Critical Idealism for Beginners
Just what is so special about Critical Idealism? Answering this question is no neutral academic exercise because the answer has to do with understanding how to live one’s life. Critical Idealism is not a system of knowledge that you acquire and apply to living (like accounting knowledge that one applies to balancing the books of a business, mechanical knowledge that one uses to repair cars, medical knowledge that one employs to heal patients, theological knowledge that make it possible for you to know and share the will of God, historical knowledge that tells you what really happened in the past, etc.). If Critical Idealism isn’t going to give me useful knowledge, then why should I invest my energy in it?
Knowledge is always about something. Knowledge is something that we acquire sometimes with great self-discipline and effort. We can say that knowledge is something that we aim for. Assessment is a crucial step for knowledge because it constitutes the measurement instrument to assure that we have acquired what we aimed to acquire: knowledge of a subject matter.
Knowledge in this sense, then, is other directed and relatively uncertain. The other can be a person, thing, or data. Two characteristics of knowledge of the other, then, are significant in addition to knowledge having an external focus (goal): (1) we search for knowledge of persons, things, and data because knowledge is something we don’t already possess; and (2) we can never be certain of our knowledge because knowledge is based on sense perception (not direct and immediate access to the things known) and because knowledge requires our applying the correct concepts to our sense perception and we don’t acquire those concepts simply by opening our eyes. When we open our eyes we experience particular persons, things, and data, but we don’t experience their concepts. Concepts are not particular but universal because they apply to all particulars of a set and are not limited to a particular person, thing, or set of data.
In short, we must deliberate and can quarrel over knowledge, and experts thrive on such deliberation and quarrels. We know that we are an insider in a profession when we are among those invited into the deliberations and quarrels. This is a hint that power is as important as knowledge. Given the ambiguity of knowledge, the power to decide over deliberations and quarrels is as important as possession of knowledge appropriate to the profession. It is precisely the purpose of professional certification to confirm that one has successfully been assessed to in fact possess the skills and strategies for interpreting (not to share knowledge about) the persons, things, and data of a profession.
Knowledge – Seeing Things That Aren’t There by Means of Symbols:
There is no other species capable of acquiring the kind of knowledge (interpretation) that we are capable of acquiring. We share a lot of things with our fellow creatures on this planet. It seems to be the case that all sentient beings share a stimulus/response structure for experiencing the world. Other sentient beings are capable of knowing their environment. However, to a high degree their knowledge is a matter of instinct. In addition, other sentient beings are capable of learning new things at least to a limited extent. When it comes to humanity, though, we have the huge burden that our instincts are of so limited value to us. Acquisition of knowledge is required of us – already in the womb.
What plays clearly a role in the sophistication (and complexity) of the knowledge that we can acquire is that our knowledge allows us to see things that aren’t there in the phenomena far beyond instinct. A beaver sees water and trees and instinctually knows that it can cut the trees to create a dam in order to build a house with underwater access in the pond so that it is protected from predators. That is an incredible knowledge set, but it doesn’t come close to what humanity is capable of seeing that is not there in the phenomena.
When it comes to our stimulus/response structure, we insert something into the midst of the structure that dramatically enhances our knowledge and our ability to see things that are not in the phenomena. We employ symbols – all kinds of symbols from languages of cultural range, to mathematics, to aesthetics, etc., and we can combine the symbol systems to produce things that nature on its own could never produce. We don’t just look at trees and water and think dam and house. We look at limestone and water and can “see” cities constructed out of cement. We can use our mathematical symbols to make it possible for us to leave the planet.
Knowledge of symbols then is extremely important to us because symbols are the manner by which we obtain access to concepts. Knowledge involves the combination of sense perception and concepts. Given the absence of either, there is no knowledge. To the extent that concepts are themselves imperceptible but only mediated to us by symbol systems, symbol systems are the crucial key to our being able to obtain knowledge that is not limited to sense perception.
We’re not talking here merely about shamans and mystics who see things that aren’t there. We’re talking just as well of natural scientists. The importance of the Copernican Revolution is far far more than its displacing of humanity from the center of the physical universe. That, of course, is in itself significant since it reminds us that we don’t know where the physical center of the universe is. However, even more significant is that the Copernican Revolution requires us to deny our senses. If the knowledge of the natural scientists were only to come from the scientist opening her/his eyes, then the scientist is crazy to conclude that the sun is not moving. However, the scientist sees far more than the sense phenomena of the sun’s movement. The scientist can add a mathematical model to the sensed phenomena that requires our denial of the sense phenomena in order to properly understand them. In short, the significance of the Copernican Revolution is that it places humanity at the knowledge center of the universe. We know of no other species with the capacity to (much less desire to) deny its senses in order to understand the world.
