Category Archives: Philosophy

authors and their simplifiers

While we’re on the subject of Kant, Mikhail Emelianov at Perverse Egalitarianism has a nice post about “Simplifying Kant,” where he talks about Kant’s relations with his commentators Reinhold and Fichte, whose works on this philosopher helped to establish their careers along with his philosophical reputation:

Then there is, of course, Fichte who travels to Konigsberg in 1791 to meet the great master and finds the encounter to be rather disappointing – Kant appears sleepy and receives him without “special attention.” Fichte sticks around determined to impress the great philosopher (writes what will become An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation), ends up writing him a letter asking for money to return home to Saxony. Kant is sketchy on the money but finds young Fichte a job. Fichte’s Attempt is published without an author’s name, everyone thinks it’s Kant’s new work on religion, Fichte is suddenly thrust into the spotlight (or a spot-torch, maybe) and a village youngster is now a 30-year old protege of Kant himself. Eventually, in 1794 Goethe, impressed by Fichte’s Attempt, helps him get a professorship at Jena. Reinhold got his professorship at Jena based on his Letters on Kantian Philosophy – therefore, the lesson is clear: hang out with the big shots and get professorships.

Literary critics have often downplayed this authorial role as popularizing stand-in (or explainer) for more difficult authors, because we tend to regard an author’s reputation as the product of a single writer’s intentions.  Yet if we look more closely at the details of literary careers, what we find are authorial networks, partnerships, tit for tat exchanges, logrolling, competition, friendly or otherwise–interactions like these are much more prevalent, though, the more closely we examine questions of reputation and publicity.

I’ve always suspected that Boswell’s loving depiction of Johnson was a huge factor in getting Johnson read and enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, once his cultural authority was dissipated.  But never underestimate the power of the popularizer in literary (or philosophical) history.


Charles Taylor on Secularization Narratives in both the West and “Non-West”

For those of you interested in Michael Warner’s recent address on Politics and Religion, pursued from a slightly different angle . . . .

Amardeep Singh, in his own blog, points us to the ongoing discussion of Charles Taylor’s new book, A SecularAge, which is taking place at Taylor’s own Social Science Research Council blog, where Taylor has himself responded here.  The most engaging part of Taylor’s work is his willingness to re-examine the ethnocentricity of the Weberean master-narratives of modernization in the light of non-Western experiences of modernization.  So, for example, we find him contrasting the Weberean narrative of secularization as a “marginalization” of religion, with a more sophisticated narrative of “destabilization” and “recomposition”:

If we look at the Western cases first, and try to think of the changes which go under the title “secularization,” we find a very confused set of assumptions and master narratives. The narratives of what were earlier called the “secularization” thesis were often predicated on a) a simple global notion of “religion,” b) a definition of secularity as the absence of “religion”, and c) beliefs to the effect that the inevitable consequence of the changes called “modernization” (economic growth, urbanization, greater geographical and social mobility, the rise of science and technology, the greater importance of instrumental reason, bureaucratic rationality, and so on) was to undermine and marginalize “religion,” and hence bring on “secularization.” (A more recent and sophisticated variant of this narrative can be found in the work of Steve Bruce.)

A more believable form of narrative is rather this: that the developments of “modernity” did indeed, destabilize earlier forms of religious life. No-one could even try to restore the sacral monarchy of France (Indeed, when Charles X tried to restore the full mediaeval coronation ceremony at Reims in 1825—complete with cures for scrofula from the King’s touch—it fell completely flat.) No-one can restore the village parish community whose time is organized around saints’ days and festivals, even though that was still very alive in parts of Europe (not to say Québec) in the first part of the last century.

But this decay of older forms often is followed by a “recomposition” (Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s term) of new forms. Everybody has learned to identify a successive series of forms of congregational Christian life starting with Pietists and Methodists in the 18th Century, and then moving through and into (among others) the Pentacostal movements which in the last 100 years have grown in spectacular fashion (and also have burst well beyond the bounds of the “West”). David Martin has written on this.

3. So a crucial area of work is to recognize the nature and spread of the new forms. New kinds of devotion, discipline, congregational life; but also new ways in which (in some sense) “religious” markers become central to political mobilization, often in competition to more secular” markers (the two models of French nationalism, Catholic versus Jacobin; the struggle in the Arab world between Baathist or Nasserite nationalism and various forms of Islamism); and also the ways in which “religion” is seen as essential to the stability of social-moral order.

This seems to me a much more plausible way to conceptualize the re-functioning of religion between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (explaining, for example, some of the differences between Methodism and old-fashioned Dissent), and explains better the importance of our period for an understanding of modernity and modernization. 

