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Kant's Theological Constructivism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Adina Davidovich
Dartmouth College


Our generation celebrates its freedom from the constricting yoke of the imperial age of grand systems. It joyfully rebels against abstract thinking and disavows preoccupation with systematicity, which none epitomized better than Immanuel Kant, according to whose daily routine the women of Königsberg allegedly set their clocks. Contemporary liberal theology claims that we can no longer believe in a universal disembodied reason that is free from the constraints of particular circumstances. Our thinking, it alleges, reflects interests and desires. Theories serve our will to power and are to be interpreted not by appeal to an aloof rationality, but through analysis of our needs and inclinations. Freedom, however, produces new trepidations. Confronted with radical implications of their convictions, very few are willing to regard their theologies as relatively valid. Tending to reject the past yet wary of anarchy, contemporary liberal theology seeks a method that is attuned to contingent circumstances and avoids the pitfalls of unbridled relativism. I suggest that in our haste to defy and overthrow past masters, we deprive ourselves of profound insights that could guide a quest for resolution. As a case in point, I propose that if we are willing to look afresh at Kant and explore central elements of his system that have been obscured by an overzealous portrayal of his thought as a rigoristic abstract formalism, we shall find clues for escaping the impossible choice between absolutism and relativism.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1933

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1 My thoughts on Kant's theological constructivism grew out of numerous discussions I had over several years with my students at Harvard Divinity School who shared my conviction that Kant's religious thought deserves serious consideration and ought to be reexamined. I dedicate this essay to those students who, as Kant said, taught me “how to question skillfully.” See Kant, Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Morals (trans. M. Gregor; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 267/478Google Scholar. References to Kant's works will give the page in translation followed by the page in the Prussian Academy edition of Kant's Gesammelte Schriften. References to the German text of Eine Vorlesung Kants über Ethik (Lectures on Ethics) are to the edition by Paul Menzer (Berlin: Heise, 1924).

2 Kant developed this model of theological constructivism primarily in the Critique of Practical Reason (trans. Lewis White Beck; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956)Google Scholar. He elaborated on it further in the Critique of Judgment (trans. Werner S. Pluhar; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987)Google Scholar; and in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson; New York: Harper & Row, 1960)Google Scholar. An earlier version of this argument, developed in the Critique of Pure Reason, differs from the model I am about to describe in that it is substantially more other-worldly oriented. See Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason (trans. Norman Kemp Smith; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965) 645–52/A820(B848)- A830(B858)Google Scholar.

3 Kant developed this model primarily in his Metaphysics of Morals but used it also in the Third Critique and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

4 This model is meticulously developed in the Critique of Judgment and should be regarded a central concern of that book. Kant assumed this model and alluded to it briefly in both the Metaphysics of Morals and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

5 See Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 102–3/99–100.

6 Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (trans. James W. Ellington; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981) 7/393Google Scholar.

7 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 20/22.

8 See Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 5/5.

9 In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant argued that “the ground of evil cannot be placed, as is so commonly done, in man's sensuous nature and the natural inclinations arising therefrom. For not only are these not directly related to evil (rather do they afford the occasion for what the moral disposition in its power can manifest, namely, virtue)” (see pp. 30/34–35). For a discussion of the role reason plays vis-à-vis the particularities of situations, see O'Neill, Onora, “Kant after Virtue,” Inquiry 26 (1984) 387405Google Scholar; Hill, Thomas E. Jr., “The Importance of Autonomy,” in Kittay, Eva Feder and Meyers, Diana T., eds., Women and Moral Theory (Totowa, NJ; Rowman & Littlefield, 1987) 129–38Google Scholar; Wood, Allen W., Kanfs Moral Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970) 109–14Google Scholar.

10 On the two tests of universalization, see Nell, Onora, Acting on Principle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975) 6393Google Scholar.

11 For a detailed discussion of the importance of happiness, see Kant's discussion of Stoicism in the Critique of Practical Reason (pp. 115—16/111—12) and his discussion of the duty to pursue happiness in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (p. 12/399).

