Notes on the Concepts of Revolution in Kant’s Thought

The Revolutionary Kant is the title of a recent and influential commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason; it expresses the adherence of the author, Graham Bird, to a radical and non-revisionist reading of the “Copernican revolution” set forth in the work that for many “remains the greatest single work of modern Western philosophy.”1 Kant himself claimed the revolutionary scope of his transcendental philosophy, readers and interpreters have acknowledged it either to embrace it or to refute it, and it is therefore in the field of theoretical philosophy that the topic of revolution with respect to the philosopher from Königsberg can be most solidly and relevantly played out.

He also turned his attention to other revolutions, those that belong to the practical sphere: his positive interest in the French revolution (interpreted as a sign of mankind’s progress through history towards its destination) is well known, which however seems, at least at first sight, to contradict his explicit denial of the right to rebel against the established state order. On the other hand, we find the assertion that a radical revolution in the way of thinking is necessary in assuming the moral law as the principle of the maxims that must guide the will and determine action; however, this can only be achieved through a slow evolution or reform of behaviour that accompanies the virtuous consolidation of the maxims of the good will in the moral character.

All of these aspects are well known and would require an extensive and articulate discussion with reference to Kant’s writings and the literature that has dealt with them; in what follows we propose only to offer a brief presentation that recalls them and anticipates as far as possible an overall reflection on the theoretical-practical declinations of the notion of revolution in Kant’s thought.

The Copernican Revolution

The canonical place from which to begin are the pages of the “Preface” to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in which Kant compares the revolution he pursued in the sphere of metaphysics with the change of perspective accomplished by Copernicus in astronomy. Metaphysics, Kant writes, is speculative knowledge by means of simple concepts in which “reason must be schooled in itself,” because in this subject matter “the teaching of experience is completely superseded.” It is the oldest of disciplines, but

it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one’s powers in mock combat […]. Now why is it that here the secure path of science still could not be found? Is it perhaps impossible? Why then has nature afflicted our reason with the restless striving for such a path, as if it were one of reason’s most important occupations? (B XIV-XV).2

Moreover, this state of affairs risks bringing discredit on reason itself in general. There is therefore an urgent need for a philosophical revolution that imitates what has happened in mathematics and the doctrine of nature: at a certain point in their development, an abrupt transformation of the way of thinking, of the method, took place, putting them on the sure and fruitful path of science.

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest. Now in metaphysics we can try in a similar way regarding the intuition of objects. If intuition has to conform to the constitution of the objects, then I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori; but if the object (as an object of the senses) conforms to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, then I can very well represent this possibility to myself. (B XVI-XVII)

Metaphysics for Kant, despite his radical critique of its traditional doctrinal models does indeed deal with the most important questions of reason — with wisdom and humanity’s final end, — but their resolution presupposes the scientific development of a “system of all the principles of pure theoretical rational knowledge” (20: 261). The revolution in metaphysics has to begin here — with the forms and principles of knowledge that determine our way of knowing and its objective validity — by first of all questioning the “externalist” point of view hitherto uncritically assumed and followed in attempts to explain the possibility of knowledge, i.e. the thesis that the aforementioned principles are adequately identified insofar as they lead to representations that faithfully “mirror” objects, understood as things subsisting in themselves.

The adaequatio rei et intellectus (a formula expressing the classical conception of truth) is understood by the “traditionalists” first and foremost as adaequatio intellectus ad rem, insofar as the “meaning” of the intellect’s cognitive representations is placed entirely in the things themselves, regardless of the specificity of the cognitive relation. Adopting this perspective, however, leads to a dilemma without a satisfactory outcome: either knowledge is — in some sense — already available to the mind, so that our judgements do not extend it, but only make it clear and distinct, and experience therefore does not really teach us anything new by allowing us to go beyond the concepts of the objects we already have, or — if in order to progressively acquire and extend our knowledge we can and must experience things — the latter and the judgements on them are totally dependent on the empirical multiplicity of sensations, which are indeed caused by things, but are in themselves merely subjective (given through “private” sensibility as something which is contingent and random in relation to the objective/intersubjective order of experience). In both cases, it remains unclear how the objectivity of the relationship between our representations and objects (always understood as things in themselves) is to be assessed, because — according to each of the above alternatives – contents of the mind and things are and remain heterogeneous and incomparable.

Unless their very relationship is not to be understood as a true nexus of independent relata, but then we would have a further fork in the road: either it is the mind that creates objects according to its representations, or the latter are nothing more than effects on the mind of the influence of things on the senses, i.e. representations devoid of relations to normative components and of an immediate and direct objective value. In any case – whether we like it or not – variants of an ultimately strongly anti-realistic viewpoint emerge. However, all the hypotheses sketched so far appear incompatible with the phenomenology of experience and with the fact that our understanding does not create the world thinking it (a possibility precluded to the finite mind of a rational being that is part of nature), but judges what is given to it through internal and external sense and thus presupposes a faculty of perceiving things that really exist on its own account and constitute a common empirical world.

If we orient the principles of knowledge on objects understood metaphysically as things in themselves, and ask ourselves how we can grasp them by overcoming the hiatus that separates subject and world, then the unity and objectivity of experience remains inconceivable. In order to understand the actual possibility of our experience, the philosopher must therefore be able to think together that, on the one hand and in a sense to be specified (according to the general form), we know objects and facts as if we had made them according to our cognitive principles (which would explain the conformity between representation and represented) and that, on the other hand, the matter of knowledge does not depend on us, but is given to the mind a posteriori through sensibility (taking into account the fact that thinking and judging are other than constructing and creating). In other words, one must examine “the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us” (B XVI, see above), i.e. the possibility that the general form of the objects of experience is determined a priori by the form and principles of the subject’s cognitive faculties, although the matter of representations depends on the objects that present themselves through the senses to the receptive faculty and is successively apprehended and unified under complex conditions. In this sense, it would appear conceivable and perhaps even necessary that objects independent of us “adjust” to the principles of knowledge, i.e. that they appear in our experience in accordance with them. So, from the transcendental point of view, the conditions of experience contribute to the nature of the object, certainly not in itself, but as the object of experience.

