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Kant’s Historical Turn

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Karl Ameriks is the McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is a leading Kantian expert. Here he talks about the distinction between the ‘Historical Turn’ and ‘Historicism’, Kant as catalyst for the former, Kant as a metaphysician and Enlightenment journalist, Reinhold’s significance, how Kant differed from his immediate predecessors, whether Kant was a Hegelian subjectivist, the importance of Jena, how Rousseau revolutionised Kant’s life and thought, Nietzsche’s ‘tragic turn’, Kantian autonomy and whether Kantian ethics are still a live option in the light of recent developments in philosophy of mind and neuroscience. Yes he Kant…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Karl Ameriks: No doubt I’m not the only one who might, in part, blame sources such as Job and Will Durant. In high school, at the latest, I was very perplexed by the basic (broadly ‘Augustinian’) issues, but also concerned with math, literature, and theology, especially in a German context (although my parents were not German, they were educated in Riga–where most of Kant’s works were published). Going into Yale as a freshman I selected an Early Concentration double course in philosophy, and after studying Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Sartre I was pretty much hooked–it was a very popular major then and there in the late 60s.


3:AM: You’ve argued that Kant was the figure who changed philosophy in a way that separated it from the arts and from the sciences. You argue that historicism was a key factor in this. So can you say what you mean by historicist and how the notion of the ‘spirit of the age’ is important when considering Kant.

KA: I distinguish between the Historical Turn, which takes an historical approach to be central to philosophical writing, and “historicism,” which I use as a term that implies a relativist position. I see Kant as a major catalyst in the rise of the Historical Turn. Kant started as mostly a philosopher of science, but even his first main writing, the Universal Natural History, contains literary flourishes and a significant historical narrative along with metaphysical and theological themes. But although already in his early days there was huge interest in development and history, Kant’s work on the whole remained largely controlled by the thought that philosophy can clearly establish significant and permanent underlying structures. It is thus still more like exact science than art even though, somewhat like art, it has to appeal, at key points, to deep intuitions and “facts” of human experience (e.g., our primitive spatial, moral, or aesthetic orientation).

Shortly after the revolution in thought generated especially by Newton and Rousseau (the main influences on Kant), later modern writers were very struck by the rapidly changing perceptions of Kant’s Critical work, the rise of new non-mechanistic sciences, and the events of the French Revolution. In a variety of ways, they began to move beyond the paradigm of presenting philosophy in a fully abstract and supposedly timeless form. They sensed that they would be more honest and effective if, in their style of argumentation, they tried above all to show how their philosophies amounted just to a specific improvement nested in a detailed narrative of recent philosophical positions. This kind of broadly rhetorical and dialectical approach might seem similar to what other thinkers (such as even Aristotle and the Medievals) had tried before. What made the later modern attitude unique was a complex recognition–impossible in previous eras–that there now finally was a definitive objective procedure for progress in the exact physical sciences and that philosophy could no longer present itself as a most certain science in that sense. Hence it needed to articulate itself much more reflexively, modestly, and concretely. The challenge of post-Kantian thought ever since, I believe, is to productively concede that at its best it is usually doing little more than most articulately expressing the “spirit of the age,” or “comprehending its era in thought,” as Hegel said. And yet it is doing so in a style that contrasts with historicism and displays a kind of intuitively convincing progress, even if not in ways that clearly converge and rely on steps that it can be presumed all rational respondents will agree upon. The notion of progress here is something like the thought that there are recognizable advances in legal understanding, even though this also is not literally a matter of what we call science or art.

3:AM: This seems to run against the idea that a defining contrast between Kant and the post-Kantians such as Hegel is that Kant presented an a-historical system and the post-Kantians an historicist, even teleological or at least Whiggish system. So is this a wrong way to differentiate these strands of philosophy based really on the style with which Kant presented his mature work? Kant seems difficult to pin down doesn’t he – some like Heidegger take him to be a metaphysician, others like PF Strawson a hard-case analytic anti-metaphysician and others still a different Enlightenment-orientated thinker – so what do you think he was trying to do?