12 Kant remarked that “pure practical reason is a capacity for ends generally, and for it to be indifferent to ends, that is, to take no interest in them, would therefore be contradiction, since then it would not determine maxims for actions either (because every maxim of action contains an end) and so would not be practical reason” (Metaphysics of Morals, 198/395). Kant expressed this idea more succinctly in “Theory and Pratice” where he asserted that “without an end there cannot be any will.” (See Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: This May Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice,” in Hans Reiss, ed., Kant'sPolitical Writings [trans. H. B. Nisbet; (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977] 65/279). This notion of rational agency allows him to present the idea of a “contradiction in the will” as an a priori requirement of reason and a crucial element of the categorical imperative.

13 See Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 13/400.

14 See ibid.; and idem, Critique of Practical Reason, 74–85/72–83; idem. Critique of Judgment, 113–14/256–57, 121–23/262–64; idem, “On a Newly Arisen Superior Tone in Philosophy,” in Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by lmmanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida (ed. and trans. Peter Fenves; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) 68–69/403; idem, Metaphysics of Morals, 48/221, 201–2/399–400, 256/464.

15 Kant held that human action, like every event in nature, is governed by rules. Human action differs from other natural events in that it can transcend deterministic causality of nature by freely obeying self-legislated rules.

16 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 28–29/29–30. Kant demanded that our will be determined only by the moral law even when we have incentives that support the same action. Mixing the two in determining the will amounts to “impurity” of the will, which is Kant's second type of “evil.” (See Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 24–25/29–30.)

17 There is, of course, also a class of actions that is a duty to perform because not performing them will contradict the law. Most of the literature on Kant focuses exclusively on this class of actions. I want to highlight the significance of morally permitted actions which is usually ignored.

18 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 24/25.

19 Ibid., 129/125.

20 I offer here an interpretation of the Highest Good as a limiting concept. Just as the categorical imperative limits and regulates maxims, so does the idea of the Highest Good provide a systematic unity to all my ends. The role of this idea is not to add new duties. Kant deliberately made the task of “filling in” the details of the end of moral life open-ended. It is, to my mind, one of the virtues of his formal system that it leaves room for pluralism. Different societies can construct systems that give concrete expression to Kant's vision. In discussing the Highest Good, Kant wished to make several important points: that moral deliberation implicitly presupposes a conception, or an image we inevitably form in our mind, of an ideal end of moral life; that this state of affairs will be such in which only morally permitted desires will be realized; and that when these desires are approved as legitimate by the moral law, according to the procedure described above, happiness is an important aspect of the moral life.

21 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 4/4.

22 I offer here a distinctive interpretation to the idea of proportionate happiness. In order to prevent introducing heteronomous motives into ethics, the proportionality of happiness and virtue should not be considered as denoting a system of reward and punishment, in which the legitimate satisfaction of one's ends is proportional to his or her degree of virtue. The idea that happiness is subordinated to morality (see Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 123/119) means that in a world which we would create through respectful obedience to the law, only morally permissible ends ought to be realized. Happiness is conditioned by the moral law which determines when an end is legitimately pursued. This is how I interpret Kant's statement that “it is self-evident not merely that, if the moral law is included as the supreme condition in the concept of the highest good, the highest good is then the object, but also that the concept of it and the idea of its existence as possible through our practical reason are likewise the determining ground of the pure will. This is because the moral law, included and thought in this concept, and no other object, determines the will” (see Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 114/110–11). This interpretation of proportionate happiness is defended in Reath, Andrew, “Two Conceptions of the Highest Good in Kant,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988) 593619CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 See, for example, Theodore M. Greene, “The Historical Context and Religious Significance of Kant's Religion,” in Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, ix-lxxviii, esp. lxii.

24 See Auxter, Thomas, “The Unimportance of Kant's Highest Good,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 17 (1979) 121–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar. 332

25 See ibid., 122.

26 Murphy, Jerry, “The Highest Good as Content for Kant's Ethical Formalism,” Kant Studien 56 (1965) 107–8Google Scholar.

