- Kant and the Limits of Autonomy by Susan Meld Shell
The title of Susan Meld Shell’s new book, Kant and the Limits of Autonomy, is somewhat misleading. It is not a sustained treatment of Kant’s theory of autonomy. Instead, it is a book about his work as a whole, with an emphasis on his moral and political theory. It is a sprawling, ambitious book, described by its author as “both an intellectual biography and an extended meditation on the challenges faced by modern liberalism” (14). Most scholarly treatments of autonomy zoom in on Kant’s works from the 1780s and 90s, focusing tightly on what he says therein about the will, practical reason, motivation, and the moral law. Readers wishing to examine those views in their broader context will appreciate Shell’s approach to this material, which concentrates “on Kant’s less-familiar early and late writings” in order to “bring out some of the deeper implications of Kantian autonomy (and the moral and political stance accompanying it)” (8).
Motivating the endeavor is a desire to criticize Rawlsian liberals for failing to take autonomy seriously enough. Kantian autonomy involves submission to the moral law, while Rawlsians espouse a “live and let live” sort of autonomy (7), one that fails to recognize that “the categorical imperative is genuinely binding on the will” (335). By giving “short shrift” to “the obligating side of Kantian autonomy” (3), they “do little to help shore up the moral authority that liberalism today would seem to be especially in need of” (336). The central problem is that they do not face squarely “the paradox inherent in Kant’s original claim that the law binds us unconditionally, precisely on the basis of our own freedom and hence without primary regard for any good other than the law itself” (3).
Her book succeeds as a rich portrait of Kant’s intellectual development and an “extended meditation” on the historical origins of liberalism. In the process of discussing a huge range of topics, Shell makes many interesting suggestions about what drove Kant’s project, from his encounter in the 1770s with Pietro Verri’s writings on pain and pleasure to the influence of Germany’s increasingly intolerant political climate and Kant’s own fascination with the unfolding of the French Revolution. Many readers will also find interesting her chapter on Kant’s relationship to some of the major Jewish intellectuals of the German Aufklärung. Her efforts yield a welcome corrective to the standard image of Kant as a narrowly academic philosopher. Shell’s Kant is a cosmopolitan philosopher of the Enlightenment—sometimes actively engaging with the issues of the day, often responding, not always admirably, to its pressures.
But one might like to see Shell treat the central issues less obliquely. Only one of her book’s nine chapters (chapter 4) concentrates on the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, where, along with the later “Doctrine of Virtue,” Kant presents his theory of autonomy. It is nice to see attention given to other works. But these canonical texts contain many dark passages, and the indirect light cast by his lesser writings is not strong enough to illuminate them. A book devoted to bringing out “the deeper implications of Kantian autonomy” should spend more time on Kant’s arguments for the claim that the authority of the moral law stems from our own rational will—an idea she calls “the paradox of autonomy” (139–51). Allusions to the pertinent arguments suggest an extreme deontological reading of Kant’s view: the moral law prescribes actions “dictatorially” (338), and we ought to obey just because the law commands. Yet scholars such as Paul Guyer, Barbara Herman, and Allen Wood have done much to undermine this interpretation. And since their work promises to show that Kant’s moral theory is less paradoxical than [End Page 322] it seems, it deserves a hearing in a book so concerned with this theme. Merely registering disagreement with Wood on the...