KA: I believe Kant was always a metaphysician (someone with a global account of what there is), but this is consistent with his sharp criticism of many earlier styles of metaphysics that relied too naively on merely psychological, or supposedly analytic, or naturally teleological claims. Kant’s basic system of categorial principles is uncompromisingly ahistorical, but this is compatible with his also being an activist Enlightenment journalist. He believed that the defense of eternal moral principles in his particular context could help usher in a new era, an era that would benefit from the rhetorical shove of his ‘popular’ essays on peace, history, liberal religion, etc. At the same time, there were also, because of various ‘Cartesian’ confusions, several ahistorical philosophical features in many of the metaphysical writings of Kant’s successors: Reinhold, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. These (allegedly ‘scientific’) features amounted to what I take to be a temporary retrograde movement in German thought. Nonetheless, other features of the work of these same Enlightenment writers, and especially their Early Romantic kin, also helped to generate the Historical (or ‘Interpretive’) Turn in humanistic thought–a Turn that fortunately has remained very powerful up to our time despite recurring waves of what Habermas has called the tendencies of “scientistic misunderstanding.”

3:AM: Rheinhold – who may not be as well known as Herder – is an important figure in this story isn’t he? Why do you say that he was the key figure – not Herder – in the historical turn in philosophy and that Hegel, for example, was largely working in reaction to him (and Fichte) as well as Kant?

KA: Reinhold’s significance came as a surprise to me when I at first was simply trying to make sense of the very odd way that (it seemed to me) Fichte, Hegel, and many others were reading Kant. Once I learned exactly what Reinhold wrote (and lectured) and how influential it was, right at the time that Kant was becoming popular, a lot fell into place–e.g., the sudden interest in an absolutely certain system, the constant concern with presenting a new Critical system as a correction of a sequence of misunderstandings of Critical thought, and then just the general idea of presenting a philosophy that is historically effective and amounts to more than just another redundant reconstruction of natural science. It is noteworthy that at first Reinhold wrote in favor of Herder (who was an early student of Kant’s and, upon moving on to Riga, for at least a while surpassed his teacher in popularity) against Kant but, once he saw the relativist implications of Herder’s thought, he did a remarkable about-face. He become the most popular champion of Kant and yet, for the most part, not in a way that fell back into the opposite error of pretending to be altogether ahistorical in content and form.


3:AM: What are the key features of this historical turn and how different is Kant from his immediate predecessors such as Berkeley, Hume, Descartes and the rest of the gang?

KA: In procedure or form, he remains systematic in a way that is very much like the other main philosophers after Descartes. In content, however, Kant has a more sophisticated non-‘Cartesian’ starting point, one beginning not with the “myth of the given,” in private, subjective, psychological terms, but from core features of common public experience. He also (despite his sympathy with some Leibnizian metaphysical beliefs) takes the Newtonian system much more seriously than the others, and is constantly working with the problem of how nonetheless–without relapsing into dogmatic rationalism–to defend a realm of deep personal value once something like a broadly mechanistic worldview seems to account for everything.

3:AM: How far do you agree with Beiser’s thought that Kant and the Idealists were developing a programme of anti-subjectivism?

KA: I much admire Beiser’s writings on this and other topics, but sometimes they may seem to buy too much into the broadly Hegelian presumption that either Kant himself was a subjectivist, in a bad sense, or that, even if he was not a subjectivist, he was especially concerned with responding to subjectivist positions. My view is that it is significant that the famous short section of the first Critique, called “Refutation of Idealism,” was introduced only in the second edition by Kant, and then simply because of the provocation of some serious misreadings and tendencies that had developed elsewhere independently of what he was thinking in composing the Critique. The big issue for Kant, in my view, was never the subject/object contrast but the contingent/necessary contrast, and the need to properly understand and defend substantive necessary truths.


3:AM: And how relevant is the ‘Jena project’ for the current practice of philosophy – and for understanding key figures that followed him like Marx, Kierkegaard and Hegel?

KA: In German scholarship, the microscopic focus by Henrich, Frank et al, on all the thinkers who were teaching and thinking in Jena during the Reinhold/Fichte/Schelling/Hegel period has been invaluable. Its greatest value may lie in the extra light that it has shed on supposedly marginal thinkers such as Hölderlin, Novalis, Schlegel, Niethammer, etc. This development has general ramifications that remind me of the Cambridge “ideas in context” approach. Both approaches emphasize that to understand the most famous philosophers we always should try to look at their sentences not in isolation but in view of their full development as well as the whole environment that they were living in and responding to, which is often quite unknown or forgotten.