27 The premise of the charge—that the Highest Good is an inappropriate end for morality on the ground of Kant's own position that impossibility implies no obligability—must be examined. Kant clearly held that “should” implies “can.” For examples, see the following assertions: “He must judge that he can do what the law unconditionally commands he ought to do” (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 37/380); “For since reason commands that such actions should take place, it must be possible for them to take place” (idem, Critique of Pure Reason, 637/A807[B835]); “Whatever he wills to do he also can do” (idem, Critique of Practical Reason, 38/37). The question is whether from this position we can infer that empirical impossibility implies that there is no moral obligation. In numerous places in his writings Kant argued that doubts concerning physical possibility of the object of morality should not undermine our commitment to pursue it. On the contrary, “Laws must completely determine the will as will, even before I ask whether I am capable of achieving a desired effect or what should be done to realize it” (idem, Critique of Practical Reason, 18/20). Having said this, however, it is quite obvious that Kant himself built on the assumption that impossibility implies no obligability in the antinomy of practical reason (idem, Critique of Practical Reason, 118/114).

28 Beck, Lewis White, A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969) 244Google Scholar.

29 Kant himself wrote, “For his own happiness is an end that every man has (by virtue of the impulses of his nature), but this end can never without self-contradiction be regarded as a duty. What everyone already wants unavoidably, of his own accord, does not come under the concept of duty which is constraint to an end adopted reluctantly” (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 190/386). ADINA

30 For a reading of duty as a “limiting condition,” see Herman, Barbara, “Integrity and Impartiality,” The Monisl 66 (1983) 233–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 see Kant, “Fragments of a Moral Catechism,” in idem, Metaphysics of Morals, 269/480.

32 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 5/5. In discussing the idea of the Highest Good, Kant evoked the image of reason as a compulsive unifier (see ibid.; and idem, Critique of Practical Reason, 11–12/107–8). Since reason's ultimate interest is to unify its cognitions, it inevitably forms a concept of the ideal end of morality. The sum total of morally approved desires is happiness. Happiness is thus an idea conceived by reason and recognized by it as the ideal goal of moral life. As I explained above, it was necessary for Kant to include happiness in the idea of the moral end because he considered the desire for happiness a legitimate and ineradicable trait of human nature that sets the moral life in action. In addition, our sense of justice recognizes the legitimacy of demand for proportioned happiness. For an instructive discussion of happiness as idea of reason in its unifying capacity, see Wood, Kant's Moral Religion, 53–54, 95–99. Although I do not share Wood's defense of Kant's moral faith, I think that his argument in favor of Kant's presentation of happiness as an end of morality is instructive and cogent.

33 In “Theory and Practice,” Kant argued that “if we stand in a moral relationship to things in the world around us, we must everywhere obey the moral law; and to this is added the further duty of working with all our power to ensure that the state of affairs described (i.e., a world conforming to the highest moral ends) will actually exist” (p. 65/280).

34 I am not suggesting that we replace Kant's argument with another. Kant's texts present both versions of the argument. For a detailed discussion of the two versions, see Silber, John, “Kant's Conception of the Highest Good as Immanent and Transcendent,” PhilRev 68 (1959) 469–92Google Scholar; and Andrew Reath, “Two Conceptions of the Highest Good in Kant.”

35 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 115/111 (my emphasis).

36 Ibid., 114–15/110–11.

37 As I indicated above, Kant did not suggest the absurd position that all desires that pass the test of morality ought to be realized. The idea of happiness conditioned by the moral law means that only morally permissible desires ought to be realized. I regard this insight an extension of the “contradiction in the will” test of the categorical imperative. As the task of that test is to limit further the results of the universalization process of moral maxims, the Highest Good is an ideal that gives systematic unity to morally permissible desires.

38 My reading of this passage differs from that of Gordon E. Michalson, who interprets Kant as actually invoking the existence of God “as a premise to help him reach happiness as a conclusion.” See Gordon E. Michalson, Jr., Fallen Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 24. Kant, however, did not invoke the existence of God, but only assumed an idea of God for the sake of an argument. Invoking an image of a divine being is a common thought experiment which Kant employed to reinforce his point. Examples of it abound in Kant's writings. Perhaps the most frequent allusion to a supernatural being is the invocation, in the First Critique and the Third Critique, of the image of an archetypal reason who could intuit presentations without depending on sensibility. Kant invoked such an image to explain and illustrate the limits of discursive thought. By no means did he commit himself to asserting the existence of such reason. Similarly, in this argument, Kant invoked the image of God to illustrate his point, and the moral validity and worth of his argument does not depend on the actual existence of God.

