its values and happiness, civilized human beings live outside themselves in the opinions and authority of others. The price of civilization is human freedom and human individuality:
Quote from text: In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.
Jean Baudrillard, America
My remarks: While much of French philosophy is banal, Baudrillard is in the tradition of de Toqueville, offering some deep insights into the American mind. He makes use of the image of the skyscraper in Manhattan to capture the American drive to overcome limits. At the same time, he makes use of the western dessert to capture a unique kind of freedom found only in America, a negative freedom which acts at once like a condition of the possibility of self actualization as well as a source of existential anguish. One of the questions Baudrillard can bring us as insiders; as Americans, to ask is: If America is a free space in which all sorts of living and becoming are possible, what determines the nature, or that is, the moral and spiritual quality, of the objects we end up striving after (German: Objekts)? For Baudrillard, post-modernism is to be understood in the way this question is effectively answered. Like a good philosopher, in the sense that each individual can answer this question differently, he is open-ended in his inquiry. In the sense that the objects we in this culture pursue are so often banal and empty of spiritual, moral or intellectual significance can his writing be understood as a critique par excellence of the culture. For what he does in the text is bring out what is already there. Review from on line:
Jean Baudrillard, Paris’s premier hyperpostmodernist theoretician delivers a highly evocative travelogue of his time in the U.S. He visits the Southwestern desert, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, NYC, L.A., and a few other places.
The Baudrillard writing America, we must remember, is not the Freudo-Marxian sociologist of the 70s; rather, we are dealing here with the post-simulacra Baudrillard, deeply fascinated by the final materialization and (ex-)termination of the project known as modernity, and deeply critical of the implications and consequences of this epochal completion: the emergence of “hyperreal” phenomena (the end of reality in the very excess of reality), the sovereign reign of copies without originals, etc. etc.
So, for Baudrillard, America is really the site of the literal materialization of modernity, as opposed to Old Europe, which he dismisses as having never really practiced modernity, despite producing numerous ideologies of the modern (the Englightenment, Marxism, etc. etc.) Consequently, he is far more interested in the spectacle of America (Disneyland, drive-through restaurants, L.A. architecture, liposuction, mormon temples, etc.) than he is in America’s “culture.” He demands that Americans remain as pragmatic as they can be and to leave theory to Europe, which is a beautiful if impossible demand.
His vision of America is speed-driven and post-apocalyptic, ever-filtered by the realization that American life is the wasteland of culture, meaning, and, ultimately, signifiers.
From Amazon, by Sohrab Amari.
Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity
My remarks: The primary value of this book in my view is the manner in which this well known Candian social philosopher clearly articulates the primary moral value of American society: efficiency. Because a primary purpose of this site is to articulate the moral values we live by – usually without being aware we are doing so – this book is one of the more significant listed here. The claim is that primary moral value we live by in English speaking America is “instrumental reason”, or efficiency. On-line review: This is a short and powerful book. The frequent references to Taylor’s “Sources of the Self” may indicate that it is a mere introduction to the longer work, but I feel that it stands well alone.
Taylor, a Canadian, observes the conservative-liberal debate in America from an outsider’s position. He is able to distance himself from the rhetoric, vocabulary, and narrow categories of this debate. I found his insights well worth consideration.
In essence, Taylor attempts to redefine the debate. His concerns are threefold. First, radical individualism has disavowed most moral absolutes, eroded the meaningfulness of life, and resulted in a centripetal self-orientation that denigrates relational connectiveness. Secondly, Taylor is concerned that modern thought has become dominated by a reason that finds the highest good in the economic maximizing of ends. This “instrumental reason” demeans others as mere means to an end, disregards important perspectives that are not integral to the cost/benefit equation, and creates a technological supremacy that may cost us our humanity. Thirdly, Taylor is concerned that institutions have embraced instrumental reason as supreme and creating a power-base that may stand in the way of reform.
