Why Postmodernists Can't Read Kant Without Producing Cant




C. Ellsworth Hood



There seems to be something about Kant's thinking which makes it particularly inaccessible to a postmodern reading. Endnote The inaccessibility is due in part to postmodern assumptions and methodology and in part to Kant's thinking and the language in which he expressed that thinking. Most important is the thinking.

 

Let us begin, however, with language. Kant certainly is no help to a Derrida inspired postmodern who would attempt to read one of his texts. In an effort to keep this project manageable I shall focus on The Laying of the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. This text contains language which would seem to justify the now almost universal postmodern complaints about logocentrism and philosophy of presence--perhaps even to justify the charges that such philosophy is inherently imperialistic and enslaving, a basis for suppression of difference and oppression of others in their otherness.

 

Kant baldly asserts that moral knowledge lies already present in ordinary human reason and needs only, in the manner of Socrates, to be brought to light. Endnote Ironies abound. To begin with, there seems to be no need for the tortuous readings of readings practiced by so much of postmodern methodology. If the knowledge is possessed by ordinary human reason it should, it would seem, not require obscure and baffling rereadings of texts to bring it to light. Or, are these readings attempts at Socratic practice, efforts to bring that knowledge to light? Hardly so, since Kant asserts there is moral knowledge. Moreover it is said to be "there", present, in ordinary human reason. Postmodernism, however, is concerned in its readings, Socratic or otherwise, to deny there is any such presence, hence anything there to be brought to light. Rather, the postmodern reading points to such language to justify its claim that Kant is here, as elsewhere, a philosopher of presence and therefore a perpetrator of oppression. He does say it is there and is the same in each reason. So much for difference, it would seem.

 

There is more, much more. What that knowledge found in ordinary human understanding is revealed to be, once brought to light, is the moral law, universalization.

 

Pure conformity to law altogether (without presupposing as ground any law determining any specific actions) serves as the principle of the will.... Endnote

 

Moreover, this law is applied to human beings (Menschen) without borrowing anything whatsoever from knowledge of them (Anthropologie). Endnote

 

Lawfulness alone, with exclusion of any and all feelings, experience, emotions, any impulse, any empirical dimension whatever, exclusive of all reference to time, place, particular individual, culture, ethnicity, race, religion, history or biology, is the measure of the moral.

...all respect for a person is actually respect for the (law (integrity, etc.) of which individuals provide us with examples. Endnote

 

Worse yet, this law arises out of and is known to pure reason alone.

 

All moral philosophy rests on its pure part and is applied to human beings (Menschen) and borrows nothing whatever from knowledge of them (Anthropologie) but gives them as rational natures, laws a priori.... Endnote

 

Now what is one to make of this, particularly if one is of a postmodern/deconstruction persuasion? Logocentrism seems to resound through these texts. There is one law; it is and it applies irrespective of every trace of difference, otherness, location in context. It applies universally, without exception or variation and in each and every instance. This would seem to deny recognition of relatedness, location, difference, otherness, context, temporality, the uniqueness of individual and the possibility of stories, texts and play. Everything which postmodern thought would celebrate seems rejected out of hand, absolutely, and unequivocally. Everything which seems to give life its richness, its effulgence, its meanings, seems to be obliterated. We have only the cold, stark law which demands that all that is personal, individual, particular, all that relates to one's time, one's place, one's self, associates, one's loved ones, be ignored. The good will acts from duty and from duty alone. Such a will, Kant says,

 

would, like a jewel, shine by its own light as something that has worth in itself. Endnote

 

What can this be but presence. Though sparkling, it is still presence, the presence of cold, impersonal, universality--logocentric presence to the nth power.Can oppression, suppression, imperialism of principle, of the law, the right, the good, be far removed? To most postmodern eyes and ears, how could it be otherwise? Written text production, even that of profound philosophers, is a function of writing as are the writers themselves. Endnote Kant's texts were written in the era of the ascendance of mathematical physics and its stellar presentation in Newton's mechanics. Kant's language resonates with that physics and mechanics and postmodernists would seem to be justified in their reading of Kant. Perhaps.

