You might well have heard of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). You might have read, and understood, his major work, “The Critique of Pure Reason”. I tried to, as part of a political philosophy paper at university, but most of what I wrote in that week’s essay came from HJ Paton’s book “The Moral Law”. And that was a long time ago. I remember very little of it now, but at least I have heard of Kant. I mentioned him in this piece back in early 2021, when my daughter (then aged 14) was reading Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”.
The name came up again over the weekend, at a very enjoyable dinner party. One of the guests, an actor I met for the first time last year, told two stories about the American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004). Both of the stories are famous enough to be recounted on Morgenbesser’s Wikipedia page, here, and rather than rewrite them I will quote from that page.
The first of them relates to a lecture given by J. L. Austin when Morganbesser was a student. Austin ‘… claimed that, although a double negative often implies a positive meaning (e.g., “he is not unlike his sister”), there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative’. Morgenbesser’s response: “Yeah, yeah.”
For the second story, which refers to the philosopher Kant, Wikipedia quotes this paragraph from [UK daily paper] The Independent:
‘[An] unfortunate encounter with the police occurred when he lit up his pipe on the way out of a subway station. Morgenbesser protested to the officer who tried to stop him that the rules covered smoking in the station, not outside. The cop conceded he had a point, but said: “If I let you get away with it, I’d have to let everyone get away with it.” To which Morgenbesser, in a famously misunderstood line, retorted: “Who do you think you are, Kant?” Hauled off to the precinct lock-up, Morgenbesser only won his freedom after a colleague showed up and explained the Categorical Imperative to the nonplussed boys in blue.’
I was tempted to tell a personal anecdote about one of the few times since university that someone has mentioned Kant to me, but it didn’t seem like the right time, so I’ll offer it here instead.
Before my wife and I were married, and when she still had her flat in North London, someone from Israel came to stay at the flat. (She was the cousin of my future wife’s sister’s husband; if there’s a more straightforward way to describe the relationship, I haven’t worked it out yet.) She was delayed by over six hours at the airport. When she eventually made it to London I asked her what she did while she was waiting. Her English wasn’t great, but she said, “It was okay. I had my Kant with me.”
A range of inappropriate responses passed through my mind, including, “Well, you would, wouldn’t you?” I managed to keep a straight face and ask, “Was it, uh, ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’? The Categorical Imperative and all that?”
“Yes, have you read it?”
“Tried to, a long time ago, didn’t really understand it…”