Wednesday, July 06, 2005
The Germans! The Germans! Kant and freedom
OK, so where I left off last night (before Judith Miller went to jail and London rather than Paris (and certainly rather than NYC) was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics), was with the dilemma, within the feminist project of relational autonomy, of excessive, atomistic individualism vs. determinism -- in other words, the classical philosophical problem of freedom and necessity. How can we be both free and also be true to our important responsibilities to others and true to our social roots & values?
So, we go way back to Kant.
Kant's central problem is how to reconcile freedom and necessity. If everything in the physical world is determined by natural laws, then how can we humans still have free will? This is still an important problem -- witness all the nature-nurture debates, and the debates over consciousness, neuroscience, psychology, and the brain. Where is our free will located? Etc.
What Kant famously argued is that within the natural world everything really is determined by physical laws. However, the natural world is only the world of appearances, or phenomena ('phenomena' is basically just Greek for 'appearances'). We only experience this world of appearances -- how things appear to us. We don't actually experience the things in themselves.
Now this kind of division makes sense at first -- just think of the difference between the table as I perceive it and the table as described by physics (atoms, quarks, blah blah blah). But Kant wants to go even farther: the world as described by physics is part of the world of appearances, the phenomenal world. Everything we can possibly experience or have scientific knowledge of is part of this phenomenal world. This phenomenal world is governed by the laws of nature, which are deterministic, rather than free.
Wait! you might say. What about all the stuff that's come out about physics on the quantum level -- eensy weensy particules popping in & out of existence at random? That doesn't seem deterministic, does it?
Well, Kant would reply, it's still not free. For one thing, these things on the quantum level still seem to follow regular statistical patterns. For another thing -- and this is important for Kant and all the idealists following him -- arbitrary actions are not free.
What does that mean? It means that if Natalia suddenly jerks her arm and hits Paul, then she didn't freely hit Paul. Free actions require volition; they need to have been freely willed. True freedom is neither determined/forced by something outside of it, nor does it happen at random. The utterings of a Tourette's sufferer are not free. A free action on my part is something I meant to do.
Why is this important? Because I can & should only be held responsible for things I freely do, not for things that I did accidentally. (This principle goes back at least as far as Aristotle). Further, it means that the kind of free self-determination that will be important for autonomous action should also be self-determination that is accompanied by reflection & volition. I should be able to take responsibility for my autonomy. But more on that later. (that's not very well put, either... I'll work on that.)
OK. So, world of appearances = unfree. So where's freedom?
In addition to the world of appearances is the world of things-in-themselves (the noumenal world, the world of noumena). Freedom's over there. Even though we can't experience freedom itself, it's still there. Tricky, huh? I had a lot of trouble explaining the two worlds to my students. It's notoriously difficult to understand how we're really free, as humans, but not in any way we can directly experience. The only way we know we're really free is because somehow we recognize a moral law that is not part of our experience. Wacky, huh?
What we experience of ourselves is the way we're conditioned by our upbringing, by memories of traumatic experiences we had as youngsters, by our biology, by our social environment, etc., etc., etc. All these things are fairly deterministic. But in our ability to somehow rise above these things and freely decide for ourselves what the right thing to do is, in a way undetermined by considerations of greed, inclination, realpolitik, etc.*
When we act according to the moral law, therefore, we are not acting in a determined or in an arbitrary manner -- we are acting freely. And we are only acting freely when we act according to the moral law. When we act according to the moral law, Kant says that we are giving ourselves the moral law - accepting it for ourselves - and that we are therefore autonomous. We are heteronomous (the opposite of autonomous) when we are controlled by things outside ourselves - i.e., by our emotions**, by greed, by an unreflective allegiance to political or religious authority, etc.***
OK, so , for Kant: being free = following the moral law = being autonomous = being self-determining.
Being unfree = not following the moral law = being heteronomous = being controlled by something outside ourselves.
Hm, this post is spiralling out of control into a big Kant lecture. I'm going to read some Fichte now, and I'll get back to you on how this then builds into Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. But I promise, it'll be good.
* There's a whole debate over whether this works, obviously, and particularly whether it's right that Kant also wants us to rise above inclination -- since he includes emotions as part of inclination, and sometimes, surely, our emotions can also help reveal to us the correct moral action. That said, I'm going to leave that debate to the side for now.
** Yup, see footnote * again. It really is a big issue.
*** This is part of why Kant is such a hardcore Enlightenment thinker. Have a look at his essay, An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment" for a good statement of what all this freedom & autonomy means on a political level. He says things like "The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!" and criticizes the majority of folks for simply blindly obeying authority. (Actually, this might be a clearer translation)
jane 7:46 PM [+]