See also Simon During’s astute remarks on the secular and the mundane here, and Akeel Bilgrami on secularism and disenchantment here.  Somewhere in the midst of these arguments is an important emerging position regarding the long-term historical significance of the European Enlightenment.  Are scholars of the Enlightenment paying attention?

UPDATE: here’s Stuart Jeffries’ mostly sympathetic review from the Guardian.  And now, courtesy of 3quarksdaily, the oddly noncommital John Patrick Diggins review.



How to encourage better thinking in the classroom?

Apropos of the Tenured Radical’s tips, the  philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake has been offering its own teaching suggestions for graduate TAs, where I found an interesting set of meta-questions for those looking to teach their students how to elaborate and refine their thought, either in discussion or in writing (courtesy of David Hunter). 

The questions themselves model the process of elaboration pretty well, but I also appreciated the headings used to organize the questions in this document: Clarity and Precision; Accuracy; Relevance and Significance; Fairness; Depth; Thinking Together; Flexible Thinking; Creativity; Commitment to Good Reasoning; Seeking Greater Understanding; Reflection; Questioning.  These provide a pretty good picture of the values I’d think a good teacher would be trying to impart to a roomful of college students.  And, of course, part of the challenge is to show in your own teaching practices how you simultaneously respect such notions as “flexible thinking” AND “accuracy,” when a student challenges your formulations. 

Any suggestions for those who wish to improve the quality of discussion in their classes?


Immanuel Kant, P.I.

Today’s Kant reference may seem frivolous, but I thought the Long Eighteenth should pay tribute to what I believe is a first, a historical detective novel featuring Immanuel Kant as a character: The Critique of Criminal Reason, by Michael Gregorio. Here’s the blurb:

Philosophy professor Gregorio delivers a stellar debut, a mystery set in 1804 that cunningly incorporates the ideas of the great thinker Immanuel Kant into a twisty, fast-moving whodunit plot. Wisely, the elderly Kant is not the main focus, instead serving as the cryptic mentor to a young rural Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, who receives a royal summons to Königsberg to take over the search for a serial killer who has spread terror in that city. The dead, found without a visible wound, are rumored to have been victims of the devil, and the supernatural aspects of the crimes only heighten the level of fear in an area of Prussia already on edge because of the expected arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading army. Admirers of quality intellectual fiction should embrace this book, with its pitch-perfect period detail and psychologically complex protagonist. Hopefully, readers won’t have to wait long for a sequel.



Kant in the Classroom

For those of you who enjoyed our earlier discussion of Kant’s What is Enlightenment?, I wanted to pass along (via Houhynymland) an excellent link to an English-language website devoted to Kant’s university Lectures, maintained by Steve Naragon of Manchester College:

As I’ve said before, I think anyone who wished to contemplate Kant’s essay should spend some time thinking about the context in which he worked and lectured for some forty years. From this terrific site, here’s a nice description of Kant at the “anvil of my lectern”:

SS 1795
Letter: Purgstall to Kalmann (30 April 1795)

Wenzel Johann Gottfried von Purgstall (1773-1812), an Austrian nobleman, visited Kant in the spring of 1795, and offers this account of his lectures from that semester in a letter of 30 April 1795 to Wilhelm Joseph Kalmann (1758-1842), a close acquaintance of Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1758-1823).

He lectures publicly on logic each day at 7:00 a.m. and twice a week privately on physical geography. Obviously I am missing none of his classes. His presentation is entirely in the tone of ordinary speech and, if you will, not very beautiful. Imagine a little old man who sits there bent over, wearing a brown coat with yellow buttons, not to forget the wig and hair bag; imagine also that this little man occasionally brings forth his hands from the buttoned coat where they have been hiding, and makes a small movement with them in front of his face, as one does when one wants to make something fully comprehensible — imagine all this and you will be seeing him to a hair. Even though he does not look all that great, even though his voice is unclear, yet everything that his delivery lacks in form is richly replaced by the excellence of the content.

One never leaves his auditorium without bringing home some elucidating hint into his writings, and it is as though one arrived at the easiest and shortest way to understanding many difficult sentences in the Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason, from which the other gentlemen, I mean his interpreters — but here I am not thinking of Reinhold exactly—remain standing with a great deal of talk about the difficulty, and make such a quantity of preparations, while he simply enters directly into the subject and talks about it, so that it appears that he would never dream that the materials could be so hard, and that he is wholly convinced that anyone is able to understand it.