 

While I am most interested in Kant's thinking and why it is inaccessible to postmodern methods of reading texts, a few words on postmodernism's methodology would seem to be in order. To start with, much postmodern writing claims to be free of method and of methodological assumptions and usually denies that it entails any specific content whether it be doctrine, metaphysics or ontology. As I read deconstruction, with something of a Kantian eye, it seems evident, for all the protestation to the contrary, a very specific methodology and a closely related ontology are intrinsic to this brand of postmodernism. There is, we are told, only text and reading of text. Reading of text is restricted to reference of text to text. We are forbidden to read thinkingly, freely. We are bound by text to text. Of course, there is no I or we, but that gets ahead of where "we" are just yet. Text, it is argued, is prior to, superior to--dare one say more fundamental than--speech. Clearly there is a method of approaching reading operative here.

 

The assertion of the priority of text or writing over speech carries us over in the ontology entailed. Those who would speak, or misguidedly assume they do so, are functions of text. There is no subject, no author. What there is is differance, Derrida's now famous term. What the old philosophers of presence called objects or entities or subjects or selves or persons or authors are, we are now told, traces. It seems only differance exists, but that too is wrong to say for it implies a trace of presence. It is not just that each apparent reality differs from each and every other apparent reality, but each differs in itself. This, however, comes close to saying each is an appearance of differance and differance would then become the negative or reverse image of the logocentrism it abhors. The way deconstruction tries to evade that result is in its insistence that what appears as a center, an identity, a presence, is in fact a confluence of texts, a writing. It seems, to this reader anyhow, ambiguous just how differance operates here. Is it that for the apparent entity differance as it differs is one of the texts in the confluence? Or is it that the confluence of texts interpreting texts just differs? And what of trace? It seems trace is difference due to differance in which difference is restated as the same. This could easily be misread as presence, hence deconstruction is careful to stress that it is differance and not an entity or subject that is experienced in trace. Rather, we find ourselves, along with every other apparent presence, to be a function of language manifest in a play of traces. Endnote

 

Alfred North Whitehead's notion of enduring objects is a tempting analogue to deconstruction's play of trace. But it differs in important ways. That an enduring object is a reiteration of pattern does sound similar to Derrida's traces. There are in Whitehead's world, however, eternal objects which are taken up in events and which give coherence and structure to enduring objects. Differance allows for nothing of the sort. Another particularly striking dissimilarity is that Whitehead speaks of prehension of futures by events as they iterate or reiterate pattern. Apprehension as conscious prehension violates differance and play of traces even more obviously. Endnote That there is an event with an identity, an enduring object, is precisely what deconstruction denies. That some events have self-identity and intelligent prehension distances Whitehead's events even further from deconstruction's traces which are, as we have seen before, functions of context, of texts interpreting texts as differance differs.

 

This seems a digression but it should serve our purpose well as we proceed. On the face of it there seems to be no reason why there could not be traces which have thinking among their traces, within their play. Thinking would be reiterated and appear as trace as differance differs in the play. Our brief look at Whitehead may give a clue why this cannot be the case. Whereas for Whitehead thinking is a feature of some enduring objects, for deconstruction the self, subject, author, is product of context, a function of language which itself is text mediating text. This annihilates any possibility of an active rationality and thereby annihilates freedom.

 

I propose that we now leave aside reading Kant as text or writing and take him as our companion in thinking. Very early on, in the "Preface," Kant distinguishes between laws of nature and laws of freedom. Endnote The laws of nature produce a determinism whereas the laws of freedom do not. Right off we have to think laws differently when we think of law in relation to things and when we think of law in relation to rational beings, persons. In this context Kant speaks of judgment's role in application of the laws of freedom.