Similarly, the astronomer, assuming that the heavens orbit the earth, does not come to grips with the equations that are supposed to describe the movements of the stars as trajectories conforming to laws of nature. In the Kantian analogy with Copernicus’ thought, the stable and immovable spectator of celestial movements, around whom it seems the stars must move, corresponds not to the subject who knows the nature, but to the world of things in itself, considered as the independent variable of knowledge towards which the subject’s cognitive action must be directed and oriented. Assuming this, dogmatic reason stiffens and absolutizes the “natural” point of view of common sense (which is evident only in the first instance and by no means self-sufficient). In order to explain and justify its essential core (the conviction that experience has both rational and empirical value), the critique of reason must question the legitimacy of the “metaphysical investiture” of the natural attitude — which has never really been justified — and attempt an alternative path capable of accounting for phenomena and knowledge.

What for traditional metaphysics – more abstractly, for “the view from nowhere”3 – is the Given in itself, from the point of view of (non-dogmatic) human reason4 can only be considered as what is specifically given to us, to our disposition and capacity to represent objects in intuition or perception. Although the material content of the empirical representation depends precisely on the object entering into relation with us as an autonomous entity that really exists and is therefore only knowable a posteriori, the manner in which the presentation takes place, i.e. its form – which is that of the object that appears to us, of the object-for-us – depends instead on the formal (non-private) nature of our sensibility, i.e. on the form of human intuition, which makes the latter a faculty of intuition and which can, indeed must, be present to the mind and knowable a priori, if it is necessary (as Kant thinks) for the subject to know something a priori about the objects of experience in general in order to explain the possibility of concordance between our (sensible) intuitions and the intuited objects. This concordance seems, in fact, to be based on nothing other than the subsisting (and now comprehensible) homogeneity between the form of the intuition and the form of the intuited object, which are realised together in the aforementioned intuition/presentation of the object. This is an “original” relation, in which the intuition or perception and the phenomenon are determined together: the one on the side of the subject, the other on the side of the object.

In short, the apprehension of sense-matter, produced by the real relationship between cognitive subject and object, can only take place in conformity with our mode of receptivity, the form of intuition, which is to be specified by the cognitive acts through the “formed matter” as the intuition of an object. It is in fact only through a synthesis of the manifold of the senses conducted in accordance with the formal subjective conditions of knowledge that the subject can objectively represent the object and the object can present itself directly to the sensibility and become the object of experience, an object of the senses which is, on the one hand, independent of us and, on the other hand, conditioned by the subjective transcendental forms and principles as object-for-us.

By taking phenomena (the contents of experience) for things in themselves, the traditional conception assumes that our intuition, by presenting objects to us, reproduces, or should reproduce, the world in itself in the circle of mental representations, something our sensibility clearly cannot do. We have already recalled the conceptual consequences of this move, which ultimately debase our receptivity to a mere passivity devoid of value as a cognitive faculty. Called upon to act as the “tribunal of experience,” i.e. to validate judgements with respect to their objective content, sensibility appears to be unable to carry out its task as long as its representations are thought to regulate themselves on things in themselves,5 which are already by definition ungraspable from within a sensible relation between subject and object. If, on the other hand, it is the objects that regulate themselves on our way of intuition, i.e. if the objects of experience are at one (or if we prefer: in an essential original relationship) with the modes of their presentation to the subject’s consciousness, then the things that are given to us empirically are what corresponds to the consciousness in the concrete cognitive relationship, but the latter also establishes a homogeneous and common sphere in which objects and representations are correlated and comparable — experience, precisely.

The first concrete and decisive step in the Copernican revolution thus consists in recognising human sensibility as the a priori source of knowledge by virtue of its specific constitution (Beschaffenheit), of its formally being a cognitive faculty, so not as a mere material passageway from the object’s apprehension of the senses to the metaphorical eye of the mind, but as a manner determined according to certain forms (the subjective forms of spatial and temporal order) of the apprehension of the manifold of the senses, to which it confers the character and order, i.e. the specific sensory grammar of the presentation of a datum to a specific embodied subject. It immediately follows that the objects we experience are neither things in themselves, nor their simulacra or semblances or mere subjective traces imprinted on the Mind, but real empirical objects that can be presented to a sensibility such as ours by giving information about itself that we can learn – in accordance with certain forms and principles of us – as objective characters of the other from the subject. To designate such objects of our sensible intuition, Kant adopts the term Erscheinung, to be understood in the sense of the Greek term ϕαινόμενον: that which shows itself, which is knowable through the senses; a term that therefore cannot mean that objects are mere internal representations of the mind (although some passages in Kant’s works may suggest otherwise). However, a second step is needed:

Yet because I cannot stop with these intuitions, if they are to become cognitions, but must refer them as representations to something as their object [Gegenstand] and determine this object through them, I can assume [annehmen] either that the concepts through which I bring about this determination also conform to the objects, and then I am once again in the same difficulty about how I could know anything about them a priori, or else I assume that the objects, or what is the same thing [einerlei], the experience in which alone they can be cognized (as given objects) conforms to those concepts, in which case I immediately see an easier way out of the difficulty, since experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding, whose rule I have to presuppose in myself before any object is given to me, hence a priori, which rule is expressed in concepts a priori, to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree. (B XVII-XVIII)

