Utilitarianism – Lecture 1

April 24, 2016

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870In this course I am making a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is the application of reason to moral decisions. Ethics, on contrary, is not about procedures but how I respond, or fail to respond to the sufferings of others. This isn’t a matter of reason, but of sensibility, since it is perfectly possible to ‘reason’ oneself out of ethics simply by refusing the status of humanity to others.

In Western philosophy, at least, there are 3 standard form of moral rationality (though the third is really a critique of the other 2): utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of acts, whereas deontology emphasises the intentions of the agent. What is common to them both, however, is that they begin with the self and the self is primarily understood as a rational agent. It is this presupposition that will be questioned to some extent by the third theory, virtue theory, and fundamentally by ethics. In virtue theory, will still begin with the self, but the self is interpreted as existing in a concrete situation (a given community, society and history) whose values are embedded rather than deduced rationally, and what matter is not just the intentions or consequences of actions, but character and authenticity. Ethics, as we shall later in the course, goes even further than this, because it questions whether we should begin with the self at all, but rather with others, and that our commitment to others is first about sensibility, rather than rationality (in other words that the relation to other is different from the relation of the self to itself in moral reflection).

In this lecture, we are going to focus on utilitarianism, which is perhaps the most popular and well known, but also the one moral theory that pervades our everyday lives because it is the basis of public policy and government decisions that generally are taken on a utility basis. There are two version of utilitarianism. One by Bentham and the other by Mill, whose version can be seen as a correction of the formers. The basis of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the ‘happiness principle’. A policy or decision is moral if it contributes to the general happiness of everyone. Happiness, here, is a psychological category, and for Bentham is a quantifiable and calculable in terms of its intensity and duration. What is good is what gives us pleasure, what is bad, is what causes us pain. All moral arguments come down to the maximisation of happiness as opposed to personal preference or dogma.

An example of Bentham’s utilitarianism in action would be the planned creation of workhouses in England in the 19th Century, which luckily for the poor were never fully implemented.[1] Bentham’s argument was that encountering the poor on the street was a public nuisance that lead to a decrease in the happiness of the majority so it would be better for them to be incarcerated in workhouses against their will. Moreover, it was better for society as whole if the poor were forced to work rather than being unproductive parasites, as he saw it, on society. By putting the poor to work they would in fact pay for the cost of the workhouses, and therefore not be a burden on the taxpayer. Although these ideas where never fully put into action, we can still here them loud and clear today.

Why might some find Bentham’s ideas morally dubious however unpractical they turned out to be? The fundamental problem is it sacrifices the freedom of the individual for the sake of society as a whole.[2] The workhouse was repressive and cruel system that destroyed the lives of those who were incarcerated, as the novels of Dickens portray, and it seems hardly justifiable to argue that destroying a human life is justifiable for the sake of the happiness of the majority. If this were the case, as Sandel argues, why wouldn’t we justify the throwing of the Christians to the lions, since the majority obviously gained pleasure from this spectacle (2010, p. 37)? Can the pleasure of one, justify the pain of another? Doesn’t this go against our moral intuitions?

As Sandel goes onto write, some people have used this argument to justify torture. We might think that the suffering of an individual is not as important as the social good gained by torture.[3] We could think of good utilitarian arguments, he adds, about why torture is wrong: that in the end you don’t gain much information from torturing people; that society itself, in the long run, would be undermined if we let systematic torture happen (what would be the difference between us and our enemies?); that our own soldiers and agents would be tortured. Yet there is also an argument on principle that torture is wrong. The dignity of the individual outweighs any utility (this is the same critique of Bentham’s workhouses and prisons).

One way that people justify torture is the ‘ticking time bomb’. The argument goes that if a nuclear device were to go off and we had a terrorist in our hands, then all of us would tortures the terrorist to find out the information and stop the bomb. The problem with this scenario, as Sandel points out, is that we are not describing like with like. It implies that the person being tortured is innocent like us and therefore we are willing to sacrifice one life for another, but of course the terrorist is not the same as us. The real example to see whether you think there could be a utilitarian defence of torture would be whether you think it would be worth sacrificing the innocent daughter of the terrorist to find out why the bomb is. Would the happiness of the majority justify the suffering and death of a child?

Our worries about utilitarianism, at least in the crude form that it put forward by Bentham and public policy, is that it isn’t a moral philosophy at all but just a moral calculation, which reduced every human life to a common denominator. Sandel alludes to the famous example of the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pinto (which was the basis of the scene in the film The Fight Club) (2010, p. 43). When Ford did a cost benefit analysis if found that the cost of fixing the fault was higher than the costs of people burning or dying. Is there not something morally repugnant about putting a value on someone’s life in this way, in the same way that Bentham only saw the lives of the poor in terms of an economic value?

