Budick on the misunderstandings of mainstream Kant scholars

In this post I would like to highlight some preliminary insights that are particularly noteworthy. This post may come to structure the content or themes of my forthcoming book review on the issue.

I am currently reading Sanford Budick’s ‘Kant and Milton’. The introductory blurb by Paul W. Franks (who is also ‘the’ person who writes on the topic of Kant’s systematicity) poses this thought: Kant and Milton? Surely there is nothing related between the author of Paradise Lost and the author of the Critique of Pure reason. Not so, says Sanford Budick, in a work which seems to challenge a great many tenets of Kantian scholarship.

My dissertation supervisor, who was quite well read on historical and contemporary Kant scholarship had the emphatic opinion that ‘Kant was a philistine!’ and then snorted with a self-congratulating jest. That is very much the popular opinion and I admit to having a similar prejudice myself, at least when it comes to music.

Not so for Budick. Kant was a well read man and this is demonstrated by various passages on his lectures on anthopology where he cites authors Pope and Milton. Many of the Milton citations are not referenced to Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes; but are assumed by the culturally learned of the 18thC Germans that they are Milton passages. You see, Budick points out that during the 18thC, Germany had a very anglophile orientation. The greats of Pope, Milton and Shakespeare were often translated. It is also well known, and consistent with the thesis (despite the fact that anglophile doesn’t include scotland) that the writers (who wrote in english) Hume and the Lord Earl of Shaftesbury were well received by Kant. It is often in good spirits of the enterprise of Kantian scholarship to know of the influences that permeate not only the culture of Kant’s time, but also of Kant himself.

Budick compares his study with the likes of a study on Kant’s moral philosophy (the author of which escapes me now) with the form and project of a work by Cicero. Budick offers reasons as to why Kantian scholars have forgotten this Miltonian influence on our understanding of Kant.

1. The Nazis. Well not exactly the Nazi’s; certain Kant scholars who were nationalist-socialist party members had strong nationalist roots and chose to control the influence of how Kant was read. For the nationalists; it was unacceptable to acknowledge any influence outside of Germany. It was simply unthinkable that a non-German such as Milton or Pope could have an impact on the work of any German thinker or poet. This purposeful ignoring of English influence has coloured our future understanding of Kant’s aesthetics today.

2. Milton is hard. This sounds to me like the same reason why Adorno is called an ‘elitist’. In order to understand Adorno you need to have the musical background of a serialist composer. You need to understand Bach, Beethoven, the Romantics (and dislike them), and serialist composition. Very few sociologists I suspect, neither know how to write a fugue nor how to play one.

This sounds like a weak objection to critique Adorno; it is simply akin to saying ‘I do not understand this’ therefore I will dismiss it. The challenge of Kant scholarship, and its joy, is the difficult language and terminology involved. This is the same issue for understanding Milton’s work. To understand Milton; one needs to understand the poetic devices and the cultural references. I have started to read Paradise Lost in preparation of this book review, and I found it much enjoyable. Many note the Aeneidae influences which are at some points subtle and others not so. Milton is writing an epic, the kind that seems to be all encompassing such to almost appear as a religious narrative.

The reason, Sanford suggests; that scholarship may take to a resistance to acknowledging the Miltonian influence on Kant is simply: Milton’s work is abotu the same kind of difficulty as understanding Kant himself. So, this doesn’t sound very promising for a non-expert reader to address.


‘Scholasticism’ as a derogation

For some, scholasticism appeals to the good old days of religious philosophy, or philosophy proper; for others, scholasticism is a derogatory term whereby system building and a rational attempt at ordered understanding is the project of philosophy and theology.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the great philosophers who have been remembered took place outside the institutional scholarly circles of academic philosophy. The great amateurs were also the great polymaths.

In the current industry of academic philosophy; I wonder if the term of scholasticism would apt apply. I think an examination of this question requires a prior understanding of what it means to be a scholastic, in both the negative and positive lights.

During the time of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, the institutions of learning like the University of Paris; and the Sourbonne were physical towers that upheld the metaphorically towering figures of Aristotle and biblical authority.

The negative aspect of scholasticism pertains to the dogmatic and institutionalised universality of the agenda of philosophical enquiry. It is as if to understand all things that ‘the philosopher’ or ‘the angelic doctor’ to consider as philosophy, and nothing else counts.