Why, then, can we not stop at the mere occurrence of the phenomenon in sensible intuition? In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers a complex explanation that hinges on the transcendental analysis of the conditions of the subject’s own consciousness of a possible experience and which it would make little sense to attempt to summarise here in a few lines, yet simple phenomenological observations again come to the rescue to at least point to the problem. The object of intuition is, on the one hand, completely determined in its immediacy and is, in most cases, clearly distinct from the act of intuition: in a “normal” situation of experience, the branch half-drowned in the water that appears to me in perception as the outline of a broken segment is a real object-for-us, not an illusion or imagination, it is something that exists and is in front of me (a relationship figuratively evoked in the German term Gegen-stand). This representation of mine already has an objective value in itself in a basic sense, yet it is still indeterminate in relation to the whole of experience: would the branch continue to manifest itself in that figure if one were to pull it out of the water? Is it objectively bent or broken, or is this way to appear an optical effect of refraction due to the deflection of light in its passage from water to air? The intuitive representation is an immediate and original manifestation of the object that is thus given, under particular conditions, in the course of a subject’s experience, but the phenomenal object itself is not exhausted in it or in another perception, but only (ideally) in the all (empirically inexhaustible and never fully determined) series of its possible manifestations in space and time. In experiencing the object, a subject thus relates intuition to the (transcendental) concept of the object and to the idea of this totality of manifestation, since one cannot leave the cognitive relation, the experience itself, to compare my intuition with the thing in itself. To attempt to do so would be to fall back into the conceptual assumptions and ambiguities of the traditional metaphysical conception.

To tell very briefly the whole long story, the transcendental analysis of experience shows that pure concepts are necessary not only to move from the low degree of objectivity of immediate sensible experience to the higher level (however not separable from the previous one), of a fully objective and intersubjective knowledge, which gradually distinguishes the structure and invariant properties of the object, together with the laws that regulate its transformations and changes. A priori concepts are operative and indispensable already in the apprehension of Erscheinungen, since every intuition – in order to be a representation of mine, i.e. a representation in the proper sense – must present itself to consciousness with a unity that is already the result of a reproduction and recognition of the synthesis of the manifold of sensibility in the concept that determines the rule of its unitary perception. At this point, it is customary to quote the famous passage from the Critique that says that intuitions without concepts are blind and concepts without intuitions empty (A 51/B 75), which would require lengthy comments, but the mere letter already aphoristically expresses both the mutual irreducibility and the inseparable functional link of receptivity and conceptual spontaneity, which alone together constitute man’s effective representative capacity. To know is first and foremost to experience the object-for-us, but this means bringing the multiplicity of the senses to the unity of consciousness, that is, to unify it according to rules that cannot be derived from experience, but rather constitute the a priori conditions of its real possibility and objective value.

And so the first step of the gnoseological revolution, which introduces the transcendental viewpoint with respect to intuition, inevitably leads to the second: if concepts could regulate themselves on things in themselves, the revolution would only concern the conception of sensibility and would be limited in scope (this was, more or less, the horizon of Kant’s Dissertatio of 1770), but since the understanding (as important as the work of conceptual analysis is) cannot derive any new knowledge from its concepts (the subject matter of which, according to the mature Kant, always depends on intuition), if these were to regulate themselves on objects as things in themselves, we would be back to square one and would not know how to explain and verify their reference to objects and facts. So, given that apprehension must be referred to the concept of the object in order for it to conclude in a unitary representation, it is also plausible that it is the synthesis – i.e. the subject’s objective experience and therefore a parte obiecti the object itself as Erscheinung – that must regulate itself on the a priori concepts that give unity to the cognitive functions, rather than the reverse (i.e. that it is the rules of the synthesis that orientate themselves on the objects which are given through the same synthesis). Thus, even in relation to concepts, it can be admitted that it is the objects that regulate themselves on pure concepts and a priori synthetic judgements, our “original representations,” that guide the synthesis of experience toward objective representations of the world. In other words, we know a priori also the conceptual form of objects in general, i.e. the necessary form of objects insofar as they can be (thought and not only given) objects-for-us, objects of experience in the full sense. It implements the form of their manifestation in space and time and makes the objective relation between mind and world – which still has to be specified with respect to the empirical content of actual experience, i.e. the contingent matter of experience – at least in principle possible and comprehensible.

We have thus far attempted to sketch Kant’s theoretical revolution in the Critique of Pure Reason; in conclusion, it may be briefly noted that the analogy with that of Copernicus applies in one decisive, but relatively extrinsic aspect: in both cases, the establishment of a well-founded and useful knowledge overturns a dogmatic and erroneous assumption that had hindered the scientific development of knowledge for centuries, i.e. a revolution in the way of thinking takes place. It does not seem to me that a direct comparison of the two doctrines can in itself help to better clarify the meaning of transcendental idealism; it is no coincidence that the fortunate expression “Copernican revolution” never appears to my knowledge in Kant’s writings, but has been widespread since the second half of the 19th century. However, its evocative character remains alive. Perhaps Kant’s philosophy aspires to a shift more radical than that of Copernicus, namely to revolutionise not only doctrines, but the very way of doing philosophy; however, in both cases a metamorphosis in the imaginary has occurred, which makes it impossible to look at the cosmos and at the relationship between mind and world in the same way as before. Now the mind appears as a system of forms and functions that is realised in the synthesis of experience, i.e. in the “the capacities […] to compare, connect, and unify the fragmentary manifold items in intuition” (A97) or to think the world of experience. The world, for its part, no longer stands before us as the absolute other with respect to the knowing subject, but rather as a world-for-us, a phenomenal world that presents itself and towards which our representations are directed in the relational unity of experience.

