Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Kant Improves with Age

At least since William James’s time, we’ve known that some of human memory is recorded outside the brain. Common parlance refers to “muscle memory,” although I think the pertinent sciences would actually place motor memory in the nervous system. More than this, though, I’ve had to accept the fact that significant portions of my memory reside outside my body altogether, in my notes. I’m not as bad off as the fellow from Memento, who can’t hold any memories internally for more than about ten minutes and has to tattoo the information he wants to retain onto his skin. But I’m amazed and humbled sometimes when I look over my reading notes to find lines in my handwriting that I don’t remember writing, about ideas I don’t remember reading or even ever thinking about.

When I opened up Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason a couple of weeks ago, I was extremely glad to find the notes I had taken the first time I read the book, almost ten years ago. They guided me as I made my way through the dense material for a second time, and it seemed to me as I read that I’d done a good job summarizing and restating the main points of the work. But it disappointed me to discover (a) that I hadn’t remembered most of what I had written down in 2004 and (b) that several of the memories I did have of the Critique were wrong. Or maybe I just picked up different details this time, but Kant's views on happiness and God, especially, seemed different during this second reading – and different in a good way.

I had remembered accurately that Kant said the only reasonable ethical motive is duty, not pleasure. We can’t award anyone any bonus virtue points for helping out people just because she likes helping people, Kant says; that seemingly kind person is really only trying to make herself feel better. And I remembered that he didn’t want to credit anyone as acting from duty if any feelings of happiness at all crept into the situation. But remembering only those details left me thinking that Kant saw the virtuous life as sober and unpleasant. What I didn’t remember is that he relented in a couple of ways to find a place for happiness in his scheme. First, he admits that children should be trained in proper moral behavior by rewards and punishment; let the understanding of duty come later. Second, he admitted that a just God will reward a good life with eternal happiness even though he looked with suspicion (with some right, I think) on the man who serves God only to get the happy reward.

Another change. The Kantian God that I remembered was a cold, distant, impersonal cipher, a mere philosophical “postulate” whose existence we have to accept in order to provide a ground for our sense of right and wrong. But then last week I noticed that Kant clearly outlined the limitations of philosophy to say much about God’s character, and the need for revelation to fill in more details. He even cited passages in Romans both as samples of that needed revelation and as support for the doctrine that natural theology can only get us so far. And citing the Bible, of course, implicitly opened the door to all its teaching of the personal, relational attributes of its God. I finished up thinking of the book not as offering the tiny, disappointing sum of everything that can be known about God’s moral will, but as the philosophical grounding for accepting everything that God reveals about it.

So Kant has improved with (my) age. And yes, I took notes on the changes, and the next time I read those notes, I can say I remember what I learned.

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