German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 1781 masterwork on the nature of knowledge, Critique of Pure Reason, has a longstanding reputation for frustrating readers with its dense style and the intricacy of its ideas. When Andrew Janiak was first assigned to read the Critique during his own undergraduate days, he was flabbergasted.
“I remember spending hours reading it and getting nowhere,” he says. “I was a straight-A student and all of a sudden I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not smart.’ ”
Doggedness is an absolute necessity for those who want to understand Kant’s work—“unless you’re a genius,” Janiak says.
Kant’s Critique is full of ideas that, if left unexplained, seem counterintuitive or even impossible. The entire Critique is essentially devoted to answering one question: How are synthetic a priori, non-empirical judgments possible? (The classic example of a synthetic a priori judgment is “7 + 5 = 12.”) In one sense, Kant wrote several hundred pages in order to prove the viability of an arithmetical statement that most of us are willing to take for granted.
Janiak believes that students need to ease into dealing with Kant’s abstract reasoning. He requires only eleven pages of writing throughout the semester, at first assigning a one-page response to the prompt “What are analytic judgments?” This can be a difficult question to answer succinctly, even though Kant states that analytic judgments can be as simple as “red is red.”
The list of later thinkers strongly influenced by Kant includes philosophers as far apart in time and ideology as Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Bertrand Russell. An understanding of Kant is considered vital to a full understanding of modern philosophy, and that alone is a good reason to study Kant, says Janiak.
But Janiak also thinks that it’s valuable for students to work through the sheer challenge that Kant’s material presents, even if they don’t end up studying philosophy for a living. Imagining one of his students as a hospital administrator presented with a seemingly intractable problem—like a badly mismanaged and seemingly unsalvageable budget—Janiak says, “The only thing to do in a situation like that is to step back, take a deep breath, and say, ‘I’ve done this kind of thing before.’ ”
Philosophy 131: Kant
June 1, 2011