The general sense of the Copernican revolution can perhaps be summed up in the simple substitution of a verb: in order to understand the possibility of experience, don’t suppose to have experience (assuming a separate and pre-constituted empirical reality of subject and object, mind and world), but rather that you have to make experience yourself. Consequently, the cognitive relationship can no longer be thought of as a mirroring of the world in the mind, but has to be understood as a continuous synthetic activity, which determines both self-consciousness and phenomena in the course of experience, and is conditioned on the one hand by the nature of the knowing subject and on the other by the given spatio-temporal manifold.

The change of heart

We have seen that the mind and the world are not pre-constituted with respect to experience, but, according to the transformation brought about by Kant also in moral philosophy, neither are the moral character of people and the good. Turning with a quick transition to the second type of revolution attested in Kant’s writings, we shall refer for simplicity and brevity mainly to a few pages of Religion within the boundaries of mere reason.

The human being must make or have made himself into whatever he is or should become in a moral sense, good or evil. These two [characters] must be an effect of his free power of choice, for otherwise they could not be imputed to him and, consequently, he could be neither morally good nor evil. (Rel. 6:44).

Kant does not fail to make it clear that brute power of choice (animal choice, arbitrium brutum) is not at stake here, which leads us to do what we like and of requires moral indifference in the choice between actions alternative actions (preferring one wine or route over another). Instead, it is the power of choice conditioned by the “consciousness of the moral law within us;” its concept is in fact “deduced from the determinability of our will by means of this law, understood as an unconditional command.” The moral law in fact commands one to determine one’s own will, and thus to act not according to the private sensible impulses and selfish interests, but rather in conformity with the general interest of humanity.

Everybody must admit that he does not know whether, were such a situation to arise [in which strong incentives instigate the transgression of the law], he would not waver in his resolve. Yet duty equally commands him unconditionally: he ought to remain true to his resolve; and from this he rightly concludes that he must also be able to do it, and that his power of choice is therefore free. (Rel. 6: 49 fn.).

Freedom is therefore the non-phenomenal cause of a person’s actions that are referable to duty and that it would make no sense to refer to the sensible conditions to which he is always subject as part of the sensible world. In other words, such a cause is the disposition to produce sensible effects (self-determination of the will and possible consequent actions) which as such cannot but be determined by the laws of phenomenal nature, but which nevertheless in their moral distinctiveness do not depend on them.6 Since, however, as said above about Kant’s conception of experience, we can only know phenomena and phenomenal causes and not things in themselves and noumenal causes, we must recognise that we are not able to explain freedom theoretically, even if we continually experience it through the categorical imperative. In fact, we could not even think of ourselves as free subjects if we did not have immediate consciousness of the moral law, which, imposing itself as the fact of our pure practical reason, commands us to act in accordance with the form of free actions prescribed by it and freed from any particular sensible condition.

The consciousness of the unconditioned moral command (whose validity we recognise even in transgression, as when the liar assumes that as a rule one does not lie or the thief demands that his property be respected) proves for practical end that it is possible to remain faithful to the moral law and that therefore our will is free. This applies according to Kant in an objective sense and independently of the empirical fact that the command to do our duty autonomously is actually followed or not (in cases where the person chooses to determine his or her own will in accordance with his or her particular egoistic sensible motives). Kant’s conception of the moral imperative is often misrepresented, but it seems quite clear that the well-known formula of duty for duty’s sake emphasises the freedom and autonomy of the agent and in no way suggests a split between the form of the duty and the end of the dutiful action. The categorical imperative is nothing other than the command to always act in accordance with the model of action that the law requires to be adopted, which represents the point of view of mankind and in so doing prescribes the universal end of the will — morality itself; but to act (to freely undertake an action) one must then concretely evaluate the particular purposes and choose to pursue some instead of others according to that practical principle.

It is therefore the freedom of the law (not conditioned by nature and dictating the conditions of morality) that makes the human free power of choice possible, not a freedom from the law. The latter means heteronomy of action and thus a lack of positive freedom. As negative freedom — i.e. the autonomous decision to do something contrary to duty — it is parasitic on the former: the moral law is in fact, in the Kantian perspective, the necessary and sufficient condition of every choice in the proper sense, because it is the only alternative cause to the non-intentional laws of nature. When action has moral significance, doing one’s duty realises the person’s disposition to freedom; to evade it is to renounce personal autonomy and place reason at the service of the hetero-directed play of sensible impulses. In any case, according to Kant, man does not simply conduct himself as a natural being, but properly acts, i.e. pursues ends by following maxims, thus on the basis of choices, and is responsible for his actions.

Before arriving at the notion of a moral revolution, it is appropriate to underline the observation in which Kant points out, even in the pages examined here, how conclusions that appear necessary in the practical perspective, remain paradoxical in the theoretical one:

Those who pretend that this inscrutable property is entirely within our grasp concoct an illusion through the word determinism (the thesis that the power of choice is determined through inner sufficient grounds) as though the difficulty consisted in reconciling these grounds with freedom — [an issue] that does not enter into anyone’s mind. Rather, what we want to discern, but never shall, is this: how can pre-determinism co-exist with freedom, when according to predeterminism freely chosen actions, as occurrences, have their determining grounds in antecedent time (which, together with what is contained therein, no longer lies in our control), whereas according to freedom the action, as well as its contrary, must be in the control of the subject at the moment of its happening. (Rel. 6: 49-50 fn.)

