Tag Archives: Immanuel Kant

This past wednesday the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I work, hosted the second book presentation of Theological Ethics and Moral Value Phenomena, the book I co-edited with Patrick Nullens and Steven van den Heuvel (both working at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Louvain). The first one was last December in Louvain, where Antwerp philosopher Guy Vanheeswijck gave his response to the book. This time two philosophers from Leiden University, Rico Sneller and Timo Slootweg, got the floor. Early 2013 the idea of this book project was born. We, that is the members of the research group theological ethics (of which I am a member, yes – although I never studied theology) felt the need to present something of our approach in ethics towards a wider audience. In our regular


Rico Sneller giving his response to the book

discussions it had become clear that many of us worked within a phenomenological framework, which is not the most common approach in ethics. This should be taken in a very wide sense – for some this means having expertise in the work of Charles Taylor, others read almost forgotten French personalists, while for others again phenomenology just means a general approach to follow their own questions in, for instance, health care ethics. In my case the project provided me with an opportunity to delve into the ways in which William James, Max Scheler and Charles Taylor helped me to understand the relationships between religious experience and moral orientations in the value realm. I also wrote a second chapter where I clarified – with texts by Levinas and Derrida – aspects of Simone Weils criticism of an ethics of rights.

And now I heard how my peers read this work – which is a weird experience. Sitting and listening for almost an hour something struck me: how often I heard references to Immanuel Kant. Obviously my esteemed readers held the view that I was in a continuous philosophical conversation with Kant! The only name that didn’t appear in any of the titles of the chapters. With some surprise I looked into this mirror that was held up before me, but couldn’t deny what was said. After the session I tried to think back how Kant the thinker of ethics had come into my life, while chatting over drinks with another visitor from Leiden university. I told her that when I was doing the work for my PhD, on Spinoza, I did something to avoid becoming a narrow-minded expert: the last two hours of the work day I allowed myself to read philosophers that intrigued me, but whose work had no direct relationship to the project. I chose Arendt, Levinas and Strasser – and the lastmentioned again led me to Scheler, whose Non-formal Ethics of Values I only read a few years ago. For two of the eight years between the very beginning of my Spinoza project and the day of the defense of my thesis, I got funded to work at the University of Amsterdam, in the section practical philosophy. It was there, during the monthly meetings of the section members, that I got my first real introduction to ethics as a field. Although I had had some classes in ethics during my studies, philosophy in Leiden had an overall focus on epistemological questions, and now I realized I didn’t have a real understanding of the structure of ethical questioning.

There Kant got in. I read his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, and, as I had managed to get inside his epistemological ideas during my studies, through reading this short work I finally could enter into the idea of ethics – the autonomous ethics perceived by Immanuel Kant. All the other present day texts that were discussed in the practical philosophy section I could now break into by using the Kantian idea of ought as my tool. It was a discovery that impressed me. Finally Kant also gave me a tool (his distinction between theoretical and practical reason) to break through the difficulties I had making sense of seeming inconsistencies in Spinozas Theological-Political Treatise (which was the subject of my research). His words ended up in the preface of the book in which I finally published the results of my research. A long quotation. Ending with the bonum vacans sentence: Kant says that speculative reason should provide the foundations for practical reason, that doing so is a duty. For if he would leave this question, theory would be empty of the good, and fatalism would take hold of it. My very short and inadequate paraphrase this is. I felt Kant – the despair that modern scientism would lead to, not so much even an existential or moral despair – but the despair that anything to do with the good would be lost for philosophy, for thinking. That could not happen. All the thinkers I wrote about in this new book somehow felt this same anguish – Levinas, Derrida, Weil, Scheler, Taylor (James is a bit different in this, but I will leave that for another time). So that must have been what my readers had picked up. The question obviously has never lost its hold on me. Perhaps I should face it directly some time. And write about Kants Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals.

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.


Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973

When starting to prepare the paper which I will have to present soon in Bonn, Germany – on Kant’s and James’ dealings with Swedenborg’s thought, I had the impulse to look into Bergson’s work too, as I knew he and James read each other’s work and were approving of it. My interest in the relations between the mentioned authors is an interest in the relation between the concepts of morality, freedom and the spiritual. What, when reading Bergson sprung to my mind is this other fact: that all of these thinkers distinguish between levels or aspects of self – and that this is crucial to understanding the said correlation.

The point is that in modern times, in which scientific knowing is seen as the highest achievement of humankind, the free, choosing, moral agent, is hard to understand philosophically. As Kant has stated: in the world of phenomena, the world as it can be studied by the sciences, there is no freedom and no choice, since we have to suppose all events to be determined by the law of external causation. Think psychology’s attempts to explain the behaviour of people. Behaviour, the word already says it, is what we see when we look from the outside – it is not what I, as an individual, might experience as a free choice. So, when we do not observe free choice in the world as we study it by scientific research, we cannot understand morality. For Kant this was unacceptable, since we also have and need ideas of justice and goodness. His solution was that besides the empirical self (the one which is studied by science), we have to pose a free self, which he called the noumenal self – the self of pure practical reason. 

Bergson, in his study Time and Free Will, makes another disctinction, between the deep self, which experiences differences in quality, but not in quantity – and the surface self, which knows discrete states. The emotions, as they are understood in psychological theory, but also in everyday self-reflection, are states that can be distinguished and named. It is a mistake, however, according to Bergson, to think that free decisions are made at the superficial level of the emotions. This is only done at the deep level: ‘The deep-seated self which ponders and decides, which heats and blazes up, is a self whose states and changes permeate one another and undergo a deep alteration as soon as we separate them from one another in order to set them out in space.’

James, then, made his famous distinction between the conscious and the subconscious level of the self. He and Bergson seem to agree that the freedom to make moral choices can not be localized in the level of the conscious – here we have distinct states, spatially arranged, which are subject to the laws of a time that is understood in spatial terms: first comes an impulse, than a reaction. Freedom cannot be understood scientifically or logically, about this Kant, Bergson and James agree. Still we know freedom, and all three connect it to a different aspect or level of Self. A level which we thus cannot ‘know’ in the only way that modernity acknowledges as valid.

Some writers claim a profound influence of Swedenborg here – who makes the distinction which is well-known in so-called traditional cultures: that between the everyday, material world and the spiritual world. A living human being is part of both worlds, but how? Let us look into a passage from his work on Heaven and Hell:  ‘whatever does not enter into man’s freedom has no permanence, because it does not belong to his love or will, and what does not belong to man’s love or will does not belong to his spirit; for the very being [esse] of the spirit of man is love or will.’ So it is through love/will that a person belongs to the spiritual world. And: ‘Only what is from the will, or what is the same, from the affection of love, can be called free, for whatever a man wills or loves that he does freely; consequently man’s freedom and the affection of his love or of his will are a one. It is for this reason that man has freedom, in order that he may be affected by truth and good or may love them, and that they may thus become as if they were his own.’ Swedenborg’s conclusion is thus that we have freedom in order to be able to choose morally, and we can choose morally to become spiritually good.

So, yes, this text seems to confirm that the argumentation which we saw with our three thinkers is in line with that of Swedenborg: a good will as the source of a free choice cannot be found in the phenomenal world, it cannot be proven by observation nor by reasoning from known facts. It is conditional on our desire for this better place which traditionally is called heaven, and which Swedenborg claimed to be the imaginative world which we create ourselves by our way of being (as we do with hell).

Henri Bergson lived from 1859 untill 1941. I cited from his Time and Free Will, a 1910 translation of the 1889 French Essai sur les données immédiates de la la conscience. It can be read online:

Dates and works of Kant and James were mentioned in earlier posts. The same goes for the dates of Swedenborg. I cited from his work Heaven and Hell, which was originally published anonymously in Latin as De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, ex Auditis et Visis, in 1758. There are several online versions of the work in English.

