the role of the general in the moral and rational
Where can we find
new inspiration and orientation towards a deeper understanding –
deeper than our review of the tradition of practical philosophy
has afforded it thus far – of general ideas such as the rational,
the moral, and of the general (or universal) itself and of what
they mean as applied to the quest for good practice? In the
first, introductory part we considered the role of the general
in the moral "in general" and then discussed some
specific difficulties it raises in discourse ethics in particular.
I suggest we now take a step back and distance ourselves a bit
from our current main concern with discourse ethics. To begin
with, it may be useful to briefly return to Kant and recall the way
he sees the place of general ideas in human cognition.
This is the topic of the present, second and relatively short
essay in the series.
Subsequently, as announced in the first part, we will attempt
in Part 3 to pragmatize Kant's view
of general ideas a bit, so as to come to terms with the crucial difficulty
that we identified in the first part, the tension
between the general (or universal) and the specific (or particular) in all
Thus prepared, we will then undertake the planned excursion
into ancient Eastern thought, to help us in detaching ourselves
for a while from our "Western" perspective of general
ideas and in appreciating their role from an entirely different
A Kantian perspective on general
general, the moral, and the rational share this fate that all
three are general ideas that human reason cannot dispense with
but which it can never prove to have objective reality. We can
imagine and think them but not encounter them, and thus
cannot know them, as they have no empirical counterparts.
There are basically two reasons why the human mind may need
to conceive of something X as a meaningful idea (or object of
cognition) although it does not and cannot possibly know it:
either, because X precedes all possible experience yet
is a necessary presupposition of knowledge; or else, because
X stands for a totality of conditions that, although it furnishes
a useful general idea or principle of thought and action, exceeds
all possible experience. The concept of causality, according
to which everything that happens has some cause, may illustrate
the former case; the moral principle, the latter. Note that a
totality of conditions is itself absolute, or unconditioned,
as otherwise it would not include all the conditions in question
(cf. Kant, 1787, B379, 444 and 445n). The former class of ideas
is prior to knowledge, the second reaches beyond
it. As the two examples also illustrate, the two classes are
not mutually exclusive, in that presuppositions of cognition
that precede all knowledge also are universal conditions
(but conversely, not all principles of thought and action need
to be presuppositions of all knowledge). The human eye may serve
as a familiar metaphor. The eye cannot see itself, yet without
it we can't see anything; it is thus prior to phenomenal
experience. At the same time, the eye can always only see a
limited section of phenomenal reality, yet without thinking
beyond what we see, we can't make sense of that which
we see. Necessity and universality are thus for
Kant (1787, B4) the two hallmarks of what we have thus far called
(and will continue to call) general ideas.
understanding of general ideas Ideas are part
of what Kant calls a priori concepts or also "pure"
(i.e., non-empirical) concepts of reason, whereby he understands
"reason" in the wider sense that comprises all the
skills involved in human cognition, as distinguished from reason
in the narrower sense of reflective skills. For Kant, unlike
for the "tabula rasa" empiricists of this epoch (Locke,
Berkeley, but not Hume), non-empirical notions or concepts are
involved in all cognitive skills, that is, in what he calls
"intuition" (i.e., perception, = taking sense-experiences
up into consciousness) as well as in "the understanding"
(i.e., conceptualization, = bringing sense-experiences under
concepts) and in "reason" in the narrower sense (i.e.,
reflection, = ensuring unity of thought). Corresponding to these
three cognitive levels, Kant distinguishes three kinds of "pure"
notions or concepts, notions that both precede and exceed all
possible experience and thought:
priori concepts of intuition (perception) = pure
forms of intuition
= mere forms of all appearances:
space and time;
priori concepts of the understanding (conceptualization)
= pure forms of thought = categories of all
experience: of quantity (unity, plurality, totality), of quality
(reality, negation, limitation), of
relation (inherence and subsistence, cause and effect, reciprocity or whole
and parts), and of modality
(possibility / impossibility,
existence / non-existence,
necessity / contingency); and
priori concepts of pure reason (reflection)
= pure ideas of reason = unavoidable problems
of reason = ideas of pure reason: World, Man, God.
can thus say that "ideas" are those a priori
concepts that reason in the narrower sense finds indispensable.