It is for these reasons that Mill sought to improve Bentham’s utilitarianism. First of all he makes a distinction, though it is not always clear in his text, between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, a utility calculus is performed for every situation. Thus it is perfectly possible, that in a particular situation, the best cause of action would be to tell a lie since this promote the happiness of the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism does not focus on the consequence of an action, but a rule. The argument then would be about whether telling lies would benefit society as whole, as opposed to keeping promises. Rule utilitarianism would not justify, therefore the telling of lies in any situation, because constantly making exceptions to the rule would undermine social relations confidence and trust.

Mill’s fundamental reform of Bentham, however, is at the level of the psychology of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, this was a matter merely of quantity, intensity and duration. Every rational creature would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Mill’s argument is that it is psychological incorrect to reduce pain and pleasure to sensation and everyone knows this through introspection. We do not merely speak of quantity of a feeling but also the quality of one. Even when we speak of pain, we can think of a dull or a sharp pain. We can think of dull pain being more or less painful and the same with a share one, but the difference between them is qualitative not quantitative. As rational beings we are capable of ordering our desires qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

Everyone knows Mill’s famous statement ‘It is better to be human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. When it comes to individual acts, this might be difficult to defend. It is really true that reading book is more pleasurable than sex? Even those who like reading books would hardly defend that. Moreover, is it true to say that in having sex I don’t use my mind at all? Mill’s dictum makes no sense if we think about it in this way, and is hardly convincing psychologically. When Mill is thinking about the quality of pleasure he is thinking about life lived as whole (this again is the important difference between act and rule utilitarianism). Would a life that was dedicated wholly to sex be better than a life that was not? Mill’s argument would be that it wouldn’t be if we thought about society as whole, for the one reason that person who dedicated their lives solely to sensual pleasures would essentially be selfish and egotistical. It is only through education that I would realise that society exists only because of the selfless acts of others who are willing to sacrifice their own advantage.

In some sense Mill could be seen as a utopian socialist, as opposed to the reactionary views of Bentham, and the revolutionary socialism of Marx.[4] His utilitarianism is about social progress, which the major theme of his work On Liberty, and which should be seen as the context of his moral theory. What would benefit the majority rather than the minority? A morality that has its source in intuition or tradition tends to be authoritarian, reactionary and conservative. We ought to change the world so as make it better for the vast majority of people, and the two great wants in our word are poverty and disease, so we should change the world to rid ourselves from them. The problem is that we can certainly imagine a despotic society that could achieve these ends rationality without individual rights. Do we think this sacrifice is worth it, or does it undermine human dignity and respects for others beyond calculation for a future good? It seems the only way to save utilitarianism is through the idea of dignity, but the latter cannot be determined by a calculus. It is a principle.

Works Cited

Bahmueller, C.F., 1981. The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s silent revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kurer, O., 1992. J.S. Mill and Utopian Socialism. Economic Record 68, 222–32.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ? Penguin books, London.

Schiemann, J.W., 2016. Does torture work? Oxford University Press, New York.


[1] For a full historical account of Bentham’s ideas and implementation of Poor Law reform in England, see (Bahmueller, 1981).

[2] A separate and equally important issue is whether poverty is the fault of the individual. The real cause of poverty in England that the time was not the idleness of the working classes, but the Corn Laws, and industrialisation. Bentham’s incarceration of the poor stems from a fear of revolution not a concern with their welfare.

[3] This moral argument is different from the argument whether torture works or not, which it does not. The moral argument would be that even if torture did work, it would still be wrong. For an account of whether torture actually works, using game theory, see (Schiemann, 2016).

[4] For a detailed account of why Mill should be considered a utopian socialist, see (Kurer, 1992)

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Aesthetics – Lecture 5

April 21, 2016

brillo-soap-pads-1969What do we mean by aesthetic judgement and what are we doing when we talk about something that we call art. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek word αισητική. It means ‘sensation’ in the sense in which we might feel the cool wind blow against our cheeks or the taste of the bitter sweet coffee in the morning. Both these are sensations. Let use this word as a clue for our own investigation of aesthetics, even though for the ancient Greeks this word had no reference to art. We might say, therefore, that the first, and most simple, component of art is the existence of an object, for it is objects that we sense. Let us not make any judgement about this object at the moment, for we will want to leave the contentious debate about what constitutes an art or media object till the end of this lecture. At the moment all we have before us is an object and the idea, perhaps the most obvious one, that without objects there wouldn’t be any art.

