Kant’s Theory of the Unconscious
In this paper I connect the well known assertion from Kant’s ethical theory that we can never be fully certain about our motivations with his theory of the thing in itself of the self from the first Critique in order to demonstrate that Kant has theory of the unconscious. I situate this argument in a criticism of Wuerth’s recent interpretation in Kant on Mind, Action, and Ethics and suggest a revision of his notion of immediatism. I gather other information about Kant’s theory of the unconscious and show that, for Kant, the unconscious mind is a privileged site of moral personhood.
208 Westminster Ave.
Syracuse, NY 13210
Kant’s Theory of the Unconscious
Although the idea of the unconscious is no longer on the fringe of the philosophy of mind, those who study the mind and brain use it in different, not always compatible, ways. Neurologists often refer to brain processes that happen “below” the neocortex as “unconscious.” For example, the fight or flight response is triggered by the amygdala and is therefore spoken of as being an automatic, or unconscious, response.1 Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that conditioning by means of sublimal stimuli is possible: they call this unconscious perception.2 Armstrong points to an example of unconscious perception that is unfortunately common: it is what we call being on “automatic pilot” while driving.3 The first use of the term suggests something physical that is in principle cut off from consciousness, while having a conscious, affective component. Here the notion of consciousness is akin to the notion of control. The second example is of something perhaps necessarily inaccessible after the fact because we might have failed to form a memory of the event, in the same way that we might fail hear someone who is speaking to us. Still, it is open to us to suddenly become aware that we have not been paying attention and to start paying attention. Here consciousness is akin to attention.
Another sense of the term unconscious is more influential in psychology: it is the idea of the unconscious mind. One common example is the phenomenon of figuring something out while sleeping: we go to bed with a seemingly intractable conceptual problem and we wake up with an answer. This idea is slightly different from simply not paying attention for two reasons: one, usually it is postulated that some form of repression or resistance accompanies the thing to which we are not attending; two, the thing of which we are unaware is some operative part of ourselves. Although it must have a physical basis, this is not the reason for its escaping notice; for it is only of our subsequently becoming aware of something that was previously unconscious that the existence of any activities of the unconscious mind can be verified. The unconscious mind refers to something that we are doing unconsciously, like thinking, desiring, feeling, or scheming. The idea of the unconscious mind involves the postulation of mental entities relatively under our control to which we are nevertheless not paying attention, and perhaps ineluctably so because most theorists of the unconscious deny that we could ever entirely eliminate its influence.
This use of the term “unconscious” is more controversial, especially as it relates to repression and the diagnosis of one person’s true mental state by another person who is supposedly an expert, but it is also more prosaic, since we can all think of times that we only later became aware of some aspect about ourselves—be it a belief, desire, or motivation—that was operative in a given situation. Still, many people do no accept that there is such a thing as an unconscious mind. Like Sartre, they assert that that the idea of an unconscious element of consciousness is a contradiction is terms.
Freud is best known for popularizing the idea of the unconscious mind, as well as the idea of repression, even though the idea is not at all new. Hindu philosophies of mind develop the idea of levels of consciousness, and often historians of Western philosophy see precursors to Freud in Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The purpose of this paper is to show that Kant’s philosophy also incorporates an idea of the unconscious.4 Explaining Kant’s notion of the unconscious mind will be interesting, not just to help chart a lineage that is often assumed between Kant and psychoanalysis, but mostly because Kant’s notion of the unconscious is very different from Freud’s and in many ways more compelling. For Kant, the unconscious mind plays an important role in moral theory. Understanding Kant’s theory of the unconscious can help us understand the role that self-analysis and self-discovery plays in morality as well as the broader relationship between nature and reason.
Most readers of Kant’s moral theory are aware of his rejoinder against those who might think they can judge themselves or others to be truly righteous: we can never be totally aware of our motivations, Kant warns. This conviction is usually accepted as Kant’s final word on the subject, but this acceptance is rarely followed with any sort of discussion. Why does Kant think this? Is this tenet of his philosophy related to his more explicitly developed philosophy of mind? The first question is perhaps unnecessary because Kant’s rejoinder seems rather easy to accept as true. The second question deserves to be considered, not only by those who are interested in the psychological idea of unconscious motivation, but by anyone who cares to examine Kant’s philosophy of mind, moral theory, or practical anthropology because Kant’s notion of the unconscious sheds light on all three. Indeed, understanding Kant’s notion of the unconscious even helps us to understand the functional unity of the “critical” project and its relationship to the “pre-critical” writings.