39 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 5/5. The logic of this position resembles an argument Kant put forward in the Grounding for Metaphysics of Morals. Kant seems to have argued there that no act of the will can be considered a genuine decision if it does not involve doing all we can to carry it out. Kant distinguished between a mere wish, which involves an awareness of what ought to be done, and a genuine moral decision, which requires serious effort to carry it out. In the first part of the Grounding he wrote, “Even if, by some especially unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in the power to accomplish its purpose, if with the greatest effort it should yet achieve nothing, and only the good-will should remain (not, to be sure, as a mere wish, but as the summoning of all the means in our power), yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself (ibid., 7–8/394). Kant had already put us in the shoes of a designer of the universe in the “law of nature” formulation of the categorical imperative.

40 In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant defined faith as “spiritual trust” and explained the nature of this trust as follows: “We must trust that God will do that which conforms to His wisdom and, as we know naught of this, we must place our trust in Him absolutely and unconditionally, trusting quite generally that He will in His goodness and holiness give us His support in our moral undertakings and bestow happiness upon us” (see Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics [trans. Louis Infield; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979] 96–97/121).

41 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 149/144 (my emphasis).

42 Kant invoked this insight in Orientation in Thinking, where he argued that we have a need to assume the existence of God to protect morality from being void. Kant emphasized the importance of the need of reason in its practical use and argued that this need compels us to presuppose the existence of God. In this essay, Kant clearly held that the rational belief in God is based solely on this need. He wrote, “A felt need of reason… by itself… constitutes the entire determining ground of our judgment on the existence of the highest being.” See Immanuel Kant, “What is Orientation in Thinking?” in idem, The Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy (trans, and ed. Lewis White Beck; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949) 299/140Google Scholar.

43 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 148/143.

44 Kant, Critique of Judgment, 341–42/452. See also idem, Lectures on Philosophical Theology (trans. Allen W. Wood and Gertrude M. Clark; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978) 110/129.

45 Kant, Critique of Judgment, 342/452.

46 Kant himself lent support to my argument when, in “Theory and Practice,” he tried to defend his decision to regard humanity as constantly progressing in its exercise of morality. Kant argued that “history may well give rise to endless doubts about my hopes, and if these doubts could be proved, they might persuade me to desist from an apparently futile task. But so long as they do not have the force of certainty, I cannot exchange my duty… of assuming for practical purposes that human progress is possible” (pp. 88–89/308–9). Kant went on to say that “it is quite irrelevant whether any empirical evidence suggests that these plans, which are founded only on hope, may be unsuccessful. For the idea that something which has hitherto been unsuccessful will therefore never be successful does not justify anyone in abandoning even a pragmatic or technical aim. … This applies even more to moral aims, which, so long as it is not demonstrably impossible to fulfill them, amount to duties” (pp. 88–89/308–9). In “The Metaphysical Elements of Justice,” Kant clarified that only proof that an end is impossible nullifies our duty to pursue it. Speaking of a political duty to establish international peace regardless of the feasibility of that noble end, Kant explained, “Now it is evident that what would be made our duty in this case is not the assumption (suppositio) that this end can be realized, which would be a judgment about it that is merely theoretical and, moreover, problematic; for there can be no obligation to do this (to believe something). What is incumbent upon us as a duty is rather to act in conformity with the Idea of the end, even if there is not the slightest theoretical likelihood that it can be realized, as long as its impossibility cannot be demonstrated either” (Metaphysics of Morals, 160/353). ADINA

47 See Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 137/133, 139–0/134–35; and idem, Orientation in Thinking, 301/142. By characterizing belief in God as a postulate Kant did not intend to undermine its significance. In Lectures on Philosophical Theology, Kant asserted that this practical postulate is presupposed on objective grounds. He elaborated on this assertion by saying that the practical postulate is grounded in the nature of our being as free and rational creatures, and this ground is as evident and certain as mathematical propositions can ever be. “Thus a necessary practical postulate is the same thing in regard to our practical interest as an axiom is in regard to our speculative interest. For the practical interest which we have in the existence of God as a wise ruler of the world is as great as it possibly can be, since if we cancel this fundamental principle, we renounce at the same time all prudence and honesty, and we have to act against our own reason and our conscience” (p. 122/146).