In short, moral law is original, constitutes the fact of pure practical reason and sets man’s will free, but it does not automatically determine a priori the will in the choice of the ends to be pursued, since these constitute the empirical content of choices and actions. It only commands the human being to act in a moral sense, remaining a free subject, rather than being carried away by instincts and empirical incentives like a mere animal. In this sense, it can be said: “He has been created for the good and the original predisposition in him is good” (Rel. 6:44). Thanks to the latter, a human being can make a good human being of himself, as the effect of the free exercise of his own will; the freedom of the law and goodness are thus directly related as a condition and conditioned. However,

the human being is not thereby good as such, but he brings it about that he becomes either good or evil, according as he either incorporates or does not incorporate into his maxims the incentives contained in that predisposition (and this must be left entirely to his free choice). (ib.)

The tree, good in predisposition, is not yet good in deed; for, if it were so, it surely could not bring forth bad fruit. Only when a human being has incorporated into his maxim the incentive implanted in him for the moral law, is he called a good human being. (Rel. 6:45 fn.)

Kant thus describes the relationship between the ethical principle and the realisation of the universal moral disposition in a good person as formally analogous to that which exists between the principles of knowledge and cognitive experience: principles are a priori conditions of subjective activity, they make possible, but not necessary, the empirical reality of the conditioned person. Experience is threatened by the contingency and fragmentariness of the manifold, knowledge by errors of judgement and transcendental illusion, morality by weakness of character and the force of selfish incentives, but the “possibility of erring” is the intrinsic risk — to be controlled and minimised through the clarification of principles and the discipline of their use — of the “possibility of doing” in which man’s theoretical and practical life as a rational sensible being resides. One cannot then, returning specifically to the ethical sphere, locate the possibility of wickedness and moral evil in a degeneration of the original disposition to good, since the moral disposition is precisely a disposition to realise the freedom of the law and not yet a truly given moral nature.

The restoration of the original predisposition to good in us is not therefore the acquisition of a lost incentive for the good, since we were never able to lose the incentive that consists in the respect for the moral law, and were we ever to lose it, we would also never be able to regain it. The restoration is therefore only the recovery of the purity of the law, as the supreme ground of all our maxims, according to which the law itself is to be incorporated into the power of choice, not merely bound to other incentives, nor indeed subordinated to them (to inclinations) as conditions, but rather in its full purity, as the self-sufficient incentive of that power. (Rel. 6:46)

Respect for the moral law (the moral feeling produced by the objective consciousness of the law), as well as the legitimate admiration7 aroused by reflection on “the original moral predisposition in us, as such” (Rel. 6:49, i.e. insofar as it reveals the difference between the will of human being and the phenomena of nature) are – so to speak – the subjective side of the consciousness of the moral imperative, from which duty as an unconditional principle of free human action immediately follows. Respect for the law cannot therefore be lost. But it may happen that, in the transition from the simple disposition towards freedom/morality to the empirical use of practical reason, the person assumes another principle, other than that of pure conformity to the law, as the “supreme maxim of his will” or does not convert the “firm resolution to do one’s duty” into custom in order to forge a virtuous empirical character. “Virtue here has the abiding maxim of lawful actions, no matter whence one draws the incentives that the power of choice needs for such actions” (Rel. 6:47). Pure practical reason is objectively the faculty of man’s moral destination by virtue of the consciousness of the moral law, but this alone is not enough; the person must freely assume the principle of choice of maxims — i.e. of determination of his empirical will. Man acquires a moral nature by structuring his concrete actions on the basis of the rules he autonomously gives himself: he thus becomes good because he gradually formulates or chooses (non-selfish) moral maxims and disposes himself to act in compliance with the law; he becomes bad, on the other hand, if he uses the freedom of the law to pursue his own needs and selfish interests (whether real or presumed).

Kant explains in the First Critique how, through ideas, reason demands the systematic unity of the empirical use of the understanding and urges it to realise it by following a pattern determined a priori.

A schema that is not outlined in accordance with an idea, i.e., from the chief end of reason, but empirically, in accordance with aims occurring contingently (whose number one cannot know in advance), yields technical unity, but that which arises only in consequence of an idea (where reason provides the ends a priori and does not await them empirically) grounds architectonic unity. (A 833/B 861)

Once again, an analogy between the theoretical and the pratical reason emerges: if the power of choice – which corresponds here to the understanding – is oriented to the unconditioned principle of pure practical reason, it acts according to an a priori scheme of action: a system of general maxims that guides the determination of the empirical will, and makes the latter unitary, coherent and generally valid, i.e. free and moral. If, on the other hand – even if it is principled by the freedom of the law that permits the formation and choice of all maxims – the power of choice empirically assumes the ends that nature presents to it in a contingent manner, it gives rise to actions that are contradictory to the law, in themselves and among themselves, rendering the person not free and therefore amoral or evil. The common problem of the cognitive sphere and of practical life is that the principle from which the architectural scheme – that of knowledge or the scheme of the moral character of the person – must originate is not from the outset clearly and distinctly assumed by the agent; otherwise we could probably speak of a specific human nature already given and not of original dispositions. In the First Critique, this difficulty is expressed very clearly:

It is too bad that it is first possible for us to glimpse the idea in a clearer light and to outline a whole architectonically, in accordance with the ends of reason, only after we have long collected relevant cognitions haphazardly like building materials and worked through them technically with only a hint from an idea lying hidden within us. (A 834-35/B 862-63)

The unity and architectonic end of the idea is not immediately the architectonic unity of the system realised on the basis of the scheme of the idea, and in between is the synthesis of the understanding, the experiencing that should progress towards its own end and contemporary towards the clearer consciousness of its own principles. This dynamic between principles, principled experience and the consciousness of principles, which is not circular, but rather “circularly evolutionary,” can also be seen in practical life.

