The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6

Kant: The Sovereign Individual Subject

The contribution of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to philosophy was enormous; not only were the epistemological problems initially posed by Descartes and his contemporaries solved with such precision and elegance by Kant, but it can be fairly said that the foundations of modern ethics laid by Kant have remained the point of reference ever since.

In tracing the genealogy of the ‘subject’, Kant’s ethics is a central concern because it was Kant who gave the ‘subject’ its modern ethical meaning, as the morally responsible agent and bearer of rights. However, we must linger awhile yet with Kant’s solution to the problem of knowledge.

Kant’s Epistemology

From the very start of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant utilises the concept of ‘subject’, initially in the logical form owed to Aristotle, as the bearer of predicates, and then in the Cartesian sense, as a cogito, as when he asks:

“how can an external intuition anterior to objects themselves ... exist in the human mind? Obviously not otherwise than in so far as it has its seat in the subject only, as the formal capacity of the subject’s being affected by objects.” [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 27]

Thus Kant maintains Descartes’ conception of the knowing subject, the cogito, and agrees that its existence, though only its existence, can be deduced from experience, as a necessary precondition for thinking. Kant also agrees that all conceptions and qualities ascribed to objects actually inhere in the subject itself.

Kant does not however draw what could be called “metaphysical” conclusions from the fact of existence of the cogito, that is, the subject in “I think.” He says that:

‘By this “I,” or “He,” or “It,” who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 142]

What Kant means by “transcendental” can be explained thus.

The Empiricists had held that all knowledge enters the mind via sensation, and that knowledge was a result of the impact of bodies on the sense organs. Knowledge was therefore limited to the data of sensation and ideas built upon that data. As Berkeley and Hume had pointed out, this meant that the subject could have no real and reliable knowledge of anything ‘beyond sensation’. This conclusion flew in the face of common sense and rendered impossible the very idea of scientific knowledge of an objective world beyond the consciousness of the subject itself. On the other side was the dogmatism of uncritical claims to knowledge of the material world in itself, which ascribed no role whatsoever to the subject in interpreting the data of experience and constructing speculative systems and structures deemed to exist in the world itself, prior to and beyond experience. Resolution of this dispute was the principal stimulus for Kant’s work.

The opening words of the Critique of Pure Reason state that “all our knowledge begins with experience.” So this much Kant granted to the Empiricists. But it was self-evident that in fact people were able to make sense of the world, and that in thinking, we were evidently bringing to bear on the data of experience, conceptions which did not and could not originate in experience, because nothing corresponding to them existed or could exist in the outside material world.

In fact it turns out that:

‘certain of our cognitions rise completely above the sphere of all possible experience, and by means of conceptions, to which there exists in the whole extent of experience no corresponding object, seem to extend the range of our judgements beyond its bounds. And just in this transcendental or supersensible sphere, where experience affords us neither instruction nor guidance, lie the investigations of reason, which, on account of their importance, we consider far preferable to, and as having a far more elevated aim than, all that the understanding can achieve within the sphere of sensuous phenomena.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 17]

So it is this “transcendental subject” which Kant aims to bring to light. And such a “transcendental subject” can only have transcendental predicates, that is to say, all we can say about it concern the limits and conditions of validity of knowledge of the most universal kind. Nothing of an empirical nature can be predicated of it.

So what does Kant find that we can say about this transcendental subject?:

‘The Soul is a simple substance. As regards the different times in which it exists, it is numerically identical, that is Unity, not Plurality. It is in relation to possible objects in space.

‘From these elements originate all the conceptions of pure psychology, by combination alone, without the aid of any other principle. This substance, merely as an object of the internal sense, gives the conception of Immateriality; as simple substance, that of Incorruptibility; its identity, as intellectual substance, gives the conception of Personality; all these three together, Spirituality. Its relation to objects in space gives us the conception of connection with bodies. Thus it represents thinking substance as the principle of life in matter, that is, as a soul (anima), and as the ground of Animality; and this, limited and determined by the conception of spirituality, gives us that of Immortality.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 142]

As Kant emphasises, there is nothing of an empirical nature in this conception of the transcendental subject; it is a purely “philosophical” conception. “Substance” is to be understood in its strictly philosophical sense as an irreducible conception at the base of a philosophical system, and not in any sense as a “substance” in the common sense of the term as matter, or “stuff.”

The transcendental subject is a subject “underlying” and preceding all empirical experience, all physiological determination or effect, all cultural and historical determination. It represents only the necessary preconditions for a thinking being.

