Reading Kant
August 22, 2004 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to read Kant. [more]

Where would I begin with Kant? I've read a general overview of the history of Western philosophy (Richard Tarnas's Passion of the Western Mind). I've read some Plato; I have a general understanding of Aristotle and the medieval Scholastics; I've recently read Descartes's Discourse and Meditations, and I just finished reading David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which I know greatly influenced Kant. I'd kind of like to just dive into the Critique of Pure Reason, but I have some questions.

1) Would it be helpful to read any of Kant's other works first?

2) Would it be helpful to read any particular works by other philosophers first? (Keep in mind that I'm a little impatient to get to Kant.)

3) What translations of Kant's works would you recommend?

4) Any other helpful suggestions?
posted by Tin Man to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total)
1) Gooood luck. I've always found his writing impenetrable, although his impact on Western thought--for better or worse--is undeniable.

2) Bearing that in mind, I can't really make useful suggestions regarding EK directly, but as a follow-up, I'd highly, highly recommend Kierkegaard's writings (if you're not already familiar with them). He brings a deeply human, emotional perspective to his thought, as a direct response to the more unemotional and objective approach he saw in Kant.
posted by LairBob at 10:50 AM on August 22, 2004

He's a real pissant. He was very rarely stable.

I haven't read him myself, but this page has a very brief thumbnail description of Kant's major points, plus links to a few books (Kant, a commentary on Kant, and a couple good-looking general philosophy books.)

It comes from the Ethical Philosophy Selector, which will allow you to find the philosopher whose thoughts on morality and ethics most closely match your own.
posted by Vidiot at 11:14 AM on August 22, 2004

I'd like to read Kant.

Why Kant you?
posted by Shane at 11:17 AM on August 22, 2004

Check out wikipedia's entry on Kant. Wikipedia has an excellent set of primers on a number of interesting philosophers. What to read first? Gah, you might as well jump into the Critique. His writing is, however, quite difficult.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:13 PM on August 22, 2004

I might start with the Groundwork/Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals (Beck translation). It's the only Kant I've read, so take it for what it's worth. But it's a good introduction to Kants moral philosophy, but also to his style.

But Kant is a truly terrible writer. And the german-to-english thing also gets in the way of his points, because he uses compound words/concepts that work (I imagine) in German lots better than they do in English. And it's not like he uses them sparingly either, the works are strewn with them, which makes translating them quite hard.

The Critique of Pure Reason sits on my friends shelf as a Mt. Everest. Always looming, always foreboding, and huge like a hunk of rock.
posted by zpousman at 6:02 PM on August 22, 2004

I've never read the first critique, but I have read the third, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, selections from the second, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, selections from Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, and selections from the Cambridge University Press "Practical Philosophy" volume.

My advice: avoid the translations by Paul Guyer (the CUP editions). They're not very clear and in some cases (according to one of my professors) actively misleading. One of my friends who has read the first critique suggests that it's much clearer than the third. So maybe you could read that, with a commentary.

The Prolegomena covers more or less the same areas as the first critique, as I understand it, but is supposedly much easier. Think of it as the Kant's Notes edition.
posted by kenko at 7:17 PM on August 22, 2004

I have third-hand knowledge that this commentary to the first critique by Sebastian Gardner is great, FWIW.
posted by kenko at 7:31 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: Cool. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Tin Man at 8:11 PM on August 22, 2004

You may as well start with the Critique of Pure Reason – I can’t think of any other texts that would really prepare you for it (aside from commentaries on the critique itself).

Having read it, however, the most helpful thing I can think to say to you is, “good luck”.

I believe I read the Norman Kemp Smith translation and it was an incredibly humbling experience. Trying to write about it afterward drove me mad. It is a very dense and subtle text with many technical terms and I doubt I would have made much progress without a guide. I wouldn’t say this of anything else I’ve read, but I would suggest that you consider taking a class on the critique if you really want to get a decent understanding of it.
I’m certainly very glad that I read it but the experience also left me with faint, lingering feelings of dread and horror.
posted by Zetetics at 8:39 PM on August 22, 2004

You could look through the entries in the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy relating to kant's work. The one on Kant in general doesn't appear to be done yet, but there are several others. These may be of varying usefulness and may be more technical than you want, but I've found the encyclopedia to be useful in the past for summarizing philosophical topics.
posted by advil at 12:15 AM on August 23, 2004

I found Roger Scruton's Kant: A Very Short Introduction (2001) extremely helpful. Sebastian Gardner's commentary, mentioned above, is also useful -- 'ideal for anyone coming to Kant's thought for the first time', says the blurb -- but more difficult. I think Gardner's book is really intended for university students who can get additional backup, if they need it, from lectures and seminars. If you are approaching Kant on your own, with no one to help you, then Scruton's book is the one you need. It is a masterpiece of compression -- a chapter on Kant's life and character, a chapter on 'The background of Kant's thought', then six chapters on key themes in Kant's philosophy (the transcendental deduction, the categorical imperative, etc) and finally a guide to further reading; all in a pocket-sized volume of 140 pages, with a few pictures thrown in as well.

As for Kant's own works .. I found his writings on religion, collected as Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and Other Writings, ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (1998), to be a very helpful way into his philosophy. Not being trained as a philosopher, I don't find it easy to follow philosophical arguments; I lose patience very quickly, and when I am confronted with abstract philosophical concepts, my instinctive reaction is to mutter 'this is all very well, but what practical difference does it make?' Kant's writings on religion are very helpful in this respect, as they bring his metaphysics down to earth; i.e. they attempt to answer the question 'what would a Kantian church look like?' or 'what would a Kantian system of morality look like?' or more generally 'if we tried to model our lives on Kant's teachings, what would our society look like?' and I find it much easier to get a grip on Kant's philosophy when it is presented in these practical terms.
posted by verstegan at 3:23 AM on August 23, 2004

My advice is take it slow -- don't try to read more than 10-15 pages a day, read each passage more than once, and try to write a summary as you go.

zpousman: When I took a class on Kant in college, the professor related a story about native german speakers reading Kant in english because the translation was clearer than the original, despite it being in a second language for them. Translation, after all, being an attempt to make something readable in another language, but in this case I guess the emphasis is on "making it readable".
posted by Mark Doner at 9:18 AM on August 23, 2004

Have you heard about the unit of impenetrable philosophical depth? It's called the Kant Fathom.
posted by weston at 11:20 AM on August 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

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