Read More Kant, for Barth's Sake!

I'm no academic philosopher; I've mostly encountered the work of Immanuel Kant indirectly, through my studies in modern theology. Still, if I were to characterize my philosophical position, I'd probably say I am a Kantian at the very least. Some theologians have pegged the great German Enlightenment philosopher as the very archetype of modernist dissolution and the evisceration of all standards of objectivity and realism in theological thinking. The assessment of orthodox Calvinist Michael Horton, though a bit trenchant, is not atypical:
As soon as reason turned against the supernaturally revealed knowledge of God by modern rationalists, Kant announced that rational knowledge of God was blocked. Kant "saved" religion from the jaws of a non-Christian idea of theory only to surrender it to an equally non-Christian idea of practice. He was already prepared for this move by having been reared in evangelical pietism, with its emphasis on the inner life and practical morality over doctrine. God cannot be the object of our theorizing but only the presupposition of our practice. This is not a universal truth of reason but a dogma derived from the story that the West has told itself since the Enlightenment (Horton, pp. 99-100)

So in listening to Kant, Horton hears a heretic? If that's the case, he certainly is not alone; others have faulted Kant's philosophy of religion as leading to a dead-end for modern systematics. I, on the other hand, to the extent I understand Kant's general position and his placement in the history of Western thought, consider him a useful, self-critical hedge against the more radical versions of epistemological and moral relativism, utilitarianism and pragmatism. And I've said as much here and here (if perhaps a bit awkwardly).

A contributor to a Facebook group I follow recently posed the question (I'm paraphrasing): "I'm getting into Karl Barth's stuff: Should I read Kant as well? And where should I start?" This elicited myriad responses: Some were quite helpful, a few led to non sequiturs and a couple, frankly, made me groan just a little. Be that as it may, I think the questioner raised a key question for theologians of evangelical, Reformed or dialectical inclination to ponder: Just what, as theologians and as readers of Barth in particular, are we to make of Kant? Should we be afraid of him? Should he make us mad? Should we give him a miss? As you might already expect, my answers would be: "Nein! Nein! Und Nein!" For my part, I prefer to think of Kant, as Barth himself did, with respect -- as a thinker who hones in upon central problems incisively and as a most worthy opponent and teacher (Protestant Theology, chapter 7). In other words, if we were to read Kant well, it should help keep us honest -- which is more than I can say, sadly, about some works of theology.

To be sure, we must always strive to be both charitable and critical readers, no matter the stature of the writer in question. No contemporary readers will find aspects of Kant questionable, perhaps even downright troubling. For example, I recently read a piece in which Teri R. Merrick exposes the racist presuppositions woven through the writings of Kant and Hegel -- a sobering critique of the Enlightenment project that must be taken seriously. (This piece is published in the Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations volume which the kind publicist at IVP Academic sent me for review and which, no doubt to her relief, you will be reading more about on this blog soon).

I don't feel myself qualified to write a post in the genre "So, You Want to Read Kant" at the level of the DET posts on Barth, Calvin and Bonhoeffer. But maybe I have at least a few general things to say on the topic.

The significance of Kant for the history of modern theology is inestimable, and he should not be lightly dismissed.

I believe it was Hans Frei who wrote (though I can't remember where) that if he were stuck on a desert island, he'd want to have with him the philospher's late work, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone -- presumably, one hopes, alongside the essential classic, How to Survive on a Desert Island with Very Few Books: A Guide for Theologians.

But once we've graduated to Barth's mature dogmatics -- that sketchy second edition of Romans is another matter! -- maybe we can put away the childish ways of modern philosophy? Not so fast, meine Freunde. I recall how one of my seminary professors, back in the day, complained about students of Barth who neglect to read Kant with some care. On a side note, that teacher, though quite astute, seemed not to never have heard of Cornelius van Til, the Dutch Calvinist and rather hapless interlocutor who accused the Swiss theologian of selling out to Kantian subjectivism. (If that "debate" interests you, check out the very fine volume, Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism.)

