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Notes and Fragments MAKING A MESS OF KANT by H. P. Rickman HiLLis Miller's comments on Kant's moral philosophy afford the spectacle of a distinguished literary theorist disastrously misunderstanding a great and frequently discussed philosopher. IfMiller were not a highly regarded, often quoted scholar, silence might be the appropriate response. If, instead, it had been just a momentary lapse—a case ofeven Homer nodding off once in a while—it might be necessary to put the record straight but unfair to dissect the mishap in detail. However, Miller's mistakes are worth considering closely because they arguably flow from a presupposition he embraces and a method he practices. The presupposition is that philosophy is a kind of literature and can be adequately analyzed from a purely literary point ofview. The method to which Miller proclaims allegiance is deconstruction as initiated by Derrida.1 As there is an extensive literature for and against deconstruction ,2 as well as on the more general issue of treating philosophy as literature, I shall refer only briefly to some significant features which distinguish philosophic from other literature and let Miller's application of deconstructive principles speak for itself. One cannot fault Miller's choice of text: Foundations ofthe Metaphysics ofMenais? Though this short work is only one of Kant's texts on ethics, it is widely considered a philosophic masterpiece representing some of Kant's central themes on the subject. It is scarcely necessary to add that Kant, as one of the great philosophers who has influenced most philosophic thought as well as thinking on art, theology, and politics, is frequently mentioned by other literary theorists. Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 278-285 H. P. Rickman279 Miller's The Ethics ofReading4 is about the moral dimensions of "reading ." It means a careful, attentive reading which aims at a grasp of a work's meaning, all this amounting to interpretation. The chapter on Kant hinges on the reading of a footnote. Miller assumes interestingly and with some justification that footnotes frequendy indicate the author 's uneasiness about the point to which the footnote is attached. The footnote in question tries to explain the role of"respect" in Kant's moral philosophy. Respect for the law is introduced as the subjective motive for a truly moral response. Kant is uneasy because this is clearly not a purely rational state, and he is anxious to explain that it is not a feeling like fear or desire either, because locating the motive in feeling would wrongly ground morality. Miller is right in drawing attention to a difficulty in Kant's position, but by pushing his line of criticism beyond the limited significance of that one passage, he inadvertently reveals the drawbacks of trying to approach a philosophic theory tangentially from the "reading" of a single passage, however suggestive. As Miller passes (by p. 20) beyond the discussion of the footnote itself, he produces three claims, one nonsensical, the other two false. AU this in one sentence: "Kant cannot tell you exactly what the law as such is, nor can he tell you exactly where it is, or where it comes from." To take the nonsense first: where exactly—or for that matter approximately —is any law supposed to be? Could Newton or Boyle or Gresham have told us "where" their laws were? Could Moses have told us where the Ten Commandments were, or Roman lawyers where Roman law was? Miller could not possibly mean "where are they recorded?" because he must have had Kant's text in front of him. Could he have possibly expressed himself badly and meant "where the law applies"? Unlikely, because the answer is thunderingly obvious and is clearly made by Kant: the moral law applies to, or holds for, the choices of rational agents. Miller's assertion that Kant does not tell us exacdy what the law as such is, is plainly false, unless Miller's requirement for a specification of "the moral law as such" is peculiar. Kant accepts that Jesus, saying "Love thy neighbor as thyself," fairly represents the moral law. In the text he elaborates, at great length, different formulations of the categorical imperative, all representing the moral law...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 278-285
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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