Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Proximity between Levinas and Kant: The Primacy of Pure Practical Reason

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Proximity between Levinas and Kant: The Primacy of Pure Practical Reason

Article excerpt

That to which we are alluding here seems to us suggested by the practical philosophy of Kant, to which we feel particularly close.

Levinas, "Is Ontology Fundamental?" (1)

In his only essay dedicated entirely to Kant, published in 1971 under the title "The Primacy of Pure Practical Reason," Levinas applauded the "great novelty" (2) of Kant's practical philosophy and its unique contribution to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Seven years later, Levinas compiled a list of exceptional moments in the history of philosophy when "under different terms [the] relation of transcendence shows itself." (3) Alongside references to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, Bergson, and Heidegger, the list included "the elevation of theoretical reason into practical reason in Kant." (4) Six years after that, Levinas referred to the doctrine of primacy not merely as an exception to the tradition of philosophy as ontology, but as an exceptional exception, the critical inception of a "new intrigue" that "no longer amounts to bringing to light presence." (5) Evidently, Levinas found in Kant's practical philosophy something exceptionally close to his own ethical thinking, so much so that one is na turally led to wonder why so few of Levinas's commentators have been disposed to remark on the fact. (6)

How does Kant's doctrine of primacy, according to Levinas, evince a break with Western philosophy characterized by ontology, freedom, and the "primacy of the same" (T116/45)? How does it go beyond ontology when it sanctions, as we will see, the prerogative of morality to assume as "real" (i.e., existing) what critical speculation alone designates as merely possible? In what way does it overturn the traditional priority of freedom and the Same given Kant's insistence that reason is autonomy and that "in the end there can only be one and the same reason, which must be differentiated solely in its application?" (7) These and related issues will be addressed in the following three-part discussion. By showing how Kant's doctrine challenges rather than reconfirms traditional ontology, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of Levinas's claim that the practical philosophy of Kant stands closest to his own thinking in ethics.

I. The Primacy of Practical Reason

In Critique of Practical Reason, II. ii. 3, entitled "On the Primacy of Pure Practical Reason in its association with Speculative Reason," Kant writes:

In the combination of pure speculative with pure practical reason in one cognition, the latter has primacy, provided that this combination is not contingent and arbitrary, but a priori, based on reason itself and thus necessary. Without this subordination, a conflict in reason with itself would arise, since if the speculative and the practical reason were merely arranged side by side (co-ordinated), the first would (critically] close its borders and admit nothing from the latter, while the latter would extend its boundaries to everything and, when its needs required, would seek to comprehend the former within them. (8)

The interest of pure practical reason, according to Kant, "lies in the determination of the will with respect to the final and perfect end" (CPrR 120/124). This interest is advanced by assuming that the Ideas of freedom, God, and the immortality of the soul have "objective reality" (3/3). Without freedom--the ratio essendi of the Moral Law--pure practical reason would be impossible; without the other so-called postulates, the concept of the highest good (summum bonum) would find itself in an antinomy, since virtue and happiness are only contingently related from the standpoint of nature, and virtue is seldom attainable in a single lifetime. The doctrine of primacy circumvents any possible "conflict" of interests between theoretical and practical reason. It rules a priori that theoretical reason go beyond the critical agnosticism of Critique of Pure Reason and make room for the "assertoric" judgment that the transcendental Ideas have objects. …

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