Surely this is limiting. However, is this not what we do when we consider the areas of metaphysics and epistemology to have the true ancestral heritage of philosophies from previous centuries, compared to say the likes of mongrel subjects like social philosophy or critical theory?

On the other hand, there was a great reason why Aquinas was considered the angelic Doctor of the church; many of the issues that the medievals had considered are, perhaps to the surprise or prejudice of the reader; things which are very much still acknowledged today, at least afer a resurgence of metaphysics in the mid-late 20thC.

Issues like mereology (the relation between wholes and parts); logic; the nature of knowledge or universals have, have resurfaced. Today, despite, or in spite of, the destructive anti-metaphysical tendencies of the early 20thC philosophers; we still have debates between realists and nominalists, we still speak of mereological relata and we still consider the role of reason, although in different terms to the medieval terms of debate.

I am quite pleasantly surprised by the ‘medieval’ character of metaphysics today. I saw this becase this seems to me a somewhat recent resurgence in interest following the likes of Lewis and Kripke. There are some aspects of metaphysics where I think the old empiricist critique still holds, such as the complete nonsense of some metaphysical reasoning (consider the issue of haccceiticity – the most unspellable and unpronounceable word in European philosophy).

I think that there is a sign that systematic philosophy is slowly gettting back in fashion. These days, however, there are no ‘heroes’ or systematic figureheads of philosophy; metaphysicians work their little way in issues, where they have some familiarity with other relevant issues. If we were to do a map of how the interests in metaphysics, langauge, epistemology and mind link together, I’m sure we sould come up with some notion of a system. I note that the particular structure is not so relevant so much as that there is any system at all.

Lets consider the other side. Why don’t some people like systematic philosophy? Well I suppose you’d need to ask them. Some reasons offered are part of anti-hegelian/anti-metaphysics tendencies which come from two different and opposing routes; you firstly have the anti-system continental philosophers who prefer to muse on freedom and autonomy and other flowery and french subjects while embedding a political critique.

The obsession with uniqueness and overthrowing orthodoxy has turned into an obsession with being ‘revolutionary’. If you proffer too many revolutions you have no heroes, nor stability; but tyrants asserting their will and access to truth; one after another.

The ideal of philosophy should be the work within an academic community where a distinct division of labour is employed; there are those working in obscure areas, some in systematic areas; and they all contribute by reacting to each other in the body of accessible literature. Scholasticism, in the sense of ordered and communicated work distributed through networks of journal articles, books and electronically accessible work, assists in constructing a community effort in philosophy.


Two related stories of the week

Story One: Anthony Flew’s death

I know I’m a bit late in reporting this story, but I’ll assume that my readership may already be familiar with the recent death of Anthony Flew. Flew was one of the early philosophers of whom I had some contact with his work; namely, his scepticism concerningthe propositions of theism and religious belief. Flew’s brand of scepticism about theism (or atheism as some may call it) is of a distinct kind which treated believers in a slightly more charitable way than the so-called ‘new atheists’ of today.

One issue about his death slightly saddens me; the work of any interesting philosopher should be remembered for its impact and influence. Flew, I’m sure, was one of the most influential philosophers to atheism for a certain past generation of philosophers. Some people have taken exception to point out Flew’s slight change in position. I’ve understood (although it does not seem clear to me) that Flew had renouced his athism in later life, apparently after coming across some form of a design argument for the existence of God. If Flew had renounced his atheism; does that make him an a-atheist? some (prostheletisers) deem this an important point to add, as if to undermine his own position. Of course these things are early days but I am curious as to whether his legacy and his later ‘deism’ will seriously colour his lasting memory.

If I were to consider an analogy; if a philosopher who came across many significant changes of attitude and mindset, or views in general were to perish; will a similar battle be fought about what their actual views were, or abused to prosthelyize an agenda with an issue such as say; Russell’s change in social attitudes or perspective to the foundations of mathematics?; Putnam’s changed mind on virtually anything?; Nietzsche’s later psychotic decline? or Kant’s changing views on the emerging ‘new’ sciences of mechanical physics or chemistry? With the exception of the latter issue; I don’t see why these views are not treated so passionately to affect our perception of an individual’s legacy compared to how a philosophy may have changed their views about a belief in God (which doesn’t necessarily entail belief in a specific Abrahamic God). Too much disproportional attention is on the God issue which may tar the legacy of Flew. I’ll always remember him for the phrase (excusing any pun): ‘death of a thousand qualifications’.

