Philosophy + Communism [Between the no longer and the not yet]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Transcendental (un)Freeedom

A brief analysis of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism in response to the question: “What is the critical significance of the difference between ideas and ideals in Kant's Transcendental Dialectic?”

Matthew Cole
14 April, 2011

Thus all human cognition begins with intuitions, goes from there to concepts, and ends with ideas.[1]

The Critique of Pure Reason is, according to Adorno, “a supreme attempt to salvage ontology on a subjectivist basis,” to “to salvage the timeless, absolutely valid experience of independent truth.” Kant’s subjective analysis depends nonetheless on the concreteness of objective empirical reality in order to uphold his propositions. Thus he executes the Copernican revolution to make subjective a priori truth constitutive of our knowledge of the empirically real world. Via reflection on the mechanisms, possibilities and limits of knowledge as such, the subject systematically becomes the one who validates the objectivity of the real world.[2] Through the development of system of transcendental Idealism, Kant demonstrates that at least one type of metaphysical knowledge is indeed possible. In doing so, he saves the conception of cognition as a rational phenomenon and subsequently the notion that human beings have rational agency. In the preface to the CPR, Kant states that the true positive value of the Critique lies in its contribution to morality as such.[3] The import of this statement is elucidated over the course of the Critique, as it becomes apparent that without the transcendental idealism supplied by Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, the possibility of human freedom could not be sustained. If one accepts that morality necessarily presupposes freedom as a property of the will, without the Kantian Idea¾which makes it possible for reason to transcend the bounds of mere sensibility (via transcendental freedom)¾morality would be restricted to a Humian mechanism of natural determinism. Without transcendental Idealism, morality would remain dependent on its tradition of speculative employment of theoretical reason. Despite that the Critical philosophy cannot definitively prove human freedom, it allows for its possibility in thought. This is the critical import of the dialectic. It is this capacity to think human freedom that allows for an ethics to emerge along with Kant’s practical philosophy in the “Canon of Pure Reason” and furthermore the rest of Kant’s philosophical oeuvre.


In order to understand the critical significance of the dialectic we must try to grasp the method of transcendental Idealism via Kant’s determinations of the idea and how it differs from the Ideal. To do so, we must first note the shift from “Division One” of the “Transcendental Doctrine of Elements” to “Division Two” ¾or rather from the “Transcendental Analytic,” where Kant addresses what he calls the “logic of truth” i.e. classical theory of truth [adaequatio intellectus et rei] understood as the conformity of knowledge to its object, to the “Transcendental Dialectic,” where Kant deals with what he determines as the “logic of illusion” i.e. the “fog of truth” conceived of as the conformity of knowledge to itself. The dialectic is where the transcendental ideas¾entia rationis, heuristic fictions, concepts of reason, regulative ideas¾first emerge. This is where Kant essentially redefines the meaning of ‘idea’ by radically questioning the basic relationship of idea and object in the classical debates.

In his use of the term “idea,” Kant attempts to occupy a middle ground between the “hypostatized archetypes” of Plato and the empirical confines of Aristotle. Plato’s idea is an archetype of the thing itself, which can never be taken from sense experience; it is that which “flowed from the highest reason,” and through which human reason partakes.[4] Plato, according to Kant, locates his ideas primarily in the practical i.e., “in what rests on freedom, which for its part stands under cognitions that are a proper product of reason.”[5] Kant’s formulation of the idea has its naissance in the constitution of the Platonic Republic¾that system which provides for the greatest freedom in accordance with the law that allows for the existence of the freedom of each with respect to others. Kant asserts that this is a “necessary idea” for the ground of “all laws.” Despite the high probability that this true Platonic republic will never manifest itself, Kant holds that the “idea of the maximum is nevertheless wholly correct” as an archetype toward which humanity must strive in order to move closer to its “possible greatest perfection.” It is in this possibility of a beyond that we can begin to determine Kant’s radical reformulation of the idea.

