Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 10

(Read Part 9 of the series.)

Rousseau and Kant

The reaction to the perceived unreasonableness of the empirical method was most apparent in the philosophy of Rousseau in France, which eventually contributed to the Romantic Movement, with its disdain for reason and advocacy of giving free rein to feelings and instinct. It was also taken up by those who instigated the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that man is inherently good but that the rise of civilisation, begun through the inequalities created in claiming ‘private property’ had corrupted us. Voltaire, on reading of his ideas, sarcastically commented that he was too old to start walking on all fours or searching out the savages in Canada. They also quarrelled over an earthquake in Lisbon. Voltaire saw in it a justification for questioning the beneficence of a God that would allow such a thing. Rousseau thought it served them right for living in seven-story houses rather than out in the countryside where they ought to have been. In any case, he did not think that we could use reason when talking about God; our attitude should be one of awe and reverence.

More dangerously, Rousseau was advocating democracy in his writings and questioning the divine right of kings. He believed that there should be discussion and agreement amongst the people to determine what he called the ‘general will’. This would then be formed into legislation which, once accepted by everyone, would be forcibly imposed. His best known work, ‘Social Contract’, opens with the challenging statement: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.

His ideas represent the precursors of totalitarian ideologies such as Communism and Fascism. The immediate consequence of his philosophy was the ‘Reign of Terror’ instigated by Robespierre, whose quotations reflect the ideals of Rousseau: “I am no courtesan, nor moderator, nor Tribune, nor defender of the people: I am myself the people.” “The general will rules in society as the private will governs each separate individual.” “One single will is necessary.

The Idealism of Kant
Immanuel Kant is responsible for several beliefs relevant to Advaita (although, of course, these are found in the Vedas, thousands of years prior to Kant). Firstly is his clear differentiation between what we can know – the world of appearances perceived through our senses, what he called the phenomenal realm – and what we can never know – how things ‘really’ are, what he called the noumenal. We know these better as vyavahAra and paramArtha, respectively.

He observed that our senses are limited. We can only see a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum for example and not radio waves or X-rays. We can only hear part of the range of sounds. We cannot smell with the sensitivity of a dog or navigate like birds or salmon. We have no senses at all that can detect magnetism or neutrinos for example. There are vast areas of the universe that we can only be aware of indirectly through instruments devised by science. If we do not have those instruments or science has not yet devised them, those areas of the universe simply do not exist for us. And even in those areas in which our senses do operate, what they tell us is translated by organs and brain into something totally alien to the ‘thing in itself’ as he called the reality of an object. Sensory impressions can only be like other sensory impressions. They exist in the mind of the perceiver while the reality exists outside and essentially independent of experience. The noumenal is thus ‘transcendental’ – hence the name given to his variety of metaphysics: ‘Transcendental Idealism’. It is our minds that impose form upon the raw data of perception.

One consequence of this is that any explanation for the phenomenal world would have to lie outside of it and is therefore effectively unknowable. We can never know whether God exists; we are obliged to rely upon faith. In fact, Kant inferred that there must be a God in order to reward us in the next life for virtuous behaviour in this one, since it was evident that immoral men often seemed to thrive in this life. If anyone expressed such a view now, we would think he was being ironic. But, again, the theory of karma has no problems at all explaining these seeming anomalies.

Furthermore, the concepts that we use to make sense of the world are just that – ideas in the mind – they have nothing to do with the way things really are. This applies even to those most fundamental concepts of all: space, time and causality (though he actually called these ‘ways of looking at things’ rather than concepts). He acknowledged that behaviour in the phenomenal world follows the laws of science but did not accept that it therefore follows that we have no free will. He got around this by claiming that this operated in the noumenal realm.

In exercising our free will, he believed that we could and should use our reason in order to determine how to act. He thought that a valid reason would always be valid, and he proposed what he called the ‘Categorical Imperative’, which says that we should act only according to maxims that we could wish to be universal laws – i.e. ask ourselves ‘how would it be if everyone behaved like this’? The idea of ‘categorical’ means that it should be done irrespective of any consideration of outcome, as opposed to a ‘hypothetical’ imperative, which would say that you must perform the action if you wish to achieve a particular outcome.

An example of this would be borrowing money from someone and making a false promise to pay it back. If we imagine what would happen if this were a general principle and everyone did it, it becomes obvious that no one would ever believe such a promise, including the person from whom we are trying to borrow. It would only work so long as we were making an exception, allowing ourselves to lie but no one else. The very word ‘promise’ would cease to have any meaning if there was only ever an even chance of its being kept.

He believed that we only have to consider what our duty is in any given situation and need not consider what the possible outcomes might be or what we ourselves might want. If we have an obligation to do something then we should, as far as possible, try to comply with this. If not, then we can simply follow our natural inclination. Furthermore, when it comes to considerations of ‘good and evil’, he thought that the only thing that is good without qualification is good will.

Kant expressed his Categorical Imperative in another way: ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end’. People are not things and a price cannot be placed upon the worth of a man. Acting towards someone (including oneself) in any way that is disrespectful, demeaning or even indifferent is effectively assuming that the recipient of the action has a low value and this makes such an action morally wrong.

Finally, in order to be considered ‘moral’ we must act because we know that it is the right thing to do (and his claim was that we simply know what is right in the same way that we know that bachelors are unmarried). If we perform the same action but for other reasons, such as because we want to or because we know we might be punished if we do not, then we are acting immorally. I.e. morality relates to the motive for action and not to the consequences.

Kant’s differentiation between the world of appearances and the world of reality was built upon by a number of subsequent philosophers. It allows us to postulate our ideals as existing in this hidden world, where truth and God are found, and gives us a sense of purpose in striving to overcome the limitations of the perceived world. The alternative would be to admit that life is meaningless. Kant himself claimed that his philosophy ‘criticised reason in order to make room for faith’. The fact that he had shown that it was impossible ever to know anything about an external world suggested a further step of denying its existence altogether. Everything might simply be a projection of our own mind, i.e. we don’t simply formulate a meaning for external data but actually generate the data ourselves and impose the form at the same time. This would effectively be solipsism – the belief that only I exist – and Kant did not subscribe to this step.

Go to Part 11

Leave a Reply