Of all of the aspects of Kant’s notion of the unconscious the one requiring the most time to discuss judiciously, as well as the one most lacking interpretive consensus, is the thing in itself of the self of the first Critique. Accordingly, I will devote the most amount of time to this topic, which will nevertheless itself demonstrate its moral importance. I argue that Kant’s notion of the thing in itself of the self erects a critical border to self-knowledge that is morally important both for being impenetrable and for being variable. Then, before I turn to my explicit discussion of the role that the unconscious plays in Kant’s moral theory, I address a recent commentary on Kant’s philosophy of mind that has drawn a conclusion exactly opposite from mine: Julian Wuerth, in his Kant on Mind, Action, and Ethics, argues that Kant’s critical turn does not reverse his position that we have immediate access to the self and that this immediatism is morally significant. Against Wuerth, I follow Ameriks in asserting that Kant’s “critical break through” is exactly his replacing “the supposition that self-knowledge is relatively immediate and epistemologically primary” with the position that “in our self-knowledge we have no more theoretical insight into things in themselves than elsewhere, and hence we cannot determine the self in itself.”5 Following this discussion, my exposition of the moral relevance of Kant’s notion of the unconscious will also lay bare part of Kant’s motivation for asserting that there is a thing in itself of the self. The relationship between consciousness and the unconscious mind (or the self and the thing in itself of the self) becomes, in part, the site of interaction between the transcendent moral law and the noumenal freedom that recognizes it and the empirical, human struggle to perfect oneself. Hence the idea of the thing in itself of the self marks the discovery of a critical compromise between scientific authority and moral transcendence.6
The Thing in Itself of the Self
Transcendental idealism is the position that all human knowledge only relates to objects as the appear to us, not to things in themselves. The term “thing in itself” refers to whatever is in principle beyond experience but the cause of those objects of experience. It seems necessary that the objects of experience are not in themselves the way that we experience them, and it also seems necessary that those things that transcend experience—the things in themselves—must be the causes of the objects that we do experience. If this doctrine is still elusive, think about Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. It would be weird to say that the sky is in itself blue or that a strawberry is in itself sweet since the qualities of color and taste are experiences that are produced in the interaction between the object and human sense organs. Transcendental idealism asserts that we cannot know anything about what things are like in themselves, a part from their relationship to human mental faculties because, as Kant attempts to show in the Analytic of the first Critique, space and time, and with them twelve a priori concepts of experience, which would account for Locke’s primary qualities, are necessary and hence produced by means of human apperception. All we can know about the things in themselves is that they exist. One would think that we cannot know whether or not things in themselves are in space and time, and hence themselves possessing the qualities we ascribe to them, but Kant most often denies that they are, insisting that space and time are nothing but the pure forms of intuition.
In the B edition of the Critique Kant added a second section to §81 of the Transcendental Aesthetic. Section §81 is entitled “General Observations on Transcendental Aesthetic,” and in the new section Kant underscores the ideality of both outer and inner sense (B66). Outer sense is our experience of external objects of both space and time; inner sense is our experience of ourselves in time. External objects, in being experienced, are subjected to time, the form of inner sense, and hence there is a meaning of “inner sense” that refers to all experiences, but we can also abstract from our experience of external objects and focus on ourselves, and such is known as “inner sense” in a more restricted sense.7 In other words, experience can either be of external objects or it can be of the self, and because there are two types of objects of experience (the self and external objects), there are two types of things-in-themselves. There is a thing in itself of the self.
Although it is controversial, I believe that one reason that there must be a thing in itself of the self, for Kant, is because all inner experience, viz. thoughts, are subject to the categories. All of our thoughts, even if they are not about us per se—take the thought “I wonder if that woman works here,” for example—employ the categories. In the Schematism Kant argues that temporality itself is constructed out of qualities given to it by employing the category of relation as functions of unity: “Thus an application of the category to appearances becomes possible by means of the transcendental determination of time, which, as the schema of the concepts of understanding, mediates the subsumption of appearances under the categories” (A 139/B 178). Temporality is the schema of the categories: the categories apply to appearances because they are in time and vice versa. In the above-mentioned §81 Kant argues that
everything in our knowledge that belongs to intuition… contains nothing but mere relations.8 … Now a thing in itself cannot be known through mere relations. … This also holds true of inner sense… because the time in which we set these representations, which is itself antecedent to the consciousness of them in experience, and which underlies them as the formal condition of the mode in which we posit them in the mind, itself contains [only] relations of succession, coexistence, and that which is coexistent with succession, the enduring. … Since this form does not represent anything save in so far as something is posited in the mind, it can be nothing but the mode in which the mind is affected through its own activity (namely through this positing of its representation), and so is affected by itself; in other words nothing but an inner sense in respect of the form of that sense. Everything that is represented through a sense is so far always appearance… (B 67-68, my emphasis)
Kant is here saying that every experience that is in time, and thereby subject to the category of relation (succession, coexistence and succession are the three judgments of the category of relation), must therefore be transcendentally ideal because time is a form of intuition, not a property of things in themselves. In so far as our thoughts employ the categories and approach knowledge about ourselves they, for the very reason, pertain only the way that we appear to ourselves. This supposition requires that there be a thing in itself of the self or some aspect of ourselves of which we are unaware that nevertheless causes our internal experiences.9
The previous passage develops into a different argument for the necessity of a thing in itself of the self. Kant writes that if we refuse to acknowledge that inner sense is an experience and, hence, an appearance, not the thing in itself, then we are denying that self-knowledge is knowledge of an object at all, but we are then making it into the pure self-activity of intellectual intuition.