1 gives an overview.
Table 1: Kant's
framework of indispensable ideas of pure reason
the realm of theoretical reason, as worked out in
the first Critique )
skills or levels
concepts of pure (theoretical) reason
"Faculty of representation"
forms of intuition":
a priori representations
of all appearances
(space and time)
forms of thought":
a priori concepts
of the understanding
(of quantity, quality, relation, and modality)
(in the narrower sense):
"Faculty of principles"
(= reflection, integrative reasoning)
ideas of reason"
(= "unavoidable problems
a priori concepts of
of pure reason
(World, Man, and God)
Table 3 )
2013 W. Ulrich
notions are characteristic of Kant's practical philosophy, although
he does not outline them as systematically as in his theoretical
philosophy (which is why I can only "reconstruct"
rather than "summarize" them in Table 2).
In the realm of practical reason, there are three crucial ideas
around which Kant organizes his account of morality: the idea
of freedom, without which no practical philosophy is
conceivable; the idea of autonomy (or self-determination),
which characterizes the moral stance of a rational agent; and
the idea of the moral law (or of a universal principle
of morality), which defines the standard of all moral reasoning
(compare Kant, 1786, B70f, B77-79, B87f and 97-119, esp. B109f).
Table 2: Kant's
framework of indispensable ideas of practical reason
reconstructed from the Groundwork )
of moral judgment
(of rational agents )
concepts of (pure) practical reason
(= moral experience)
can experience my will as being free to choose"
idea of freedom
(free will as presupposition
of all moral accountability)
(= moral thought and volition)
can think of my will as having causality"
idea of autonomy
(self-legislation and causality
of the will as presuppositions of all rational practice)
can think of others as ends in themselves"
idea of human dignity
(autonomy of others as
ends in themselves)
can think of myself as a universal legislator"
idea of a universally good will
(= moral reflection)
can reflect on the moral implications of my
maxims of action"
idea of the moral law
(moral practice as regulated
by the idea of a kingdom of ends)
2013 W. Ulrich
a discussion of the key concepts of Kant's practical philosophy,
among them the concepts of pure practical reason mentioned in
the right-hand column of Table 2, see Ulrich (2009b); I
outline Table 2 here for the sake of completeness rather
than with the intent of repeating that earlier, detailed discussion. Lest
I create confusion, three brief remarks may be useful.
It is obvious that in comparison with Table 1, Table 2 defines
a more specific kind of general ideas, in the double sense that
a specific application of Kant's understanding of general ideas
to the field of moral reasoning and that this application is
highly specified, despite its universal intent. One might similarly try to
specify Kant's understanding of general ideas for the realms
of science, politics, economics, and so on. Despite this specific
character, however, Kant's moral ideas represent a very important
and characteristic part of his thought, as they are to help
us in defining our role as rational agents in this world.
The three levels of moral judgment suggested in Table 2
also differ from the three cognitive levels of Table 1
in a second sense. There is an element of freedom and self-determination
(or, as Kant says, of self-legislation) in practical reasoning
that points beyond the limits of theoretical reasoning. Unlike
the latter, which depends heavily on the passive or receptive
level of cognition to which Kant refers as "intuition"
(the lowest level in Table 1), the valid employment of
practical reasoning is not restricted by the limits of possible
experience. Apart perhaps from the experience of moral sentiments
and conscience, in which we intuitively experience a moment
of free choice and accountability in our individual conduct,
morality as Kant understands it always involves active moral
Moral judgment essentially moves at the level of general concepts
and ideas that Kant has in view when he speaks of (pure) practical
reason – the levels of "thought" and "reflection"
suggested in Tables 1 and 2.4)
The three levels of Table 2 may also be seen to stand for
a certain progression of moral awareness and reflectiveness
in the sense of Kohlberg (1968, 1976, and 1981; cf. Ulrich,
2009b, Table 1), ranging from a rather intuitive level
at which we first experience moral conscience (i.e., consciousness
of our being free and able to choose the ways we act, and of
consequently being accountable for them), via a higher level
of conceptualization at which emerge concepts such as moral
autonomy (in the sense of both self-determination or self-responsibility)
and responsibility towards others (i.e., respect for their
individual autonomy), to most general and abstract postulates
such as those of a universal principle or "law" of
morality (the categorical imperative) and of a "kingdom
of ends" (a global moral community). In this respect, too,
the parallels between the three levels of Tables 1 and 2 are
the cognitive level
that interests us
most in the present context is the level of reflective skills. Such skills are
equally relevant in the realms of theoretical and of practical
this reflective level, Kant variously refers to the a
priori concepts involved as concepts of pure reason
or "pure concepts of reason," or as "ideas
of pure reason" or "transcendental ideas,"
whereby both theoretical and practical reason are examined with
respect to their "pure" (non-empirical) employment.