The primary difference between the Platonic and Kantian ideas is that for Plato, ideas have constitutive meaning¾they are determinate, archetypal, and possible objects of knowledge¾whereas in Kant, the ideas are valid only as regulative principles¾they are irreducible concepts that perform the perpetual work of conditioning the understanding. Kant’s assertion that the ideas are not valid objects of knowledge, but merely “regulative principles” essentially establishes the disjunction between ontological truth and our capacity for knowledge. This delineation constitutes the qualitative leap [of faith?] between the ontological world of ideas and the possibility of obtaining valid knowledge of them. It marks the further development of transcendental Idealism in Kant’s critical system. In order to understand this development, we must elaborate the specifics of the “idea” before we move on to the ideal and the full critical significance of the transcendental system.

Instead of defining the ideas as the Platonic forms of things independent from the things themselves¾whether as their “paradigmatic form or as their abstracted principle of knowledge”¾Kant reformulated the ideas as the concepts of reason which cannot have any relation to an object in experience. Kant reminds us through this redefinition, that whatever the degree of perfection we must achieve or however great the lack that exists between that Platonic idea of that perfection and its execution, we must not limit our concepts and laws to what is already done, to what is judged according to empirical rules. For Kant, it is the idea that must perform the “wholly unique service” of going beyond the possibility of experience. It is in this sense that idea of freedom (as a concept of reason), must be eminently positioned over all the other Ideas: it can move “beyond every proposed boundary.” As Deleuze notes, freedom is the only idea that “gives to things in themselves the sense or the guarantee of a 'fact' and which allows us to access the intelligible world.[6] The Idea of freedom is what allows human beings to have rational agency, which in turn allows us to develop an ethical way of life within the world, while at the same time retaining the notion of an ideal in God. It is in the systematic development of the transcendental ideas that we can understand Kant’s transcendental Idealism and the rest of the critical system.

Just as Kant redefined the concepts of the understanding as ontological “categories,” he redefined the concepts of pure reason as “transcendental ideas.” The former refer to actual possible objects of experience, while the latter refer to the “absolute totality of all possible experience” which as manifold is not an experience itself. Once this break is established, Kant uses syllogistic inferences to relate a particular judgement to a universal condition. This serves to “restrict a predicate to a certain object, after having first thought it in the major premise in its whole extension under a given condition.”[7] The idea in general or the transcendental concept of reason is that which, in Caygill’s words, “corresponds to the unconditioned totality of conditions necessary for any given conditioned state.”[8]

Once this correspondence between the transcendental idea and unconditioned manifold of necessary conditions is established, Kant then derives specific ideas from the three categorical forms of relation that join the universal condition of the premise with the particular judgement of the conclusion. The first form is the categorical relation of substance and accident, from which derives “an unconditioned first, of the categorical synthesis in a subject…” This first idea is that which entails a relation to a thinking subject and is the object of psychology. The second form is the hypothetical relation of cause and effect, from which derives “the hypothetical synthesis of the members of a series…” This second idea involves the relation to the world as the manifold of all appearances and is the object of cosmology. The third form is the disjunctive relation of community, from which derives “the disjunctive synthesis of the parts in a system.” The third idea entails the relation to things in general i.e. the ens realissimum, and is the object of theology.[9] Throughout these determinations, Kant repeatedly reminds us that the ideas must only be thought of as regulative, not constitutive, for if we take them as determinate object of knowledge, as given rather than as if, then we fall into the realm of illusion. As Caygill notes, “it is when these ideas are treated as if they were objects that these sciences lapse into errors of inference, treating the totality of experience in the major premise of the syllogism as if it were a possible object of experience.”[10] In the CPR, the ideas must be used solely as regulative principles in order to direct the understanding with respect to the totality of knowledge. It is illegitimate to use the ideas as constitutive maxims with respect to objects of possible experience.

