The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination. Continue reading

The Slavery of Kant’s Maxim

Kant’s Maxim is well known in philosophy – perhaps one of the most well known maxims in philosophy, in fact. Roger Scruton calls the moral philosophy within which the maxim fits ‘one of the most beautiful creations the human mind has ever devised’, (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 286). And yet, despite the liberating intentions of the maxim, a strong case can be made for the idea that the maxim is a slave-master more than a liberator.

The maxim itself is a short one: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can will as a law for all rational beings.’ Our actions refer to reason alone, discounting any and all empirical considerations. This is how Kant derives the universal validity of his maxim such that by doing what reason demands of us we are doing something that is binding on all rational beings.

‘The demand of reason is a demand that I respect reason – that I allow reason the final say in my decisions. This means respecting reason not only in myself, but also in others. All rational beings have a claim to my respect, and this too is a fundamental axiom of morality. I cannot override another’s reason, as though it counted for nothing. I must try to persuade him, to secure his rational consent for those projects in which we are engaged together.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 285)

Kant’s moral philosophy presupposes freedom in order to make sense of our fundamental moral intuitions, the most important of which is the idea that something ought to be done – call this ‘duty’. Contained within the idea of duty is the idea of being able to fulfill it. Etienne Gilson notes how this leads to positing some difficult ideas in Kant’s moral theory:

‘Now, to be able to determine oneself according to a certain law is to be free. Consequently, freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings. Moreover, since man is not free as a member of the world of sense, it is to be supposed that man, as a moral agent, is a member of another world, purely intelligible, where no sensible motives can interfere with the exigencies of morality. We are thereby confronted with the necessity of accepting, as inseparably connected with practical reason, certain theoretical positions wholly “withdrawn from any possible insight of speculative reason.” The will to act from pure respect for duty postulates the possibility of a perfect moral order; if that order is impossible in this life, it has to be possible in another; hence the soul is immortal. Again, such a perfect moral life, undisturbed by the ceaseless strife between reason and sensibility, must needs possess happiness – happiness, not as the end of morality, but flowing from it. And what is moral law as cause of eternal happiness if not God? Thus God is posited by practical reason, which means that reason has to posit His existence, although speculative, or theoretical reason can know nothing about it.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 188-189)

The difficulties that arise as a result of these postulations are well-known, but the most obvious is that when taken to their conclusion, Kant ends up with a picture of man torn between living in the order of nature and in the order of morality, since both orders are, as Gilson notes, bound to the same man.

The most severe difficulty, though, is that in trying to preserve a freedom for man to act rationally, Kant ends up a victim of dogmatic (in the worst sense) theology, forced by his own morality to postulate things for which there can be no reason other than necessity to believe in.

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality as a self-justifying fact. But when morality does not flow from what we know, it becomes free to prescribe for us what we ought to believe…having refused to hold metaphysical conclusions on metaphysical grounds, Kant had been necessarily dragged from metaphysics, to ethics, and from ethics to theology.’ (‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 187-191)

Thus, by attempting to derive a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone acted on in freedom, Kant, by way of his maxim, is the victim of dogmatism. Such is the slavery of Kant’s maxim.

Strawson on Kant’s Synthetic A Priori

‘Kant nowhere gives an even moderately satisfactory account of the dichotomy between analytic and synthetic a priori propositions; nor can any be gleaned from his casually scattered examples. Among propositions generally counted as a priori there are, of course, many distinguishable subclasses; and in the history of controversy surrounding such propositions, many philosophers have followed Kant at least to the extent of wishing to restrict the title “analytic” to the members of one or more of these subclasses. But it is very doubtful indeed whether any clearly presentable general restriction of this kind would release into a contrasted class of synthetic a priori  propositions just those types of propositions Kant’s epitomizing question was meant to be about. We can enumerate, as belonging to this intended class, truths of geometry and arithmetic and supposed a priori presuppositions of empirical science. But we can really form no general conception of the intended class except in terms of Kant’s answer to his epitomizing question. What Kant means in general by synthetic  a priori propositions is really just that class of propositions our knowledge of the necessity of which could, he supposed, be explained only by mobilizing the entire Copernican resources of the Critique, by appealing to the model of “objects conforming to our models of representation”, i.e. to our sensibility’s constitiution and understanding’s rules. Since, as I have already argued, nothing whatever really is, or could be, explained by this model – for it is incoherent – it must be concluded that Kant really has no clear and general conception of the synthetic a priori at all.’ (P.F. Strawson, ‘The Bounds of Sense’, p. 43)

T.F. Torrance on Kant and Theoretic Structures

‘There is certainly a profound element of truth here, the fact that in all our knowing there is a real interplay between what we know and out knowing of it. Man himself is a part of nature and is so intimately related to nature that he plays a formative, and nature a productive, role in scientific inquiry, discovery and interpretation. This is everywhere apparent in the magnificent achievements of empirical and theoretic science, but the way in which Kant himself combined the theoretical and empirical components of the epistemic process has grave consequences.

