How is Nature Possible? Kant's Project in the First Critique is a well-researched, introductory-level commentary on one of the more difficult books in the history of philosophy. Daniel N. Robinson's usual audience (readers in historical, philosophical, and scientific psychology) and Kant scholars (who rarely encounter commentaries by non-specialists) might not have expected this book from this author.
But his lifetime of attending carefully to the status and scope of scientific, historical, and philosophical claims uniquely qualifies him to show how Kant's first Critique might be helpful for one of our most pressing questions: how is it possible that we can only see the world through our own lenses, and yet we share knowledge about objects in the world and lawful relations between them? How ought we understand the limits, scope, and relation of objectivity and subjectivity?
Wherever it does this, Robinson's work in How is Nature Possible is valuable for the whole breadth of its audience, which stretches from "generalists" to "well-prepared students of the text[.]" Like many things valuable, understanding it may require some work--especially for those unfamiliar with 18th century philosophy. Though it is replete with technical vocabulary, few introductory-level works include such lucid explanations of technical concepts as those he provides for 'intuition' (chapter 3), 'schemata' (chapters 3 and 6), and 'transcendental realism' (chapter 5).
These occasional but brilliant teaching moments are smallest among several 'minor' contributions of the book. Also minor but commendable are Robinson's careful, prolonged considerations of space and time and of the Critique's situation in the history of natural philosophy. These make it a fine introduction for students of modern physics and for those most at home in the physical sciences. Coupled with his (perhaps disproportionate) elucidation of the Paralogisms [Kant outlines the ways we inevitably deceive ourselves about our selves (as in 'I', 'cogito', etc.) under this heading], the book makes an ideal introduction for students of psychology. Though the first Critique is sometimes read as a psychology, Robinson approaches the book as a work of philosophy, and shows how the philosophical questions matter for psychological ones. While these count only as 'minor contributions' within Kant studies, they may substantially expand and deepen conversations between and among philosophers, historians, theoretical and empirical scientists, and clinicians.
The book's largest contribution--for the general and specialized audience alike--is its frame. On Robinson's read, the first Critique is Kant's answer to the question, "how is nature possible." More familiar introductory narratives tend to turn on Kant's rejection of skepticism, or his rejection of the empiricism and rationalism dichotomy, or on the status of metaphysics. While these approaches can make it seem as if Kant's problems are themselves a priori, if not completely irrelevant for human experience, Robinson's approach includes a constant reminder that Kant's reasons for writing matter (to him, and potentially to us). We render and participate in the world as a law-governed whole (nature). How is this possible? How do the subjective and intersubjective overlap in such a way that we have knowledge of objects? How do they come together such that we can distinguish this knowledge from delusion, illusion, or mere opinion?
Though the question (how is nature possible) is clear, and though Robinson's argument for the value of the approach suggests that it should have an answer, he does not venture into any sustained argument about "how and whether" Kant answered it. In a telling close to his first chapter, Robinson notes that "how and whether Kant settled these questions frames a lively and enduring dispute among scholars." The bulk of the book describes the contents of a few of the first Critique's arguments. Many of these descriptions are well done, and most are illuminated by clear, concise summaries of scholarly debates and relevant historical information. But descriptions alone merely tease: Robinson shows us the value of Kant's question, and shows us several options for thinking about how he (and how we) might answer it. But he does not assess the extent to which we can hope for agreement about how Kant's answer works, or the extent to which we can hope to say how nature is possible for ourselves.
Robinson's reticence to take a stand may have been a function of wisdom. As he notes in the preface, no amount of talent, training, and rigor cannot substitute for lengthy careers devoted to Kant (or any subject). Robinson's willingness to publish outside his area of specialization must be commended. His work generates a fruitful approach to the first Critique. But it contains oversights we might expect of a talented, rigorous scholar with a lifetime of experience in another area. For example, although he frequently reminds us that Kant's method is transcendental, he (infrequently) uses empirical examples that might easily be misleading.
Far more importantly, the results of several rudimentary comparative exercises are noticeably absent. Some of these are 'internal' to the first Critique. For example, Kant makes much of his distinction between 'nature' and 'world'. But Robinson does not so much as gesture to Kant's comparison; he defines 'world' loosely ("everything in the spatio-temporal universe") and only in parentheses. For the general reader and in everyday English, these terms are interchangeable; for other readers, they are highly technical terms with precise meanings. A lengthy technical discussion (even a lengthy summary of Kant's discussion) aimed at semantic clarity would be out of place. But this distinction (or something like it) needs to appear (simply and straightforwardly) in this book, because what Kant doesn't mean by 'nature' matters for understanding both Kant and Robinson.
Other missing and critical comparative exercises involve Kant's wider corpus. For example, although How is Nature Possible is about the first Critique, the question suggests a slightly larger scope. A minimally acceptable exposition of Kant's concept of nature requires substantial reference to the third Critique, where Kant says far more about nature than in the first Critique. Yet Robinson explicitly refers to it only briefly and near the end of his book in relatively short treatments of 'judgment' and the relation of nature and freedom. The book (and its use for the reading public) would benefit from a focused, comparative exposition of Kant's notion of 'nature'.
How is Nature Possible is exciting but lacks the substance of a satisfying argument. Even so, both 'exciting' and 'unsatisfying' may indicate a successful introduction to so difficult and so relevant a work as the first Critique.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Stiles Alexander is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.