Continental Kantianism

Is the following secret or common knowledge? Many continental philosophers (including Levinas, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard) are Kantians, at least with respect to morality. This may be surprising given that none of them cares much for concepts such as autonomy and reason, two concepts that seem central to Kant’s moral philosophy. But I think they all care deeply about the principle of humanity as a regulative ideal, about ethics as a call, a command, as something that exceeds the world as it is here and now. I’ve been tinkering with a paper on Levinas and Kant for a while on this point. And now I’m re-reading Lyotard and finding the same kind of thing there (see Just Gaming). To make sure that I am not inventing all this, I am reading Christine Korsgaard’s decidedly un-continental work on Kant. And having read so much Levinas in the past few years, I am struck by the resonance of her reading of Kant and Levinas’s ethics, and now even Derrida and Lyotard. Here’s the first paragraph of Korsgaard’s prologue to her book, The Sources of Normativity. It could have been a prologue to Levinas’s Otherwise than Being:

It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are. Why should this be? Where do we get these ideas that outstrip the world we experience and seem to call into question, to render judgment on it, to say that it does not measure up, that it is not what it ought to be? Clearly we do not get them from experience, at least not by any simple route. And it is puzzling too that these ideas of a world different from our own call out to us, telling us that things should be like them rather than the way they are, and that we should make them so.

Isn’t that beautiful?

This paragraph follows a quote from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which Korsgaard uses to set up her “very concise history of western metaphysics.” But it also shows how those who might have spurned Kant ought to take another look:

One should guard against thinking lightly of [the bad conscience] merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness. For fundamentally it is the same active force that is at work on a grander scale in those artists of violence and organizers who build states . . . only here the material upon which the form-giving and ravishing nature of this force vents itself is man himself, his whole ancient animal self . . . This secret self-ravishment, this artists’ cruelty, this delight in imposing a form upon oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material and of burning in a will . . . as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation.

Analytic and continental philosophers each have their own hurdles in coming to terms with Kant. For example, analytic philosophers seem to feel a need to do more to overcome the metaphysical foundations in Kant’s theory in order to get to a more commonsensical understanding of reason as a source of normativity; continental philosophers seem to need to find a way of conceiving of autonomy that avoids the binary logic of heteronymy/autonomy. But once they make it through such difficulties I think they share a kind of awe at the “strange beauty” of a command to make the world otherwise than it is, of the power this “other world” holds over us here in this one that is full of so much injustice.

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