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ETHICS AND AESTHETICS

 KANT II: ETHICS AND AESTHETICS

The Critique of Pure Reason set out to curb the pretensions of speculative metaphysics while establishing a priori those principles which must be assumed if there is to be knowledge of an objective order. These principles enable the fundamental distinction between appearance and reality to be drawn with system and authority. The same concern for objectivity can be seen in Kant’s writings on ethics and aesthetics, both of which subjects he transformed entirely. There are two Critiques (1788 and 1790) which deal with these branches of philosophy, together with an earlier and in many ways more challenging work, the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). These works develop systems of value which not only purport to explore in a definitive way the entire question of the objectivity of moral and aesthetic judgement, but also to bring to completion the metaphysical speculations begun in the first Critique. Kant tries to rehabilitate, through the theory of ‘practical reason’, some crucial metaphysical dogmas which theoretical reason alone is unable to establish.

In his ethics and aesthetics Kant was less concerned with the demolition of speculative pretensions and more concerned with providing positive support for evaluative judgements. He wished to justify fundamental items of belief, and to provide the underpinning of thoughts which seem both vulnerable to philosophical scepticism and at the same time basic to our conception of ourselves. Once again Kant considered himself to be responding to the challenge of Hume’s scepticism, in an area where because moral and aesthetic principles provide obstacles both to the fulfilment of natural inclination and to the exercise of choice—there is a universal motive to welcome scepticism. Moreover, this motive seems well founded. For what else can moral and aesthetic principles amount to, if not the expressions of individual preferences, powerful perhaps in their sovereignty over the mind which conceives them, but unwarranted by any independent order? They seem to be supported, if at all, by sanctions which are as arbitrary as the laws which they uphold.

Hume formulated the fundamental premises of this scepticism in two succinct but complex thoughts. First, there is no derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, which is to say that moral judgements, since they do not describe how things are, gain no justification from natural science. Secondly, since the sole motive to action is desire, and reason itself is no motive, the only rational justification that can be offered for any action lies in showing that it contributes to the satisfaction of an agent’s wishes. All reasoning is reasoning about means, and has no authority beyond that of the desire which compels it. There is no innate power of reason to overrule desire, and hence no power of reason to determine action objectively.

The first great insight contained in Kant’s moral philosophy was the realisation that Hume’s first source of scepticism was of no real significance. Suppose that the ‘is—ought’ problem were solved, so that moral judgements could be determined with the objectivity of a natural science. That would not refute scepticism. For to refute scepticism we must also show how such judgements provide reasons for acting. In other words, Hume’s second objection would still be sufficient to refute the objectivity of morals. On the other hand, if we can show that there are objective reasons for acting, then the ‘is—ought’ problem becomes insignificant. It no longer matters that we can or cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, for morality will gain its rational basis independently. It seemed to Kant therefore that the ancient distinction between theoretical and practical reason should be revived, and the foundations of the second explored with the same discipline that he had devoted to the exposition of the first. This reintroduction and elaboration of the concept of practical reason was among one of the most influential of Kant’s achievements and provided the grounds not only for his own partial repudiation of the metaphysics of the first Critique but also for many of the insights of later German idealists.

Theoretical reason guides belief, and practical reason guides action; the first therefore aims at truth, the second at rightness. The first, when employed legitimately, Kant called understanding; when illegitimately, pure reason. Reason can, however, also be employed legitimately, but it must then be subjected to those determinations which transform it into practical reason. Understanding issues in judgements (intellectual acts which might be true or false); practical reason issues in imperatives, which may be acted on, but which cannot be called true. (Hence— though Kant does not derive this conclusion—there is no logical argument from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, no argument which proceeds by the use of principles governing truth alone.) Practical reason consists, therefore, in the justification of imperatives, and the problem is to define and validate a concept of objectivity which will both apply to such imperatives and generate a recognisable system of morality.