48 Kant should be understood as maintaining that without (justified) hope in our ability to realize the ends of practical reason in the realm of natural contingencies, we would find it very difficult to act morally. If, however, we seriously attempt to carry out the decrees of the moral law, trusting that our efforts are not in vain and will somehow succeed, this trust of ours should be understood as practical belief in God. This point was developed in Walsh, W. H., “Kant's Moral Theology,” Proceedings of the British Academy 49 (1963) 263–89Google Scholar.

49 See, for example, Kant, Critique of Judgment, 376/481; idem, Lectures on Philosophical Theology; 111/131, idem, Lectures on Ethics, 97/121.

50 Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 233–34/438.

51 Ibid., 233–34/438.

52 Ibid., 234/438–39.

53 Ibid., 235/339. Kant suggested a similar argument in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 135/144.

54 Kant, Critique of Judgment, 334–35/445–46.

55 Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 234–35/339, 238/444; idem, Critique of Judgment, 346/456.

56 I interpret this saying as a direct allusion to the argument of the Third Critique which I shall examine below.

57 Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 238/444.

58 Kant, Re ligion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 88–91/96–97, 130/139, 139–41/151–53.

59 See ibid., 85–86/93–94.

60 I use the term “contemplative” in the sense that Kant gave it, namely, as a thought that is indifferent to the existence of its object. It considers the character of the object only as an object of thought, regardless of its existence or inexistence. See, for example, Kant, Critique of Judgment, 51/209.

61 Ibid., 14/175.

62 Kant's analysis of reflective faith is a complex and interrelated argument. The tendency of interpreters to account for Kant's discussion of faith and God in the Third Critique only by reviewing the very last pages of that book that discuss ethicotheology or to focus on Kant's demonstration of the shortcomings of physicotheology, without placing these arguments in their systematic context, is misguided and misleading. The strength and import of Kant's argument lies in his demonstration of the mutual support these approaches lend to each other. He devoted the entire book to establish this point by meticulously formulating its intricate stages and demonstrating their interrelatedness. To account for his position, we must follow its development throughout the various stages I outline below. For a detailed examination of these stages, see my Religion as a Province of Meaning: The Kantian Foundations of Modern Theology (HTS; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993)Google Scholar.

63 Kant, Critique of Judgment, 44/204, 59/215.

64 Ibid., 62–64/219.

65 Ibid., 54/211, 56/213, 88–89/239.

66 Ibid., 44/204.

67 An instructive comparison may be made between aesthetic feeling and the feeling of respect for the moral law about which Kant remarked that it “is one which can be known a priori. Respect for the moral law, therefore, is a feeling produced by an intellectual cause, and this feeling is the only one which we can know completely a priori and the necessity of which we can discern” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 76/74). Because this feeling can be known a priori and requires no external stimulus, the feeling of respect is not an instrument of cognition. Aesthetic feeling is determined a priori in response to an encountered internal purposiveness and serves to identify it. It is therefore cognitive.

68 We cannot account for this unity in terms of empirical intuitions, which are governed by the categories of the understanding, for these exclude final causes. Nor can we account for it by the legislative powers of moral reason which set up ends and values, for Kant has shown that the ends of reason cannot determine the content of intuition of spatio-temporal objects.

69 Kant, Critique of Judgment, 229/353.

70 Ibid., 19/179–80, 22–26/183–86.

71 Ibid., 19/180.

72 Ibid., 286–87/403–4.

73 Ibid., 317–20/430–32, 323/435.

74 Ibid., 246/368.

75 Ibid., 323/435, 333–34/444–45. In “Theory and Pra'ctice,” Kant wrote that “the creator's unique intention is… the highest good possible on earth…” (p. 65/280). He added that “for while the divinity has no subjective need of any external object, it cannot be conceived of as closed up within itself, but only as compelled by the very awareness of its own all-sufficiency to produce the highest good outside itself (p. 65/280).

76 See ibid., 333/444.