Most of this book deals exclusively with Taylor’s thoughts on the first of these concerns. Conservatives will be upset that Taylor does not call for a return to older values and older worldviews. Instead, he accepts the modern emphasis on individualism and the corollaries of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. He parts with these liberal ideals by arguing that the centripetal self-focus can only find meaning outside of the self. Discovery of my originality and uniqueness is a dialogical process (with others, values, or deity) that demands an objective “horizon.”
Hence, my definition of Taylor’s authenticity is the dialogical discovery of my “being.” Others are not used to complete my project, but are collaborators and partners. Together we work to throw off the shackles of psychological, institutional, and familial pressures to conform. Freedom from these shackles is not license to abuse, but becomes ground to assume responsibility for self without excuse. Radical individualism escapes meaninglessness only in dialogic connectedness and assumption of personal responsibility.
In my view, the ethics of authenticity are much needed. I hope this book finds many receptive readers.
Peter Kindle on Amazon.com
Immanuel Kant, with a focus on The Critique of Pure Reason
My dissertation was on Kant’s moral philosophy. For me, Kant is significant not for his epistemology or his notion of duty, but for his conception of the ground and nature of moral goodness. This is a theme I allude to often on this site.
One of philosophy’s primary tasks is to seek knowledge of or construct a whole. Kant repeatedly told us that we never actually gain knowledge of or construct an actual whole, for the reason that our understanding must work with “parts”, e.g. we can only see one side of an object at any given time and we only experience one moment at a time. One of the ways we can talk most fruitfully about living well, however, is by conceiving of ways we are in relation to a whole. Insofar as the fundamental issue in philosophy is the issue of the whole or what is the same thing experientially, the ground thereof and our relation to it, I value Kant greatly because he articulates how our moral and spiritual well being is contingent upon kinds of wholes we are potentially in relation to. The following are excerpts from the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant is discussing the whole and our moral relation to it:
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. (CPR, Avii)
For what necessarily forces us to transcend the limits of experience and of all appearances is the unconditioned, which reason, by necessity and by right, demands in things in themselves, as required to complete the series of conditions. (CPR,Bxx)
While we cannot gain knowledge of a whole theoretically, this inability leads us to a solution which has a moral, or practical, benefit:
But when all progress in the field of the supersensible has thus been denied to speculative reason, it is still open to us to enquire whether, in the practical knowledge of reason, data may not be found sufficient to determine reason’s transcendent concept of the unconditioned….(CPR,Bxxi)
He repeats this point elsewhere:
Is this endeavor the outcome merely of the speculative interests of reason? Must we not rather regard it as having its source exclusively in the practical interests of reason? (CPR,A797)
In the next remarks, Kant tells us that while we never gain knowledge of a whole, e.g. the whole universe, the idea of the whole acts as a guiding principle by which the understanding organizes its perceptual data into a condition which makes experience possible:
The remarkable feature of these principles, and what in them alone concerns us, is that they seem to be transcendental, and that although they contain mere ideas for the guidance of the empirical employment of reason — ideas which reason follows only as it were asymptotically, i.e. ever more closely without ever reaching them — they yet possess, as synthetic a priori propositions, objective but indeterminate validity, and serve as rules for possible experience. (CPR,A663)
Kant further specifies that the function of these ideas is regulative, and not to give us knowledge of things-in-themselves, saying:
The idea (of any of the cosmological ideas which account for an unconditioned) is thus only a heuristic device, not an ostensive concept. It does not show us how an object is constituted, but how, under its guidance, we should seek to determine the constitution and connection of the objects of experience. (CPR,A671)
In the following excerpts, we see Kant discussing how it is that the concept of the whole is related to our moral being:
Pure reason, then, contains, not indeed in its speculative employment, but in that practical employment which is also moral, principles of the possibility of experience, namely, of such actions as, in accordance with moral precepts, might be met with in the history of mankind. (CPR,A807)
Kant goes on to speak of an object of practical reason which is itself in the form of a unified whole. While pure theoretical reason cannot discover an actual totality in the sense world, pure practical reason can construct a whole which is an object of human willing and action. He says:
Consequently, a special kind of systematic unity, namely the moral, must likewise be possible. We have indeed found that the systematic unity of nature cannot be proved in accordance with speculative principles of reason. For although reason does indeed have causality in respect of freedom in general, it does not have causality in respect of nature as a whole; and although moral principles of reason can indeed give rise to free actions, they cannot give rise to laws of nature. Accordingly it is in their practical, meaning thereby their moral, employment, that the principles of pure reason have objective reality. (CPR,A807)
The unity reason initially sought by seeking to discover a totality in the sense world or a sensible unconditioned conditioned will turn out to reside in an object of practical reason in the form of a (unified) moral world, namely the Kingdom of God on earth.
