Review: Kant and Theology

Pamela Sue Anderson and Jordan Bell, Kant and Theology (T&T Clark, 2010)

Here is a look at a book that I finished reading over the Independence Day weekend. I’ve owned it for a while and consulted it previously but have only now read it entirely. That’s not much of a feat, given that it’s only 87 pages excluding endnotes. (And, yes, that’s a pet peeve of mine: the use of endnotes instead of footnotes.)

Yet, there is a considerable amount packed into such a small volume. Perhaps it is the nature of the subject matter, but it felt longer. That’s good, and it demonstrates no small amount of skill from Anderson and Bell to condense this material into a handy overview. That’s the best way to describe Kant and Theology. It’s a handy overview; an introductory text.

The stated objective of the book is to recommend Kant for theologians who are dismissive of Kant. Yet, this concern does not occupy much of the book’s content, and most of it appears in the book’s concluding chapter (pp. 75-87). The main criticism I have is the narrow limits of this concern. The authors are focused on postmodern and feminist criticisms of Kant, namely the charges of (masculine) autonomy in Kant. As they aptly state this feminist criticism, “Reason’s supposed independence from, but also its capacity to order, the realm of nature seemed to exclude the bodily experiences of women and some men from the appropriation of reasoning in morality — let alone, reasoning in moral religion” (76). Anderson and Bell reject this criticism as a caricature of Kant and a failure to understand the wider potentialities in Kant’s “autonomous” human being, including our shared humanity and “particularities of embodiment” (78). I will not lay out their arguments, and I will leave it to others (those who make this criticism of Kant) to evaluate their merit.

This is a worthwhile debate — over postmodernist/feminist readings of Kant — but it is not exactly where my interests are found. Rather, there are massive and prolonged debates between Kant’s project and those of theologians, and these debates are either ignored entirely or very lightly touched upon in this book. Given the title of Kant and Theology, this is surprising. For example, you will likely have questions about how Kant’s epistemology places severe limits upon special revelation, thereby impoverishing the wealth of material available to the dogmatic theologian. This book will do little to illuminate these central concerns from theologians. The fourth chapter covers “radical evil” and salvation, thereby relating to theology in some detail, but the more central questions that I have were hardly broached.

For those readers who are already focused on the authors’ concerns — namely, reclaiming modern philosophy for the postmodern liberal — then you may not share my above criticism. Maybe this book would be of greater value to you. Speaking for myself and presumably for most of my readers, the value of this book is in the overview of Kant’s philosophy. The first chapter is a presentation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The second chapter presents the Critique of Practical Reason. These were my favorite chapters. Even for those of us who have already studied Kant to some extent, it is always helpful to read a fresh presentation of this difficult material. The gist of transcendental idealism is clearly explained, as far as that is possible with such brevity.

Anderson and Bell adopt the “two-aspect” interpretation of Kant, versus the “two-world” interpretation, in regard to the infamous distinction between phenomena and noumena. This variance in interpretation is not something with which I am greatly familiar, but the endnotes point us to P. F. Strawson as the chief defender of the two-world interpretation and Henry Allison (in, e.g., Kant’s Transcendental Idealism) as the chief defender of the two-aspect interpretation. The former, according to Anderson and Bell, states, “While we have direct knowledge of the world of appearances (phenomena), the world of things as they are in themselves (noumena) is inaccessible and hence irrelevant to us” (19). By contrast, the latter states that “speaking of appearances (phenomena) and things as they are in themselves (noumena) is not to distinguish between two world of things, but rather between two ways of considering the same things. It is not an ontological distinction, but rather an epistemological one” (ibid.). This two-aspect approach has the advantage, of course, of making Kant more palatable.

It just so happens that over the weekend I also read Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. This is a very helpful introduction to the first Critique from Kant himself. Herein, Kant perhaps lends some credence to the two-aspect interpretation, at least as far as I can tell. He writes:

Idealism consists in the assertion that there are none but thinking beings, all other things which we think are perceived in intuition, being nothing but representations in the thinking beings, to which no object external to them in fact corresponds. I, on the contrary, say that things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances, that is, the representations which they cause in us by affecting our senses. Consequently I grant by all means that there are bodies without us, that is, things which, though quite unknown to us as to what they are in themselves, we yet know by the representations which their influence on our sensibility procures us. These representations we call “bodies,” a term signifying merely the appearance of the thing which is unknown to us, but not therefore less actual. Can this be termed idealism? It is the very contrary. (p. 36, trans. Lewis White Beck)

I am sure that Kant scholars will endlessly debate this matter.

Should you purchase Anderson and Bell’s Kant and Theology? It is difficult to say. In general, yes. I enjoyed it. But I can easily imagine the consumer who would be underwhelmed. Either way, I hope this quick review was helpful.