So well and good. But what is an object in an aesthetic sense? We know what it means to sense an object, but is this all we are speaking about when we speak about an art object. We say that the object has certain properties or qualities that are, what can we say, ‘picked up’ by the brain in the way that a radio picks up signals from space. The coffee is bitter and sweet and this bitterness and sweetness is somehow, very mysteriously, transported to my brain via the taste buds of my mouth and tongue, and then even more mysteriously translated into the thoughts ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ in my mind (not my brain this time!).

This whole occult process of sensation has been the debating point of philosophers for centuries. Is the sensed object real? Is the bitterness and sweetness actually in the object, or only in my mind? How can we distinguish the brain from the mind? And so on and on ad nauseam. Thankfully for us we don’t have to get involved in this debate, but it has introduced something that we might find as useful for the understanding art as an object, and that it is the subject who senses, perceives and reflects about the object. Thus, no matter what kind of art we are talking about we can always say that there must be at least two things: an object, and a subject relating some way with it.

Let us stay with this subject and object for a bit, and see whether it may help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgement a little bit more. The question we need to ask ourselves is how the subject, the spectator, stands towards the art or media object. To get closer to this we need to think about how we ordinarily stand towards objects in the world. I would say that objects mean something to us in relation to their uses. We interpret objects in relation to what matters to us. Thus, it is probably incorrect to say that we have sensations that we then convert into meaningful objects, rather the world of objects we move around in, and which is our home and context, is already meaningful for me. I do not hear sounds out of my window and then hear a car, rather I hear the sound of the car from the first (of course I might hear sounds that I cannot recognise, but they would still have the meaning ‘unrecognisable sound’ attached to them, and I might be wrong about the sound that I hear, but nonetheless I would be hearing meaningful sounds and not just a jumble of senseless noise that I then have to construct into a meaningful object). Even in our most theoretical approach to object, there meaning is given in advance by the corresponding scientific telos, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology.

With art, however, something different is going on. For in art sensations are in some sense redeemed; that is to say, sensations matter to us, but not in the same way as they do in our practical involvement with objects. In the latter, sensation is subordinate to meaning, but in the former sensation and meaning are in conflict, and the experience of art is perhaps nothing else than a deep feeling of the gap or gulf between them. This is why the experience of art is always the experience of a resistance of expression. For unlike with our practical involvement with objects, sensation is never wholly subsumed under meaning. This is why art and media are significant, but not in a conceptual manner. They always seem to resist being completely exhausted about what we say about them.

There are two ways we can look at this strange relation between sensation and meaning in art: one from the side of the subject, and the other, the object. Let us begin with the subject first. We think that what makes something a artwork is a property of the work itself, such that it has ‘art’ just in the same way that our coffee has ‘bitterness’ and ‘sweetness’. Perhaps this is most common-sense theory of art, and is certain the one that you most hear about in the newspapers, on radio and television, and the internet. Thus, we get the endless and infinite debates about what good art is, as if it were a matter of simply recognising something about a painting in the way that one comes to recognise what a dog is by the ability to remember certain features. From this it follows that good art has certain properties (x, y and z) that bad art does not possess. Good art, for example, is usually figurative, and bad art abstract or conceptual.

But that is to treat art as though it were simply an object of perception with certain objective properties, which is to miss completely the significance of the aesthetic relation to objects. What is important is precisely this relation itself and not the object, for it is clear, with what is called ‘modern art’, that anything can be art object, for what the object it is not just what matters, but how we relate to it. This does not mean, however, that aesthetic judgements simply a matter of liking something? This is when this peculiar gap between sensation and meaning, which is how we spoke about art, returns. For if art were merely a matter of sensations, then aesthetic judgements would be merely a question of preference. You like Picasso, I like Duchamp and so on.