To the extent that we define ourselves as a knowing species, the capacity to insert symbols into the stimulus/response structure that we share with other sentient beings is astonishing. However, it is also a contributing limit to our knowledge. We don’t know simply by opening our eyes, and we don’t get to symbols simply by closing our eyes. We both have to learn symbol systems (they are not instinctual), and, to the extent that our knowledge depends upon conceptual schemes accessed exclusively through symbols, our knowledge does not come directly from perception and, at times, even requires the denial of our senses. We’re back to our opening theme that knowledge is not something that we already possess when we come into this world and that knowledge is uncertain because it involves both sense perception and imperceptible concepts (now we can say imperceptible symbol systems).
Power and Knowledge:
We also can understand why power is so intimately connected with knowledge. Knowledge is inseparable from access to the appropriate phenomena and acquisition of the appropriate symbol systems for processing that phenomena. The guild has control over access to the appropriate phenomena and access to the symbols because the guild decides who has access to them and who can assess/certify whether or not someone possesses them.
For example, laboratories are incredibly expensive facilities, and the research procedures that occur in them are not only expensive but also require properly trained personnel with respect to the symbol systems needed to function in the lab. Educational institutions (most frequently, today) are the gate keepers for access to the phenomena and for acquisition of the symbols. Knowledge is power since it gives one access to limited phenomena and to the symbol systems needed to see what is imperceptible in the phenomena.
Why Learn Something That Doesn’t Give Us Knowledge of Things?:
However, we began by asserting that Critical Idealism isn’t giving us knowledge about persons, things, and data. Given how difficult it is to acquire symbol systems and to obtain access to the appropriate phenomena, hence, given the importance of knowledge, which allows us to see things that aren’t there by giving us not only access to the phenomena of that knowledge but also certifies that we possess the symbol systems to know, why on earth would one want to take something seriously that won’t give one knowledge?
What Does “Critical Thinking” Mean in Critical Idealism? Adding Things (but which things?) to Phenomena:
In order to provide an answer to this thoroughly legitimate question, we must examine what Critical Idealism means by critique. In fact, we have already been “critical” with our description of what knowledge requires: sense perception + concepts. Given the usual sense of critical thinking, though, this hardly sounds like a critical insight. Critical thinking is supposed to separate truth (fact) from falsehood (myth). A popular version of this kind of critical thinking is the television program on the Discovery Channel, “MythBusters.” This is the critical thinking of the so-called “Enlightenment Encyclopedists” in the 17th and 18th centuries. True knowledge (the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction) liberates one from ignorance and prejudice.
As important as such critical thinking is, it is not what Critical Idealism means by critique. In fact, the critical thinking of the MythBusters is concerned with knowledge – of persons, things, and data. Its goal is to draw correct judgments about the phenomena of experience, and, of course, it is a laudable goal. However, in its rush to pursue its goal, it overlooks its origin.
Rather than take its orientation by looking outward toward phenomena (persons, things, data) to gain knowledge, Critical Idealism looks in the very opposite direction: inward to original and originating capacities. However, this is not a turn to relative subjectivism: as if objectivity only was concerned with external phenomena and subjectivity was only concerned with emotions. What makes the turn inward critical in Critical Idealism is that it is not calling for un-reflective embracing of all inward experience with all of its emotions and possibly wild speculations. Rather, Critical Idealism is critical because it sorts out what is necessary about inward experience and what is capricious and arbitrary.
Example 1: Newton is supposed to have experienced his insight into the law of gravity when an apple fell from an apple tree under which he was sitting. Apples have fallen from trees longer than we care to (or could) remember. What was it about Newton’s experience that led to his mathematical formulation of the Law of Gravity? There was something necessary in addition to the phenomena of the fallen apple, obviously. In other words, Newton didn’t arrive at the Law of Gravity simply by opening his eyes. If he had not already, inwardly possessed an understanding of mathematics and did not share with Plato the conviction that physical phenomena are governed by imperceptible mathematics, he would never have arrived at his Law. Laws of physics are not accessible to us in external phenomena. We must add our understanding of physical laws to the phenomena. In other words, to grasp physical laws it is necessary that we add things not there in the phenomena.
