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  • Naturalism and Realism in Kant's Ethics by Frederick Rauscher
  • Jeanine M. Grenberg
Frederick Rauscher. Naturalism and Realism in Kant's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii + 264. Cloth, $99.99.

Making sense of how intelligible notions in Kant's moral philosophy make a place for themselves in the sensible, natural world is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to a Kantian moral philosopher. In this book, Rauscher takes on that question with great aplomb, by looking carefully at an impressive array of Kant's texts, and assessing the extent to which one can say Kant is a realist, or naturalist. Rauscher's intelligent and creative conclusion, in his words, is as follows:

I have identified a Kantian transcendental moral idealism that is also an empirical realism, thus dissolving some of the realist/constructivist disagreement. I show, however, that Kant is himself hesitant to endorse this transcendental validity for morality and, particularly in light of the priority of the practical point of view as an agent-perspective rational ordering of nature with no ontological claims of its own, that the more appropriate conclusion is that Kant was an empirical moral idealist.


The category of 'empirical moral idealism,' developed by bringing the (usually) theoretical notions of transcendental idealism and empirical realism into the moral realm, is entirely Rauscher's creation. This is a complex and interesting thesis, one that only someone deeply familiar with epistemological, scientific and ethical ideas in Kant could have brought together. It is, furthermore, a thesis that moves toward realism and naturalism not by peremptorily rejecting the anti-realist constructivist position but, instead, by "dissolving some of the realist/constructivist disagreement" (10, emphasis added). This is a mature, [End Page 354] attractive philosophical position which defends Kant's transcendental idealist approach to morality as also a morality that is firmly located within nature.

There are times, however, when Rauscher's naturalistic tendencies take him too far. His chapter 2 discussion of "first-person freedom," which provides a central and orienting methodological point of view for the chapters to come, provides the starkest example of this excess. While rightly prioritizing the first-personal point of view in Kant's discussion of freedom, Rauscher fails to realize the metaphysical power of that point of view when he suggests that "free acts understood from the agent perspective have no ontological status" (76, emphasis added). This rejection of all ontological import for things practical is a central methodological commitment Rauscher makes. As Rauscher puts it: "not only is there no object involved that can be said to exist [when considering freedom first-personally], there is also a priority of the agent's perspective over any theoretical understanding even of the nature of action" (76). The practical agent's perspective gains priority over the theoretical or speculative, but only by refusing it all ontological import.

Rauscher is right, of course, that practical cognition cannot give us theoretical understanding of intelligible objects; that would be "fanaticism" (see, e.g. Kants gesammelte Schriften, Akademie-Ausgabe 5:135–36). But to deny all ontological import to our practical point of view puts Rauscher at odds with a number of points in Kant's practical works that suggest at least a trace or hint of things intelligible being obtainable from the first-personal practical perspective. To say that there is no theoretical cognition to be accomplished from the practical point of view is not the same as saying that there is no practical cognition of things metaphysical, ontological or intelligible.

Even as I find this naturalism line drawn too harshly in Rauscher's book, I still find in it many other things with which I have deep sympathy. Methodologically, I admire Rauscher's emphasis upon the first personal point of view implicit in Kant's practical philosophy. His discussion of the postulate of God, for example, in chapter 5, makes its non-realist-but-naturalist point through appeal to the first-personal practical point of view. Here is his summary of his God discussion:

The postulate of God in particular . . . is supposed to have immanent reference, that is, to empirical agents' moral lives, rather than transcendent reference, that is, to a...


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