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Henry Allison and his Kantian foundation

The history of philosophy has allegedly not fared well in American philosophy departments in this past century, but this commonplace belief is belied by the immense influence that Immanuel Kant's work continues to exercise on contemporary thinking.

Philosopher Kant was most well-known for his "Copernican Revolution" idea more than 100 years ago, which introduced the idea of the human mind as an active originator of experience rather than just a passive recipient of perception.

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Many contemporary metaphysicians work in a framework forged by Kant, and would call themselves, in some sense, neo-Kantians. Kant's ethical and political writings are the backbone of the work that stands at the very center of discussions in political philosophy: John Rawls's "A Theory of Justice." After Kant, the thinkers who deserve the most credit for this ongoing Kantian renaissance are those few scholars who have been able to couple sensitive historical understanding with acute analytical abilities: foremost among these philosophers is Henry Allison.

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Allison spent most of his early years in New York and its environs. Born in New York in 1937, he studied at Yale, Columbia, the Union Theological Seminary, and the New School for Social Research, where he received a doctorate in 1964. For more than two decades, Allison taught at the University of California, San Diego, where his colleagues included Frederick Olafson and Robert Pippin, and which became, during his tenure there, a locus for the historically minded study of European philosophy in America.

Since 1996, Allison has taught at Boston University.

Two books are almost always assigned in courses on Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason": the "Critique" itself, and Allison's "Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense." Allison's book is even more than a careful and insightful summary of the project of the "Critique." In delivering precisely what his subtitle promises, Allison resurrects Kant's theoretical philosophy, which most of his contemporaries had treated as a piecemeal assemblage of positions, as the systematic philosophy that Kant intended it to be.

More important, through Allison's work, the "Critique" becomes an entirely viable philosophical system, one that holds its own against its most recent and sophisticated critics. This is not to say that Allison has convinced all of his colleagues to accept "Transcendental Idealism" -- since its publication in 1983, Allison's book has generated extensive debate. But both the idea that a book about the "Critique of Pure Reason" could ever be the subject of such debate and that one could be convinced by Kant's theoretical philosophy in its entirety would have seemed impossible before Allison's book.

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"Kant's Transcendental Idealism" was followed by "Kant's Theory of Freedom," which constitutes an extended explication and defense of that theory.

Published in 1990, "Kant's Theory of Freedom" deals with a problem that had occupied Allison since he was a sophomore at Yale. In 1996, Allison published "Idealism and Freedom: Essays in Kant's Theoretical and Practical Philosophy," a work that defends and extends the thoughts put forth in his previous two works. Most recently, Allison's thinking has turned, as Kant's did, from the theoretical and the practical to the aesthetic. He recently published "Kant's Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment."

Allison's writings on Kant, however, are only one aspect of his work and thought.

Allison's earliest philosophical interests lay in the work of Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, and he has continued to focus his intellect on many of the central figures in the history of philosophy, helping us to understand, in the process, why these figures are as central as they are. Allison's broad interests have brought him to study many thinkers who have not fared as well as Kant among Allison's contemporaries.

His first book was "Lessing and the Enlightenment" (1966), and since then he has written dozens of articles on Gotthold Lessing, Kierkegaard, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and George Berkeley, among others. The dissimilarity of these thinkers indicates the vast range of Allison's interests and his ability to incorporate the tangled and crossing routes that these thinkers have followed into a broad and sensitive vision of philosophy and its history. Allison is currently working on a major revision of Kant's "Transcendental Idealism" and a book on David Hume.

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(Prepared by the Harvard Review of Philosophy and edited by S. Phineas Upham.)

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