I have some of my own hunches as to why reading some Kant might profit us:
  1. To gain a broader understanding of 19th century Protestant theology, the milieu within which Barth's major teachers were formed.
  2. To flesh out Barth's own narrative account of his intellectual development. Barth claims the first book that galvanized him during his student days was The Critique of Practical Reason. In fact, he worked through the second critique thoroughly at least twice before tackling the much longer and more famous Critique of Pure Reason (See Green, p. 67)  So for the young Barth, the interest in ethics preceded the concern with epistemology and metaphysics. I have a hunch this fact may prove to be somewhat significant.
  3. To help us understand some of the moves in Barth's early theology. In the preface to his Romans commentary, Barth claims that Kant -- through the influence of Karl's brother Heinrich, a philosopher -- significantly impacted the rewrite the commentary (p. 4). "But I'm a late-Barthian. I don't do early Barth," a couple of you curmudgeons might be sniffing. Tush! We'll have none of that kind of talk anywhere near this website.
  4. To help elucidate the character of Barth's break with the Ritschlian school of liberal Protestant theologians, who were so inflected by a Kantian ethical construction of religion and theology, as well as the Kant-influenced historicism of Troeltsch and others in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (History of Religions School).
  5. To help us the reader situate Barth vis-a-vis his erstwhile friends in the early dialectical theology movement of the 1920s -- especially in terms of the torturous and strained relationship with Rudolf Bultmann. My hunch, then is that reading some Kant on our own will help us profit more from the excellent revisionist work in dialectical theology that has emerged in English scholarship of the past two decades -- executed, for example, by such thinkers as Bruce McCormack, Christophe Chalamet and, most recently, David Congdon.

So then, if a little Kant is what the Doktor orders to take (if even in moderate doses) along with one's reading of Barth, where does one begin?

Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskins (New York: Oxford, 1933).

----- Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, trans. Brian Cozins and John Bowden (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

Green, Clifford, ed., Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991).

Horton, Michael, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

McCormack, Bruce L., and Anderson, Clifford B., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

Merrick, Teri R., "Tracing the Metanarrative of Colonialism and Its Legacy," in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, ed. Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and Daniel Hawk (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), pp. 107-120.



Whitefrozen said…
As far as where to start, I started with Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. I'm not an expert in the timeline of his works, but I started there and went to the two Critiques.

As far as secondary sources, Gilson is a brilliant expositer of Kant (The Unity of Philosophical Experience has a brilliant section on Kant). Brandom, Sellars and McDowell have also done a tremendous job reading out the normative/social aspects of Kant's thought - that, to me, is where Kant's significance lies. The Journal of Analytic Kantianism is also a good resource here.

As far as critical readings, Plantinga was pretty devastating in Warranted Christian Belief - specifically by pointing out that, as far as arguments and reasons to actually think Kant was right, there's next to nothing to be found. He's correct insofar as Kant's own arguments for his position are simply bad arguments with no real force. It's also significant that, based on Kant's writings, be really was not good at reading and doing metaphysics (for example, his reading of the ontological argument) and probably not familiar with metaphysics outside Wolff/Leibniz (though a case can be made that he was aware of more classical figures, but for whatever reason didn't interact with them that much).
Thanks for the suggestions. I think I agree that the Groundwork is a good place to start, as it helps illumine Kant's later philosophy of religion in particular.
As for Plantinga's critique -- that there's no there there, in terms of arguments -- Is that really what he wrote? I can't imagine a scholar of his character and stature would be so summarily dismissive of a major thinker.
Whitefrozen said…
Well, that's the gist of his conclusion - obviously I haven't reproduced his interaction with Kant, which you can read here at length, since I'm not transcribing all that :-) (this is assuming a two-worlds picture of Kant)

I also forgot to mention the most important work on Kant in modern philosophy, Strawsons 'The Bounds of Sense'. An essential critique.