It is certainly to be granted that we do not apprehend things apart from a theoretic structure, but if the theoretic structure actually determines what we apprehend, then what we apprehend provides no control over our understanding. The one way out of that impasse requires a theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come to view in the process of inquiry. But this is ruled out by the Kantian thesis that the theoretic structure is aprioristically independent of what we apprehend and that there is no possible knowledge of things in their own inner determinations or relations.

While Kant was certainly concerned to show the limits of the pure reason, his theory of knowledge served to reinforce the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous reason (e.g. in its Lockean and Cartesian forms alike) and even to exalt it into a position beyond what had hitherto been claimed, where through prescriptive legislation it subdued nature to the forms of its own rational necessities. As F.C.S. Northrop expressed it: ‘For neither Locke nor Hume was the human person as a knower a positively acting creating being. With Kant the position is entirely changed. Apart from the knowing person, which Kant termed “the ego”, the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of the understanding which this ego brings to the contingent data of sense, there would be no single space-time world whatever, with its public, material objects and knowers. In this fashion Kant transforms modern man’s conception of himself from a merely passive into a systematically active and creative being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, p. 42, reformatted for ease of reading)

Kant and the Objectivity of Experience

(This is a rough gloss on Strawson’s exposition of Kant’s doctrines of unity and objectivity in ‘The Bounds of Sense’)

– Kant notes that our experience has to include the awareness of objects distinct from the state of being aware of them – call this the objective reference of experience. Put differently, experience has the objective reference of objects conceived as distinct from the particular experience (or representation) of said object.

– This is, in effect, the statement that we have to be aware of the thing-in-itself in order to have an objective reference. Our experience, if it is to have an objective reference, must be unified for it to be a representation of the objective world.

– Our empirical concepts, if they are to be employed at all, depend on this unified, coherent and connected experience.

– The issue here can be seen clearly: the objective world, the world of things-in-themselves apart from any perceptual activity or cognition of the knowing subject, must be known for our experience to have an objective reference, or for our representations to be of the real world. The things-in-themselves, however, lie outside our experience entirely – we are not aware of them. All we are aware of are appearances.

– Thus, if we are to use empirical concepts, we have to have a substitute objective reference. This substitute is, simply, the rule-governed connected-ness of our experience and our representations. Strawson notes:

‘This surrogate is precisely that rule-governed connectedness of our representations which is reflected in our employment of concepts of empirical objects conceived of as together forming a unified natural world, with its own order, distinct from, and controlling, the subjective order of perceptions. Really, nothing comes within the scope of our experience but those subjective perceptions themselves; so that all that can be really understood by empirical knowledge of objects is the existence of such rule and order among those perceptions as is involved in our being able to count them as perceptions of an objective world, having its own independent order, to which we can ascribe, as a consequence, the order of our perceptions.’ (‘The Bounds of Sense’, p. 104)

– In other words, if I’m reading Strawson/Kant right, our perceptual experiences, being rule-governed and connected, give us empirical knowledge of objects, that is, knowledge of objects of experience, which we can ‘count’ as perception of the objective world.

Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

Kant is, interestingly enough, concerned to uphold naturalism without materialism. While this seems odd at first blush, his reasons for doing so are fairly interesting and constitute a universally acknowledged important (though to what degree it’s successful is somewhat more in doubt) project. Let’s bracket to the side the fact that Kant has only a small number of not-so-good arguments for his position as well as some serious questions of coherence and see just what happens when we dig through his thought.

In more contemporary terms, metaphysical naturalism generally cashes out to a kind of materialism or physicalism – the only things that there are are material things (or, if we want to Quine things up, whatever we’re committed to by our best theories). It is, at its broadest, non-supernaturalism. The physical, causal order is all there is, in one way or another.

Kant was a naturalist in a slightly different sense: he took everything to be governed by mechanical laws but wanted to resist and undermine the assumption of materialism, which is more or less one of the driving reasons behind his transcendental idealism, which may be best understood as contrasting with its opposite, transcendental realism.

As I see Kant, he means two things by ‘transcendental realism’ (TR). (1) The epistemological thesis that we are fully aware of of the limitations of our own mind and can thus know the things in themselves, and (2) the metaphysical thesis that things exist in time and space apart from human cognition.This is a problem because the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature, on this scheme, govern literally every thing, including the things in themselves – and from this, Kant takes it, follows materialism.

Kant’s idealism needs little introduction, but setting it against TR, we can see that the basic gist is that (1) we aren’t fully aware of the limitations of our mind and can’t know the things in themselves and (2) the objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.

What this doctrine secures is this: a naturalism without materialism. How? By restricting the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature to the objects of our experience, Kant has protected the things in themselves from being naturalized or material-ized.

Put another way: if we can experience or know the things in themselves, then the universal laws of nature apply to them, because they apply to everything. By restricting our knowledge and experience from the things in themselves, Kant has both secured his naturalism (because the laws of nature apply to everything we experience) and attacked materialism (by showing that the universal laws of nature do not apply to everything).

If Kant is right then, naturalism is correct in the sense that universal laws govern everything we experience – but by restricting this to the appearances, he can both avoid and attack materialism, since the laws apply only to our experience and not to the things in themselves. Thus, while everything we expereince is ‘natural’, not everything is in nature.

Rational Reality and Inherent Intelligbility

One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.

Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.

T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.

Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.

Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.

This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.

Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.