To further elucidate the concept of the idea in Kant’s transcendental system, we must now turn to a discussion of what Kant designates as the “Ideal.” In contrast to the idea, for which no appearance can represent in concreto, Kant defines the Ideal as “the idea, not merely in concreto, but in individuo, that is, as an individual things, determinable or even determined by the idea alone.”[11] The Ideal is even further removed from objective reality than the idea. The Ideal is both a self-determined individual being and an archetype that absolutely determines its copies. Kant again distinguishes his concept in contrast to Plato in defining his notion of the Ideal is what Plato would call an “idea in the divine understanding.”[12] In the chapter “The Ideal of Pure Reason,” Kant describes the sage of stoic as an Ideal, as an ens realissimum, as a human being whose existence equals the idea of wisdom. Caygill claims that for Kant, the concept of God is the “only true Ideal.” Only a God has the condition of being “completely determined in and through itself, and known as the representation of an individual.”[13]

However, the concept of God as a true ideal must be understood in the context of the dialectic as a product of the antinomies, where Kant methodically refutes all arguments that attempt to prove the existence of God in favour of defining the Ideal of God as reason’s need for an ultimate unity of knowledge or an ultimate and universal referent.[14] The antinomies are the basis for Kant’s solution to the cosmological dialectic, which allows for the concept of the transcendental Ideal to be defined as it is in the “Second Book of the Transcendental Dialectic.” In the antinomies, Kant ventures to provide proofs that bolster his argument in the Transcendental Aesthetic, which in sum states that everything intuited in space and time, i.e. every object of experience that is possible for us, is nothing but mere the representation of the thing in itself; they are all simply appearances that have no existence grounded in itself outside of our thoughts. Contra empirical idealism, Kant’s transcendental Idealism necessitates that the appearance or representation of an object be separated from the object as it is given in itself (as it exists outside of our mind having any cognition of it). This allows for the reality of objects of both inner and outer intuition.

As a method, transcendental Idealism is used to dissolve the contradictions between theoretical and practical reason whilst preserving the ideas that have significance for human agency i.e. freedom, morality and religion. Its truth is in its transcendence of what is already the case i.e. natural causality, and its movement toward the ideal i.e. the idea both in concreto, and in individuo, that can never be realised in the merely empirical world. The critical significance of the difference between ideas and Ideals lies in this individuo, not as a specific being, but rather as archetype. As Kant states, “just as the idea gives the rule, so the ideal in such a case serves as the original image for the thoroughgoing determination of the copy.” We have no other available standard for determining action than the ideal being with which we can compare ourselves. Now despite Kant’s referance to this ideal as a “divine human being,” this does not (judging from the refutation of the proof of God as the “prime mover” in the antinomies [A450] along with the subsequent critiques of both cosmological and physico-theological proofs of gods existence [Sections V. and VI.] and all speculative theology in general) mean that God (especially a Christian one) actually exists. It rather means that the Ideal of God is a necessary idea (just as freedom) that we must have in us so that we can judge ourselves in order to improve ourselves according to this standard (the absolute highest) even though we can never reach it. The Ideals can never be given an objectively real existence, but they nonetheless provide the necessary standard for reason, which according to Kant “needs the concept of that which entirely complete in its kind, in order to assess and measure the degree and the defects of what is incomplete.” The Ideal cannot be realised in the realm of appearances. Furthermore, as Kant notes, the Ideal even has an element of nonsense about it because the limits of nature, “which impair the completeness of the idea render impossible every illusion in such an attempt.”[15] This is always the case with the Ideal of reason. It aims to thoroughly determine for itself an object in accordance with a priori rules or principles, despite that the sufficient conditions for this object are absent from our concrete experience of the world. Ergo, the ideal itself, as concept, is transcendent. (A571/B579).

Psychoanalysis draws much from Kant’s concept of the Ideal. For example, as Alekna Zupancic points out in Ethics of the Real, the truth of transcendental Ideality is very close to Lacan’s formulation in that its “truth is to be situated on the level of the articulation of the signifiers as such, and not on the level of the relationship between signifiers (‘words') and things as simply exterior to them.” Transcendental Idealism presupposes a “lack of externality, the nonexistence of a limit, which accounts for the fact that the truth has, as Lacan insists, the structure of fiction, and that it is ' not-whole' [pas-toute].”[16] The entire result of the Transcendental Dialectic can be summed up in this assertion of the non-existence of a limit. As Kant reminds us in Section VII, pure reason must have systematic unity, given to it via cognitions of understanding to be unified for the concept of reason (to be unified in the Ideal). The systemic unity of reason serves it subjectively, as a maxim to extend over “all possible empirical cognition of objects,” rather than as a mere objective principle over objects. The principle of the systemic unity that reason provides for the empirical use of cognitions of the understanding is “objective but in an indeterminate way.” This is possible when this principle of reason is used as regulative and, as Kant states: “…[a] maxim for furthering and strengthening the empirical use of reason by opening up new paths into the infinite (the undetermined) with which the understanding in not acquainted, yet without ever being the least bit contrary to the laws of its empirical use.”[17]

