Friday, March 20, 2009

Grundlegung II

Part of the purpose of writing relatively immediate responses to what I have read—and then putting this writing on the internet, whence it cannot really be ‘taken back’—is to watch myself trip over or knock my head against various elements of the conceptual architecture of complex texts that I have not, at first, noticed. On this occasion, I’ve got to say that I am pleased to find one of my major concerns addressed in the very first sentence of the second chapter of the Groundwork; or, it would be better to say, one of my most hasty misreadings corrected.

I believe that, if pressed, I could mostly explain the content of the transition from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysics of morals. The third and last section, in which we move from metaphysics to critique, makes sense to me more in pieces than as a movement. (Although I retain enough that I should perhaps not say that I can ‘explain’ the second chapter, since, “we can explain nothing but what we can reduce to laws the object of which can be given in some possible experience.” So, perhaps I could paraphrase?) I believe, but I will not demonstrate. Instead, I want to copy out several passages that seem, to me, crucial.

The first is from page 24, in the second chapter. I've lost the italics here, but I'm not sure I want to go and put them back in by hand.

Everything in nature works in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the capacity to act in accordance with the representation of laws, that is, in accordance with principles, or has a will. Since reason is required for the derivation of actions from laws, the will is nothing other than practical reason. If reason infallibly determines the will, the actions of such a being that are cognized as objectively necessary are also subjectively necessary, that is, the will is a capacity to choose only that which reason independently of inclination cognizes as practically necessary, that is, as good. However, if reason solely by itself does not adequately determine the will; if the will is exposed also to subjective conditions (certain incentives) that are not always in accord with the objective ones; in a word, if the will is not in itself completely in conformity with reason (as is actually the case in human beings), then actions that are cognized as objectively necessary are subjectively contingent, and the determination of such a will in conformity with objective laws is necessitation: that is to say, the relation of objective laws to a will that is not thoroughly good is represented as the determination of the ill of a rational being through grounds of reason, indeed, but grounds to which this will is not by its nature necessarily obedient.

The second passage is from page 58 of the third chapter. It is, I think, a recapitulation on a different level, or from a different perspective, of the same ideas, or the same problem. Both dance around the subject/object division, though, we might say, they’re doing different dances. Perhaps it’s the same dance to two different songs? Though, as I say this, I begin to think that dance is altogether the wrong metaphor.

A rational being counts himself, as intelligence, as belonging to the world of understanding, and only as an efficient cause belonging to this does he call his causality a will. On the other side he is also conscious of himself as a part of the world of sense, in which his actions are found as mere appearances of that causality; but their possibility from that causality of which we are not cognizant cannot be seen; instead, those actions as belonging to the world of sense must be regarded as determined by their appearances, namely desires and inclinations. All my actions as only a member of the world of understanding would therefore conform perfection with the principle of autonomy of the pure will; as only a part of the world of sense they would have to be taken to conform wholly to the natural law of desires and inclinations, hence to the heteronomy of nature. (The former would rest on the supreme principle of morality, the latter on that of happiness.) But because the world of understanding contains the ground of the world of sense and so too of its laws, and is therefore immediately lawgiving with respect to my will (which belongs wholly to the world of understanding) and must accordingly also be thought as such, it follows that I shall cognize myself as intelligence, though on the other side as a being belonging to the world of sense, as nevertheless subject to the law of the world of understanding, that is, of reason, which contains in the idea of freedom the law of the world of understanding, and thus cognize myself as subject to the autonomy of the will; consequently the laws of the world of understanding must be regarded as imperatives for me, and actions in conformity with these as duties.

Now, I understand that Kant has brought together, the realms of freedom and necessity. Yet, perhaps because of the later 19th century stuff I have been reading (which is very much still trying to answer this question of human will and scientific determinism), I want to know more about Kant’s idea of constraint. Constraint, for a variety of reasons, turns out to be an important concept for Durkheim, who was certainly influenced by some kind of Kantianism (although I don’t understand the nature of this yet). I think that Kant would respond to most of the late 19th century French debates I have read by simply saying that they have missed the point. Freedom is not a concept that can be applied in the empirical realm. It is a condition of possibility of rationality, and so its existence can, in a sense, be deduced from that of rationality. Attached as it is to intellection, it applies absolutely but only in the world of general ideas, not specific things. In the empirical world, on the other hand, determinism reigns. The force of the last pages of the text, as I understood them, was to argue that this freedom and this determinism go together, somehow imply one another (or, perhaps, only our capacity to understand anything at all of the empirical world implies the existence of rationality, and thus freedom—I don’t know that rationality implies the existence of the empirical).

However, Kant seems to be perfectly happy to say that certain things ‘cannot be thought.’ This is perhaps a simple rhetorical device. Maybe it means only that certain things make no sense. But even if this is the case, I had understood Kant’s mapping of the active/passive distinction onto the intellect/material one to imply the distinction that intellect experiences no resistance, or, put another way, can never be the passive recipient of sensations, for instance of failure or powerlessness. Maybe I’m getting caught in a metaphor here. At any rate, I’d like to know more about how Kant explains the differences between logical impossibility (in its various empiricized shades), and physical impossibility. Is this, again, an issue of appearance? The result of our incapacity, in fact, to access a reason pure from traces of the empirical?

I will mention only briefly: the appearance of law. It is, clearly, crucial for Kant that practical rationality means the ability (necessity) of representing law to one’s self. I find this fascinating. Law is always representation, is it not? Is this perhaps why law and freedom are linked? They both have the same status as somehow essentially representations—in their nature outside of the empirical? (or, that they have both the same relation to the empirical?)

I can’t possibly mention all the things that I’d like to tease further out of these pages. The Kingdom of Ends: a fascinating utopian construction. I understand that it has received political interpretations. I’m not sure that this makes any sense.

Finally, as I said in the first post, I want badly to strip Kant’s reasoning of the will. I wonder at the source of this desire of mine. After the first chapter I thought it might be possible, briefly, that the will was introduced in order that the human will (subjective) might be contrasted with the divine one (objective in its nature, and therefore not subject to an ‘ought’). But by this point I must admit that the very idea of willing something is too important, you can’t, I think, have a Kantian categorical imperative without some kind of will—and this, maybe, because you need representations, gaps, between is and ought. And as I say this, I think, I’ve got it backwards, all these gaps are there because the will is what needs to be explained and controlled and corralled. Probably this is necessary for Kant for the same reasons that make me uncomfortable about discussing the will at all.

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