Although the subject has become a “transcendental” subject, it should be noted that it still resides in an individual, thinking person, the cogito. And Kant has determined that it is (1) immaterial and simple, that is to say it cannot have any attributes or qualities, (2) self-identical, or ‘personal’, continuing in existence as one and the same single person, and (3) immortal, but only in a philosophical sense – he claims no necessity or evidence for life after death. These are the necessary pre-conditions for the existence of “I think.”

Despite the purely transcendental character of this subject, it is a personal subject, though an object of pure rather than empirical psychology, nevertheless, the substrate of an individual psyche.

Now this concept of the subject has completed a notable reversal from the concept first formulated by Aristotle. For Aristotle, the individual exists for the sake of the polis, and understanding the individual subject is inextricably tied up with understanding the polis, of which a person is an individual part. For Kant, on the other hand, the whole problem is to extricate the individual, so to speak, from all determination, either by the political community or otherwise; the subject is that transcendental determination of the person, counterposed to and prior to the political community.

The circumstances in which Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason make it clear why Kant had to do this. The philosophical struggle between Rationalism and Empiricism which had characterised Descartes’ times, had since been overtaken by a struggle between Scepticism and Dogmatism, not to mention social revolutions and upheavals across Europe, fighting philosophical battles, arms in hand. The contention that the subject could have knowledge only of sensations, and not of any world beyond sensation, which had begun life as a dogma of materialism, had led with inexorable logic to a devastating and dogmatic scepticism.

It was Kant’s mission to introduce the critical position in philosophy, avoiding the extremes of both dogmatism and scepticism, as well as correcting the one-sidedness of rationalism and empiricism, and reconciling ‘sensualism and intellectualism’ (what was later called ‘materialism and idealism’).

‘Without the control of criticism, reason is, as it were, in a state of nature, and can only establish its claims and assertions by war. Criticism, on the contrary, deciding all questions according to the fundamental laws of its own institution, secures to us the peace of law and order, and enables us to discuss all differences in the more tranquil manner of a legal process.

‘In the former case, disputes are ended by victory which both sides may claim and which is followed by a hollow armistice; in the latter, by a sentence, which, as it strikes at the root of all speculative differences, ensures to all concerned a lasting peace.

‘The endless disputes of a dogmatizing reason compel us to look for some mode of arriving at a settled decision by a critical investigation of reason itself; just as Hobbes maintains that the state of nature is a state of injustice and violence, and that we must leave it and submit ourselves to the constraint of law, which indeed limits individual freedom, but only that it may consist with the freedom of others and with the common good of all.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 258]

So the critical position in philosophy was to act as a kind of arbiter, capable of weighing the competing claims of dogmatic reason. It was in order to achieve this objective, that Kant needed to conceive of a subject which lay “behind” not only the sense perceptions it receives of the external material world, but also “behind” the specific cultural and historical conditioning which prejudices the way in which such perceptions are interpreted. That is to say, in order to lay the basis for an epistemology and an ethics which could understand how one’s view of the world depended on social and historical conditions, he pre-supposed a kind of universal subject which had certain innate capacities to interpret the world, which underlay or pre-existed the actual, flesh-and-blood person.

This conception was a deepening of Descartes’ notion of subject as a substance underlying consciousness. Kant’s notion proved to be a more fruitful foundation than Spinoza’s elegant solution. Spinoza had attempted to do away with dualism by positing a pantheistic God identified with the entirety of Nature, in which, contrary to Descartes, thought was a property of matter. Elegant though Spinoza’s solution was, it did not offer at the time any potentially fruitful research program, whereas Kant’s solution did just that.

But Kant had not completely overcome Descartes’ dualism, and indeed, Kant rejected the idea that dualism could be overcome without descending into irresolvable antimonies and empty metaphysics. On the one hand, the material world in itself had been pushed back behind appearances into a ‘beyond’ inaccessible to knowledge. On the other hand, the subject had been pushed back beneath consciousness and all empirical determination, into a transcendental realm.

In fact, for Kant there remained two different realms of thought, the realm of Reason, which dealt with transcendental truths, and Understanding, which dealt with the things given in contemplation of the world and dealt with in the various branches of science. Conflict between the rules applied in these two realms would lead to irresolvable contradictions if a firm boundary were not to be drawn between the two.

Thus the subject itself necessarily contained a duality, a “phenomenal I” absorbed in contemplation and understanding of the world, and a “noumenal I,” able to adhere to the strictures of Reason within its own internal realm of thought.

Kant and Religion

Having followed Kant in his resolution of the conflicting claims of reason in the domain of epistemology, it is possible to understand how he went about resolving the conflicting claims of different religions. Kant remained a good member of the Lutheran Church, but he aimed to create a rational basis for ethics which could transcend the dogmatism of conflicting ecclesiastical faiths and did away with reliance on religious institutions or any form of superstition. So before moving to Kant’s ethics as such, let us look at his position in relation to religion.