In short, necessary for all of our knowledge of the external world (persons, things, data) is this curious and extraordinary subjective fact: without our ability to add symbols to phenomena, we would/could just be animals of instinct like the other sentient animals on this planet.
Laws Govern Physical Phenomena or Spirits?:
Critical Idealism wants to sort out what subjectively is necessary to our understanding of objective phenomena. Admittedly, not everything that is subjective is necessary. One could believe that the apple fell from the tree because the spirit of the apple tree decided to throw it. Such a hypothesis would drive the MythBusters nuts because one cannot perceive much less measure “spirits.” The point here is not to argue that there are such subjective spirits to objects but rather to illustrate how valuable it is to be able to distinguish between subjective necessity and subjective capriciousness/arbitrariness by means of the critical reflection of Critical Idealism.
Why Would Anyone Ever Believe in Animism?:
Example 2: How in the world could one come up with the idea that physical objects have spirits? This is not as strange (or foreign to us) as we might be tempted to think. In fact, the notion of a spiritual dimension to all bodies is at the core of Christian theology with which most people in the western, First World are familiar, as we will examine below.
We experience ourselves (rightly or wrongly) as constituted out of two dimensions: a body and a mind. The brain is part of our bodies; the mind is our experience of consciousness that we have never experienced without a brain (so far as we know), but the mind is not the brain. Why not? The short answer is because brain and mind are 180° opposite to one another. The brain is perceptible (it is possible, even if we perhaps wouldn’t want, to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear [tinnitus] our brains); the brain is material (it is a three-dimensional, solid object among other three-dimensional, solid objects); the brain is divisible (we can determine where one section of the brain stops and the next starts; we can distinguish among neurons and synapses); because the brain is divisible, it is measurable (we can determine the sizes of its parts); and, certainly the most amazing thing aspect of the brain is its dynamism (it is constantly changing). The mind, however, is experienced as just the opposite. The mind is imperceptible, immaterial, indivisible (where does one thought stop and the next begin?), immeasurable (is your concept of a mouse bigger or smaller than your concept of an elephant [physical mice and elephants have size, concepts don’t]?), and, in contrast to physical things, concepts are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (the concept chair never changes; how the concept is manifest physically is a different matter).
When it comes to our experience, then, it is necessary that we be able to experience these two dimensions (let’s say, the visible and the invisible) simultaneously. If all we could experience was brain, we would never be able to understand what it was. It is necessary that we have a mind in order to understand the brain. Remarkably, it is not simply that the physical world (apparently, necessarily) conforms to an imperceptible, mathematical system of laws, but everything that we could possibly understand in the physical world has to necessarily have a mental correlate in the system of concepts that are found only in the mind (and can be expressed externally by means of symbols).
Apple Trees Throw Apples?:
Now we can return to our theme of the spirit of the apple tree throwing the apple: in order to get to spirits behind bodies, we have to use an analogy because we don’t have direct experience of spirit (mind) other than in ourselves. This is true about my experience of you. Because I experience myself as both imperceptible mind and perceptible body and because you act in ways that indicate that you have an imperceptible mind as well as a body (I can never experience your mind directly), it is a reasonable conclusion to say that you, too, consist of a mind and a body. When we look at other animals, we find that they, as well (at least to a remarkable degree but nothing approachable to the degree that we do), conduct themselves in a way that suggests that they have both a mind and a body. Pragmatic conduct is crucial, then, to our analogy. Mind seems to be manifest by the ability to respond to one’s environment. However, plants respond to their environments, as well, so that our analogy allows us to extend the notion of mind (spirit) to plants. We can stop here when it comes to attributing a spirit to the apple tree because, obviously, the tree is a plant. However, given the appropriateness of our analogy based upon visible body and invisible mind, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination (some would say “thought”) to conclude that all particular bodies have minds – even inanimate bodies. Why would one draw that conclusion from an analogy that clearly is grounded in organic phenomena – when physical objects, like rocks, are inorganic? Rocks move! Because the causes of physical movement are imperceptible (we can only experience the effects of cause, not the cause itself), once again, Critical Idealism reminds us that we must add the causal explanation to the effects.