In 1745 the life of the distinguished Swedish engineer Emanuel Swedenborg took a radical turn, after he allegedly received direct revelations from Christ himself. This made him not only write an elaborate new interpretation of some of the books of the Bible, but it also made him change psychically. From that moment on he claimed to stand in continuous direct contact with the spirit world. Many contemporaries were possibly most interested in the visions which he had, which made him access information which he normally could not have had (the most famous case being his vision of a large fire in a town a long way from where he was). His followers paid more attention however to the moral consequences of his experiences. Swedenborg was convinced that only someone who had discovered his inner self (which is the part of a person which is already in the spirit world, while he or she is alive) could find the source of truly moral behaviour. He was also convinced that this was the core message of Christ.

Those philosophers who know something about Swedenborg mostly do so because his famous contemporary Immanuel Kant wrote a small satirical book about his ideas: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics. This work of the Enlightenment philosopher is seen to be the turning point in his career – it marks the transition of his so-called pre-critical to his critical period. His critical works, e.g. the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical (is: moral) Reason, created a landslide in modern Western philosophy, and consequently in our understanding of science. These works claim to deduce from reason alone the borders of what we can sensibly call knowledge, and of what should sensibly direct our moral actions. In ethics this led to the famous adage to only choose such a principle to guide one’s actions that one would want everyone to choose. Thus Kant removed any arguments from Nature, or from Revelation from reasonable ethics. For theoretical knowledge his critical work had the effect to only acknowledge what we can derive from empirical research, i.e. from controlled sensual experience, which can be described within the limits or borders of sound reasoning.

In Dreams Kant tries his critical arguments out on Swedenborg, whose voluminous works he seems to have studied faithfully. As a philosopher who was interested in metaphysics, he wanted to read these testimonies of contact with the ‘invisible world’. They disappointed him, of course, because even more than those metaphysical works of his fellow-philosophers, they consisted of unfounded theories about realities which one could not check out for oneself. Thus he comes to the conclusion that the sole task of metaphysics should be to know and guard ‘the limits of human reason’. After a very satirical and critical treatment of Swedenborg, Kant concludes: ‘Thus, I have wasted my time in order to save it […] we see ourselves back on the low ground of experience and common sense, happy if we regard it as our assigned place from which we may never depart with impunity and which contains everything that can satisfy us, so long as we stay with what is useful.’

Historically Kant has been the real prophet, and not the spiritually enlightened Swedenborg, since Kant’s wish that serious researchers should ‘leave all noisy doctrines about such remote objects to the speculation of idle heads’ has become reality. Research into spiritual experiences is still mostly derided by those academic researchers who want to take themselves seriously. Testimonies of spirit appearances are treated with a sarcasm similar to that of Kant. But… there is more to the story. Recently the worlds of Kant researchers and of Swedenborg specialists are moving closer, and it seems that Kant took his contemporary much more seriously than his Dreams would show at first sight. Next to his proclaiming the necessity of ‘knowing and guarding’ the borders of the world of reason with an eye to sensible knowledge and action, he seems to have been sympathetical toward the belief in the spirit world as a source for spiritual consolation. And perhaps even to accept implicitly a connection between this belief and the personal sources of morality. For finding the right principle for action does not yet provide us with a motivation for following it.

The lesson of this story? That it is a shame when serious researchers dogmatically keep within the borders that Kant drew for theoretical and practical knowledge. It is like trying to imitate the Zen-master. Philosophy should make us think critically – and thus anyone studying philosophy should cross borders him or herself, like Kant did when he bought and read the work of the famous visionary. Philosophers should cross disciplinary borders, and not only read works that  belong to the canon of philosophy. And they should cross the borders of what is produced in academia – and read works that are not even considered to be based on logical reasoning or on empirical research, but which may be inspirational, revolutionary, religious, literary, or just entertaining. Only then can one make use of one’s potential for critical thought to the full.

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804, Emanuel Swedenborg lived from 1688-1772.

I cited from Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, 2002

Swedenborgs Works can easily be accessed online through:

A good introduction to Swedenborg gives Ernst Benz’ Emanuel Swedenborg. Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason, Swedenborg Foundation 2002

Some of the most up to date critical research on the relationship between the two is in German: Kant und Swedenborg. Zugänge zu einem umstrittenen Verhältnis (Friedemann Stengel hrsg), Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2008

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).