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Archive for March 2018

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason – a review

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The question that practical reason asks us is, what ought I to do? In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers his analysis of how pure reason, which relies on no empirical input whatsoever, can help us answer that question.

As a follow up to Critique of Pure Reason, this book is a grave disappointment. Altogether abandoning the exacting critical standards he established in his earlier, better work, Kant argues on behalf of an ethical theory that I find intellectually flawed and personally repugnant. It is a morality of pious bureaucrats who distrust anything emotional (for Kant, feelings are “pathological”), contingent (i.e., “real” or “actual”), or human.

In brief, Kant argues that the proper standard for evaluating the moral merit of an action is twofold. First, the act must conform to a maxim of pure reason that is universally binding on all rational agents in all times and in all places (a “categorical imperative”). Such an imperative follows from pure reason, which can only deal with the form of argument, and not with particulars, which are by definition derived from empirical experience. Second, the act must be undertaken only and exactly because it is judged by a rational agent to follow from pure reason, not from any kind of desire or expectation about the outcome.

Kant’s argument suffers from several extremely serious problems.

First, Kant never establishes why maxims derived from pure reason are eo ipso laudable. It is not at all obvious to me that any action that is good for all people to do always is necessarily better than any action that is good for some people to do sometimes.

In his eagerness to eschew all sentiment and human response to ethical evaluation, he in fact does quite the opposite, and reveals again and again his own profound personal connection to the idea of reason. That it should not also be equally valued by all never occurs to him.

Second, his theory demands that moral agents freely choose to comply with the directives of pure practical reason, but his theory establishing freewill is extremely weak. Readers of the Critique of Pure Reason may in fact remember that the question of determinism is one of his antimonies of pure reason, and is used in that book as an example of a pseudo-problem that philosophy can never either prove or disprove.

Third, his attempt to dodge that problem by arguing that freedom of the subject is a postulate of pure reason is completely unconvincing, and is a transparent attempt to circumvent the limits he himself persuasively established. He offers a whole series of additional postulates, offered as hypotheses that reason cannot do without, and all of them just happen to conform with the sacred cows of Lutheran dogma.

Fourth, he brazenly ignores his own dialectical analysis of virtue and happiness by positing them in this very work as an antimony, and then siding with the theory of virtue nonetheless.

Fifth, his conception of a categorical imperative is underdeveloped. In Critique of Pure Reason he famously derides philosophers who condescend to give examples, but I sure could have used a few here. I genuinely have no idea what he thinks a good example of a categorical imperative would be. “One ought to do the right thing”? “Always tell the truth”? “Never take what is not freely given”? “Be kind to your parents”? No idea.

Sixth, his theory substantially relies on the claim that the theory he describes conforms to what is usually meant by “morality.” That is far from true. Although impartiality and generality are common parts of what people generally mean by the term, they are at best necessary but not sufficient.

In addition to being philosophically problematic, I recoil from the ugly spirit of Kant’s vision, which reminds me of the very worst excesses of Calvin and Luther – the hushed awe before the altar of solemnity, grandeur, majesty, duty, obligation, and obedience, and the covert terror that someone might be secretly and on some level enjoying themselves. I find his vision shockingly life-denying.

Kant is not the first great thinker to apply himself to the problem of practical reason. Thomas Aquinas, for example, also distinguished between speculative and practical reason, and elaborated his own theory of how people should act. For Aquinas, this answer is rooted in his concept of synderesis, an inner faculty of what we might today call “moral intuition,” which directly perceives the rightness or wrongness of a thing.

For all of Kant’s fetishization of reason, I actually find Aquinas’ approach far more rational, and far more honest, for he freely admits that his determinations are based in part on intuition, sentiment, and his belief in the truth of revelation. Kant clearly relies on these factors just as much, but wrote this entire book to persuade us otherwise.


Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The United States is Haunted by a Terrible Demon

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When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the senior priests told us about a festival that was held annually in the small alpine town she grew up in in Switzerland. A certain holy relic was sequestered away in the village church, except on this festival of renewal, when it was brought out and placed on a kind of carriage, and paraded through the town in a procession. The trick was, you were not to look at it.

I think I gasped aloud when I heard that story. The ritual force of such an episode, and the life-long impact it would have on children who grew up with it, was immediately obvious. I thought of many interesting counterparts, such as the Shingon Buddhist altar I saw in Narita with a towering Buddha statue set back in an enormous stepped platform that receded into an unlit corner of the room, so that you could just make out the outlines of the statue from anywhere in the room, but  you could not quite see it. Its presence dominated the room, but it was held in a liminal state of semi-awareness. It made quite an impression.

Or I think about the mythology of similar prohibitions on seeing or doing that, for example, finds expression in my favorite fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Marienkind (my translation is here).

This episode is a motif in the religious traditions and mythologies of the world because it makes an impact, such that its uncanny power is remembered decades later, on into adulthood, as the beginning of some deep stirring of the psyche, as in my teacher’s story.

I couldn’t help but think of this motif of the half-perceived sign and its potential to activate the unconscious when a friend of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter is required to participate in active shooter drills in New York. Her kindergarten class has to practice hiding and remaining quiet when someone knocks on the door.

If you don’t think this isn’t going to traumatize a generation of children, then you know nothing of psychodynamics.

There are a lot of reasons I recently moved to Germany, and there are a lot of things that Germany gets wrong, in my opinion, in managing its affairs. But one thing that it gets right, along with the rest of the developed world, with the exception of the United States, is gun control.

There are areas where I simply have to disagree with my fellow citizens. On climate change, for example, I vehemently disagree with people who deny the unambiguous consensus of the scientific community, and the other 179 nations that have joined the Paris Accords, but at least I can comprehend the other point of view, much as I disagree with it.

But I can not comprehend, or forgive, the bizarre fetishization of guns that runs amok in the United States, and that fuels a fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment – an interpretation whose bizarre logic leads again and again to monstrous policy recommendations and a bizarre attitude of paranoia and fear.

There is a lot of talk in the United States these days about arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters. There are plenty of reasons to oppose such an empirically-unmotivated and obviously self-destructive posture, but one that doesn’t receive as much attention as I would like is the question of whether the people of the United States have the right to ask teachers, in addition to all that they already give and sacrifice for their careers, to put their own lives at risk acting as security officers, who must be prepared to wield lethal force against their own students.

Again, this is all quite beyond my comprehension. There is a bizarre, shadowy demon haunting the United States, and I fear it is not going away without some kind of huge catastrophe, or mass exorcism.

Written by Mesocosm

March 17, 2018 at 2:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized