December of Kant: Planning a Grand Philosophical System and Its Discontents.


Analogously to the famous Summer of George, I have accidentally stumbled into what can only be labeled a December of Kant: a number of peculiar conversations plus free time due to school break were bound to result in a more or less discipline browsing of Kant’s texts. Curiously, the question that strangely keeps coming up here and there in off-hand remarks and heated exchanges is following: Did Kant plan to write three critiques in any sort of disciplined elaboration of the system, or did they just come about accidentally and we’ve managed to persuade ourselves that they were from the very beginning a part of a grand plan?

But before we get to it, a quick anthropological digression: I had a chance to experience a peculiar aspect of the American life I am eager to share due to its puzzling popularity and my general amusement at its very existence. I have managed to attend one of the most bizarre cultural rituals yesterday. It took place in one of those establishments that buy liquor at the same places you and I do, but then they resell it at a higher value thus making a profit. People come to these places to sip their overpriced drinks and watch TV, talks loudly about their day, sometimes eat, in other words, all the things they could  be happily doing at home if they had family or close friends. In this particular establishment, people were, in addition to general drinking, talking, watching TV and occasional eating, huddled up in small groups that wrote something on small pieces of paper. The writing stuff on paper was usually preceded by a strange disembodied voice saying rather odd things like: “What was the name of the solar-powered clone of Superman?” or “What famous Canadian person is currently living with his mother?” Apparently the natives call this “Trivia night” – utterly bizarre, I kid you not. Most questions were about popular culture and the kind of knowledge that one would normally discard as irrelevant even if amusing. One feels utterly humiliated at not being able to produce even one slightly correct answer, yet one is rewarded with great pomp for knowing something so obscure and specific that one wonders if this is even considered “knowledge” in a proper society. In any case, here are some questions I wish I heard so I can register my very own skill at this “Trivia” ritual – and let’s keep it Kantian:

– What was Immanuel Kant’s major domestic frustration of 1784?

–  Who was Kant referring to when he complained to Hamann that he feels he is being treated as an imbecile?

– Did Kant ever have sex in his entire life?

– Who and why chose that sad portrait of Kant who was known for good spirits, great conversation and humor, to be on every single damn volume of the Cambridge edition so that one always has to explain to student that no, it is not true and Kant is not “the most boring philosopher ever”?

But let us proceed with the main question: Did Kant, in fact, have a plan to publish three critique in a kind of unveiling of his great philosophical system? I had a major conversation about it over some beers some days ago, and I was somewhat puzzled to discover that some really think that Kant had any sort of a plan to put out three critiques, while it is pretty clear from the biographical information that we have that he in fact did not. I think the best and shortest argument can be found in the work of Eckart Förster whose presentation of Kant has always been as that of a thinker who was constantly struggling to present his ideas in a best possible way, but he found his attempts constantly frustrated by the lack of public understanding. In fact, one might argue that Kant’s main task after the publication of the first Critique was to answer all the critics, one of the important ones being Grave. So the shortest version (for a long version, see the intro to the Cambridge edition’s Practical Philosophy volume) of the argument could be constructed with a reference to just two epistolary events of August of 1783:

1) On August 16,  Kant wrote to Moses Mendelsohn (10:346, Briefe 206):

Diesen Winter werde ich den ersten Theil meiner Moral, wo nicht vollig doch meist zu Stande bringen. Diese Arbeit ist mehrer Popularität fähig, hat aber bey weitem den das Gemüth erweiternden Reitz nicht bey sich, den jene Aussicht, die Grenze und den gesammten Inhalt der ganzen menschlichen Vernunft zu bestimmen in meinen Augen bey sich führt, vornemlich auch darum, weil selbst Moral, wenn sie in ihrer Vollendung zur Religion überschreiten will, ohne eine Vorarbeitung und sichere Bestimmung der ersteren Art, unvermeidlicher Weise in Einwürfe u[nd] Zweifel, oder Wahn und Schwärmerey verwickelt wird.

Kant is clearly moving on with his plan to write a metaphysics of morals and so on. Kant certainly has a plan for his system, but it does not seems to include any more critiques, it seems.

2) On August 21, Kant received Christian Grave’s original review of the first Critique. Kant’s upset and feels misunderstood, plans to write a “counter-critique” against Grave, publishes several condemning posts about Grave on his blog, including infamous insulting remarks that get him in trouble with the University of Königsberg. Later Kant and Grave actually become pen pals until Grave’s death in 1798. “Counter-critique” eventually becomes the Groundwork, then Kant decides to publish the second Critique, then comes the third and the rest is history…

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