Marx and Hegel would encourage this approach to all other thinkers, and the approach can be profitably used on their own work. Kierkegaard’s complex context has also been studied in this way, but it always seems to me that, although he was a psychological genius and very historically informed, he tended–perhaps in reaction to Hegelianism–to want to lift individuals out of their social setting in a way that contrasts with the Jena Project.

3:AM: How important was Kant’s contrasting Rousseau’s thinking with Newton’s for the way his own thoughts developed, especially his thinking about autonomy?

KA: Reading Rousseau amounted to a revolution in Kant’s life and thought, and yet in a way that involved synthesis rather than mere change. In his early work, Kant was obsessed with how we, and our purposes, fit into the strict laws of the natural world. After Rousseau, Kant felt that this approach, by itself, leads to an overly intellectual and determinist view of human beings, one incompatible with the freedom and equal dignity of all persons. Nonetheless, in his doctrine of autonomy, Kant did not mean to encourage subjectivism or license but remained fascinated by the notion of necessary law. He took the moral law to be even more necessary (because not dependent on the existence of nature) than the theoretical laws of nature that are rooted in the categories of his theoretical philosophy. The culmination of Kant’s philosophy was his claim that theoretical and practical law are not to be merely juxtaposed but need to be believed to exist in an interlocking harmony–what he called a new doctrine of nature and grace, but one supposedly based on grounds less dogmatic than what Leibniz or Rousseau held.

3:AM: How do you understand the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche’s thinking when you call it the ‘tragic turn’?

KA: Nietzsche believed that late modern philosophy, and especially Kant, taught that philosophy, and even natural science, does not leave us with a certain grasp of the inner reality of things; in this sense we are “tragically” alienated from success in our traditional theoretical ambitions. One could at this point become relativist or deny there is any truth, but on my reading Nietzsche’s point was that this tragic insight is ultimately not a bad thing because it can lead us beyond naiveté and toward appreciating the natural truth of appearances in art and in an artistic culture. Kant also honored the truth of appearances and the significance of art but, unlike Nietzsche, he believed that this is not incompatible with accepting pure moral truths and something like a traditional pure metaphysics–even if this leaves the inner nature of things in themselves beyond our theoretical determination.

3:AM: Post-Kantians and Pure-Kantians disagree over the value of Kant’s notion of autonomy. Is it because they disagree about what constitutes Kantian autonomy, or is it because they disagree over whether it is still intellectually respectable? Could you sketch out the dividing lines in this battle, and say what happened to this notion after Kant?

KA: This question would require several more books, so my sketch will be especially sketchy. One main oddity in many post-Kantian and Anglophone discussions of Kantian autonomy has been that they understand it basically as just a matter of an individual acting rationally on principles of its own choosing. But Kant’s own notion of autonomy is not captured by the notions of individuality, choice, and rationality, for he stresses that people make individual rational choices that generally are immoral, e.g., merely prudent rather than respectful of the necessary equal value in the dignity of persons as such. Hence, common liberal endorsements as well as conservative or radical criticisms of Kant–for a stress merely on individual rational choice as such–are all fundamentally misguided. Another oddity, and one that is more understandable, is the tendency to try to explain Kantian autonomy without reference to a metaphysical basis for absolute freedom. Kant is not the only philosopher to be committed to absolute human freedom, but the idea admittedly does involve considerable difficulties. There may well be a way to accept many of the same value principles that Kant endorses without thinking about freedom as such, but if one is trying to understand what Kant himself was committed to, one cannot avoid his metaphysics of freedom–and it should not be dismissed out of hand.


3:AM: Do we have to commit to metaphysics if we want to grasp Kantian thinking or can it be bowdlerized without too much damage? And if it can’t – because it goes against the Copernican turn against metaphysics that Kant is thought to have made – is the metaphysical commitment fatally damaging for any contemporary thinker in the light of hard-core naturalist materialists like David Armstrong, theistic materialists like Peter van Inwagen, and others and the naturalistic challenges put forward by Nietzsche and Marx? I guess I’m asking whether a specifically Kantian notion of autonomy requires an immoderate metaphysical system or can it be read as requiring a little metaphysics but not so much as to put it out of the reach of contemporary thought?

