Bielefeldt, Heiner. Symbolic Representation in Kant’s Practical Philosophy

Lara Ostaric

BIELEFELDT, Heiner. Symbolic Representation in Kant’s Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii + 202 pp. Cloth, $60.00–Heiner Bielefeldt’s aim is to demonstrate that Kant’s practical philosophy can help solve, what Bielefeldt calls, the “paradox of liberalism” (p. 1). On the one hand, liberals subscribe to a “normative commitment” on behalf of human rights and a democratic and a pluralist civil society (p. 2), on the other hand, they exercise a “deliberate self-restraint,” fearing that a public appeal to their own normative convictions could be a hindrance to autonomy and ethical, political, and religious pluralism (p. 2). As a consequence, liberals and anti-liberals increasingly view liberalism as lacking any fundamental norms. According to Bielefeldt, Kant’s use of symbolic representation in his practical philosophy can help liberals find “careful ways to give voice to their normative convictions,” while at the same time protecting against “ever-lurking tendencies of authoritarian objectification” (pp. 185, 3).

Judging by the title of Bielefeldt’s book, the reader may expect that the book discusses Kant’s indirect, analogical exhibition of transcendent Ideas. But the author’s notion of symbolic representation goes beyond Kant’s in order to include some more general “as-if” attitudes. Bielefeldt’s broader understanding of Kant’s “symbolic representation” allows him to address many different areas of Kant’s practical philosophy.

After a brief introductory chapter, in the second chapter the author “characterizes” Kant’s practical philosophy as a modern version of Socratic philosophy (p. 10). In this chapter, the reader can already discern the author’s realist interpretation of Kant’s practical philosophy because, on his view, the aim of Kant’s practical philosophy is “merely to bring to light” the already existent true moral claims (p. 10). In the third chapter, Bielefeldt rightly suggests that moral realism does not contradict Kant’s idea of “self-legislation,” an insight contrary to the view of many Anglophone Kant scholars. In his discussion of the “fact of reason,” Bielefeldt argues that for Kant reason and will are “inextricably linked” (p. 44). Thus, practical reason does not operate as an external force on the will; rather, “reason itself can become a practical motive of action” (p. 44). In the remaining parts of the chapter Bielefeldt shows how symbolic representations of nature’s lawfulness and purposiveness serve as a “guideline for moral judgment” as they help connect the moral law with our understanding (p. 181). The author also shows how symbolic representation (for example, the sublime in nature) “expresses the categorical force of the moral law” and helps connect the moral law with the motivational aspects of autonomy (p. 182).

Chapters four and five of the book are devoted to Kant’s “applied ethics” (p. 11). By the latter, Bielefeldt understands that Kant’s categorical imperative demands that the concrete moral ends be realized in the world. Central to the fourth chapter is the author’s discussion of the highest good as a symbol of the “horizon of meaning” within which the concrete human practice takes place, and his discussion of the symbolic role of politeness in social duties (p. 78). In the fifth chapter Bielefeldt argues that for Kant a just political order is a symbolic representation of moral autonomy. Bielefeldt emphasizes Kant’s clear distinction between a legal order of rights and moral autonomy. But unlike some commentators for whom this distinction amounts to an independence of a political order from morality, Bielefeldt shows their analogical interrelation according to which “societal institutions [are made] transparent toward their underlying normative functions” (p. 181).

Bielefeldt’s aim in chapter six is to show how traces of teleology in nature and history help strengthen the hope in the actual success of moral commitments. Unfortunately, the author does not make a distinction between the effect of aesthetic and the effect of teleological judgment on the hope of a moral agent; these effects for Kant are clearly not the same: the former evokes hope by affecting our sensibility, while the latter evokes hope by affecting our understanding. With respect to Kant’s conception of history, Bielefeldt rightly opposes some Hegelian interpretations of Kant’s philosophy of history, emphasizing that, for Kant, we can never have insight into a necessary path of human history (p. 128). However, Bielefeldt elaborates that we can have hope for general historic progress given the inevitable antagonism among human beings, a driving force of progress and civilization that Kant calls “unsocial sociability” (p. 131).

Bielefeldt’s discussion of Kant’s philosophy of religion in chapter seven is consistent with his general approach to Kant as a “reformer, not a revolutionary,” a critic but not a destroyer of metaphysics (p. 171). Kant criticizes traditional metaphysics and argues that religion can neither validate nor ground morality. But, for Kant, religion remains a significant component of one’s moral life because it provides morality with its “comprehensive horizon of meaning” (p. 12). In reference to Kant’s conception of the “visible church” as a symbolic representation of the “invisible church,” or the ethical community, we can understand the highest good as a communal effort instead as an effort of an individual moral agent.

The book is valuable to the English-speaking audience because it includes a wide range of both Anglophone and German current literature on Kant; it discusses some non-salient and often neglected features of Kant’s practical philosophy (for example, social duties). Also, contrary to current trends of highly specialized commentaries it systematically connects various topics in Kant’s practical philosophy. Although the reader should not expect a detailed analysis of these topics, Bielefeldt’s comprehensive discussion of Kant’s practical philosophy can still provide important insights to both specialists and non-specialists.–Lara Ostaric, St. Michael’s College.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Philosophy Education Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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