Not that I don’t enjoy reading it. That old collection of Kant’s moral and political philosophy books and essays is a beautiful mixtape of ideas and arguments.* I don’t really care that the language sounds dry. It’s conceptually rich. Nerd, I know.
* The Cambridge Edition Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor.
|The kind of chemistry that was happening in Kant's age, at least|
Kant is one of the foundational writers of philosophical liberalism in its classic apex. So the ideas generally in the air of the late 18th century shaped the democratic philosophy that emerged.
A core idea – and one that animated Kant’s entire project in moral philosophy – is that causation is the same as necessity. If there was any cause to an action, then that action was necessary and could not have been otherwise.
For morality to function, human behaviour had to be an exemption from this otherwise universal law of strict causal necessity.
Kant developed the best ontological case for that exemption. One that didn’t rely on postulating a special case like “vital force” or “divine essence.” That just presumed what you were trying to prove, but gave it a different name.
Kant made the exemption from necessity on the terms of causal necessity. He gave in on every conclusion that humanity was a part of nature and that nature moved entirely by causal necessity. He asked what we’d have to do in going about our everyday thinking in our ordinary lives.
|The Western image of nature in the time of Europe's industrial|
revolution was as a clockwork mechanism – precise and unvarying
in all its movements.
That’s why we remember him as one of the most creative philosophers in the whole Western tradition.
But he only did it because everyone else writing about nature as strict causal necessity adopted a boring fatalism that not only contradicted the validity of morality, but rendered much of everyday human thought utterly silly. Why bother even thinking as if we had choice? Just accept that our wills are passive mechanisms entirely determined by the causes of our actions.
Liberalism was born in a moment when – speaking of ontology, the nature of the world itself – there was a stark conflict between moral responsibility and the belief in ethical progress on one hand, and on the other, an image of humanity as a clockwork robot with delusions of grandeur.
Freedom was under threat in scientific and metaphysical discourse. The industrial revolution was beginning – a transformative shift in technology made possible in part by our powers to use fairly simple mathematics to engineer complex, precisely moving machines.
All signs in biology pointed to the human body having basically the same mechanisms and organs as other natural animals. So if humanity was a natural creation, it would move with this same lack of variance. Pure necessity.
Freedom under threat from a totalitarianism of ontology.
Now, contemporary science accepts way more complexity in the world than these simple relationships you can describe in such simple mathematics as Pressure times Volume over Temperature. PV/T. Most real systems – anything more complex than those 18th century lab conditions – require non-linear mathematics to describe them.
These are mathematics without single solutions – they only give ranges of possibility. The more physical variations possible in a system, the more possible solutions any mathematics describing them will have. And the more sensitive those systems will be to wild transformation from generally innocuous changes.
Freedom is a matter of ranges and limits. We know this now. But the people who were first developing liberal philosophy – the political thought of absolute freedom – did not.