Melissa McBay Merritt
Associate Professor, University of New South Wales
Australian Research Council Future Fellow
"Mendelssohn and Kant on Human Progress: a Neo-Stoic Debate"
in Kant on Freedom and Nature: Essays in Honor of Paul Guyer, ed. Luigi Filieri and Sofie Möller. Routledge, forthcoming.
The chapter replies to Paul Guyer’s (2020) account of the debate between Mendelssohn and Kant about whether humankind makes continual moral progress. Mendelssohn maintained that progress can only be the remit of individuals, and that humankind only “continually fluctuates within fixed limits”. Kant dubs Mendelssohn’s position “abderitism” and explicitly rejects it. But Guyer contends that Kant’s own theory of freedom commits him, malgré lui, to abderitism. Guyer’s risky interpretive position is not supported by examination of the relevant texts in their intellectual context. I first identify the historical origins of the term abderitism, which here signifies the independence of individual progress from social conditions. By contrast, Kant argues that individual progress cannot be independent of the progress of the species, acting as a corporate agent. This arresting position, I argue, must be understood in light of the Stoic ethical-teleological presuppositions generally accepted in eighteenth-century German discussion of human progress.
"Kant and Psychological Monism: the Case of Inclination"
in The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Analytic Philosophy, ed. Jim Conant and Jonas Held. Forthcoming.
It is widely assumed that Kant’s moral psychology draws from the dualist tradition of Plato and Aristotle, which takes there to be distinct rational and non-rational parts of the soul. My aim is to challenge the air of obviousness that psychological dualism enjoys in neo-Kantian moral psychology, specifically in regard to Tamar Schapiro’s account of the nature of inclination. I argue that Kant’s own account of inclination instead provides evidence of his commitment to psychological monism, the idea that the mentality of an adult human being is rational through and through. I first consider Schapiro’s “intuitions” in favour of dualism: inclination must have a non-rational source, she contends, because they assail us unbidden and are not immediately responsive to volition, and because we are not responsible simply for having inclinations (only for acting on them). I explain how a monistic account of the nature of inclination can accommodate the first two points, and explain why the third neither is a point a Kantian can accept, nor is its denial the affront to common sense that Schapiro supposes. Then I turn to Schapiro’s aim to conceive of reflection as non-rational and thus independent of justificatory thought, and yet such as to induce rational reflection. I argue that it remains mysterious how inclination, on her account, could be resourced to play this role; and with that criticism in mind, I conclude by making a positive case for Kant’s conceiving of inclination in monistic terms, as an expression of rational mindedness.
in The Murdochian Mind, ed. Mark Hopwood and Silvia Panizza. Routledge, 2022.
It has been insufficiently remarked that Iris Murdoch deems “Kant’s ethical theory” to be “one of the most beautiful and exciting things in the whole of philosophy” in her 1959 essay “The Sublime and the Good”. What particularly impresses Murdoch there is the connection between Kant’s ethical theory and aesthetic theory of the sublime that runs through his account of the moral feeling of respect (Achtung). The chapter examines Murdoch’s interest in Kant on this point as a way to tease out the range of issues that complicate Kant’s significance for the development of Murdoch’s distinctive conception of ethics as it is articulated in The Sovereignty of Good and earlier essays. It focuses on her particular concerns about the moral dangers of consolation, and why this led her to propose reworking the Kantian theory of the sublime as a theory of art, and specifically of tragedy.
in Oxford Handbook of Kant, ed. Anil Gomes and Andrew Stephenson. Oxford University Press. Forthcoming.
The chapter examines Kant’s thesis about the ‘radical evil in human nature’ developed in his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. According to this thesis, the human moral condition is corrupt by default and yet by our own deed; and this corruption is the origin (root, radix) of human badness in all its variety, banality, and ubiquity. While Kant clearly takes radical evil to be endemic in human nature, controversy reigns about how to understand this. Some assume this can only be a synthetic a priori claim about the necessity of radical evil (and thus one requiring a transcendental deduction). However, Kant indicates that while radical evil is inevitable it is not, for that, strictly necessary. The best way to understand this is through a teleological approach that explains how we inevitably bring this corruption upon ourselves in the course of our development. The chapter thereby joins other teleological accounts, but distinctively argues that Kant draws on Stoic natural teleology (specifically the doctrine of oikeiosis), which he knows through Seneca and Cicero. This background allows us to make sense of the structure of Kant’s argument and see that radical evil has to do with human psychology and sociality in equal measure, which casts fresh light on its ethical significance for Kant.
