The last half century might be said to have been marked especially by the march of mankind toward freedom. From the famous “Long March” of Chinese lore in the thirties, to the “march on Washington” by Martin Luther King in the sixties, to the world-wide social reforms in the eighties, the aspiration of freedom has electrified hearts, evoked great sacrifices and definite human progress in our age. This suggests that we might helpfully reflect upon society and the relation of the person thereto by focusing upon the different notions of freedom and attempting to see the implication of each for life in society. In this context, new appreciation may prove possible of the special contribution that African’s spirit can make to our times.

The paper will proceed by first considering three basic and successive notions of freedom which have emerged in the tradition of Western philosophy: (1) choice as a minimal sense of freedom found in classical British philosophies of the liberal tradition and common in our day ;( 2) Kant’s formal sense of freedom ;( 3) Kant’s development of an integrating aesthetic view. It will then consider how the third of these can be enhanced by the African philosophical traditions, and hence the essential contribution which African’s spirit can make to the effort of Africa to integrate science and democracy in this century.



At the beginning of the modern stirrings for democracy John Locke perceived a crucial need. If decisions were to be made not by the king, but by the people, the basis for these decisions had to be equally available to all. To achieve this Locke proposed that we suppose the mind to be a white paper void of characters and ideas, and then follow the way in which it comes to be furnished. To keep this public he insisted that it be done exclusively via sense experience, that is, either by sensation or by reflection upon the mind’s work on the materials derived from the senses[1]. From this, David Hume concluded that all objects of knowledge which are not formal tautologies must be matters of fact. Such “matters of fact” are neither the existence or actually of a thing nor its essence, but simply the determination of one from a pair of sensible contraries, e.g. white rather than black, sweet rather than sour[2].

The restrictions implicit in this appear starkly in Rudolf Carnap’s “Vienna Manifesto” which shrinks the scope of meaningful knowledge and significant discourse to describing “some state of affairs” in terms of empirical “sets of facts”. This excludes speech about wholes, God, the unconscious or entelechies; the grounds of meaning as well as all that transcends the immediate content of sense experience are excluded.

In such terms it is not possible to speak of appropriate or inappropriate goals or even to evaluate choices in relation to self-fulfillment. The only concern is which objects among the sets of contraries I will choose by brute, changeable and even arbitrary will power, and whether circumstances will allow me to carry out that choice. Such choices, of course, may not only differ from, but even contradict the immediate and long range objectives of other persons. This will require compromises and social contracts in the sense of Hobbes; John Rawles will even work out a formal set of such compromises[3]. Throughout it all, however, the basic concern remains the ability to do as one pleases.

This includes two factors. The first is execution by which my will is translated into action. Thus, John Locke sees freedom as “being able to act or not act, according as we shall choose or will[4]”; Bertrand Russell sees it as “the absence of external obstacles to the realization of our desires.[5]” The second factor is individual self-realization of our desires understood simply as the accomplishment of one’s good as one sees it. This reflects one’s personal idiosyncrasies and temperament, which in turn reflect each person’s individual character.

In these terms, Mortimer Adler points out in his study of freedom at the institute for Philosophical Research one’s goal can be only what appeals to one, with no necessary relation to real goods or to duties which one ought to perform[6]. “Liberty consists in doing what one desires[7],” and the freedom of a society is measured by the latitude it provides for the cultivation of individual patterns of life[8]. If there is any ethical theory in this it can be only utilitarian, hopefully with enough breadth to recognize other people and their good as well as one’s own. In practice, over time this comes to constitute a black-hole of self-centered consumption of physical goods in which both nature and person are consumed, this is the essence of consumerism.

This first level of freedom is reflected in the contemporary sense of “choice” in North America. As a theory, this is underwritten by a pervasive series of legal precedents following Justice Holmes’notion of privacy, which now has come to be recognized as a constitutional right. In the American legal system the meaning of freedom has been reduced to this. It should be noted that this derived from Locke’s political decision (itself an exercise of freedom) to focus upon empirical knowledge or concern. Its progressively rigorous implementation, constitute an ideology in the sense of a selected and restrictive vision which controls minds and reduces freedom to willfulness. In this perspective liberalism is grossly misnamed, and itself calls for a process of liberation and enrichment.