The categorical imperative

Imperatives, Kant noticed, are of two kinds, the hypothetical and the categorical. The first kind are distinguished by the presence of a conditional antecedent, an ‘if…’, which makes reference to some condition of need or desire. ‘If you want a drink, then go into the drawing-room’. The consequent of such an imperative states (if the whole is valid) an adequate means to the satisfaction of the want or desire mentioned in the antecedent. Such imperatives can be justified objectively, without assuming any special function of practical reason. It suffices to show that, as a matter of fact, the means referred to are adequate to the end supposed. But in an important sense hypothetical imperatives neither have nor claim objectivity: for they provide reasons for action only to people who have the desire mentioned in their antecedent. Their weight, or motivating force, depends upon the actual desires of the subject to whom they are addressed, and derives purely from the motivating force of those desires. According to Hume, there is no other practical employment of reason than in the generation of imperatives of this kind, that is, in a specific and limited application of theoretical reason to the calculation of the means to our ends.

But there is another kind of imperative—the categorical—which makes no relation to specific desires or needs, and which therefore depends for its validity (should it be capable of validity) on no ‘empirical conditions’, as Kant put it. Such imperatives contain no ‘if…’, no concession to the antecedent interests of the subject. They take the form ‘Do this!’ or ‘You ought to do this!’ The presence of the ‘ought’ indicates that, while they may not obtain validity, they certainly claim it. And the claim here is for a genuine objectivity, independent of theoretical reason. It is a claim to bind the subject irrespective of his actual desires, to lay down, as a dictate of reason, an injunction which must be enforced.

But how is such an imperative justified? It is here that Kant discerned the distinctive task and structure of practical reason. Categorical imperatives are justified by the invocation of certain principles of practical reason, all of which can be shown to be either derivable from, or equivalent to, a single governing principle. This governing principle he called the categorical imperative. He formulated it in several ways, the first of which was this: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will as a universal law.’ This imperative is designed to capture in a pregnant philosophical phrase the persuasive force of the moral question to which all rational beings respond, the question ‘What if others were to act likewise?’ It was represented by Kant as having a priori validity. It had the same ultimate status in practical reason that he attributed to the principles of the pure understanding: any further justification of it must be philosophical. It is as much a precondition of practical thought as the law of causation is a presupposition of science.

The categorical imperative was restated in various forms, and Kant claimed that these forms were all equivalent, different formulations of the same philosophical insight. Two that are of particular importance are these: ‘Act so as to will the maxim of your action as a universal law in a Kingdom of Ends,’ and ‘Act so as to treat every rational being, whether in yourself or in another, never as a means only but always also as an end.’ The first of these means, roughly, that in formulating a principle of conduct, a rational being is constrained to postulate an ideal. In this ideal, or Kingdom of Ends, what is, ought to be and what ought to be, is. In positing such a realm, and himself as part of it, the agent sees himself in relation to other rational beings as one among many, of equal importance with them, deserving and giving respect on the basis of reason alone, and not on the basis of those empirical conditions which create distinctions between people.

The second principle implies that a rational being is constrained by reason not to bend others to his own purposes, not to enslave, abuse or exploit them, but always to recognise that they contain within themselves the justification of their own existence, and a right to their autonomy.

The principles between them constitute the vital Kantian idea that the moral law is founded in, and expressive of, the ‘respect for persons’. Kant’s claim that the three principles given are simply separate versions of a single principle is difficult to understand: the principles do not seem the same, and indeed involve different terms in their formulation. However, Kant clearly thought that any philosophical justification of the one would be adequate to ground the others too, perhaps because they each involve some fundamental aspect of a single cluster of concepts: rational agency, autonomy, will, end. These concepts could plausibly be considered to provide the basic ideas of practical reason. It is clear that the three principles (and the various modifications of them which Kant from time to time gave) contain the seeds of a powerful and also common-sensical moral point of view. They enjoin respect for others; they forbid slavery, fraud, theft, violence and sexual misuse; they provide a systematic and plausible test against which the pretensions of any particular morality could be measured. Kant’s claim, therefore, to have discovered the fundamental presuppositions of morality may not be entirely unfounded.

