Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter V

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seeds of egotism in kant

Kant is remarkable among sincere philosophers for the pathetic separation which existed between his personal beliefs and his official discoveries. His personal beliefs were mild and half orthodox and hardly differed from those of Leibniz; but officially he was entangled in the subjective criticism of knowledge, and found that the process of knowing was so complicated and so exquisitely contrived to make knowledge impossible, that while the facts of the universe were there, and we might have, like Leibniz, a shrewd and exact notion of what they were, officially we had no right to call them facts or to allege that we knew them. As there was much in Kant’s personal belief which this critical method of his could not sanction, so there were implications and consequences latent in his critical method which he never absorbed, being an old man when he adopted it. One of these latent implications was egotism.

The fact that each spirit was confined to its own perceptions condemned it to an initial subjectivity and agnosticism. What things might exist besides his ideas he could never know. That such things existed was not doubted; Kant never accepted that amazing principle of dogmatic egotism that nothing is able to exist unless I am able to know it. On the contrary he assumed that human perceptions, with the moral postulates which he added to them, were symbols of a real world of forces or spirits existing beyond. This assumption reduced our initial idiotism to a constitutional taint of our animal minds, not unlike original sin, and excluded that romantic pride and self-sufficiency in which a full-fledged transcendentalism always abounds.

To this contrite attitude of Kant’s agnosticism his personal character and ethics corresponded. A wizened little old bachelor, a sedentary provincial scribe, scrupulous and punctual, a courteous moralist who would have us treat humanity in the person of another as an end and never merely as a means, a pacifist and humanitarian who so revered the moral sense according to Shaftesbury and Adam Smith that, after having abolished earth and heaven, he was entirely comforted by the sublime truth that nevertheless it remained wrong to tell a lie—such a figure has nothing in it of the officious egotist or the superman. Yet his very love of exactitude and his scruples about knowledge, misled by the psychological fallacy that nothing can be an object of knowledge except some idea in the mind, led him in the end to subjectivism; while his rigid conscience, left standing in that unnatural void, led him to attribute absoluteness to what he called the categorical imperative. But this void outside and this absolute oracle within are germs of egotism, and germs of the most virulent species.

The categorical imperative, or unmistakable voice of conscience, was originally something external enough—too external, indeed, to impose by itself a moral obligation. The thunders of Sinai and the voice from the whirlwind in Job fetched their authority from the suggestion of power; there spoke an overwhelming physical force of which we were the creatures and the playthings, a voice which far from interpreting our sense of justice, or our deepest hopes, threatened to crush and to flout them. If some of its commandments were moral, others were ritual or even barbarous; the only moral sanction common to them all came from our natural prudence and love of life; our wisdom imposed on us the fear of the Lord. The prophets and the gospel did much to identify this external divine authority with the human conscience; an identification which required a very elaborate theory of sin and punishment and of existence in other worlds, since the actual procedure of nature and history can never be squared with any ideal of right.

In Kant, who in this matter followed Calvin, the independence between the movement of nature, both within and without the soul, and the ideal of right was exaggerated into an opposition. The categorical imperative was always authoritative, but perhaps never obeyed. The divine law was far from being like the absolute Will in Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, a name for a universal metaphysical force, or even for the flux of material substance. On the contrary the sublimity of the categorical imperative lay precisely in the fact that, while matter and life moved on in their own unregenerate way, a principle which they ought to follow, overarched and condemned them, and constrained them to condemn themselves. Human nature was totally depraved and incapable of the least merit, nor had it any power of itself to become righteous. Its amiable spontaneous virtues, having but a natural motive, were splendid vices. Moral worth began only when the will, transformed at the touch of unmerited grace, surrendered every impulse in overwhelming reverence for the divine law.

This Calvinistic doctrine might seem to rebuke all actual inclinations, and far from making the will morally absolute, as egotism would, to raise over against it an alien authority, what ought to be willed. Such was, of course, Kant’s ostensible intention; but sublime as such a situation was declared to be, he felt rather dissatisfied in its presence. A categorical imperative crying in the wilderness, a duty which nobody need listen to, or suffer for disregarding, seemed rather a forlorn authority. To save the face of absolute right another world seemed to be required, as in orthodox Christianity, in which it might be duly vindicated and obeyed.

Kant’s scepticism, by which all knowledge of reality was denied us, played conveniently into the hands of this pious requirement. If the whole natural world, which we can learn something about by experience, is merely an idea in our minds, nothing prevents any sort of real but unknown world from lying about us unawares. What could be more plausible and opportune than that the categorical imperative which the human mind, the builder of this visible world, had rejected, should in that other real world be the head stone of the corner?

This happy thought, had it stood alone, might have seemed a little fantastic; but it was only a laboured means of re-establishing the theology of Leibniz, in which Kant privately believed, behind the transcendental idealism which he had put forward professorially. The dogmatic system from which he started seemed to him, as it stood, largely indefensible and a little oppressive. To purify it he adopted a fallacious principle of criticism, namely, that our ideas are all we can know, a principle which, if carried out, would undermine that whole system, and every other. He, therefore, hastened to adopt a corrective principle of reconstruction, no less fallacious, namely, that conscience bids us assume certain things to be realities which reason and experience know nothing of. This brought him round to a qualified and ambiguous form of his original dogmas, to the effect that although there was no reason to think that God, heaven, and free-will exist, we ought to act as if they existed, and might call that wilful action of ours faith in their existence.

