Tag Archives: Metaphysics

Happiness, Moral Reason, and Citizenship in Kant

In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defines happiness derived by practical and moral law:

Happiness is the satisfaction of all our desires (extensively, in regard to their manifoldness; intensively, in regard to their degree, and also protensively, in regard to their duration). The practical law, derived from the motive of happiness, I call pragmatic (that is, rule of prudence); but the practical law, if there is such a law, which has no other motive but the worthiness to be happy, I call moral (law of morality). The former advises us as to what we have to do if we wish to attain happiness; the latter dictates how we ought to conduct ourselves in order to become worthy of happiness (636, emphasis Kant’s).

When reading this I was reminded of the way in which some of the key members of the Frankfurt School—perhaps all of the members—approach the current problems of self-determination and being a member of society in the world. This also may be in part connected to the Frankfurt School’s concern for genuine happiness. This happiness derived from self-determination seems unable to be achieved in an irrational world. For a society to determine itself under practical and moral laws, it would be necessary that its own conception of reason and its place be better understood.

In his lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno explains autonomy, Kantian moral and practical law:

What lies behind it [the idea of the critique of pure reason as a tribunal]—and in this respect we cannot really separate Kant’s theoretical philosophy, that is, the critique of reason, from his practical philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason—is Kant’s remarkable conception which actually supplies the unifying factor that must not be made the subject of mockery, but which must rather be properly understood. It is the idea that the freedom and sovereignty of spirit amounts to what he calls autonomy. This element is represented here by the judge who can freely resolve all these matters; it is the ability to give oneself laws, to restrict oneself and to determine one’s own limits. Autonomy literally means that you give yourself laws—and autonomy is the supreme concept in Kant’s moral philosophy, and by implication also of Kant’s theory of knowledge (54).

Steven Pinker and Scientism

I just read Steven Pinker’s recent article in The New Republic, “Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians”. Although the article calls itself a plea, it rather appears as the words of a self-appointed apostle of science, who reprimands ungrateful children for their inability to celebrate the manna bestowed upon them by science. Bewildered, Pinker writes, “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong”.

While I’m tempted to go through every part of the article and critique it, my argument can be summarized in a few points. First, Pinker begins with a misconception of philosophy, specifically metaphysics, which is not neurology, but rather the speculative thought about how we can come to make claims about knowledge and truth. Pinker’s enlisting of philosophers like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, etc. into the ranks of cognitive neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists is simply ignorant. Pinker would do well to walk over to the office of his colleague Peter Galison—professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University—and ask Galison to explain to him the differences between Metaphysics and neurology. Galison could also tell Pinker about the ideas of the self-improvement of humanity in the history of scientific thought. Pinker fails to see how anyone could possibly have anything negative to say “Enlightenment humanism”, which Pinker says is behind science today. This, I would argue, is the decisive point behind much of the criticism of scientism. Pinker lists such words as “reductionism” as terms used to criticize science’s flattening view of the world, but he doesn’t really explain how those criticisms are inaccurate.

The devotion to scientific facts becomes its own religious worldview. I want to quote at length a passage in which Pinker lists the ways in which science has accomplished such a view:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

While it is true that mystical belief-systems have been rejected, there is a difficult situation now in which scientific practice in thought becomes almost violent in its perception of all things. The enlightenment humanism espoused by Pinker due to its concern for self-preservation of humanity is heavily criticized by the Frankfurt School because it reduces nature and other humans to mere objects of domination. In other words: just as nature is now simply a material to be manipulated to achieve the goals of human flourishing, such a utilization can and has been turned upon fellow humans.

This of course is timely to have read this article while Noam Chomsky criticizes Slavoj Žižek for daring to have thought outside of scientific categories, which merely affirms the status quo. In Dialect of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno address such demands upon maintaining strict theoretical borders:

The loyal son of modern civilization’s fear of departing from the facts, which even in their perception are turned into clichés by the prevailing usages in science, business, and politics, is exactly the same as the fear of social deviation. Those usages also define the concept of clarity in language and thought to which art, literature, and philosophy must conform today. By tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts and from the prevailing modes of thought as obscure, convoluted, and preferably foreign, that concept holds mind captive in ever deeper blindness (xvi-xvii).

The blind obedience to mere empiricism is a symptom of equating reality with eternal truths, thus leaving no room for imaginative thought.

A side note: for a critique of the encroachment of scientism—in the form of the controversial Evolutionary Psychology—into literary studies, read Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011): 315-347. The essay is available on JSTOR as well, if you have JSTOR access. This essay was brought up a lot during my time at Critical Inquiry, and we even printed several responses to the essay in issue 2 of volume 38 (Winter 2012).

Kant in an Elevator in Space

In my attempt to follow Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, I thought of a physics analogy to help make sense of a passage. I suppose this isn’t so off-topic since Kant is talking about metaphysics. On the need of the permanent for relations in time, Kant writes,

All relations of time are therefore possible only in the permanent (simultaneity and succession being the only relations in time); so that the permanent is the substratum of the empirical representation of time itself, and in it alone all determination of time is possible. Permanence expresses time in general as the constant correlate of all existence of appearances, of all change and concomitance. For change does not affect time itself, but only appearances in time […] (208).

The point being that there must be another vantage point outside of time for observation of change to be possible. My analogy comes about because this passage reminds me of a physics example in which someone is placed in a kind of windowless elevator in space, outside of the gravitational pull of planets. The force of gravity on earth is mass multiplied by the acceleration of earth’s gravity (9.8 meters/sec/sec). On a stable platform, this force can be felt pushing back up at us as the normal force. This upward force is equal to the gravitational force we exert upon the platform. In the space elevator, if the elevator were accelerating upward (in relation to the passenger’s sense of upward) at earth’s gravitational acceleration (or any positive gravitational acceleration), then the passenger would be unable to tell if the elevator were standing still on Earth or accelerating in space. If the elevator had windows, however, the passenger could possibly see stars, debris, etc. outside from which she could tell if she were seeing a parallax view of space as the elevator moved.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Diagram of a parallax view. Image from Wikimedia Commons