Kantian Freedom

Brandom’s 2007 Woodbridge lectures (reprinted in Reason in Philosophy) opened my eyes to a new and much more positive appreciation of what Kant was trying to say about freedom. Brandom’s treatment is a marvel of clarity in comparison to the tortured arguments of a text like the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant was among the greatest of philosophers, but much of the second Critique seems occupied with producing a square circle, in its attempt to reconcile overly strong Newtonian determinism with the legal and political voluntarism popular among 17th and 18th century theorists like Pufendorf and Rousseau, and related talk about an incompatibilist notion of free will.

Brandom charts a middle path between the extremes of determinism and voluntarism, highlighting Kant’s key insights into freedom as essentially normative and positive and involved with reason, while deemphasizing Kant’s questionable invocations of will and causality in this context. This turns the ugly caterpillar into a butterfly.

The kind of determinism Kant was sympathetic to was the univocal sort, which wants to say not only that that there are sufficient reasons why everything is the way it is, but also that it could not have turned out any other way. I want to say that in hindsight there are always sufficient reasons why everything turned out the way it did, but that in advance, multiple outcomes are possible. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

In terms of the classic medieval debates about the priority of reason or will, Brandom’s reading puts Kant squarely on the side of the priority of reason. Talk about freedom as positive and related to specific capabilities, rather than negative and “infinite”, already rules out voluntarism. Kant’s deep concern with the autonomy of reason is also materially incompatible with any subordination of reason to will.

I think understanding of Kantian freedom should focus on the autonomy of reason, as well as applying something like the Critique of Judgment notion of the free play of the imagination and understanding in reflective judgment to the synthesis of unities of apperception.

After clearing away univocal determinism and voluntarism, we are left with ethics, which seems a good outcome. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Kantian Will.)