 

When the a priori character of knowledge of the moral law was being discussed earlier on some text was quoted, but only in part. In what was quoted Kant insists that moral philosophy rests entirely on its purely rational part, something found in every human reason. Consistent with postmodern reading method, the "found" and "rests in" text were given particular emphasis. What actually follows was ignored. The a priori laws, Kant continues,

 

require, to be sure, an experience-sharpened power of judgment in order in part to distinguish in which instances they have application and in part to facilitate their entry in the wills of men and to intensify their vigor in use. Endnote

 

What is particularly striking is the way judgment enters here with a casualness which seems positively startling in the context of postmodern reading of texts. What is Kant thinking here? Right off one notices the active character of reason. Judgment is said to distinguish instances in which laws apply or do not. In addition judgment facilitates the entry of the moral law into the will and intensifies the energy of use once that law is present in the wills of individual human beings. The presence of freedom in persons is registered in these words. One can not here read law as natural law exclusively and conceive of that natural law as Newtonian in character and then argue that Kant meant that Newtonian natural law when he proceeds, as he does, to speak of "a supreme guide and norm" Endnote or of "one and the same reason differentiated only in application." Endnote One must think with him to grasp his meaning.

 

When Kant then turns his attention to reason's role in the world he makes clear just how active moral reason is. Nature, he says, would never have allowed reason such a role if happiness, understood as the pleasant passing of life, were the real goal of human existence. Given reason's

 

weak insight to think out for itself the plan of happiness and the means of attaining it...nature would have taken over not only the selection of ends but also the means as well. Endnote

 

Nature, he affirms, would have taken care that reason not burst forth in practical employment but have entrusted our happiness to instinct. Endnote What we find, however, is that ordinary human reason reveals quite another aspect of human nature. Notice that we establish not merely the means but the ends as well. The impressive range of our power is given clear though unemphasized expression here. Moreover, Kant adds a bit later,

 

reason's proper function must be to produce a will good in itself and not one good only as a means.... Endnote

 

We as rational natures not only choose means and ends, we produce ourselves as moral persons. It is, I believe, precisely this active character of reason which is particularly inaccessible to postmodern/deconstructionist efforts to read Kant.

 

In Kant's thinking universal law as it applies to human action is not a law of necessity nor does it produce a determinism. Rather, it is reason's or the will's--since they are the same--power to be a law to itself. As we produce ourselves as moral persons, each knows the moral law as duty. One recognizes that one should always do what is right. What is brought to light by Socratic endeavor is not that one should always do what is right for of that one is already aware. What is brought to light is the meaning of the universal character of that law or duty and why it is incumbent on each person to guide his or her action accordingly without concern for environing factors and influences and masses of irrelevant considerations. Endnote When Kant asks

 

What kind of a law is it the conception of which, without consideration of the expected result, must determine the will? Endnote

 

he is asking what law provides for freedom, a freedom ordinary human reason recognizes, though obscurely, as its own. It knows it is freedom and that it should respect this freedom in itself and in others.

 

We are now in position to move on through Kant's Foundations relatively swiftly. Once one begins to think with him rather than attempting to impose direction to his thought by means of a text or context oriented methodology one finds the author to speak clearly and eloquently in his own voice. He challenges us to a thinking

 

which does not allow itself to be held back by anything empirical and which...reaches ideas where examples fail us Endnote

 

Clearly, thinking must command text and not the other way around. It is not a matter of texts reading texts. Nor is it that we, as texts, products of writing, merely observe trace and play, as it seems we would be confined within the bounds of what postmodernism means by reading.It is a matter of actively thinking as we read.

 

Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational nature has the capability to act according to the conception of laws, i.e., according to principles or a will. ...the will is nothing other than practical reason Endnote

 

Postmodernism/deconstruction is stuck at the laws of nature dimension. It observes play, traces, difference, while the observer is itself a function of trace, play, difference. This is a thing-think logic, a logic unable to reach persons in their freedom. There are no thinking thinkers who express their thinking through writing, texts; there is only writing expressing itself through text. Trace now seems to be a rewriting of exchange of forces and record of work done and deconstruction, along with much of the rest of postmodernism, turns out to be Newtonian mechanics in the text of literary criticism posing as philosophical discourse.

