Friday, March 20, 2009


Some texts are impossible to approach without contamination. This is certainly the case with anything Kant has written. Indeed, I have read various pieces of Kant’s writing in the past (though not, I think this one). Probably I had to read “What is Enlightenment” three or four times. I remember reading “Religion within the limits of reason alone” in college. So now, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; I know almost nothing of what is said about this particular text, which I suppose is the most I can ask for. I’m reading the Gregor translation in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series. Haven’t looked at the introduction yet, and probably won’t. I also have one of those little yellow Reclam editions—but I’m only referring to it occasionally. I was sorely tempted to pause and write a bit after finishing only the preface, but I pushed on through the first part as well. Probably I should have written after the preface, and then again after the first chapter.

The first page of the preface to the Groundwork lays down, or acknowledges, various divisions within philosophy. Kant accepts the Greek division of physics, ethics, and logic. All rational cognition, he then says, may be either material—that is concerned with a particular object—or formal—that is concerned with the rules of thinking about objects in general. Now, a few pages later on, still in the preface, Kant distinguishes between Philosophie and Vernunfterkenntnis. The difference between them is that philosophy “sets forth in separate sciences what the latter comprehends only mixed together.” So we must take Kant here to be expressing a fundamental fact about the nature of reality—although the objects of rational cognition are always either material or formal, cognition becomes philosophy just when it is able to distinguish between them.

Philosophy of form is logic. Philosophy of material may treat either nature (in which case it is called physics) or freedom (in which case it is called ethics).

Logic can only be formal. It can have no material (or experiential) elements whatsoever. I notice here that Kant equates material with experience. Is it therefore impossible to have logical experiences? No doubt my experience of logic is simply not a part of the philosophy of logic.

Then, “natural as well as moral philosophy can each have its empirical part, since the former must determine laws of nature as an object of experience, the latter, laws of the human being’s will insofar as it is affected by nature – the first as laws in accordance with which everything happens, the second as laws in accordance with which everything ought to happen, while still taking into account the conditions under which it very often does not happen.” Next Kant says that philosophy itself can be either based on experience (empirical) or based on a priori principles (metaphysics). So, again, presumably the passage from rational cognition to philosophy is that from confused thinking about the form and content, together, to the clear demarcation between empirical and metaphysical parts of given ‘thoughts.’

Kant insists on this division. There is a paragraph on the philosophical division of labor, in which it is suggested that, just as in the various trades specialization is more efficient than dilettantism (not Kant’s words), so it must be in philosophy also. But although there may be such advantages, Kant ultimately ascribes to “the nature of science” the necessity “that the empirical part always be carefully separated from the rational part.”

I have tried to pay such careful attention to these various divisions and “cleansings” of empirical from metaphysical because it seems to me that Kant immediately—deliberately—confuses things substantially. Indeed, that the whole point of the pages I have so far read seem to me to be not so much about the careful distinction between rational and empirical, but rather about finding the precise point at which the two meet. I suppose that this point cannot be established without, first, or at the same time, a careful delineation of the separate realms.

Perhaps I am misreading (and over reading) rather radically, but Kant poses the question thus: “is it not thought to be of the utmost necessity to work out for once a pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that may be only empirical and that belongs to anthropology? For, that there must be such a philosophy is clear of itself from the common idea of duty, and of moral laws. Everyone must grant that a law, if it is to hold morally, that is, as a ground of an obligation, must carry with it absolute necessity...”

For proof of the existence if a moral philosophy completely pure of empirical elements, Kant turns to experience, to empirical fact. I suppose that proof of existence of metaphysics may be empirical without giving an empirical sheen to this metaphysics? I’m not sure that it can be.

Later in the same paragraph, Kant says, “the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is places, but a priori simply in the concepts of pure reason.” But this obligation has been attested precisely by experience, by the “common idea of duty.” Yet this is how we arrive at what is both a “clue and supreme norm” for our actions [“Leitfaden une oberste Norm”—is ‘clue’ really the best translation for Leitfaden? The phrase seems oddly unbalanced in English]. That is, of course, that our particular acts are to be undertaken not in view of any specific law or guideline, but rather, somehow, of law in the abstract. This will be formulated toward the end of part one as “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

I have skipped over almost the whole argument of the first chapter. Kant discusses the goodness of the good will, its relation to duty and law. The point here, as the chapter title suggests, is to move from practical morality to a philosophy of morals. Kant is obliged to destroy the idea that happiness is in any sense the goal of life. Happiness is reduced as a concept to something like survival, and the simple existence of reason is brought forward as sufficient evidence that God intended for us something other than brute existence. Ultimately, Kant is able to abstract the particular instances of law from the idea of law, and arrive at the moral principle of principle for its own sake. I found particularly interesting the following passage,

Nothing other than the representation of the law in itself, which can of course occur only in a rational being, insofar as it and not the hoped-for effect is the determining ground of the will, can constitute the preeminent good we call moral, which is already present in the person himself who acts in accordance with this representation and need not wait upon the effect of his action.

Then the long footnote on respect attached to this passage is amazing, from which, “Respect is properly the representation of a worth that infringes upon my self-love...The object of respect is therefore simply the law, and indeed the law that we impose upon ourselves and yet as necessary in itself...Any respect for a person is properly only respect for the law (of integrity and so forth) of which he gives us an example.” This seems to me exactly the sort of passage that one would want to read aggressively in a contemporary context. It is also just the sort of passage that makes me think maybe there is something ‘Kantian’ about Lacanian ethics, or that at any rate it would be more interesting to read Lacan’s ethical writings than Zizek had so far convinced me would be the case.

Finally, although of course I have been told about the Kantian categorical imperative in the past, I do not think that I had quite grasped (not that I have now) the significance of the universalism implicit in it. Universalism, or at least a will to universalism, is for Kant a necessary condition for morality as such. I think that in the past, in as much as I’d given it much thought, I had been caught up in what are basically utilitarian and ‘modernist’ objections. I was confounding good outcomes with morality, partly on the basis of a deep suspicion about the possibility of intention—a deep suspicion that the word doesn’t mean anything at all. Although I still have my uncertainties, it seems to me now that the whole discussion of the will is actually of secondary importance. The categorical imperative (at which we arrive through duty and law), functions primarily as a point of convergence, or interference, between the realm of pure moral philosophy and that of practical activity. In a way this is a banal conclusion to have arrived at: from the very beginning, the whole point was to provide a foundation for practical morals in the pure rationality. Yet it isn’t clear that such a foundation need necessarily take the shape of what is essentially a transgression of disciplinary boundaries.

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