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Introducing Kant | Peter Kreeft | The opening pages of Socrates
Meets Kant: The Father of Philosophy Meets His Most Influential Modern Child | Ignatius Insight
Kant is really two philosophers: (1) the epistemologist of The Critique of
Pure Reason and (2) the ethicist of the Grounding for the Metaphysics
of Morals [sometimes translated as The
Foundations of the Metaphysics of
Morals or Fundamental Principles
of the Metaphysic of Morals]. That's why
this book is almost as twice as long as the others in the Socrates
Meets series. That's also why I have
modified Socrates' style of argument a little bit and made it more short and
direct than it is in Plato.
It is also longer because Kant is probably the most important philosopher since
Thomas Aquinas. If he had written only half of what he wrote—either half,
the epistemology or the ethics—he would still be the most important and
influential of all modern philosophers. As it is, his epistemology is truly the
"Copernican revolution in philosophy", as he termed it: the most fundamental
revolution in the whole history of epistemology; and his ethics is the most
important one since Aristotle's. No other modern philosopher can rival his
influence in either field, much less both. Only the revolution of Descartes in
epistemology and the revolution of Nietzsche in ethics might be thought to
rival that of Kant in being radical. Yet Descartes' epistemological revolution
was radical mainly in method rather than content, and it only paved the way for
Kant's much more radical, "Copernican" one; and Kant's revolution in ethics was
the necessary foundation to (unwittingly) pave the way for Nietzsche's extreme
reaction against it.
There are thinkers who accept the essential claims of Kant's epistemology but
not his ethics. There are thinkers who accept his ethics but not his
epistemology. There are thinkers who accept both. And there are thinkers who
reject the fundamental claims of both. This book is critical of Kant in both
areas (though not equally critical: it is more critical of the epistemology
than of the ethics) because that is what I think the position of the historical
Socrates would be. Yet at the same time I think he would recognize Kant's
greatness, genius, genuine contributions, and profound rightness on many
My exploration of Kant's ethics, in the second half of this book, is a close
reading of the key passages in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of
Morals in a kind of Oxford-tutorial type of
Socratic cross-examination, as in my other "Socrates Meets . . ."
books; and this is writable and readable because the Grounding for
the Metaphysics of Morals is a conveniently
short and readable book. But my exploration of Kant's epistemology, in the
first half of this book, is not a
close reading of The Critique of Pure Reason, for that book is far too difficult for the
beginning student to tackle, and far too long. It is also written in a heavy
Germanic academic style that contrasts unfavorably both with the classical
lucidity of other Enlightenment writers like Descartes, Hume, Voltaire, or
Mill, and with the emotional enthusiasm and poetic eloquence of nearly all
anti-Enlightenment writers, whether Conservatives like Burke or Romanticists
like Rousseau or Existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. So in the
first, epistemological, half of this book I have merely summarized the most
influential and revolutionary conclusions and arguments in The
Critique of Pure Reason. This whole book,
but especially the first half of it, is designed not for a dialogue with
scholars but for the education of intelligent beginners in philosophy.
Many philosophers write long, difficult books and also shorter, more popular
summaries of them. For instance, Sartre wrote not only Being and
Nothingness but also Existentialism
and Human Emotions. Hume wrote not only the
Essay but also the Enquiry. Descartes wrote not only the Meditations but also the Discourse on Method. Marx wrote not only Capital but also The Communist Manifesto. Machiavelli wrote not only the Discourses but also The Prince. (And all five of these shorter, easier books are
the subject of "Socrates Meets ..." books in this series.) Kant too
wrote not only the long and difficult Critique of Practical Reason but also the short and relatively easy Grounding
for the Metaphysics of Morals. But Kant
never wrote a clear and easy book in epistemology, though he did write a fairly
short one, namely, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. But both the literary style and the logical
arguments in that book make it as difficult to read as the original, much
longer Critique of Pure Reason.
Beginners will despair; I do not want beginners to despair.
The Critique of Pure Reason is
the most important philosophical book of modern times. It must be understood,
and evaluated, even though it is one of the most difficult of all books to
understand and therefore to evaluate. I found only one solution to this
dilemma: to summarize the Critique,
without expecting students to read it, before exploring the much more readable Grounding
for the Metaphysics of Morals.
