Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Kant

(This post comes from my infamous philosopher friend, Shane Wilkins, who is known throughout the theo-blogosphere for his sharp wit and even sharper skills at critical analysis. Be sure to visit his blog, Scholasticus.)

Protestant Theology in the 19th Century demonstrates Barth’s deep familiarity with the philosophical climate of the 19th century. The philosopher whose shadow loomed largest over 19th century protestant theology was doubtless that of Immanuel Kant. Kant was also, by no coincidence, the most formative intellectual influence on the young Barth.

As a student in Berne, Barth reminisces, “I was earnestly told, and I learnt, all that can be said against ‘the old orthodoxy’ . . . and that all God’s ways begin with Kant and, if possible, must also end there.” (Eberhard Busch, “Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts”, 34). Barth began reading Kant through the Critique of Practical Reason, which made a strong influence upon him.

To someone familiar only with Barth’s later work and not the details of his violent conversion from protestant liberalism this would seem most surprising. For in his first Critique, Kant repudiates all “dogmatic” claims about God, the soul and immortality as involving an illegitimate transgression of boundaries. Neither the theist nor the atheist has any genuine knowledge of the things they debate just because they have no empirical experience of God, the soul, etc. Without experience all one has is an empty concept to which no reality need correspond.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, which was apparently the text that resonated so strongly with the young Barth, Kant notes that the existence of God, the soul, and personal immorality are practical necessities to guarantee that the virtuous are rewarded for their virtue and the vicious punished. Kant is not contradicting the perspective of the first Critique, however. The God invoked here is not the old mythological God of positive theology; rather this God is a postulation of reason. Kant does not believe that it is possible to “prove” the existence of God the way one might prove the existence of Bigfoot. Rather, what is necessary is the individual’s personal certainty that God exists in order to provide a stimulus for moral behavior. Kant’s overall position on God then is a sort of skeptical agnosticism. One cannot have definitely knowledge of any affirmative proposition about God, but one can and indeed ought to have a “rational faith” in the postulated moral God as the completion of the moral system of Kantian ethics. From such religious view, one can chart a short course towards the decay of protestant theology into social ethics.

Having worked through the first two Critiques, Barth found himself drawn by the theology of Schleiermacher through Kant (Busch 45). Upon transferring to Marburg, Barth was exposed to the school of Marburg neo-Kantianism through Paul Natorp and Hermann Cohen, and continued his theological studies with Wilhelm Hermann. According to Natorp, this ‘neo-Kantianism’ does not signify a return to any particular Kantian dogma, but rather an attempt to return to a kind of realism against Hegel and the German idealists. (Bruce McCormack labels the epistemological position Barth derived from the Neo-Kantian reaction to Hegel “critically-realistic” and “dialectical” - cf. McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology)

Barth’s own statements in Protestant Theology in the 19th Century indicate his own preference for Kant over against the later German philosophical tradition because Kant was the first to recognize the limits of the enlightenment and rationalism, against Voltaire and Leibniz, limits which Schleiermacher and Hegel did not respect (267).

For Barth, Kant’s criticism of the limits of human knowledge provides a definitive turn away from the old protestant orthodoxy as well as the naïve version of enlightenment.
“With Kant and from Kant onwards the human use of reason has left the broad way and finds itself with the ‘strait gate’. This was also, and particularly, true of theology. From now on theology would no longer be able to formulate its tenets, no matter on what foundation it might base them, without having acquired a clear conception of the method of reason, which it also uses in the construction of its tenets. Any theology which had not at least faced this question and presented its credentials was backward, from now on, superseded in its relation to the age, no matter how valuable or worthless it might otherwise be” (Protestant Theology, 273).
Barth takes the Kantian critique to be a decisive refutation. However, he rejects the idea that the Kantian critical project could somehow impugn the truth of the Christian faith. Rather, Barth understands the critical project to draw the boundaries of mere reason which theology can happily step over. Whether Kant would agree with this theological high-step, of course, is a different question.

Barth traces three possible responses to the critical project, which outlines successive changes in his own approach throughout his career:
  1. Accommodation Interpretation. On the accommodation interpretation, the premises of Kant’s thought (in the neo-Kantian realist interpretation, presumably) are substantially correct and the job of theology is to accommodate itself to the new philosophical regime. Barth names Ritschl and Hermann, the primary teachers of his student days as a liberal at Marburg as proponents of this approach.

  2. Romantic Interpretation. On this interpretation, Kant might have provided an accurate philosophical system, but he has missed something essential: the religious feeling. Schleiermacher, of course, is the figure Barth names here and the figure which most inspired Barth’s own study after his encounter with the Critique of Practical Reason.

