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.