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  • Understanding Hegel’s Mature Critique of Kant by John McCumber
  • Pierre Keller
John McCumber. Understanding Hegel’s Mature Critique of Kant. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. xvi + 216. Cloth, $60.00.

Building on two decades of work on Hegel and continental philosophy, John McCumber offers his distinctive take on the current state of the debate about Hegel’s critique of Kant. McCumber seems to agree with a popular picture of Kant as the proponent of a “thin, universalistic, and argumentatively purified style of philosophy” and of Hegel as the original source of the “historically embedded naturalists” whose work is then taken up by feminists, gender, and race theorists (3). This is a plausible, if ultimately less than persuasive, conception of the contrast between Kant and Hegel; I take Kant’s works to be a refutation of the kind of position that McCumber ascribes to Kant.

McCumber interprets Hegel as a “linguistic idealist” and Kant as a “transcendental idealist” with no place for language. The linguistic idealism that McCumber ascribes to Hegel is not a narrowly linguistic idealism, for it would then be inconsistent with the naturalism and “natural idealism” that McCumber also attributes to Hegel. McCumber’s interpretation of Hegel as involving a dimension of linguistic idealism is insightful, so I am sympathetic to his project of “fleshing out the transcendental unity of apperception with Hegel’s views on language” (37). Nevertheless, McCumber takes Hegel to be more wedded to the German language than is warranted. In place of pure intuition as content, which, following Robert Pippin, he wants (falsely) to deny Hegel, he puts “the intuition of the word” (36), establishing a false opposition between universality and the specificity of the contents of language.

McCumber fails to see the extent to which Kant’s transcendental philosophy is embedded in a contextual and systematic understanding of language, of culture, of history in which human beings understand themselves in “pluralist” terms. Kant’s Anthropology develops the opposite process to the one McCumber ascribes to Kant, in that the pluralism of signs gives pragmatic significance to our discursive, dialogic understanding of our relation to the world in its full complexity. [End Page 509]

Kant’s Critique is based on the principle that everything we do is subject to self-conscious critical assessment, a universal principle. But such universality raises the worry that this principle might itself be empty of all specific content and Kant’s substantive principles might ultimately be “dogmatic” assumptions. This is the basis of Hegel’s emptiness objection to Kant. If you take the moral law to have significance in isolation from the differential, interactive process of self-conscious agents in time, history, and culture that gives the moral law its significance, the moral law, like everything else, is empty of content.

McCumber stands the traditional interpretation of Hegel’s critique of the moral law on its head: “Hegel thinks that Kant’s empty formulation of the moral law was one of his greatest achievements and claims that his own acceptance of it is more consistent than Kant’s” (168). McCumber appreciates the revolutionary role that Hegel saw in the moral law: “By making the moral law empty, Kant made it universal and philosophically undid centuries of privilege. But his achievement was tragic, because the empty moral law, for him, came from nowhere and led to nothing” (169). McCumber, however, misunderstands Kant’s notion of a “fact of reason” as a brute fact. For Kant, the normativity of practical reason is self-validating in that it is performatively displayed in our practice of reasoning. This reflects a wider, but also widely shared, misunderstanding of Kant. McCumber offers an account based on his reading of Hegel that is supposed to be juxtaposed with Kant, but actually draws systematically on Kant’s very conception (170)—a result of the thin, ahistorical, non-contextual, and dualist conception of Kantian reason with which McCumber works.

McCumber insists that Hegel’s objection to Kant is not that the moral law is “too empty to guide action, it is too empty to serve as the sole foundation of an immanent system of duties” (169). Indeed, “Kant’s formulation [of the categorical imperative...


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