Mellby Lecture explores Kant’s human side

When I think of Immanuel Kant, I get a little scared. I thought I left the categorical imperative behind as I entered my senior year only to find that my current economics course is also an EIN and we would have to read some Kant. When I first saw the reading list, I panicked, thinking back to a Great Con joke: “I ‘kant’ understand Kant!” But, while completing my reading, I caught myself nodding along. It was almost as if Kant was starting to make sense to me.

I agree with this year’s fall Mellby lecturer, Professor Jeanine Grenberg, philosophy department chair, who said that to understand Kant takes time, but once you are able to grasp his philosophy, you find that it isn’t much different than the lessons you learned about right and wrong from your parents.

Grenberg is an internationally recognized Kant scholar who recently finished her second book, “Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Journal of the History of Philosophy, Kant-Studien, Kantian Review and Mind,” but as she said during her lecture, it is not her study of Kant that has made her a good person – it was her mother’s teachings.

“I learned from my mother what is right and wrong and she taught me to look at myself and pay attention to myself,” Grenberg said in the lecture on Oct. 9.

As John Barbour, religion professor, introduced Grenberg, he described the irony in Kant’s philosophy as overly academic when it is intended to describe the experiences of the ordinary person. Grenberg returned to that idea during her lecture, sharing a quote by another philosopher that comments on the feature that most frequently deters those who pick up Kant: his writing style.

“He wrote against the scholars in favor of popular prejudice, but for scholars and not for the people,” Friedrich Nietzsche said.

Grenberg believes that the reason that many people find Kant difficult to understand lies in a fundamental lack of understanding and misinterpretation. For the past 200 years, scholars have focused on the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, and Grenberg believes that it is this focus that has prevented us from being able to see the true moral task at hand. Grenberg pushed her audience to engage in some Kantian moral reflection, while at the same time asking us to trust our natural moral intuitions.

“Everything that is important in the so called formulation of the categorical imperative can be revealed . . . through a common, felt. . . first personal experience of how moral demands press upon us,” she said.

Throughout Grenberg’s lecture, she worked to make Kant both accessible and relevant, which was a message that resonated with the audience.

“I always think that it is important to understand that you are not an exception to the rule and that everyone including yourself deserves respect, but no one more than anyone else,” said Kate Bjorklund ’13, who, by the time she graduates, will have read Kant in four different classes.