Reading Kant


Back from family vacations, I return to the INSOSCI blog with a contribution on Kant. During vacations, I have the habit to read books that I always wished to read, but never could manage, mostly because of their size and significance. Kant’s ‘Critiques’ belonged to this type of books, and I managed to read the ‘Critiques’ on ‘Pure’ and ‘Practical Reason’. This was truly enlightening to me, because I realized that Kant’s arguments are often simplified and distorted. I think that they are highly relevant also for our project. This is certainly true for the topic of our colleagues at Louvain, free will. But I extracted highly stimulating ideas for my own work, too.
Kant is a very complex topic, so I just present a few preliminary thoughts. In recent entries, I referred to Mead frequently and his distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’. Many commentators on Mead’s work complain that Mead does not deal in detail with the ‘I’. Interestingly, this partly seems to match with his analysis of the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘me’: Human individuals are said to be incapable of accessing the ‘I’ directly, only in terms of reflexive knowledge that is already mediated by the ‘me’. However, Mead seems to project this fact on the level of research: He does not deal much with the ‘I’, as if individual lack of access also applied for scientific research.
Well, philosophers and psychologists of the late 19th and early 20th century were very familiar with German philosophy, especially German idealism. So, I wonder whether Mead was also influenced by Kant’s thinking. From a Kantian perspective, it is plainly impossible to gain knowledge about the ‘I’, because the self belongs to the realm of the ‘Dinge an sich’. Kant thinks that our knowledge about ourselves can only be based on appearances (phenomena, ‘Erscheinungen’). In this, he is strictly externalist: We can only approach our self in terms of its externalized expressions, but that is not the self ‘an sich’. Yet, his transcendental method states that we can make statements with truth value about the conditions which enable us to gain empirical knowledge. One important condition is the ‘unity of apperception’, hence the existence of a self, or, the Meadian ‘I’. This applies also reflectively: We can only think and act if we posit ourselves as an ‘I’. However, since this refers to a ‘Ding an sich’, we cannot say more about this in terms of empirically specific propositions.
If we compare this with Mead, the Kantian reasoning provides a rationale for an idea that I pursue in my new book manuscript. If the ‘I’ were only accessible as ‘me’, Mead cannot explain the unity and identity of the ‘I’, because the ‘me’ is just the composite of the whole range of roles that an individual has internalized, including the view of the ‘generalized other’. Therefore, I introduce the notion of an ‘avatar’ of the ‘I’ which is the ‘I’ as constructed via the ‘me’, but still being different in terms of transcending the manifold of ‘me’. This is exactly Kant’s notion of self and consciousness, I would argue. The avatar is not the ‘I’ as ‘Ding an sich’, but it is a self in terms of its appearences, even if it were just specified as universal identifier without any other empirical determination (this corresponds to the argument by Brook cited below).
This is only the starting point of considering Kant’s relevance. I was stunned by his idea that ‘Pure reason’ can only be substantiated empirically in terms of ‘practical reason’. This is where free will comes into play. He resolutely rejects any empirical approach to the Self that would be cast into the categories of causality, because this can only give us access to appearances. This is why the notion of free will plays such a central metaphysical role in his intellectual edifice. Causality is a necessary condition for the intelligibility of reality, and so science indeed must adopt this framework to accumulate knowledge about reality. But in case of the ‘I’, there is a fundamental difference, because it is the ‘I’ who acts. That ties up with the Meadian notion of creativity: The ‘I’ is transcendental, so it is not governed by causality. But different from all other ‘Dinge an sich’, in case of the ‘I’ we can see the effects of its existence: The ‘I’ can establish the laws for itself that govern its action: That is why ‘pure reason’ is ‘practical’.
I think that this Kantian view is highly relevant for our project, in a similar way as I have relied much on Hegel in reflecting upon modern neuroscience in other work. Kant’s view of the self seems to result in what is called ‘performativity’ today. If human action is performative, it cannot be explained by causal mechanisms as posited in neuroscience. That means, for one of our workhorses, addiction, that we cannot adequately understand addiction only in terms of causal processes, such as only concentrating on substances and their physiological effects. There is always the element of free will in the sense that we must conceive addiction as being performative, hence an expression of the creativity of the ‘I’. It seems to me that this view would also have important implications for therapy, and further reinforces the case for approaches that include dialogic methods that aim at changing the individual sense of identity that undergirds the formation of motivation. Identity is performative, and so we can change ourselves and free ourselves from what science seems to identify as causal drivers of our action.

Brook, Andrew, „Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

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