If the faculty of coming to consciousness of oneself is to seek out (to apprehend) that which lies in the mind, it must affect the mind, and only in this way can it give rise to an intuition of itself. But the form of this intuition, which exists antecedently in the mind, determines, in the representation of time, the mode in which the manifold is together in the mind, since it then intuits itself not as it would represent itself if immediately self-active, but as it is affected by itself, and therefore as it appears to itself, not as it is. (B68-69)
Nevertheless, we must note that Kant twice suggests that the will does have this capability of brining its object into existence, suggesting that the restriction of the thing in itself of the self only applies to self-knowledge. Although it may contravene the interdependence of temporality and consciousness, this caveat in Kant’s theory of the unconscious helps to make sense of the varying degrees of logical certainty that different propositions about the self can obtain. In the event that the will brings an object into existence, the fact of it having happened is relatively certain. Here we are dealing with nothing but an object of appearance. Contrariwise, self-knowledge is more fallible. For example, according to Kant’s theory, and contra Roderick Chisholm,10 the proposition “I am sad” does not express infallible, immediate knowledge, but it does seem to be the case that the statement “I think that I am sad” admits of more certainty. Again, the judging myself to be sad is an object of appearance.11
So far we have only established that Kant believes that we cannot have immediate knowledge of the self. This tenet implies the moral necessity of striving for, rather than assuming, knowledge of oneself, as we shall see, but is there anything positive that we can say about the thing in itself of the self? So far we do not have much of a theory of the unconscious if we can only say that Kant thinks that we do not know ourselves as we are. For starters, in the first Critique we know that transcendental idealism does not entail total agnosticism about the things in themselves and that Kant consistently denies that the things in themselves are in space and time. Considering the thing in itself of the self makes more sense out of Kant’s refused agnosticism, especially if we compare it to Medieval notions of subjectivity. For example, Augustine held that God is not spatio-temporal and that we can come to know him through the faculty of memory which itself mysteriously appears to transcend space and time. It is also possible that Kant’s denial that the things in themselves are in time and space is an inheritance of negative theology.
Speculating about anything positive we might be able to say about the thing in itself of the self brings us to the role that Kant’s theory of the unconscious plays in his moral theory, which becomes most evident in the B edition of the Paralogisms. As was previously noted, the passage considered above at length, which provides a more extensive argument for the necessity that there be a thing in itself of the self, was added in the B edition. As is clear from the different Introductions, the B edition differs from the A edition in that in it Kant is not only concerned to defend himself from the criticism of idealism, he is also more interested in demonstrating the positive importance of the critical project, viz., for morality. The difference between the two editions of the Paralogisms shows this strikingly.
In explaining the paralogisms—the spurious argument that the soul is a substance, simple a unity, and that its existence alone is certain—he also explains the reason that we are originally attracted to these natural, pseudo-rational illusions. They arise out of the desire to combat “the danger of materialism” (A 383). In the A edition, Kant argues that transcendental idealism precludes materialism because it concludes that matter is “nothing but a mere form”(A 385). Accordingly, in the A edition, Kant develops a philosophy of mind akin to Davidson’s anomalous monism because although inner and outer sense are different (one providing for the dimensionality of the mind, and the other providing for the dimensionality of the body) and incommensurable in terms of experience, we know that, in principle, since they are both forms of experience, they are compatible (A 359). “Neither the transcendental object which underlies outer appearances nor that which underlies inner intuition, is in itself either matter or a thinking being, but a ground (to us unknown) of the appearances which supply to us the empirical concept of the former as well as of the latter mode of existence” (A 379-380).
Returning to the “danger of materialism,” Kant ends the B edition with an extended discussion of the contrast between the theoretical possibility of knowledge of the substantiality of the soul and the practical/moral importance of this supposition. In concluding this section, Kant posits the sublation of the dichotomy he had previously established between the “I think” as subject, which is a condition of thought and as such not experienced, and the “I” as subject, which is mere appearance. He writes that “I exist thinking”—every word is italicized—i.e., the subject is constituted by both being and knowing (B 429). The insinuated connection between the spontaneous transcendental function and our true selves (mein eigenes Selbst) (B 430) betrays Kant’s motivation to use the idea of the thing in itself of the self as the morally free noumenal self, and Kant states that if we had access to this noumenal self, it would be an experience of “pure consciousness”(B 430). He continues:
Should it be granted that we may in due course discover, not in experience but in certain laws of the pure employment of reason—laws which are not merely logical rules, but which, while holding a priori also concern our existence—ground for regarding ourselves as legislating completely a priori in regard to our own existence, and as determining this existence, there would thereby be revealed a spontaneity through which our reality would be determinable, independently of the conditions of empirical intuition. And we should also become aware that in the consciousness of our existence there is contained a something a priori, which can serve to determine our existence—the complete determination of which is possible only in sensible terms—as being related, in respect of a certain inner faculty, to a non-sensible intelligible world. (B 430-431)
Of course this is the moral law, as Kant makes plain shortly. Hence transcendental idealism blocks the conclusion of determinism which follows from the way that we appear to ourselves since we always appear to be determined (B 432). In being outside of space and time, the thing in itself of the self is free to be spontaneous. It is this kind of transcendence that is necessary for the subject to be affected by the moral law.
Although I have already begun to discuss the moral dimension of Kant’s theory of the thing in itself of the self, it is necessary that I put off a further elaboration until I have defended my reading of the first Critique. Recently Julian Wuerth has made an argument nearly opposite to the one laid out above, viz., that Kant believes that we have immediate access to the self and that this immediatism informs his moral theory. At this point, I will briefly summarize Wuerth’s argument and explain the reason that I think it is mistaken.
Toward a Critical Immediatism
In his recent book Kant on Mind, Action, and Ethics, Wuerth argues that according to Kant the soul is both substantial and immediately accessible to consciousness.12 Given Kant’s argument in the Paralogisms, Wuerth’s argument is weird, but not entirely indefensible. It can be said that Kant accepts that the soul is a substance, if by “soul” we limit ourselves, as Kant does, to the empirical self. The transcendental unity of apperception’s logical subject, the “I think,” accompanies all experience. In the Paralogisms Kant distinguishes the transcendental “I think” from empirical self-consciousness—he later conflates them, only to re-assert the distinction in the B-edition to then dialectically overcome it—but whether or not we experience the “I think” of the transcendental unity of apperception, as Wuerth believes is the case, does not really matter for Wuerth’s point. Kant does not truly challenge the empirical unity of consciousness, which even if questioned by a given person for him- or her-self, could be established inter-subjectively through outer experience regardless.13 Furthermore, substance is a necessary category of experience, which would naturally apply to our experience of subjectivity. Our experience of ourselves is rather coherent, and so I do not think it is a problem to assert that Kant believes that the empirical soul is substantial.14
On the other hand, I take issue with the conclusion that we have immediate access to this substance, and I will focus only on this half of Wuerth’s thesis. We might think that we are one thing since experience is presented to us as one thing, but this does not mean that we truly are unitary nor that we are aware of the totality of ourselves, which would be the case if we were truly a substance of which we were simultaneously aware.
Wuerth focuses on, what he calls, Kant’s precritical immediatism in order to supplant Kitcher’s account of Kant’s Humean influence. He highlights Kant’s early idea that our experience of the substance of the self is the originator of our notion of substance.
