On Philosophy

November 11, 2007

Who Cares What Kant Thought?

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Or Plato, or Frege, or Leibniz, or any of the other “big names” for that matter? By asking this question I am not trying to question that value of reading Kant, or Plato, or Frege, and so on. Obviously reading philosophy has value because it provides us with new ideas, new perspectives, some of which we might be able to build something even better on top of. And even if you don’t find something worth stealing there is still value in seeing what has gone before, if only so we don’t make any of the same mistakes. What I am questioning is the value of interpreting Kant, or any philosopher; of trying to uncover the “real” doctrines that Kant subscribed to by investigating in exacting detail everything that Kant says. Such interpretive projects try to uncover what Kant actually thought, which is revealed only imperfectly in his writings (I suppose, or there would be nothing for the interpretation to do). But just because we admit that there is some value in Kant doesn’t mean that there is any value in these interpretations of Kant. There is value, for example, in Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but no value is added by trying to determine what Darwin really thought about evolution when his book isn’t perfectly clear. We add to the The Origin of Species by trying to improve upon it, to correct its mistakes. Similarly, it would thus seem that to add to Kant we shouldn’t be trying to interpret what he said but to improve upon it, to produce sequels to the Critique that contain everything that was good in it plus more, and interpretation can never produce such since it can never leave the nest, so to speak, and spread its wings to go somewhere else.

Of course many people do concern themselves with producing yet another interpretation of Kant or of one of his doctrines. So clearly they must think that these interpretations are somehow of value, unless they are simply playing a kind of academic game with words. The most plausible defense of such interpretations is to assert that they are valuable on the basis of their own merits, that the interpretations reveal interesting and useful theories that have so far been hidden within Kant. Thus the value of the interpretation is essentially the same as the value of an original philosophical work; the philosophical theories contained within are genuinely worthwhile. The problem with this is that the “standards” of interpretation defeat this aim, if this is really the value of interpretations. You see, you aren’t just allowed to attribute any theory to Kant, you must cite evidence and spin a plausible story about how Kant might really have held this theory (often by picking out ambiguous sentences in Kant and arguing that they support this specific view). This means that interpretations are not judged solely by the quality of the ideas contained but on how accurately they pick apart the original text as well. And it is obvious, if you examine any criticism of interpretations, that this is the primary criterion; no one will be upset if your interpretation doesn’t reveal a genuinely compelling and original philosophical theory, but they will be upset if you stray too far from the source. There is nothing wrong with such standards, they are essentially the same standards we use to judge a translation of a work from one language to another. But they are simply incompatible with believing that the value of an interpretation is the theories revealed as part of it. If the value of the interpretation is the theory then it really doesn’t matter whether that theory can be credibly attributed to the original author, because a good theory is a good theory no matter what its source. Thus caring about whether that theory really might have been subscribed to by the original author is effectively to assert that we simply don’t care about the quality of the theory, or that the quality of the theory comes in a distant second.