To see that the relation to art cannot be the same as mere preference is to understand that in talking about art I am making a claim upon others. There are actually three elements we need to be aware of when we are investigating art: the object, the subject (the spectator, if you prefer) and others to whom I address my claims about the object (of course, I also belong to these others). The difference between an object of mere sensation and an aesthetic object, is not to be found in the object itself, rather it is in the claim I make to others. In saying something is a work of art and has aesthetic excellence, then involved in this judgement is the implicitly the notion of universal agreement (Kant called it the sensus communis (1952, p. 82)). This does not mean that there will be universal agreement. In reality we know this is never the case, but I make an aesthetic judgement as if it were possible. Thus I do not just say that I like Picasso, rather I say that Picasso is a great painter, and you ought to agree as well, and there is something wrong with (you lack understanding if you don’t). This is not the case with mere preference, which is purely subjective, and I do not seek to gain, if only ideally, universal agreement that chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream, for this is merely a matter of enjoyment and pleasure and not an aesthetic judgement. The difference would be if the ice cream were in an art gallery and some one asked for my aesthetic opinion about it. I would have misunderstood them completely if I had gone up to the ice cream and licked it and said that it tasted quite good. Of course I could do this as an aesthetic judgement, as a statement that I didn’t think it was a work of art, but that would be something quite different, precisely because I would be making be making a claim for universal agreement.

This subjective account of the relation to art, however, misses out something very important, and this is the object. For in this subjective account of aesthetics, what counts is the discourse about art and not the art itself. An object is art, because it part of a discourse about art that has a certain form of the ideal universal agreement, rather than the mere expression of liking and preference. But I would like to say that the art object also has a presence, which differentiates it from ordinary objects, and which always resists our judgements about them. I would not say ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’ to, for this resistance of the object only ‘appears’ as such through the judgements, including their appeal to an ideal universal agreement, we make in their failure to capture completely their enigmatic and obscure presence. It is this that is the particular tension between sensation and meaning that creates the aura of an art work.

This resistance interrupts our understanding of our everyday world. In so doing it makes our world present. In our everyday affairs and general business, it is not so. It is only when my involvement is broken and interrupted it does so. A chair that I sit on every day at my desk is not present, nor the world in which it stands, unless one day it breaks as I sit on it. But Rauschenberg’s bed does so. In our everyday lives we never notice that the door is there. We simply grasp hold of the handle and walk through into the room. But if one day the door handle were to break, and I could not open the door as I ordinarily do, then the presence of the door would be visible to me, but also, and this is the most strange thing, so would the world in which working doors are necessary. The class room where I need to teach students about aesthetics, the university, the aim of teaching, Western culture and so on. Art, in its strange and enigmatic presence (a presence which is the opposite of the commodity) are like broken objects that reveal our world, like the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux grant us a glimpse the absent world of the Palaeolithic age.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 1952. The critique of judgement. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


From Kant to Marx via Hegel – Lecture 4

April 19, 2016

We are interested in Marx the philosopher. We are not interested in Marxism nor in the histMarxory of communism. To understand Marx as a philosopher we have to go back to his philosophical roots. This means going back to Kant’s ethics and to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics. To understand Marx as a philosopher, we have to understand why he went further than Hegel and why, in the end, he rejected Hegel’s defence of the state as the ultimate guarantee of freedom because it was not sufficiently concrete.

Freedom, as Kant argued, is not a real property of things. I can see that the table is brown and the chair is blue, but I cannot ‘see’ freedom in that way. Freedom, on the contrary, is an ‘idea’. It is a necessary human invention that is an expression of what it means to be a rational animal. It is a necessary invention, because without it, we cannot even understand what it means to be a rational being, and therefore what it means to be human. We are not rational and then free, rather to be rational means to be free. Rationality and freedom are one and the same thing.

Kant’s ethics starts from this intuition. To be moral means to be responsible for your actions. No one thinks that a non-rational being is responsible for what they do. Thus I do not think that my dog is morally responsible for peeing on the kitchen floor, even though I might find this inconvenient. Likewise, I do not take a young child to be morally responsible for soiling their diapers. I think that they do not know any better, so I do not judge them. However, I do think that you, as a morally responsible adult, are to be judged for your actions. For you are capable of deliberating about them. If not, then I do not judge you. Kant is making the point that if we did not think that human beings, as rational animals, were not responsible for their actions, then there would be no morality as such, and if there were no morality, then there would be no society. Freedom, responsibility, and ethics all go together, and one follows necessarily from the other.[1]

To act morally is to act from principle. The grocer does not adulterate his products not because he will gain more customers from being honest, but that he knows in principle it is wrong to be dishonest (Kant, 1956, p. 65). Of course, from the outside it is impossible to know whether the grocer is acting from principle or not, since both a selfish and selfless action appear the same: the grocer does not adulterate his flour. It is only from within the subject’s intentions that an action is moral or not. This is the function and purpose of the categorical imperative. As a process of deliberation it tells me whether my actions are moral or not. If I can universalise my subjective maxims, then I go know with certainty whether they are coherent and consistent. Thus stealing is not wrong because others have told me so, but because it is incoherent to both wish it and universalise it at the same time, since to steal is dependent on this existence of property that it contradicts in its application.

