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§3. Kant ’s Opposition to Leibniz on Freedom

§3. Kant ’s Opposition to Leibniz on Freedom

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only the initial state (if there is one) and the causal laws governing the

system. If there is no initial state, all states are equally predetermined, and

there is no free determination at any time.

. As we saw, Leibniz is a compatibilist: he holds that free will and

determinism go together. He would reply to Kant, as he replied to Spinoza,

that what really matters is what kinds of causes do the determining. Freedom does not require the absence of determining grounds but depends on

whether our actions are guided by judgments of value made in light of the

greatest apparent good, when these judgments themselves express our free

deliberative reason in Leibniz’s sense (Leibniz II:§). Given all that, he thinks

we are indeed free, and our actions fully voluntary and spontaneous, although our freedom becomes greater as we grow in knowledge and wisdom, and as our freedom less imperfectly mirrors the freedom of God.

Kant thinks that this reply to predeterminism fails to meet his objection.

This is plain from what he says about comparative and psychological freedom in the Elucidation (KP :f.). It is “a wretched subterfuge,” he says, to

think that the kinds of causes make any difference so long as predeterminism holds. His reference to an automaton spirituale, with the mention of

Leibniz, as “at bottom . . . nothing better than the freedom of a turnspit,”

and on a par with an automaton materiale, makes his point: the spontaneity

of free spirits (of spiritual substances), as Leibniz understood it, is not sufficient. Recall that the principles and laws that determine the sequence of

their psychological states are part of their complete concept (viewed as

possible individuals)2 and predetermine that sequence. Kant grants that

Leibniz’s free spirits have spontaneity in the sense that their psychological

states are determined by the active powers that constitute them as free

spirits, and hence they are not determined by outside influences. However,

they lack what Kant insists on and refers to as absolute spontaneity.

For this spontaneity, see the footnote to Religion :n. (n.).3 Here

2. The point here is that the concepts of these principles and laws, and the active powers they

direct, are already included in the complete individual concept of a possible individual as it lies in

the divine intellect. These principles and powers are simply made actual at the creation. Thus

Leibniz says: “[I]f this world were only possible, the individual concept of body in this world, containing certain movements as possibilities, would also contain our laws of motion . . . but also as

mere possibilities. . . . [E]ach possible individual of any one world contains in the concept of him

the laws of his world.” Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence, p. .

3. The references in parentheses are to Greene and Hudson.



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Kant says that there is no difficulty in reconciling freedom with inner selfsufficient grounds. The problem, he says,

is to understand how predeterminism, according to which voluntary actions, as events, have their determining grounds in antecedent time . . .

can be consistent with freedom, according to which the act as well as

its opposite must be within the power of the subject at the moment

of its taking place.

. . . [F]reedom consists not in the contingency of the act (that it

is determined by no grounds whatever), that is, not in indeterminism

. . . but rather in absolute spontaneity. Such spontaneity is endangered

only by predeterminism, where the determining ground is in antecedent

time, [and hence] . . . the act [is] now no longer in my power but in

the hands of nature. (Kant’s italics)



Here Kant affirms that freedom is compatible with, and even requires,

determining grounds, those that he refers to as “inner self-sufficient

grounds.” Freedom is not contingency or lack of determinism. The problem

is to avoid predeterminism; that can only be done, it seems, by absolute

spontaneity. But what is absolute spontaneity? What conception of it can

we form? This brings us to the heart of Kant’s view.



§. Absolute Spontaneity

. I suggest that we think of absolute spontaneity as the spontaneity of pure

reason, so in the case of freedom in the moral sphere, it is the absolute

spontaneity of our pure practical reason. Since absolute spontaneity excludes predeterminism but has its own inner sufficient grounds (Rel :n.

[n.]), it is the spontaneity of pure reason as it weighs and evaluates reasons, always in view of its own principles, and in the course of its own

exercise.

Kant thinks of this spontaneity as not bound, or causally affected, by

its own previous decisions—as such—as to the weight or proper evaluation

of reasons. Pure reason is the highest court of appeal concerning its own

constitution and its principles and guidelines for directing its own activities.