The objective necessity of the categorical imperative

The objectivity of the categorical imperative consists in three separate properties. First, it makes no reference to individual desires or needs, indeed to nothing except the concept of rationality as such. Hence it makes no distinctions among rational agents, but applies, if at all, universally, to all who can understand reasons for action. (It therefore governs reasoning about ends and not about means.) Secondly, the rational agent is constrained by reason to accept the categorical imperative: this imperative is as much a fundamental law of practical reason as the law of non-contradiction is a law of thought. Not to accept it is not to reason practically. Like the law of non-contradiction, therefore, it cannot be rationally rejected. Thirdly, to accept such a principle is to acquire a motive to act—it is to be persuaded to obedience. Since the imperative makes no reference to any desire, but only to the faculty of reasoning as such, it follows that, if all those three claims can be upheld, practical reason alone can provide a motive for action. Hence the ground of Hume’s scepticism—which is that reason is inert, and that all practical reasoning is subservient to desire—is cut away. The moral law becomes not just universal, but necessary, for there is no way of thinking practically that will not involve its explicit or implicit affirmation. The categorical imperative has ‘objective necessity’, and achieves this by abstracting from all needs and desires, all ‘empirical determinations’. It represents the agent as bound by his rational nature alone.

How can this claim to objectivity be upheld? It is here that Kant’s moral philosophy becomes difficult and obscure. While he affirms that we know the validity of the categorical imperative a priori, he recognises that it is no more sufficient in the case of practical reasoning than it is in the case of scientific understanding to make such a claim. It also stands in need of proof—the kind of proof that the Transcendental Deduction was supposed to provide in the case of the presuppositions of scientific thinking. But Kant did not provide this Transcendental Deduction; instead, he devoted the second Critique to an examination of metaphysical questions which, while enormously influential, left the gap between his metaphysics and his morals unclosed. This examination, perhaps intended as a kind of substitute for a Transcendental Deduction, concerns the concepts of freedom, reason and autonomy.

Freedom and reason

Kant argued that no moral law, and indeed no practical reasoning, is intelligible without the postulate of freedom; he also argued that only a rational being could be free in the sense that morality requires. In what then does freedom consist? Not, as Spinoza, Hume and many others had adequately proved, in mere randomness, nor in freedom from those laws that govern the universe. The free agent, as soon as we examine the question, we see to be distinguished, not by his lack of constraint, but by the peculiar nature of the constraint which governs him. He is constrained by reason, in its reception of the moral law. Freedom is subjection to the moral law, and is never more vivid than in the recognition of the necessity of that law and its absolute authority over the actions of the moral agent.

To clarify this thought we must distinguish action in accordance with the law from action from the law. A person might act in accordance with the law out of terror or coercion, or in the hope of reward. In these cases the law is not his motive, and the maxim governing his action, while it may seem to be categorical, is in fact hypothetical. To act from the law is to act out of an acceptance of the categorical imperative itself, and to be motivated by that acceptance. Since this motivation is itself intrinsic to the categorical imperative, it arises from the exercise of reason alone; in acting from the law, therefore, a rational agent at the same time expresses what Kant called ‘the autonomy of the will’. His action stems from his own rational reflection, which suffices to generate the motive of his act. His act is, in a deep sense, his own, and the decision from which it springs reflects his whole existence as a rational being, and not the arbitrary (empirical) determination of this or that desire.

Opposed to this autonomy is the ‘heteronomy’ of the agent who acts not in obedience to the commands of reason, but, for example, out of passion, fear, or the hope of reward. The ‘heteronomous’ agent is the one who has withdrawn from the exactions of pure morality and taken refuge in slavery. He acts in subjection, either to nature or to some superior force.