Freedom can only be preserved through the consistency and coherence of rules that are universal. Freedom is not a fact of nature, it is a fact of reason. If we wish to live as free beings, then we have to follow the moral law, otherwise my freedom would be the limitation of others. It is only because we all follow the same moral law as rational beings that we can all equally be free. In the end, for Kant, reason is only important because it allows us to be moral beings, to rationalise and be responsible for our actions. There is no empirical proof of freedom, it is normative. Kant is arguing that if you want to live in a word of free beings, then the only way to do so is to act morally in a coherent and consistent way. If you don’t want to be free, then give up morality, but are you sure that you do really wish to live in a world like that?

For Hegel Kant’s practical philosophy has two important weakness. First, the formalism of the moral law means that it doesn’t give us sufficient content in order to apply it in a given situation without additional material. Second, even if the moral law did work as Kant describes it, it is not sufficient to motivate us to act morally (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 2). As every undergraduate knows, it might seem quite right not to tell lies, but surely it would be absurd to tell a Nazi that I am hiding my Jewish neighbour in my cellar if he were so to ask me. As Hegel argues in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is no contradiction to steal if no property existed, so property has to exist as a real social fact, rather than a universal formal law, for theft to be seen as violating morality (Hegel, 1991, pp. 162–3). Moreover, if morality does not benefit me as a particular individual (rather than some abstraction like ‘humanity in general’), then it would hardly motivate me to act at all. Why would I act from duty, if doing so did not make me a better person?

For Kant, the self is thought abstractly through reason. For Hegel, it is thought concretely through society.[2] There is freedom because we mutually respect each other, first of all in terms of our physical existence, since slavery is the belief that we can own another human being, like any other commodity, and secondly through our respect of the other’s possession, which in are in reality an extension of their own subjectivity. The fundamental opposition for Hegel is between morality (Moralität) and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Kant’s conception of morality, every individual lives in their own private world, and the agreement with others is accidental. But the fact, Hegel would argue, that we can live as free individuals without being molested by others, is that are real social institutions that protect our freedom. Freedom is a social reality before it is a ‘fact of reason’.

Hegel was aware, however, from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that there was a great difference between modern societies and ancient ones. Kant too recognised the danger of the market. It would undermine the respect we would have for each of other as an end in itself, but for Hegel it was insufficient to think that the alienation of economic relations could be overcome by morality. It required the state to intervene to balance the excesses of market where individuals were reduced to commodities. The state preserves society so as to promote autonomy. It is not the state that destroys the freedom of the individual, since in its true form it should be the expression of the individual’s freedom, but the market, which if left unchecked leads to alienation and exploitation, a universal slavery of another form, wage slavery.

Has the world turned out as Hegel thought it would? Perhaps the answer to this question is ‘no’. In Hegel’s mind, the state would replace the social bonds that were being destroyed by the market in civil society, but what in fact happened is that the state identified itself with the market. Government is nothing but economic self-management and all social relations have been sacrificed to market ones. Hegel, then, completely underestimated the power of capital to destroy all societies that have existed and to replace them in their own form, as Marx and Engel’s famously wrote at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is a last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 223).

The reason that Hegel’s philosophy failed is the same as Kant’s. It sought the solution to alienation and exploitation in thought rather than in real lives of individuals. If Hegel did argue that the foundation of morality was society, then this society a concept rather than the real social existence of individuals. The individual, the self, the subject, is something that is thought by Hegel. It is the individual as thought, the self as thought, the subject as thought. It is not the individual who lives, the self who lives, the subject who lives. It is because Hegel’s solution to the alienation and exploitation of the market was a solution of thought alone that in the end his philosophy made no difference to reality at all for those who suffered and were exploited and who suddenly found themselves ‘unfree’ in the a so called free society.

Human beings, for Marx, are first of all living, breathing suffering beings, before they are thinking beings, and what they suffer from are not merely the thoughts of suffering and pain, but real suffering and pain. The world is real. It can engulf me. It is not merely the projection of my mind and imagination. Take the example of hunger, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1992, p. 390). Hunger is a natural need, therefore, the object that corresponds to it is something real and objective, not merely a postulate of thought. I cannot overcome my hunger merely by thinking about it. I must eat something or in the end I will die of hunger. I must eat in order to live. It is only by transforming the real world through real activity that I will solve this problem of hunger and not through the idea of hunger.