"Humour, Common Sense, and the Future of Metaphysics in the Prolegomena"
in Kant's Prolegomena: A Critical Guide, ed. Peter Thielke.
Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Kant’s Prolegomena is a piece of philosophical advertising: it exists to convince the open-minded “future teacher” of metaphysics that the true critical philosophy — i.e., the Critique — provides the only viable solution to the problem of metaphysics (i.e. its failure to make any genuine progress). To be effective, a piece of advertising needs to know its audience. This chapter argues that Kant takes his reader to have some default sympathies for the common-sense challenge to metaphysics originating from Thomas Reid and his followers; this fact in turn explains his rhetorical strategies in the Prolegomena, particularly regarding the presentation of the problem of metaphysics. The chapter draws attention to the importance of Shaftesbury, who, with a nod to Horace, had argued for the deployment of humour to disarm fraudulent claims to epistemic and moral authority. Kant looks to Horace himself to poke fun at the common-sense challenge to metaphysics, and from there to indicate the general shape of the particular argumentative strategies of the Critique — that project that alone, in his view, can promise some kind of future for metaphysics.
"Mendelssohn and Kant on Virtue as a Skill"
in The Routledge Handbook of Skill and Expertise, ed. Ellen Fridland and Carlotta Pavese. Routledge, 2021.
The idea that virtue can be profitably conceived as a certain sort of skill has a long history. My aim is to examine a neglected episode in this history — one that focuses on the pivotal role that Moses Mendelssohn played in rehabilitating the skill model of virtue for the German rationalist tradition, and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent, yet significantly qualified, endorsement of the idea. Mendelssohn celebrates a certain automatism in the execution of skill, and takes this feature to be instrumental in meeting an objection against perfectionist, agent-based ethics: namely, that a virtuous person would seem to act for the sake of realising his own perfection in everything that he does, thereby taking a morally inappropriate interest in his own character. Kant rejects the automatism featured in Mendelssohn’s account, on grounds that it would make virtue mindless and unreflective. But he does not reject the skill model of virtue wholesale. Rather, he calls for considering how reflection can be embedded in the expression of certain kinds of skill, enabling him to endorse, and arguably adopt, the model on his own terms.
"Sublimity and Joy: Kant on the Aesthetic Constitution of Virtue"
in The Palgrave Kant Handbook, ed. Matthew C. Altman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
This chapter argues that Kant’s aesthetic theory of the sublime has particular relevance for his ethics of virtue. Kant contends that our readiness to revel in natural sublimity depends upon a background commitment to moral ends. Further lessons about the emotional register of the sublime allow us to understand how Kant can plausibly contend that the temperament of virtue is both sublime and joyous at the same time.
"Kant on the Pleasures of Understanding"
in Kant on Emotion and Value, ed. Alix Cohen. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Why did Kant write the Critique of Judgment, and why did he say that his analysis of the judgment of taste — his technical term for our enjoyment of beauty — is the most important part of it? Kant claims that his analysis of taste “reveals a property of our faculty of cognition that without this analysis would have remained unknown” (CJ §8, 5:213). The clue lies in Kant’s view that while taste is an aesthetic, and non-cognitive, mode of judgment, it nevertheless involves the “free play” of cognitive capacities that is pleasurable in some way that ordinary cognitive business is not. I argue that the judgment of taste reveals a pleasure that is not usually apparent when we understand something in particular, but which is nevertheless proper to the activity of understanding as such. This matters, I suggest, because in this way the judgment of taste points to a standard of cognitive virtue.
"The Moral Source of the Kantian Sublime"
in The Sublime: from Antiquity to Present, ed. Timothy Costelloe. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
A crucial feature of Kant's critical-period writing on the sublime is its grounding in moral psychology. Whereas in the pre-critical writings, the sublime is viewed as an inherently exhausting state of mind, in the critical-period writings it is presented as one that gains strength the more it is sustained. I account for this in terms of Kantian moral psychology, and explain that, for Kant, sound moral disposition is conceived as a sublime state of mind.
Melissa Merritt and Markos Valaris,
"Kant and Kantian Epistemology"
in Epistemology: The Key Thinkers, ed. Stephen Hetherington. Continuum, 2012.