An ongoing conversation with Kant…
This past wednesday the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I work, hosted the second book presentation of Theological Ethics and Moral Value Phenomena, the book I co-edited with Patrick Nullens and Steven van den Heuvel (both working at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Louvain). The first one was last December in Louvain, where Antwerp philosopher Guy Vanheeswijck gave his response to the book. This time two philosophers from Leiden University, Rico Sneller and Timo Slootweg, got the floor. Early 2013 the idea of this book project was born. We, that is the members of the research group theological ethics (of which I am a member, yes – although I never studied theology) felt the need to present something of our approach in ethics towards a wider audience. In our regular
discussions it had become clear that many of us worked within a phenomenological framework, which is not the most common approach in ethics. This should be taken in a very wide sense – for some this means having expertise in the work of Charles Taylor, others read almost forgotten French personalists, while for others again phenomenology just means a general approach to follow their own questions in, for instance, health care ethics. In my case the project provided me with an opportunity to delve into the ways in which William James, Max Scheler and Charles Taylor helped me to understand the relationships between religious experience and moral orientations in the value realm. I also wrote a second chapter where I clarified – with texts by Levinas and Derrida – aspects of Simone Weils criticism of an ethics of rights.
And now I heard how my peers read this work – which is a weird experience. Sitting and listening for almost an hour something struck me: how often I heard references to Immanuel Kant. Obviously my esteemed readers held the view that I was in a continuous philosophical conversation with Kant! The only name that didn’t appear in any of the titles of the chapters. With some surprise I looked into this mirror that was held up before me, but couldn’t deny what was said. After the session I tried to think back how Kant the thinker of ethics had come into my life, while chatting over drinks with another visitor from Leiden university. I told her that when I was doing the work for my PhD, on Spinoza, I did something to avoid becoming a narrow-minded expert: the last two hours of the work day I allowed myself to read philosophers that intrigued me, but whose work had no direct relationship to the project. I chose Arendt, Levinas and Strasser – and the lastmentioned again led me to Scheler, whose Non-formal Ethics of Values I only read a few years ago. For two of the eight years between the very beginning of my Spinoza project and the day of the defense of my thesis, I got funded to work at the University of Amsterdam, in the section practical philosophy. It was there, during the monthly meetings of the section members, that I got my first real introduction to ethics as a field. Although I had had some classes in ethics during my studies, philosophy in Leiden had an overall focus on epistemological questions, and now I realized I didn’t have a real understanding of the structure of ethical questioning.
There Kant got in. I read his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, and, as I had managed to get inside his epistemological ideas during my studies, through reading this short work I finally could enter into the idea of ethics – the autonomous ethics perceived by Immanuel Kant. All the other present day texts that were discussed in the practical philosophy section I could now break into by using the Kantian idea of ought as my tool. It was a discovery that impressed me. Finally Kant also gave me a tool (his distinction between theoretical and practical reason) to break through the difficulties I had making sense of seeming inconsistencies in Spinozas Theological-Political Treatise (which was the subject of my research). His words ended up in the preface of the book in which I finally published the results of my research. A long quotation. Ending with the bonum vacans sentence: Kant says that speculative reason should provide the foundations for practical reason, that doing so is a duty. For if he would leave this question, theory would be empty of the good, and fatalism would take hold of it. My very short and inadequate paraphrase this is. I felt Kant – the despair that modern scientism would lead to, not so much even an existential or moral despair – but the despair that anything to do with the good would be lost for philosophy, for thinking. That could not happen. All the thinkers I wrote about in this new book somehow felt this same anguish – Levinas, Derrida, Weil, Scheler, Taylor (James is a bit different in this, but I will leave that for another time). So that must have been what my readers had picked up. The question obviously has never lost its hold on me. Perhaps I should face it directly some time. And write about Kants Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals.