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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

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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 points.

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 well understood.

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 with me.

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 thing.

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 know.

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 Parmenides.

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 right now.

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 explore.

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.

Socrates 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.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

The Two Most Important Philosophers Who Ever Lived | Peter Kreeft
The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
On Writing and Apologetics | Talking with Peter Kreeft
Seducing Minds With The Socratic Method | An Interview with Peter Kreeft
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | From Socrates Meets Sartre | Peter Kreeft
The Point of It All | From The God Who Loves You | Peter Kreeft
The Divinity of Christ | From Fundamentals of the Faith | Peter Kreeft
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand The Bible | Peter Kreeft
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | From The Philosophy of Tolkien | Peter Kreeft
Abortion: What Can Be Done? | Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
The Question of Hope | From Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing | Peter Kreeft
On Spiritual Warfare | From The Screwtape Letters | Peter Kreeft

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 Meets Sartre.

Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, Three Approaches to Abortion, and The Philosophy of Tolkien. His most recent Ignatius Press books include You 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 author page.)

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