The problem is the assumption that the two-worlds reading is correct. In agreement with Henry Allison, Paul Redding, and Gerhold Prauss, I think all the textual evidence supports the two-aspect picture. I would be curious to know what Plantinga and others make of this reading.
Joshua said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Whitefrozen said…
Plantinga argues that the two-aspect/one-world view (2A) is difficult to reconcile with Kant's own view that his philosophy was revolutionary - the 2A picture could be accepted just as easily (and in some cases was accepted much more strongly) by, say, Aquinas and Aristotle - very few people would actually reject the 2A picture in general. Plantinga thinks that it's a bit too uncontroversial, with regard to Kant's predecessors, anyway. His other angle, which is too detailed for a comment written from a phone, is that on the 2A picture, we have no real way to see that our concepts don't apply to God/noumena (which has its own problems, obviously). One could, of course, take Brandons route, but by that point one has ceased to talk about Kant and started to talk about Kant-ish ideas (as he admits, he's not doing Kantian exegesis).
That's odd, because I think the 2A reading is much *more* radical than the 2W view. On the 2W view, Kant's critique of metaphysics simply rules out a world of objects (the Ding an sich is something "out there"). On the 2A view, Kant's critique means that *every* object of knowledge is now subject to epistemic limitations. This is why Paul Redding finds in the 2A position the basis for a postmetaphysical hermeneutics. To my mind, this position has far greater implications.
Whitefrozen said…
The thing is, though, like I mentioned, no one would really reject that, and plenty of folks hold to stronger positions than that. I mean, sure, Kant could have held to the 2A picture. It's a plausible reading. But there's really nothing too radical about something that is affirmed by, more or less, everyone, with some of his predecessors going further than Kant (to stick with Plantingas examples, we can list Aristotle and Aquinas here).

And, IMO, if there is only one world, then a large part of Kant's project, which is a kind of non-materialistic naturalism, seems to collapse, since, for Kant, natural laws (specifically, Newtonian laws) govern everything we experience, and if there is only one world, the laws govern everything, which he wouldn't have been happy with. Not to mention that, with a one-world picture, the noumenon/phenomenal are two aspects of the same object - which leads to objects having contradictory properties, which seems fairly decisive. Other objections that don't have easy answers could also be listed - such as the complement of concepts problem with regard to referencing/predicating properties to objects/God. Allison also seems to not really account for the affection of the mind - which also seems fairly decisive.

Anyway, I'll stop rambling now :-)
The 2A reading does not, in my view, rule out God or even a transcendent order. It just means that the noumenal does not refer to a separate world of objects than the phenomenal, but rather refers to the same empirical objects in their in-itselfness. I don't see how this leads to a contradiction, but I would be interested in hearing more.
Whitefrozen said…
Devitt (who argues along similar lines as Allison) holds that external objects exist only as things-in-themselves, but that as we know them they exist as a result of our conceptual activity and our imposition of space-time setting. The immediate consequence of this is that objects are both spatial and nonspatial, dependent on cognition and not dependent, which leads is a contradiction. This is thought to be blocked by the modifying phrase 'considered in themselves' as well as 'considered in relation to our sensibility'. The trouble is, however, that it's not clear or made clear by Allison et al just exactly how these modifying phrases block the contradiction. Lewis attempts to answer the problem, but if we take his view, we end up losing any notion of identity. So there's one problem.

A related issue comes up when you bring in the transcendent, God, the Ideas etc - its very difficult, if not impossible, to give a coherent 2A account of these things.

A textual problem also surfaces when we consider Kant's reply to the Leibniz-ian idea, which is a similar theory to the 2A picture in that it posits two modes of access to one object - Kant explicitly rejects this theory because of its two-modes. It's hard to square this with the 2A picture.

Those are some immediate issues I see - I'm not asking you to solve these problems here - these are just the well-known problems in the literature that pertain to a 2A picture of Kant.

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