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The Form of Practical KnowledgeReview - The Form of Practical Knowledge
A Study of the Categorical Imperative
by Stephen Engstrom
Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D.
Aug 11th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 33)

In The Form of Practical Knowledge, Stephen Engstrom writes that the "principal aim" of his book is to "develop an account of the categorical imperative that elucidates its basis in practical reason in a way that also clarifies how it constitutes substantive constraint on the will" (241, emphasis added).  Both of these claims – (i) that the categorical imperative is in fact related to practical reason (i.e., the imperative's a priori nature), and (ii) that Kant's morality can be a source of substantive commands – have long been targets of Kant's many critics.  Engstrom skillfully reconstructs Kant's account of the imperative of morality to argue that the categorical imperative (in all of its formulations) is essentially related to the formal and the material conditions of our practical rationality, and that in fact Kantian morality belongs to the general cognitivist tradition in moral thought.  This tradition considers virtue to be a type of knowledge, knowledge of the good, and according to Engstrom, in Kant we find both the "most systematic and deeply conceived elaboration of this idea" but also a "sharp break" with some of this tradition's key presuppositions (ix).

A brief overview cannot do justice to Engstrom's intricate argument, but the backbone of his position is the following.  Morality (for Kant) is a type of cognition, i.e., a set of practical judgments, judgments of ought.  That morality is related to judgment and knowledge implies (importantly) that it is subject to some formal constraints on judgment in general.  Furthermore, since morality is a type of practical knowledge, it is also subject to some formal and material constraints that come from the fact that morality is knowledge of the good.

Consider the formal constraints on practical judgment first.  The form of judging, Engstrom points out, boils down to this.  When we exercise the capacity to judge (practically), we (at least implicitly) acknowledge that "it is possible for every subject with the capacity for practical knowledge to share (not only in absracto but also in use) the practical judgment that every subject is to act as determined in the particular judgment when in the conditions on which it is based" (126).  In other words, if I judge that φ is obligatory, I (at least implicitly) acknowledge that (i) everyone ought to φ (when in appropriate conditions), and that (ii) all instances of φ are obligatory.  In Engstrom's words, there is a "double universality" condition at work here – judgments of ought are both "subjectively" and "objectively universally valid" (112-24).  This double universality condition applies to practical judgments merely in virtue of them being instances of judging, i.e., to exercise the capacity to judge correctly just is to be subject to these formal conditions.  Notice that this notion of universal validity (or universality) is a "thick" one (cf. "thin" universality of space as the form of outer intuition).  This means that these formal conditions are normative and not constitutive of practical judgments (131).  In other words, while all practical judgments ought to comply to the formal conditions of universality, they very well might not do so, as it is the case with false practical judgments (e.g., 'There is nothing wrong with giving a false promise when in financial distress').  The bottom line, however, is this:  as all practical knowledge, willing must have a certain form, the form of universality, and this is most straightforwardly captured by Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative (although, as Kant argues and as Engstrom shows, the same idea of double universality can be seen in other formulations as well).

Aside from the formal conditions, practical judgments must live up to a set of material conditions.  (In this claim, Engstrom's study is, perhaps, the most innovative, although his analysis of universality is quite original as well.)  By 'material' we of course do not mean 'empirical'.  Rather, there are certain necessary aspects of volition that can be "traced to the concept of a person" (cf. the concept of a human being) (137) and that are therefore known a priori and not through e.g., anthropological or psychological study.  Engstrom argues that while "choice is the body and the letter of the act of the free power of choice, wish [is] its soul and spirit" and that "only by determining the latter can the moral law extend its inward influence to the former" (81, emphasis added).  In taking Kant to be the proponent of morality formally construed, commentators tend to loose sight of the end-setting aspect of volition.  Engstrom emphasizes this feature as, arguably, the most important aspect of volition, the aspect that stems from wishing, which is the "soul and spirit" of our free power of choice.  In particular, Engstrom focuses on the wish for happiness, where happiness is taken generically and not in any of its specific conceptions.  And the essential requirements on the generic concept of happiness are these:  on the one hand, happiness includes the idea of agreeableness (as far as the objects of our wishing go), and on the other hand, happiness implies what Engstrom calls the "casual sufficiency of the subject for [the object's] production" (89).