We experience ourselves as an imperceptible cause in the world given that we can do things that nature cannot do on its own. In other words, our imperceptible mind (spirit) can cause events to happen. We have a powerful analogy for understanding physical phenomena (bodies have minds) so that it borders on being natural that we can attribute mental (spiritual) causes to other organic bodies. The fact that a rock rolls down a hill means that it is caused by something. The most accessible explanation for the rocks movement is that it was caused by the spirit of the rock.
The point is by no means to convince us that this analogy is correct and that there are spiritual agents behind all events. The point is twofold: (1) remarkably, long before the rise of the natural sciences as we know them, human beings understood events in the world to occur as a consequence of more than they could experience merely by opening their eyes and observing phenomena (admittedly, we would now say that their analogy to the invisible is highly questionable, but the in-sight that understanding requires adding something to the phenomena is truly remarkable); (2) once one has crossed the threshold from material phenomena to mental phenomena as more than a threshold between objective truth and subjective capriciousness, one is confronted with the task of separating out in mental phenomena what is valuable and what is not. Our analogy, like apples falling from trees, is more ancient than we can (or would want) to know, and it offers a powerful causal explanation to phenomena. This ancient explanation is that there is an invisible, hierarchical order of the spirit that corresponds to the visible, hierarchical order of the world.
When it came to events in the world, E.B. Tylor labeled the analogy animism (from the Latin, animus, meaning soul). Each and every physical body in the world has an invisible animus/soul, which like the invisible, human soul can intentionally cause things to happen. He employed the analogy to counter claims by his contemporaries at the end of the 19th century that “primitive” humanity (i.e., humanity without the so-called “great monotheistic” traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) did not practice religion. Tylor argued that, wherever one finds spirits, one has religion. The goal of religion is to influence spirits for one’s own advantage (a theme that we will return to below because it identifies the role of self-interest in much religion).
If Christianity is Rational, So Too Is Animism?
E.B. Tylor’s analogy is a stick in the eye of Christianity. The so-called Logos tradition in Christianity that views the Christ as the incarnation of the divine Word (Logos) is grounded in exactly the same analogy. The Logos tradition does take a further step, however. It claims that the analogy to our minds and bodies provides us with an explanation for the creation of all that is and not merely with an explanation of particular physical events. The analogy’s development is the following: just as we must possess a clear, yet imperceptible, idea before we can undertake a task successfully, so, too, God must first have thought all of the ideas (the invisible Logos) before He undertook the task of creation. The analogy is grounded, then, on a relationship between the invisible and the visible.
Not only, as Critical Idealism wants to sort out, is there an invisible dimension required for the understanding of physical phenomena and for action in the physical world, but also one can explain the origin (!) of the entire cosmos on the basis of invisible thought and external action. The technical, theological terminology in the Greek is: logos endiathetos (thought Word) and logos prophorikos (acted Word). God created in two steps: first He thought; then He acted. Philo of Alexandria accounts for the two stories of creation at the opening of Genesis as reflecting these two steps. The first account of creation is God’s thought; the second is God’s action.
Humanity is created in the image of God because we share access to the same invisible Logos, and humanity is divine to the extent that it experiences the spiritual, unchanging Logos. It was this entire spiritual Logos that was incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ (Messiah), and the Christ teaches us what it means to be divine. Hence, Paul can speak of the Christian as possessing “the mind of Christ” (the Greek word is nous) and not necessarily mean that one is merely in agreement with Christ. Rather, one is the Logos. The conflict between the Arians and Athansians is precisely over the degree that the Logos permits human experience of divinity. The Arians argued that, as creatures, we can only experience that aspect of divinity that was created (i.e., God had to create/think the Logos, which is what we can experience of unchanging divinity as the Christ, the Son) whereas the Athansians argued that, because the Logos shares the same substance with the Father (i.e., one cannot separate the thoughts from the thinker), the Christian is promised complete identification with the Father in heaven. The Arian formula, then, is: “there was a time when the Son was not;” whereas the Athanasian formula is: “God became man that man might become God.” Arians call themselves Christian precisely because humanity can experience divinity only at the level of creatureliness, not, as they accused the Athanasians, at the level of God Himself.
This digression is only meant to illustrate how reasonable, obviously, E.B. Tylor’s analogy to spirits causing physical events in the world is because this analogy is what informs most of what we know of as Christian, rational theology (Logos in Greek means not only Word but also “to give a rational account of something” in contrast to Mythos in Greek which means “to tell a story”).