Story Two: Prime ministerial television debate

A question on legacy rises in this second story of the week. This week saw the first televised British prime ministerial debate, which for my two cents; showed all three party leaders in the best possible light. Compare this to the overtly character driven political debating style of the US presidential elections. There is comparatively less dirty politics and distinctly less cynicism presented from the questioners or the party leaders.

I was thinking about principles of good Rhetoric throughout the debate. For anyone who would like to engage in a debate, there are certain likeable features that can also be taken to the advantage of another. I thought I’d consider the features of a good Rhetorical strategy that perhaps will determine the reception of how the debate came about:

  1. Acknowleding good points of your opponents
  2. Agreeing with an opponent; taking charitable interpretation of their views
  3. Appeasement/deference to establish the appearance of sympathy of others
  4. Refutation and rebuttals to points that conflict with yours
  5. Establishing unity or relata to other propositions in a given agenda
  6. Avoiding personal attack; poor argument or fallacious appeal

Of course rhetoric differs to good argument. Ideally the best argument is the one that is true. Not the one that convinces. However for the interests of a democratic election; rhetoric does better.


Stanley’s “Crisis of Philosophy”

I’ve seen this article attract a great many replies, reactions, disagreements and agreements. Many of my most respected of living philosophers have commented on this issue. The issue, as I see it is this: The reputation of philosophy is being undermined by the anti-philosophical intellectuals that have emerged since the 19th Century.

I thought that I would contribute to clarity on understanding what the crisis is. As such, I am going to address the issue of what is seen as the ‘enemy’ to analytic philosophers, namely, the ‘anti-philosophies’ which can sometimes be called¬† ‘continental philosophy’. I shall then address a general issue of how philosophy’s history can be potentially misunderstood where anachronism can infect the general reputation of philosophy.

Lastly I would address the reputation of philosophy, where the real ‘crisis’ expresses itself. Philosophy faces a reputation that negatively affects its genuine practicioners and benefits its sophistical demagogues. This affects everything from rants against philosophy in dinner parties to where public academic funding is directed.

The conception of anti-philosophy

The founding figures of the ‘anti’ philosophical tendency usually appeal to the likes of Nietzsche or Marx. I like to invoke the distinction (as do many others) towards Continental philosophy. The anti-philosophical sentiment opposes systematic philosophy. For these anti-philosophical philosophies, there is a distinct sense of opposition to ‘how things previously have been’; the objects of such opposition involve fundamental oppositions to the possibility of rational analysis; where subjectivity seems to take a greater primacy.

This tendency to ‘subjectify’ philosophy takes place through emphasising the role of the individual subject’s experience which cannot be understood by ‘grand theories’ that impose upon persons. The notion of systems and rules of conduct are limiting in favour of other competing ‘anti-philosophical’ accounts.

For anti-philosophies, the analysis of justice, knowledge and understanding natural sciences are seen as fruitless and ‘dated’ notions. Feuerbach’s eleventh thesis concerning the application of philosophy makes any kind of ‘theoretical’ philosophy a derogatory pursuit. Some serious misconceptions are easy to make: for instance; that systematic or theoretical philosophy is distinct from ‘applied’ philosophy.

Anti-philosophies have allied themselves with the humanities such as literary theory, film studies, cultural studies and some of the mainstream social sciences. The popularity and the infection of anti-philosophical theorists has led to the irony of those bodies of thought to establish their own canons of systematicity. Perhaps the temptation of the system is just too unavoidable. While Marx opposed the Kantian-enlightenment vision of the system of nature; his own vision became a system constrained by the process of history. For the contemporary social theorists, much appeasement is needed to the former Gods of post-structuralism or postmodernism. This is the very scholasticism and dogmatism that the Englightenment had tried to dissolve.

Misunderstanding history, and the place of historical figures

There are many cultural factors that lead to such philosophical divergences. Conversation between traditions and cultures has always been part of European philosophy, however we must also acknowledge that the conventional histories of philosophy, if taken as strong and reified accounts; lead to anachronism. It is not the case that Descartes’ knew that philosophers after him would always refer to his work nor would he see that many persons after him from mathematicians to cognitive scientists would see him as one of their founders. The view from the present makes the disjoined and sometimes the initially uneventful seem monumental. That is perhaps reasonable to see considering that we can tell of the real implications of say, a historian from Scotland who never recieved a professorship (David Hume) or a lens grinder (Baruch Spinoza).

