- The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation and Community
Contemporary scholarship on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy can be divided into two camps. On the one side is the Kant establishment, rallied around the journal Kant-Studien, intent on elucidating the provenance, the development, and the internal coherence of Kant’s thought. On the other side are those who, after the demise of Hegelian modes of interpretation, have returned to Kant in search of a better understanding of the ruptures and fissures, of [End Page 539] the limitations of philosophical discourse. Their reading is concentrated on the epoché in Kant’s texts, on his withholding of final answers, on the tension between his refusal to systematize and his desire to bring his philosophy to an end. Susan Shell has utilized the virtues of both approaches without falling victim to their vices. Her presentation of the Kantian texts is as competent and philologically sound as they come, and yet she is sensitive to repetitions, contradictions, and open problems in Kant’s thought. This, however, would be an unnecessarily negative way to praise this book. By concentrating on Kant’s continuous preoccupation with community, Shell has found such a productive mode to read Kant’s oeuvre that one wonders why no one else has thought of it before. She thus manages to show both the internal development of her theme and the persistence of a dilemma in Kantian thought.
What is meant by community (spirit and generation, the other two notions in the subtitle can be understood as manifestations of community), and why is it of such importance to Kant? Shell shows that in Kant’s precritical phase, community means, first and foremost, community of beings such that they can be said to form a world rather than just an aggregate. This ontological concern is embedded in contemporary debates about the penetrability of bodies, about the ontological status of physical forces, in short, about the fundamentals of Newtonian physics and its philosophical (and theological) consequences. Shell’s presentation of this difficult material is competent and elucidating. She then follows the thought of community in what she calls Kant’s early “moral cosmology,” writings which, although they strive to be galant and witty, already show the trademark antisentimentalism of Kant’s mature thought. In his discussion of sexual community and of the pretended communion with spirits, Kant expresses his lifelong aversion against Schwärmer, against enthusiasts who claim to have in fact experienced community.
Community cannot be experienced. Kant’s critical turn might be described as an elaboration of this thought, with the crucial addition that without the category of community (Wechselwirkung) experience is not possible. Shell is a reliable guide though the architecture of the Critique of Pure Reason; with her help we begin to see that the opening question of critical philosophy—how are synthetic judgments a priori possible?—is the same question of community translated to the level of epistemology. From this perspective, one could say that the Transcendental Analytic of the First Critique gravitates toward the category of community whereas the Transcendental Dialectic attempts to prevent this collapse with all its might. A further transformation of this peculiar transformation is the strife, in Kant’s practical philosophy, between the intelligibility of the moral law and the imperfection of human action. Shell shows how this seemingly irreconciled view of the human condition calls for a certain uprightness with which the impossibility of community between purpose and action has to be borne. Kant’s conjectural philosophy of history attempts to develop a notion of cosmopolitanism that has this solitary uprightness as its center.
It is particularly helpful that Shell then interprets Kant’s exoteric writings of the 1780s in which the strands of historical conjecture and ethical requirement are being woven together in the concept “organism.” Kant is the first (and the last) to think of organisms as heuristic entities in which mechanical causality and pure purposiveness cohabit even if the nature of this communion cannot be discursively...