Charting Kant

October 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

Kant's Science of Right takes time to read. In the Science of Right, Kant explains the interaction of theory with practice when defining ownership, rights, and equity. I find it difficult to pull short sections from his writing because all of his arguments build upon one another. I also find it nearly impossible to study a single quote with the hopes of gaining a better understanding to his arguments because, again, the arguments are so inextricably linked. It's almost incestuous. However, I will do that very thing today while grappling with the idea of equity. I find it helpful to chart my understanding of Kant's arguments, so I have shared a few of my visual aids in hopes that they may enhance our understanding and conversation of his principles.

Merriam-Webster's first entry for equity is “justice according to natural law or right, specifically freedom from bias or favoritism”. Likewise, Kant's entire argument rests upon the idea of categorical imperatives, or a Kantian type of natural law (see figure 1), which makes this section fantastically interesting (and dense).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The following selection from the subheading of “6. Deduction of the Conception of a Purely Juridical Possession of an External Object (Possessio Noumenon)”, offers a glimpse of a very Kantian argument. He bases theory on the practical, which actually proves how practice is more theoretical than empirical. In other words, what we think of as concretely “mine” is actually an abstraction from one of Kant's categorical imperatives. He claims that categorical imperatives form the base of our societal structure, and in so doing, he explains how we function via free will. From that, I hope to gain an understanding of how abstraction functions and also what we might be able to gain from the idea of a temporary unification of two divergent wills.

Section 6 reads:

“It has been shown in the Critique of Pure Reason that in theoretical principles a priori, an institutional perception of a priori must be supplied in connection with any given conception; and, consequently, were it a question of a purely theoretical principle, something would have to be added to the conception of the possession of an object to make it real. But in respect of the practical principle under consideration, the procedure is just the converse of the theoretical process; so that all the conditions of perception which form the foundation of empirical possession must be abstracted or taken away in order to extend the range of the juridical conception beyond the empirical sphere, and in order to be able to apply the postulate, that every external object of the free activity of my will, so far as I have it in my power, although not in the possession of it, may be reckoned as juridically mine.

“The possibility of such a possession, which consequent deduction of the conception of a non-empirical possession, is founded upon the juridical postulate of the practical reason, that 'It is a juridical duty so to act towards others that what is external and useable may come into the possession or become the property of some one.' And this postulate is conjoined with the exposition of the conception that what is externally one's own is founded upon a possession, that is not physical. The possibility of such a possession, thus conceived, cannot however be proved or comprehended in itself, because it is a rational conception for which no empirical perception can be furnished; but it follows as an immediate consequence from the postulate that has been enunciated. For, if it is necessary to act according to that juridical principle, the rational or intelligible condition of a purely juridical possession must also be possible. It need astonish no one, then, that the theoretical aspect of the principles of the external mine and thine is lost from view in the rational sphere of pure intelligence and presents no extension of knowledge; for the conception of freedom upon which they rest does not admit of any theoretical deduction of its possibility, and it can only be inferred from the practical law of reason called the categorical imperative, viewed as a fact.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

The following ideas fascinate me the most. First, the inverse relationship between the theoretical and practical seems to counteract one another, but actually they reinforce each other. Kant uses the same process to found both arguments, but they create a labyrinthine inverse of the other (see figure 2). In other words, theory enables possession, but likewise, possession enables theory. Second, Kant states that these events happen independent of space and time, but also that they depend upon successive events. Therefore, there is a chronological structure to ownership, which instantaneously merges and then separates again. I wonder if, in some sense, the idea of time is what is "added" to the object in question?

Figure 3

Figure 3

Finally, figure 3 depicts the idea of ownership as a transfer in which two separate wills momentarily converge. This idea fascinates me - that two separate beings actually unite in a single point connected by an abstracted object mid-transfer, as if runners handing off a baton during a relay - seems so straightforward and logical. Only free will doesn't always act logically. This juridical assessment of transfer only makes me want to know what we can learn from a societal construct able to unify the wills of more than one human being. Kant demonstrates that each transaction involves a meeting of wills. In other words, two wills converge instantaneously in an agreement at which time an object changes ownership, according to the categorical imperative underlying transfer. And then they separate. Their relationship exists as a point on our chart for only one, small, already-disappearing instant.