 

Kant offers more. The capacity to act according to principle is, we discover as we read on, autonomy. Autonomy entails freedom.

 

The will is thought of as a capability to determine itself to actions according to the conception of certain laws Endnote

 

The remainder of the second section of the Foundations develops the possibility and character of this capacity. Practical reason or will is elucidated to show why and how the ability to legislate for itself is intrinsic to its very nature. This ability is entailed in action according to principle, conception of law. Thinking carefully is essential here for a thing-think logic reading will lose Kant's thinking entirely. To act according to principle is not to follow law but to legislate, to give coherent structure to action.

 

One saw humankind (Menschen) as bound by duty to laws, but it did not occur to one that he is subject only to his own though universal lawgiving and that he is only bound, according to nature's design, to act in a way consistent with his own though universal lawgiving will. .... Therefore I will call this principle the principle of the autonomy of the will. Endnote

 

So each person is a law to him or her self or perhaps it is better to say one as person is the power to be a law to oneself.

 

Kant develops his meaning by clearly distinguishing the mode of being of thing from the mode of being of person. Things relate to things according to law, according to a logic of determinism. It is a logic he spelled out in great detail in the Critique of Pure Reason and in the Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics. That logic is a logic suited to be read as text, as a writing, for everything in it is a function of effects of prior causes in a universal logic of determinism. Persons relate to persons according to principle, according to conception of law, freely as each legislates for him or her self.

 

The rational being must always regard himself as lawgiving in a realm of ends made possible through the freedom of the will.... Endnote

 

The universal law in this context is the law which establishes each person as a person, as freedom, and structures relations among free persons consistent with their status as free, active, rational beings.

 

Morality is therefore the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will.... Actions which are consistent with the autonomy of the will are allowed; those which are not are not allowed Endnote

 

Moral law provides the structure necessary to Kant's famous realm of ends or kingdom of purposes, his community of free persons who relate on the basis mutual respect for the intrinsic worth of each.

 

"And now what is it that justifies the morally good disposition or virtue to make such high claims? Endnote ,Kant asks. His answer?

 

It is nothing less than the participation in universal lawgiving which they secure to the rational nature and thereby make it suited to be a member of a realm of ends to which its own nature has destined it as end in itself and therefore, as legislative in a realm of ends, free from all natural laws.... The lawgiving power itself however, which determines all worth must even for that reason possess unconditioned, incomparable worth. Endnote

 

Kant has said a bit earlier that everything has either price or worth. That which has price is whatever can be replaced by an equivalent whereas that for which no equivalent can be provided has worth. Endnote

 

From here it is easy to see how Kant's thinking ensures worth and dignity to persons. As active, creative intelligences, each becomes first the creator of his/her own self as free and as free can proceed to build a world appropriate to free persons. It is precisely this character of persons as free, rational autonomy which postmodern/deconstruction misses entirely. Kant is able to do what much deconstruction seems to want to do but is unable to accomplish. Persons relating as persons entails mutual respect. Difference, otherness, even strangeness are no hindrances. Respect for others in their differences is entailed in the universality of respect for autonomy.

 

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or worth. For whatever has a price, something of equivalence can be set in its place; whatever is raised above all price, for which no equivalent can be permitted, that has worth. Endnote

 

The intrinsic worth of each person could hardly be more clearly expressed. Respect for that worth is precisely what the universal law, that philosophically elucidated knowledge found in ordinary human reason, assures. It is also just what postmodernism cannot reach. Its approach of reading of text as writing rather than thinking its way through text limits it to the world of things of nature. It is a logic of necessity, not a logic of freedom. It is inherently a thing-logic, not a logic of persons, not a logic of human life.

