Kant and the Historical Turn: Philosophy as Critical Interpretation. By Karl Ameriks


Pp. 335 , Oxford : Oxford University Press , 2006 , $55.00.

This is a book of mostly reprinted essays and its concerns are, in their specifics, wide ranging: Kant on apperception and the rejection of the ‘Cartesian’ subject, idealism, moral motivation, methodology and the critique of metaphysics; Reinhold's role in the move to Idealism in German philosophy; Hegel's aesthetics; the legacy of German Idealism in Feuerbach, Marx and Kierkegaard; and the recent historical and interpretive work of Beiser, Frank, and Henrich's ‘Jena Project’. But there are strong thematic links between these essays, too. Most explicitly, Ameriks is keen to explore the middle ground between the sort of ahistorical philosophical analysis stereotypical of mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy, and historicism with its relativistic tendencies. In more piecemeal fashion, this collection also contributes to Ameriks' already impressive body of sympathetic and appealing interpretive work on Kant's philosophy itself, contributions which occupy that middle ground, and to his work on the role of Reinhold in the reception of Kant's philosophy (previously addressed by Ameriks in his Kant and the Fate of Autonomy).

Philosophy as critical interpretation (hermeneutic philosophy), Ameriks suggests, offers the only way to be appropriately sensitive to the contributions of historical philosophical texts to debates of continuing importance, and to meet arguments from the history of philosophy on their own terms so as to better understand their significance. One particularly illustrative discussion of this approach concerns the twentieth century treatment of Descartes. Until Williams's Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry, Anglophone philosophy had read Descartes as a subjectivist and a sceptic, a straw-man reading fit only for quick refutation or to illustrate the dangers of ‘radical doubt’ (whatever that was supposed to mean). Williams brought a more patient, sympathetic sensibility, and though Williams's own later work would tend more towards full-blown historicism than Ameriks would have liked, his attempts to grapple seriously with the historical and intellectual context of philosophical ideas prefigured the current trend in philosophy (seen in MacIntyre, Taylor, Cavell, Brandom and others) to treat philosophical problems as historically informed. Ameriks illustrates such an approach with respect to Kant, suggesting that the widespread suspicion that Kant's writings are inconsistent and amenable to contradictory interpretations ‘arises most often from the non-historical perspective of analytic approaches that extract terms and propositions from Kant's writings without a clear sense of the date or purpose of particular statements, and which thus find numerous “contradictions” that might have been resolved from a broader and more patient perspective’ (p. 34). Ameriks does not have space in all of these essays to systematically work through misunderstandings arising from such non-historical readings, but that does not present a considerable problem in the context of this collection (his readings of Kant are more thoroughly presented in his Kant's Theory of Mind and Interpreting Kant's Critiques).

As for the first attempts to approach philosophy in the hermeneutic way, Ameriks makes a spirited case for Reinhold. Resurgent interest in Reinhold's work not withstanding, the ‘historical turn’ is more familiar from Lessing and Herder (amongst Kant's close contemporaries) and Schelling and Hegel (amongst his Idealist successors). But with his early attempts to ‘popularise’ Kant's critical philosophy Reinhold elected to present the results of the (later parts of) the Critique of Pure Reason as establishing absolutely the solutions to the ‘problems of the age’. Whether or not Reinhold was right to think of Kant's arguments about God, the soul, immortality and reason as establishing their legitimate use in the full-blooded sense Reinhold seems to think (and Ameriks is almost certainly right to suggest that he was not, and that Kant himself never saw his contribution in quite those terms), his view that the critical philosophy offered the grounds on which to settle the pressing theological and spiritual issues of the day, to meet that historical need, strikes Ameriks as significant, as is the fact that Reinhold saw that need as absolutely satisfied, setting him off from his historically inclined antecedents. For Reinhold, according to Ameriks, sorting out the details of the Critical system ¯ in conversation with Kant and his predecessors ¯ was the very thing of philosophy.

There is, however, one issue that could perhaps have been more systematically dealt with. Ameriks moves between discussing the need for historical sensitivity in the interpretation of philosophical texts and the significance of the historical context of ideas as if they were unproblematically varieties of the same thing, when it is not clear that they are. It is certainly true that the study of the history of philosophy requires interpretive sympathy; that is not to say, however, as Reinhold is represented as saying, that the historical turn must involve a similarly historical reading of the relation between ideas and the ‘need’ for them. Why, given the demand to read the history of philosophy sympathetically, does it follow that there is anything ‘historical’ about the ideas found therein? What, that is, do Reinhold's work on Kant and Williams' work on Descartes (for example) have in common?

Of course, a book of essays can be forgiven for failing to give the sort of unified account of the matter that might be required to answer such questions. Regardless of broader worries, each of these essays is rich in insight, historical and critical. For those already familiar with Ameriks' other books on Kant, his essay on Kant and Reid is an interesting historical accompaniment to his appealingly common sense ‘regressive’ reading of Kant. For those with an interest in the history of ideas, his accounts of the interplay between rationalism, empiricism, idealism and romanticism in Germany are bound to be stimulating. This is a book of great insight and careful scholarship.