The Kantian Program
Carl H. Flygt
The Kantian program aims at the perfection of human freedom. It seeks to place metaphysics, the impulse to know the true and ultimate nature of the things of this world, and thus to be free of them, on the ground of a rigorous science. It seeks to give the human being an ontological power or freedom with respect to these things, and a self sense that is profoundly settled, deeply alive and self-consciously controlled. It aims for the satisfaction of all forms of philosophical intentionality.
To achieve this condition, Kant correctly saw that it would be necessary to control the impulses of thought in a systematic way. These impulses and their expressions, after all, are what exhibit that freedom. For Kant, it is a question of freedom being well-formed. On that basis alone could one hope for the emergence of a coherent realm of ends, of a world in which the human being conducts himself (herself) in conformity with the harmonies of a natural law that applies simultaneously to all appearances and to the transcendental ground of those appearances.
Although fundamental ontology undoubtedly motivates Kant’s program, Kant focused on certain epistemic conditions that must be conformed with and satisfied if human entry into the domain of angels is to be secured. One cannot take heaven by storm. Rather, one must be socially responsible, objectively minded and painstakingly scientific. One must understand wherein one’s own ontological status (one’s consciousness) consists, and one must not seek to exceed it. If and only if this balance is accomplished as a matter of institutional, sociological and individual fact can real freedom and true power ring throughout the world of appearance, and beyond.
Kant’s epistemic strategy is therefore as follows:
Of course, the historical Kant became immediately preoccupied with some very close reasoning about the nature of perception, the nature of rationality and the nature of consciousness long before neurobiology, Boolean computation and quantum physics were worked out as hard sciences, and so was not able to articulate his program in the form I have set out above. The remarkable thing is how well his premises and his conclusions serve as a metaphysical container for all of these scientific advances, and remain the paradigm for any systematic attempt at metaphysics as a whole.
What sorts of practices then, implicit but as yet unrealized even today, are the aim and objective of the Kantian program? What sorts of practices can be brought to bear on the actual mechanisms that constitute, through and by means of thought itself, the actual world of appearance? By means of what practices can it be expected not only that our being-in-the-world can be engineered and optimized to settle in a world of life and light, but that the world itself can be brought into a disposition that causes us to respond not as beings of mere sense and reason, but as beings of a pure and literal transcendental nature?
The answer, in a couple of words, is special exercises. It is a set of possible operations known immemorially to occultism as efficient in the transformation of consciousness and the world, but unknown to consensus and science simply because no rational bridge has yet been built between them and the pluralist, liberal and technological society to which sane and responsible people in general are committed. To compound this problem, these exercises are very difficult to perform, require a one hundred percent commitment of emotion, energy and attention and necessarily offend the intellectual pride of those who enjoy the privileges of institutional power, social status and material well-being. Nevertheless, such exercises are indispensable for complete knowledge of the self, of a transformed dream life and of things as they actually are in the cosmic order.
It is, for example, a matter of occult fact that we do not really think, even those of us who are supposedly trained to do so in modern institutional life. Let him (her) who doubts this attempt for five minutes to fix his (her) attention on a common household pin set softly before his (her) gaze, and only allow thoughts directly related to that actual pin or to that pin in other possible worlds to arise in consciousness, and to concatenate logically with each other. Let him (her) honestly report the outcome of this attempt. Let physiologists measure his (her) brain activity during the attempt. Without fail, his (her) mind will wander more than once, and become derailed from the real, physical activity of thinking.
That an authentic, universal and autonomous spiritual initiation should lie at the heart of the Kantian program can only strike one as correct and natural. Spiritual initiation has always provided the guide and framework for human societies, from Neolithic organizations to the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, India, China, Iran, Egypt, Judea and the West. That greatest and deepest of all initiation frameworks, Judeo-Christianity, continues to guide contemporary society, contemporary individuality and contemporary politics. It was informed by this framework, as well as by the enlightenment of Copernicus and of Newton, that Kant directed his metaphysical critique and presented his idealistic results. Kantian idealism is a rationale for modern (i.e. scientific and individualistic) spiritual initiation.