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12 comments

  1. I’ve been revisiting Kant through the lens of Hamann, who I’ve found to be an incredibly rich and fantastic theologian. He criticizes Kant, among many other German Enlighteners, as dividers who problematize Human finitude. Hamann was not a proto-Romantic, but believed that God given finitude was opened up through the Word of God addressing us and, in so doing, transforming us. I recently re-read some comment threads on Barth’s conception of the afterlife and country music. I reread my minor critique and your rebuttal that the problem is not finitude, but our conception of it. I’m more inclined to agree, and to disconnect the noumenal and phenomenal, in a generic epistemological sense, is to alienate creation from itself. This is the case even if Kant’s two-aspects is true, if it is understood as a philosophic principle, rather than an epistemic defection through sin.

    Anyway, food for thought,
    cal

    P.S. And before anyone else: I laughed that the author’s name was Pamela Anderson (I understand why her professional name includes the middle Sue!)

    • Yes, “to alienate creation from itself” is a good way to put it, and I also agree that the two-aspect approach does not lessen the criticism, which is why I was cautious and coy in presenting it in this review. I am far from an expert, but the two-world vs. two-aspect debate, as presented briefly in this book, does not amount to much of a difference.

      Are you approaching Hamann through Betz or Bayer or neither? Just curious.

      • I was introduced to Hamann through DB Hart, and then read Bayer. I’m now awaiting a copy of Betz’ work on him. I’m curious about the differences.

      • I’m curious too about the differences. Betz translated Przywara’s Analogia Entis with Hart, so presumably they are not too far apart.

      • I just got Betz’ book, but have done some preliminary research on him. Having listened to one lecture and skimmed two reviews, I’m not expecting much. He comes off as one of those lesser tributaries of English RadOx, which is piercingly shrill, self-serious, and reactionary. It’s DB Hart without the glam. I can’t possibly imagine that the book will be more than an intellectual exposition of Hamann’s thought, who is the master of play. One should be suspicious of a musical theorist who doesn’t know how to play the pieces that he writes about.

        I’ll report if I find something to the contrary, but for any passerby who is interested in Hamann: read Bayer!!

      • Yeah, the “post-secular” in the subtitle is a clue to where Betz is coming from. RO immediately came to mind. You’ll have to blog some of your findings.

  2. A couple years ago I read Matt Crawford’s book “The World Beyond Your Head.” He rips Kant a new one and basically blames him and his “virtualizing” of the world for all manner of social ills including lame indie music, short attention spans, and the decline of Mickey Mouse TV cartoons! He is actually moderately critical of the enlightenment in general (though not politically) for its excessive “agnosticism about the good life” and its absolutist notions of freedom, but Kant is his main villain. I am not really qualified to evaluate his reading philosophically, but it is interesting.

    Far as I know, Crawford is some sort of secular virtue ethicist rather than a Christian, and he proposes a rediscovery of hard-honed physical skills and crafts as a solution to some of modernity’s problems. Which is a good idea far as it goes, but not really enough on its own. Though fascinatingly, he closes with a case study of the art of making church organs as an example of real human flourishing.

    • Crawford sounds like an interesting guy with wide-ranging interests. I might enjoy him. As for Kant, yeah, that’s a fairly common criticism, and there’s some truth to it. If reality is structured by the human mind, then the human mind is what should interest us the most. Thus, Kant’s theology was incredibly thin: the barebones of “God” as a regulative principle for his ethics.

  3. The photo of the cover of the book excited me, but the your review sort of un-excited me. Le sigh.

    Also, put me down as being of the opinion that Kant himself was a two-worlds guy, and that the best way to take Kant forward is to do what Brandom is doing, which is to not do Kant exegesis but draw out some of the overarching themes in his thought as a whole (such as his normative turn). I’ve never found the two-aspect approach all that convincing as an interpretation of Kant, tbh.

  4. Sorry to double-comment, but I’d mega super duper not recommend Strawson’s book on Kant, not because it’s bad but because it is so god awfully turgid (he also tries to tie Kant to berkleyan idealism, so there’s that). Given when it was written it’s unsurprising, but it’s just plain unenjoyable reading. Paul Guyer is probably the foremost defender of the Kant-2-world viewpoint as well as a much more lucid writer, and goes over it as well as objections to Allison’s view briefly in his book ‘Kant’ and his other one on Kant’s theory of knowledge, I forget the name.

    • Yeah, you would not get much from this book. I too was excited by the title and premise for the book, and something like it is much needed — and still so because the value of this book is far too limited. As for the two-aspect/two-world debate, it is too briefly discussed, and its importance for the theologian is not addressed that I can remember. You would think that something about historical contingency in divine revelation would at least get a paragraph, but nope. It’s an odd book given its title. The authors do not appear to be well-versed in theological debates. In fact, I saw a video of Anderson where she says that she is drawn to philosophical debates more than theology, and that is abundantly obvious in this book.

      Thanks for the Guyer recommendation.

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