The relation of religion to science was by Kant’s time a relatively settled matter, in that it was widely recognised that Church doctrine, Scripture and revelation have no authority in matters of science. (It was 180 years since Giordano Bruno had been burnt at the stake.) Philosophy for its part, has no need to pronounce on empirical matters, including historical questions such as events mentioned in the Scriptures.

Even to this day however, many would share Kant’s view that the matter of morality and ethics is not so easily settled without recourse to faith, historical narratives, revelation and moral institutions.

Very broadly speaking, for Kant, religious institutions and beliefs were to do with how human society comes to moral law and people learn to adhere to it, ultimately by their own will. Once human society has ‘come of age’ and reached a certain point in its moral development, there is no further need for miracles, a vengeful God and Church officials; people are capable of apprehending what it is their duty to do and doing it, without the assistance of devotional rituals lacking any ethical content or the fear of Divine retribution.

‘So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty.’ [Religion, Preface]

So the Scholastic doctrine of the identity of Faith and Reason has been turned around by Kant. The Scholastics had used Reason in support of Faith, with the proviso that Reason always had to arrive at the conclusion already reached by Faith. For Kant, by contrast, the history of religion is that of a gradual approach to a “pure religion of reason” which would lack all fanaticism, dogma, ceremony and superstition, requiring only an “invisible church.” Such a religion would be purely moral:

‘in the moral religion (and of all the public religions which have ever existed, the Christian alone is moral) it is a basic principle that each must do as much as lies in his power to become a better man.’ [Religion, Book One]

In Kant’s view, other faiths represent different paths towards the same “invisible church” of Reason, but his own Lutheran faith is the closest to that ideal, and therefore Kant sees no contradiction between the Lutheran faith and his own rational moral philosophy.

‘If everyone alike heeded his own private duty, we could indeed infer therefrom an accidental agreement of all in a common good, even without the necessity of a special organization; yet, [we must admit] that such a general agreement cannot be hoped for unless a special business be made of their union with one another for the self-same end, and of the establishment of a Commonwealth under moral laws, as a federated and therefore stronger power to withstand the assaults of the evil principle (for otherwise men are tempted, even by one another, to serve this principle as its tools). We have also seen that such a commonwealth, being a Kingdom of God, can be undertaken by men only through religion, and, finally, in order that this religion be public (and this is requisite to a commonwealth), that it must be represented in the visible form of a church; hence the establishment of a church devolves upon men as a task which is committed to them and can be required of them.’ [Religion, Book Four]

Thus Kant sees not religious pluralism, but rather a convergence of religious faiths as the essential condition for moral progress, a convergence which eventually abolishes the need for rituals, superstition, etc.

Kant’s Ethics

In order to determine the content of a rational morality, the first and most important task was to establish the starting point for such a project, an imperative which could be apprehended, solely out of its own nature, without recourse to any empirical content or revelation, a “categorical imperative.” For such an imperative to be binding on people, Kant relies on the conviction that a certain moral sense is inherent in human beings:

‘conscience is not a thing to be acquired, and it is not a duty to acquire it; but every man, as a moral being, has it originally within him’ [Elements of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 15]

while on the other hand:

‘the moral feeling, conscience, love of one’s neighbour, and respect for ourselves (self-esteem). There is no obligation to have these, since they are subjective conditions of susceptibility for the notion of duty, not objective conditions of morality. They are ... capacities which it cannot be regarded as a duty to have, but which every man has, and by virtue of which he can be brought under obligation.’ [Elements of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 14]

The fundamental underlying duty at which Kant arrives, which he believes any healthy, mature person, who is morally responsible for their own actions, will find compelling, whatever their education or faith, is the Principle of Universalisability. Any subject, he believes, must affirm the principle:

“Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law.” [Metaphysics of Morals, p. 11]

Kant offers a number alternative formulations of this ‘categorical imperative’. In the Science of Right, Kant draws on a maxim of Roman law to introduce a crucial additional nuance to the ‘categorical imperative’:

Honeste vive (“Live rightly”) juridical rectitude, or honour, consists in maintaining one’s own worth as a man in relation to others. This duty may be rendered by the proposition: “Do not make thyself a mere means for the use of others, but be to them likewise an end."’ [Science of Right, p. 6]

So that the categorical imperative tells us that:

‘a man is an end to himself as well as others, and it is not enough that he is not permitted to use either himself or others merely as means (which would imply that be might be indifferent to them), but it is in itself a duty of every man to make mankind in general his end. The principle of ethics being a categorical imperative does not admit of proof, but it admits of a justification from principles of pure practical reason.’ [Elements, p. 12]

