Will I Read Kant Again? Probably Not.

I remember a time, sometimes early in grad school, when I pored through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The book was exhilarating. Captivating. Infuriating. But mostly it felt like it was expanding my consciousness. Understanding the book felt essential to understanding myself and the world. What was the argument of the Transcendental Deduction? How can reason recognize its own limits? Is metaphysics an illusion? The questions felt gripping, and thinking through Kant’s writing seemed to help me think through my own ideas.

Will I ever read the first critique again? Probably not. I don’t see it happening. Why would I? In what context would I say to myself, “Well, let me sit down with the first critique and read it”?

I am glad I read it. I feel I got out of it what I needed. But I don’t see the book addressing anymore the questions I am most interested in now.

It’s not just Kant. Will I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations? Or Aristotle’s Metaphysics? Or Russell’s Philosophy of Logical Atomism? Or Heidegger’s Being and Time? 

I really doubt it.

Is this because I don’t care about philosophy anymore? No. I feel as passionate about philosophy now as I ever felt. And it’s not that I feel reading those books will be a waste of my time. If I were somehow enticed to read them again, I am sure I would get something out of them. They repay re-reading. But that is different from saying that I need to read them, or keep reading them, for my own philosophical growth.

Is this because they are Western texts? Not really. I haven’t read Nagarjuna or Shankara either. But am I now going to spend my time reading their works? I highly doubt it. I have read Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan and Bhattacharya. And I got a lot out of it. But am I going to keep reading them? Unlikely.

What’s going on? How can I be interested in philosophy and still not feel drawn to reading any philosophy in this academic mode?

One option is to say: “Enough of the abstract stuff. Time to get practical!” But that is not what I feel either. I still want to think abstractly, and spend a fair amount of time doing so. What I don’t do, or feel any inclination to do, is to organize my thinking in terms of the categories and structures as found in these old, famous texts. I don’t feel the need to think in terms of those texts, from within them, in terms of the positions and arguments and histories of those texts.

What I feel is: I want to think for myself. Since these texts are a part of my cognitive history and are a part of who I am, I think in terms of the ideas in some of those texts. But I am no longer beholden to those texts. Or to the idea that those texts provide the grounds on which I have to graze, that I can’t graze outside of their boundaries.

Ultimately, this is the reason I left academia: because I got bored having to define my thinking in terms of Plato and Kant and Wittgenstein.

But didn’t I leave because of academic philosophy’s lack of pluralism? Yes, that too.

Pluralism as pursued in academia seemed to me ultimately stale. It seemed to suggest that instead of defining my thinking in terms of only Plato and Kant, I need to also include some women and minorities and global traditions. That the grounds on which I can graze must be more diverse.

But I still would have to graze only on those grounds. Define my thinking through those books and authors – even the expanded pantheon of a global academic philosophy all-stars.

There is a different option, which I find more compelling. That is to not let my thinking be defined in terms of the constraints posed by other, even famous authors. To not take for granted that of course Aristotle and Confucius must be greater philosophers than me, and that my thinking has to unfold through an interpretation of their texts.

No. I use reading them for my benefit, as it suits me. And then I move on, not beholden to them in any way. Free to reconceptualize the issues as it suits me. To not be hemmed in to the supposed problems of philosophy as set in introductory philosophy classes, but to stand apart and free to be able to say, “Yes, we can now move beyond those problems, and confront new problems which these authors didn’t face.” To not feel that somehow the classic philosophy books have figured out the philosophy problems for all time, and that we have to constantly look through the eyes of an Aristotle or a Kant or a Shankara what philosophy is and can be.

Such freedom is the first step to fully embrace pluralism. To not be committed from the get go that some texts are somehow the essence of philosophy. To be open to the idea that philosophy might not have an essence in that sense at all.

5 thoughts on “Will I Read Kant Again? Probably Not.

  1. Gautam

    > What I don’t do, or feel any inclination to do, is to organize my thinking in terms of the categories and structures as found in these old, famous texts.

    This is a great point! It is a quintessentially academic obsession to identify the genealogy of every new thought, so much so that graduate students feel they have to (a) read everything that came before them and (b) precisely map out the genealogical tree, BEFORE they can do any new thinking. One side-effect of this approach is that thoughts/questions/ideas that don’t fit into this genealogical tree don’t get admitted into the space of worthwhile discussion.

