Once upon a time, mathematical axioms were considered to be statements of self-evident truth. At least since development of the so-called axiomatic method, however, they have mostly been treated more like stipulative definitions chosen for convenience.

Between the respective times of Aristotle and Kant, allegedly self-evident truths found their way into philosophy. Descartes and others pulled principles like rabbits out of a hat, much as many of the scholastics had done earlier. There was a good deal of sound reasoning based on the dubious establishment of principles, but needless to say, the selection of principles drove the results.

Kant tried very hard to do better, and largely succeeded. In the Transcendental Dialectic section of the Critique of Pure Reason, arguments are examined that do seem to appeal to self-evident truths, but invariably, something is found by Kant himself to be wrong with the arguments.

I’ve previously referred to his antinomies as artificially staged. There, contradictory conclusions are derived from conflicting assumptions about self-evident truth, and Reason itself is apparently blamed for the result. Some commentators have thought that the arguments on the non-creationist side actually seem stronger than those on the creationist side, which raises the possibility that the apparently symmetrical presentation was an exercise in diplomacy on these sensitive matters. On the other hand, a counter-argument could be made that Kant had sympathy for both sides. Regardless, both sides of the antinomies appeal to allegedly self-evident truths, and it is the combination of these premises that leads to contradictory conclusions.

In the introduction to the antinomies, Kant himself says that “every transcendental illusion of pure reason rests on dialectical inferences” (Cambridge edition, p. 459). This seems to invoke either the common early modern pejorative sense of “dialectic” used in denunciations of scholasticism, or an actual Aristotelian distinction between dialectic and demonstration, where they are said to use the same inferential structures, but whereas demonstration aims at showing the reasons behind conclusions that are considered to be true, dialectic particularly examines the inferential consequences of using various premises, without assuming their actual truth. In any case, it seems Reason is found guilty of leading to contradiction when it mistakenly treats dialectical premises as if they were pre-existing truths. There is nothing particularly surprising about that. (See also Kantian Discipline; Dialectical Illusion?)

“Hard” Kantianism?

Kantian Deeds (2010) by Henrik Jøker Bjerre is a book-length argument for a Žižekian Kant, with extensive, relatively polite polemical discussion of Brandom and John McDowell. Non-Žižekian readings of Kant are labelled “Soft”, while a Žižekian reading is introduced as a uniquely “Hard” Kantianism.

The main ingredients seem to be an identification of Kantian freedom with voluntarism; literal endorsement of Kant’s argument that reason necessarily leads to antinomies, as a segue to Žižekian contradiction; and a Heideggerian argument for the importance of metaphysics and the question of Being. Bjerre combines these in an attempt to justify claims for the importance of an extraordinary, “extra-moral” morality in Kant alongside ordinary morality. Ordinary morality is made to sound more like social conformity.

Each part of the above summary seems wrong to me. Here I won’t repeat contents of the above-linked articles that give some of my reasons.

While I welcome the elementary insight that Kantian morality involves more than rule-following, there seems to be no real textual basis in Kant for the “extra-moral” morality of a nonrational “surplus” of the deed that this book imports or invents. Simultaneously, the breadth and substantiality of Kant’s actual discussions of “ordinary” morality is much diminished, in order to leave a bigger territory for the putative extra-moral.

Dominik Finkelde’s Excessive Subjectivity: Kant, Hegel, Lacan, and the Foundations of Ethics (2017; German edition 2015) continues along a similar path. “To put it plainly, for Kant the subject is either premoral or extramoral” (p. 8). If Kant said anything suggesting that, I would attribute it to his rather pessimistic view of human nature, not to any endorsement of arbitrariness. We are treated to the spectacle of a Kant made to sound like a Badiouian decisionist. Again, a “deed” presented as fundamentally irrational is everything, and this is supposed to be the way to social emancipation. This is illustrated by a description of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to sit in the back of the bus as effectively a Badiouian disruptive “event” leading to a new arbitrary “truth”. Never mind that racial segregation in the U.S. was an obvious, egregious violation of ordinary Kantian respect and universality, which any truly honest person could see as irrational all along. Rosa Parks’ action was not at all arbitrary, but rather full of meaning.

Neither social emancipation nor philosophy benefits from all this metaphysics and all this apologetic for arbitrariness. Moreover, the denigration of reason and ordinary ethics as inherently “conservative” weakens the real basis of emancipation. (See also Kantian Will; In Defense of Ordinariness.)


Despite many brilliant breakthroughs, Kant sometimes went astray. In his eagerness to recommend that reason should confine itself to matters of possible experience, in the Antinomies section of the Critique of Pure Reason he resorted to artificially staged arguments purporting to show that reasoning beyond possible experience necessarily leads to opposite conclusions, between which it cannot arbitrate. It seems to me that the apparent contradictions he derives are all due to uncontrolled use of particular conflicting assumptions, and therefore say nothing at all about limitations of pure reason per se. Kant should have been content simply to argue that there are many kinds of questions that pure reason alone cannot decide. On the other hand, the unfortunate weakness of these arguments does not affect the general soundness of his recommendation to stay within the realm of possible experience. (See also Self-Evidence.)