Freedom and Reason in Kant, Schelling, and Kierkegaard (review)
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Reviewed by
Kosch, Michelle. Freedom and Reason in Kant, Schelling, and Kierkegaard. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. Pp. x + 236. Cloth, $90.00.

Michelle Kosch's study of autonomy and moral agency in Kant, Schelling and Kierkegaard is a model of clear-thinking analysis, deeply involved with the scholarly literature (especially, I am pleased to say, the literature in German), and informed by the best contemporary work on ethics and rationality. The book is a pleasure to read, and it boldly takes on one of the most difficult problems in philosophy: what does it mean to be free? Kosch does not herself offer an answer the question, but shows a history of one attempt to solve the problem, beginning in Kant and culminating in what she calls the "double incompatibilism" of Kierkegaard. Along the way Kosch controversially but persuasively demonstrates the influence of Schelling upon Kierkegaard (this despite the fact that, as is often quoted, Kierkegaard wrote to his brother from the Schelling lectures in Berlin to say that "Schelling talks the most insufferable nonsense").

Kosch does not add a great deal to our understanding of freedom in Kant, and it would be unfair to expect her to do so. The discussion of Kant in the first two chapters of the book—the chapters that bear most recognizably the marks of the dissertation from which the book emerged—sets the stage for the real work, which is done in two chapters [End Page 487] on Schelling and two chapters on Kierkegaard. Kosch shows how Schelling arrives at the exciting idea that "the exercise of human freedom is actually responsible for the introduction of chaos into the order of things" (103). On Schelling's account (and subsequently on Kierkegaard's as well), freedom is in important senses opposed to reason rather than the expression or the proof of it. For Schelling freedom means not just the practice of our (rational) goodness, but our positive capacity to do evil.

The most interesting arguments are for Kierkegaard scholars, in Kosch's discussion of despair and her idea of Kierkegaard's incompatibilism, which, she argues, is "a descendant of Kant's notion of transcendental spontaneity" (141), and in her fascinating analysis of "religiousness B" and Kierkegaard's involuntarism about religious belief. How she squares this with the voluntarism she admits in Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript is one of the nicest pieces of argument in the book. Ultimately she shows that for Kierkegaard, freedom and morality must be distinct spheres because of the way the self is structured: our norms are outside ourselves, in God, and our freedom is within us. In one of the best observations ever made about Kierkegaard's Sickness unto Death, she writes:

Instead of seeing him as beginning with experienced psychological pathology and deriving from it a conception of the structure of the self, I think we should see Kierkegaard as beginning [The Sickness Unto Death] with a set of commitments about the structure of the self in hand (commitments determined by the task of conceiving of the self as it must be in order to be free for good and evil) and deriving a set of possible self-deceptions about the nature of agency from that conception.


She writes this in response to (and with help from) the great German Kierkegaardian Michael Theunissen, and it is right on the money: The Sickness Unto Death is an exploration of the forms of selfhood given a set of presuppositions about selfhood that Kierkegaard had already developed in earlier work. In her reading Kosch effectively proves this.

One should not turn to Kosch's book for a complete understanding of Kierkegaard. She is quick to point out that the focus of her book is narrow, but at times she sounds reductive in a bad way: "Kierkegaard's texts . . . are full of argumentative gaps resulting from certain well-known quirks in his style of presentation" (140). The worst books about Kierkegaard take this 'let's save Kierkegaard from himself' approach, which completely fails to grasp—or explicitly disavows—the task of understanding the ways in which Kierkegaard's pseudonyms are speaking to one another, and the philosophical and psychological perspective...