The connection between Tylor’s animism and Christian theology is even stronger when we examine the history of angelology (angels) in Christianity. For example, Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy describes angels as less than God because they are individual logoi (the plural of Logos whereas Logos constitutes the entire system of individual logoi) who mediate (are messengers: angelos/angels in Greek = messengers) between invisible divinity and the visible world. Our analogy is also what informs Christian hagiography (the worship of saints), who achieve extraordinary spiritual status in the invisible celestial hierarchy because they willingly gave up the changing world of particularities for the unchanging realm of logoi and can aid human beings in this world because they have a pure, spiritual status in contrast to us, who have a mixed spiritual/material status.
Why It’s Important to Distinguish Among Imperceptible Things:
In short, Tylor’s animism and Christian Logos theology are both attempts to invoke the imperceptible, immaterial, indivisible, immeasurable, and unchanging dimension of mental experience in order to understand, explain, and act properly in the perceptible, material, divisible, measurable, and changing physical world. Given that Christians are generally uncomfortable with the suggestion that there is a close if not inseparable connection between Tylor’s pagan animsm and true Christianity, it is to our advantage that Critical Idealism seeks a strategy to sort out what is necessary and what is capricious/arbitrary about the imperceptible dimension of experience upon which all knowledge and action in the world depends.
One can appreciate how disturbing the acknowledgement of the role of the imperceptible for all knowledge and action is for the natural sciences. Scientists, too, as Newton (as well as both Einstein and Bohr illustrate in a Heisenberg universe despite their controversy over whether or not quantum theory is complete) illustrates, are profoundly and inescapably dependent upon the imperceptible dimension of experience, which include its mathematical symbol system, in order to understand phenomena. In short, the sciences do not arrive, as we saw above, at the truth merely by opening their eyes. They must employ imperceptible conceptual systems formulated by means of perceptible symbol systems in order to see things that aren’t there in the phenomena in order to understand them.
The first step toward Critical Idealism, then, is the acknowledgement that human understanding and action requires our adding to phenomena things that are not given with the phenomena themselves.
However, this is only the first step. Tylor’s analogy and Christianity’s Logos theology illustrate the seductive temptation involved with engagement of the significance of the imperceptible dimension of experience. This seductive temptation is called Rationalism.
When One Steps Beyond Empiricism: The Seduction of Rationalism
If Empiricism claims that we obtain knowledge (simply) by opening our eyes, Rationalism draws the very opposite conclusion: we obtain knowledge (simply) be closing our eyes. In both cases, knowledge consists in a kind of object. Admittedly, Rationalism’s objects are subjective (i.e., exclusively in the imperceptible, mental, spiritual realm), not objective (i.e., exclusively in the perceptible, material, measurable realm). Nonetheless Rationalism’s objects are not merely the experience of the individual, but they constitute a transcendent dimension beyond all individuality (i.e., they constitute in Christian theology what one calls the logos endiathetos mentioned above). Just as the individual stands over against the empirical, material world (although a participant in it) and needs to investigate it, so, analogously, the individual stands over against the rational, mental world (although a participant in it) and needs to investigate it. In both cases, knowledge consists of content claims about transcendent worlds in which humanity at least in part always and already participates: the physical world transcendent to the self; the mental/spiritual world transcendent to the self. Knowledge is about transcendental stuff beyond the self: either the physical world or the spirit/mind.
Why is Rationalism so seductive? Once one experiences and understands the significance of the imperceptible, transcendent world deeper in the self (i.e., the significance of its order for both the mental/spiritual and the physical dimensions of experience), it is no surprise that one can experience an “Aha! moment.” Without the mental/spiritual, there not only is no understanding of (or action in) the physical world, but also there is no physical world in the first place because, as even Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most important, living physicist today, observes, (physical) events cannot generate the (non-physical, lawful) order to which they conform. Physical events presuppose the reality already of the non-physical, lawful, spiritual order. Because physics (Empiricism) presupposes (i.e., is dependent upon) Rationalism, Rationalism has priority over physics, and as the pre-Medieval Scholastic world understood: from the perspective of Rationalism, the examination of nature is really a waste of time because what matters is spiritual (Rational).
However, as seductive as Rationalism appears to be, it, too, has limits just as Empiricism does. It is precisely the task of Critical Idealism to sort out these limits according to what is necessary and what is capricious/arbitrary.