Excerpts on ideas as a kind of causality, in “The Concepts of Pure Reason”, p. 314 Kemp Smith translator:
…it is not only where human reason exhibits genuine causality, and where ideas are operative causes (of actions and their objects), namely, in the moral sphere, but also in regard to nature itself, that Plato rightly discerns clear proofs of an origin from ideas. A plant, an animal, the orderly arrangement of the cosmos — presumably therefore the entire natural world — clearly show that they are possible only according to ideas, A318 and that though no single creature in the conditions of its individual existence coincides with the idea of what is most perfect in its kind — just as little as does any human being with the idea of humanity, which he yet carries in his soul as the archetype of his actions — these ideas are none the less completely determined in the Supreme Understanding, each as an individual and each as unchangeable, and are the original causes of things. But only the totality of things, in their interconnection as constituting the universe, is B375 completely adequate to the idea. If we set aside the exaggerations in Plato’s methods of expression, the philosopher’s spiritual flight from the ectypal mode of reflecting upon the physical world-order to the architectonic ordering of it according to ends, that is, according to ideas, is an enterprise which calls for respect and imitation. It is, however, in regard to the principles of morality, legislation, and religion, where the experience, in this case of the good, is itself made possible only by the ideas — incomplete as their empirical expression must always remain — that Plato’s teaching exhibits its quite peculiar merits. When it fails to obtain recognition, this is due to its having been judged in accordance with precisely those empirical rules, the invalidity of which, regarded as principles, it has itself demonstrated. For whereas, so far as nature is concerned, experience supplies the rules and is the source of truth, in respect of the moral laws it is, alas, the mother of illusion! Nothing is more reprehensible than to derive the laws A319 prescribing what ought to be done from what is done, or to impose upon them the limits by which the latter is circumscribed.
Excerpts on two ways the understanding attempts to seek the whole, in “System of Cosmological Ideas”, from page 391, in Kemp Smith:
… what reason is really seeking in this serial, regressively continued, synthesis of conditions, is solely the B444 unconditioned. What it aims at is, as it were, such a completeness in the series of premisses as will dispense with the need of presupposing other premisses. This unconditioned is always contained in the absolute totality of the series as represented in imagination. But this absolutely complete synthesis is again only an idea; for we cannot know, at least at the start of this enquiry, whether such a synthesis is possible in the case of appearance. If we represent everything exclusively through pure concepts of understanding, and apart from conditions of sensible intuition, we can indeed at once assert that for a given conditioned, the whole series of conditions subordinated to each other is likewise given. The former is given only through the latter. When, however, it is with appearances that we are dealing, we find a special limitation due to the manner in which conditions are given, namely, through the successive synthesis A417 of the manifold of intuition — a synthesis which has to be made complete through the regress. Whether this completeness is sensibly possible is a further problem; the idea of it lies in reason, independently alike of the possibility or of the impossibility of our connecting with it any adequate empirical concepts. Since, then, the unconditioned is necessarily contained in the absolute totality of the regressive synthesis of the manifold in the [field of] appearance — the synthesis being executed in accordance with those categories which represent appearance as a series of conditions to a given conditioned — reason here adopts the method of starting from the idea of B445 totality, though what it really has in view is the unconditioned, whether of the entire series or of a part of it. Meantime, also, it leaves undecided whether and how this totality is attainable.