It should be readily apparent now how transcendental Idealism provides the basis for the necessary idea of human freedom (and furthermore the rest of Kant’s critical system). Transcendental Idealism entails the possibility that an event may be empirically unconditioned i.e. free via its relation to an intelligible cause (cognition) outside the manifold of appearance while simultaneously continuing to be empirically determined as it is situated in relation to empirical conditions. In the third antinomy, this possibility of freedom ends up yielding a double conception of human agency as a product of a conception of an intelligible character as the explanation of empirical character.[18] However, the intelligible character belongs to the noumenal world (which is non-temporal), therefore we cannot conceive of explaining it. We thus have no understanding of how we are free.[19] But we can say that freedom is at least possible and our faculty of reason possesses transcendental freedom.[20] If we can conceive of transcendental freedom then we have the starting point for practical freedom. Until we devise a practical freedom, we must behave “as if” it existed. As Kant states, in transcendental freedom we presuppose that, “…we can regard the past series of conditions as not having occurred, the act as being completely unconditioned by any preceding state; just as if the agent in and by himself began in this action an entirely new series of consequences.”[21]

The "as if" here encapsulates the essential dynamic of the transcendental Ideal of freedom and its relation to the critical system. In the “as if,” the reality of transcendental freedom is not denied. It is rather freed from a constitutive role in practical freedom. This makes it possible to use the transcendental Ideal in its proper regulative mode as a "model" for conceiving human action and agency. However, in the necessity to act “as if,” the reality of our heteronomous world¾a world which we do not in fact, fashion independently of nature, a world in which we live as practically unfree beings¾the transcendental Idealism of the Critique of Pure Reason can seem quite dubious indeed. Adorno, for example, sees an ideological mirror image in the notion that, “the world upon which we may be said to depend appears to us… as if we were its masters.” For Adorno, it seems we are rather captive in this world regardless of how far we can transcend it with pure concepts of reason: “as an object of knowledge the world appears as a human world, as our world, on a plane where that is not actually true.” He finds this as a problematically tautological aspect of Kantian philosophy. As knowing subjects, “we are imprisoned within ourselves.” We are confined in a self-made world, “the world of exchange, the world of commodities, the world of reified human relations that confront us, presenting us with a facade of objectivity, a second nature.”[22] The question is then: Is it possible to transcend this “second nature?”


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason [1959]. Trans. Tiedemann Rolf. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2001.

Allison, Henry. Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defence. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1983; 2nd ed. 2004.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Malden: Blackwell. 2004.

Deleuze, Gilles. Kant's Critical Philosophy [1963]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1984.

Gardner, Sebastian. Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason. London: Routledge, 1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Guyer, Paul & Wood, Allen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998.

Zupančič, Alenka. Ethics of the Real. London: Verso. 2000.


[1] Kant. Critique of Pure Reason. (A703/B731). Here on abbreviated [CPR].
[2] Adorno. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. 31-33.
[3] [CPR] Bxxiv-xxv, Bxxvii-xxix
[4] [CPR] A313/B370
[5] [CPR] A315/B372
[6] Kant. Critique of the Power of Judgement ¶ 91. Cited in Deleuze. Kant's Critical Philosophy. 31.
[7] [CPR] A322/B379
[8] Caygill. A Kant Dictionary. 237.
[9] [CPR] A323/B379
[10] Caygill. A Kant Dictionary. 237.
[11] [CPR] A568/B596
[12] [CPR] A568/B596
[13] [CPR] A577 /B605
[14] Caygill. A Kant Dictionary. 239
[15] [CPR] A570/B598
[16] Zupančič. Ethics of the Real. 64-65.
[17] [CPR] A681/B709
[18] Gardner. Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason. 260.
[19] [CPR] A556-7/B584-5
[20] [CPR] A548/B576
[21] [CPR] A555 / B583
[22] Adorno. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. 137.

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