We may understand the first two designations as the most general
ones in that no essential differentiation is intended, whereas the other two designations may be
understood to emphasize more specific aspects (although Kant
also uses them as general designations).
of pure reason Kant specifically speaks of
concepts of pure reason as ideas when he discusses their
problematic character, their being only ideas and hence,
their posing a dilemma to reason in as much as it can neither
establish their "reality" (i.e., their validity as empirical
concepts) nor do without them to ensure the intelligibility
of the world:
understand by idea a necessary concept of reason to which no
corresponding object can be given in sense-experience.… [Ideas]
are concepts of pure reason, in that they view all knowledge
gained in experience as being determined through an absolute
totality of conditions. They are not arbitrarily invented; they
are imposed by the very nature of reason itself, and therefore
stand in necessary relation to the whole employment of understanding.
(Kant, 1787, B383f)
is to say, the ideas of reason, although problematic, are rational
conceptions. Reason cannot help but infer them from experience,
as for anything that is given empirically there must be a series
of conditions that would explain it: "For a given
conditioned, the whole series of conditions subordinated to
each other is likewise given." (1787, B444) Only a complete
notion of this series of conditions can in principle explain
that which is given, so as to make it fully intelligible
to the human mind. But since, as we have already noted, the
totality of conditions is always itself unconditioned, it goes
beyond the experiential world of conditioned phenomena and therefore
can never be an object of experience. This is why the ideas,
as pure concepts of reason, are for Kant both unavoidable and
problematic: "Concepts of reason contain the unconditioned."
(1787, B367). Thanks to this quality they make reality intelligible
in the first place. But due to this same quality, it must remain
open whether or not they have any objective reality. Hence,
handled carefully, they risk becoming sources of illusion.
concepts By contrast, Kant emphasizes the transcendental
character of general ideas when he is interested in their epistemological
importance, that is, their positive contribution
to knowledge rather than their problematic character. What role can they legitimately
play, and on what basis can such ideas be identified and justified?
entitle transcendental all knowledge which is occupied
not so much with objects as with the mode of our knowledge of
objects in so far as this mode of knowledge is to be possible
a priori. A system of such concepts might be entitled
transcendental philosophy. (Kant, 1787, B25)
Kant's precise but complex terminology, a "transcendental"
as distinguished from a merely "transcendent" (= metaphysical)
employment of reason means reflection on the conditions
of possible knowledge inasmuch as these conditions involve "pure"
or a priori concepts of reason. A priori
concepts that can be shown to play a role in the constitution
of knowledge are transcendental concepts of reason. In a complex
"transcendental deduction," an account of which would go
beyond the scope of the present discussion, Kant identifies
and specifies the three classes of a priori concepts
listed in the right-hand columns of Table 1 above.
