Sunday, 30 May 2010

XIth International Kant Congress

I've just returned from Pisa where was held the XIth International Kant Congress. The event was held over five days and included in the region of 400 papers. So, more than is usually the case, a report on the event is naturally one that is very selective in focus and I will only here refer to a very few papers, those that made the most impression on me.

As I arrived late on the first day I only caught the final plenary which was delivered, for reasons that remain obscure to me, by John Searle. Searle is not known for his expertise on Kant and the paper he gave on this occasion certainly bore this out. In the paper he was less interested in responding to Kant than outlining what he took to be the most important "post-Kantian" option in philosophy, which turned out to be his own work. Reflecting on the history of philosophy Searle argued that classical scepticism of the type prominent in early modern philosophy (and which he took to be the source of Kant's phenomena/noumena distinction) was no longer a problem philosophically because we now "know too much" for this to be plausible. The kinds of things we apparently now "know" principally involve matters concerning causative brain processes from which Searle is fairly confident we can derive views concerning consciousness. This type of hubristic confidence aside he did proceed to lay out some interesting propositions. For example, that the self-reflexive character of learning in terms of requiring acceptance of intention to produce the intention in question is something distinctive of conscious experience. Searle also expatiated on the key role of syntax in conscious experience as in being able to make the distinction between "someone is approaching the door" and "the door is being approached by someone". Finally he set out the notion of a "status-function" which is a kind of generalisation of the classic sense of "performatives". The point about status-functions is that they create a situation by representing it as the case so that others agree it is the case. This seems to be something like a linguistic-conscious notion of what an "institution" consists in.

The second day included a plenary that I was especially interested in hearing from Beatrice Longuenesse. Longuenesse spoke on the theme of the "I" in Kant and Freud. In Kant she argued that the "I' is both the condition of and yet also conditioned by any act of discursive thinking. Further, the "I" presupposes, she suggested, a pre-discursive act of a pre-discursive "I". Finally, the pre-discursive acts and the pre-discursive "I" are below the threshold of consciousness. This picture of the role of the "I" in Kant is certainly novel though, in its postulation of a pre-discursive "I" seems a pretty strange view of what is happening in Kant. The view of it seemed partly to arise from her understanding of the role of the "I" in Freud, a view based primarily on reading meta-psychological works in which the "I" (or "ego") arises on the surface of the id as an organised complex, suggesting, in some sense, in parallel to the "pre-discursive" notion found in Kant, an operation in the pre-conscious that is structurally related to that at work in the conscious. The key to the paper was a move away from the Strawsonian view that the "I" is referential to a sense that it orders mental content by both expressing and promoting it. So the result appears to be one whereby a structural connection emerges between Kant and Freud.

Moving away from plenary speakers one of the sessions that was focused on law and justice included a notable contribution by Michael Nance on the relationship between the categorical imperative and the universal principle of right. Nance argued that actions are not in themselves things that are consistent with the universal law unlike maxims but that the relation of actions to the consistency requirement of universality has instead to do with the natural effects of actions. So maxims of right should not be seen as maxims of a subject but rather as maxims of action. If there are duties of right then coercion in relation to them is a logical consequence given that actions that violate duties of right do in themselves constrain the possible scope of freedom of others. There is no direct appeal to the categorical imperative in the argument for coercion but an indirect use of it is made given that the universal principle of right is a specification of the categorical imperative. So the universal principle of right is not a fitness criterion (as some take the categorical imperative to be) but a consistency requirement in relation to external freedom.