We cannot start out in the ethical training of our connatural moral predisposition to the good with an innocence which is natural to us but must rather begin from the presupposition of a depravity of our power of choice in adopting maxims contrary to the original ethical predisposition; and, since the propensity to this [depravity] is inextirpable, with unremitting counteraction against it. (Rel. 6: 51; 55)

The human being appears “corrupt in the foundation of his maxims” (ibid.) not because the foundation of the disposition to good in his soul (i.e.the pure and free will that has the moral law as its principle) is corrupt, but because this always necessarily coexists with empirical inclinations that can make him bad, and therefore his will is “naturally” corrupt. The possibility to actually realise in an ethical sense the original disposition to good must be exercised and achieved in the empirical praxis:

Virtue, in this sense, is accordingly acquired little by little, and to some it means a long habituation (in the observance of the law), in virtue of which a human being, through gradual reformation of conduct and consolidation of his maxims, passes from a propensity to vice to its opposite. (Rel. 6: 47)

Simplifying, it can be said that while free human nature, as autonomous realisation of self and morality, is something that must be conquered or a task to be performed (man is not born good by nature, simply because it has first to become a “human” being, either good or bad), the phenomenal nature of the agent is instead well determined and operates, so to speak, automatically from the beginning of the process leading to the formation of a person’s character, and always remains operative. “So long as the foundation of the maxims of the human being remains impure, it cannot be effected through gradual reform but must rather be effected through a revolution in the disposition of the human being” (Rel. 6:47). In other words, the human condition causes the power of choice to fail to orientate itself from the outset exclusively to the moral law and so it easily give itself maxims that are inconsistent with this law, and man does not always clearly distinguish the principle that really informs his choices.

A human being can only become good by first freeing himself from the influence of the natural tendency to follow a hedonistic/egoistic principle, so that he does not then need, “when he recognises something as duty, any other motive than that of the representation of duty itself.” In order to initiate and then consolidate a “change of customs,” it is necessary that man first accepts “in his maxim the purity of motives,” i.e. that he assumes the maxim of the fulfilment of his duty simply because it is his duty to act in a certain way or to pursue a certain end. This does not make him a “holy will,” “for between the maxim and the deed the distance is still great,” but at least it sets him “on the path towards holiness according to infinite progress.” And as much as freedom continues to be incomprehensible from a theoretical point of view, it can be said that the person, in order to take this path, must make a radical choice as a noumenal being, which perhaps manifests itself at a certain moment of his phenomenal life, but remains outside of time, understood as the objective order of causes and effects that constitutes nature. Virtue is progressively strengthened, but the principled choice to move towards the pursuit of pure conformity of maxims to the law is a “change of heart” that is not achieved by habit (Rel. 6:47) and is only conceivable as an unconditional act that gives rise to the series of choices and actions in the time of praxis that makes the phenomenal man good, i.e. as

a revolution in the disposition of the human being […] a revolution is necessary in the mode of thought but a gradual reformation in the mode of sense (which places obstacles in the way of the former), and [that both] must therefore be possible also to the human being. That is: If by a single and unalterable decision a human being reverses the supreme ground of his maxims by which he was an evil human being (and thereby puts on a “new man”), he is to this extent, by principle and attitude of mind, a subject receptive to the good; but he is a good human being only in incessant labouring and becoming i.e. he can hope — in view of the purity of the principle which he has adopted as the supreme maxim of his power of choice, and in view of the stability of this principle — to find himself upon the good (though narrow) path of constant progress from bad to better.” (Rel. 6: 47-8)8

This radical transformation of the power of choice produces the transition from passivity in the face of sensible and selfish motives to the spontaneity and freedom of duty to consider humanity always also as an unconditional end, and this is thus, in summary, the moral revolution commanded by personal moral consciousness. It also echoes in the sphere of social relations through another well-known Kantian imperative “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” This recognised maxim of the Enlightenment9 demands the “exit of man [now considered above all as a citizen] from a state of minority for which he himself is responsible,” despite the fact that it has also been induced and perpetuated by others who treat citizens as a herd. Again, a revolution of intention is called for first and foremost.

The most important revolution from within the human being is “his exit from his self-incurred immaturity.” Before this revolution he let others think for him and merely imitated others or allowed them to guide him by leading-strings. Now he ventures to advance, though still shakily, with his own feet on the ground of experience (7:229)10

This revolution, which we could call cultural, can be followed by a slow evolution towards the better in society, provided freedom of speech and discussion is allowed, hence the formation of an enlightened culture and public opinion. Progress should come about according to Kant through reforms aimed at the common good, but started from above, by an enlightened state power that takes on board criticism and suggestions, not least because such reforms contribute to the stability of the state and are therefore also in its interest.11

Revolution or evolution?

