Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Section Three: Recent German Philosophy
B. Kant.
Critique of Practical Reason

2. The second subject of review in Kant’s philosophy is the practical sphere, the nature and principle of the will; this subject is dealt with in the Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant accepted Rousseau’s conclusion that the will is absolutely free. Kant’s idea of theoretic Reason is that when Reason relates itself to an object, this object must be given to it; but when the object is given by Reason to itself, it has no truth; and Reason in knowledge of this kind does not arrive at independence. As practical, on the contrary, Reason is independent in itself; as a moral Being man is free, raised above all natural law and above all phenomena. As the theoretic Reason had in itself categories, a priori distinctions, so practical Reason has in turn the moral law in general, the further determinations of which are constituted by the notions of duty and right, lawful and unlawful; and here Reason disdains all the given material which was necessary to it on the theoretic side. The will determines itself within itself; all that is right and moral rests on freedom; in this man has his absolute self-consciousness.(29) On this side self-consciousness finds essential reality in itself, as theoretical Reason found it in an “other”; and in the first place, indeed, the ego in its individuality is immediate reality, universality, objectivity; in the second place subjectivity strives after reality, but not after sensuous reality such as we had before, for here Reason holds itself to be the real. Here we have the Notion which is sensible of its own deficiency; this theoretic Reason could not be, as in it the Notion had to remain the Notion. Thus we have the standpoint of absoluteness revealed, since there is an infinite disclosed within the human breast. The satisfying part in Kant’s philosophy is that the truth is at least set within the heart; and hence I acknowledge that, and that alone, which is in conformity with my determined nature.

a. Kant divides will into lower and higher faculties of desire; this expression is not inapt. The lower faculties of desire are impulses, inclinations, etc.; the higher faculty is the will as such, which has not external, individual aims, but universal. To the question what the principle of will that should determine man in his actions is, all sorts of answers have been given; for instance, self-love, benevolence, happiness, etc. Such material principles of action, Kant now says, are all reducible to impulses, to happiness; but the rational in itself is purely formal, and consists in the maxim that what is to hold good as law, must be capable of being thought of as a law of universal application, without destroying itself. All morality of action now rests upon the conviction that the act is done with consciousness of the law, for the sake of the law and out of respect for the law and for itself, without any regard to what makes for happiness. As a moral Being man has the moral law in himself, the principle of which is freedom and autonomy of the will; for the will is absolute spontaneity. Determinations which are taken from the inclinations are heterogeneous principles as regards the will; or the will is heteronomy if it takes such determinations as its end and aim; for in that case it takes its determinations from something else than itself. But the essence of the will is to determine itself from itself; for practical Reason gives itself laws. But the empirical will is heteronomous, for it is determined by desires; and they belong to our nature, not to the realm of freedom.(30)

It is a highly important point in the Kantian philosophy that what self-consciousness esteems reality, law, and implicit Being, is brought back within itself. While a man is striving after this aim and that, according as he judges the world or history in one way or the other, what is he to take as his ultimate aim? For the will, however, there is no other aim than that derived from itself, the aim of its freedom. It is a great advance when the principle is established that freedom is the last hinge on which man turns, a highest possible pinnacle, which allows nothing further to be imposed upon it; thus man bows to no authority, and acknowledges no obligations, where his freedom is not respected. Great popularity has from one point of view been won for Kantian philosophy by the teaching that man finds in himself an absolutely firm, unwavering centre-point; but with this last principle it has come to a standstill. While the highest pinnacle of the theoretic Reason is abstract identity, because it can furnish only a canon, a rule for abstract classifications,(31) practical Reason, as law-giving, is immediately regarded as concrete; the law which it gives to itself is the moral law. But even if it is stated that it is concrete in itself, there is the further consideration that this freedom is at first only the negative of everything else; no bond, nothing external, lays me under an obligation. It is to this extent indeterminate; it is the identity of the will with itself, its at-homeness with itself. But what is the content of this law? Here we at once come back to the lack of content. For the sole form of this principle is nothing more or less than agreement with itself, universality; the formal principle of legislation in this internal solitude comes to no determination, or this is abstraction only. The universal, the non-contradiction of self, is without content, something which comes to be reality in the practical sphere just as little as in the theoretical. The universal moral law Kant therefore expresses thus (and the setting up of such a universal form was at all times the demand of the abstract understanding): “Act from maxims” (the law is also to be my particular law), “which are capable of becoming universal laws.”(32)

Thus for the determination of duty (for the question which meets us is, what is duty for the free will) Kant has contributed nothing but the form of identity, which is the law of abstract Understanding. To defend one’s fatherland, to promote the happiness of another, is a duty, not because of the content, but because it is duty; as with the Stoics, what was thought was true for the very reason that, and in so far as it was thought (Vol. II., pp. 254, 260, 263). The content as such is indeed not what holds good universally in the moral law, because it contradicts itself. For benevolence, for instance, enjoins: “Give your possessions to the poor,” but if all give away what they have, beneficence is done away with (Vol. I., pp. 417,418). Even with abstract identity, however, we do not get a step further, for every content which is put into this form is by being so put freed from self-contradiction. But nothing would be lost if it were not put into this form at all. With regard to property, for instance, the law of my actions is this: Property ought to be respected, for the opposite of this cannot be universal law. That is correct, but it is quite a formal determination: If property is, then it is. Property is here presupposed, but this determination may also in the same way be omitted, and then there is no contradiction involved in theft: If there is no such thing as property, then it is not respected. This is the defect in the principle of Kant and Fichte, that it is really formal; chill duty is the final undigested lump left within the stomach, the revelation given to Reason.