But this I is an absolute subject, to which all accidents and predicates can be attributed, and which cannot at all be a predicate of another thing. Thus the I expresses the substantial; for that substratum, in which all accidents inhere, is the substantial. This is the only case where we can intuit substance immediately. We can intuit the substratum and the first subject of no thing; but in myself I intuit substance immediately. The I therefore expresses not only substance, but also the substantial self. Yes, what is yet more, the concept, that we have of all substances generally, we have borrowed from this I. This is the original concept of substance. (ML1, 28:225–26, Wuerth’s emphasis)15
Wuerth also points to passages from Kant’s Anthropology lectures that state that we are immediately conscious of ourselves.16 Wuerth believes that Kant’s comments restricting our access to the thing in itself of the self apply only to theoretical knowledge and that we nevertheless have an immediate consciousness of the noumenal self.17
Wuerth connects his reading of Kantian noumenal substance to Kant’s ethics in order to argue that sensibility and reason are not inimical, but a part of the same substance, and that we do not coolly choose between them, but experience them both. He hopes that his substantial unity thesis proves that there is a “real” interaction between the mind and body as well as between reason and sensibility. He reminds us that it is the same noumenal self that has both the active and the passive powers.18 The ethical upshot of this philosophy of mind is a more psychologically integrated subject. He writes:
Contrary to Korsgaard’s account of a pale and northern Kantian self reduced to reason, which is the sort of self often criticized by opponents of Kant’s ethics, especially virtue-ethicists in recent history, I read Kant to portray the self as more complex and conflicted. This subject is self-conscious and can reflect on all of its states. But these states include both its intellectual and its sensible cognitions, feelings, and desires – desires that include the desire to act on the moral law out of respect for it but also sensible desires that may conflict with the moral law. We do not weigh our options from the perch of pure practical reason alone, in which case the choice to act on sensible desires would be incoherent and the choice to act morally would be straightforward, as Korsgaard maintains. Instead, we find ourselves at a crossroads between morality and sensibility where no amount of clarification of our ontological status or our options silences the at-times powerful voice of sensibility. And this allows for immoral action to be all-too coherent…19
While this is a laudable goal, he has given short shrift to Kant’s theory of the thing in itself of the self, and he therefore completely overlooks all possibility of the unconscious.
One way of framing the issue is in terms of the relationship between critical and pre-critical works since the prohibition of knowledge about the thing in itself of the self was a critical development. As we have already seen, Ameriks believes that the idea of the thing in itself of the self is one of the paramount critical insights. He remarks that the fact that we know ourselves only as we are affected by the thing in itself of the self
would merit a special place in a discussion of mind only as a challenge to those who might think knowledge of the self presents an exception to the broader thesis [of transcendental idealism]. … Although such a challenge is hardly to be expected today, it was a real concern for Kant, and, as we know, he was for a while quite sympathetic to its main idea…20
Wuerth does believe that immediatism merits this kind of exception, and he rejects Amerik’s account of Kant’s historical development. Wuerth writes:
Rather than reflecting an immature epistemology that fails to recognize the barriers precluding epistemic access to other things in themselves, Kant’s immediatism therefore reflects the unique place of our relation to ourselves within this system of transcendental idealism. While Kant consistently rejects as mystical any account that presumes to have us obviating the pure forms of intuition and enjoying immediate consciousness of the things in themselves underlying the appearances of other objects … he also, with
drumbeat regularity throughout this two decade period preceding the Critique, recognizes our relation to ourselves as the one exception to the rule that we only deal in effects of substances, never the substances in themselves.21
Although this is strong language, the extent to which Wuerth intends to deny that there is a thing in itself of the self is actually uncertain. Perhaps, instead, we can stress a critical version of immediatism that paradoxically allows for an unconscious.
One means of charting this compromise can come from meditating on Hume’s criticism of the idea of substance. Hume argues that it is incomprehensible that we could possibly have an experience of substance because an impression cannot share any of the qualities of substance (T 1.4.5). A substance, at least in the Aristotelian sense, seems to be something that is necessarily beyond experience because it is something that explains and gives rise to any possible experience. To this Wuerth would respond that, by the time of the first Critique, the substance Kant has in mind is a merely logical substance and does not imply permanence. Some might say that this redefinition should not count as “substance” at all. Furthermore, we might note that, to say that we are immediately conscious of ourselves (perhaps in a functional way, which might follow tautologously from saying that we are conscious at all) does not mean that we are immediately conscious of all aspects of ourselves. To know or rather to sense that we are a substance, or a substratum, is not to know the content of that substance itself. Indeed, Wuerth argues that
Despite the unique epistemic position in which we stand in relation to ourselves, however, whereby we have an immediate consciousness of ourselves as the underlying noumenal substance, first subject, or substantiale, in which our accidents inhere, it is important to note that, precisely because this substantiale is for Kant distinct from all of its accidents, our consciousness of being this substantiale is completely empty of any positive determinations.22
Although this critical brand of immediatism accommodates the Kantian theory of the unconscious that I am working to develop—even if I still disagree with Wuerth about what constitutes “knowledge” of the thing in itself of the self and hence the degree of access we have into it—it does not seem sufficient for Wuerth’s own ethical conclusions. In order for us to know phenomenologically that the sensible self is one and the same with the noumenal self we would need to experience them as the same, or—the greater demand—to experience the mind and body as one. Wuerth points to the experience of internal conflict to rebut Korsgaard’s brand of rationalism, but it does not seem to support his own thesis of immediatism. Throughout the history of philosophy internal conflict has been the paradigmatic example in the argument that there are, in fact, different parts of the self. It seems that Wuerth must clarify what he means in asserting that Kant holds that we have immediate consciousness of the substantial self.