The objection to idealism, of course, is the call of critical conscience. It is the call of scientific practice, of historical analysis and of healthy and balanced thinking. It is a thinking that abjures the excesses of power in the hands of the irresponsible. A philosophically invulnerable set of propositions and practices is a social recipe for uniformity and cultism, and the sociological and political dangers of cultism are too well documented historically to be acceptable to anyone with good sense. Some of this history may be traced even to the influence of Kant himself. Nonetheless, a form of cultism is probably what, as rational beings, we are actually designed for. The world is already a cult, or a complex of cults, from the intellectual society of the universities to the religious society of the believers. The angels of heaven, should their existence eventually be discovered as actual, will certainly prove to enjoy a cultish existence. What is necessary is to require of these societies, to the extent we participate in them, that they remain sufficiently open.
Idealism, at least idealism of the right sort, can remain subject to scientific and historical critique just as readily as positivism or skepticism. Kant’s idealism, moreover, is in the unique position of conforming with scientific thinking in contemporary neurobiology. Kant’s overall position on consciousness and human knowledge, as well as the position of occult initiation, is reproduced quite faithfully in Crick and Koch’s intermediate-level theory of neurobiological representation and sensation. We are not conscious of things in the world, or even of our own thoughts. We are conscious merely of second and third order representations of these things. Why not entertain an idealism that appears to coincide with our best guess about consciousness and the brain?
The healthy philosopher wants our metaphysical practices to be scientific practices. He (she) wants all our metaphysical propositions to be falsifiable, and never dogmatic. He (she) wants our world to be continually subject to revision. If certain propositions begin to look indispensable for thought and certain practices invulnerable to critique, he (she) wants to resist these for the sake of openness, liberality and diversity. Otherwise, we may find ourselves someday suddenly in the company of crazies like the National Socialists, or the Communists or worse. These are reasonable objectives, but they lead to the crucial questions, “What are metaphysical practices?,” “What are these practices for?” and “What do they have to do with universal human spirituality?”
Metaphysical practice, in a word, is conversation, the great medium of human experience and ontological assertion. In my theory, I am at pains to show that conversation, like individual thought, has an a priori structure and thus a certain indispensable form. Both conversation and thought are structured by rules, or concepts which organize the expectations, readiness and overall capacity of thinking and acting subjects. Real metaphysical practice is skillful exploitation of the rules which underlie thought, community, and even the world of appearances, thereby opening the human being to fundamental ontology, both in himself (herself) and in the world.
I think we do well to accept as incontrovertible a basic claim of my theory of conversation, which is that most of our use of language is an effort to do fundamental ontology. We are always, as self-conscious beings, trying to bring ourselves into some kind of unity with the reality of existence, whether we are incarnated as sublime intellects with the onus of sensation or as ridiculous sense beings with the egoity of judgment. I take as evidence the fact that the overwhelming majority of our illocutionary acts are judgments, sentences with the form
which is always an ontological claim. Because of this subconscious fact, we are all of us always trying to do metaphysics all the time anyway, insofar as we allow ourselves to hold conversations, either with others or with ourselves. Now it will be important to recognize in addition that most of these exhibitions are highly degenerate, even among the elite. But an ideal form does exist.
Idealism is about getting into a position where we can open ourselves spiritually to the reality of existence, to things-in-themselves. It is about making things so well-formed in our thought and in our comportment that the mystery that is existence is communicated to us on its own terms. It is not about nailing down some positivist outline about thoughts and the things of the world. It is about making us ready to comport ourselves as that totality. The metaphysics of idealism is ultimately the metaphysics of morality, the metaphysics of a self willing and able to function as a literal law of nature. I will grant that there are dangers of misappropriation here, but I think we will all need eventually to concede that idealism really is the correct picture of metaphysics and of philosophy in general.