Acting Freely: The Relationship Between Time and Freedom in Kant

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant finds himself in the difficult position of affirming freedom for a being whose existence seems to be thoroughly circumscribed and encumbered by the laws of nature.  By virtue of being in time (and space), a subject’s capacity to act is already restricted because the laws of causality in nature necessarily condition the act that takes place in time.  Time, as established in the Critique of Pure Reason, is an a priori form of human intuition, which comes from the subject in order to make possible the perception of appearances in general.  Freedom, as we shall see, involves an act that is a kind of subversion of time. The relationship between time and freedom is important because it determines the causal powers of a being, that is, it delimits the capacity of a subject to act.  In his critical philosophy, Kant defines the relationship of freedom and time in at least two ways.  On the one hand, time is understood as that which restricts freedom, as when Kant writes, “I am never free at the point of time in which I act.”  And, on the other hand, time offers the occasion for freedom insofar as freedom accords an action the power of initiating new time, that is to say, freedom as the “capacity to begin a state by itself” (A 533; b561), such that my act would be free “from all determining causes of the sensible world” (A 803; B831).  This double aspect of the relationship between freedom and time is the source of the analytical difficulty Kant encountered when he moved from the First Critique [Critique of Pure Reason] to the Second Critique [Critique of Practical Reason], namely, how to unite the idea of human freedom with the mechanistic laws of nature, in order to affirm the power of freedom of a being who is necessarily in time and therefore in the world of natural causality.  How did Kant resolve this apparent contradiction between freedom and nature?  What is the nature of the power of human freedom?
If “freedom,” as Kant points out, “transfers us into an intelligible order of things” (Pr, 174, 5:42), and thereby endows our actions the power to subvert the causality of natural necessity and the conditions of time, then what becomes of our understanding of time?  What happens to time from the perspective of transcendental freedom, particularly when submitted to the power of a will expressed in an act that is free, autonomous, and unconditioned?  To work through these questions, we should first locate the problematic in Kant’s deduction of time as a transcendental idea, as well as the antinomy of causality that arises in his Critique of Pure Reason.  By expounding upon Kant’s understanding of the ideality of time in the First Critique, we will then continue with the obstacles Kant encounters in his Critique of Practical Reason, namely, his efforts to reconcile this supposition of time with the idea of freedom.  We will see that if the temporality of transcendental freedom is to be understood as absolute spontaneity, the free act succeeds in becoming independent of empirical and natural conditions not only by breaking away from the natural causality of time (succession), but also by expressing a power of spontaneity or of origination in the intervention of an act into other orders of time (simultaneity), which are not representable in the sensible world, but nevertheless belong in the supersensible world of things in themselves.
Kant opens his Critique of Pure Reason by submitting space and time into a series of transcendental deductions, by asking: “What are space and time?  Are they actual entities? Are they only determinations or relations of things, yet ones that would pertain to them even if they were not intuited, or are they relations that only attach to the form of intuition alone, and thus to the subjective constitution of our mind, without which these predicates could not be ascribed to any thing at all” (P, 157, B37).  By isolating and abstracting space and time, Kant argues that they are not general concepts or sensible properties, but rather are pure a priori forms of intuition.  According to Kant, space and time are a priori formal conditions in that they are what grounds any and all sensible intuitions and appearances.  Because space and time are a priori forms, they are prior to and precede all actual perception.  For instance, with regards to space, what we perceive as outer objects is nothing other than the mere representations of our sensibility, whose form is space.   As with time, it is nothing but the form of the intuition of what Kant calls our inner sense.  The “reality” of time is empirical only insofar as it regards how objects are given to our senses.  Thus, in Kant’s metaphysics, space and time are not properties of things.  They come from the subject as a priori forms of intuitions, which the subject then projects onto something in order to constitute it as a sensible object of experience.  Simply put, space and time are the grids through which anything can appear at all.  Because time is a mere subjective condition of our human intuition, the transcendental idea of time thereby implies that if taken outside ourselves, time disappears, it becomes nothing.
The transcendental deduction of time effectively delimits and restricts the boundaries of time within the sensible world, and is therefore conditioned by the necessity of the natural law of causality under the mechanism of nature.  Because the sensible world of appearances must necessarily be in time, the law of causality in nature empirically conditions the actions of rational beings and the events in the world.  This natural law of causality states that an action must necessarily occur within a given time-series, which is representable as a chain of events that is essentially linear and successive.  Under this law, the apprehension of an event in time always presupposes that something else preceded it.  As Kant writes, “if it is a necessary law of our sensibility…that the preceding time necessarily determines the following time (in that I cannot arrive at the following time except by passing through the preceding one), then it is also an indispensable law of the empirical representation of the temporal series that the appearances of the past time determine every existence in the following time, and that these, as occurrences, do not take place except insofar as the former determine their existence in time” (P, 310, A199).  What is important here is that what we take as natural causality would not be cognizable unless placed in relations of time. The basic causal relationship, if A then B, for example, makes sense only if one presupposes that the difference that arises between these two states, A and B, is temporal.  This is so because “every transition from one state into another happens in time that is contained between two instants, of which the former determines the state from which the thing proceeds and the second state at which it arrives” (P, 315, A208).  The apprehension of change or alteration, which becomes important in appraising events and actions, is so far only possible if it is placed contiguously within the time-series of continuous action under natural causality.