The Ideas We Have Without Being Aware of Them
It is now time to return to the moral importance of Kant’s theory of the thing in itself of the self, but first let us zoom out and consider the bigger picture of whether or not it is fair use Kant’s comments about the thing in itself of the self in developing a Kantian theory of the unconscious. Do we have other evidence that Kant believes that there is something like an unconscious mind? In his Anthropology form a Pragmatic Point of View Kant defends the notion of unconscious ideas from Locke’s earlier criticism (APH 7:135). First Kant argues that all of our simple perceptions and sensations imply a wealth of processes and an influx of information to which we do not, and perhaps cannot, attend. If we were able to shed light on the vast, dark map of the mind, he writes, we would find “half a universe” there hidden (APH 7: 135). This exposition progresses to a very Freudian topic: sexual lust. Kant remarks that there is so much about the self that remains unconscious or repressed. Kant then likens these obscure ideas to habits and prejudices that are difficult to shake, even when the do become conscious. Lastly he remarks that writers sometimes even cultivate obscurity because the reader can they enjoy becoming “aware of his own intellectual power in resolving the obscure into clear thoughts.”(APH 7:137).
This passage may give the impression that Kant is randomly listing connotations for the term “obscure idea,” but the variety of these experiences speaks to all that is involved in becoming self-aware. As he notes, even when we are conscious of certain thoughts, if they are not compatible with our other convictions, then there is a sense in which they are not fully conscious. Indeed, developing self-awareness is like a kind of self-interpreting—an activity in which we naturally engage.
Only a couple of passages later Kant repeats his conviction that there is a thing in itself of the self and more explicitly connects this idea with the difficulty of achieving self-knowledge. He remarks that the stricture on knowledge of the thing in itself of the self is not really a topic for anthropology, but is the business of metaphysics, but he explains that it is important only in so far as it warns us against undue self-confidence in judging ourselves and others (APH 7: 141-143)..
Kant explains the moral importance of becoming self-aware in the Doctrine of Virtue. The first duty we have to ourselves is to “know (scrutinize, fathom)” ourselves (TL 441). We must cultivate self-perfection, which means that we need to attempt to become aware of out motivations. Without this self-awareness, we cannot align the maxim of our actions with duty. Perhaps these imperatives suggest to some that Kant believes that self-perfection and self-transparency is possible. In this passage Kant does suggest that we can know our motivations —although he believes that it is very difficult for us to come to such knowledge. Even the passages from the Groundwork that state, for example, that we “can never, even by the strictest examination, completely plumb the depths of the secret incentives of our actions” are certainly not meant to suggest that we should not try or that we cannot have a guess about whether we are truly acting virtuously or merely for some selfish motive (G 407). Self-perfection is a wide duty: it is a necessary maxim, but, unlike a narrow duty, it does not prescribe specific actions (TL 6:391-393). In explaining the way that the cultivation of one’s own self-perfection is a wide duty, Kant again states that “a human being cannot see into the depths of his own heart”(TL 6:392). The duty is then “to strive with all one’s might that the thought of duty for its own sake is the sufficient incentive of every action conforming to duty”(TL 6:393).
In the first part of Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason Kant discusses whether it makes sense to say that humans are either good or evil by nature. He notes that in order to say that anyone is evil at all we must not only know her actions but her maxims, which are not only hidden from the observer, but sometimes even hidden from the subject herself: “[W]e cannot observe maxims, we cannot do so umproblematically even within ourselves; hence the judgment that an agent in an evil human being cannot reliably be based on experience.”(R 6:20). It seems obvious that one of Kant’s motivations for saying this is to prevent people from self-righteously condemning others. (Such was one tenet of Kant’s Pietist upbringing.) The inclusion of the reference to possible unconscious motivations here may be no more than a restating of the common biblical injunction against hypocrisy: “Thou hypocrite: first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thou brother’s eye”(Matthew 7:5). It is funny to think that one may be unaware of having a beam in one’s eye—although you of course then wouldn’t be able to see very well—but that is surely the implication here. My point is that there is something about the idea of a maxim itself that suggests the possibility of unconscious motivation. Intentions are not actions and are cut off from view, but they also need not be explicit thoughts. They might be implicit, or they might be hidden or confused, as in the case of overdetermination when our knowing the precise motivation that moves us, if there is one, is not necessary.23 We have a duty to become aware of our motivations and to align them with respect for duty because motivations are inherently slippery and tricky. As we can perhaps all attest, we have a tendency deceive ourselves and believe that our selfishness aims are more important than anything else.