 

As we continue to think with Kant we discover that freedom has a negative and a positive dimension. Negatively it is independence of external causation or in Kant's words, foreign causes. Positively freedom is "a causality according to immutable laws, but of a peculiar kind." Endnote For our reflections just now two features of this peculiarity seem pertinent. One is that each rational nature is the power to put forth the immutable laws. A second is that awareness of the capacity to be a lawgiver makes one aware of his/her status as a person. Freedom in its negative and positive dimensions is autonomy, the ability of rationality to be a peculiar kind of cause. Endnote Its peculiarity can be seen in part when one realizes that this positive freedom is not any one of Aristotle's four causes. The tradition--should I say trace?-- out of which Kant speaks here that of Plato and mind's role as "cause of the mixture." Endnote This active intelligence is a creative power which operates in terms of ends which it projects and is the reason why events take the course they do, but is neither final nor efficient cause in the traditional Aristotelian understanding. Nor is it material or formal cause since it is active and free both negatively and positively. It is the active power of creative intelligence. We return to the infinite intrinsic worth of each person as free. As the legislator who determines all worth and therefore possesses dignity, worth, respect is always due, everywhere, in every instance, always and necessarily.

 

While this language would not appeal to a postmodernist, there are other times when Kant's language would seem quite attractive to some postmodern readers. He says that all human reason is wholly incompetent to explain how pure reason can be practical and that

 

all pains and work searching for an explanation are wasted. To search for an explanation would be the same as to search to ascertain how freedom is possible Endnote

 

However, the thinking which comes to expression in these words is completely at variance with postmodern doctrine. A few pages earlier Kant has said

 

where determination according to natural laws leaves off, there too does all explanation leave off Endnote

 

These words too could have been written by a deconstruction oriented postmodern, but what soon follows could not. Kant argues that those who claim to have seen more deeply into the essence of things and who then deny freedom do so because they

 

must necessarily regard human existence, persons, (den Menschen) as appearances in order to make natural law valid with respect to human actions. Endnote

 

Odd as it may seem, postmodernism does precisely what Kant rejects. Whereas Kant calls for thinking of human beings as intelligences, as free, as persons, as beings of intrinsic worth, postmodernism would persist in considering persons as mere appearances, as things. Trace becomes the ghost of causal law and a linguistic, temporal, social determinism results as differance continually differs. Subjects, persons, become sub-classes of trace, confluences of texts, products of the flow of difference as writing writes.

 

Freedom stands in contradiction to natural necessity even of the esoteric sort found in postmodern efforts to escape logocentricism and the ontologies of presence and the oppression presumed to be entailed by them. The necessity found in decentered text is but the negative image of the necessity found in logics of natural necessity. When more closely examined, it becomes evident it is a logic of natural necessity just as romanticism, when it is understood as an upsurge of feeling, is a form of natural necessity.

 

Small wonder, then, that so much of postmodern writing can make no sense of Kant when he develops freedom as rational autonomy and proceeds to declare the infinite intrinsic worth of persons. If man and humanism can only mean full presence, as Derrida affirms, Endnote all play comes to an end, but so does any significant freedom. If Kant is taken to be a function of writing and the writing is Newtonian, and the text language of law certainly could suggest that it is, there is no hope of making any sense of his thinking. Although reason, Kant says,

 

in its speculative intention finds the path of natural necessity much more taken and usable than that of freedom, for its practical intention the footpath of freedom is the only one on which it is possible to make use of reason in our doing and leaving undone. Endnote

 

Strange as it may seem, much of postmodernism, and not only when it takes its deconstruction mode, finds itself on the well-beaten path of necessity whereas Kant is revealed to be the radically new thinker who blazes a trail to human freedom and dignity.

 

So now we know why postmodernism produces nothing but cant when it tries to read Kant.

 


Endnotes

 

Orignially published in Kant und die Berliner Auflkaerung. Akten des IX Internationalen Kant-Kongress, Band V. Verlag: Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.
Published Essays