This does not mean that Hegel’s philosophy does not contain the truth of criticism, but it exists in a doubly alienated form, where the object is only the thought entity, and the subject is only consciousness. The solution to alienation for Hegel, therefore, is a solution that is internal to the mind. The separation of consciousness from the world, which finds its highest expression in religion, is separation which it discovers internally in its mind. The solution to this separation is therefore only mental. I only have to think this alienation as end and it magically it is ended. But it is ended in thought alone Marx will reply. I think that I am no longer alienated but really I am still alienated, for as a philosopher I have alienated myself from my own natural existence, as a human being, as Marx writes in a footnote, ‘with eyes, ears, etc., living in society, in the world and in nature’ (Marx, 1992, p. 398). You cannot think your way out of alienation; rather you have to find the solution in life. All the solutions of Hegelianism are false solutions.

What is true about Hegel’s philosophy is the meaning of humanity is one of movement and process. Humanity is not given, rather it has to create and make itself. It does so by overcoming its alienation, by destroying the separated character of the world. But this superseding of alienation must be a real superseding at the level of existence and not merely at the level of thought, a real act of living self-creation, and not merely the thought of such an act, and human beings will only become truly free when capital is for the sake of life, rather than life for the sake of capital. This would require a fundamental transformation of democracy where the state would exist for the majority of the people, rather than a small minority who believed they already knew what the interests of the majority were.

Bibliography

Beiser, F.C. (Ed.), 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Kant, I., 1956. The moral law: Kant’s groundwork on the metaphysic of morals : a new translation with analysis and notes. Hutchinson, London.

Marx, K., 1992. Early writings. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 2002. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Musil, R., 2011. The man without qualities. Picador, London.

Sedgwick, S., 2012. Hegel’s critique of Kant. OUP Oxford.


[1] If we were to argue that no-one is responsible for their actions, thus that genes or their upbringing were, then we would have no right to punish them. We punish others as a mark of our respect for them as autonomous free individuals. This is one theme of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities. If the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger commits his crimes because of physical causes, then how can he be blamed for them, since no one accuses the rock that falls on someone head of committing a crime (Musil, 2011).

[2] For an excellent account of Hegel’s ethics see ‘Hegel’s Ethics’ by Allen. W. Wood (Beiser, 1993, pp. 211–33).


Kant’s Transcendental Idealism – Lecture 3

April 9, 2016

immanuel-kant-2To understand Kant you have to, of course, understand what he is rejecting. If you don’t the know context of a philosopher, which is always what problem they are facing, then you won’t really be able to understand the point of their work. You will, for example, think it is easy to dismiss a whole or part of their argument, because it disagrees with some contemporary position (as though they were guilty of some unforeseen stupidity on their part, as though they should have none better). Thus Plato is dismissed because he thinks forms can be separate from instantiations of them, or Aristotle because he believed that reality was made of 5 elements, or Descartes because he believed in God, and so on. Of course, once one has grasped the context of a philosopher that does not mean that one has to take on board all the they say, but it does mean that one won’t dismiss them in a superficial way.

One way of understanding Kant’s philosophy is seeing how it arises out of the perennial conflict between empiricism and rationalism in Western Philosophy (though we shall see that it is not as simple as simply unifying them as some might believe). We have already spent some time in discussion of rationalism because of our lecture on Descartes, so this time we will look at, in a little detail, empiricism, and more specifically Hume.

He famously woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’, since before reading Hume, he was a rationalist of a kind.[1] What then is the basis of Hume’s philosophy? We do not require unjustified metaphysical speculation in order to have a rational scientific understanding of nature. To rid ourselves of this metaphysical speculation we have to become sceptical has to the objective basis of science, but this is necessary if we are not to base it on fictional and imaginary ideas. For Hume the source of all our ideas are the senses. This limitation is very important for Kant. Like Hume, he will argue that our knowledge of the world is limited to what is given in experience. Outside of that we can know nothing. In this sense, Kant is more Humean than he is Cartesian.