  3. Insufficiency Interpretation. On this interpretation, there is something insufficient, at least for the theologian, about Kant’s configuration of the relationship between theology and philosophy. For Kant, in the final analysis, religion is just the coping-stone to hold together the edifice of moral philosophy.
“If the reality of religion is confined to that which is subjected to the self-critique of reason, then religion is that which is fitting to the ideally practical nature of pure reason, and that only” (305).
This is a conclusion which the theologian cannot abide. At this point the theologian has nothing to do but to renounce Kant as a guide for her own thinking. This third possible reaction to Kant marks the mature Barth’s own response and,
“in a word, [it] consist in theology resigning itself to stand on its own feet in relation to philosophy in theology recognizing the point of departure for its method in revelation just as decidedly as philosophy sees its point of departure in reason” (307)
Barth accepts that this pushes his back up against the wall of fideism. Barth cites with approval a statement of Kant’s: “The biblical theologian proves that God exists by means of the fact that he has spoken in the Bible” (312). Kant means to ridicule the biblical theologian by the vicious circularity involved in the statement, but Barth accepts it as a programmatic statement of his own position.

How then shall we evaluate Barth’s position in relation to Kant’s? It seems that he faces an unattractive dilemma. Either he must reject Kant on philosophical grounds, which is a modified version of position 1 or 2 above or he must accept this fideistic circularity. Barth rejects the first task for, “it is not for the theologian to conduct himself as if he were in a position to propound a philosophy . . . and to pull a philosopher’s work to pieces,” especially if that philosopher is Kant (308). Therefore, theology must embrace this circularity.

For my part, I think Barth still cedes too much ground to Kant. If he is willing to say that Kant must be wrong about religion because Kant’s philosophy of religion is insufficient, why does he not also challenge Kant’s critique of knowledge on the same grounds? It may be, of course, that Barth simply sees no reason why he needs to reject the Kantian theoretical philosophy on theological grounds because he interprets Kant as being neutral between faith and disbelief.

On the contrary, it seems to me that there are good reasons to want to reject Kant’s theoretical philosophy because I understand Kant’s theoretical philosophy to install a sort of permanent metaphysical skepticism which viciously undercuts any attempt to insist that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are actually true in the sense of representing a real state of affairs. If you take this more negative assessment of Kant--and I think you should--then I think it becomes necessary to reject the entire framework of the debate. At this point one is left with two options: rejecting philosophy as such through a fideism much more severe than Barth’s or “beginning again at the beginning” in the realm of philosophy as well as in theology.

- Shane Wilkins


Ben Myers said…
An excellent and provocative post, Shane -- even though (of course!) I disagree with your conclusions.

One of the interesting trends in recent Barth studies has been the recognition of the continuing Kantian dimensions of Barth's thought.

Like Ben, I disagree with you, but it's a provocative post.

I'd like to make some historical corrections. It's misleading to say that the insights Barth gained from Marburg neo-Kantianism were "critically realistic" and "dialectical"; this is just not true. The "critically realistic dialectical theology" of which McCormack speaks does not derive from neo-Kantianism, but rather it develops in critical response to it. Cohen was really an idealist. According to Simon Fisher, Cohen posited an "ideal epistemological subject." Natorp attends to the problems with this idealism, but all of this is a far cry from "critical realism." Moreover, the dialectical element does not enter the picture until later for Barth.

At the end of his section on Marburg neo-Kantianism, McCormack writes:

"Marburg neo-Kantianism was a typical product of that world which passed away with the First World War. A system which had been consciously set forth as a scientific ground for explaining the advance of German culture would no longer find acceptance with the near collapse of that culture after the war. Talk of an ideal epistemological subject would seem strangely irrelevant in a world where the identity of the individual had become a question of pressing existential concern. If idealism were to survive after the war, it would have to become self-critical" (49).

For more on this, see Simon Fisher, Revelatory Positivism? Barth's Earliest Theology and the Marburg School, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988).
Shane said…

I should note that I found a fantastic book on Kant which helped me greatly. "Kant on God" by Peter Byrne (Ashgate, 2007). I recommend it very highly.


Thanks for the corrections. Writing this piece was my first exposure to the Marburg school and I unfortunately didn't have time to attend to McCormack as closely as I would have liked, although I plan to do so in the future.


I was quite surprised by the care and sensitivity Barth showed to Kant. I expected him to be much more upset with Kant's postulated moral deity, because it is basically just an idol of thought in need of a good smashing. Or maybe Barth thought Nietzsche had already brought that particular to its twilight and hammered it to pieces.

@David and Ben,

Might I ask about what you disagree? Do you disagree with the general line I take--that Kant is wrong. Or do you disagree with something else?

I'll admit I haven't put forward very clearly an argument trying to show what Kant is wrong about. (Nor did I put forward Kant's own position all that thoroughly.) Such a task would, of course, go far, far beyond the confines of this project and it's something that I am still work on personally.

Here's a bit of a sketch though.

Kant's big objection to metaphysics is that it implies that we have knowledge of entities such as "forms," "God," "the soul," of which we can have no experience. (Kant is aware of things like magnetic fields of which we have sort of derivative rather than direct experience, but those still count as objects of experience for Kant.)

