In this paper, I take Philip Rossi’s robust interpretation of critique as an interpretive guide for thinking generally about how to interpret Kant’s texts. I reflect first upon what might appear to be a minor technical issue: how best to translate the term Fähigheit when Kant utilizes it in reference to the human experience of pleasure and displeasure. Reflection upon this technical issue will, however, end up being a case study in how important it is when we are interpreting Kant’s texts to have Rossi’s focus on human finitude in the background. The terrain for these reflections on human finitude will be the realm of feelings of pleasure and displeasure. And the result will be that, counter to recent interpreters, like Elizondo (2014), who have suggested that Kant could welcome a thoroughly active conception of rational feeling, we must instead, as guided by Kant’s commitment to human finitude (and really his commitment to Transcendental Idealism itself), remember that every feeling for Kant—even the most rational of feelings, like the moral feeling of respect, or the pleasure he notes that we take in the proper functioning of one’s virtuous rational self—must be understood within the purview and constraints of the finite and sensibly-affected human being. I hope, then, that this brief reflection can be taken as one small piece of that larger story Rossi so aptly describes in his book, the story which answers the question of “What is critique?” in a way that insists upon but also simultaneously celebrates the centrality of finitude in human existence.
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The language of “facility” which Kant uses affirms as much. We do need to admit, though, that given Kant’s commitment to a notion of a propensity for radical evil, this facility is best described as virtually unimpeded activity. That is because, even if absolutely all of one’s current inclinations, affects and passions are in line with one’s rational will, there is nonetheless a possibility that one will, in the future, succumb to placing a concern for self over the demands of morality. Such a possibility is not, however, a live and competing obstacle to virtue in one’s person, but only a caution that the person with a free aptitude for virtue must maintain vigilance in reflection upon her moral state. I’ll discuss this more toward the end of this article.
To be clear, the claim here is that the pleasure one experiences is pleasure in the ease with which one integrates one’s sensible and rational selves. Instead of experiencing these parts of oneself as being opposed to each other, one experiences the one as perfectly in synch with the other. The free aptitude for virtue is an experience of the agent’s rational activity when it stands in perfect alignment with her sensibly-affected self, or alternatively, the experience of one’s sensible self when it is in perfect alignment with one’s rational activity. One can assert the alignment from either point of view, because the whole point is that the pleasure is constituted in the perfect alignment of these two parts of oneself. This pleasure is itself not an expression of sensibility as such, but instead an expression of the perfect alignment of one’s sensibility with one’s rationality. As such, it is not a “felt” pleasure, but a pleasure of a different sort: one which emerges in the experience of the ease of one’s activity as a sensibly-affected rational being. It is true that, as part of that virtuous activity, one can also experience felt sensible pleasures: for example, the beneficent person will experience positive feelings in relation to her actions of helping others. But the pleasure of which I speak is not this felt pleasure. Instead, it is a further pleasure that supervenes upon an activity that itself may involve felt pleasures. The former—the pleasure of seeing someone benefit from my beneficence—is indeed a felt susceptibility; but the latter—the pleasure of the ease with which I provide that beneficence—is a non-felt experience identical with one’s active exercise of virtue.
We thus reemphasize the fact that the feeling of negative freedom is a sensible feeling while the pleasure in the ease of the exercise of virtue is not. The reason negative freedom is sensibly felt while this ease is not is that the former, because it is defined “negatively” (viz., as freedom from something, from some constraint of things external to me) still involves a reference to those external things (those are the things that are not impeding me!). Hence, even while being a form of freedom, it is not an experience of pure activity but instead involves a moment of passivity in relation to my escape from determination by things external to me. Sensibility, and thus feeling, is thereby engaged here, because that is the mode by which one’s sensible self expresses itself: through feeling.
Elizondo is right, however, to have suspected that the aesthetic experience could point us toward these same sorts of notions affirming the promise of our intellectual and supersensible home and heritage. But that is just to say that we need aesthetic experience (viz., an experience inextricably linked with our sensible natures) to access these rational truths about ourselves. That is the only possible, and necessarily indirect route, we must take to an appreciation of our supersensible and free selves. As sensibly-affected rational beings, we must access the truths of our rational nature indirectly, via sensibility.
I am also grateful to an anonymous reviewer of an early version of this paper whose insightful and intelligent questions pushed me to think more carefully about the ideas herein.
Kants gesammelte Schriften, hrsg. von der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. 29 vols. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902–83.
I will use the Cambridge University Press English translations of the following of Kant’s works:
Critique of Practical Reason, tr. by M. Gregor, 1997.
The Metaphysics of Morals. tr. By Mary Gregor, 1998.
I will also use the following translation:
Critique of Judgment, tr. by W. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.
Elizondo, E. Sonny. “More than a feeling,” in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 4, #3–4 (August, 2014), 425–442.
Grenberg, Jeanine M. (2013). Kant’s defense of common moral experience: A phenomenological account. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Grenberg, Jeanine M. “The Practical, Cognitive Import of Feeling: a Phenomenological Account,” in Kant and the Faculty of Feeling, Kelly Sorensen and Diane Williamson, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
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Grenberg, J.M. Critique, Finitude and the Importance of Susceptibility: A Rossian Approach to Interpreting Kant on Pleasure. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00301-7