Limits to Rationalism:
Although it is necessary that we add concepts to sensed phenomena that are not there in the phenomena directly, it is not necessary that concepts are mental objects that somehow exist independent of the physical world (and, in the case of Rationalism) independent of any and all individual consciousness. We need an indication of the options for thinking about where concepts come from so that we don’t confuse the search for necessity in Critical Idealism as a justification for embracing everything that we can imagine as intangible.
Concepts: Three Alternatives
There are at least three options for thinking about the source of concepts: (1) Aristotle talked about our experience of concepts as occurring first in matter. He surely did not rule out that what is first in our experience may not be first in the order of being (i.e., it may be that form [ideas] without matter are metaphysically prior to how we come to know them). Nonetheless, to the extent that Aristotle insists on an epistemological priority to form (ideas) in matter before form (ideas) without matter, his understanding of the source of concepts (for us) is radically empirical (i.e., experiential). Concepts are natural in that we arrive at them through our experience of the physical world. In Medieval Scholasticism and popular today, this explanation of the source of concepts came to be called Nominalism. Concepts are merely names that we give to what we abstract out of our experience of particulars, which themselves are already formed by concepts (from God). (2) The alternative to Aristotle’s Empiricism is Plato’s Rationalism. Concepts (ideas) exist independent of the physical order, and the physical order is merely a copy of the originally mental concepts – concepts are independent of the individual. To the extent that we can think them, the individual is participating in a transcendent order beyond the individual. (3) A third option is most clearly formulated (though not original to) Ernst Cassirer. A concept is no-thing either in objects or independent of the world. A concept is a relationship found among phenomena (concepts are functions of phenomena) that we are capable of thinking to a degree unlike any other species, as far as we know. Hence, there are no isolated concepts, but they constitute an imperceptible, non-substantial system of relationalities. We will return to this option later because it is what Critical Idealism understands concepts to be.
Limits to Empiricism and Rationalism:
Both Empiricism and Rationalism, we’ve proposed, have profound limits that call any sense of certainty with respect to them seriously into question. Empiricism has no explanation of concepts even as it acknowledges that it cannot know/understand without them. To say that concepts are natural (that they somehow reside in objects) is to overlook the difficulty of how they got there in the first place. Empiricism cannot give an account for that as Stephen Hawking recognizes. Empirical events cannot generate the concepts needed for them to occur much less needed for us to understand them. Rationalism, for its part, depends upon an analogy to human experience for its explanation of the source of concepts. Concepts come from the mind of God analogously to the way they function in consciousness. However, there can be no greater human hubris than the assumption that the universe came about the way you and I create an artifact.
Either Empiricism or Rationalism could be true, but, because they are both incapable of demonstrating the necessity of the assumption of their explanations, their explanations are speculative. What is necessary is that we need to employ concepts and that we do so by means of symbol systems, but neither Empiricism nor Rationalism, no matter how loudly they scream their claims, can take us beyond speculation – neither provide us with necessity. What is extremely problematic for both is that the claims of their whole systems of knowledge depend upon assumption in advance of their respective alternatives for accounting for concepts.
Critical Idealism, in contrast, proposes that we decide the status of concepts not byabsolutely determining their source (where they come from) but in terms of how they necessarily function (i.e., in terms of what they make possible for us to do what we do). We can discern what is necessary for us to experience as we do without having to provide absolute explanations for the source, purpose (goal), or ultimate meaning of those necessary elements.
Although this may be frustrating for those who wish to possess absolute knowledge (either empirically or of the will of God), as soon as we insist upon absolute knowledge we deny our limits as human beings. We become a very dangerous species when we fail to acknowledge our limits. We can end up destroying nature with our certainties, or we can end up destroying one another when we assume absolute knowledge from the divine perspective – as our history as a species demonstrates.
Shifting Focus from “Objects” (Goals) to “Conditions” (Original Capacities):
We have seen that “critical thinking” for Critical Idealism means determining what is necessary (but, we will see, not sufficient) for us to experience the world as we do. In addition to sense perception (without which we apparently couldn’t experience anything, much less understand and act in the world), Critical Idealism points out that there are a number of elements in our experience that have to come from us (i.e., from the imperceptible or supersensible aspect of our experience). These elements are not found in the phenomena of sense perception but must be added to those phenomena.
We have focused our attention on concepts, which are imperceptible but without which we can neither understand nor act. Concepts are necessary for understanding and acting in the world, but they never come in isolation. When it comes to identifying a set of phenomena, we have to make decisions about quantity (how many are in play in the moment of understanding), quality (reality or irreality), relation (substance, cause, or interaction), and modality (possibility, actuality, necessity), which do not need accounting for here except to indicate that understanding involves more than applying an isolated concept to a set of phenomena. Understanding is a schematic process with multiple concepts in play.
