-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website -- 

One summary of the great Kant's view, to the extent that it can be summed up, is that he takes determinism to be a kind of fact, and indeterminism to be another kind of fact, and our freedom to be a fact too -- but takes this situation to have nothing to do with the kind of compatibility of determinism and freedom proclaimed by such Compatibilists as Hobbes and Hume. Thus Kant does not make freedom consistent with determinism by taking up a definition of freedom as voluntariness -- at bottom, being able to do what you want. This he dismisses as a wretched subterfuge, quibbling about words. Rather, the freedom he seeks to make consistent with determinism does indeed seem to be the freedom of the Incompatibilists -- origination. Is he then an Incompatibilist? Well, against that, it can be said he does not allow the existence of origination in what can be called the world we know, as Incompatibilists certainly do. 

Kant's main idea, whatever sense can finally be made of it, depends on his fundamental two-worlds doctrine. He locates determinism in the empirical world or world of appearances, and freedom in the world of things-in-themselves, the world of reason. It is important that the latter world is not in time. 

So he is a determinist of a kind, opposed to the tradition of Compatibilism, not really in the Incompatibilist tradition, but tries to make his determinism and freedom-as-origination consistent by his own private means. You may well wonder if he can succeed in all this -- and suspect too, at the beginning of the 21st Century, that something so radical as his view is actually needed. 

The first excerpt below comes from The Critique of Pure Reason. The second excerpt, along the same lines, but maybe clearer, is from The Critique of Practical Reason. I have improved on Kant's paragraphing.


Excerpt (1) from The Critique of Pure Reason:

...every human being has an empirical character for his power of choice, which is nothing other than a certain causality of his reason, insofar as in its effects in appearance this reason exhibits a rule, in accordance with which one could derive the rational grounds and the actions themselves according to their kind and degree, and estimate the subjective principles of his power of choice. Because this empirical character itself must be drawn from appearances as effect, and from the rule which experience provides, all the actions of the human being in appearance are determined in accord with the order of nature by his empirical character and the other cooperating causes; and if we could investigate all the appearances of his power of choice down to their basis, then there would be no human action that we could not predict with certainty, and recognize as necessary given its preceding conditions. Thus in regard to this empirical character there is no freedom, and according to this character we can consider the human being solely by observing, and, as happens in anthropology, by trying to investigate the moving causes of his actions physiologically

But if we consider the very same actions in relation to reason, not, to be sure, in relation to speculative reason, in order to explain them as regards their origin, but insofar as reason is the cause of producing them by themselves — in a word, if we compare them with reason in a practical respect — then we find a rule and order that is entirely other than the natural order. For perhaps everything that has happened in the course of nature, and on empirical grounds inevitably had to happen, nevertheless ought not to have happened. At times, however, we find, or at least believe we have found, that the ideas of reason have actually proved their causality in regard to the actions of human beings as appearances, and that therefore these actions have occurred not through empirical causes, no, but because they were determined by grounds of reason.

Suppose now that one could say reason has causality in regard to appearance; could reason’s action then be called free even though in its empirical character (in the mode of sense) it is all precisely determined and necessary? The empirical character is once again determined in the intelligible character (in the mode of thought). We are not acquainted with the latter, but it is indicated through appearances, which really give only the mode of sense (the empirical character) for immediate cognition. Now the action, insofar as it is to be attributed to the mode of thought as its cause, nevertheless does not follow from it in accord with empirical laws, i.e. in such a way that it is preceded by the conditions of pure reason, but only their effects in the appearance of inner sense precede it. Pure reason, as a merely intelligible faculty, is not subject to the form of time, and hence not subject to the conditions of the temporal sequence. The causality of reason in the intelligible character does not arise or start working at a certain time in producing an effect. For then it would itself be subject to the natural law of appearances, to the extent that this law determines causal series in time, and its causality would then be nature and not freedom. 

Thus we could say that if reason can have causality in regard to appearances, then it is a faculty through which the sensible condition of an empirical series of effects first begins. For the condition that lies in reason is not sensible and does not itself begin. Accordingly, there takes place here what we did not find in any empirical series: that the condition of a successive series of occurrences could itself be empirically unconditioned. For here the condition is outside the series of appearances (in the intelligible) and hence not subject to any sensible condition or to any determination of time through any passing cause.