What can we learn about individual or universal will from Kant's parabolic structures?

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Do We Need Heroes

September 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“I think many of the stories that we tell ourselves as a society - the stories that encode our hopes, aspirations, and fears - preserve the traces of classical culture and myth and are part of our classical legacy.” - Professor Elizabeth Vandiver

Our modern day understanding of the term hero is mostly positive. We think of heroes as protectors and helpers with outstanding qualities that make them better than the average human. However, ancient Greeks thought of heroes as mostly larger than life figures with extraordinary powers. Though they relied upon their heroes to be great, they did not necessarily imbue them with morals in the same way that we would today. Having said that, in today's blog, I want to look at some questions surrounding Oedipus and then move forward a few thousand years to better understand why Dave Chappelle names Bill Cosby as one of his childhood heroes. I realize the gigantic leap that I am taking, but I wonder if the questions asked by Sophocles are similar to questions that we may ask about modern-day “heroes”.

Oedipus was born to Jocasta and Laius of Thebes. Unfortunately, before his birth, Tiresias prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father. Eventually, Jocasta and Laius decide to leave the infant out in the elements. He is, of course, miraculously rescued and raised in Corinth. His adoptive parents for some reason never tell him that he is adopted, however. So, when Oedipus receives the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he chooses to leave Corinth. (This point often perplexes me. I want to know why, first of all, his adoptive parents haven't fessed up about the adoption part, and, second, why doesn't he simply choose not to kill or not to marry. I think that is my modern sensibilities providing options which may have been absurd to an ancient society.) Either way, Oedipus travels to Thebes and has the luck of being the only one able to answer the Sphinx's riddle. This, in turn, removes the Sphinx who has been tormenting the city and they all rejoice. Unfortunately, Oedipus unwittingly fulfills his prophecy and upon realization of the oracle's truth, he blinds himself. In other words, Sophocles proposes that Oedipus was irreversibly fated or destined to this path, regardless of his prior heroics and reason.

Sophocles wrote this play around 430 BC and yet we still discuss it today. Freud perhaps boosted its fame when he named the Oedipus Complex: a psychoanalytic theory which posits sexual tensions between parent and child, thus creating a sense of rivalry in the parent of the same sex. Many other theorists and literary scholars have discussed Sophocles's play and named a variety of reasons for its longstanding interest. I wonder, however, if it has something to do with the fact that humans are complex. There is no single answer and any answer is met with a number of inconsistencies. But this, to me, seems very human. The author's creation of a hero is always artificial. No single being can live up to the idea of perfection, or be everything to everyone. I often see this with contemporary celebrities or sports stars. We put them on a pedestal which is completely artificial.

Therefore, I am curious about the construction of hero in a modern-day context. Dave Chappelle recently mentioned that Bill Cosby was one of his childhood heroes in his recent stand-up The Age of Spin. Chappelle says, “Let's not forget, I've never met Bill Cosby, so I'm not defending him. But let's just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can't just throw away. I remember that he's the first black man to win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he's the first guy to make a black cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionally. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I'm telling you that's no small thing. I've had a television show...I wouldn't have done that shit. He gave tens of millions of dollars to African American institutions of higher learning and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college...not just the ones he raped. Here comes the kicker, you ready? Here's the fact that I heard but haven't confirmed. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for. Do you understand what I'm saying?” Chappelle's point is important because while Cosby was a prominent (and mostly positive) voice for African American people and civil rights, he was also allegedly committing heinous acts. It is impossible to square the two Cosby personalities, rapist with African American rights leader. My point is that people are complicated. I do not understand why we continue to think that someone who is really good at something must be really good at everything – morals included. There isn't any sense to be made from it, there isn't any rational approach. It is simply complicated. I also think that public pressure changes a being. Is there a sense that greatness changes into entitlement? If someone has been dubbed a hero because of one success, does that change their internal landscape? Have we, the public, unwittingly nurtured the development?