From here we can quickly proceed to the concluding indication of some canonical passages to expound the more political conjugation of Kant’s notion of revolution. It can already be deduced from what has just been mentioned that for Kant, revolutions in the way of thinking and of feeling are essential in order to fully recognise and establish human dignity, initiating the progress of mankind towards the better, but they are by no means resolved in the perspective of a political revolution. In the Metaphysics of Morals we find it written in clear letters that

A change in a (defective) constitution, which may certainly be necessary at times, can therefore be carried out only through reform by the sovereign itself, but not by the people, and therefore not by revolution; and when such a change takes place this reform can affect only the executive authority, not the legislative. (MoM 6:321-22)

The people, or rather their representatives, are only allowed a “negative resistance” (Rel. 6:322). This position can of course be related to specific historical conditions, but a motivation more internal to Kant’s thought itself is found in the conviction that human beings could not develop their dispositions in a hypothetical state of nature, and that only the state makes possible their mutual dependence under laws of freedom (however imperfectly placed) which is necessary for the progress of culture and favourable to morality itself. It thus seems that only in the state order of human society can these, which Kant recognises as the ultimate end and the final end of humanity respectively, be pursued historically. A political revolution, by breaking the positive foundation of law, jeopardises the premise of human coexistence, risking plunging the people into a state of nature without law and freedom. Roughly speaking, it can be said that for Kant the state is like an a priori principle of the possibility of mankind’s slow cultural and moral progress; it is not even the rational reality of the Idea, but its idea appears to be objective and necessary to mankind’s historical progress in and towards freedom (as task to be achieved). It cannot be put at risk, precisely because the general will is an a priori and the state of nature that looms after a revolution does not in itself contain the principle of freedom that would be necessary to restore the human community. Kant recognises that the people are sovereign as legislators (at least ideally) and that civil society is the ratio essendi of the state, but he sees a legal-political contradiction in recognising a right of resistance that could go so far as to undermine the foundations of the state with a revolution.

That there is however room for and need for further theoretical-political elaboration here is demonstrated by the fact that Kant does not make sovereignty, conceptually one and intangible, coincide with an absolute right of those who exercise it de facto. He even goes so far as to write, immediately after the aforementioned exclusion of revolution from the doctrine of law, that

once a revolution has succeeded and a new constitution has been established, the lack of legitimacy with which it began and has been implemented cannot release the subjects from the obligation to comply with the new order of things as good citizens, and they cannot refuse honest obedience to the authority that now has the power. (MoM 6: 323)

Balancing the paradoxical thesis that the people, the holder of rights and the legislative function, can never rebel in principle, not even when they are betrayed by the sovereign, there is a perhaps surprising, but logical pragmatic attitude in Kant. For the sake of the consistency of the principles of law, it cannot be admitted that sovereignty can be questioned by subjects, but if a revolution is successful and establishes a new constitution, then it cannot be said to have returned the citizens to the state of nature and thus was not really a revolution according to the original definition: a violent overthrow of sovereignty that represents the possibility of the state and civil society. It is in this direction that Kant seems to move in his positive assessment of the French revolution, even as an unforgettable premonitory sign of mankind’s progress towards the better, which we are thus at least allowed to think (if not to know) as a necessary outcome of history.

This occurrence is the phenomenon, not of revolution, but (as Erhard expresses it) a phenomenon of the evolution of a constitution in accordance with natural right which, to be sure, is still not won solely by desperate battles – for war, both civil and foreign, destroys all previously existing statutory constitutions. This evolution leads to striving after a constitution that cannot be bellicose, that is to say, a republican constitution. The constitution may be republican either in its political form or only in its manner of governing, in having the state ruled through the unity of the sovereign (the monarch) by analogy with the laws that a nation would provide itself in accordance with the universal principles of legality. (The Conflict of the Faculties, 7: 87-88)

The people protagonist of the French Revolution therefore did not intend to subvert the state, nor question the idea of the constitution that founds it. However, it should be realised gradually in the progress of a series of positive constitutions, but also transcends them by making possible the evolution of natural law towards forms that more faithfully concretize the idea, specifically that of the republican constitution. The destruction of a constitution in force is risky and causes wars that evoke the spectre of the state of nature, but Kant interprets the convocation of the States General by King Louis XVI as a remission on his part of sovereignty, which thus returns – legally and without breaking the ideal social contract – into the hands of the people, who then exercise it directly to give themselves a new constitution and indeed does so with an adherence to the principle of freedom, which can only be explained by the moral nature of the mankind and arouses the admiration of observers (just as it happens, as we have already seen, by reflection on the “original moral disposition inherent in us”). The people who aspire to give themselves a republican constitution is recognised as a moral figure analogous to the person who tends “to the restoration of the purity of the law, as the supreme foundation of all our maxims.”

The revolution of a gifted people which have seen unfolding in our day may succeed or miscarry; it may be filled with misery and atrocities to the point that a right-thinking human being, were he boldly to hope to execute it successfully the second time, would never resolve to make the experiment at such cost — this revolution, I say, nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm the very expression of which is fraught with danger; this sympathy, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral predisposition in the human race. (CoF, 7: 85)


Since much work remains to be done before we can come to articulate conclusions on Kant’s conception of revolution in its various declinations, it is appropriate to opt for an open and simple conclusion: a look at Kant’s epistolary.

Revolutionary France seems to have reciprocated Kant’s attention, since in an exchange of missives involving the philosopher and the brothers Karl and Anton Ludwig Theremin we read that Sieyes considered the study of Kantian philosophy “a complement to the revolution” (so writes K. Theremin on 2 January 1796).

In many letters we then find evidence, sometimes poignant, of how the revolutionary scope of Kant’s thought was already vividly felt by his contemporaries and had practical effects at least on his readers’ way of thinking. Here are a few examples:

I do not flatter — your philosophy will bring about a much more blessed and universal revolution than Luther’s Reformation. (H. Jung Stilling, 1° March 1789; 11: 9)

It will certainly still take time before the seeds sown by You bear fruit for the people, but inevitably Your system must produce a revolution that will advance not only in places of study, but slowly also among the general public (J.F. Zöllner, 25 April 1790).

The revolution in my way of thinking was rapid and happened to me like a blind man who after a successful operation could not immediately orient himself in the world of vision. (H.A.W. Klapp, 20 December 1793).

