Politics and Metaphysics in Kant

Politics and Metaphysics in Kant


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ISBN-13: 9780708323779
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 10/15/2011
Series: University of Wales Press - Political Philosophy Now Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Sorin Baiasu is a lecturer in philosophy at Keele University in England.

Sami Pihlström is professor of practical philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Howard Williams is senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Chester and author of Death & Memory in Early Medieval Britain.

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Politics and Metaphysics in Kant

By Sorin Baiasu, Sami Pihlström, Howard Williams

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2011 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2377-9


Metaphysics and Politics in the Wake of Kant: The Project of a Critical Practical Philosophy

Sorin Baiasu, Sami Pihlström and Howard Williams

Hence human reason, ever since it has been thinking or – rather – meditating, has never been able to dispense with a metaphysics, yet has nonetheless been unable to expound one that was sufficiently purified of everything extraneous. The idea of such a science is just as old as speculative human reason; and what reason is there that does not speculate, whether such a speculation be done in a scholastic or in a popular manner? (KrV A842/B870)

1. Historical contexts

The past three decades have witnessed the emergence, at the fore-front of political thought, of several Kantian theories. Both the critical reaction to consequentialism inspired by Rawlsian constructivism and the universalism of more recent theories informed by Habermasian discourse ethics, for instance, trace their main sources of inspiration back to Kant's writings. Yet much of what is Kantian in contemporary theory is formulated with more or less strict caveats concerning Kant's metaphysics. These range from radical claims that theories of justice must be political, not metaphysical, to more cautious calls for replacing Kant's metaphysics with a less demanding ontology, such as one informed, for instance, by the relatively recent linguistic turn in philosophy.

What motivates such a reluctant attitude towards metaphysics among Kantian scholars? To begin with, the very meaning of metaphysics is deeply contested: depending on whether the word 'metaphysics' is used critically, approvingly or merely descriptively, and depending on what those who practise metaphysics take themselves to be doing, the word 'metaphysics' will refer to distinct and sometimes even contradictory areas of inquiry. Apart from the more technical difficulty of finding a definition of the term that would meet with at least general agreement, philosophers and especially political philosophers seem to have a reflex reaction of rejection and alarm at the very mention of the word 'metaphysics'.

For the wary amongst us, the term evokes fundamentalist conviction, obscurantist argumentation and deep complication. It is, therefore, no surprise that metaphysics has often not had a good press in moral and political philosophy and has not received entirely favourable treatment even amongst philosophers, such as Kant and Hegel, who have ended up espousing it. Amongst its critics, the name of metaphysics has conjured visions of abstract, over-complex and remote thinking that has lost touch with everyday reality.

The idea of metaphysics invites comparison with common sense. Metaphysics evokes a notion of thinking and meditating that is out of touch with the ordinary world and irrelevant to the active concerns of human life. Metaphysics is often seen as too close to religion and, in some instances, even identical to it. Many major metaphysicians such as Aquinas, Leibniz and Spinoza have presented systems that are coextensive with theology.

Metaphysics for these philosophers is a depiction of divine truth and reality. They have encouraged a view of metaphysics that is immense in its ambitions. At the same time as projecting a view of metaphysics that is coextensive with religion, they can sometimes be read as acquiescing in the aspiration of religious thinkers, in particular those belonging to the medieval tradition, to subordinate all philosophical reflection to religious conviction. This is an undesirable state of affairs, and in so far as metaphysics is understood as comprehending religious doctrine that ultimately relies on dogmatic pronouncements, it should be resisted.

However, we do not have to accept this image of metaphysics. It is legitimate for metaphysical reflection to include thinking about religious doctrine, but it need not be defined or limited by it. The problem is that historically, religion and metaphysics have overlapped considerably, and some have thought it appropriate that they should suffer the same fate in the modern period: decline.

The connection of metaphysics with religion can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle. It is usually suggested that the term 'metaphysics' was coined soon after Aristotle's death in 322 bc to describe 'a number of treatises' that 'were placed "immediately after the Physics"'. These treatises contain inquiries of a fundamental kind, including a philosophical lexicon that seeks to define such terms as 'principle', 'cause', 'element' and 'nature'.

The treatises are speculative, adventurous and unfinished. They are immediately recognizable to us now as metaphysics, and they rest on a tripartite distinction which Aristotle makes between physics which 'studies mutable objects, and for the most part deals with essence as inseparable from matter', mathematics, as a similarly speculative science, and a speculative science, which is 'prior to both', deals with 'first causes' and 'must be eternal'. What is notable about this third speculative inquiry or 'the highest science' is that Aristotle depicts it as what is 'visible of the divine' or theology. In Aristotle's description of metaphysics, then, there seems to be a marked overlap between the domain of philosophy and the domain of religion.