That is, as a subject, a human being is an End In Itself, and according to the categorical imperative, it is therefore a universal duty to treat other subjects as Ends, and not as a mere Means to one’s own end. It is morally wrong then to use another person, or oneself, as a means to an end, because every person is an End, that is to say a Good, in themselves, and cannot be made the instrument of another will. The categorical imperative can therefore be reformulated as:

“Act in such a way that you always treat a person, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

which can be seen as a reformulation of the “Golden Rule,” given in the Scriptures:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” [Luke 6:31]

and leads to the key ethical definition of the person as a moral subject:

A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. ... subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others. [The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 10]

With this maxim Kant gave ‘subject’ its modern ethical meaning, as the sovereign individual person. The maxim comprehends the notion that children or people with some kind of personality disorder or people acting under physical compulsion are not morally responsible for their actions. But the ‘person’ for the purposes of moral philosophy is “an end and never simply a means,” and sovereign. I use the term ‘sovereign’ in the modern sense given in international law:

A subject is sovereign if it ‘answers only to its own [internal] order and is not accountable to a larger ... community, save only to the extent it has consented to do so.’ [Framework for International Law, Bederman, p. 50]

‘Sovereign’ does not therefore mean that the subject is ‘free’ in the negative liberal sense of being able to act without restraint and without taking into account the will of other subjects. On the contrary, it means that subjects must deal with other subjects as ‘moral equals’, neither subordinating another to their own will, nor subordinated to the will of any other.

With Kant’s definition of the subject as sovereign individual, we could say that the movement of the ‘subject’ had been completed, from the passive carrier of a predicate to the active do-er of a verb.

The sovereign individual subject, upon whom the categorical imperative is binding, is a further definition of the transcendental knowing subject of the Critique of Pure Reason. Just as the transcendental knowing subject underlies, or precedes, all cultural or historical determination, the sovereign subject which is formulated in the Morals, knows its duty on the basis of a universal obligation, not requiring the guidance of the clergy, Revelation or consulting with anybody else.

Kant was hardly the first to claim that one has a moral duty to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But this maxim is not as self-evident as it may at first sight appear. For it to be a moral duty, it is presumed that the other person has the same needs as you and the same expectations of you as you have of them. This is not the case, at least not within a heterodox (or “multicultural”) society that must exist anytime before the arrival of the “Commonwealth under God” which will result from the convergence which Kant foresees, of all religions in the “invisible church.”

Further, in making duty the key concept in his ethics (rather than for example right or virtue, which for Kant are concepts derivative of duty), Kant understood duty as ‘resisting temptation’ (in contrast to Aristotle, whose conception of moral character (hexis) rested more on training the subject’s emotions so as to enjoy doing what was just, rather than ‘resisting temptation’). The power and resolve to resist the ‘impulses of nature’ is virtue. If however, you are disposed to act in such a way, because for example, such actions are part of the whole ethos of a society, then it is senseless to say that you have a duty to act in that way. Consequently, there could be no virtue in acting in that way.

This seems to be inconsistent with Kant’s philosophy of religion. Just as Aristotle was concerned with the kind of life which would train the senses and the use of reason so that a virtuous life would be natural and happy, so Kant sees religion as playing the role of developing and training people so that they may live a moral life, and enjoy virtue as its own reward. However, in such a condition it would seem that they would not have to resist the impulses of nature and consequently could not be virtuous.

In Kant’s time, Euclid’s geometry had stood the test of experiment for 2,000 years and was obviously an instance of supersensuous knowledge applicable to the material world; it was 100 years before Darwin discovered a natural-scientific explanation for the obviously teleological character of nature, and 200 years before the modern civil rights and women’s movements forced the white, European, educated men who wrote philosophy to recognise the relativity of culture.

In the absence of the insights provided by these events, the transcendental subject, with universal capacities, underlying all cultural, historical and social determination made a lot of sense.

The Enlightenment (in Kant’s words) saw itself as the “growing up” of humanity from its childhood, its emergence into maturity, but there was no sense of living in a times that would be overtaken by other times, bringing with it a new spirit and changing forms of knowledge, no sense of the relativity of knowledge and morality. So not only was Kant’s transcendental subject, immune to cultural and historical change a useful logical device, it was both a tenable and in fact, characteristic philosophical conception.

From provincial Germany, Kant was witnessing the industrial revolution in Britain, and the approaching Revolution of 1789 in France. The sovereign individual subject, rising above the determination of religion and estate, expressed the new subjectivity of modernity with great purity.

In summary, for Kant the subject:

In his efforts to avoid extremism and unwarranted speculation, Kant had constructed a system full of contradictions and dichotomies, the great merit of which is that it would continue to inspire further research for generations to come. This conception remains to this day the most dominant philosophical conception of the subject.