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§3. Kant ’s Opposition to Leibniz on Freedom
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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