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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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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