- Kant on Practical Life: From Duty to History by Kristi E. Sweet
In Kant on Practical Life: From Duty to History, Kristi E. Sweet accepts Allen Wood’s challenge to present in a single book the entire arc of Kant’s practical philosophy, including both its a priori and empirical aspects, literally from duty to history. Others have successfully undertaken a similar task, notably Robert Louden in Kant’s Impure Ethics, but Sweet succeeds in fulfilling three further distinctive aims: settling persistent but outdated contentions that Kant’s ‘deontological’ and ‘teleological’ commitments are inconsistent by tracing duty through to the ends it entails, especially the communal ends “in which reason finds its satisfaction” (10); addressing the problem of human finitude by explicating and resolving the dialectic between reason and nature in its various moments; and leaving virtually no philosophical stone unturned along the way, from the fact of reason to international disarmament.
The overarching form of argument is straightforward: reason’s demand for the unconditioned is a demand for freedom in the practical context. This demand for freedom “animates, authors, governs, and organizes” practical life, thereby constitutively uniting the elements of practical life (8). Given that the domain of freedom is that which should be, reason’s demand for the unconditioned thus actively constitutes how we ought to live.
The Introduction defines the project and method as described above, then turns to a due diligence theory of reason establishing that reason’s demand for the unconditioned is, practically, a demand for freedom. As a prosyllogistic striver for the unconditioned, Sweet explains, reason finds its satisfaction in bringing about a thoroughgoing systemic whole of understanding and practice, a world, united under the idea of freedom.
The core of the organizing argument takes place in chapters 1 and 3. Chapter 1, “Freedom of the Self as Such: The Good Will, Duty, and Moral Feeling,” concerns the ratio cognoscendi in practical life of the goodness of a good will. In an intractable dialectic between nature and reason, Sweet argues, natural inclinations present as limitations to freedom, in the face of which the moral law presents as a fact of reason (a demand to be free) given to us in a specific context of practical life, against inclinations. The moral law thus presents, or is given, through moral feeling, which is a distinctive receptiveness to be moved by duty or the idea of the good. Moral receptivity is a receptivity of which we can become conscious, that is, feel, as we do in finitude-transcending experiences of the sublime. Insofar as the moral law is a finitude-transcending idea of reason, Sweet continues, it cannot be understood or cognized. Thus its formulas are symbols that bring an intuitively unrepresentable idea closer to intuition by presenting freedom as an object indirectly through analogy with these symbols. [End Page 381]
After explicating virtue as freedom of the self over time in chapter 2, the objective of chapter 3, “Freedom of the Self and the Moral World: The Highest Good,” is to show how the demands of reason extend to necessitate our adoption of the highest good as a general, communal end that resolves a teleological dialectic as follows. Reason and nature present heterogeneous ends, namely virtue and happiness, as inherently good. The universal standpoint of reason enables and requires us to causally synthesize happiness with the unconditional goodness of virtue; thus in our realization of a good world through freedom we recognize happiness as inherently but conditionally good. The evident “consanguinity” of the duty to enact communal ends and the formulas of the moral law in reference to a world then highlights the “originary unity” of Kant’s deontological and teleological commitments: the three formulas “prescribe … virtue, happiness, and the union of these in a world” (125, 140).
According to Sweet, the universal exercise of reason through a community of wills is thus an individual duty that can only be jointly executed. The consequent tension between what I ought to do and what I can do is “one...