Remarks on Kant’s Reason Within the Limits of Reason Alone
In my dissertation, I discuss at some length Kant’s repeated denial that we have knowledge of the whole, e.g. we can’t gain knowledge of the entire universe or its origins. He also argues, relatedly, that we cannot gain knowledge of the referents of the ideas in true religion, by which I mean, the concepts referred to by concepts in religion. So for example, we have no knowledge of heaven or hell, or of God, or Jesus’ divinity. While we moderns will tend to interpret Kant’s repeated denial of our knowelge of “the most important things” to be primarily of epistemological import, or that is, about knowledge as if knowledge were itself most important, I argue that while the entire discussion may seem to modern readers to be a theoretical issue – whether we have knowledge of certain objects or not – it is in fact intended by Kant to have practical, or that is, moral import by Kant. When we reflect for a minute on the suggestion that there is a relation between a) Kant’s denial that we have knowledge of the highest objects of human existence and b) the moral quality of our living; when we consider that Kant is not primarily interested in pure theory but rather influencing the moral quality of our living, we also might recall that in the tradition of revelation, there are continued allusions to a relation between a) a denial of our knowledge, or more exactly stated, an attempt to dissuade us from making knowledge the highest good and b) our moral-spiritual well being. Think, for example, of Jesus repeatedly challenging his hearers not to demand empirical proof of his claims, but also that when he does give empirical proof, it is always in the context of giving into a kind of human need for hard knowledge.
This theme – of the negative impact on the moral quality of our lives when we demand certain knowledge – comes to be a theme for Rousseau, and it is perhaps from him that Kant picks it up. In this part of my dissertation, I talk about how Kant attempts to dissuade us from conceiving certain aspects of the Christian religion as if they were knowable – e.g. sensible or empirical. Since only sensible, or empirical objects, are knowable for Kant, and sensible objects constitute a different kind of ground of the will, if we “sensify” the ideas of true religion – including Jesus himself, heaven and hell, or even God – we negatively impact our relation to these ojbects (German: Objekts) and thus our moral-spiritual well being.
From my dissertation, Chapter 4, Part 2. I have added bold to all terms which refer to our conception of the ideas of Christianity. For what matters here is our subjective or inward interpretation of the ideas of true religion, and not the objects themselves. We have no direct relation to objects as “things-in-themselves” for Kant. So again, we can know neither the entire universe nor God. This seems obvious upon reflection, but we moderns often unconsciously assume that we can and should gain knowledge of everything important. We have no direct relation to “things in themselves” for Kant, but rather our mind always functions as intermediary between objective reality – which is not knowable by the mind which experiences – and our experience. Likewise, we harm ourselves morally and spiritually oftentimes by our inner interpretation of reality when we place stress on its objectivity, and not by evil or badness conceived of as purely objectively present “essences” apart from how we live and act.
In Book II of the Religion, Kant focuses more specifically on particular aspects of the Christian religion than he did in Book I. His primary purpose remains persuading us not to interpret the ideas of the Christian religion as if they were based in sensible, e.g. empirical, objects in time and space. Conceiving these ideas in this manner is detrimental to the lived experience of moral obligation. The problem of conceiving the ideas of the Christian religion as if they were based in sensible objects arises in particular in relation to the moral ideal embodied in Jesus, whom Kant refers to as the Son of God. Owing to the fact that, in the person of Jesus, the pure moral idea is represented as analogously sensible, it is all to easy to interpret this idea as if it were based in an object in time and space. When we do this, the motives underlying our actions in relation to this idea fundamentally change from being grounded inwardly in free will to being grounded in external reality.
