Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking by Immanuel Kant / Chasing Sophie

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant
One of the most influential philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Konigsberg, Prussia where he lived the majority of his life. Kant lived a largely uneventful life and maintained a strict routine in order to produce a large and important body of work. He is best known for his Critique of Pure Reason, which was published in 1781. Today's essay, "What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking," was written by Kant in 1786 to respond to a debate between F.H. Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn over the uses and boundaries of faith and reason. While Mendelssohn claimed that orthodox religion is built on reason, Jacobi believed that religion (specifically Spinozan pantheism) could only be learned and supported by revelation. Mendelssohn died after writing a rebuttal to Jacobi, and Mendelssohn's friends encouraged Kant to take his side. Jacobi, on the other hand, claimed that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason supported his own views. While Kant did not entirely agree with Mendelssohn, he appropriated one of Mendelssohn's arguments for his own use in order to clarify his own thoughts on religion and philosophy. (In 1786, the French Revolution was three years away, and both Wilhelm Grimm and Davy Crockett were born.) For further information, see Immanuel Kant.


Kant argues in the opening paragraph that abstract thinking responds to our everyday experience, and in so doing, thinking refines those experiences into rules that can apply to most, if not all, situations. For Kant, the philosopher's goal is to learn and teach rules that apply to everyone all the time. However, we cannot skip directly to these rules. We must begin by orienting ourselves where we're at. For instance, if I want to know whether I'm facing the right direction to go somewhere, I not only need to know where the sun is (which would be the same for everyone around me) but also which direction I'm facing (which would only be my direction). This analogy is important because Kant goes on to say that while reason can teach us about what's true for everyone, we can only feel where we ourselves are at. Jacobi had argued that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason stated that reason cannot inform us about God, but Kant now clarifies his position by stating that while reason cannot inform us, it can still evaluate what we learn about God. So while religion still requires revelation, revelation can be critiqued by reason. Mendelssohn had argued that God could be proven by reason. Kant critiques Mendelssohn by saying we can't demonstrate that God exists, but reason needs God in order to orient itself correctly. For Kant, reason can't tell us about God, but it can tell us when someone's idea of God is logically contradictory and therefore impossible.


It will be difficult to evaluate this essay until I've finished reading The Critique of Pure Reason. That said, I am interested in how Kant deals with the idea of God incarnate or the idea of the Trinity. On the one hand, the Church Fathers worked very hard to make sure that the Trinity was logically consistent. On the other hand, they often admitted, not that they failed, but that we cannot remove the sacred mystery of God.


We need to be careful not to dismiss God just because we don't understand him, but we also can't run to, "Well, it's just mysterious," every time an unbeliever asks a question. We need to understand this as a call to intellectual honesty. Work hard to answer questions, but if you don't know, don't fake the answer or panic. What do you think? Does God have to be logically consistent?


I am indebted to Allen Wood's essay in the Cambridge edition of Kant's Religion and Rational Theology.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure that's a portrait of F. H. Jacobi, not Kant.