However, since Aristotle's first science or 'theology', which looks at concepts and being in general, is an open-ended inquiry in which no one true answer is claimed, it is arguably different from most religions which begin from what their adherents regard to be indubitable truths or articles of faith. The connection of religion with metaphysics is not necessarily one of identity. The subject matter of metaphysics and religion may in many respects be similar, but in Aristotle's schema religion can itself become the subject matter of metaphysics.

Aristotle opens up the possibility, on which Kant capitalizes, that metaphysics need not accord with conventional religion. Thus, although Aristotle gives an extraordinarily ambitious scope to metaphysics, inviting the most uninhibited speculation, he does not suggest that it should lead to dogmatism and zealotry: speculation must, to his mind, be guided by reason and argument. Indeed, his treatment of Plato's theory of Forms suggests an awareness of our epistemic limitations and proposes a methodology which takes these into account.

Whatever our fears about the idea of metaphysics, anyone concerned with Kant's political philosophy – especially if we want to probe and understand what is most illuminating about this philosophy – has to attempt to come to grips with the idea of metaphysics and the hopes and limitations Kant associates with it.

An important point to make is that Kant himself had doubts about the desirability and feasibility of metaphysics as it was understood in his day. He does not give an indiscriminate stamp of approval to everything that is presented in the name of metaphysics. In his mature philosophical system he presents a critical metaphysics which is distinguished from a good deal of what had gone on in the name of metaphysics up to his time. Indeed, Kant regards what is innovative about his thinking as deriving from the new view of metaphysics that he has to propose.

For instance, Kant dramatically transforms Christian Wolff's account of knowledge and philosophy, an account that was quite influential in his time. By introducing the distinction between the various faculties of mind, in particular between reason and the understanding, Kant relocates in the understanding the traditional concern with the identification of categories as the ultimate constituents of what exists. Wolff's general metaphysics thus becomes Kant's transcendental analytic.

Furthermore, Wolff's three branches of special metaphysics (which deal with the soul or mind, with the world as a whole and with God) are regarded by Kant as the province of reason and form the object of study of transcendental dialectic. But Kant retains Wolff's view of the significance of practical philosophy and even regards practical reason as able to provide (moral) cognition of the soul, world and God, something which on Kant's account is impossible for theoretical philosophy.

Hence Kant's new view of metaphysics is not a complete rejection of earlier systems, but derives rather from a debate and close engagement with those systems. Metaphysics he regards as necessary but complex and always potentially confusing. In undertaking the Critique of Pure Reason he was conscious that he had to clear away much of the rubble left by the decay of traditional metaphysics.

He depicts metaphysics in the opening pages of the work as the 'combat arena' of 'endless conflicts' aroused by the ambitions of pure reason. Reason faces its own defeat; where once metaphysics 'was called the queen of all the sciences', 'the tone in vogue in this era, however, has made it fashionable to treat her with total disdain' (KrV A: viii). Kant sees this defeat as deserved, even if for a while Locke's 'physiology of the human understanding' had seemed to provide a new confidence that her reputation might be saved.

There are two ever-present dangers that metaphysics faces: on the one hand it can transform itself into dogmatism, where one system claims to present all the answers to the problems raised by pure reason; on the other hand, it can transform itself into indifferentism, 'where all paths have been tried in vain' and the conclusion seems to be that there is no sure path for reason to follow. Kant regards these approaches as equally harmful. We should neither give in to sheer scepticism nor be blinded by the attractions of dogmatism. Thus at the very beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason he presents himself as an advocate of a revived but significantly more modest metaphysics. This metaphysics is empirically bound to appearances and gives in to the more ambitious demands of reason only in practical philosophy.

Kant, of course, was not alone in criticizing the assumptions of traditional metaphysics. A radical re-evaluation and critique of metaphysics has taken place over the last two centuries. This is noticeable not only in the empiricist tradition, from Hume to recent empiricists like Bas van Fraassen; it is visible also in the less unified direction initiated by Kant and continuing with Nietzsche and the classical pragmatists, among others, culminating in the downright scorn for metaphysics in logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy in the mid-twentieth century.

The debate over the role and status of metaphysics is, however, again highly relevant in contemporary philosophy. Especially in analytic philosophy, there seems to be growing interest in metaphysics, and the positivist declarations of the death of metaphysics can no longer be taken seriously. Leading thinkers have dedicated decades of work to metaphysics understood as a fundamental realm of philosophical inquiry, a 'category theory' largely in a realist, Aristotelian spirit. These and other metaphysicians disagree, sometimes sharply, about what the basic ontological categories to be postulated are (for instance, whether there are universals, tropes, real modalities and so on), but they largely agree on what metaphysics is all about.

We have just said that the debate over the role and status of metaphysics is again highly relevant in contemporary philosophy. A qualification must, however, be made here. For metaphysics in this context is seen as an inquiry into the way the world is, independently of the mind of the inquirer and without any Kantian restrictions or worries about the unknowability of things in themselves. So there are indeed debates concerning the structure of the world understood, almost in a pre-Kantian sense, as what there is independently of human consciousness. Unfortunately, however, this is usually taken to be an assumption, rather than a debatable claim in need of defence and with direct implications for the status and role of metaphysics.

The present-day 'Kantian' metaphysician, however, emphasizes our need to inquire into the ontological structure of the 'human world', of the world as it is for us, by contrast to an alleged noumenal, intelligible world of things 'in themselves'. The Kantian inquiry into the constitutive structure of the human world can, however, go beyond an account of how the world is. Thus, it is sometimes argued that when dealing with the world in any manner whatsoever (however theoretical), we always, at least implicitly, make ethical choices and engage in moral valuation. For human reality is in fact constituted categorially from standpoints always already laden with ethical ideals and assumptions. Hence our human reality is itself deeply value-laden, as Hilary Putnam, among others, has suggested in his recent work attacking the fact/ value dichotomy.

The issue may go deeper than the uncontroversial idea that different metaphysical positions may have different ethical implications. The question may even be whether metaphysics, in the Kantian 'critical' sense, might not be grounded in ethical considerations, based on ethical premises. Metaphysics might not, then, even be possible without a tight connection to ethics. Accordingly, we cannot arrive at any understanding of reality as we humans experience it without paying due attention to the ways in which moral valuations and commitments are constituents of that same reality.

If these general questions concerning the relationships between metaphysics and ethics are raised in this way, then a similar investigation of the relationship between metaphysics and politics (and political philosophy in particular) becomes even more urgent.

2. Conceptual contexts

What kind of an angle should one then adopt in an investigation of this relationship? The question is difficult, since the various issues that the relationship between politics and metaphysics gives rise to are not easy to prioritize. As we have seen, the question of this relationship not only pertains directly to political issues of norm justification and legitimation but also raises various philosophical problems, from that concerning the very meaning of 'metaphysics' to that of the possibility of a metaphysics-free political philosophy.

In principle, in so far as practical – that is, ethical and political – philosophy is primarily concerned with the justification of normative standards of action, of rules about what we ought to do, philosophers are bound to rely on arguments which go beyond a mere description of what happens in the world: the focus is on (ethically and politically) right actions, actions which ought to be done, rather than on what is usually done or what usually happens. This implies that practical philosophers will have to advance arguments which are correct for all and, moreover, which go significantly beyond what we can describe on the basis of our sense experience.

While reliance on the rules of traditional logic may indeed provide validity without recourse to sense perception, the resulting arguments seem to be nothing more than formal claims, which can only clarify an issue and eliminate any implicit inconsistencies. To be sure, clarification is very important and helpful for evaluation of the rightness of the rules of action; yet such a process is not sufficient to justify the correctness of the rules concerning what we ought to do, since ethically or politically correct rules may be as semantically clear and logically consistent as those which are morally objectionable.


Excerpted from Politics and Metaphysics in Kant by Sorin Baiasu, Sami Pihlström, Howard Williams. Copyright © 2011 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations and References to Kant's Works

1. Metaphysics and Politics in the Wake of Kant: The Project of a Critical Practical Philosophy
      Sorin Baiasu, Sami Pihlström and Howard Williams
2. Kant’s Moral Constructivism and Rational Justification
      Kenneth R. Westphal
3. Political, not Metaphysical, yet Kantian? A Defense of Rawls
      Alyssa R. Bernstein
4. On the Conditions of Discourse and Being: Kantian, Wittgensteinian and Levinasian Perspectives on the Relation between Metaphysics and Ethics
      Sami Pihlström
5. One Community or Many? From Logic to Juridical Law via Metaphysics
      Lucas Thorpe
6. Kant’s Rechtslehre and Ideas of Reason
      Tatiana Patrone
7. Practical Agency, Teleology and System in Kant’s Architectonic of Pure Reason
      Lea Ypi
8. What a Kantian Can Know A Priori: An Argument for Moral Cognitivism
      Katerina Deligiorgi
9. Metaphysics and Moral Judgement
      Sorin Baiasu
10. 'Intelligible Facts’: Toward a Constructivist Account of Action and Responsibility
      Garrath Williams
11. Metaphysical and not just Political
      Howard Williams
12. Cosmopolitan Right: State and System in Kant’s Political Theory
      Sharon Anderson-Gold
13. The Metaphysics of International Law: Kant’s ‘Unjust Enemy’ and the Limitation of Self-Authorization
      Oliver Eberl


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