This imperative of self-scrutiny makes it seem as though the unconscious is the house of selfishness. Previously, on the other hand, we were confronted with Kant’s attempted elision between the thing in itself of the self, of which we are necessarily unaware, and the noumenally/spontaneous/moral self. It is no secret that Kant frequently suggests, the third section of the Groundwork is one well-known place, that moral freedom is freedom from empirical determination. One interpretative possibility here is to see Kant as going back on the equation between temporality and empirical determination: that would perhaps leave room for thinking to be in time but not empirically determined. One problem with that solution is that it would seem to be too lenient: allow all thoughts to be “noumenal” in the way that only moral determination is supposed to be. Nevertheless, we see this loose use of the term “understanding” that trades on the idea of noumena as intelligible objects but has little resemblance to the “Understanding” of the first Critique in, for example, Kant’s famous quote about the “the starry sky above me and moral law within me… The second thing starts from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world that has true infinity but that is discernable only to the understanding.”(KpV 161-162). (Note that it is exactly knowledge of substantial “personality” that is disallowed by the third paralogism.)
As Kant’s notion of autonomy articulates, the problem of moral motivation is the same as the problem of freedom because Kant, I think confusedly, believes that all motivation is a product of sensible desire. Hence “how a law can by itself and directly be a determining basis of the will… is an insoluble problem for human reason, and is one and the same problem as the one concerning how a free will is possible”(KpV 72). Kant devises his theory of moral feeling to solve this problem, but moral feeling is still the subjective response to the moral law, which, although it is a fact of reason, transcends any person’s subjective faculty of reason and is objectively valid for all rational beings. How can we experience the moral law if all experience is sensible? Well, Kant’s answer is that we can only experience is sensibly. Still, Kant’s description of the sublime experience of the moral law always presume that we can experience the moral law itself, not some mere sensible reflection of it. The “invisible self” that houses the moral law nevertheless makes itself felt. Similarly, from his lectures on Anthropology we have the idea that “all of morals is only an analysis of the prescriptions of concepts and reflections that the human already has in the sub-conscious” (AC 25:20).
The same porous yet fixed boundary applies to our experience of ourselves as free. Kant writes that practical reason provides a “supersensible object of the category of causality, namely freedom,” but reminds us that this object is still supersensible, thereby verifying the doctrine of the thing in itself of the self of the first Critique: “With this, at the same time, the strange though indisputable assertion of the speculative critique, that in inner intuition even the thinking subject is merely an appearance to himself, now also receives… its full confirmation—and is here confirmed so well that one must arrive at it even if the former critique had not proved this proposition at all.” In the footnote Kant writes that “the reconciliation” of freedom and mechanism involves representing the subject both and alternately as empirical and as pure consciousness (KpV 6). Freedom, for Kant, remains something incomprehensible and inscrutable and yet the assumption of freedom accompanies every action.
Here we are reminded of the reference to “pure consciousness” in the Paralogisms. If, paradoxically, the unconscious mind is a kind of eternal pure consciousness, it would seem to preclude unconscious motivations, since motivations are temporal. It is therefore possible that there is no practical connection between these two ideas. Perhaps they are only two examples of things that evade empirical consciousness. I am reminded again of Augustine’s discussion of the storehouse of memory, which includes everything but the current flow of attention. Since we do not have any experience of pure consciousness, the important point, of course, is critical: that we do not know what is beyond the aspects of our self that we experience. This critical move at once both rescues us from determinism and inspires self-improvement.