Our capacity to generate this schema of concepts for a set of phenomena is quite extraordinary and constitutes the capacity for what Critical Idealism calls theoretical reason.
In Addition to and “Higher” than Theoretical Reason: Practical Reason
As an initial encounter with Critical Idealism, it is crucial that we not only indicate the significance of theoretical reason (the understanding of phenomena) but also practical reason (our creativity and moral accountability). Critical Idealism is not only concerned with our ability to understand the world, but long before Marx, it was concerned with our ability to change the world.
Again, the starting point here is capacities and not the objective status of (in this case, mental) objects. In other words, we are moral beings not because we encounter objective, moral maxims but because we have a subjective capacity: autonomous freedom. However, we are not talking about autonomous freedom in the sense of independence from external authorities (tradition, religious, social, familial, etc.). Our autonomy consists of the degree to which we are independent of the blind, efficient causality that governs physical events – we appear possess a kind of causality that is not (entirely) “blind.”
Critical Idealism fully realizes that we cannot prove (or disprove) that we can exercise this creative causality because to attempt to do so would violate, once again, the meaning of “critical” in Critical Idealism. Critical Idealism seeks to identify necessary conditions or assumptions to experience. It can’t and doesn’t claim to be able to prove those assumpitons. Autonomous freedom is a necessary assumption for us to be able to do what we experience ourselves as capable of doing. If we were to treat autonomous freedom as not necessary for us to be the species/individuals that we are, then we would be claiming to know something that we cannot prove (or disprove).
It is also important to underscore that, although autonomous freedom is creative freedom (our ability to think and do things that nature can’t do on its own), this creative freedom is not limited to skills at producing things. In fact, all that we add to the phenomena in theoretical reason is to a degree the consequence of our creative freedom because that which we add does not come from natural phenomena. Autonomous freedom saturates our (rational) experience.
Autonomous freedom is necessary for us to be the species that we experience ourselves to be. However, it is not sufficient for us to be the species that we experience ourselves to be. Each individual has to exercise this necessary capacity for her-/himself. Just as it is necessary that there be such a thing as an automobile for there to be an accident, the automobile alone doesn’t cause (isn’t in itself sufficient to account for) the accident. The automobile is not sufficient for explaining the accident. It is precisely the requirement that each of us take personal responsibility for the necessity of autonomous freedom that we are moral beings.
Freedom and Morality:
Because we experience ourselves as autonomously free, we understand ourselves to be capable of doing things that nature cannot do on its own. Autonomous freedom, then, is a categorical capacity (i.e., it is not determined by the natural circumstances of any situation). To be sure, we are confronted with imperatives (demands) from our situations. In fact, we can identify two kinds of such imperatives: technical and pragmatic. If I want to build a house, then the material circumstances for building the house establish imperatives that I must follow to be successful. For example, I can’t hang the roof in the air before laying the foundation and constructing walls. Such imperatives we can call technical imperatives because they involve learning the proper steps to accomplish a physical goal.
However, my social situation also establishes imperatives that I must follow to be successful. If I want to be a lawyer, I don’t go to truck driving school. Society expects me to be able to pass the Law Boards of my state in order to practice law so that I had best attend law school if I want to successfully pass those exams. These kinds of imperatives arising directly out of my situation are pragmatic imperatives because they involve learning the proper material in order for me to pursue a rewarding career.
Both technical and pragmatic imperatives are called hypothetical because they are situation-driven. Their hypothetical nature is reflected in the “ifs” in the last two paragraphs. Yet, we also experience categorical imperatives that are independent of our situation. For example, before I submit myself to technical imperatives to build a house or to the pragmatic imperatives required for pursuit of a career as a lawyer, I have to decide to do them. I have to decide whether or not to build a house, and I have to choose a career. That decision is anchored in a creative capacity prior to the material conditions that are required to carry out the intention of that capacity. When I take such a categorical decision, I give myself permission. That permission does not come from nature or from society, it comes from me, the agent. In order to give myself permission, I must invoke a maxim that establishes for me whether or not it is OK for me to proceed. These maxims are categorical, not hypothetical – they arise from me, not out of my situation. Furthermore, there is no simple list that I can turn to in order to gain permission. We’re too good at manipulating lists of maxims and even civic laws to pursue our self-interests for categorical permission to depend upon a check list of ready-made maxims.