Regarding the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, Kant says:
“It is indeed a limitation of human reason, and one which is ever inseparable from it, that we can conceive of no considerable moral worth in the actions of a personal being without representing that person, or his manifestation, in human guise. This is not to assert that such worth is in itself so conditioned, but merely that we must always resort to some analogy to natural existences to render supersensible qualities intelligible to ourselves.” (Rel., 58, Note)
In Book II, then, Kant is continuing to deal with the problem for morality which arises when we conceive pure ideas, or what Kant calls regulative ideas, as if they were based in objects in time and space. When we confuse what is only an example of a pure idea such as moral perfection with the source of the pure idea, we transform what are supposed to function as ideas of pure practical reason into empirical incentives of the will. Kant tells us that while we tend to conceive God as if He were in time, we are not to conflate this analogy with knowledge of God:
“Such is the schematism of analogy, with which (as a means of explanation) we cannot dispense. But to transform it into a schematism of objective determination (for the extension of our knowledge) is anthropomorphism, which has, from the moral point of view (in religion), most injurious consequences.” (Rel., 58, Note)
In short, it is injurious to the experience of obligation to conceive God as a being in time because in such a case the moral law is conceived to be based in an empirical ground. Empirical grounds are always conditioned, and Kant has argued elsewhere that empirical grounds can only act on the will via the will’s sensible receptivity. If we conceive God as if he were in time, we would more likely be motivated by fear and desire. As we have seen, however, the idea of God is supposed to function in Kant’s system to make it possible to conceive the attainment of the highest good as well as to motivate the reader to act on the basis of a pure intention.
Throughout Book II, Kant goes back and forth between attempting to persuade the reader to adopt a pure moral disposition and dissuading him from conceiving the ideas of the Christian religion as if they refer to sensible objects in which the moral law is grounded. When we conceive the sensible examples offered by the Christian religion as if they themselves were the source of the moral law, we risk giving the will an empirical incentive. By conceiving the ideas of the Christian religion in the right way, we facilitate the realization of both elements of moral experience: a pure will as well as continual striving.
II. The Denial of Knowledge of the Referents of the Practical Ideas and the Purity of the Will
Kant begins Section I by prompting us to live up to the Christian ideal:
“Now it is our universal duty as men to elevate ourselves to this ideal of moral perfection, that is, to this archetype of the moral disposition in all its purity…” (Rel., 54)
Although there is a tendency to represent the ideal of moral perfection in sensible guise, the true idea abstracts from all sensible conditions and is valid in itself. We are not to conflate the idea of the moral law with the concept of a sensible object. While the “law commands unqualifiedly” (Rel., 56), if we make the concept of a sensible object the incentive of the will, the will is determined by an object external to it. He tells us: “We need… no empirical example to make the idea of a person morally well-pleasing to God our archetype….” (Rel., 56) The ideal of moral perfection, again, does not refer to an external object in time, but rather “this idea as an archetype is already present in our reason…” and “… only a faith in the practical validity of that idea which lies in our reason has moral worth.” (Rel., 56) Attempting to assure that we do not conceive analogously sensible objects as if they are the source of the moral law, in which case we would be making the concept of an empirical object the determining ground of the will, he adds:
“Only this idea, to be sure, can establish the truth of miracles as possible effects of the good disposition; but it can never itself derive from them its own verification.” (Rel., 56)
Kant applies the same argument to the issue of evil. Evil is represented in the Bible as if it were grounded in an empirical object outside us. But this does not mean that evil is grounded in an object in time and space. The biblical account of good and evil does not refer to external, sensible objects of which we can have knowledge. Kant supports his position by quoting the Bible: “‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood (the natural inclinations) but against principalities and powers – against evil spirits’.” (Rel., 52) Of this passage, he says:
“This is an expression which seems to have been used not to extend our knowledge beyond the world of sense but only to make clear for practical use the conception of what is for us unfathomable.” (Rel., 52)
Through repetition, Kant stresses that we are not to conceive good or evil to be grounded in empirical objects. To do so would make moral good and evil conditioned, which would make it impossible to attribute moral obligation to the will.