He may disguise his a-morality by religious scruples, which lead him to act in accordance with the moral law out of hope or fear. But in himself, having failed to achieve the autonomy which alone commands the respect of rational beings, he stands outside the moral order, unfree, subservient, diminished in his very personhood, and in his respect for himself.

The antinomy of freedom

Having established a connection between freedom, reason and autonomy, Kant approaches the problem of free will. In the course of doing so he, begins the partial retraction of his strictures against speculative metaphysics. In the ‘Antinomy of Pure Reason’, contained in the Dialectic of the first Critique, Kant had purported to show the various ways in which pure reason tries to reach beyond the limited, ‘conditioned’, timedominated world of empirical observation, so as to embrace the unconditioned, eternal world of ‘noumena’. Kant sought to demonstrate that each of these ways of pursuing the ‘unconditioned’, ‘intelligible’ order generates a contradiction.

One of the ‘cosmological’ contradictions seemed to him, however, to demand a resolution. This was the contradiction between free will and determinism. The category of cause, and its attendant principle that every event has a cause, orders the empirical world in such a way as to leave no room for the unconditioned event. And yet human freedom seems to require us to think of ourselves as in some sense the ‘originators’ of our actions, standing outside the course of nature. This freedom is something of which we have an indubitable intuition. The antinomy troubled Kant. He could not accept Hume’s view, that there is, here, no genuine contradiction. Nor could he accept his own official theory, that such antinomies are the inevitable result of human reason’s attempt to think beyond nature, to aspire towards the absolute and unconditioned, instead of confining itself to the phenomenal world. He therefore sought to develop, both here, and in the second Critique, a solution to the problem of free will. The solution took the following form:

The intuitive knowledge of our freedom is primitive and original. It is the presupposition of any practical problem and of any practical reasoning that might be brought to solve it. It stands to practical reason much as the Transcendental Unity of Apperception stands to the theoretical understanding: it is the unquestionable premise without which there would be neither problem nor solution. But practical knowledge is not like theoretical knowledge. It aims not to understand nature, not to explain and predict, but to find reasons for action, and to lay down laws of rational conduct. In thinking of myself as free I am thinking of myself, so to speak, ‘under the aspect of agency’. That entails seeing myself, not as an object in a world of objects, obedient to causal laws, but as a subject, creator of my world, whose stance is active, and whose laws are the laws of freedom, knowable to reason alone. (To some extent, this distinction can be understood through another that we all intuitively grasp, that between predicting and deciding. It is one thing to predict that I will get drunk tonight, another to decide to do it. In the first case I look on myself from outside, in the context of the laws of nature to which I am subject, and I observe myself as I would another, trying to arrive at a prediction of my likely behaviour. In the second case I respond as determining agent, and make it my responsibility to bring a future event into being. In one case I give myself reasons for believing something about my future behaviour (theoretical reasons), in the other I give myself reasons for acting (practical reasons).

It seems then, said Kant, that I know myself in two ways, theoretically, as part of nature, and practically, as agent. And bound up with these two forms of knowledge are two forms of law which I discover through them: the laws of nature and the laws of freedom, the latter being, not surprisingly, the versions of the categorical imperatives. Kant then took the step which was both to undo the conclusions of the first Critique and also to inspire succeeding generations of German philosophers to undo likewise. He asserted that in the first form of knowledge I know myself as phenomenon, in the second, practical knowledge, I know myself as noumenon. Despite Kant’s seemingly established theory that noumena are in essence unknowable to the understanding, he has, through invoking the ancient idea of ‘practical’ knowledge, presented a picture of how they might nevertheless be known: the will of a rational being, as belonging to the sensuous world, recognises itself to be, like all other efficient causes, necessarily subject to laws of causality, while in practical matters, in its other aspects as a being-in-itself, it is conscious of its experience as determinable in an intelligible order of things.