skills of reason Let us now return to our focus
on the reflective skills involved in human cognition,
that is, in the terms of Table 1 above, on reason in the narrower sense, which has as its
only objects the previous cognitive level of the understanding and,
Kant's work, also itself, namely, inasmuch as it engages in a self-reflective
critique of pure reason. Transcendental concepts or
ideas serve reason in its core task of ensuring the integrity
of thought or, using Kant's (1787, B383) preferred
"unity of understanding" on the one hand and the "unity
of reason" on the other hand. Transcendental ideas achieve
this by defining what we might call ideal reference points or,
perhaps a more helpful way to put it, limiting concepts towards which reason can orient
The most general of these limiting concepts, as we have already
understood, is the idea of a totality (and unity) of all the
conditions that constitute any object of thought or experience
principle peculiar to reason in general … is to find for the
conditioned knowledge obtained through the understanding the
unconditioned whereby its unity is brought to completion. (Kant,
quest for completion amounts to what is probably the most basic
general principle of reason – to always look for
sufficient reasons for any of its claims (cf. Ulrich, 1983,
p. 219). It would run against this principle to arbitrarily
leave out any reasons of which one is aware just because one finds them
difficult to explain, share, and justify, for whatever reasons. Sufficient reasons are, in principle,
complete reasons. This is why Kant requires reason to look for
"unity" and "totality" of its considerations.
This quest (and therein lies its crucial difficulty) involves
what Kant calls "synthetic" a priori concepts
that is, what in our "Reflections on reflective
practice" series we have called "substantial" (information-adding)
rather than just analytical (tautological) statements or arguments
and what in contemporary language-analytical terms is also commonly
described as (non-tautological) "predication." Such
judgments entail the assumption of a series of conditions that
is complete, so as to be sufficient to explain or justify their
claim to validity. But as we have noted above, a totality
of conditions is never given by any empirical
judgment or concept; in fact, it is never given empirically
at all. It therefore needs to be imagined or postulated, anticipated,
projected, or in short, assumed:
maxim of completing the series of conditions] can only become
a principle of pure reason through assuming that if the
conditioned is given, the whole series of conditions, subordinated
to one another – a series which is therefore itself unconditioned
– is likewise given.… Such a principle of pure reason is obviously
synthetic; the conditioned is analytically related to some condition
but not to the unconditioned. (Kant, 1787, B364, my italics)
assuming such an unconditioned totality of conditions, there
is no end to the chain of causes that would explain an object
of knowledge (e.g., the existence of some phenomenon of nature), nor
is there an end to the chain of reasons that would justify an object of
thought (e.g., a theoretical statement or a moral claim). Reason would be caught
in an infinite regress without ever being able to arrive at
some definitive result. Transcendental concepts of reason, then,
are ideas that project such a totality (and unity) of
conditions into our notions of an object of cognition; conditions
that in principle we would need to know in raising claims related
to it but which of course we will never fully know. As Kant sums up the
importance of this transcendental notion of a projected
totality of conditions for the reflective skills of reason:
transcendental concept of reason is, therefore, none other than
the concept of the totality of the conditions for any given
conditioned. Now since it is the unconditioned alone which makes
possible the totality of conditions, and conversely, the totality
of conditions is always itself unconditioned, a pure concept
of reason can in general be explained by the concept of the
unconditioned, conceived as containing a ground of the synthesis
of the conditioned. (Kant, 1787, B379, added emphasis)
human mind, if only it thinks things through to the end, is
bound to arrive at such ultimate, general ideas. The major examples
of Kant's epoch were the notions of a universe whose boundaries
in space and time were unknown; of man's freedom of will and
the immortality of his soul; and of the existence of an omnipotent
God. For each of these notions, reason saw itself confronted
with a question that it could not answer: the "cosmological"
question of whether the World had a beginning in time
and limits in space; the "psychological" questions
of whether Man had indeed an immortal soul and a free
will that could exert causality in the world of nature; and
the "theological" question of whether an omnipotent
God existed. Reason could not help arriving at such questions,
but whenever it tried to answer them, it could find good grounds
for giving both a positive and a negative answer – Kant's famous
antinomies of pure reason (1787, B432-489). Whatever
answer reason took for granted, it risked succumbing to a transcendental
illusion (B352), as the contrary answer could be argued
just as well and it had no means of deciding the matter.7)
A related example from today's scientific
discourse illustrates the continuing relevance of Kant's
"transcendental" conjectures, I mean the big-bang model of the origin and early development of the
universe, supposedly some 14 billion years ago. A little less long ago, in 2006,
the Nobel prize was awarded to two scientists, John Mather and George
Smoot, who in the form of the 3K cosmic background radiation phenomenon
supposedly discovered a proof and explanation of the origin of the universe,
well, yes, in a "big bang." As the laudatio proclaimed, this scientific
breakthrough marked "the inception of cosmology as a precise science" (Nobel
Committee, 2006). How innocent science can be, from a Kantian point of view!
