- Kant and His German Contemporaries ed. by Corey W. Dyck, Falk Wunderlich
The primary aim of this volume is to contribute to (and engage with) the growing body of scholarship on Kant’s relation to his German contemporaries. Each of the essays explores one or two of Kant’s views (ranging across the three Critiques) in relation to one or two of his German contemporaries. With three exceptions, every essay contends that we can gain [End Page 173] a deeper understanding of Kant’s views by considering their relation to the contemporaries in question.
The book is quite successful at accomplishing this aim. In almost every contribution, the case is convincingly made that one’s understanding of Kant on some issue would at the least be greatly enhanced, if not simply impossible without, a significant engagement with the discussed contemporary. For instance, Dyck and Rumore demonstrate clearly and in detailed ways that both Meier and Crusius provide important historical context for appreciating the philosophical significance of Kant’s arguments about the immortality of the soul. Watkins shows that anyone studying Kant’s conception of cognition should also study Lambert’s Neues Organon. Indeed, even when an essay’s thesis is not convincing, it still inspires the desire to read the relevant figure in order to understand Kant’s position. Chance’s case, for instance, that there are two conceptions of purity in Kant might not persuade a skeptical reader. But his chapter surely shows that someone interested in Kant’s conception of purity should look to Wolff. (Just what happens to purity when it is purified of its Wolffian connection to empirical psychology?)
However, the aim the book seeks to accomplish is limited. The limits can be brought out by considering Dyck and Wunderlich’s response to Jonathan Bennett in the introduction to the volume: about Wolff, Bennett claims that he is a “second-rate mind, and it is to be regretted that he came to be interposed, as a distorting glass or a muffling pillow, between the two great geniuses of German philosophy,” Leibniz and Kant (Bennett, Kant’s Dialectic, 6; partially quoted on 3). So, Bennett decides to mostly ignore Wolff in his account of Kant’s dialectic. In response, Dyck and Wunderlich argue that being a first-rate mind is not a necessary condition on being “important for understanding Kant’s views” or his relation to Leibniz (4). That is indeed true. But it does not dislodge the wish—and this wish is surely the real point of Bennett’s remark and the real basis for his procedure—that Kant had not taken Wolff so seriously. In other words, it leaves in place the thought that Kant was wrong to take him so seriously, and that this made it harder for him to get at the philosophical issues at stake in Leibniz’s philosophy. Appreciating a contemporary’s influence can be very important. For instance, Sturm persuasively argues that we are liable to misinterpret Kant’s account of truth in terms of contemporary debates if we do not recognize the influence of Lambert. That is a necessary antidote to anachronistic interpretations that miss what Kant is truly up to, and Sturm does a nice job of arguing that Kant took a non-epistemic conception of truth in part as a result of Lambert’s influence (cf. especially 123–24). But the essays generally leave unexplained what Kant gains from taking his contemporaries so seriously. That is, most of the essays in this volume do not show, and do not aspire to show, what is philosophically valuable in Kant’s contemporaries—or even what Kant viewed as philosophically valuable in them. (Important exceptions to this are the contributions of Lu-Adler on the influence of Euler, Guyer on Mendelssohn, Rumore on Crusius, and Watkins on Lambert.) Kant, at least, saw more in his contemporaries than the authors of many of these essays claim to see in them. And a reader naturally wants to know...