In other words, the world of noumena is made open to reason after all, but reason not in its theoretical employment, but in its legitimate form, the form of practical reason. Kant goes on to argue that, even in this form, it provides us with knowledge. Whether or not the postulation of the self as noumenon resolves the problem of free will I leave for the reader to judge. The question we must now consider is the status and content of this knowledge which practical reason yields.

The postulates of reason

We find, in fact, that practical reason leads us precisely to those crucial metaphysical theories that the first Critique had purported to refute: the existence of a noumenal realm, the immortality of the soul, the affirmation of positive freedom, and the existence of God (the last three being known by Kant as ‘Postulates of Reason’). The positive freedom of the rational agent lies in the fact that he is conscious of his own existence as a thing-in-itself, [and] views his existence so far as it does not stand under temporal conditions, and… himself as determinable only by laws which he gives to himself through reason. In this existence nothing is antecedent to the determination of his will.

The immortality of the soul is supposed to be a necessary consequence of the thought (in some way derivable from the categorical imperative) that human beings are indefinitely perfectible, and therefore able to endure for as long as infinite perfection requires. The existence of God is vouchsafed in turn by the same categorical imperative, as a kind of

guarantee without which the necessary idea of a Kingdom of Ends would be logically inconceivable.

Nobody, I think, has’ been able to give a satisfactory account of this aspect of Kant’s philosophy, and the reason is not hard to find. Having separated theoretical and practical reason, in such a way that the province of the former is judgement and the latter action, it seems inevitable that claims to truth belong to the first, whereas the second must deal with claims to right, obligation and duty alone. Practical reason cannot therefore postulate the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, as theoretical conclusions. It cannot lead us to say that this is how things are. The best it can say (and this, of course, is not enough) is that this is how things ought to be.

One way to make Kant’s thought accessible, however, is this: the existence of God and the immortality of the soul cannot be proved as theoretical judgements, since it lies beyond the power of the human understanding to conceive or conjecture them. Nevertheless, when acting in obedience to the moral law we know these things not as truths, but in some other way. We ‘know God’ as a noumenal presence; we possess an intimation (in Wordsworth’s sense) of our immortality. But these feelings of familiarity, forced on us by the very perception of the moral order, cannot be translated into the language of scientific judgement, and so can be assigned no value as literal truths.

Aesthetics

No philosopher has argued more firmly than Kant for the view that moral judgements are objective, rational and universally binding, and his exposition of morality is the starting-point from which all subsequent scepticism began. But even Kant, for whom the objectivity of rational enquiry constituted the fundamental philosophical problem in all realms of human thought, felt that he must, in treating of aesthetics, make some concessions to subjectivism.

Aesthetic judgement, Kant argued, concerns itself with particular objects, and is both ‘disinterested’ (outside the demands of practical reasoning) and ‘free of concepts’ (outside the rules of the understanding).

Its aim is neither scientific knowledge nor right action, but rather the contemplation of the individual object for its own sake, as it is in itself, and in the light of the particular sensuous experience that it generates. Nevertheless, aesthetic contemplation is not the same as animal enjoyment. It is a rational pursuit, and issues in judgements which, while they can never be supported by objective or universal principles, do lay claim to objectivity. This claim is unavoidable. For to the extent that our enjoyment of something stems from our rational nature, so do we feel that beings similarly constituted ought to share in it, and so do we look in the object for the grounds that will persuade them to enjoy it too. This pursuit of objectivity, while hopeless, is inevitable. It is indispensable to aesthetic enjoyment, which is founded in critical understanding and never reducible to mere sensuous indulgence.

Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgement was complex, and obscurely worked out. While the third Critique is undeniably the most important work of aesthetics to have been produced since Aristotle, it was the product of a mind exhausted by its labours, still pregnant with unformed thoughts, but unable to give to them their full elaboration. For example, Kant suggests, in a famous phrase, that the aesthetic judgement seeks in nature and in art for ‘purposiveness without purpose’. Here he gestures not only towards a theory of aesthetics, but also towards a larger vision, which shows the role of aesthetic judgement in intellectual enquiry as a whole. Aesthetic judgement is given an indispensable place in forming a picture of the relation of the human mind to the world of experience. It was left to other thinkers, notably to Schiller, to give elaboration to this thought, and in doing so to lay the foundations of a philosophy of art that has been the most influential in intellectual history.

Transcendental idealism

The Critique of Judgement argues, then, not for the objective validity of aesthetic values, but for the fact that we must think of them as objectively valid. This immediately leads us to ask how Kant can distinguish in general between the actual objectivity of a mode of thought and the innate need that we feel to construe it as though it were objective. Consider moral judgements (understood in the Kantian way, so that the intimation of God and immortality is an immovable part of moral understanding). Is it the case that Kant has argued for their objectivity? Or has he merely argued that we must treat moral judgements as though they were objective? Many philosophers who accept the second thesis (believing, indeed, that this ‘pressure of reason’ is what is distinctive of the moral point of view) nevertheless reject the first: the thesis of the objectivity of morals.

As I have already suggested, this doubt as to the nature and scope of Kant’s enterprise can be extended even into the first Critique. Has he argued for the actual objectivity of science, and for the existence of objects that may be other than they seem? Or has he merely advanced a thesis concerning human mental capacities, the thesis that we are constrained to think as though this were true? To put it in more idealistic terms: has he argued simply that we impose (through the organising principles of the understanding) an order on our experience which we then interpret in the familiar terms of object, cause, space and time? Modern philosophers have tended to interpret Kant as arguing for the actual objectivity of science. The world is as science describes it to be. We ourselves are no more than observers of it, whose peculiarities are not to be discovered by introspection, but rather by adopting the point of view of the objective world of which we form a part. Kant’s immediate successors, however, interpreted him differently. To them he had not so much laid the foundations of a true objectivity as explored the reaches of subjectivity. Far from demoting the first person from the privileged place which it had, until then, assumed in epistemology, he had elevated it to the single principle not only of epistemology but of metaphysics itself.

Three features of Kant’s philosophy give grounds for this interpretation. First, there is his own description of the philosophy of the first Critique as ‘transcendental idealism’. Secondly, Kant, in referring to the capacities of the human mind, speaks always of ‘our’ experience, ‘our’ understanding, ‘our’ concepts, ‘our’ will, etc., leaving open the crucial question whether this ‘our’ is to be taken in a general sense.

Does it mean all human beings conceived impartially? Or is it to be interpreted in the specific sense of idealism, in which it refers to the abstract subject, the ‘I’ that is engaged in the intellectual construction of a ‘world’? This ambiguity is crucial, since, depending on its interpretation, we seem drawn either towards an impersonal metaphysics, or towards a highly solipsistic epistemology. Finally there is the confusion introduced by the second Critique, which seems to reject the view that the world of ‘phenomena’ is the actual world, within which the distinction between appearance and reality must be drawn, and asserts in its place the view that all ‘phenomena’ are mere appearance, with the reality consisting in the thing-in-itself that lies behind it. At the same time it is argued that the thing-in-itself is knowable after all, through the postulates of practical reason.

Fichte, Schiller and Schelling

Kant’s immediate followers adopted the framework and the language of transcendental idealism, the principal achievement of which, they believed, was to have demoted the thing-in-itself from its metaphysical eminence, and elevated the self and its mental faculties in place of it. Henceforth the first study of philosophy was to be the ‘faculties’—known by their Kantian names as intuition, understanding, reason, judgement, and so on—through which the self orders the world of appearance, and knows self and world together. The ground of all that exists is the subject of consciousness—unknowable to the understanding, but revealed to practical reason as freedom and will.