Introducing Kant Himself
KANT: (awakening after death, assessing his situation, and musing aloud). It
seems I was both right and wrong about the afterlife. The soul is indeed
immortal, as I believed. But apparently the body is too. And . . . it seems I
am not alone. Who is this who comes to greet me? An angel? He is robed in
white. But he is short and fat and ugly. He looks less like an angel than like
a flatfish. Could it possibly be ... Socrates?
SOCRATES: It could indeed quite possibly be that I am I. Unless the law of
noncontradiction has been abolished—which is impossible, as you yourself
KANT: Is that supposed to be a joke or serious?
SOCRATES: Couldn't it be both?
KANT: You do sound like Socrates indeed. What is this strange place? And what
are we doing here? I, notice you are speaking Greek and I am speaking German,
and yet the speech of both of us comes out in English. How does that happen?
And why do we instantly understand each other?
SOCRATES: Because we are now in a place, or a time, where the Tower of Babel
has been undone by the events of Pentecost.
KANT: And I then in Heaven with the saints?
SOCRATES: Not quite. You may call it Purgatory.
KANT: I did not believe in that Catholic doctrine. The term does not sit well
SOCRATES: Call it what you will, you will still have to endure its trials,
beginning with my own cross-examination of your thoughts.
KANT: If this is true, and if that is the only trial I have to endure, then this
is a happy trial indeed to me. Philosophical conversation with Socrates does
not seem to merit the label of "Purgatory" at all.
SOCRATES: Perhaps after a while, and after a few passes between us, you will
change your mind about that.
KANT: No, I think not. For like you, Socrates, I philosophized only for truth,
not for victory. If your cross-examination proves my philosophy to be false, I
will not complain but only thank you for the great gift of leading me to the
truth. And if it proves my philosophy to be true, I will do exactly the same
SOCRATES: I know you speak truly, my noble friend, for in this place it is
impossible for either of us to lie.
KANT: Then let us begin our happy task. Ask away, O master of the philosophical
question. And I shall try to defend myself.
SOCRATES: But I will not necessarily be attacking you, only examining you. Or
rather, your ideas. A question is not necessarily a weapon of destruction, you
KANT: But in your hands it usually was, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Not always. If you recall my conversation with the great Parmenides,
you will remember that in that dialogue I learned far more than I taught and
lost more arguments than I won. And you may well be as formidable as
KANT: But that conversation was fictional, was it not?
SOCRATES: Why do you think so?
KANT: Because if the historians are right, the real Parmenides died before you
were old enough to hold a philosophical conversation with him.
SOCRATES: That is true. Yet a man's philosophy may outlive the man, and
therefore we can hold a conversation with a philosophy even after the
philosopher is dead. In fact, that is what all readers of this book are doing
KANT: Are you telling me that we are only fictional characters in a book?
SOCRATES: I did not say "only" and I did not say "fictional.
KANT: Can you then explain . . . ?
SOCRATES: I can, but I will not. For we have more important questions to
KANT: Since you have apparently been appointed by higher powers to be the host,
and the master of the conversation, I will accept your will in this matter.
Meets Kant: The Father of Philosophy Meets His Most Influential Modern Child
by Peter Kreeft
Socrates Meets Kant (E-Book/Downloadable eBook)
Immanuel Kant is one of the greatest philosophers in history. But, as Peter Kreeft notes in this book, Kant is really two philosophers--a philosopher about how we know things (epistemology) and
a philosopher of right and wrong (ethics). If he had written only on either topic, he would still be the most important and influential of the modern philosophers. The combination of the two,
though, makes for a formidable thinker, one it would take a figure such as the Father of Philosophy, the relentless Socrates, to confront.
Confront he does, in Peter Kreeft's next installment of the popular Socrates Meets series. Set in the afterlife, the conversation between the two great minds lays out the key issues. Kreeft's
Socrates reflects what the historical philosopher would likely have made of Kant's ideas, while also recognizing the greatness, genius, and insightfulness of Kant. The result of their dialogues is
a helpful, highly readable, even amusing book, useful for beginner as well as master.
Kant's philosophy of knowing truly is a "Copernican revolution in philosophy" as he dubbed it. His ethics was intended to set out the rational grounds for morality. Did he achieve his goals? What
would Socrates say about the matter? Dr. Kreeft has written a book no student of modern thought should be without.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who uses that dialog format in a series
published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far,
Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy
101 by Socrates, Socrates
Meets Marx, Socrates
Meets Machiavelli and Socrates
Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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