Once one has come so far as to understand his voice, then it is not so difficult to understand his thoughts. He spoke last about space and time, and it was as though I had never understood anyone as I understand him; and now he is in that part of his Logic where he needs to discuss cognition. This gives him the opportunity to discuss their perfection, and to discuss logical, aesthetic, and other sorts of cognitions. He then discussed the main concepts, I believe, of the beautiful out of the Critique of Judgment, and this so easily and understandable and entertainingly as can hardly be imagined. From this alone one can well imagine how interesting it would be to hear his entire course, for then one would be easily made acquainted with all his ideas. […]

Kant is reading from an old Logic, by Meier, if I’m not mistaken. He always brings the book along. It looks so old and soiled, I believe that he has brought it daily to class with him for forty years. All the blank leaves are covered with writing in a small hand, and besides, many of the printed pages have leaves pasted on them, and lines are frequently crossed out, so that, as you might imagine, scarcely anything of Meyer’s Logic is left. Not one of his auditors brings the book, and they merely write down what he says. But he does not seem to notice this, and faithfully follows his author from chapter to chapter, and corrects everything, or rather rewords everything, but so innocently that it is clear he makes little of his discoveries. [Hügelmann 1879; repr. Malter 1990, 418-21]

Best wishes, and happy New Year,


What is Enlightenment, the Prequel, Or, Crappy Teaching Jobs in the Eighteenth Century

The other day I was teaching Foucault’s What is Enlightenment? to my Intro Lit Studies class, which included one student wearing what I took to be his reserves camo outfit with big leather boots. One research group had just presented on Kant, and, unsurprisingly, they were still puzzled by Kant’s counter-intuitive treatment of public and private reason. Kant’s example of the army officer who exercises his reason and renders obedience at the same time did not make these distinctions any easier for them to understand.

So I mentioned an anecdote about Kant I have always prized, to talk a little about Foucault’s treatment of Enlightenment as an exploration of historical limitations:

From Schneewind et al.’s Introduction to Kant’s Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge, 1997):

Kant began to teach at the Albertina University in Konigsberg in 1755, when he was thirty-one years old. He taught there for more than four decades, carrying what seems today an astonishlingly heavy load. Usually he gave four or five courses each semester, meeting classes four or five hours a week. He taught logic, metaphysics, physical geography, anthropology, and many other subjects. (He even taught the rudiments of making fortifications to the officers of the Russian army that occupied Konigsberg in the late 1750s.) (xiii)
. . .

[a little further on, after explaining the careful attention Kant gave to religious worship, control of the passions, cautions about sexual indulgence, and so on, Schneewind observes:]

One is reminded that Kant’s audience consisted largely of unsophisticated boys, younger than present-day college students, usually away from their rural homes for the first time, and for the most part ill-educated (xvii).

[Schneewind also mentions that Kant routinely lectured to audiences numbering somewhere between fifty and a hundred, which included not just the students but also tutors, civil servants, military officers, intellectuals like Herder, etc. Here is a little glimpse of his lecture style:]

Until the 1790s, his lectures were reported to be witty, somewhat rambling, full of life and feeling, with scattered references to current events and to books. In his early and middle years, at least, if not toward the end of his life, Kant answered questions and held discussions during the lecture hours. And as we have noted, he did not want his students to spend their class time taking notes. He wanted to teach them “not philosophy, but to philosophize; not thoughts to repeat, but thinking . . . thinking for themselves, investigating for themselves, standing on their own feet” (xix).

Not bad for a statement of one’s Teaching Philosophy, eh? And it couldn’t be farther from the style of the Critiques.

So, indeed, we talked a little about the historical limitations placed upon Kant, limitations represented by Frederick and those army officers sitting in his lecture-halls. We discussed how Foucault argues that Enlightenment, to be worthy of the name, cannot be restricted to an individual process of self-education and self-care, much less a finite group of historical texts and events, but also represents an ongoing collective process in the present, one which involves an assessment of the past to see what kinds of openings it can suggest for us for in the present, whether for action or reflection.

And these anecdotes of Kant’s teaching are one more touchstone I carry around, to discuss the difference that geography makes in our images of Enlightenment.

Best wishes,


The Enlightenment and Universal Law

I just told my class a few weeks ago that the European Enlightenment was characterized by, among many other things, a healthy skepticism for dogmatism, a rejection of blind authority to traditional sources of power and knowledge, an openness to different ideas and opinions from the New World and beyond, and a driving curiosity to explore selfhood and subjectivity (seen best in the 18c novel, via Locke).

But just the other day we were reading Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and I heard myself telling the same students that the poem is a representative Enlightenment text for its assertive appeals to Universal Truth and an unchanging “Nature” (human and otherwise) that parallels Newton’s “laws” of gravity and physics and the subsequent confidence in the culture at large that God’s ways could finally be explained as a function of Reason.

So which is it? Is Pope’s poem an Enlightenment text for its foundation in Unchanging Universal Truth, or is it a kind of anti-Enlightenment text for its completely trusting capitulation to an (albeit Reasonable) God and its refusal to acknowledge that different people might have different angles on Truth?