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Writing an introductory text on Kant's philosophy is destined to be a, yet another, interpretation of his thought, and, in my view, an unsettling realization of the fact that no introduction can do full justice to his complex, rich, and revolutionary way of philosophizing. Uleman is conscious that she offers an interpretation of Kant's moral philosophy (p. 1). The first part of her thesis in the book is that the central notion of Kant's moral philosophy is the 'free, rational will' or the 'free activity of the will', a thesis that has, as she says, three components: (a) it is free, although it is placed within a determined world, (b) it subjects itself to itself, (c) this same will is the aim of morality, both the author of the moral law and what matters most. As Uleman points out, at several occasions in the book (pp. 1, 111, 140-143), Hegel might be right when describes it as the free will which wills itself. The second part of Uleman's thesis is that Kant is not just concerned with formal rules and procedures, but also with feelings and ends, albeit of a particular kind. This is a substantial thesis, which goes against the current of the Rawlsian school, mainly interrogating Rawls's supposedly 'Kantian' argument about the priority of 'right' over the 'good' (pp. 175-179).
I have to confess I am much sympathetic to Uleman's overall thesis, which is excellently structured, well argued and often admirably clear. Nevertheless, I am not sure that, in the end, she completely escapes portraying Kant as a fierce opponent to nature, inclinations, passions, and (moral) sensibility in general, in a sense, justifying most of his critics, be they feminists, Aristotelians, communitarians etc. This is perhaps the result of what I said at the beginning. It is perhaps impossible for an introduction to do full justice to Kant's complex, rich, and revolutionary thought, who, despite popular reception remained faithful to philosophizing rather than philosophy as such. But let me take things from the beginning, talking about the structure of the book.
Uleman's introduction comprises of 8 chapters. Chapters 2-4 aim to familiarize the reader with Kant's conception of the human subject, the structure of practical reason and that of freedom. The exposition of basic Kantian distinctions and terminology is extremely clear, and that is the main strength of the book. Many important things are well articulated, for example, that the Kantian will must have an end or aim in order to ac, and that free rational activity is the ultimate action-guiding end of the will itself (p. 24). At chapter 3 there is a helpful clarification of Kant's terminology (rules, laws, principles), plus an excellent discussion of the usually puzzling issue of what is a maxim. An important contribution to the reader's familiarization with Kant's moral theory is that reason is also a source of desire and it doesn't act without or even contrary to desire (p. 58). Chapter 4 talks about freedom. Two remarks are in order here. First, I am not sure how, at the end of the day, useful is the distinction between inevitable and achievable freedom, adding a further distinction to the already innumerable Kantian dualisms. Second, a short discussion of transcendental freedom found in the Critique of Pure Reason and its relation to practical freedom would help a lot, I think, the student of Kant in realizing what is at stake.
The following chapter, chapter 5, puzzled me, especially with its insistence that Kant ' 'had a low view of nature'. Reductive naturalism in morality is one thing, downplaying nature altogether is quite another. Such an unqualified position justifies the criticism Kant has received for completely neglecting non-rational nature, including animals, and defending an anthropocentric morality (although there is a number of Kantians, Allen Wood, for instance, who deny this on Kantian grounds). The next thing that left me with a bitter taste was the discussion on the feeling of respect. Uleman rightly talks about such a feeling, which has an intellectual ground, yet it places it within a conception of experience (Erlebnis instead of Erfahrung) which is poorly defined, when described in the 'ordinary, English, non-technical sense'. Walter Benjamin's Kantianism here would have much to contribute, although one should be very careful with this. Despite this, which, admittedly would require a lot more than an introduction, I agree with Uleman's main point that moral value is not realized in the natural world as such, although realization is the main issue here. Uleman defends her anti-formalist view in chapter 6. I won't spend time with her illuminating discussion of the Categorical Imperative (CI) in its various formulations. The thrust of the anti-formalism she defends is that the form of lawfulness in the CI is not all there is, but it is just a way to access the non-empirical good at which morality aims. In that sense, Kant was more than simply neutral among conceptions of the good.
Overall, Uleman's treatment of nature (inclinations, passions, etc.) seems to me overstated. True, 'it would betray the texts to suggest otherwise than that Kant's attitude towards inclination is often antagonistic' (p. 152, note 12), nevertheless there are interesting alternatives in, for example, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, especially the chapter entitled 'Apology for Sensibility' and of course, the Critique of Judgment itself. To be sure, Uleman is right to the extent that the moral law does not have anything empirical into it, but ambiguous as to how Kant conceives the constitution of moral agency itself, or what Rawls himself characteristically rejects as metaphysical baggage, the issue of 'constitutive autonomy'. One last point. The discussion at the end of the book referring to creativity is immensely helpful, and contributes a lot to the destruction of the monolithic image of Kant as a formalist by focusing on the process of formation, which is creativity itself. The examples Uleman uses from Virginia Woolf and Adrian Piper help a lot dissolve the caricature of a strict, soulless morality. Yet, much remain to be said about Kantian openess to creativity, both in relation to Kant's other texts, especially the Critique of Judgment, and in relation to post-Kantian thought, especially that of Nietzsche. But this would be just the next challenge-step for the student of Kant.
In conclusion, one should not, by any means, underestimate Uleman's achievement here, which is admirable. The book is carefully argued, and forms an excellent introduction to Kant's moral theory. It will benefit students and tutors alike to a great extend, although it forms just the first step towards awareness that Kant's moral theory involves much more than this introduction. Therefore, I can only highly recommend it.
© 2011 Kostas Koukouzelis
Dr. Kostas Koukouzelis, Philosophy & Social Studies Department, University of Crete, Greece