 But if the self is the source of knowledge, something has been left unexplained. How can a merely subjective entity, beyond the reach of concepts, construct an objective world and endow it with the order of space, time and causality? This is the question that motivated the tradition known on the Continent as ‘classical German philosophy’, but which could be more accurately described as ‘romantic German philosophy’, not only for its association with romantic literature, but also on account of its manifest preference for lofty visions over valid arguments. The tradition was founded by Fichte and Schelling, and I shall conclude this chapter with a brief summary of their leading ideas, in order to show the profound impact on German philosophy of the Kantian agenda. 

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) was appointed (thanks to the influence of Goethe and Schiller) to the chair of philosophy in Jena at the age of 32. His lectures were immensely popular, and he published them in 1794. Known as the Wissenschaftslehre (Science of Knowledge), they were reworked in later editions, and were prefaced by Fichte with the claim that ‘my system is nothing other than the Kantian’. According to Fichte, Kant had shown that there are but two possible philosophies: idealism and dogmatism. The idealist looks for the explanation of experience in intelligence, the dogmatist in the ‘thing-in-itself’. Kant had shown that idealism can explain everything that dogmatism explains, while making no assumptions beyond the reach of observation. The dispute between the two concerns whether ‘the independence of the thing should be sacrificed to that of the self, or, conversely, the independence of the self to that of the thing’. The starting-point of idealist philosophy is therefore the self (das Ich).

The task of such a philosophy is to discover the ‘absolutely unconditioned first principle of human knowledge’. Logicians offer an instance of necessary and indisputable truth in the law of identity: A = A. But even in that law something is presupposed that we have yet to justify, namely the existence of A. I can advance to the truth of A = A, once A has been ‘posited’ as an object of thought. But what justifies me in positing A? There is no answer. Only if we can find something that is posited in the act of thinking itself will we arrive at a self-justifying basis for our claims to knowledge. This thing that is posited absolutely is the I; for when the self is the object of thought, that which is ‘posited’ is identical with that which ‘posits’. In the statement that I = I we have therefore reached bedrock. Here is a necessary truth that presupposes nothing. The self-positing of the self is the true ground of the law of identity, and hence of logic itself.

dentity, and hence of logic itself.

To this first principle of knowledge, which he calls the principle of identity, Fichte adds a second. The positing of the self is also a positing of the not-self. For what I posit is always an object of knowledge, and an object is not a subject. That which comes before my intuition in the act of self-knowledge is intuited as not-self. This is the principle of counter-positing (or opposition). From which, in conjunction with the first principle, a third can be derived, namely, that the not-self is divisible in thought and opposed to a ‘divisible self. This third principle (the ‘grounding principle’) is supposedly derived by a ‘synthesis’ of the other two. It is the ground of transcendental philosophy, which explores the ‘division’ of the self by concepts, whereby the world is constituted as an object of knowledge.

The self is ‘determined’ or ‘limited’ by the not-self, which in turn is limited by the self. It is as though self-consciousness were traversed by a movable barrier: whatever lies in the not-self has been transferred there from the self. But since the origin of both self and not-self is the act of self-positing, nothing on either side of the barrier is anything, in the last analysis, but self. In the not-self, however, the self is passive. There is no contradiction in bringing this passive object under such concepts as space, time and causality, so situating it in the natural order. As subject, on the other hand, the self is active, spontaneously positing the objects of knowledge. The self is therefore free, since the concepts of the natural world (including causality) apply only to that which is posited as object, and not to the positing subject.

All activity in the not-self (including that which we should describe as causation) is transferred there from the self. But transference of activity is also an ‘alienation’ (Entfremdung) of the self in the not-self, and a determination of the self by the not-self. This self-determination (Selbstbestimmung) is the realisation of freedom, since the not-self that determines me is only the self made objective in the act of self-awareness.