Of course the question of the origin of the universe and, related to it, its
finite or infinite character, remains unanswered by the big-bang model and will
remain so for ever. The question asks for the totality of conditions that would explain
the ultimate origin of the universe; but, as Kant would point out, a totality of
conditions is (by definition) itself unconditioned and thus cannot be a possible
object of science. The notion of an ultimate beginning and end of the universe
is bound to remain an unavoidable but problematic idea. Any claims to such knowledge
risk succumbing to a transcendental illusion. In this case,
it was perhaps less the distinguished scientists than the Nobel
Prize Committee who risked falling victim to an illusion.
Reason must ask such questions, but
science cannot answer them. Science can only explain empirical phenomena in
terms of preceding conditions, so any empirical evidence of a "big bang" raises
the question of what preceded it and how it came about. But again, by definition,
science cannot reach behind the "big bang," for inasmuch
as it really occurred, it left no empirical trace of whatever
was before and caused (or conditioned) it. Science cannot postulate
ultimate conditions and at the same time claim to reach beyond
them. This, I suppose, is
what Edmund Husserl meant (or at least, one fundamental aspect of what he had
in mind) when he once remarked that
"No objective science, no
matter how exact, explains or ever can explain anything in a serious sense."
(Husserl, 1970, p. 189)
that as it may – whatever limitations there are to human knowledge,
and likewise, whatever progress there is in science, the critical
skills of reason will not become redundant so quickly, quite
the contrary. Despite being possible sources of error, the general
ideas and related questions of reason are also sources and tools
of its major contribution to human cognition – the ability to
think things through to their end so as to understand them as
(however imperfect) manifestations of general principles. As
Kant's explains, reason is the "faculty of principles"
(B356) that alone is able to "apprehend the particular
in the universal" (B357, cf. B359).
summary and conclusion: ideas of reason and the human condition The picture that emerges
is one of a deep-seated dialectic of the universal and the particular;
of the ideal and the real; of that which we can think and that
which we can experience and do, and thus know. The important point
is, we are dealing here with an integrative, two-dimensional
conception of the human condition or, as Kant (1786,
B105-110 and B115-119) famously
puts it, with "two standpoints" (rather than alternatives)
from which we can see the world, namely, as the phenomenal (or
world of experience and as the intelligible (or moral) world of
thought and action. I cannot help but think in this context of Hannah Arendt's
(1958) beautiful study of the Human Condition, in which
she has made us aware, once again, of how much even in a modern
world ruled by science and theoretical reason, the vita activa
– self-determined practice – remains an essential aspect of
who and what we are. We are what we are doing, and we are doing
what we think. Human practice (including the practice of thought
and reflection) conditions the "human condition,"
as it were. We therefore need to re-think what we are doing
and why, that is, with what kind of a world-to-be in mind, we
are doing it (cf. 1958,
pp. 5 and 9). Even in an age that has apparently made systematic
action the prerogative of science and expertise, "the capacity
for action … is still with us" and "thought … is still
possible." (1958, p. 323f)
of course, the issue of what conditions the human condition is not a
prerogative of our epoch. The basic questions involved are age-old
preoccupations of humanity. Accordingly, it hardly comes as
a surprise that Kant's general ideas, and the questions
to which they lead us, are reminiscent of similar notions
and questions in all epochs and cultures since the dawn of philosophical
reflection, some 3,000 years ago, in ancient India and later
in Greece and other parts of the world. Perhaps even before,
and certainly ever since, they have also been objects of artistic
expression, mediation and spirituality, and religious faith
and practice. What Kant added to these age-old ideas and their
often merely metaphysical and esoteric treatment is a critical
epistemological analysis that shows both their rational and
their precarious role in the quest for enlightened knowledge
and understanding. He assigned to them, in his own terms, a transcendental
function as unifying ideas of systematic thought and reflection.