Thus in the philosophy of Kant there was a stimulating ambiguity in the issue. He taught rather less than he secretly believed, and his disciples, seizing the principle of his scepticism, but lacking his conservative instincts, believed rather less than he taught them. Doubtless in his private capacity Kant hoped, if he did not believe, that God, free-will, and another life subsisted in fact, as every believer had hitherto supposed; it was only the method of proving their reality that had been illegitimate. For no matter how strong the usual arguments might seem (and they did not seem very strong) they could convey no transcendent assurance; on the contrary, the more proofs you draw for anything from reason and experience, the better you prove that that thing is a mere idea in your mind. It was almost prudent, so to speak, that God, freedom, and immortality, if they had claims to reality, should remain without witness in the sphere of “knowledge,” as inadvertently or ironically it was still called; but to circumvent this compulsory lack of evidence God had at least implanted in us a veridical conscience, which if it took itself seriously (as it ought to do, being a conscience) would constrain us to postulate what, though we could never “know” it, happened to be the truth. Such was the way in which the good Kant thought to play hide-and-seek with reality.

The momentum of his transcendental method, however, led to a very different and quite egotistical conclusion. An adept in transcendentalism can hardly suppose that God, free-will, and heaven, even if he postulates them, need exist at all. Existence, for him, is an altogether inferior category. Even a specific moral law, thundering unalterable maxims, must seem to him a childish notion. What the ego postulates is nothing fixed and already existing, but only such ideal terms as, for the moment, express its attitude. If it is striving to remember, it posits a past; if it is planning, it posits a future; if it is consciously eloquent, it posits an audience. These things do not and cannot exist otherwise than in their capacity of things posited by the ego. All, therefore, that the categorical imperative can mean for the complete transcendentalist is that he should live as if all things were real which are imaginatively requisite for him, if he is to live hard: this intensity of life in him being itself the only reality. At that stage of development at which Kant found himself, God, freedom, and immortality may have been necessary postulates of practical reason. But to suppose that these imagined objects, therefore, existed apart from the excellent philosopher whose conscience had not yet transcended them, would be not to have profited by his teaching. It would be merely to repeat it. A later and more advanced transcendentalist, instead of God, freedom, and immortality, might just as dutifully posit matter, empire, and the beauty of a warrior’s death. His conscience might no longer be an echo of Christianity, but the trumpet-blast of a new heathenism. It is for the ego who posits to judge what it should posit.

The postulates of practical reason, by which Kant hoped to elude the subjectivity which he attributed to knowledge, are no less subjective than knowledge, and far more private and variable. The senses and the intellect, if they deceive us, seem to deceive us all in much the same way, and the dream they plunge us into in common seems to unite us; but what obscurity, diversity, hostility in the ideals of our hearts! The postulates that were intended to save the Kantian philosophy from egotism are the most egotistical part of it. In the categorical imperative we see something native and inward to the private soul, in some of its moods, quietly claiming to rule the invisible world, to set God on his throne and open eternity to the human spirit. The most subjective of feelings, the feeling of what ought to be, legislates for the universe. Egotism could hardly go further.

But this is not all. The categorical imperative, not satisfied with proclaiming itself secretly omnipotent, proclaims itself openly ruthless. Kant expressly repudiated as unworthy of a virtuous will any consideration of happiness, or of consequences, either to oneself or to others. He was personally as mild and kindly as the Vicar of Wakefield (whose goodness he denied to be moral because it was natural), but his moral doctrine was in principle a perfect frame for fanaticism. Give back, as time was bound to give back, a little flesh to this skeleton of duty, make it the voice not of a remote Mosaic decalogue, but of a rich temperament and a young life, and you will have sanctified beforehand every stubborn passion and every romantic crime. In the guise of an infallible conscience, before which nothing has a right to stand, egotism is launched upon its irresponsible career.

The categorical imperative, as Kant personally conceived it, was that of the conscience of the eighteenth century, which had become humanitarian without ceasing to be Christian, the conscience of the Puritans passing into that of Rousseau. But the categorical principle in morals, like the ego in logic, can easily migrate. If to-day you are right in obeying your private conscience against all considerations of prudence or kindness (though you are prudent and kind by nature, so that this loyalty to a ruthless Duty is a sacrifice for you), to-morrow you may be right in obeying the categorical imperative of your soul in another phase, and to carry out no matter what irresponsible enterprise, though your heart may bleed at the victims you are making. The principle of fanaticism is present in either case; and Kant provides, in his transcendental agnosticism, a means of cutting off all protests from experience or common sense, or a more enlightened self-interest. These protests, he thinks, are not only ignoble, but they come from a deluded mind, since the world they regard is a creature of the imagination, whereas the categorical imperative, revealed to the inner man, is a principle prior to all worlds and, therefore, not to be corrected by any suasion which this particular world, now imagined by us, might try to exercise on our free minds.

Thus it is from Kant, directly or indirectly, that the German egotists draw the conviction which is their most tragic error. Their self-assertion and ambition are ancient follies of the human race; but they think these vulgar passions the creative spirit of the universe. Kant, or that soul within Kant which was still somewhat cramped in its expression, was the prophet and even the founder of the new German religion.