Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Publicity (I)

The role of publicity in Kant's political philosophy is insufficiently examined. It is discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the topic of publicity written by Axel Gosseries, an article that can be accessed by clicking on the title of this posting.

Gosseries' article has certain problems. What it focuses on is the articulation in Perpetual Peace of the transcendental concept of public right which is as follows: " All actions relating to the rights of others are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity" (Ak. 8: 381). The translation Gosseries uses gives "other human beings" rather than "others" alone but this won't be a difference I'll examine in this posting. What Gosseries leaves out however is a later formula from Perpetual Peace that Kant explicitly states is a transcendental affirmative concept of public right: " All maxims which need publicity (in order not to fail of their end) harmonize with right and politics combined" (Ak. 8: 386). In focusing only on the earlier negative formula and not the later affirmative one issues concerning the relationship between the two including the determination of different outcomes depending on which is used are left out of his discussion.

What Gosseries' article does do is distinguish between different kinds of publicity with hypothetical publicity described as involving ideal publics as opposed to actual publicity which would be concerned with non-ideal publics. The problem with this distinction, when applied to Kant's formulas of public right, is that it tends to break down. So the test that the criterion of the formula is stated by Gosserie to apply to is that of an ideal public but the specific examples that Kant considers, by contrast, are indicated by Gosserie, to be examples of non-ideal publics. The examples, which will be discussed in subsequent postings, concern whether there is a right of rebellion and three different questions concerning relations between states. The right of rebellion is also treated in Kant's Doctrine of Right and is the subject of a number of recent articles in both Philosophy and Public Affairs and Kantian Review

The relation between the apparent ideal public invoked in the formula and the actual public considered in the example is stated by Gosserie to involve the ideal public being a judge of the actual one. This suggests a connection of the considerations of publicity to the invocation of the role of the spectator in connection with the French Revolution in The Conflict of the Faculties, although this connection is not referred to by Gosserie. Quite apart from considerations about this specific example and the difficulties understanding Kant's treatment of it the notion of the distinction between the ideal and the actual public appears to be a difficult one. What Gosserie takes to be involved in the notion of an "actual public" is one that is capable of taking part in debates concerning something and whose capacity for debate is hence taken, in some sense, as given. The ideal public, by contrast, would appear to be a public whose capacity for reasoning is not bound by specific contingent characteristics and is capable of considering matters in a purely rational manner.

The confusions that are attendant on this distinction surely apply to most considerations of Kantian practical philosophy. After all, does the general appeal in Kant to universal laws suggest that such laws are currently appealed to in moral discourse? The argument of the first part of the Groundwork is surely affirmative and yet this does not prevent it from also being true, as Kant was well aware, that in cases of moral conflict there is a tendency to prioritize the content of certain kinds of commitment and to by-pass the nature of their form with the result that the conflict appears insoluble. So, in a fundamental sense, Kant must surely generally be suggesting that contained within the debates of actual publics is a form that is implicitly appealed to by them but which, if consistently held as a standard within them, would render them ideal publics. All the same, the ideal public is not distinct in kind from the actual public on this standard.

A further question concerns the status of the appeal to the publicity formula in Kant's work. Gosserie suggests at one point that it is the equivalent, in political terms, of the categorical imperative in the general moral philosophy. The problem with this suggestion is, that if it were true, one would expect it to be invoked at the beginning of Kant's primary work of political philosophy, the Doctrine of Right. However it is not the cornerstone of that work, rather, in that work, Kant refers instead to the universal principle of right which states: "Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law,or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law". (Ak. 6: 230). This principle does not directly refer to publicity at all but is rather concerned to establish a relation between freedom and universal law, a relation that is also important in the general moral philosophy as revealed in the argument of Groundwork III and also the Critique of Practical Reason discussion of the "fact of reason". Since this concern reappears at the centre of the Doctrine of Right it is evident that there is a close relationship between Kant's political philosophy and his general moral philosophy. 

Since the formulas of publicity are not stated at the opening of the Doctrine of Right as key to Kant's political philosophy and yet they do play a key role in the conclusion of Perpetual Peace two questions arise that will begin to be explored in future postings. Firstly, what is the role that the formulas of publicity play in Perpetual Peace and how does the use of them help Kant to establish there some key rules for political activity and are these rules, as Gosserie suggests, best understood as guidelines for justice? Secondly, what is the relationship between these formulas of publicity and the universal principle of right? This second question opens into a broader third one, namely, what is the status of publicity in Kant's general doctrine of right? 

The first question mentioned does however require considerable attention due to the fact that the formulas of publicity in Perpetual Peace are connected to the examination of the examples mentioned earlier so in specifying the role of these formulas it is necessary to look closely at the examples Kant gives and how he understands them. This is complicated further by the fact that the examples treated in Perpetual Peace are also discussed in other works so the discussion of the role of the formulas in Perpetual Peace cannot be taken as one that is only settled by discussion of that specific text as the relationship of it to other Kant works will also need to be examined.

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