Great minds think alike on objectivity

September 18, 2008

Knowledge, Reason, and Taste: Kant's Response to Hume

Author: Paul Guyer

Edition: First

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Price: £23.95

Pages: 288

ISBN 9780691134390

There is a view, perhaps more popular among philosophers in Germany and the US than in this country, according to which David Hume is seen as a near-miss - a minor player who was almost immediately eclipsed by the greater radiance of Immanuel Kant. At best he is accorded the subsidiary role of a warm-up act for the real star. It is excellent to read this corrective by one of the leading Kant interpreters, editors and translators, Paul Guyer.

In detail, and with great clarity and fairness, Guyer compares their respective treatments of scepticism, of the major concepts of causation, objects, and the self, of practical philosophy and of the philosophy of taste.

Guyer shows that the match is by no means as one-sided as the usual view maintains. Kant undoubtedly saw further than Hume in one respect. He managed to link the concepts of causation, time and objectivity so that our empirical representations of ourselves depend on our ability to order our representations of events in time, and that in turn depends on the stability and objectivity of our worlds.

But whatever Kant may have thought, it falls well short of solving Hume's problem of induction or answering his scepticism about the a priori status of any principle of determinism.

But it is in his practical philosophy that Kant is closer to his great predecessor than is usually admitted.

By the time he has recruited "respect" for the moral law as a sentiment needed to make "pure practical reason" genuinely motivational, and by the time we appreciate properly Hume's emphasis on the common point of view and the goal of "tranquillity" in our ability to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of (some of) our desires, the difference begins to shrink, if not to vanishing point, at least into footnotes and journal articles.

And on the related issues of aesthetics and taste, by the time the Critique of the Power of Judgment is stripped of its largely indefensible teleology, it turns out that most of its structure and its aims fit in well with Hume's discussion of 30 years previously.

Although some of these points will be familiar to Hume scholars, it is admirable to find someone with Guyer's Kantian credentials not only admitting them but putting them on full show and, coming from a scholar of his stature, this ought to ensure them an audience even in parts of the world that have not yet seen the light.

Who is it for? Those who are interested in Hume or Kant.

Presentation: Intermediate.

Would you recommend it? Enthusiastically.

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