Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kant as an Romantic (and the problem of free will).


Kant has a well deserved reputation as an admirer of the sciences who viewed mysticism and subjectivity as a refuge for those too weak minded for the rigorous logic and precise argument he  demanded.  So it seems strange to include Kant among the romantics whose members rejected objectivity and logic.  Nevertheless his work had a huge influence on the early romantic movement.

He was obsessed with establishing human freedom in the increasingly mechanized universe of newtonian physics and lockean psychology; a universe where God, if he existed at all, was pushed outside the material universe as the remote creator of scientific and mathematical laws which the universe operated upon in deterministic causal chains of cause and effect, chains which increasingly appeared to undermine human free will.

Man was man because uniquely among animals and material objects, he alone could choose, he alone could make moral choices and he alone was responsible for his actions.  If there was no free will, if humans could not make free choices, then mankind were not moral and were not responsible for their actions.

This was the problem of free will that the Stoics sought to solve and has troubled philosophers ever since.  The Stoics claimed mankind have the power to rationally examine their senses and accept truth and reject falsehood. A Stoic stage having aligned his will and moral character with Nature and Truth would achieve peace and tranquility regardless of  external circumstances.

Kant found this unsatisfactory.  If the values, the aims and the ends we strive for, are found in Nature or in God, then we cannot be free.  Values for Kant must then be internal to humans.  It is this shift from external nature to internal human psychology that so influenced the Romantics and much of Western thought ever since.

Consider this analogy.  There is an assumption that an alien species could understand mathematics because the universe operates by mathematical systems. The symbols our two species use to represent the external world may differ, but the effect is the same: two and two is still four.  But under the shift Kant helped bring about, mathematics is part of how humans think.  An alien species would have completely different thought patterns, different ways of understanding the universe and our mathematics would be incomprehensible to them.   This is what Kant did for human values and ethics.  

The human will became primary in his thought as an escape from determinism.  This, the will, makes mankind different from other animals for we alone can choose between good and evil, right and wrong.  The Enlightenment for Kant was simply the ability of men to choose their own lives free from external authority, either human or natural, to live as rational autonomous beings.  Civilization is maturity and maturity is self-determinism and autonomy.  It's important to realize that under this argument there is an objective right and wrong, a single answer to a meaningful question that must not contradict other true answers.  Reason is the same at all times and for all people, so morality too is universal.  When a man commits himself to moral values,  he imposes his will onto nature, molding and shaping it according to his will.

This then is Kant's great influence on the Romantic movement,  a movement he despised.  Values were shifted away from nature to our internal human will. Nature shifted from a harmonious and divine creation mankind should emulate to being at best clay for humans to impose their will on, at worse an hostile enemy resisting mankind's ideals.

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