Monday, March 26, 2007

Idealism and normativity workshop

The German Idealism and Normativity workshop at University College Dublin was very interesting and enjoyable. On Wednesday there were two talks: one by Paul Franks which concerned Fichte's response to Jacobi's worries about nihilism. Jacobi criticised holistic systems like that of Kant for their commitment to the claim that objects only possess relational properties. This approach seemed to raise the threat of nihilism for Jacobi since he thought that all objects required both relational and intrinsic properties. Fichte then takes up this challenge, according to Franks, by trying to make room for individuality that arises as a result of a summons (Aufforderung).

The other talk was by Frederick Beiser who presented a very nice story of two German philosophers that have by now been virtually forgotten in the English-speaking world. These are Windelband and Rickert. Both of these post-Kantians struggled seriously with the attempt of making room for normativity and integrating the realms of fact and value. However, both ultimately failed - Windelband recanted his earlier criticisms of Hegel, while Rickert simply asserted the unanswerability and unexplicability of the relation between fact and value. Beiser takes this to be an instructive story that highlights some of the difficulties that normative approaches face and which have so far not been addressed by many contemporary interpreters. What was particularly interesting was his claim that the fact/value problem equally applies to one-world and two-world interpretations. Also of interest was his characterisation of Rickert as a proponent of the epistemological or methodological reading that has most of the strengths of Allison's approach without being subject to the weaknesses.

On Thursday, I only managed to attend the first three talks as I had to get a flight to go to London for the Transcendental Idealism workshop. In the morning there was an interesting exchange which Gerhard Seel nicely characterised as 'les querelles allemandes'. Marcus Willaschek gave the first paper, entitled 'Kant on Right Without Ethics' in which he argued for the revisionist interpretation of the relation between the doctrine of ethics and the doctrine of right (this view is also espoused by, amongst others, Wood, Pogge and Ripstein). He argued that it was not possible to derive right from morality and that Kant had changed his views on this issue by the time of writing the Metaphysics of Morals, even though the architectonic still remained unchanged and even though the implications of the new approach were not fully worked out. That is, while Kant held until the early 1790s that the doctrine of right followed from the doctrine of ethics and was justified by the categorical imperative, he later believed that such a derivation was not possible and that these two doctrines were independent of each other. The discussion after the talk turned largely on the question whether this implies that the doctrine of right would have to be dropped as a result of lacking a foundation or whether an independent justification could be found, thereby undermining the unity of the Kantian system.

Gerhard Seel's paper was a response to the challenge raised by Willaschek. He claimed that the doctrine of right could be justified by appealing to the categorical imperative and that this was the only possible justification. His proposed solution did however come at quite a high price, namely the rejection of all imperfect duties. These two talks nicely showed how difficult the relation between the doctrine of right and the doctrine of virtue really is and that any solution will have to pay a high price, either in the form of undermining the unity and architectonic of the Kantian system or by rejecting certain Kantian doctrines.

After the lunch break Robert Stern gave a paper about realism and constructivism in Kant's and Hegel's ethical thought. The background of the paper was the recent dispute between McDowell and Pippin regarding the question as to whether or not one should give a realist interpretation of Hegel, McDowell arguing that this should be done while Pippin claimed that self-legislation was fundamental to Hegel's ethical thought and implied a constructivist reading. Stern sided with McDowell, providing a defence of the realist position as well as criticisms of the constructivist approach. The main problem with the realist position was seen to lie in its apparent inability to make sense of the obligatoriness of morality, something that according to the Kantian requires the self-imposition of moral commands. Stern attempted to meet this objection by claiming that obligatoriness is not essential as can be seen from the case of the holy will for whom the moral law is descriptive and not prescriptive. Stern's critique of the constructivist position was based on the claim that such an approach would ultimately collapse into realism if it is to avoid the problem of an unconstrained and arbitrary voluntarism.


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