In the middle of Book II, Kant tells us that certain moral ideas are regulative only. Assuming we have knowledge of the object of our will is harmful to morality. It is worth repeating the entirety of a remark Kant makes on this issue:
“In general, if we limited our judgement to regulative principles, which content themselves with their own possible application to the moral life, instead of aiming at constitutive principles of a knowledge of supersensible objects, insight into which, after all, is forever impossible to us, human wisdom would be better off in a great many ways, and there would be no breeding of a presumptive knowledge of that about which, in the last analysis, we know nothing at all – a groundless sophistry that glitters for a time but only, as in the end becomes apparent, to the detriment of morality.” (Rel., 65)
While we have no theoretical knowledge of how we are able to attain the highest good or that we have done so, we have an obligation to continually do what is within our power to bring it about. Referring again to our lack of certitude concerning our ability to obtain our moral object and suggesting that there would be something detrimental for moral experience if we could attain such certitude, Kant adds:
“Did we have to prove in advance the possibility of man’s conforming to this archetype, as is absolutely essential in the case of concepts of nature (if we are to avoid the danger of being deluded by empty notions), we should have to hesitate before allowing even to the moral law the authority of an unconditioned and yet sufficient determining ground of our will.” (Rel., 56)
Owing to the mode of presentation of sense objects to the understanding, if we had knowledge of God or an afterlife, fear and desire would more likely constitute the incentive of our will. To decrease the likelihood that we will conceive objects of faith as sensible, thereby transforming them into objects which affect the sensible receptivity of the will, Kant is explicitly construing the elements of faith as regulative ideas only which are derived from reason alone. Attempting to persuade the reader to base his striving on an Idea which the will itself posits, he says:
“…only a faith in the practical validity of that idea which lies in our reason has moral worth. (Only this idea, to be sure, can establish the truth of miracles as possible effects of the good principle; but it can never itself derive from them its own verification.) “(Rel., 56)
Furthermore, “each man ought really to furnish an example of this idea in his own person.” (Rel., 56)
At the same time that Kant does not want us to conceive our moral ideal as attainable in time, he does not want the reader to give up hope and cease striving as a result the repeated denials that we can attain a state of moral goodness once and for all. It is perhaps natural for us to think we ought to aim to fully attain our moral object in time. It may seem counterintuitive or even contradictory to be told that we cannot attain our moral goal or a state of being morally good in the same breath that we are told that we must continually strive after moral goodness. Kant seems almost hyper-vigilant to avoid ending up at either pole of the tension between discouraging the reader as concerns his own moral status, on the one hand, and making him overconfident about that status, on the other.
“?Lest all the prior references to our inability to know that we have a good disposition discourage the reader from striving, Kant tacks back to motivating the reader not to give up, asserting that “on the other hand, if a man lacked all confidence in his moral disposition, once it was acquired, he would scarcely be able to persevere steadfastly in it.”(Rel., 62)
He goes on to tell us that we can at best only infer from our actions a steady improvement in our inner disposition:
“He can gain such confidence, however, without yielding himself up either to pleasing or anxious fantasies, by comparing the course of his life hitherto with the resolution he has adopted… in the steady improvement of his way of life, [he] can still only conjecture from this that there has been a fundamental improvement in his inner disposition.” (Rel., 62)
In a long footnote, Kant repeats some of the dominant themes of Book II once again. He starts by telling us that the disposition, constituting an intelligible ground of the will, is outside time. The disposition is:
“…of such a nature (being something supersensible) that its existence is not susceptible to division into periods of time, but can only be thought of as an absolute unity.” (Rel., 63, Note)
Owing to the intelligible nature of the ground of the good will, we are able from the perspective of pure reason to conceive the complete attainment of our moral object. Speaking of the possibility of conceiving a complete unity in the actions which make up our lives, Kant refers again to a meta-level perspective from which our temporal life can be viewed as a unified whole:
And since we can arrive at a conclusion regarding the disposition only on the basis of actions (which are its appearances), our life must come to be viewed, for the purpose of such a judgment, as a temporal unity, a whole….(Rel.,64)