Numbers and other purely abstract objects would seem to me to be counterexamples to Kant's restriction of knowledge to experience. (I'm sure Kant has considered this and has some sort of response to it, but I don't know what that response is.) But numbers are abstract entities if any things are and abstract entities are causally inert, so I can't see any way that they could become objects of experience, yet we know them. Kant may have a way to try to deal with this through the distinction of analytic and synthetic and a priori and a posteriori judgments, but the cogency of those distinctions has been criticized very strongly in the 20th century by Quine and Putnam among others.

So I think there must be some general problems with Kant's account. And, after all, there are the criticisms Hegel raised against Kant. How can you draw the limits of knowledge without positing yourself as being beyond those limits?

At any rate, I think an ontological ressourcement is in order and there is some very interesting theological and philosophical work going on in that direction, cf. Richard Swinburne, Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea.
A brief sketch:

1. Metaphysics says that we can know things in themselves (through various methods, e.g., via negativa, via eminentiae, or via causalitatis). This means we can know God through metaphysical reasoning.

2. Kant says that we cannot know things in themselves, but only what we experience of things. This means we cannot know God.

3. Barth rejects both metaphysics and Kant in that he says we can know the being of God, but only because God crosses over the epistemological divide described by Kant. The subject-object divide is indeed bridged, but only from God's side. Barth accepts the epistemic problem described by Kant, but he posits a solution in accordance with revelation.

I side with Barth. Kant gets the the problem right, but not the answer. Those who favor the metaphysical approach of classical theology simply do not think the problem actually exists. I simply cannot buy that as a viable option.

One more thing, if I have to choose between Kant and Hegel, I choose Hegel. While I think Barth is right to reject idealism for critical realism, Hegel is more right than wrong, in my opinion. Barth came to recognize this as well. If the early Barth reacted against (and appropriated) Kant, the later Barth reacted against (and appropriated) Hegel.
Shane said…

See what I'm trying to do is to prove that we can in fact know at least some thing in themselves. We don't know God in himself--and nobody in the tradition would claim otherwise. We might know about his existence or discover some of his attributes, but there's a critical distinction to be maintained there.

At any rate, what I'm sort of hinting at in the post and in my comment above was that I think accepting Kant's presentation of the problem of knowledge is a mistake, both on purely philosophical grounds and on theological grounds. On philosophical grounds because of the problems about abstracta and the analytic/synthetic distinction I outlined above. On theological grounds because we believe that the content of our dogmatic propositions are actually true representations of the state of affairs in the world. Barth does end up affirming this, of course. But why jump to the extremes of an 'impossible possibility' or a revelatory positivism when the simpler solution is just to look for what Kant did wrong?

If Kant isn't right, then we reject the framework of the problem and we have to go back to a precritical model to get hints about how to move forward. (We don't stay with Thomas, but he might have something to say about the relation between philosophy and theology.)

That's where I'm angling.
And all I'm saying is that Barth does think that Kant was wrong. And he certainly does not advocate a "revelatory positivism" -- Bonhoeffer was mistaken. You really ought to read McCormack's book, and then see what you think of Barth's epistemology.
Anonymous said…
For those wrestling with Hegel (and David is right about Barth on Kant and Hegel), Rowan Williams' re-examinations, themselves deeply influenced by Gillian Rose's critique of the old chestnut about the great German thinker as a totalising metaphysician, are indispensable. Three of Williams' important essays are reprinted in the just-released collection of his writings Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (2007), edited by Mike Higton (though I gather it hasn't been released yet in the US, where it will have a different title): "Hegel and the Gods of Potsmodernity" (1992), "Logic and Spirit in Hegel" (1998), and "Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian Rose" (1991).
Anonymous said…
Since I wrote that book about Barth and Revelatory Positivism so many years ago-my own world changed dramatically.

I still do not think that Barth was a great Kant scholar. My book attempted to suggest that Karl Barth's understanding of Kant was second-hand and refracted through his philosopher brother, but more importantly through the apologetics for experiential christianity proposed by Hermann. In his later writings, when Barth argues with Schliermacher -it is a shadow of his own past that he is combating...rather than the historical Schliermacher

I have found it heartening that people still read my book. However despite the complimentary reviews of several scholars, few appreciated that the two real heroes of my studies were Cohen's Religionsphilosophie and Bonhoeffer's letters and papers.

Despite Cohen's antiquated transcendental idealism, he firmly insisted that the Selbst or Ich was not something given by nurture or nature; but a task an Aufgabe for life. This was a brave thing for a Jewish philosopher to say in Germany. I believe Buber did good justice to Cohen. Anyone who still reads Cohen's Religionsphilosophie cannot be failed to be moved by his portayal of Sehnsucht -the desire for god. Frau Cohen died in a concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer, though I subjected his Offenbarungspositivism to some criticism, placed the courage of his own convictions into the hands of his God and trod the path of martyrdom.

I am now less certain in my beliefs and far more hestitant now in 2008 than I was in 1998.

All I can say is this -from my own perspective now. Barth was a great protestant theologian, but for me there is something of a corruption that goes along with great power and influence which makes me feel more at home with those not elected.

Simon Fisher

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