Sensations themselves are divided into two for Hume. On the one had there are impressions, and on the other ideas. Impression are direct sensations. I see the colour blue. Blue is the immediate sensation. Ideas are the relations between impression. I see many blue things, and I compare them through the concept ‘blue’. This does not mean ideas are separate from impression in terms of their existence. An idea exists only because there are impressions, and these impressions have their source in the sensation of the world. Ideas are, if you like, impressions that have become older. They are less vivid and present than immediate sensations, but they are made of nothing but sensations. A blind man, Hume argues, could not have an idea of a colour, because he has not seen it, nor a deaf man sound, because he has not heard it (Hume & Buckle 2007, p.16). Hume’s question is whether there is a necessary order in the relations of ideas, as there is in the order of impressions (in sensation, one impression comes after the other). In other words, what groups or orders my ideas together. If I think of x, must I also think of y?

The answer is that I associate one idea with another. There are three kinds of association for Hume, resemblance, proximity and causality. If I see a picture of a fox, then I am likely to think of a fox, if I imagine a room in the university, then I am likely to think of a room next to it, and finally, if I think of stone dropping from someone’s hand, then I likely to think of falling to the ground. Now it is the last association that is fundamental to how we think of the explanations of natural sciences. When we think of explanations in total, then are two kinds: relations of ideas and matters of fact. For the former, Hume is thinking of logic and mathematics. For these, we do not have to go beyond the ideas themselves (if you understand the meaning of one idea, then you will know why the other idea is necessarily associated with, so that ‘bachelor’ must mean ‘unmarried man [remembering that these ideas still have their origin in impressions]). But for matters of fact this is not the case, because they tell us something new about the world, rather than just analyse what we already know. Why do we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, when we could equally believe the opposite. Hume is not arguing that we shouldn’t believe that the sun will rise (in fact he has good argument to think why we do), but there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t. The reason why we do is that we associate one idea with the other, the idea that the sun rose yesterday with the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow. We might think that we get to this second idea through an argument, where the statement ‘the sun rose yesterday’ is a premise. If it is an argument of this kind, then it could only be a relation of ideas or a matter of fact. It can’t be the first, since there is no contradiction in thinking the opposite, but it can’t be a matter of fact, because it is precisely that kind of argument I am trying to prove, so I appear to be going around in circles.

The answer must be that my conviction must have its origin elsewhere and that a belief is not the same a giving a reason or having a reason (indeed Hume will argue that our reasons have their source in our beliefs rather than the other way around). His answer is that the source of this belief is in our impressions rather than in our ideas first of all. It is because I have had the vivid experience of the sun rising again and again in the past. The belief that it will do so in the future is a habit and custom of the mind that I associated with the impression of I am having now. Thus when I see the see the dawn, whether directly or indirectly, I immediately associate it with the idea of the sun rising and I cannot help but do so because this custom or habit belongs to human nature intrinsically. A belief then is a particular vivid idea. Not as vivid as a direct sensation, but more vivid than a reason or a concept, and it is this that cause me always to associate x with y. Of course experience is open ended. It is perfectly possible that one day my belief will be unconfirmed rather than confirmed by experience.

Kant is more on Hume’s side, as we have said, rather than Descartes. In these sense, he is an empirical realist, that our understanding and experience of the world is given by experience, and we cannot deduce facts about the world by arguing from ideas. Where he differs from Hume is how far he is willing to take this. He argues that causality cannot be just an habit of mind, an association, but must be fundamental to our experience as such, so fundamental that we would even be having experiences of objects at all, rather than worrying whether the sun might rise tomorrow or not.

What is fundamental to Kant’s difference from both Descartes and Hume is how he conceives of the relation between the subject and object. For both of them, though they give completely diametrically opposed answers to the problem, it is a question of how the subject conforms to the object. For Descartes, my knowledge conforms to the object through ideas, whereas for Hume, it does so through sensations. For Kant, on the contrary, and it is this that is totally novel in his approach, the relation between the subject and object must be reversed. It is not how does the subject conform to the object, but how does the object conform to the subject. As Kant writes,

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all our attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge […] We should then be proceeding on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. (Kant 2007, p.Bxvi)

Both Hume and Descartes relate knowledge to knowing the thing as it is in itself. One asserts that we can now it through ideas, the other through sensations. But it precisely this ‘thing’ that we cannot know, Kant argues. We can know how the object appears to us. Appearance itself is split into two: the content of appearance and the form of appearance. The content of appearance is what is given in experience (what Hume calls sensations or impressions). The form is how these contents appear to us. Thus, we can distinguish between what the chair is, and how the chair appears to us.

It is Kant’s argument that the form of appearance is universal and necessary. Unlike the habits of Hume, then, they are true of all human cognition, and we cannot experience the world in any other way. In the transcendental aesthetic, Kant describes the pure forms of sensation, time and space; in the transcendental logic, the pure forms of the object (the categories of the understanding); and finally in the transcendental dialectic, how philosophy gets into difficulties when it treats these pure forms as though they were objects of experience that one could know directly.