On the one hand, as beings in time, we experience (only) a continual becoming in the form of action. At the same time, however, we are able to conceive these actions as constituting a whole. From the latter perspective, we are able to think these separate acts in time which make up our becoming as constituting the fulfillment of our moral striving. Telling us that we can only infer the content of our disposition by considering our actions, he again emphasizes that as beings who exist in a phenomenal context our moral status depends on our acting in a certain way: “we can arrive at a conclusion regarding the disposition only on the basis of actions (which are its appearances)”. (Rel., 64, Note) Linking the denial of knowledge of our good disposition with our inability to fully attain the object of our moral striving while also stressing action, he adds: “Certainty with regard to it (a pure disposition) is never possible to man, nor, so far as we can see, [would it be] morally beneficial.” (Rel., 65) Furthermore: “we can draw an inference as to whether or not we are persons well pleasing to God only from the way in which we have conducted our lives…”(Rel., 65)
Remarks on Heidegger’s Being and Time
My remarks: I happened to be lucky enough to take one of my first undergraduate philosophy classes in New York with Joan Stanbaugh, who worked with Heidegger. Reading this book with her had a significant impact upon my sense of life. Here’s a review from Amazon:
If you GET Heidegger, it will change your life., January 10, 2002
To me, Heidegger is the peak of Western philosophy, his writing is very meaningful and enjoyable to me. If you get IT, this book (and his later writings) can change you life. This is difficult reading, but so very rewarding. However, Being and Time is not the place to begin reading Heidegger. There are several very excellent introductions: Steiner’s Martin Heidegger,and Macquarrie’s Heidegger and Christianity both are very excellent. When you read Being and Time (which is so much better than Being and Nothingness, I can’t begin to tell you) you will need a commentary, there are several, but I would recommend Being-in-the-world by Dreyfus. I approached Heidegger as a Buddhist, so his main concept, dealing with the recognization of Being, was very familiar to me. I found Heidegger to be wonderfully enriching in my own insight into the most essential question of philosophy.
Reviewer: ZenPoet (Cincinnati, OH USA)
The “speech” from Plato’s Apology of Socrates
You, my friend, – a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, – are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money (29e) and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? And if the person with whom I am arguing, says: Yes, but I do care; then I do not leave him or let him go at once; but I proceed to interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue in him, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And I shall repeat the same words to every one whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For know that this is the command of God; and I `Necessity” is laid upon me:’`I must obey God rather than man.’ believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person. But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whichever you do, understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.
Remarks on and excerpts from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Excertp from Book 2 in which Aristotle argues that moderation occurs in a context of vices. A vice for Aristotle usually has the characteristic of being in the extreme. If a person tends to talk too much, their vice is talking too much. He recommends that this person strive for the opposite extreme, with the idea being that they will thus end up in the middle between the two extremes. If they are very shy, they ought aim at the opposite, with the same result. I am particulary interested in the notion that American culture as a whole has a vice, and that our long term political and spiritual well being hinges on our taking reponsibility for it. I believe Aristotle gives us a wonderful way to relate the political to the spiritual via the ideal of moderation, for moderation when it is practiced in our lives as individuals is closely allied with Christian humility. I also see in Aristotle’s analyses of viritue in relation to vice to touch on the manner in which we experience transformation in Christianity by becoming aware of our own limits and shortcomings, and moving to let go of them. In this regard, Aristotle speaks to the deep good of the person as such. But I do mean to stress that his entire analysis has its most significant import in relation to the good for society as a whole, or that is, the good citizen: “That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry — that is easy — or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.
Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises —
Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.
For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be done best in the way we describe. But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.
Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.
But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly. The man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.”