But perhaps it is for the best that we don’t judge interpretations simply by the theories that are contained within them. After all new theories should be put forwards as new theories so that they can be honestly evaluated as such, otherwise we run the risk of becoming like the Scholastic authors, who would make sure that all of their assertions, especially the most original, could be safely attributed to someone else (as original thought was frowned upon and most thought that all the answers had already been found). But perhaps something like Scholasticism is exactly behind the belief that interpretations are valuable, the belief that the “big names” of philosophy have already uncovered all the answers and that we simply need to discover what those answers are by interpreting them correctly. Obviously there are a number of problems with this. For one history shows that this is simply never the case, the Scholastics were wrong when they thought that the Greeks had already uncovered all the answers as shown by the fact that “big names” appeared after them who are now thought to have found the answers. And so surely there are philosophers still waiting to be born who will be thought by future generations to have had the answers. A second problem is that if we need to interpret these philosophers to discover what the answers are it isn’t clear why we should believe that they have the answers in the first place. If we can’t fully understand the answers that they have discovered how can we know that they are the right answers? Perhaps we might be led to believe that they had some special insight, since so much attention has been given to them, but that doesn’t make much sense either, because clearly the practice of interpreting Kant had to start somewhere, and thus his first interpreters were only guessing that he had the answers if they needed to interpret him. Because of this working under this assumption is essentially to take a leap of faith, to simply believe that the answers are in Kant without any real evidence to that effect. And I condemn leaps of faith as a matter of general principle. And, finally, there is the problem that more intellectual effort has been spent in interpreting Kant than it took to be Kant. Kant was just a man, an eccentric and insightful man, but still just a man. And so there is nothing preventing someone living now from achieving those same insights, whatever they were. And if someone did manage to achieve these same insights then we could ask them to write clearer and then there would be no need to interpret Kant. So, given that interpreting and re-interpreting Kant hasn’t been able to uncover the answers after all these years, it would seem more productive to try and recapture those answers by striving towards them directly, rather than indirectly through Kant.

Finally, it is possible that philosophy is an intrinsically historical enterprise, such that to understand it we must understand its history, and that these interpretations are a step towards better understanding the history of philosophy. There is a grain of truth in this, the history of philosophy is important, but it is important to read the most influential philosophical works, not necessarily to interpret them. The problem with understanding interpretation as contributing to philosophy by more clearly revealing its history is that there is a disconnect between the historical progress of philosophy and interpretation. The historical progress of philosophy is marked by the “big names”, people who contributed new ideas and new theories and thus reshaped the intellectual landscape. And the “big names” universally contributed by putting forward new ideas, not by interpreting the work of someone else. So, from the historical perspective, it would seem that what is important is creative philosophy, not interpretation or criticism. It is possible, I suppose, that all the “big names” were able to create as they did because of the interpretive work that they had been exposed to, but I doubt this as a number of the “big names” are notoriously bad interpreters of their predecessors. Frege, for example, has a notoriously shallow understanding of some of the positions he criticizes. Obviously this doesn’t refute the claim that interpretation is doing some valuable work behind the scenes, but it seems to me that the simplest explanation for the history of philosophy is that interpretation simply keeps people busy thinking about the ideas already in the water until someone new arrives to contribute a few more.

The problem with interpretation then, is that it seems to serve two masters. One is philosophy, which demands that it produce philosophically interesting theories, because that is the point of doing philosophy. The other is literary criticism, which demands that the interpretation be a plausible reading of the original text and which is indifferent to the actual content of that interpretation. Serving these two masters gives rise to the absurdity of the principle of charity applied in the interpretation of philosophy. The principle of charity, stated generally, is that we should consider opposing theories in their strongest possible form, in order to make our own theories as strong as possible by not attacking problems that are easily repaired. In philosophical interpretation the principle of charity is used to discard possible interpretations by arguing that they are open to certain obvious objections, or contradict what the author had to say in some other place, and thus that some more convoluted interpretation is justified which avoids these problems. The problem is that it is quite possible that the original author contradicted themselves (or changed their mind), or endorsed theories that were open to certain obvious objections when all the trappings were stripped away. After all, they were mere mortals like the rest of us, and so probably made the occasional mistake. And so by adopting the principle of charity while developing the interpretation it probably wanders away from what the author actually believed and into less plausible realms (realms in which the author didn’t make any philosophical mistakes, and was thus superhuman). This clearly contradicts with trying to stick to the original text consistently, you can have only one or the other. You can either strive for the best Kant-like theory, and end up with one that isn’t in complete alignment with what Kant actually said. Or you can strive to explicate the theory Kant actually subscribed to, and produce one that has certain holes and contradictions. You can’t have it both ways, at least, not honestly.

The solution to these difficulties? Decide first what is desired from an interpretation of a philosophical work. Do we want quality philosophical theories or do we want a better understanding of the author’s thought? And then proceed with just the standards that make sense given that goal.


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