    When I was an academic, the thought of chucking the genealogical tree out induced in me a kind of vertigo-feeling — simultaneously attractive and scary (“but how you know which ideas are bad?!”). Maybe it is the same feeling that a moral absolutist gets when considering that Gita/Quran/Bible/rationality may not be the one true source of morality.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Yes, the temptation to map out the genealogical tree of any idea is so strong. There is a further temptation, which is not genealogical exactly, but the idea that some texts are conceptually foundational. It is pretty easy to get into a frame of mind where, for example, Kant’s first critique comes to seem essential to any philosophical inquiry, as if one first has to digest that book before one can think more. Academics do this all the time, so much so that it is taken for granted.

      Suppose I want to think about how the Gita and Kant are related. Not a topic Kant wrote on; nothing in the First critique addresses this issue. One might say, “So you want to know how these two texts are connected? Ok. So you have to know how knowledge is possible: is it based only on the senses, or is it more? To address that question, you have to think about whether there are a priori categories which apply to perception. And so you have to first think through Kant!”

      Note one can play this game as easily with the Gita in the above example: “Oh, you want to know how the texts are connected? Well, who is the “you” that wants to know this? To determine that you need to understand yourself, and so you first need to think through the Gita.”

      The most famous philosophical texts – say, those by Plato, Kant, etc. in the west – function as orienting philosophical thinking in this way. Like they are the groundwork on which any philosophical thinking has to build. Once this groundwork idea is accepted, then one is pulled into the gravitational field of those texts, and understanding X becomes inseparable from understanding X in terms of Plato or Kant, or how they didn’t understand X enough, and the next move we need to make beyond Kant, etc.

      One appeal, at least to me, of ordinary language philosophy is that it tries to avoid this “grounding in a famous philosophical text” approach, and instead seeks to ground it simply in the lived context in which the question is arising for someone.

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      1. Alex Scott

        Bharath,
        While I agree with everything you say, I think there are indeed a few arguments for re-readng Kant: (1) Without knowing exactly what mistakes philosophers have made in the past, we may be destined to repeat those same mistakes. (2) Without having read philosophers from the past, we may think that when we do philosophy we are saying or doing something new, when we are actually saying or doing something that’s already been said or done. (3) As historical subjects, we are grounded in the past, whether we like it or not. We are doing philosophy at a particular moment in history. In order to understand our present, we have to understand our past. Whether we recognize it or not, where we are in philosophy at this moment is a result of what has already taken place in philosophy in the past. You yourself might not be free to address the problems that you want to address unless other more basic philosophical problems (such as “how is a priori synthetic knowledge possible?”) had already been addressed by philosophers like Kant in the past. (4) In Heideggerian terms, historicity belongs to our being. We cannot escape it. There may be an authentic, and an inauthentic, historicity. Authentic historicity may be (and inauthentic historicity may not be) an openness to the horizons of the past, the present, and the future. Temporality also belongs to our being. There is no ahistorical way of doing philosophy.
        I’m not sure how persuasive these arguments are, but they must be recognized if we say that we want to “think for ourselves.”

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        1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

          Alex, I agree with 1-4. I am not saying no one needs to read Kant. There is a lot to get out of Kant and I hope people who haven’t had a chance to read him, do so.

          My point, instead, was to highlight the extent to which Kant is embedded in a certain academic context. For example, when I am feeling down sometimes, I will read parts of the Bible or the Gita. Or Marcus Aurelius or Nietzsche. But what I never do in such contexts is read Kant’s First Critique. I suspect many people are like this, though perhaps not everyone.

          So then in what other context in my current, non-academic life will I read the first critique? At the moment, I can’t think of it. There is no way to read the first critique, I think, without getting into a whole framework about Descartes, Hume, etc., and then seeing my own life in terms of that dialectic. As a phenomenological point about my own thinking, I find I just don’t think of my life and intellectual activities that way. If anything, I find myself trying to place Descartes and Kant in a broader, global context than they themselves discussed. In this sense, they seem to me actually somewhat parochial.

          I agree we are historical beings, and we cannot ignore the past. But as historical beings, we are also propelled into the future, and one which is often different than the past, and as interpretative beings, we have to interpret the future and its meaning, sometimes with the help of past books, and sometimes by moving beyond those past books.

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