Quora answer: How can you summarize Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, especially space-time, religion and ethics?

Feb 18 2014

Suggest you read the summaries that exist on the internet and then if you are still interested listen to Bernsteintapes.com podcasts of Professor Bernstein on Kant First and Third Critiques. Don’t know of any good podcasts on the Second Critique. But Bernstein more or less explains that too as he goes along. Really when it comes down to it summaries really don’t do you any good. Either you want to understand Kant in his own terms or you should probably forget it, because Kant is difficult and dry and unless you want to know how Western Science works probably too much to be bothered with. However if you must there is always the commentaries of Patton which are in my view the best. Basically I spent a whole summer reading Critique of Pure Reason, the only critique I was interested in, with the Commentary of Patton as my guide. I thought I understood Kant by the time I had finished, more or less, at least well enough to read Heidegger’s books on Kant which was my real goal, and probably the best thing in Heidegger. But years later I ran into Bernstein on Hegel who I had never been able to get into, and he helped me over the hurdle. So I decided just to brush up on Kant by listening to those podcasts as well. Well I just did not realize how much I had missed both of the big picture, the details and the significance of Kant. When it comes right down to it there are only four figures in our tradition Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. The first two are fundamentally the same for all their differences and the last two are fundamentally the same for all their differences. If you know these four figures you know pretty much everything else by extrapolation if you know them well. I still don’t know Aristotle all that well. But the others I think I have a decent grasp of, and Kant and Hegel only by way of Bernstein. Plato by way of John Sallis.

Which leads me to the important point: Read commentaries, good ones are hard to find, but are indispensable.

Basically if you read a summary you still don’t know anything. If you give up and read the actual philosopher you still don’t know anything. Then read some commenters enough to figure out what the disagreements are and you still don’t know anything. Then you must find the commentators that really explain what the philosopher meant within his philosophical context, and then you can claim to know something.

In other words you cannot know anything based on help, and you cannot know anything based on your own reading of the original text, and you cannot know anything significant based on knowing what the commentators argue about, but for each figure there is one or two commentators that actually understood what was being said in context and can explain it cogently and clearly, and when you grasp that then you can say that you know something.

Knowledge is cutting though the crap. There is just so much garbage said about Kant, strange self-serving interpretations that only make him more obscure. The summaries might give you a clue what the whole thing might be about, but you will never know until you actually read the philosopher himself and what he has to say, because most summaries are unjust in some way, or so abstract that the core is left out.

But even if you are reading the philosophers own words you do not know the context in which he was writing, and so you are interpreting it in relation to the later philosophers that you have read, and this can be an endless source of confusion. Then if you see what the commentators are arguing about with regard to the philosopher this only tends to obscure his thought more. However, if you look at all the commentators there will probably be one or two who have risen above their own agendas to tell you what Kant was trying to say himself, like Patton. Bernstein says that the problem with Kant is like in mathematical proofs steps are left out in the argument and left as an exercise for the reader, and if you don’t realize that those steps are needed, or substitute the wrong intermediate left out steps then you get a different philosophy from the one that Kant intended. You have to find a commentator that actually understood Kant and the right left out steps and then you get a reasonable facsimile of his thought. It makes astonishingly good sense once you know what he is not telling you, because he assumed you already knew it.

Patton does this by taking one sentence at a time and writing a paragraph for each one first explaining why the sentence is there given the prior context, and then explaining the sentence, and then saying why it is important to the argument. After you go through all that you realize that Kant was just too brilliant for his own good. He was a genius and you are not going to be better than him, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many hundred years of other commentaries you have to lean on. As Bernstein quaintly put it, he was a bastard because he left out key points that makes the arguments cryptic and the whole game is to figure out what is missing that he left out just because he assumed we were as brilliant as him. So because of this fatal flaw of genius very few commentators have had any idea what he was talking about all this time, and he is the key figure in our tradition, because of the few things we all did understand. This problem only gets worse with Hegel. Between them they used up most of the available philosophical genius in our tradition and the rest of us are just floundering about with less than a full deck of cards compared to them.

If you really want to get crazy you need to read Kant with Milton and Hegel with Blake after reading Dante. That will keep you occupied and make sure you stay out of trouble for a long time.

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