Kant added the conception of a practical (i.e., normative)
dimension of reason in which three theoretically unprovable,
but practically indispensable and strong ideas of (pure)
practical reason take the place of the corresponding theoretical
ideas. The "practical" equivalents of the theoretical
ideas of speculative reason are all manifestations
of the moral idea – the World envisioned as a moral world
(1787, B836 and B843) or "kingdom of ends," as distinguished
from the kingdom of nature (1786, B74f); Man's freedom of
will (or autonomy) and the related notion of a "causality
of the will" (1786, B109) as distinguished from the causality
of nature; and finally, the idea of an almost God-like, unconditional
good, a universally good will (1786, B1) or "universal
principle of morality" that Kant sees as indispensable qualities of a
rational being (1786, B109). They are "strong" ideas
(my term) in that, as we found, practical reason has a "manifest advantage"
(1788, A115) over theoretical reason: it is free to establish
its own principles of a world of good practice, whereas theoretical
reason is bound to "observe" the phenomenal world
in the double sense of recognizing and obeying the principles
although reason does indeed have causality in respect of freedom
in general, it does not have causality in respect of nature
as a whole; and although moral principles of reason can indeed
give rise to free actions, they cannot give rise to laws of
nature. Accordingly it is in their practical, meaning thereby
their moral, employment, that the principles of pure reasons
have objective reality. (Kant, 1787, B835f, cf. B385f; cf. 1788, A115f).
provides a tentative integration of what are perhaps the most
fundamental "ideas of pure reason" in Kant's critical
philosophy, by aligning them with the two "standpoints"
of theoretical and practical reason as developed in the Groundwork, as
well as with the famous
three questions with which ends the first Critique. As
Kant sums up his exploration into the "utmost limits of
all knowledge" (1787, B825):
… conducted us through the field of experience, and since it
could not find complete satisfaction there, from thence to speculative
ideas, which, however, in the end brought us back to experience
[and to the practical employment of reason, making us wonder]
whether pure reason … may not be able to supply to us from the
standpoint of its practical interest what it altogether refuses
to supply in respect of its speculative interest.
the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical,
combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I
know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope? (Kant,
I suggest, are Kant's most fundamental ideas of pure reason
for reflecting on the conditio humana:
Table 3: Kant's
two standpoints and related ideas of reason
theoretical and practical reason in reflection on
the human condition)
(of the human condition)
of pure reason
of pure reason
can I know?
unity of nature
(kingdom of nature)
global moral community
thought and agency:
What ought I to do?
of the thinking and acting subject
unity of human and natural causality
(unity of practical reason)
What may I hope?
unity of (universally legislating) reason
unity of (universally
2013 W. Ulrich
Given that Kant belongs to the very tradition of rational
ethics to which we aim to gain some distance, and also considering
that this tradition is thoroughly rooted in "Western"
thought patterns, the planned excursion into "Eastern"
thought will hopefully allow us to see Kant's notion of rational
ideas in a new light. Likewise, it might allow us to see the
crucial tension of which I have spoken, between the general
and the specific in both rationality and morality, in a different or complementary
light. But of course, coming from the traditions of "Western"
practical philosophy, such an excursion finds us ill prepared.
A certain effort of familiarizing ourselves with this totally different
tradition will be in order. The next, third part of our exploration
will therefore still stay in the
"West" and will explore some basic, pragmatic ways
to "approximate" the intent of Kant's ideas, given
their nature as limiting concepts of thought and reflection.
We will also consider some ways to handle the tension
between the general and the particular in practice. After that,
in a fourth and possibly a fifth part, we will then be headed East.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This is the second part of a series of exploratory essays
on the role of general ideas, such as particularly the moral
idea, in rational thought and action as seen from different
vantage points. The first, introductory part appeared in the
of September-October 2013.
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