Nevertheless, this very same cause in another relation also belongs to the series of appearances. The human being himself is an appearance. His power of choice has an empirical character, which is the (empirical) cause of all his actions. There is not one of these conditions determining human beings according to this character which is not contained in the series of natural effects and does not obey the laws of nature according to which no empirically unconditioned causality is present among the things that happen in time. Hence no given action (since it can be perceived only as appearance) can begin absolutely from itself. But of reason one cannot say that before the state in which it determines the power of choice, another state precedes in which this state itself is determined. For since reason itself is not an appearance and is not subject at all to any conditions of sensibility, no temporal sequence takes place in it even as to its causality, and thus the dynamical law of nature, which determines the temporal sequence according to rules, cannot be applied to it.

Reason is thus the persisting condition of all voluntary actions under which the human being appears. Even before it happens, every one of these actions is determined beforehand in the empirical character of the human being. In regard to the intelligible character, of which the empirical one is only the sensible schema, no before or after applies, and every action, irrespective of the temporal relation in which it stands to other appearances, is the immediate effect of the intelligible character of pure reason; reason therefore acts freely, without being determined dynamically by external or internal grounds temporally preceding it in the chain of natural causes, and this freedom of reason can not only be regarded negatively, as independence from empirical conditions (for then the faculty of reason would cease to be a cause of appearances), but also indicated positively by a faculty of beginning a series of occurrences from itself, in such a way that in reason itself nothing begins, but as the unconditioned condition of every voluntary action, it allows of no condition prior to it in time, whereas its effect begins in the series of appearances, but can never constitute an absolutely first beginning in this series.

In order to clarify the regulative principle of reason through an example of its empirical use — not in order to confirm it (for such proofs are unworkable for transcendental propositions) — one may take a voluntary action, e.g. a malicious lie, through which a person has brought about a certain confusion in society; and one may first investigate its moving causes, through which it arose, judging on that basis how the lie and its consequences could be imputed to the person. WIth this first intent one goes into the sources of the person’s empirical character, seeking them in a bad upbringing, bad company, and also finding them in the wickedness of a natural temper insensitive to shame, partly in carelessness and thoughtlessness; in so doing one does not leave out of account the occasioning causes. In all this one proceeds as with any investigation in the series of determining causes for a given natural effect. 

Now even if one believes the action to be determined by these causes, one nonetheless blames the agent, and not on account of his unhappy natural temper, not on account of the circumstances influencing him, not even on account of the life he has led previously; for one presupposes that it can be entirely set aside how that life was constituted, and that the series of conditions that transpired might not have been, but rather that this deed could be regarded as entirely unconditioned in regard to the previous state, as though with that act the agent had started a series of consequences entirely from himself. 

This blame is grounded on the law of reason, which regards reason as a cause that, regardless of all the empirical conditions just named, could have and ought to have determined the conduct of the person to be other than it is. And indeed one regards the causality of reason not as a mere concurrence with other causes, e but as complete in itself, even if sensuous incentives were not for it but were indeed entirely against it; the action is ascribed to the agent’s intelligible character: now, in the moment when he lies, it is entirely his fault; hence reason, regardless of all empirical conditions of the deed, is fully free, and this deed is to be attributed entirely to its failure to act.


Excerpt (2) from The Critique of Practical Reason

The concept of causality as natural necessity, as distinguished from the concept of causality as freedom, concerns only the existence of things insofar as it is determinable in time and hence as appearances, as opposed to their causality as things in themselves. Now, if one takes the determinations of the existence of things in time for determinations of things-in-themselves (which is the most usual way of representing them), then the necessity in the causal relation can in no way be united with freedom; instead they are opposed to each other as contradictory. For, from the first it follows that 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. 

Indeed, even if I assume that my whole existence is independent from any alien cause (such as God), so that the determining grounds ot my causality and even of my whole existence are not outside me, this would not in the least transform that natural necessity into freedom. For, at every point of time I still stand under the necessity of being determined to action by that which is not within my control, and the series of events infinite a parte priori which I can only continue in accordance with a predetermined order would never begin of itself: it would be a continuous natural chain, and therefore my causality would never be freedom.

If, then, one wants to attribute freedom to a being whose existence is determined in time, one cannot, so far at least, except this being from the law of natural necessity as to all events in its existence and consequently as to its actions as well; for, that would be tantamount to handing it over to blind chance. But since this law unavoidably concerns all causality of things so far as their existence in time is determinable, if this were the way in which one had to represent also the existence of these things-in-themselves then freedom would have to be rejected as a null and impossible concept.