With these components in hand (i.e., with the formal requirements on morality as a type of knowledge and with the material condition of willing that is rooted in the generic wish for happiness), Engstrom develops a reading of Kant that does justice to his innovative deontology.  In particular, Engstrom explains in detail in what way the three main formulations of the categorical imperative are related to one another (or that, as Kant himself puts it, "the three ways of representing the principle of morality are at bottom only so many formulae of the very same law" (G 4:436)).  Also, The Form of Practical Knowledge shows how the four types of duties can be derived from the conjunction of the formal and of the material conditions of willing, and especially from the formula of universal law (the latter task is notoriously difficult to carry out with respect to imperfect duties and with respect to duties to oneself).

Engstrom acknowledges that in his study he has "stepped back from the details of Kant's argument in order to take a broader interpretative approach" (241).  Indeed, in The Form of Practical Knowledge we do not find a step-by-step analysis of e.g., the Groundwork or of the second Critique.  However, virtually all substantive claims that Engstrom attributes to Kant are carefully backed up by exegetical arguments, and The Form of Practical Knowledge retains more than the general spirit of Kant's philosophy – it is very much true to the letter of his works.  Furthermore, a serious student of Kant will find numerous fine and original textual points throughout Engstrom's study and will have many occasions for augmenting and correcting her understanding of Kant's texts.  That Engstrom's study takes the road of a "broader interpretative approach" does, however, mean that a beginning student of Kant will find it very challenging to develop a systematic interpretation of Kant's texts, since Engstrom's work presupposes a great degree of fluency with Kant's corpus.

In his remarks against "popular" philosophy, Kant writes that in the popular essays on morality "one will sometimes encounter the particular vocation of human nature, sometimes perfection, sometimes happiness, here moral feeling, there fear of God, some of this and some of that, all in a wondrous mixture" (G 4:410).  Rather, Kant believes, we ought to start from the "pure concepts of reason, fully a priori, free from everything empirical" (ibid.) and then to develop a consistent account of morality.  Kant's charge against "philosophical popularity" can very well be applied to some of Kant-scholarship today:  interpreting Kant's own works, commentators explain the application of the categorical imperative and the relation between its different formulations by appealing to a number of heterogeneous explanance.  Sometimes, the focus is on the logical consistency of maxims, at other times it shifts to the requirements of prudential reasoning, and yet on other occasions, the appeal is made to teleology and to the laws of (human) nature.  This eclectic application and analysis of Kant's categorical imperative is not only explanatorily suspect, but also goes explicitly against the methodological approach that Kant himself urges us to adopt.  In this respect, Engstrom's study is an exemplar of philosophical and exegetical consistency.  The Form of Practical Knowledge is true to a single line of interpretation of the categorical imperative throughout the numerous questions arising while reading and understanding Kant.  E.g., Engstrom skillfully shows how the universalization test is to be applied to all four types of duties in the same way, and Engstrom's exposition is a welcome exception in the literature on Kant, in which we sometimes see a "mish-mash of patched-together" (G 4:409) explanations of how the categorical imperative is to be applied and of how its formulations are to be reconciled.  Engstrom's work can be used as a guide to a consistent reading of Kant's many (cryptic) remarks concerning how the supreme principle of morality works in various contexts.

The Form of Practical Knowledge is a challenging read.  To benefit and to learn from it, one must already be at home with Kant's corpus (at least its practical side), and with Anglophone literature on Kant.  But for those who are ready to engage Kant on a deep level, and for those who are eager to come up with a coherent interpretation of Kant's deontology, Engstrom's study will be a wonderful supplement to Kant's practical works (and especially to his Groundwork).  In particular, I would like to stress (again) that The Form of Practical Knowledge contains numerous textual insights that allow for a much cleaner reading of Kant that one might have prior to picking up Engstrom's monograph.

© 2009 Tatiana Patrone

 

Tatiana Patrone is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ithaca College.  She is author of How Kant's Conception of Reason Implies a Liberal Politics (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008)


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