Here’s a satisfying little allegory from the ‘Doctrine of Method’. Kant tells us that we must give up our ambitious designs for human knowledge, turning away from rationalism and its metaphysics which wanted to build a “tower reaching to the heavens”. Instead, we must remain content with something altogether more modest, merely a “dwelling house” which is “just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience”.
If we look upon the sum of all knowledge of pure speculative reason as a building for which we have at least the idea within ourselves, it can be said that in the ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Elements’ we have made an estimate of the materials, and have determined for what sort, height and strength of building they will suffice. Indeed, it turned out that although we had in mind a tower that would reach the heavens, yet the stock of materials was only enough for a dwelling house — just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience and just high enough for us to look across the plain. The bold undertaking had come to nothing through a lack of materials, quite apart from the babel of tongues that unavoidably set workers against one another about the plan and scattered them across the earth, each to build separately following his own design. Our problem is not just to do with materials, but even more to do with the plan. Since we have been warned not to risk everything on a favourite but senseless project, which could perhaps exceed our whole means, yet cannot well refrain from building a secure home, we have to plan our building with the supplies that have been given and also to suit our needs.
CPR A707/B735 trans. O’Neill
Not content to be caricatured by the likes of me (and it is a caricature, which I think we take too seriously at our philosophical peril), Kant responds:
As for those [e.g. Kant himself] who play down or outright deny the boasting eulogies that are given of the happiness and contentment that reason can supposedly bring us: the judgment they are making doesn’t involve gloom, or ingratitude for how well the world is governed. Rather, it is based on the idea of another and far nobler purpose for their existence. It is for achieving this purpose, not happiness, that reason is properly intended; and this purpose is the supreme condition, so that the private purposes of men must for the most part take second place to it. Its being the supreme or highest condition means that it isn’t itself conditional on anything else; it is to be aimed at no matter what else is the case; which is why our private plans must stand out of its way.
Kant, Grundlegung, Ak. 4:396
A nice passage from the first Critique:
There is properly speaking no polemic in the field of pure reason. Both parties beat the air, and wrestle with their own shadows, since they go beyond the limits of nature, where there is nothing that they can seize and hold with their dogmatic grasp. Fight as they may, the shadows which they cleave asunder grow together again forthwith, like heroes of Valhalla, to disport themselves anew in the bloodless contest.
Another pail of gloom winched up from the dank depths of the Kantian system:
Now, what in our judgement infringes upon our self-conceit humiliates. Hence the moral law unavoidably humiliates every human being when he compares it with the sensible propensity of his nature.
Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Ak 5:73
Today’s Kantian gloominess comes in two translations. First, here is the quote that adorns a certain famous liberal blog:
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
While Kant’s reputation as a bad writer is overplayed, it should ring warning bells when it seems that he has formulated something quite so pithy. So, here is a rather more accurate translation I have adapted from Isiah Berlin:
Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be framed.
Kant, Religion Within The Bounds Of Reason Alone, Ak: 8:23.
Another nugget of gloom:
The consolation of the virtuous is the shortness of life.
Kant, Lectures on Ethics, Ak 27: 624
Three cheers for an early death then!
My secondary supervisor, being a Hegelian of a generally cheery disposition, is always complaining of the ‘gloominess’ of Kantianism, whether its excessive epistemic modesty or dour take on humanity. Coming across passages like the following — charming as it is — it’s hard to disagree:
However virtuous a man may be, there are tendencies to evil in him, and he must constantly contend against them. He must guard against the moral self-conceit of thinking himself morally good, and having a favourable opinion of himself; that is a dream-like condition, very hard to cure.
Kant, Moralphilosophie Collins, VE 27:464
Indeed, heaven forfend having a favourable opinion of oneself! Any further suggestions of suitably gloomy Kant quotes would be appreciated…