One of the highlights of the conference was undoubtedly having the chance to hear Pauline Kleingeld speak. Her paper addressed the question of the nature of Kant's cosmopolitanism in relation to contemporary conceptions of cosmopolitanism such as are presented by thinkers influenced by and critical of the work of John Rawls. Kleingeld's paper was, however, mainly a reply to works of Samuel Fleischacker which, according to Kleingeld, present Kant as a defender of international free trade. In response Kleingeld pointed to the restrictions on free trade Kant made in terms of slavery and colonialism. The essay on universal history argues that contravention of civil freedoms also damages trade and the essay on theory and practice allows for certain restrictions on imports. Finally, as is well known, Perpetual Peace includes an argument for the restrictions on trade that were imposed by China and Japan in their trade with the West. However, the result of these points is not, on Kleingeld's view, some general justification of protectionism although the fact of them does show that Kant was not simply committed to free trade. Kant's notion of a republic includes claims to defend taxation and in the realm of justified taxation there is reference to material well-being. This goes so far as to give grounds for taxation of property and trade. Kleingeld further recognises that until the lawful state federations reached in Perpetual Peace and the Metaphysics of Morals has been achieved that all law is provisional. However, to unify republics in such a federation is not to do away with background conditions of justice. Kleingeld was clear in recognising that cosmopolitan right covers trade including allowing for restriction of trade if failure to restrict it would result in being colonised. However, in relating Kant's position to that of Rawls, Kleingeld claimed that the Rawlsian view was more "statist" than the Kantian one by which she seemed to mean that the insistence on a law "of peoples" involved a greater insistence on treating states as moral persons. This point is arguable in two ways. Firstly, Kant explicitly relates to states as moral persons which is one of the reasons why he opposes the world state. Secondly, the "peoples" Rawls refers to would have to be carefully comprehended and can't simply be identified with "states". Kleingeld responded to recent allegations concerning the alleged "racism" of some of Kant's essays by arguing that the position expressed in them was comprehensively rescinded in Perpetual Peace.

Going back to a plenary paper, Barbara Herman addressed the alleged conflict between Kant's "rigorism" and the provision, in the Doctrine of Virtue, of an elaborate notion of casuistry. Herman argued that the notions of rigorism and "empty formalism" are often run together and that rigid rules emerge from purely formal input. On her view the categorical imperative procedure in the third part of the Groundwork requires content to be provided from elsewhere. Herman rightly argued that the Groundwork is not a work of normative ethics. She argues that what does get illustrated, however, in the Groundwork, is one way in which we often go wrong, namely, by an over-reach of justificatory premises in the service of self-interest. A second way we go wrong is that final ends are taken as wholly discretionary. By contrast to the Groundwork the Metaphysics of Morals provides an argument for the ends we do have a duty to adopt. Once these ends are given there is no "empty formalism". So the Groundwork is mainly understood as a response to "errors" in moral reasoning and these errors basically boil down to demoting the universal law to a merely general significance on the basis of inclination. In illustration of this Herman spoke about the example of suicide in the Groundwork arguing that it makes no sense to say I would be healthier (or better off) if dead as pleasure and pain are intra-life rather than transcendent of life. However, rational nature as an end-in-itself could be threatened by certain types of "pain" and this would enable grounds in such instances to be given for permissibility of suicide. So it is not that there are "exceptions" to the rule here but that in certain circumstances there are reasons to appeal to a different rule. That this is so is further illustrated by the way that Kant speaks differently about the suicides that might be carried out by people in public positions as these relate clearly to a different rule. Talk of "exceptions" to the rule thus arises from thinking about duty in terms of act-types whereas it should instead be understood in relation to the will. Herman also spoke about the much-touted problem of partial benevolence using the example of parental partiality towards their children. Here she argued that it is not the love of parents for their children that justifies this partiality but rather the need of the children for this love. This appears to be a kind of argument for schematization of practical love since Herman went on to talk of how the partiality of love here gives it structure and aim and that this enables it to have greater order.

These were far from all the papers that I could mention. Paul Guyer gave a paper on freedom and the ends of reason that seemed mainly to consist in referring to unpublished fragments at great length without, unfortunately, distributing the texts of the fragments in question so that listeners could decide how good his interpretations of them were. Further, given the large numbers of papers and the over-lapping way they ran, it was hardly possible to take in more than a fragment of the conference itself. However, the participants certainly more than proved the vitality of the study of Kant as there were papers in four different languages, English, French, German and Italian and an array of papers from people from all over the world. Further, the general level of debate was high with speakers being frequently given very difficult questions to answer and the discussions were far from restricted to the sessions. Generally the optimism I felt at its conclusion both for the study of Kant and for philosophy in general was very pronounced.

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