My old sociology lecturer warned us not to read too much into the deviants and countercultures of any given time. While it may be the case that one revolutionary can turn into the dogmatist’s prophet; they may be in their own time outside of the mainstream. An analogy may be in place: let us not try to read too much into the emergences of youth cultures when during their infancy; many of the first generations of fans were in a minority. Was everyone into grunge during the late 80s? Was every teenager a punk during the 70s? Probably not: lets not forget the fashion travesties of the mainstream in our plotted cultural history. Most people got on with their lives, and most intellectuals worked within the paradigm of their dominant discourse. Leibniz in his early career was an Aristotelian philosopher; Kant worked within the scholarly german fashion of the Leibniz-Wolffian system and Descartes’. Our misunderstanding of philosophy today is in large part to a general misunderstanding of its history.

The reputation of philosophy

The reputation of philosophy has many dimensions of influence. Let us start off with a negative reputation of philosophy. Here’s a list:

  • Philosophy doesn’t apply to the real world
  • Philosophy (undefined) is no longer relevant, but [x’s philosophy] tells us that that [x’s philosophy] is right and relevant (insert any of the following names: Zizek, Nietzsche, Marx, Butler, Freud, Deepak Chopra, Jesus, some long haired lunatic &c …)
  • Philosophy has been defeated by [x] (insert name from list above, maybe add in Rorty, Wittgenstein, Semiotics, sociology of scientists, ‘science’ genera, and Jesus again)
  • Philosophy doesn’t need much funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t deserve funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t fit into the goals of the new style of academic management: impact, impact impact are the three distinct and all encompassing goals of academia
  • Philosophy has turned too literary/linguistic/logical/mathematical/historical/academic/elitist/scientific
  • Other subjects have taken the work of conventional philosophical concerns to render it obsolete: Sociology, Political Science, Mathematical logic, Cognitive science and linguistics, psychology and the neurosciences, history of science
  • Interdisciplinarity has undermined and diluted philosophy to a buzzword that fits in to some doctrinal quota
  • Contemporary philosophy has detached from theology
  • Contemporary philosophy has too many associations with atheism

I could dedicate a post to each of these issues, but for the sake of parity perhaps I’ll leave them standing as they are. The negative reputation of philosophy consists of various propositions about philosophy that I would largely consider as misapprehensions of what contemporary philosophy is. The contemporary practice of philosophy involves many different kinds of people: borderline scientists; actual scientists; dual-wield PhDs (my favourite kind); academics; non-academics; activists; bourgeois; working class; upper class; post-docs; teachers; politically oriented; broadsheet article writers; podcasters; cultural researchers; humanists; scientists; social scientists and so on. As such, there are many different perspectives on philosophy and many different kinds of ideas. While I could most easily deride some and not others, the fact of the matter is that most co-exist within the same social environment but are affected in different ways. Some benefit by nepotistic and ingratiating research programmes (I’ll name no names); others stand alone and work on substantive issues; other make their way to name drop and draw the lines of factions; others try to establish a sense of community to serve other philosophers and the public.

The reputation of philosophy impacts on future interest in philosophy, the direction of philosophy and in the contemporary light; where funding is allocated and following this, what kinds of philosophical programmes survive. If academia were like Darwinian natural selection; only the best and truest ideas would survive. However, academia is more like social function, and the most socially functioning person (not necessarily the best) finds flourishing. I think that the crisis of philosophy lay in its poor reputation, and the funding and imposed guidelines for research bodies that are more often than not determined by political and bureaucratic influences.

What can be done to save philosophy? We can overcome the misconceptions of philosophy and its history by achieving proper understandings and avoiding second hand readings. Another way to help would be to establish the virtues of intellectual honesty and nobility. Achieve the mindset and ethical mindset not of an oppurtunist and business-like individual which proliferates academic management, but rise above and show that the intellectual caste are much different, much better than the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashions of political and intellectual orientations. The academic world, if ideal; would allow the freedom of expression for many intellectuals as well as greater liberality of research programme from the bottom up. Would it be democratic? I’m not sure. Would it be populist? Certainly NOT!

Michael (and Destre)