One of the grim paradoxes in philosophy is that we are often most critical of the books we love best. This is why (if you substitute gods for readers and a victorious commander for the author) during the celebration of a Roman triumph, a slave constantly whispered into the victor's ear that he will die. Like Roman gods, philosophical readers destroy those they most favor.
Sebastian Gardner's Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason is a wonderful book, perhaps the best I've read in the genre of introducing canonical philosophical texts. The prose flows and Gardner always keeps clear the relevant problems and how Kant's distinctive contribution addresses them. I'm teaching it this semester in the honors section of my Early Modern class, and the students are loving it as much as I am. Nonetheless, like most philosophical books I love, it irritates me. And I worry that what I find irritating about this book is actually something that grounds an indictment of contemporary English language Kant scholarship. Before getting into this, let me state that I don't think the book's success or pedagogical usefulness rises or falls with the success of the indictment in question. It is a wonderful achievement.
Nonetheless, Gardner's division of Kant scholarship into two camps, Strawsonian and post-Strawsonian, is deeply problematic both in that it neglects the contributions of two (imho) of our greatest living philosophers, John McDowell and Graham Priest, and makes a mockery of the first hundred or so years of thinking about the First Critique. Gardner is of course aware of these figures. In his closing section of the book on the reception of Kant he mentions McDowell (as one of the two examples of continued Strawsonianism) and Beiser's histories of Kant's reception. Nonetheless, the way he divides the critical landscape between Strawsonians and non-Strawsonians is expressive of a lack of philosophical sensitivity perhaps characteristic of the community of English language Kant scholars.
The book reflects work, most of it in the last two decades, on Kant's theoretical philosophy by Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks, Richard Aquila, Ermanno Bencivenga, Graham Bird, Gerd Buchdahl, Dieter Henrich, Arthur Melnick, Robert Pippin, Ralph Walker, Wayne Waxman and others. These writers do not express a single view of Kant by any means, but they share an outlook to th extent of agreeing that Kant's metaphysic of transcendental idealism is far from being a mere curiosity in the history of philosophy and is instead (at the very least) a highly interesting philosophical project. With a view to providing an introduction to the Critique that takes account of the recent work, this book emphases the basis, content and implications of the doctrine of transcendental idealism, and furthermore seeks to bring out it's strengths. [xii-xiii]
It should be consequently be emphasized that there is an altogether different line to be found in Kant commentary, according to which transcendental idealism is an incoherent doctrine, and the success of the Critique lies in a set of metaphysically neutral but epistemology forceful arguments which may, with more or less difficulty, be isolated from their idealistic environment. The classic work in this school is P.F. Strawson's The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' (London:Methuen, 1966). Not dissimilar conclusions have been defended more recently by Paul Guyer. I have paid some attention to this approach, but chiefly for purposes of contrast, and have not by any means attempted to represent all that may be said on its behalf. [xii]
So here is the contrast. First, the Strawsonian school: (1) finds transcendental idealism incoherent, (2) thinks that significant chunks of Kant can be consistently recast in a non-idealist, but epistemologically forceful way (I assume this includes both Strawson's "descriptive metaphysics" and the Marburg School's "back to Kant" the epistemologist). Second, the post-Strawson school: (1) reads Kant in a way that renders transcendental idealism coherent, and (2) takes the metaphysical aspects of transcendental idealism seriously.* As I noted, John McDowell's Mind and World is listed as one of "two recent works testifying to the continuing influence of Strawson's interpretation of Kant" .
I don't want to get too much into McDowell exegesis here, but this is deeply misleading, I suspect the result of people thinking that there is this thing called Pittsburgh Hegelianism and assuming that McDowell and Robert Brandom are the same thing. Brandom is quite brilliant at re-appropriating Kantian themes for systematic epistemology, but this is in fact a project to which McDowell is deeply hostile. Brandom is a recognizable descendant (much improved!) of the Marburg School neo-Kantians and Strawson's "descriptive metaphysics." McDowell is not.