The principle of temporal sequence under the law of causality suggests a thinking of time in terms of succession, in which change or alteration between states can only be apprehended retroactively with reference to past time.  So, from our example, in order to assert the change represented in B, it must be referenced with that which preceded it, A, and that this apprehension of causality involves the connection of two perceptions in time, which, according to Kant, is “the product of a synthetic faculty of the imagination, which determines inner sense with regard to temporal relations” (P, 304, B233).  Now to assert the legitimacy of the truth claim made in the judgment of B, one needs to trace the series backwards, not only to A but also toward that which preceded it and so on.  This tracing backwards is necessary because the claim can only be valid if it can assert the totality of conditions, which would thereby complete the chain in the causal series.  Otherwise, the assertion of B would not hold if its condition did not also allow for the possibility of all occurrences of B in a given domain.  However, because the concept of a cause must, in principle, imply a first cause, this originary cause of an occurrence cannot be posited without contradicting the mechanical law of causality in nature, which dictates that every cause must itself be caused by something else.
The contradiction between natural causality and its necessary ground in unconditionality (Unbedingtheit) is what constitutes the antinomy of causality and freedom in pure speculative reason.  In the third conflict of the transcendental ideas, the thesis—in order for there to be a unity in appearances, there must be, beyond the laws of nature, another causality, namely freedom—and antithesis—there cannot be freedom in nature because it would contradict the causal laws of nature and therefore make appearances impossible—are resolved by proving the transcendentality of the idea of freedom.  In order to resolve the antinomy, Kant makes a sharp distinction between the phenomenal world of appearances, in which things given to the subject are mere representations of the senses, and the noumenal world of things in themselves, which the subject must presuppose in order to make appearances in general possible.  Kant imputes freedom in the transcendental realm of things in themselves, whereby the causality of freedom does not contradict the empirical laws because it is outside of experience.  The distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal allows Kant to locate freedom in the latter as transcendental, and therefore prove that the causality of freedom and the causality of nature are no longer in contradiction when this distinction is maintained.  Freedom and nature are no longer mutually exclusive because in the synthesis of causality, one must presuppose a causality that is not sensibly conditioned. The causality of freedom is thus defined as belonging not in the sensible world, but in the intelligible world of supersensible nature.
While the arguments in the First Critique undo the contradiction between the mechanism of nature and of freedom, Kant notes that transcendental freedom so far has only been thought in negative terms, and that it is his task in the Critique of Practical Reason to give a positive determination to freedom.  Freedom, understood as a causality that is outside the sensible world, could only be thought of negatively in the First Critique because speculative reason was restricted only to the domain of the sensible nature.  “Speculative reason,” as Kant writes, “was quite rightly denied anything positive for cognition beyond objects of experience, hence of things as noumena” (Pr, 174, 5:42).  In pure speculative reason, freedom was understood only as an analytic principle, an idea with no positive determination because the objective reality of transcendental freedom cannot be found anywhere in sensible experience.  So where the First Critique is concerned with pure sensible intuitions that make a priori cognition possible for objects of the senses, the Second Critique is concerned not with pure intuition, but with principles, and as such, proceeds to do what speculative reason was not able to do, namely to cognize freedom in a determinate way.  The Second Critique hence arises out of the need to understand “how, on the one side, pure reason can cognize objects a priori and how, on the other side, it can be an immediate determining ground of the will, that is, of the causality of a rational being with respect to the reality of objects” (Pr, 175-176, 5:45).  Kant thus seeks to articulate a law of a possible order of nature that is beyond the realm of experience, for such a supersensible nature would provide not only the determining grounds for the existence of objects, but also at the same time become the very causality of a rational being.
The antinomy of natural causality and freedom in the First Critique is transformed into a problem of the realizability of freedom in the Second, that is, the Critique of Practical Reason attempts to remove the apparent contradiction between the mechanism of nature and freedom in order to determine the grounds of human action outside the conditions of nature and secure it in the realm of the intelligible.  It is only by according freedom its transcendental status that a human being can be thought of as acting freely, as having in itself a causality that is independent of all sensibility.  If freedom is not thought of in this transcendental sense, human action would be reduced to mere mechanical automation, that is, it would merely be part of the mechanistic chain of events under the temporal conditions of nature.  To begin to think about the ethical dimensions of freedom, Kant brings into comparison the natural law of causality and the causality of transcendental freedom in the form of the moral law.  Kant considers this problem in the following way:
“every event, and consequently every action that takes place at a point of time, is necessary under the condition of what was in the preceding time.  Now, since time past is no longer within my control, every action that I perform must be necessary by determining grounds that are not within my control, that is, I am never free at the point of time in which I act. (Pr, 216, 5:94).
