Reading Kant from a Catholic Horizon: Ethics and the Anthropology of Grace

By Rossi, Philip J. | Theological Studies, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Reading Kant from a Catholic Horizon: Ethics and the Anthropology of Grace


Rossi, Philip J., Theological Studies


THIS ARTICLE ARGUES FOR a renewed Catholic theological engagement with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). It advances this argument within the context of a larger thesis about the theological presuppositions that function within Kant's work, as well as within interpretations both friend and foe of his philosophy have given to his project of "critique." This thesis is that key differences in the ways both philosophers and theologians have understood central elements of the critical philosophy frequently exhibit divergent "theological horizons" against which these interpreters have explicitly or, more often, implicitly framed their rendering of the issues, arguments, and concepts in Kant's texts. Such theological horizons function, in the first instance, on Kant's own part, inasmuch as the critical philosophy articulates its account of human finitude over against a robust sense of transcendence. For Kant, fundamental to the conceptual space of the human--i.e., to the articulation of an account of what distinctively constitutes our humanity--is the orientation of that space to transcendence as it delimits the contours of our properly human finitude. In affirming human finitude--for which his trope is "the limits of reason"--as marked out by radical difference from transcendence, Kant stands within the theological horizon to which the reflective traditions of Abrahamic monotheism have oriented themselves in affirming "God" as the proper name for the transcendence humanity encounters in radical Otherness.

Yet theological horizons also operate from the side of Kant's readers; within many of these horizons, however, Kant's way of locating the conceptual space of the human by its orientation to transcendence can no longer be taken as given. Kant himself may very well have framed his account of the human by reference to transcendence that we unavoidably must think, even as he contended that it exceeds our capacity to think transcendence "as" an "object," i.e., to articulate it cognitively. Whatever he may have held negatively about the possibility of humans rendering transcendence cognitively intelligible, a human orientation to transcendence still remains fundamental to his theological horizon. His readers, however, particularly in the unfolding course of late modernity and its aftermath, have increasingly found themselves within various forms of what Charles Taylor has termed an "immanent frame." (1)

Here the theological horizon has shifted from what it was for Kant, so that the conceptual space of the human no longer seems to require, as condition for its intelligibility, an orientation to transcendence. So even as some readers continue to frame their understanding of the critical philosophy against a theological horizon akin to Kant's, in which transcendence provides a condition of intelligibility for the human and finite, others read it from the seemingly "atheological" horizons provided by the immanent frame of much contemporary intellectual culture. (2) In both cases, these horizons significantly affect how Kant's interpreters then construe both the larger trajectories of his work as well as the central concepts and arguments he offers as he moves through the construction of the critical project. In neither case, moreover, is a sympathetic or hostile reading of the critical project necessarily a function of the extent to which one stands within or outside a theological horizon comparable to Kant's. Some of Kant's fiercest opponents include those who affirm with him a robust form of divine transcendence, while some of those who stand within the immanent frame revere Kant as one of its founders. One aim of this article is to suggest that recent work on Kant may require both friend and foe alike to reconsider where his work is most aptly positioned with respect to fundamental questions about how the human is to be construed in relation to the divine, particularly as that relation is theologically rendered in terms of "grace. …

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