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As such, it is always free to reconsider its prior decisions: no case is ever

shut for good. In its freedom, reason makes its own judgments as it proceeds, always founding them on the merits of the case: on the evidence

and grounds at hand as assessed by the principles of reason and reason’s

view of its own constitution and principles at that moment.

. No doubt this suggestion as to how to conceive of absolute spontaneity is in various ways obscure. But it is not, I think, hopelessly obscure. In

any case, this idea is what moves Kant, or so I think. Thus if we ask what

conception of absolute spontaneity is available to us—what conception of

it we can form—I suggest that we look to the freedom of pure reason, as

Kant would describe it. So we look at pure reason both in the theoretical

sphere, as reason organizes into the highest possible systematic unity of

scientific theory the (low-level) empirical knowledge provided by the understanding, and we look at the practical sphere as pure reason constructs for

itself the a priori object of the moral law, the ideal of a possible realm of

ends.

For Kant, there is no separate problem of the freedom of the will, as

if something called “the will” posed a special problem. For him, there is

only the problem of the freedom of reason, both theoretical and practical.

The practical is what is possible through freedom, through the absolute

spontaneity of pure reason; even pure reason is practical. To understand

him, we must try to frame a conception of this spontaneity of pure reason,

however inadequate it may be. He had such a conception and we must try

to think our way into it. High science (which for Kant is physics and astronomy [Newtonian mechanics]) and the moral ideal of a possible realm of

ends are each equally the work of the absolute spontaneity of reason. We

should look at how he thinks reason actually proceeds.

. Leibniz would, no doubt, reply to this that he also allows for absolute

spontaneity. To make his case, he might say that free spirits, as he describes

them, decide by full deliberative reason in accordance with the principle

of the greatest apparent good (Leibniz II:§). Why isn’t this also a conception of absolute spontaneity? By now, we know Kant’s two points in reply.

First, as we saw (in Leibniz II:§:–), while as spirits we pursue the greatest apparent good, what we perceive as that good is affected by our perceptions and inclinations as these are reflected in our desires and aversions; but

our desires and aversions reflect the infinite complexity of the universe

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which our nature expresses. Hence our decisions are influenced by the way

the rest of the universe affects us, i.e., not in clear knowledge but in confused perceptions and in inclinations the causes of which, because of the

infinite complexity of the world, we do not, and can never, understand.

Kant might say that our practical reasoning therefore can never be lucid:

that is, we cannot, as the freedom of pure reason requires, grasp the full

and accurate basis of our reasoning. He agrees that it is difficult to know

our real motives, and that, for purposes of self-examination, we should

inquire into them (Gr II:– [–]); but this is different from its being

impossible to grasp the full basis of our reasoning, the principles and powers

that actually determine the course of our thought in view of the infinite

complexity of the world. For Kant, the freedom—the absolute spontaneity—of pure reason requires that reason can at least be lucid before itself

at least in due course. While not transparent to itself, it is not opaque to

itself either; through due reflection, it alone is competent to specify the

ideas and principles of its own constitution.

Second, Kant would say to Leibniz that the principle to decide in accordance with the greatest apparent good is not, as we have seen, a principle

of pure practical (of free constructive) reason. Nor does Leibniz have a

conception of the principles of a pure will (Kant I:§), which the freedom

of reason requires. Except when he is discussing various devices that the

mind can use to make one desire prevail over another (Leibniz II:§), he

can write that once deliberation begins, “everything which then impinges

on us weighs in the balance and contributes to determining a resultant

direction, almost as in mechanics” (New Essays II:xxi).

For these two reasons at least, Kant thinks that Leibniz lacks a conception of the absolute spontaneity of pure reason.



