This post was written as part of CULA’s “Liberal Icons” essay competition; the winner and runner-up will be announced once all entries have been posted.
We liberals identify ourselves as such because we hold liberty to be the highest political principle—a privilege that has been afforded to us on the basis of our having had the fortune to have been born after that greatest flowering of human thought, the Enlightenment. It was at this juncture in history that a seismic rethinking of political right took place. No longer was political right to be identified with the primacy of the interests of the governed, as in the classical world, or the realisation of divine reason in temporal mundanity, as medieval thinkers had held. Instead, it was to be found in the preservation of the fundamental autonomy inherent in each and every human individual, combining the age-old identification of politics as applied ethics, present in Aristotle, with the intimation that human freedom was to be realised in the temporal realm rather than by and in God.
This radical notion was first forged by John Locke in a familiar crucible of Christian presumptions. Locke’s three highest postulates of life, liberty and property were ultimately rooted in a Christian understanding of all humans having been born equal, free, and blessed with the right to establish dominion over the physical world around them, all as a result of their having been uniquely made ad imaginem Dei. Much of subsequent liberal thought continued in a similar vein, with the Baron de Montesquieu’s enthusiasm for the separation of powers having been informed by his keen awareness of the corruption of original sin, a conviction laid bare by his chronic fears concerning the fragility of virtue and the constant possibility of corruption.
It was Immanuel Kant who first dared to suggest that liberty might be formally fundamental—that is, that it might not necessarily supervene upon the divine. Unlike his many predecessors, he made no attempt to define freedom as fundamental to human existence along theological lines, preferring to employ the purely rational (in the truest sense of the word) deductions of the transcendental method applied to metaphysics.
His rationalist and empiricist predecessors—an eminent bunch, to be sure, counting figures such as Descartes and Hume among their number—had argued that the human mind plays a passive role in human experience, either in the sense that the fundamental aspects of all existence are innately located within it, allowing the totality of human experience to arise from analysis thereof and extrapolation therefrom, or in the sense that it receives ideas of objects picked up by one’s sense faculties into an empty theatre, thereby building up the totality of human experience from the basis of sensible reality.
Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism, however, was fully opposed to both schools of thought. In his estimation, both had committed the fatal error of supposing that they could know Dinge-an-sich, whether in the rationalist sense that we can know the things-in-themselves that produce phenomena, or the empiricist sense that Dinge-an-sich can be reduced to the sense data produced by external phenomena. “What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being, though to be sure it pertains to every human being,” Kant wrote in the Critique of Pure Reason. His talk of “our way of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us” betrays his conviction that each and every human mind plays an active role in producing a multiplicity of individual experiences of the world.
This role of the mind he understood to be that of constructing the a priori forms of space and time that form the basis of all human experience “prior to all actual perception”. That experience of the external alone cannot furnish us with ideas was clear to Kant thanks to an assertion of the rationalists that he held to be true, namely that we are aware of our own existences, as in the famous dictum of Descartes, cogito ergo sum. That “[t]here are objects that exist in space and time outside of me,” he understood to be a necessary condition of self-awareness, despite not being possible to prove with sense-data alone, holding that something distinguishable from the self must persist over time in order to allow the mind to cognise itself as existing. Conversely, that we cannot just assume we are able to know Dinge-an-sich through rational deduction from necessary truths like the existence of objects in space and time outside of us was clear to Kant thanks to an assertion of the empiricists that he held to be true, namely that knowledge about objects in space and time external to the self cannot not simply be inferred from internally valid truths such as cogito ergo sum, being necessarily outside of and separate from the existence of the self.
Since space and time were understood by Kant to be constructions of the mind, it therefore followed that they were not Dinge-an-sich, and thus not transcendentally real, but instead transcendentally ideal. Although Kant understood spatio-temporal reality to be deterministic, taking his cues from the determinism promulgated by the discipline of modern science born in the crucible of the Enlightenment, he did not believe humans to be constrained by this determinism, with the human mind being the very condition of the transcendentally ideal pure intuitions of space and time. Indeed, in the Kantian paradigm, spatio-temporal reality is deterministic only insofar as it is constructed to be so by the human mind. In understanding spatio-temporal reality to be deterministic, we necessarily remain free, for we are the source and master of determinism itself.
In essence, Kant had reformulated the divine freedom and simplicity of God that the scholastics had held so dear into the divine (or rather mundane, but nonetheless radical) freedom and simplicity of the human being. The scholastics had understood God to be uncreated and unconditioned, and thus completely undetermined by anything external to Him. The freedom that they understood God to enjoy was therefore also completely unconditioned; it was entirely spontaneous. Divine freedom was therefore equivalent to autonomy. God, as the creator of all, was necessarily the master of anything to which He might conform. As Aquinas held in his Summa Theologiae, “[n]othing outside Himself is God’s aim.” Just as the Scholastic theologian understood God to be divinely simple, enjoying the complete unity of His reason and will, Kant understood the human being to be divinely simple. What else was freedom from the determinism of spatio-temporal reality other than the state of being entirely unconditioned and undetermined by anything external to the self?
As such, Kant’s liberalism did not have God’s will as its object, but the will of each and every individual as simple beings possessing the fundamental autonomy of the divine, most importantly as accessible, tangible beings, rather than transcendental ones, necessarily unprovable and unreachable by human cognition. It was a liberalism that depended not on faith, but on reason alone, and it is this strain of liberalism that I, the rational agnostic, hold dearest.