Crimes against Kant's genius

Critique of Pure Reason. First edition - A Commentary to Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason'. First edition

May 28, 2004

Kant's revolutionary first Critique is one of the world's greatest philosophical works, but also one of the most difficult. A. J. Ayer understood it fully only once, when suffering from sunstroke, so what hope is there for the rest of us?

In Norman Kemp Smith's words, the work is "an enquiry into the conditions, scope and limits of our knowledge". Above all, perhaps, it is an account of the built-in mental blinkers that constrain us to see the world in terms of certain conceptual categories (principally those of space and time) and prevent us from knowing what lies beyond their purview.

Because Kemp Smith died in 1958, his work is still in copyright. Because his translation and commentary are classics, every serious student of Kant without German must use them, and Palgrave Macmillan sits on a monopoly.

This brings with it responsibilities, shamefully neglected or mishandled in these reissues.

The first responsibility was to commission genuine introductions, not the almost laughably inappropriate (and, in the case of the Critique , woefully edited) ones we find here, which tell us more about Kemp Smith than about Kant. As Kant says about bad books: "The reader is not allowed to arrive sufficiently quickly at a conspectus of the whole." The "introductions" assume considerable prior knowledge of the works they purport to introduce, and will bore and confuse the newcomer to Kant. Howard Caygill's introduction barely mentions Kant's key predecessor, David Hume, and ignores his leading successor, Arthur Schopenhauer.

The original editions are typographically rebarbative, having been set in the 1920s in a dated and off-putting style. They should have been reset to a user-friendly design. Trouble was not even taken to find sharp copies to reproduce. The type in the overpriced Commentary is blurred: either we are not being offered a first-generation copy, or the camera work is negligent.

The original impression is far superior.

Moreover, Sebastian Gardner's introduction to Commentary is set in a typeface and to a measure that fails to match the main text. The numbering of the preliminary pages has changed, but a back-reference on page 39 of the Critique is unaltered. The Commentary 's cover refers to a non-existent jacket, and its translator's dedication is in the wrong place, making it look like the introducer's. The one sentence written by the publisher is clumsily opaque. Neither blurb contains a single word about what Kant said.

These two books are a disgrace to publishing. They are perfect case studies for a course on how not to reissue classic works as textbooks.

Students of Kant, who have no choice, have been poorly served.

Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

Critique of Pure Reason. First edition

Author - Immanuel Kant. With a new introduction by Howard Caygill
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 681
Price - £52.50 and £17.99
ISBN - 1 4039 1194 0 and 1195 9
Translator - Norman Kemp Smith

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