Insofar as a being and its actions are determinable in time, they are always under the necessitating conditions of past time.  Kant, however, insists that the subject who acts in time belongs to two realms simultaneously, the sensible world of appearances and the intelligible world of supersensible nature.  Kant thus proposes two aspects by which to think the rational being: the subject as appearance, and the subject as the thing in itself.
Man is one of the appearances of the sensible world, and thus also one of the causes of nature whose causality must stand under empirical laws.  As such a being, he must therefore also have an empirical character, like all other natural things…He himself is of course one part phenomenon, another part–namely in consideration of a certain capacity–a merely intelligible object. (A 546-47; B 574-75).
By splitting the acting subject in this way, the natural necessity of mechanical causality “attaches merely to the determinations of a thing which stands under conditions of time, and so only to the determinations of the acting subject as appearance” (Pr, 218, 5:97).  The same subject, however, can also know that part of its being can be regarded as noumenal, and that therefore there is within itself a substratum of its constitution that is not determined by conditions of time, but rather determinable through laws that is given by pure reason.  The moral law, understood as a law of causality through freedom, assures the subject of this difference between “the relation of our actions as appearances to the sensible being of our subject and [the] relation by which the sensible being is itself referred to the intelligible substratum in us” (Pr, 219, 5:99).  In this light, time is the mere form of sensible intuition, which is presupposed so that things appear to the subject of the sensible world, and that the existence of the subject and of things in the sensible world is also the existence of things in themselves.  For Kant, it is important to understand existence in time as something that holds true only of appearances, not of things in themselves.  By allowing a part of the subject to belong in the intelligible realm, it can confer upon it the power of freedom as spontaneity, without calling upon “something else as the determining ground with respect to its causality but already itself contains this determining ground by that principle, and in which it is therefore as pure reason itself practical” (Pr, 224, 5:105).
While the law of mechanical causality in sensible nature dictates that objects become the causes of the representations that determine the will, the moral law, as a causality of freedom, renders the will as the cause of objects, and as such, its determining ground lies solely in the pure faculty of reason.  What Kant allows in his theory of the human will is a thinking of human action that is about overcoming the limitations imposed by nature, particularly the causal conditions of time.  Because an act occurs in time, its determining grounds are not within the control of the subject but are rather conditioned by the laws of nature; an act can be regarded as free only if it is understood as an interruption in the causal chain, the effect of which produces a new series that is neither determined by the previous order nor follows from it.  Kant’s emphasis on the distinction between our sensible being and intelligible being further suggests that when we perceive ourselves, we apprehend our existence as being in time, but that there must be something in us that exists outside of time.  It is this intelligible substratum of our being that enables our actions to become practical, by providing cognitions of a supersensible order and intelligible connections that go beyond the mechanical chain of temporal causality.
The supersensible marks the realm of transcendental freedom, which, for Kant, becomes an infinite horizon of possibilities, which allow “in the course of the world different series [that] may begin on their own as far as their causality is concerned” (P, 486, A450/B478).  What Kant seems to suggest here is that what we perceive to be the developmental succession of time is merely our way of representing time to ourselves, and that simultaneity of different states necessarily exist, but the cognition of which is impossible because our finitude does not permit the intuition of the manifold of existence at one and the same time.  It seems to me, then, that one can imagine a sequence of time moving successively in a linear fashion, but also—and most importantly—that in each moment in the sequence there exists a vertical axis of equally infinite number of potentialities that are not representable in the sensible order of time.  If one characterizes the free act as an intervention into the mechanical causal chain of successive time, it is an intervention that sets off this supersensible order of potentialities that then initiate a new temporal series of their own.  If this potentiality of different possibilities is imagined negatively in the First Critique, it is rendered realizable in the Second Critique because of the determinate law of causality that is secured in the intelligible world under the name of the moral law.  The free act, seen in this way, can thus be understood as being productive of a genuine event, of effecting an intervention in the natural order of things and thereby affirming the humanity that exempts the subject from the tyranny of mechanistic nature.  By looking at the temporal aspects of freedom in this manner, we see that the productive force of Kant’s critique to our thinking of the political lies in its affirmation of potentialities that are radically other yet always present at any point in time.  In Kant, the political expression of an action that aspires to become free is nothing less than the desire to engage and to render realizable that which is necessarily other to time yet the possibility of which can nevertheless be always affirmed.


Image: Sopheap Pich, Cycle 2, rattan and wire sculpture, 2008. Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art (NY)
This entry was published on April 4, 2010 at 11:00 PM. It’s filed under Essays, Kant, Philosophy, Time and Temporality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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