KA: Here I will elaborate just a bit on my previous response. The content of many issues of value (e.g., that pleasure is generally better than pain, etc.) can no doubt be separated from issues of the metaphysics of agency. Ultimately, however, one must consider, as Sellars did in his excellent APA presidential address on Kant, whether persons are ultimate ontological units or not. There might now be materialist ways to preserve a special status for persons (as specially organized beings) that would be worthwhile for a Kantian to explore, especially if, as for van Inwagen, they involve freedom. Kant’s own notion of “materialism” was, after all, quite narrow, and he also was willing to suggest that, in some way that we do not know, there may be a sense in which persons in their inner nature are like what the things that appear to us as material are in their inner nature (note, however, that this thought is also compatible with a monadology).


I think the best version of a contemporary Kantian position here is one that is relatively agnostic and apologetic. That is, one starts with the thought that it Seems to one that being a person in a full moral sense requires some kind of genuine independence, and then one adds the thought that the ultimate nature of matter, or what underlies it, is hardly settled by modern science, and so one concludes that one still has a right to continue holding on to orthodox Kantian libertarian beliefs. But if someone, such as Rawls, works out a complex social theory that seems broadly Kantian in spirit and does not bracket or reject a completely determinist or materialist metaphysics, I don’t see that I or Kant has a knock-down defeater for that view–although I am sure that Kant himself would vigorously reject such a view, as he did in his Review of Schulz in the 1780s,

3:AM: What is Kantian autonomy according to you? Do you think it is still a live option for contemporary ethics, especially in the light of the many challenges to the notion of freewill, not least those emerging from scientific studies of the brain and psychologists finding evolved mechanical biases built in the our minds, as well as the social and cultural forces that also are pointed at as eroding any sense of free will?

KA: I confess that I do not see how anything that we have learned about brains or culture has changed the basic philosophical issue since Kant’s time. Kant himself draws attention to statistical studies that personal choices such as marriage fall under general natural laws, and he also has a firm belief in the worldwide scope of Newtonian forces. Quite apart from developments in recent physics, which have added all sorts of indeterminacies, complexities, and dimensions to the world, undreamt of in Newtonian times, there is the simple fact that philosophers still have legitimate deep disagreements as to what the ultimate constituents of reality are. It seems to me that, “for all we know,” free and moral law-abiding ultimate individuals could operate in a world that, at the observational level, always seems lawfully organized–especially if one believes, as Kant did, that there can be a free creative agent underlying everything.

3:AM: He links up arguments about freedom with considerations about apperception (which in some ways makes his thinking about the mind seem like a prototype of some contemporary philosophy of mind positions) – is there a conflict between his notions of autonomy and spontaneity on the one hand and his theory of mind on the other?

KA: There is a complex story about how Kant’s formulations concerning practical autonomy and theoretical spontaneity changed numerous times. When I wrote my first book the most remarkable fact that struck me was that although Kant devoted a whole section of his first Critique, namely the Paralogisms, to challenging traditional arguments for the soul’s substantiality, simplicity, immortality, etc., he did Not set out an explicit challenge to the claim of the soul’s absolute spontaneity–even though this was a feature that he had affirmed in the same way as the others (as based on the representation of the ‘I’). And yet in the Critique he also did not directly affirm, let alone present a detailed argument for, such absolute spontaneity either–and for good reason, since this would obviously go against the whole point of his Critical restriction of our determinate knowledge of individuals to mere phenomena. Here rather than speaking of a conflict, I would just say that Kant went through a complex zigzag path in trying to figure out how best to phrase his position, until he settled on the crucial footnote remark near the beginning of the second Critique, which now makes very clear that moral grounds are the Sole “ratio cognoscendi” for our claim of absolute freedom.

3:AM: And apart from your own books, are there five you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

KA: So many great books, so little time (to reread). Five for now:
What Philosophers Know, by Gary Gutting
The View from Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel
Das Wunderjahr in Jena, by Theodore Ziolkowski
Constructions of Reason, by Onora O’Neill
The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism, by Manfred Frank

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 1st, 2016.