Consequently, if one still wants to save it, no other path remains than to ascribe the existence of a thing so far as it is determinable in time, and so too its causality in accordance with the law of natural necessity, only to appearance, and to ascribe freedom to the same being as a thing-in-itself. This is certainly unavoidable if one wants to maintain both these mutually repellent concepts together; but in application, when one wants to explain them as united in one and the same action, and so to explain this union itself, great difficulties come forward, which seem to make such a unification unfeasible.

If I say of a human being who commits a theft that this deed is, in accordance with the natural law of causality, a necessary result of determining grounds in preceding time, then it was impossible that it could have been left undone; how, then, can appraisal in accordance with the moral law make any change in it and suppose that it could have been omitted because the law says that it ought to have been omitted? That is, how can that man be called quite free at the same point of time and in regard to the same action in which and in regard to which he is nevertheless subject to an unavoidable natural necessity? 

It is a wretched subterfuge to seek to evade this by saying that the kind of determining grounds of his causality in accordance with natural law agrees with a comparative concept of freedom, according to which that is sometimes called a free effect, the determining natural ground of which lies within the acting being, e.g., that which a projectile accomplishes when it is in free motion, in which case one uses the word "freedom" because while it is in flight it is not impelled from without; or as we also call the motion of a clock a free motion because it moves the hands itself, which therefore do not need to be pushed externally; in the same way the actions of the human being, although they are necessary by their determining grounds which preceded them in time, are yet called free because the actions are caused from within, by representations produced by our own powers, whereby desires are evoked on occasion of circumstances and hence actions are produced at our own discretion. 

Some still let themselves be put off by this subterfuge and so think they have solved, with a little quibbling about words, that difficult problem on the solution of which millennia have worked in vain and which can therefore hardly be found so completely on the surface, That is to say, in the question about that freedom which must be put at the basis of all moral laws and the imputation appropriate to them, it does not matter whether the causality determined in accordance with a natural law is necessary through determining grounds lying within the subject or outside him, or in the first case whether these determining grounds are instinctive or thought by reason, if, as is admitted by these men themselves, these determining representations have the ground of their existence in time and indeed in the antecedent state; and this in turn in a preceding state, and so forth.

These determinations may be internal and they may have psychological instead of mechanical causality, that is, produce actions by means of representations and not by bodily movements; [still] they are always determinining grounds of the causality of a being insofar as its existence is determinable in time and therefore under the necessitating conditions of past time, which are thus, when the subject is to act, no longer within his control and which may therefore bring with them psychological freedom (if one wants to use this term for a merely internal chain of representations in the soul) but nevertheless natural necessity; and they therefore leave no transcendental freedom, which must be thought as independence from everything empirical and so from nature generally, whether it is regarded as an object of inner sense in time only or also of outer sense in both space and time; without this freedom (in the latter and proper sense), which alone is practical a priori, no moral law is possible and no imputation in accordance with it. 

Just for this reason, all necessity of events in time in accordance with the natural law of causality can be called the mechanism of nature, although it is not meant in this that the things which are subject to it must be really material machines. Here one looks only to the necessity of the connection of events in a time series as it develops in accordance with natural law, whether the subject in which this development takes place is called automaton materiale, when the machinery is driven by matter, or with Leibniz spirituale, when it is driven by representations; and if the freedom of our will were none other than the latter (say, psychological and comparative but not also transcendental, i.e., absolute), then it would at bottom be nothing better than the freedom of a turnspit, which, when once it is wound up, also accomplishes its movements of itself.

Now, in order, in the case at hand, to remove the apparent contradiction between the mechanism of nature and freedom in one and the same action, one must recall what was said in the Critique of Pure Reason or follows from it: that the natural necessity which cannot coexist with the freedom of the subject 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, and that, accordingly, the determining grounds of every action of the subject so far lie in what belongs to past time and is no longer within his control (in which must be counted his past deeds and the character as a phenomenon thereby determinable for him in his own eyes). 

But the very same subject, being on the other side conscious of himself as a thing-in-itself, also views his existence insofar as it does not stand under conditions of time and himself as determinable only through laws that he gives himself by reason; and in this existence of his nothing is, for him, antecedent to the determination of his will, but every action — and in general every determination of his existence changing conformably with inner sense, even the whole sequence of his existence as a sensible being — is to be regarded in the consciousness of his intelligible existence as nothing but the consequence and never as the determining ground of his causality as a noumenon. 