Why not? Precisely because, like Graham Priest, and the German Idealists, McDowell straddles aspects that Gardner wants to keep apart in his division of post-Strawsonian and Strawsonian intepretations. With Strawson (and the German Idealists) we find transcendental idealism to be incoherent. But, with the post-Strawsonians, we do not think that this in any way vitiates "the metaphysical project of transcendental idealism" in the sense that we would be reduced to the neo-Marburgian mining of Kant for epistemology. Rather, the breaking points of transcendental idealism are themselves metaphysically significant, of a piece (if not an instance of) the very things Kant was worried about in the Critique of Pure Reason's Dialectic, and themselves data that must be taken into account in doing metaphysics. Following Maimon, Schelling, and Hegel, McDowell focuses on the breakdown between intuition and concept. Following Schulz, Fichte, and Hegel Priest focuses on limit paradoxes that arise self applications of aspects of transcendental idealism to itself. But for both traditions, the constitutive tensions in transcendental idealism are not things to be cast aside to save Kant's epistemological insights. They are rather a necessary part of the dialectic, giving us insight into the way things really are (though, in his more Wittgensteinian moments, McDowell might recoil from this way of talking).
It is not the case that this makes McDowell and Priest idiosyncratic figures helping themselves to different traditions. It's rather that contemporary Kant scholars are mischaracterizing the Strawsonian (and Bennettian!) tradition. This is partly Strawson and Bennett's faults as they did not discuss the early German reactions to Kant. But the paradox is that their interpretations follow much more closely the way Kant was actually read by his contemporaries (canonically Maimon and Schulz, whose interpretations were supported by Kant himself and whose criticisms were picked up by Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer). So, and my only real expertise here is as an avid reader of Beiser, I can't help but think that contemporary Kant scholars are not only philosophically insensitive, but historically insensitive as well.
I'm not a historian, and probably wouldn't think this if I were. But, to the extent that I'm correct that something has gone off the rails in English language Kant scholarship, I think it's because of the way the principle of charity works in analytic philosophy. We're taught to first and foremost try to establish a consistent interpretation and that a consistent interpretation is always better than one that attributes inconsistency to a thinker. But this ends up making a mockery of German Idealists, who at the very least thought that contradiction was a key motor of change. If Priest and Paul Livingston are correct (and they are) in cases such as Hegel and Derrida and Deleuze (who are also correct), some contradictions are constitutive. It is not unobvious to me that the same fails to hold for Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and part of interpreting them is getting clear about what the constitutive contradictions are.
I don't doubt that the "transcendental idealism is consistent" interpretations are better interpretations of Kant when the principle of charity is construed in the way we analytic philosophers construe it. But the costs are grim. First, we have to say that we understand Kant better than his contemporaries and possibly (depending on your interpretation of what's motivating the third critique) than Kant himself did. This seems ghastly to me. Second, we have to diminish Kant's philosophical import. A consistent version of transcendental idealism, where noumenal causation is OK, arguably doesn't answer Hume's worries about causation. This is the sense in which Fichte's criticism of Kant is arguably more charitable than, for example, Hogan's interpretation. And, as I noted earlier, the problem goes downstream too. On the post-Strawsonian account, the German Idealists were responding to a strawman. But all this does is make the strawman a more important and interesting philosopher than Kant! "Charity" has gone deeply wrong here. Third, for those of us who still retain affection for Strawson and Bennett, in the context of his criticism of Strawson, Gardner's most galling statement is that part of what is important about Allison et. al. is that they demonstrate that history of philosophy is philosophy. True enough, but it is no insult to the entire set to believe that McDowell and Priest are more important and interesting philosophers. For that matter, it's not crazy to think that Brandom's neo-Marburgianism is more significant than the philosophical achievements of Gardner's post-Strawsonians. I adore Ameriks, but if I could only bring his work or Brandom's to a desert island, it wouldn't be close. Nor do I think Ameriks would begrudge me this. Fourth, there is a set of historians that tell a story involving Kant much more friendly to McDowell and Priest, including Frederick Beiser, Lee Braver, A.W. Moore, Sally Sedgewick, and Robert Stern. It's no accident that, like McDowell and Priest, they all take German Idealism very seriously.
Finally, I realize that all of the above is provocative. If anyone reading this could point me to some books or articles that go against what I've said, I'd love to read them.
*I don't know why he includes Pippin here. As brilliant as he is, among Hegelians he is notorious for dressing Hegel in Kantian clothing precisely because he (Pippin) does not take the metaphysics seriously enough. In this sense Pippin (and I suspect others on the list) are actually much closer to Strawson. Clearly, the key issue for Gardner is whether or not transcendental idealism is coherent.]