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.