Kant suggests one further way in which the moral personhood of the subject is cut off from consciousness. In the Religion essay, after discussing in the fact that maxims are necessarily cut off from observation, he continues with his discussion of innate moral goodness. Kant concludes by saying that if we say that we are either good or evil by nature, we must be referring to a subjective “deed of freedom”(R 6:21), i.e., a choice to either choose autonomously or to allow oneself to be heteronomously determined. Nevertheless, Kant calls the ground of this choice “inscrutable” because it can neither be determined by nature nor determined by reason:
That the first subjective ground of adoption of moral maxims is inscrutable can be seen provisionally for this: Since the adoption is free, its ground (e.g. why I have adopted an evil maxim and not a good one instead) must not be sought in any incentive of nature, but always again in a maxim; and since any such maxim must have its ground as well, yet apart from a maxim no determining ground of the free power of choice ought to, or can, be adduced, we are endlessly referred back in the series of subjective determining grounds, without ever being able to come to the first ground. (R 6:22)
We cannot truly know if we have chosen the good meta-maxim or the evil meta-maxim because this foundational choice is not like any other phenomenal choice: it is not based on reasons; it is inscrutable. Nevertheless, Kant does believe that this choice can be influenced by our conscious thinking because he believes that a fundamental conversion is possible. Still, the convert could never be fully certain that she had made a full conversion; she would only experience the constant striving to purify her maxims. Kant makes a distinction between an intelligible character and an empirical character (or virtue).24 The predetermining choice is not “in time,” it is “in antecedent time” (R 6:25 and 6:50). Therefore, by “intelligible” Kant means to refer to the “thing in itself” connotation of “noumenon,” not an object of conscious, empirical thought.
The A edition of the Paralogisms, perhaps surprisingly, seems to refer to this exact kind of conversion experience. In the first paralogism Kant denies that we can know that the soul is a substance, but he does not deny that there is a “subject in itself” (A 350), whatever it may be. Yet, in his discussion of the third paralogism, he argues that we cannot know that the self is truly self-identical over time. He rejects the idea that there is a transcendent “personality” that is stable and unified. He defends the possibility that we may appear unified to ourselves, and yet undergo some kind of radical change of soul:
The identity of the consciousness of myself at different times is therefore only a formal condition of my thoughts and their coherence, and in no may proves the numerical identity of the subject. Despite the logical identity of the ‘I’, such a change may have occurred in it as does not allow of the retention of its identity, and yet we may ascribe to it the same sounding ‘I’, which in every different state, even in one involving change of the subject, might still retain the thought of the preceding subject and so hand it over to the subsequent subject. (A 363)
A footnote that draws an analogy to a causal series of rubber balls strangely even provides a way that the new substance can be thought of as responsible for its previous, although different, substances. In the moral context, radical change is important (for Protestants at least), but is just as important that this change be of the self in itself and beyond conscious access, lest self-righteous paternalism result from those knowing themselves to be superior persecuting those known to be inferior. This point reminds us again of the necessity for self-scrutiny and also explains the harm that can come from uncritically accepting the paralogisms.
Many might find it strange to connect the idea that we can never be sure of our motivations to the idea that we cannot know that we are free. Similarly, many commentators resolve Kant’s thorny stance on determinism by either ignoring Kant’s theory of temporality and asserting that mere thought is not sensibly determined or by allowing any kind of self-determinism to stand in for Kant’s notion of autonomy. My task here is not to provide a coherent account of Kant’s metaphysics, but to suggest that Kant’s notion of the thing in itself of the self, which phenomenally acts like an unconscious mind, helps Kant to perform the tightrope act that he does, connecting his philosophy of mind from the first Critique with the most important ideas from his moral anthropology.
Furthermore, I think that there is something to the notion of conscience that Kant’s theory of the unconscious suggests. We might also phrase the point in terms of his discussion of our consciousness of being worthy of happiness. Kant has succeeded in arguing that we are naturally moral beings, but that morality is not determined by nature.
The notion of the thing in itself of the self of the first Critique is meant to displace Descartes’s dogmatic rationalism with modest empiricism, even in the realm of morality. For, even if we think that we are virtuous people, we must question ourselves and continually push ourselves to improve. In our duty to promote the happiness of others, we must ask ourselves if we are truly doing everything we can. This self-questioning, Kant believes, will bring us closer to the moral law and closer to our own freedom. Since the moral law is a “fact of reason” we discover it through rational intuition, but even in this tenet of self-knowledge we cannot be arrogantly certain. We no doubt must act on our best knowledge, but even this does not deliver us from the moral requirement to remain modest and continually check for self-deception. The boundaries between the conscious and unconscious mind are transient, but the fact that they will necessarily exist establishes the pursuit of self-knowledge as both an epistemological and a moral pursuit. Unless we capture this dynamic and evaluative movement within Kant’s philosophy of mind, we risk hypostatizing both consciousness and the unconscious, losing our connection to the modest and sensitive voice of virtue.