- Pessimism in Kant's Ethics and Rational Religion by Dennis Vanden Auweele
In this book, Dennis Vanden Auweele explores the tension between pessimism and optimism in Kant's ethics and philosophy of religion. Going against a long tradition of interpretation that groups Kant together with other classic philosophers of hope, he aims to highlight the latent pessimism in Kant's works, and show that the full-blown pessimism of post-Kantian philosophers such as Schopenhauer can be read as the attempt to "think Kant's project through to its natural end" (200). What Vanden Auweele means by 'pessimism' is not the Schopenhaurean view that it would have been better not to exist, but the view that "human nature does not navigate toward the good, that (the ideal of) autonomy has but a relatively meager hold over human behavior, and that, because of this, human beings—finite, fragile, and disposed toward evil as they are—are in dire need of a moral education that cultivates and augments their rational interest in moral behavior" (20). It is primarily this form of pessimism that the author wishes to attribute to Kant.
Vanden Auweele explains why Kant is this sort of pessimist by examining the relationship among many of his most fundamental views. Chapter 2 focuses on the Groundwork and explains the Kantian view that morality is the disposition to act from duty, or out of respect for the moral law. Chapter 3 turns to Kant's discussion of moral feeling in the second Critique and questions whether respect for the moral law, together with our interest in being worthy of happiness, can motivate us to act in conformity with the moral law. Chapter 4 narrows in on Kant's view of human nature in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and provides helpful discussion of the Kantian view that human beings have an original predisposition to the good, but also a natural propensity to evil. In chapter 5, the author turns to the more optimistic strands of Kant's ethics and philosophy of religion, and explains how postulating God's existence, having in view moral exemplars, and joining an ethical community all serve to "bridge the distance between natural inclinations and the good" (148). Lastly, chapter 6 criticizes Kant's attempt to enlist religion in the pursuit of moral excellence, and argues that Kant's rational religion neither saves us from moral despair nor does justice to the unique phenomenology of Christian belief.
Vanden Auweele's project is ambitious, and like Frederick Beiser's Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860–1900, it is attuned to a perspective on the world that many post-Kantian philosophers shared and traced back to Kant's works. The book demonstrates good familiarity with the relevant secondary literature in English, German, and French. It also carefully and patiently reconstructs many of Kant's arguments in the works mentioned earlier. Students will find it a helpful guide to Kant's ethics and philosophy of religion.
At the same time, the book reveals some significant limitations. Vanden Auweele never clearly explains why the cluster of views he attributes to Kant should lead to pessimism, rather than optimism. He repeatedly notes that, on Kant's view, human beings do not "naturally evolve toward moral goodness" (106); we must undergo a process of moral education, whose aim is to transform and remodel our inclinations until we ideally "give preference to the moral law over our inclinations" (145). At one point, Vanden Auweele even says that we can attribute to Kant the view that the "rationalization of nature" through moral education brings about "a dramatically changed second nature" (124). Therefore, if Kant is so optimistic about the revolutionary potential of moral (and religious) education, what is left of (Vanden Auweele's brand) of Kantian pessimism? Towards the end of the book, the author mentions a different reason why a Kantian outlook can be described as [End Page 409] pessimistic. He writes: "the assistance of religion fails to save Kant's pure ethics . . . because it cannot appropriately...