The first postulate in practical Reason is thus free, independent will which determines itself, but this concrete is still abstract. The second and third are forms which remind us that the will is concrete in a higher sense.

b. The second point is the connection of the Notion of the will with the particular will of the individual; the concrete is here the fact that my particular will and the universal will are identical, or that I am a moral human being. The unity, that man should be moral, is postulated; but beyond the "should" and this talk of morality, no advance is made. It is not said what is moral; and no thought is given to a system of the self-realizing spirit. For really, as theoretic Reason stands opposed to the objective of the senses, so practical Reason stands opposed to the practical sensuousness, to impulses and inclinations. Perfected morality must remain a Beyond; for morality presupposes the difference of the particular and universal will. It is a struggle, the determination of the sensuous by the universal; the struggle can only take place when the sensuous will is not yet in conformity with the universal. The result is, therefore, that the aim of the moral will is to be attained in infinite progress only; on this Kant founds (Kritik der prakt Vernunft, pp. 219-223) the postulate of the immortality of the soul, as the endless progress of the subject in his morality, because morality itself is incomplete, and must advance into infinitude. The particular will is certainly something other than the universal will; but it is not ultimate or really permanent.

c. The third point is the highest concrete, the Notion of the freedom of all men, or the natural world has to be in harmony with the Notion of freedom. That is the postulate of the existence of God, whom Reason, however, does not recognize. Will has the whole world, the whole of the sensuous, in opposition to it, and yet Reason insists on the unity of Nature or the moral law, as the Idea of the Good, which is the ultimate end of the world. Since, however, it is formal, and therefore has no content on its own account, it stands opposed to the impulses and inclinations of a subjective and an external independent Nature. Kant reconciles the contradiction of the two (Kritik der prakt. Vernunft, pp. 198-200) in the thought of the highest Good, in which Nature is conformed to rational will, and happiness to virtue; — a harmony which does not enter into the question at all, although practical reality consists therein. For happiness is only one’s own sensuous consciousness, or the actuality of a particular individual, not universal reality in itself. The unification spoken of itself therefore remains only a Beyond, a thought, which is not actually in existence, but only ought to be. Kant (Kritik der prakt. Vernunft, pp. 205-209) thus agrees entirely with the talk which alleges that in this world it often fares ill with the good, and well with the wicked, and so on; and he postulates further the existence of God as the Being, the causality, through whom this harmony comes to pass, on behalf both of the sanctity of the moral law, and of the rational end to be attained in Nature, but only in infinite progress; which postulate, like that of the immortality of the soul, allows the contradiction to remain as it is all the time, and express only in the abstract that the reconciliation ought to come about. The postulate itself is always there, because the Good is a Beyond with respect to Nature; the law of necessity and the law of liberty are different from one another, and placed in this dualism. Nature would remain Nature no longer, if it were to become conformed to the Notion of the Good; and thus there remains an utter opposition between the two sides, because they cannot unite. It is likewise necessary to establish the unity of the two; but this is never actual, for their separation is exactly what is pre-supposed. Kant employs popular language thus: evil ought to be overcome, but yet must not have been overcome. God is to him, therefore, only a faith, an opinion, which is only subjectively, and not absolutely true.(33) This result is also of a very popular character.

These postulates express nothing but the synthesis, devoid of thought, of the different moments which contradict each other on every hand; they are therefore a “nest”(34) of contradictions. For instance, the immortality of the soul is postulated on account of imperfect morality, i.e. because it is infected with sensuousness. But the sensuous is implied in moral self-consciousness; the end, perfection, is what really destroys morality as such. Similarly the other aim, the harmony of the sensuous and the rational, to an equal extent abrogates morality; for that consists in this very opposition of Reason to the sensuous. The actuality of the God who produces harmony is of such a character that it does not enter into consciousness at all; it is accepted by consciousness for the sake of harmony, just as children make some kind of scarecrow, and then agree with each other to pretend to be afraid of it. The ground on which God is accepted — that by the conception of a holy law-giver the moral law may acquire additional reverence — contradicts the fact that morality really consists in reverence for the law simply for its own sake.(35) In Practical Reason self-consciousness esteems itself to be implicit Being, as contrasted with theoretic Reason, which assigns implicitude to objective existence, but the one, we see, attains just as little as the other to unity and actuality in itself. It is hard for man to believe that Reason actually exists; but there is nothing real except Reason; it is the absolute power. The vanity of man aspires to have an ideal before him, in order to be able to find fault with everything alike. We possess all wisdom, it is within us, but is not forthcoming. That is the ultimate standpoint; it is a high standpoint, no doubt, but in it the truth is never reached. The absolute Good remains “what ought to be,” or without objectivity; and there it has to remain.

Critique of Pure Reason - Critique of Practical Reason - Critique of Practical Judgment - Contents

29. Kant: Kritik der prakt. Vernunft (fourth edition, Riga, 1797), pp. 3-11, 29-32.
30. Kant: Kritik d. prakt. Vernunft, pp. 40, 41, 56, 126-135, 58, 38, 77.
31. Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 62, 500.
32. Kant: Kritik d. prakt. Vernunft, pp. 54, 58 (35).
33. Kant: Kritik d. prakt. Vernunft, pp. 223-227.
34. Cf. Kant’s Kritik d. reinen Vernunft, p. 471.
35. Kant: Kritik der prakt. Vernunft, p. 146.

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