I know that my oversimplified views have no sound basis in psychology or analysis. But it seems that humans repeatedly desire the artificial and happy ending. I am wondering if this is something that we are hard-wired for, or if it is something that literature tells us is possible? I wonder if we can edit the ending, or end the story wherever we want to? For example, can we stop reading after Oedipus kills the Sphinx? Think of the happy and newly freed citizens of Thebes who invite a triumphant and glowing Oedipus into town. And yet, this too is unsatisfactory in that it cheats the true story. Sophocles knew this, and so he began the play after Oedipus and Jocasta are already married. There is already an element of fate, of tragedy. Should we, then, consider every hero as if (s)he were on the precipice of a fall? If we continue in our current understanding of hero, which Merriam-Webster lists as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities”, then our expectations will never be met. It is as if we set ourselves up for failure, not just our heroes. As far as I know, there is not a single, defined and agreed upon list of noble qualities, though there are certainly reprehensible ones.

To put it plainly, I wonder if our definition and/or treatment of heroes needs to be redefined.

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Why We Need Hamlet

October 9, 2015

“there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

Our modern calender lists two basic reference points: BCE and AD. If we were to create a new calendar for the modern era, perhaps we could write it as before and after Shakespeare. A playwright whose works influenced every author for centuries, Shakespearean language has seeped into our daily habits and rhetoric. He created characters of such force that we know them better than we know ourselves. The celebration and spirit of his works help us to better understand human history. We only have time to focus on one character today, but perhaps Hamlet can better demonstrate how entrenched we are in Shakespeare.

Hamlet is a self-crusade in the sense of The Crusades, tortuously making himself, constantly questioning and reasoning with himself. With him Shakespeare bridges a gap of human spiritual development that no one before ably captured. Due to Hamlet's self-creation, self-debating, and dialogue, we are more aware of our own spiritual selves. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes: “That the history of the world, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development and realization of spirit – this is the true Theodicaea, the justification of God in history. Only this insight can reconcile spirit with the history of the world – viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not 'without God,' but is essentially His work.”

Hamlet, therefore, functions on two levels. First, Hamlet proves to be a mirror of self and the larger social community, reflecting the truth of ourselves back to us. This idea is bound to the historical self. Secondly, the play creates dialogue for a future self, for the immortal self, highlighting morals, paths, obstacles. Hegel also states, “The will – potentially true – mistakes itself, and separates itself from the true and proper aim by particular, limited aims. Yet it is in this struggle with itself and contrariety to its bias, that it realizes its wishes; it contends against the object which it really desires, and thus accomplishes it; for implicitly, potentially, it is reconciled.” The idea of individual rights and individual souls has not always existed. As humans gained worldly experience, they also gained independence and freedom. Hamlet expresses the individual experience.

Part of this is due to Hamlet's lengthy speeches. Shakespeare's longest play devotes most of the dialogue to Hamlet. Imagine the novelty of listening to a play where much of the speech is new or creative and catchy. Shakespeare coined many new phrases in order to breathe life into characters, give them depth and allow the audience to intimately understand the character's inner turmoil, personality and self. Shakespeare was aware that human speech is riddled with personality, that it is extremely difficult to write true emotion and that a full-bodied character must speak, not only eloquently, but uniquely. Shakespeare created his own urban dictionary as a form of character development. Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom places Shakespeare as the first 'genius' in his book Genius. Bloom writes, “Shakespeare's language is primary to his art, and is flourabundant.... The true Shakespearean difference, the uniqueness of his genius, is elsewhere, in his universality, in the persuasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preturnaturally natural.” Shakespeare created people, not characters, but people with souls, complexities, and contradictions.

According to Bloom, Shakespeare's genius stems from his ability to allow characters an element of 'self-overhearing'. This idea of hearing oneself for a brief moment as if external is quickly replaced by the knowledge that voice and audience are the same. Powerful moments of recognition occur again and again in Hamlet whose famous 'To be or not to be' recalls us to ourselves. Hamlet embodies and demonstrates the process of development and the realization of spirit that Hegel described. Bloom writes, “In the Hegelian sense, Hamlet is the freest artist of himself, and could tell us much more about what he represents, if only there were time enough. I interpret that to mean that Hamlet is the supreme artist of self-overhearing, and so could teach us at least the rudiments of that disconcerting art. To hear yourself, at least for an instant, without self-recognition, is to open your spirits to the tempests of change.” Great civilizations of human history have labored towards this openness, this space, until finally reflected in Hamlet himself, immortalized by Shakespeare's brilliant play. Bloom continues, “If to invent the ever-augmenting inner spirit, including its faculty for self-overhearing, is not the invention of the human, as we since have known the human, then perhaps we are too overwhelmed by social history and by ideologies to recognize our indebtedness to William Shakespeare.”

