In this course, we consider the roots of the modern conception of radical evil in the late work of Immanuel Kant.
We begin by considering the traditional, pre-Kantian understanding of evil as a merely negative phenomenon, as a ‘lack’ or ‘privation’ of being. On this view, evil has its roots in the limitations of our mortal nature (i.e. our sensuousness, earthly passions), and it testifies to our distance from God or the Good. It is against this backdrop that we shall examine Kant’s radical innovation – his insistence that evildoing does not have its roots in the limitations of human nature but rather in the extra-natural or immortal aspirations of human freedom. Thus understood, evil is a positive phenomenon; indeed, it is the inescapable and ineradicable ‘knot’ at the very heart of freedom itself. But what are the implications (metaphysical, ethical, political) of this discovery? How can it be reconciled with Kant’s enlightenment belief in human perfectibility and the goodness of will? And how is it taken up by Kant’s philosophical successors – both in his own time (Schelling, Hegel) and in the following generations (Nietzsche, Heidegger)? In addressing these questions, we shall hope to arrive at a balanced appraisal of Kant’s groundbreaking and influential doctrine.