Kantian Free Will

Free will is one of the most debated topics in the history of philosophy. Those not involved in philosophy or have never given a thought to it think that the question is lifting dust in the air and complaining about not being able to see it. Like the entirety of philosophy, though, the question is deeper than what one would expect, and has been deemed to accompany a necessary rigor. It is not as simple as ‘I want an apple, so I will eat the one sitting on the counter.’ That is far from exhibiting an individual’s ‘freedom.’ What is it that made you want the apple? Impulses/desires/inclinations? An endless chain of ‘whys.’ Can you not control inclinations? Hardly – so what is to say an individual is truly ‘free?’

Kant attempts to answer this age-old question in his Critique of Pure Reason – in lieu of attempting to answer the main concern of the work, are synthetic a priori propositions possible (how can we expand and go beyond concepts without having experience as our guide – if you have read Hume, you can see how Kant’s question can be construed as a direct attempt to answer empirical skepticism)? We must make room for this synthetic knowledge; and how is this possible? Through space and time. Importantly for the question of Kant’s free will, though, we will only be speaking of time.

Kant defines time as the pure form of our inner intuition. It “does not adhere to objects, but only to the object that intuits them,”[1] determining “the relation of representations in our inner state.”[2] Objects are given to us through our intuition (immediate representation) as appearances – thus represented in our minds. The thing-in-itself does not change, only the representations intuited through the senses by appearance, in our minds, and by time – “apart from the subject, it is nothing.”[3] The coloring of a tree may change with the season – our representations of the tree command it to be so. This alteration, though, is not a priori. Time itself is not altering, but something in it is, namely alteration. Alteration requires experience.

For Kant, as was customary to debate in his time, there is a mind and body split. For every subject, there are two parts – the body being the empirical character, while the mind is the intelligible. As far as the empirical goes, “its actions, as appearances, stand in thoroughgoing connection with other appearances, according to permanent laws of nature, and could be derived from these appearances as their conditions.”[4] The body is subject to the causality that is predetermined by the laws of nature (for example, everything extended is subject to gravity). This is why the materialists so scrupulously deny free will – if there is only matter and our minds are just an extension and part of that matter, subject to laws of nature, unable to change the past and forever holding the future in darkness, determinism seems the only way to hold a consistent message. But for Kant, there is another side to this.

Being an idealist at the height of German Idealism, Kant claims that the other portion of the subject is non-material – intelligible. “The subject becomes the cause of the same actions as appearances, but which itself is not subject to any conditions of sensibility and is not itself appearance.”[5] It is not dependent on the condition of time – as previously stated, time is the inner condition given to appearances, never to things-in-themselves (which is what the mind regards itself as). Since it is not subject to time, and that which happens must have its cause in appearances, its causality has no place in empirical situations. “Insofar as it is noumenon, nothing happens…this active being would thus far be quite independent and free in its actions from all natural necessity, which is found only in the world of sense.”[6] Hence, the body has no will of its own, but the mind, being unrestricted by a chain of causality, is inherently free.

It seems as though the only outlet in order to show that Kant’s free will is false in its foundations would be to deny the proposition that the mind is not determined by the condition of time. As it is clearly and well defined, there is no dispute – under the pure form of inner intuition, our mind does not seem to be capable of being subject to the condition of time. The only issue I will raise, that I am able to see, is with the concept of alterability. It is given to appearances through experience and shown in representations, but can the mind be altered? The taste for one food yesterday, and a different food today? Age most certainly brings qualities like deterioration and customs/habits to the mind consistently throughout life? More importantly, we seem to be conscious of these changes. I can eat cauliflower today and enjoy it, while ten years ago it would have brought me to disgust. In the future, I could contract a brain disease – it is unknown. There could be a solid foundation about what is constitutive in a personality, but it is also possible that all changes could be attributed to external factors. As Kant already says, time itself does not alter, only something in it. If the mind alters, through experience (has the “perception of something that exists and of the succession of its determinations”[7]), would that not mean that it were in time itself? The mind would, moreover, be subject to the condition of time.

[1] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant (trans. By Muller/Weigelt, Penguin Classics), 72

[2] Ibid. 69

[3] Ibid. 70

[4] Ibid. 467

[5] Ibid. 467

[6] Ibid. 468

[7] Ibid. 74


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