Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Brief Guide to Reading Kant

Today we started Kantianism in my ethics course. Very difficult to teach students properly. Here's the one-page reading guide I gave them.

A Brief Guide to Reading Kant

1. Don’t panic. If you have difficulty understanding him on your first reading, you’re in the position practically everyone is. The flip side of this is that if you think you’ve understood him on your first reading, you should stop lying to yourself.

2. Kant likes to approach the same ideas from multiple angles. If you don’t understand something, read on, and he will likely cover the same ground in a different way later on.

3. The key concept for understanding Kant is a priori, which in the Kantian context means ‘prior to, and thus independent of, experience’. All of Kant’s philosophy consists of arguing that much of the order with which we experience the world does not come from the world but from our minds; he thus is trying to identify the features of our mind that make it possible for us to interpret the world in the way we do. This includes our experience of the world in a moral way.

4. If you’re having difficulty with a passage, you might consider reading it out loud. Many of Kant’s stylistic peculiarities are linked to the fact that he tends to write as if he were lecturing. Hearing the lecture rather than trying just to look at it on the page can often make a difference. When heard rather than simply read, one often finds that the style is more accessible than it might at first appear.

5. Much of the key to understanding Kant lies in the vocabulary; he’s using a technical and quasi-technical vocabulary that would have been very familiar to educated people in his day, even if it has since become less common. Don’t just skip words you don’t know! Sometimes they are the key to the whole argument.

6. Kant is a systematizer. It’s never enough merely to understand particular arguments; you also need to understand how they fit into the overall structure of thought he is trying to build.

7. There is some excellent Kant scholarship out there. Onora O’Neill, David Velleman, and others have often studied particular passages in close detail and also have written useful summaries of basic ideas. Don’t be afraid to draw on the secondary scholarship – it’s foolhardy to study someone like Kant entirely on your own, no matter how clever you are. If you come across a difficult passage, you can practically guarantee that someone else has looked at it in close detail, so look around to see what other people are saying. When you’re reading Kant, it is time to take some initiative.

8. There are reasons Kant is so influential, and there are reasons why reading groups sprang up to read Kant when his work first came out. If you aren’t seeing them, you need to look harder for the unique and distinctive features of his ideas. He will often take an idea, even a very mundane idea, and raise it to an entirely new level.


  1. Timotheos12:12 AM

    Since your students aren't too cant about Kant's cant, I'd imagine that they often cant for you to remove the Kant reading, which of course would lead to an obvious response; you can't cant Kant! ;)

  2. Enbrethiliel10:46 AM


    So Kant inspired some of the first book clubs? =) Now I want to read him, too, but the rest of this list convinces me that I can't just plunge in, but must first find a guide.

  3. MrsDarwin3:11 PM

    "You should stop lying to yourself" -- this is good all-purpose advice.

    But of course, you aren't the only teacher whose students have difficulty with Kant:


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