§. The Moral Law as a Law of Freedom

. So much for how Kant opposes Leibniz’s conception of freedom and for

his introducing the idea of freedom as absolute spontaneity. I turn now to

examine how this idea of spontaneity enters into understanding the moral

law as a law of freedom. But before doing this, I mention again the distinctive way in which Kant treats the question of free will. This question is

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often seen as one for metaphysics and the philosophy of mind alone: it asks

whether free will is compatible with causal determinism without reference

to any particular moral view, and if not, what the consequences are for

moral responsibility. But from what we have just seen, Kant’s approach is

quite different. Three basic points:

First, for Kant, the question of freedom depends on the specific nature

of the moral conception accepted as valid, and so the question cannot be

settled within metaphysics and the philosophy of mind alone.

Second, the moral law as it applies to us (however indirectly) is a principle of pure practical reason and as such a principle of autonomy; given the

unity of reason, pure practical reason also fully possesses absolute spontaneity and is fully as free as pure theoretical reason.

Third, as a consequence, there is no separate question about freedom

of the will, but only one question: the freedom of reason. The freedom of

theoretical and that of practical reason stand or fall together.

This last point deserves comment. Two features of a Kantian account,

as opposed to Kant’s account, of freedom of the will so-called are that, first,

it denies that there is any special problem about the will’s freedom, viewing

the question as simply part of the one main question of the freedom of

reason as such. Second, it holds that pure practical reason is fully as free

as theoretical reason; there is no need to claim that it is more free—what

would that mean?—and being as free is certainly all that is needed for holding people responsible and accountable. As for the freedom of reason itself,

the place to approach it is in the philosophy of mind generally. It is no

longer, on a Kantian view, a problem in moral philosophy, even though

very much one for it.

. The third point above is an aspect of the equality of reason: neither

theoretical nor practical reason is superior to the other. Kant refers to this

equality at the end of the important §VII of the Dialectic, where he remarks

that the constitution of reason as seen in the two Critiques puts them on a

footing of equality (KP :). Pure speculative reason is restricted to seeking

the highest systematic unity in the understanding’s knowledge of the objects

of experience; pure practical reason is extended by the fact of reason to the

ideas of freedom, God, and immortality, though always from a practical

point of view. Both forms of reason have an essential and complementary

role in one constitution of reason.

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I won’t comment further here on the distinctive features of Kant’s approach. We have more urgent business: namely, to clarify the idea of the

absolute spontaneity of pure reason and to try to locate where it shows itself

in our everyday thought and judgment. We must also remind ourselves of

various features of the moral law that lead Kant to think of it as a law of

freedom and how they connect with the idea of absolute spontaneity.

. One essential feature of reason’s absolute spontaneity is its capacity

to set ends for itself. Pure reason is the faculty of orientation (Kant VII:§),

and reason provides orientation by being normative: it sets ends and organizes them into a whole so as to guide the use of a faculty, the understanding in the theoretical sphere and the power of choice in the practical. Of

theoretical reason Kant says that it has “as its sole object the understanding

and its effective application. Just as the understanding unifies the manifold

in the object by means of concepts, so reason unifies the manifold of concepts by means of ideas, positing a certain collective unity as the goal of

the activities of the understanding” (KR B).

By contrast the understanding is not free. While its operations are not

governed by natural laws, and so not by the laws of association, as Hume

supposed, and while it applies its own concepts (the categories) to sensible

experience, its operations are guided not by ends it gives to itself but by ends

given to it by speculative reason. In this sense, the understanding indeed is

spontaneous but semiautomatic and unthinking. Lacking the capacity to set

ends for itself, it is merely spontaneous.4

. Consider now pure practical reason. Kant remarks of it in the first

Critique (KR B), in a passage in which he is discussing the “ought” as

expressing a possible action the ground of which must be a concept of

practical reason, that “[r]eason does not . . . follow the order of things as

they present themselves in appearance, but frames for itself with perfect

spontaneity an order of its own according to ideas [of pure reason], to which

it adapts empirical conditions, and according to which it declares actions

to be [practically] necessary.”

We already know what Kant has in mind, namely, that pure practical

reason constructs (as its a priori object) the ideal of a possible realm of ends

4. This contrast between reason as free and the understanding as merely spontaneous is stressed

by Neiman.



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§3. Kant ’s Opposition to Leibniz on Freedom

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