Let us look at Kant’s argument for the pure form of space in the Critique of Pure Reason, because by examining this one argument we will see how Kant’s employs a transcendental method to solve the age old antagonism between empiricism and rationalism. Kant is arguing that space and time are a priori and synthetic. What he means by that is that space is prior to experience but also adds something to experience (it unifies it; this is the formal element). We can already see that Kant is doing something novel here, because usually we think that the a priori is analytic, and the synthetic is a posteriori, so it seems quite strange to argue that space and time are a priori and synthetic.

Let us first of all look at the belief that space is something real, just like the objects that we can see. Kant’s argument against this common sense view is quite simple: space, he argues is the outer form of things for us. In other words, things that are outside of us are always in space (the difference from time, is that this is the inner form of ideas – are memories are not literally in space). To say that space is derived from experience is therefore to beg the question, for the very thing that one is trying to prove, spatiality, is already appealed to in the proof. Secondly, space cannot be derived from experience because of its necessity. The necessity of space for every appearance is that it is possible to imagine space without any appearances, no tree, no house and so, but it is not possible to imagine the absence of space and appearances (of course it is possible to think the absence of space, but it is not possible to imagine that there is something and no space). The argument against the Newtonian view that space is something real (a self-subsisting entity, as Kant calls it) is that this would mean that space were a container, but this container itself would have to contained and so on ad infinitum.

This would seem to imply that space, therefore, can only be a concept of things rather than something real, but Kant has to show that space is the pure form of sensations, and not just a concept that we have of things. This is much harder to prove than that space is not real and Kant, for this reason, spends more time doing so. The philosopher he has mind, who thinks space is just a relational concept, is Leibniz. For Leibniz, space is not something, so to speak that exists outside of objects and thus independently of them, rather it is an idea that expresses the relation between objects. Space is, therefore, not something real, but merely an idea. How can we best understand this notion of relational ideal space? Think of two places and the distance between them. Let us think of the two cities of Plymouth and Exeter in the South-West of England. We might say that Exeter is near to London than Plymouth, but is this being nearer a property of Exeter, or does it not rather express the relation between Exeter and Plymouth. For there to be space at all, there needs to be at least two objects. With just one object, there would be no space. If space were not a relation between objects, then it would exist, if there were only one object.

Kant needs to show that space is not simply a thought that we associate with objects, but their necessary form of presentation. He does this by showing that how we use pure intuition of space, is not the same as how we use concepts.[2] The intuition of space is unitary, singular and unique. This means that diverse spaces are parts of one and the same Space. The relation between these spaces, and Space, is not the same as the relations between the concept Tree and instances of trees. All the diverse parts of space belong to one space, but trees do not belong to one and the same Tree, therefore space cannot be a concept, and if it cannot be concept it must be an intuition, since these are the only two sources of human knowledge.[3]

So the conclusion of the argument is that space is not property of things, either as sensation or a concept, but is a necessary part of our experience of the world, for we cannot have an experience of an external without it already been organised through space. Space, therefore, is both a priori, since it is necessary, and synthetic, since it is added something to experience (namely it is spatial). Things are spatial because human consciousness is spatial, and not the other way around. Kant repeats the argument with time, and then in the transcendental logic with logics. It wants also to show through the transcendental deductions that without these pure forms of appearance there would be no object for us at all. As Kant writes,

The a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. (Kant 2007, p.A111)

So Hume’s argument is that we have an experience and then associated these ideas in our minds. For Kant, on the contrary, we wouldn’t be having an experience at all. Causality is not something that we apply to our experience; it belongs to the very fabric of our experience as something meaningful and coherent from us, and it is on this foundations that the natural sciences are built.

Bibliography

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Hume, D. & Buckle, S., 2007. An enquiry concerning human understanding and other writings, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

Kant, I. et al., 2004. Immanuel Kant Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Of Leibniz-Wolffian kind. Kant writes in Prolegomena, ‘I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction’ (Kant et al. 2004, p.10).

[2] We need to be certain here, as Sebastian Gardner points out, that Kant is not denying that there is a concept of space, but we should not confuse this with the pure intuition of space, which must underlie even this concept (Gardner 2006, p.77).

[3] Kant, in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, also demonstrates the difference between the pure intuition of space and a concept by demonstrating that the infinity of space is not the same as the infinity of a concept.