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Ameriks, Karl. Kant's Elliptical Path.

AMERIKS, Karl. Kant's Elliptical Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 360 pp. Cloth, $110.00; paper, $45.00--Joining a growing body of similar work, Karl Ameriks's new book, Kant's Elliptical Path, seeks to find unity in the career of Kant's philosophy--pre-Critical, Critical, and post-Critical--by giving it a teleological interpretation. Throughout, Ameriks frames Kant's core project as an attempt to harmonize his personal pre-Critical and "pre-systematic beliefs" in Newtonian nature and Rousseauean freedom. In Ameriks's words, the Critical philosophy "simply provided Kant with an ideal means ... to fill out a systematic defense" of commitments he had reached as early as 1764. This analysis partly explains the use of "ellipse" in Ameriks's title: on his reading, the massive body of Kant's mature work is but the elongated though self-enclosed path from these initial commitments through the arc of transcendental philosophy and the fact of reason to their final ideal articulation in a practical-dogmatic metaphysics and religion. In tracing this arc, Kant never departs from the essential views of the Enlightenment, namely, its commitment to scientific foundationalism, its belief in the final triumph of autonomy, and its teleological view of human history. He does temper them, however, with a critical and moderate framework that seeks to keep in view both our limited human nature and its radically unlimited foundation in something beyond.

The first two chapters examine Kant's early encounter with Rousseau, which Ameriks claims inspired Kant's commitment to a metaphysically robust concept of absolute freedom and led to his distinctively moral and historical view of the human being's proper telos. In Ameriks's view, it was Kant's sensitivity to the deeply problematic character of such freedom, in terms of the claims its reality makes both on us as sensuous human beings and on theoretical reason, that led to the unique form of religion that we find in Kant's later thought. The third and fourth chapters then introduce Ameriks's particular interpretation of transcendental idealism, which he terms "moderate" to indicate that his desired construal of the ideality of Kantian appearances remains at a middle point between the purely subjective elements of sense and a metaphysically robust realm of things in themselves. Appearances, Ameriks argues, are not ideal because they are mental but because they are conditioned, whereas features of what is objective in the fullest sense can only be unconditioned. Both chapters present several strategies for disputing various forms of the claim that admitting such a robust conception of things in themselves necessarily entails the demotion of appearances to the purely subjective. The fifth chapter considers the complex issue of Spinoza's influence on Kant, tracing several of the puzzling texts in which Kant engages with the relation of Spinoza's monism to his own theory of persons as substances.

The sixth and seventh chapters defend an interpretation of the authority of the moral law in Kant's practical philosophy that fits well with the aforementioned "moderate" interpretation of transcendental idealism. While Ameriks concedes that we must read Kant's doctrine of the moral law as a "fact of reason" dogmatically--that is, as presenting our subjection to this law as an improvable and yet fully objective fact about ourselves--we should also recognize that the path Kant takes to justify this claim is not baldly dogmatic. Rather, it begins from a critical analysis of moral life itself and arrives regressively at this doctrine as the one that best captures the structure of our actual moral situation. In this way, Kant avoids collapsing the moral law into a subjective product of reason or choice, while also doing justice to its significance for us as human beings. In Ameriks's view, Kant's humanism, therefore, and so also his cosmopolitanism, is deeply ambivalent; although it places certain limits on how we understand the moral law and is committed to making sense of such a law in the context of human life, it also recognizes the foundation and goal of life as something objectively beyond the merely human.

In chapters eight through ten, Ameriks interprets the complex relationship between Kant and two of his major successors, Reinhold and Herder, as concerned with the difficult issue of striking the right balance between the subjective and developmental aspects of human nature and the objectively normative framework that is rooted in pure reason. Two key chapters, then, bring all of this together by examining the precise epistemic status of what Ameriks characterizes as Kant's "more objectivist than subjectivist attitude toward the conclusion that persons have been created for a purpose" and explores the complexities of Kant's notion of rational faith. Ameriks argues in chapters thirteen and fourteen that the more ambitious aspects of Kant's philosophy provided the ground for the more eccentric but still elliptical paths described by Holderlin and Novalis. In contrast, the more dogmatic aspects of Kant's philosophy necessitated the kind of crisis that can be seen in the emergence of tragedy (as opposed to optimistic teleology) as a defining theme in later German philosophy.

This volume contains a difficult but also very rich collection of essays, the outstanding quality of which lies in their refusal to oversimplify inherently complex philosophical positions and historical relationships. In the final chapter, Ameriks reveals that his broader goal all along has been to demonstrate through this interpretive work the best lesson he thinks Kant and the post-Kantians have to teach us: if philosophy is understood to be a form of critical and creative interpretation (as theorized in Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence), rather than collapsing in the aftermath of Kant, at this time it first became aware of its distinctive vocation and consciously adopted the unique interpretive methods that have always been the foundation of its status as a semiautonomous and progressive discipline. So, just as Ameriks argues that Kant and his interpreters were seeking to strike a humanistic and yet realistic balance between the subjective and the objective, he also argues that the discipline of philosophy is something whose proper movement is between pure aesthetics and the objectivity of hard science. Nevertheless, I think that the question persists as to whether framing philosophy in such a middle position is really sufficient to sustain its progress. Ameriks's reply, no doubt, would be that this precariousness is in the nature of things, that the centripetal and inertial forces harmonized in our elliptical path promise no guarantees of perpetuity.--Courtney D. Fugate, Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Emory University, American University of Beirut
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Author:Fugate, Courtney D.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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