Penn State

Joshua J. Shaw - associate Professor of Philosophy, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

Book Title: The Critique of Pure Reason

Author: Immanuel Kant (au), Norman Kemp Smith (trans.)

Book Description:

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason did not inspire me to become a philosopher, but studying it marked an important moment in my training as one. One of the requirements for the philosophy major at my college was a notoriously grueling, year-long course on Kant. I recall writing a paper for this course in my junior year that felt unlike any other I had written. Usually, I treated papers as opportunities to weigh in on whatever I happened to be studying—to announce my own views about life, truth, and the limits of knowledge. But my paper on Kant read more like a technical exercise. I did not personally accept epistemological skepticism, but I pointed out how one of his replies to Hume's skepticism seemed to rely on a circular argument.

As I wrote it, I felt distanced from its subject, but I also felt as if something bigger than me was writing it—as if it were not so much me writing down my ideas it as the ideas writing themselves, with me simply recording how one claim did or did not follow from another. My professor made a point on returning my paper to announce to the class that for the first time in his career he had decided to award a paper an A+. This announcement encouraged to me to go on to graduate school. More importantly, it confirmed my suspicion that I had learned something important about philosophy—that it is less about defending one's personal beliefs and more about learning how to let ideas write themselves.





I have since reread Kant's Critique many times. My copy has become a visual record of my life over the past fifteen years. Its margins are riddled with notes and diagrams, most of which no longer make sense to me. Entire paragraphs are colored in a now-faded yellow from the first time I read it and highlighted all that I saw. Other passages have been colored red, then blue, and then green on subsequent re-readings. There is something poetic, I find, about the fact that the most difficult passages, those that to confuse me to this day, are now almost illegible because I have highlighted and underlined them so many times.

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