Were we to require such a check list of ready-made maxims, such a list would constitute an objective status of the maxims that determined the properness of our actions. Again, Critical Idealism emphasizes the role of our capacity first (!) and points out what is necessary for the exercise of the capacity. What is necessary for our autonomous, creative freedom is that we take responsibility for what we alone can do. How in the heat of the moment of action do we determine what we should do? Somehow, we all know because we all do so all the time.
In order to do the right thing, we have to self-legislate in the moment of decision the maxim to govern our action. Moral action requires self-legislating a moral maxim that is universal – like a law of nature. That is, the moral maxim should apply to everyone at all times like we would want a physical law to apply everywhere and at all times. However, it is impossible for us to absolutely determine the universality of either the moral maxim or the physical law. What we can do is apply a kind of non-empirical falsification: we know that acting exclusively out of self-interest is not to act on the basis of a universal maxim because our self-interest is radically personal and particular, not universal. The “universalizability” test for a moral maxim is not the expectation to prove the objective, universal status of a moral principle but to affirm (a) that the moral maxim is categorical (independent of a particular situation, not hypothetical) and (b) the moral maxim is to check-mate purely, particular self-interest. If we were to wait until we could prove the law of nature to be universal before we could claim to know natural phenomena, we would never be able to claim knowledge. If we were to wait until we could prove the universality of the moral law before we could determine what we should do, we would never be able to act. By placing our moral maxims in the context of a system of what we take to be universal principles to govern the exercising of our autonomous freedom, we enhance the likelihood that we will do the right thing because it is right and not merely because it serves our particular self-interest.
Other ways of discerning categorical imperatives in addition to the universal criterion are: (2) we should treat others and ourselves as ends and never as mere means; and (3) we should acknowledge all others as autonomous, self-legislating moral agents (i.e., we should acknowledge the dignity owed to all creatures who possess these necessary capacities).
To be sure, doing the right thing because it is right can lead to our acting contrary to our self-interest. A whistleblower in a corporation most likely will lose her/his job. However, a moral culture would be that invisible community that provides one with encouragement to do the right thing because it is right and is there to support the individual no matter what the consequences. This is not a culture of skills that measures culture in terms of artifacts (music, art, architecture, growing of a business, etc.) but a culture that promotes the (moral) will to do the right thing because it is right.
Finally, for our initial engagement of Critical Idealism it is important to stress that moral principles are exclusively a product of self-legislation. We can legislate civic laws to govern external behavior (e.g., contractual agreements), but civic laws cannot guarantee morality. Civic laws require a citizenry that adheres to a law above the civic law. It is only a citizenry that does the right thing because it is right and not because it serves merely selfish interest that is capable of achieving justice.
In contrast to a civic law, no one can legislate a moral principle for someone else, and no one else can know what moral maxim served as the basis of one’s decision. However, the individual knows! Hence, the purpose of a culture that promotes the (moral) will is not to wave a moral finger in our faces, but, on the contrary, to remind us that morality is exclusively a categorical experience over which each individual is exclusively sovereign.
We can end this whirlwind tour of Critical Idealism with two quotes from Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals:
… categorical imperatives are possible by this: that the idea of freedom makes me a member of an intelligible world and consequently, if I were only this, all my actions would always be in conformity with the autonomy of the will; but since at the same time I intuit [perceive] myself as a member of the world of sense, they ought to be in conformity with it, and this categorical ought represents a synthetic proposition a priori, since to my will affected by sensible desires there is added the idea of the same will but belonging to the world of the understanding … (AA IV: 454; Cambridge edition (2012): 63)
… we see philosophy put in fact in a precarious position, which is to be firm even though there is nothing in heaven or on earth from which it depends or on which it is based. Here philosophy is to manifest its purity as sustainer of its own laws, not as herald of laws that an implanted sense or who knows what tutelary nature whispers to it, all of which – though they may always be better than nothing at all – can still never yield basic principles that reason dictates and that must have their source entirely and completely a priori and, at the same time, must have their commanding authority from this: that they expect nothing from the inclination of human beings but everything from the supremacy of the law and the respect owned it or, failing this, condemn the human being to contempt for himself and inner abhorrence. (AA IV: 425-426; Cambridge edition (2012): 38)