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

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July Quarterly Discussion Recap

July 24, 2015

July's Quarterly Discussion focused on Immanuel Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. Reading Kant can be very challenging. One has to learn and understand his terminology and then be able to trace a single thread of an argument for pages and pages. For some reason, this seems more difficult in a language like Kant's than in, say, a novel. Kant was thorough and scientific. Admittedly, the Metaphysics of Morals was a daunting, ambitious selection for the limited time of a Quarterly Discussion. As a result, nearly every participant stated up front that they had wished for more time to review the material. Everyone felt they needed a better handle on the material at the time of the discussion. Yet, despite all fears, we had fantastic discussions.

One main discussion topic revolved around the complicated way that Kant arrives at the idea of morality as an 'a priori principle'. Morality is based upon Kant's idea of Categorical Imperatives, a universal set of principles that stem from human reason. In order to arrive at these Categorical Imperatives, Kant removes empirical factors, such as emotion and consequences. He solely looks to motivating forces that power the will. Kant believes that previous authors have not gone into enough detail regarding a scientific investigation of human reason. He states, “[T]hey [other authors] do not distinguish the motives which are prescribed as such by reason alone altogether a priori, and which are properly moral, from the empirical motives which the understanding raises to general conceptions merely by comparison of experiences; but, without noticing the difference of their sources, and looking on them all as homogeneous, they consider only their greater or less amount. It is in this way they frame their notion of obligation, which, though anything but moral, is all that can be attained in a philosophy which passes no judgement at all on the origin of all possible practical concepts, whether they are a priori, or only a posteriori.” Kant's purpose, in this treatise, is to separate human from human response to nature. Therefore, he creates a dichotomy of objects of sense versus objects of understanding.

Coming to terms with terminology alone can be difficult. To Kant, metaphysics is restricted to the 'definite objects of the understanding'. One of our participants suggested that a possible interpretation of Kant's metaphysics could be: 'existing in the mind before and beyond experience', which offers a neat view of the landscape that Kant seeks. From there, we wandered into Kant's definition of the will and of duty. Each group noted how Kant takes the golden rule and amends it slightly. Kant states, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only”. Kant does not require that you would do unto others as you would have done to you, but that each person respects the inherent purpose of everyone else. The idea of humans as ends is not new, however, it is vital for Kant's underlying arguments regarding duty and morality. According to Kant, if we treat each other with this rational, purposeful respect, then we all create a 'kingdom of ends'. Participating in this society grants humans total freedom. It is ironic that a world of law and duty offers the best access to freedom itself.

Freedom is also linked to the will. In Kant's terms, the will is goodness in itself. The will can lead to happiness. He states, “The pre-eminent good which we call moral can therefore consist in nothing else than the conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being, in so far as this conception, and not the expected effect, determines the will.” The ironic part is that this morality, this attention to duty, must be self-imposed to be genuinely moral, which means that following the moral law leads us to freedom. One participant noted that Kant's kingdom is not meant to be political, but a group with like foundations accessing their greatness. Therefore, Kant's kingdom has the greatest potential to attain happiness. Yet, happiness is another of those extremely complicated ideas, difficult to define for any one person, let alone group. In conversation, one can qualify happiness, and define its parameters to fit the conversation. However, happiness in general can mean many things to many people. While our discussions did not fully answer this question, we felt that Kant would think happiness as bound in man's ability to understand, access and trust pure reason.

Quarterly Discussions are always enlightening. The texts from the Great Books offer such wonderful opportunities in the form of thought and dialogue. Many thanks to all of the participants. Plan to include October's discussion on your calendar! Questions? Email Thank you!

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