Fichte’s philosophy rests not so much in argument as in impetuous explosions of jargon, in which that fabricated verb ‘to posit’ (setzen) kaleidoscopes into a thousand self-reflecting images. Schopenhauer described Fichte as ‘the father of sham philosophy, of the underhand method that by ambiguity in the use of words, incomprehensible talk and sophisms, tries to…befool those eager to learn’. This harsh judgement (characteristic of its author) may be deserved; but it does nothing to deny Fichte’s enormous influence: an influence that can be seen in the writings of Schopenhauer himself. For what Fichte bequeathed to his successors was not an argument at all, but a drama, the outlines of which may be summarised thus:

Underlying knowledge is the free and self-producing subject. The destiny of the subject is to know itself by ‘determining’ itself, and thereby to realise its freedom in an objective world. This great adventure is possible only through the object, which the subject posits, but to which it stands opposed as its negation. The relation between subject and object is dialectical— thesis meets antithesis, whence a synthesis (knowledge) emerges. Every venture outwards is also an alienation of the self, which achieves freedom and self-knowledge only after a long toil of self-sundering. The self emerges at last in possession of a ‘realised’ self-consciousness, which is also consciousness of an objective order. The ‘process’ of self-determination does not occur in time, since time is one of its products: indeed the order of events in time is the reverse of their order in ‘logic’.

That drama, give or take a few details, remains unchanged in Schelling and Hegel, and remnants of it survive through Schopenhauer, Feuerbach and Marx right down to Heidegger. What it lacks in cogency it amply supplies in charm, and even today its mesmerising imagery infects the language and the agenda of Continental philosophy.

But there was another input, besides Fichte’s drama, into the post-Kantian agenda. This was the aesthetic theory of Kant’s third Critique, as refined and polished by the poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). In a series of Letters on Aesthetic Education (1794–1795) Schiller gave special content to the Kantian view of the aesthetic sense as ‘disinterested’. While Kant had paid little attention to art, Schiller attempted to describe it as the highest of man’s activities. Art is the activity in which, being ‘disinterested’, man is at once wholly free and wholly at rest. Art is a form of ‘play’. It therefore has a privileged place, not only in human self-knowledge (of which it forms the highest example) but in the life of the state. It is through ‘aesthetic education’ that the moral and cognitive faculties of man achieve their free expression, and so develop in accordance with their innate principles of harmony. The good state must therefore both encourage and embody that aesthetic understanding which brings the greatest intuition of unity between man and man and between man and nature.

Schiller was followed by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775– 1854), in the attempt to incorporate into the critical philosophy a comprehensive account of the nature and value of art. Schelling began as a disciple of Fichte, arguing, in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) for the same view of the world as self-creative ego, and the same view of knowledge, as a progression from subject to object, in which the subject plays the active and determining role. But like Schiller he was deeply influenced by the prevailing romantic attitude to art and to the creative imagination. He therefore sought to describe the aesthetic mode of understanding as an indispensable part of human consciousness. In the course of doing so, he invented the subject of art history as we know it and placed aesthetic experience at the pinnacle of human knowledge.

From the point of view of aesthetics Schiller is both more original than Schelling and of greater contemporary interest. And from the point of view of the history of philosophy Schelling is now entirely eclipsed by his colleague and rival Hegel, who nevertheless would not have thought as he did had Schelling, Fichte and Schiller not prepared the ground for him. All three of these last-named philosophers remain honourably situated in the history of ideas, being part of that great burgeoning of literary activity known as the Goethezeit. Had Hegel not existed, Fichte and Schelling would be studied as avidly now as they were by their contemporaries. But Hegel, the most powerful of the German idealists, towered above these lesser figures, presenting a philosophy which has been not only one of the most influential that the modern world has known, but also the greatest in range and imaginative grasp, the clearest in its understanding of the consequences that ensue when philosophy takes practical and not theoretical knowledge as its central interest, and the boldest in its contempt for any mode of thought that is not both a priori in method and infinite in ambition.

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