So considered, a rational being can now rightly say of every unlawful action he performed that he could have omitted it even though as appearance it is sufficiently determined in the past and, so far, is inevitably necessary; for this action, with all the past which determines it, belongs to a single phenomenon of his character, which he gives to himself and in accordance with which he imputes to himself, as a cause independent of all sensibility, the causality of those appearances.

The judicial sentences of that wonderful capacity in us which we call conscience are in perfect agreement with this. A human being may use what art he will to paint some unlawful conduct he remembers as an unintentional fault — as a mere oversight which one can never avoid altogether, and so as something in which he was carried away by the stream of natural necessity — and to declare himself innocent of it. He nevertheless finds that the advocate who speaks in his favor can by no means reduce to silence the prosecutor within him, if only he is aware that at the time he did this wrong he was in his senses, that is, had the use of his freedom; and while he explains his misconduct by certain bad habits, which by gradual neglect of attention he has allowed to grow in him to such a degree that he can regard his misconduct as their natural consequence, yet this cannot protect him from the reproach and censure he casts upon himself. 

This is also the ground of repentance for a deed long past at every recollection of it, a painful feeling aroused by the moral disposition, which is empty in a practical way to the extent that it cannot serve to undo what has been done and would even be absurd. (Priestley, a genuine fatalist proceeding consistently, declares it absurd; and for this candor he deserves more applause than those who, while maintaining the mechanism of the will in deeds but its freedom in words, yet want it to be thought that they include it in their syncretistic system, though without making the possibility of such imputation comprehensible.) But repentance, as pain, is still quite legitimate because reason, when it is a question of the law of our intelligible existence (the moral law), recognizes no distinction of time and asks only whether the event belongs to me as a deed and, if it does, then always connects the same feeling with it morally, whether it was done just now or long ago. For, the sensible ljfe has, with respect to the intelligible consciousness of its existence (consciousness of freedom), the absolute unity of a phenomenon, which, so far as it contains merely appearances of the disposition that the moral law is concerned with (appearances of the character), must be appraised not in accordance with the natural necessity that belongs to it as appearance but in accordance with the absolute spontaneity of freedom. 

One can therefore grant that if it were possible for us to have such deep insight into a human being’s cast of mind, as shown by inner as well as outer actions, that we would know every incentive to action, even the smallest, as well as all the external occasions affecting them, we could calculate a human being’s conduct for the future with as much certainty as a lunar or solar eclipse and could nevertheless maintain that the human being’s conduct is free. If, that is to say, we were capable of another view, namely an intellectual intuition of the same subject (which is certainly not given to us and in place of which we have only the rational concept), then we would become aware that this whole chain of appearances, with respect to all that the moral law is concerned with, depends upon the spontaneity of the subject as a thing-in-itself, for the determination of which no physical explanation can be given. 

In default of this intuition, the moral law assures us of this difference between the relation of our actions as appearances to the sensible being of our subject and relation by which this sensible being is itself referred to the intelligible substratum in us. From this perspective, which is natural to our reason though inexplicable, appraisals can be justified which, though made in all conscientiousness, yet seem at first glance quite contrary to all equity. There are cases in which human beings, even with the same education that was profitable to others, yet show from childhood such early wickedness and progress in it so continuously into their adulthood that they are taken to be born villains and quite incapable of improvement as far as their cast of mind is concerned; and nevertheless they are so judged for what they do or leave undone that they are censured as guilty of their crimes; indeed, they themselves (the children) find these censures as well founded as if, despite the hopeless natural constitution of minds ascribed to the, they remained as accountable as any other human being. 

This could not happen if we did not suppose that whatever arises from one’s choice (as every action intentionally performed undoubtedly does) has as its basis a free causality which from early youth expresses its character in its appearances (actions); these actions, on account of the uniformity of conduct, make knowable a natural connection that does not, however, make the vicious constitution of the will necessary but is instead the consequence of the evil and unchangeable principles freely adopted, which make it only more culpable and deserving of punishment.


There is some surprising science, whtever is to be said of it,  that may be in accord with part of Kant's outlook. For an unpersuaded account of it, see Is the Mind Ahead of the Brain -- Benjamin Libet's Evidence Examined and also Is the Mind Ahead of the Brain -- Rejoinder to Benjamin Libet. A very recent response to the determinism problem, not in agreement with Kant, but certainly sharing something, is made in After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism.

HOME: Det & Free front page
HOME: T. H. front page