It is significant that these early readers of Kant recognise so confidently the revolutionary character of his philosophy and express it in prognostic terms, just as the aged philosopher had done with the French events:

But even if the end viewed in connection with this occurrence should not now be attained, even if the revolution or reform of a national constitution should finally miscarry, or, after some time had elapsed, everything should relapse into its former rut (as politicians now predict), that philosophical prophecy still would lose nothing of its force. — For that occurrence is too important, too much interwoven with the interest of humanity, and its influence too widely propagated in all areas of the world to not be recalled on any favourable occasion by the nations which would then be roused to a repetition of new efforts of this kind; because then, in an affair so important for the human race, the intended constitution, at a certain time, must finally attain that constancy which instruction by repeated experience suffices to establish in the minds of all. (CoF, 7: 88)

The statements of Kant and his readers thus reveal at least one essential common characterisation of what he regards as true revolutions, whether philosophical, moral or political: they are born intertwined with the general interest of humanity and irreversibly open up new horizons to possible experience.

Bibliographical indications

  • Allison, Henry E.: Kant’s Theorie of Freedom, Cambridge 1990.
  • Batscha, Zwi (Hg.): Materialien zu Kants Rechtsphilosophie, Frankfurt a.M. 1976.
  • Bencivenga, Ermanno: La rivoluzione copernicana, Torino 2000.
  • Bertani, Corrado e Pranteda, Maria Antonietta (a cura di), Kant e il conflitto delle facoltà. Ermeneutica, progresso storico, medicina, Bologna 2003.
  • Bird, Graham: The Revolutionary Kant. A Commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason, Chicago – La Salle 2006
  • Blumenberg, Hans: Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt, Frankfurt a.M. 1975.
  • Bojanowski, Jochen: Kants Theorie der Freiheit. Rekonstruktion und Rehabilitierung, Berlin – New York 2006.
  • Brandt, Reinhard: Die Bestimmung des Menschen bei Kant, Hamburg 2007.
  • Buhr, Manfred e Lehrke, Wilfried: “Beziehungen der Philosophie Kants zur Französischen Revolution,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 1989, 628-636.
  • Gerhardt, Volkert: “Kants kopernikanische Wende,” Kant-Studien 1987, 133-152.
  • Gonnelli, Filippo, La filosofia politica di Kant, Roma – Bari 1996.
  • Green, J. Everet: Kant’s Copernican Revolution. The Transcendental Horizont, Lanham 1997.
  • Kant, Immanuel – Gentz, Friedrich – Rehberg, August Wilhelm; Über Theorie und Praxis, mit einer Einleitung von D. Henrich, “Über den Sinn vernünftigen Handelns im Staat,” Frankfurt a.M. 1967.
  • La Rocca, Claudio: “Volontà e arbitrio,” Id., Strutture kantiane, Pisa 75-99.
  • Losurdo, Domenico: Immanuel Kant. Freiheit, Recht und Revolution, Köln 1987.
  • Marini, Giuliano: La filosofia cosmopolitica di Kant, Roma – Bari 2007.
  • Miles, Murray: “Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution: Toward Rehabilitation of a Concept an Provision of a Framework for the Interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant-Studien 2006, 1-32.
  • Munzel, G. Felicitas: Kant’s Conception of Moral Character. The “Critical” Link of Morality, Anthropology, and Reflective Judgment, Chicago – London 1999.
  • Seebohm, Thomas M.: “Kant und die Revolution,” Jahrbuch der Albertus Universität zu Königsberg 1993, 141- 148.
  • Timmermann, Jens: Sittengesetz und Freiheit. Untersuchungen zu Immanuel Kants Theorie des freien Willens, Berlin – New York 2003.

  1. Peter Frederick Strawson, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in Lewis Edwin Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of P.F. Strawson, Chicago 1998, 3-21, 12. ↩︎

  2. A and B denote, respectively, the original pagination of the first and second editions of the Critique of Pure Reason; the English translations of the quoted passages are taken from the Cambridge Edition of Kant’s works, which shows in the margin the pagination of the Akademie Ausgabe, which is hereafter simply given with the volume and page number (e.g. 6: 51). ↩︎

  3. From the title of the book by T. Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford 1986. ↩︎

  4. Cf. B. Longuenesse, Kant on the Human Standpoint, Cambridge 2005. ↩︎

  5. Cf. J. McDowell, Mind and World, Cambridge (Mass.) – London 1996, xi-xxiv. ↩︎

  6. On this subject, the writer dwelt a little longer in “Libertà e natura nelle serie fenomeniche,” Rivista di storia della filosofia 2018, 1, 79-118. ↩︎

  7. Admiration for virtuous actions, on the other hand, “denotes an attenuation of our feeling for duty, just as if obedience to duty were an extraordinary and meritorious thing” (Rel. 6: 48) and should not be cultivated in man’s moral education. On the feeling of admiration, s. C. La Rocca, “La dialettica dell’ammirazione,” in Id., Strutture kantiane, Pisa 1990, pp. 173-99. ↩︎

  8. Conception reiterated in I. Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 7: 294-95. ↩︎

  9. Cf. the two other versions of this maxim analysed in C. La Rocca, “Was Aufklärung sein wird. Zur Diskussion um die Aktualität eines Kantischen Konzepts” in R. Langthaler, H. Nagl-Docekal (Hg.), Recht – Geschichte –Religion. Die Bedeutung Kants für die Philosophie der Gegenwart, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Sonderband 9, Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2004, pp. 123 ff. ↩︎

  10. Cf. I. Kant, Anthropology 7: 229. ↩︎

  11. Cf. The famous essay by Kant “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. By Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 11-22 (8: 33-42). ↩︎