Kant provides the basis for another, much richer, notion of freedom which Mortimer Adler has called “acquired freedom of self-perfection.” It acknowledges the ability of the human being to transcend the empirical order and to envisage moral laws and ideals. This direction has been taken by such philosophers as Plotinus, Spinoza and Bradley who understood all in terms of ideal patterns of reason and of nature. For Kant freedom consists not in acting merely as one pleases, but in willing as one ought, whether or not this can be enacted.[9] Morals standards are absolute and objective, not relative to individual or group preferences.[10] How they can remain nevertheless autonomous emerges in the evolution of Kant’s three critiques.

In his first Critique of Pure Reason, Kant developed a theory of knowledge for the universal and necessary laws of the physical sciences. Reductionist philosophies such as positivism are happy to leave the matter there, for the necessity of the sciences gives control over one’s life, while their universality extends this control to others. If Kant’s categories could lend rational order to the random empirical world of facts, then positivism could achieve Descartes’s goal of walking with confidence in the world.

For Kant, however, this simply will not do. Clarity which comes at the price of necessity may be acceptable and even desirable for works of nature, but it is an appalling way to envisage human life. Hence, in his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant proceeds to identify that which is distinctive of the moral order. His analysis pushes forcefully beyond utilitarian goals, inner instincts and rational (scientific) relationships – precisely beyond the necessitated order which can be constructed in terms of his first Critique. None of these recognizes that which is distinctive of the human person, namely, freedom. For Kant, in order for an act to be moral it must be based upon the will of the person as autonomous, not heteronymous or subject to others or to necessary external laws.

This becomes the basic touchstone of his philosophy; every thing he writes thence forward will be adapted thereto, and what had been written before will be recontextualized in this new light. The remainder of his Foundations and his second Critique of Practical Reason will be composed in terms of freedom. Later his third Critique of the Faculty of Judgment will be written in order to provide a context that enables the previous two critiques to be read in a way that protects human freedom.

In the Foundations he recasts the whole notion of law or moral rule in terms of freedom. If all must be ruled or under law, and yet in order to be free the moral act must be autonomous, then my maxim must be something which as a moral agent I – and no other – give to myself.

This, in turn, has surprising implications, for if the moral order must be universal, then my maxim which I dictate to myself must be fit to be also a universal law for all persons.[11] On this basis freedom emerges in a clearer light. Is not the self-centered whimsy of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization described above; but neither is it a despotic exercise of the power of the will; finally, it is not the clever self-serving eye of Plato’s rogue.[12]Rather, as the highest reality in all creation, freedom is power that is wise and caring, opens to all and bent upon the realization of “the glorious ideal of a universal realm of ends-in-themselves.” It is, in sum, free men living together in righteous harmony.[13]


Despite its central importance, I will not remain longer on practical reason because it is rather in the third Critique of the Faculty of Judgment that Kant provides the needed context for such harmony.[14] In so doing he approaches the aesthetic sensibility of African’s spirit in articulating the cosmic significance of freedom. Kant is intent not merely upon uncovering the fact of freedom, but upon protecting and promoting it. Ha faces squarely the modern person’s most urgent questions.

How can this newly uncovered freedom survive when confronted with the necessity and universality of the realm of science – and its implications for technology – as understood in the Critique of Pure Reason? Will the scientific interpretation of external nature force free-dom back into the inner realm of each person’s heart where it would be reduced at beast to good intentions or good feelings towards others?

When we attempt to act in this world or to reach out to others must all our categories be universal and hence insensitive to that which marks others as unique and personal; must they be necessary, and hence no room for creative freedom? If so then public life can be only impersonal, necessitated, repetitive and stagnant.

Must the human spirit be reduced to the sterile content of empirical facts or to the necessitated modes of scientific laws? If so then philosophers cannot escape what for wisdom is a suicidal choice between either being traffic directors in the jungle of unfettered competition or sharing tragic complicity in setting a predetermined order for the human spirit.

Freedom would indeed have been killed and would pulse no more as the heart of humankind.

Before this threat Kant’s answer was a resounding: No! Taking as his basis the reality of freedom – so passionately and often tragically affirmed in our lifetime by Gandhi and Martin Luther King – Kant proceeded to develop his third Critique of the Faculty of Judgment as a context within which freedom and scientific necessity could coexist, indeed in which necessity would be the support and instrument of freedom.

For this Kant found it necessary to distinguish two issues as reflected in the two parts of his third Critique. In the “Critique of theological Judgment[15]”he acknowledges that nature and all reality must be teleological, for if there is to be room for human freedom in a cosmos in which one can make use of necessary laws, if science is to contribute to the exercise of human freedom, then nature too must be directed toward a goal and manifest throughout a teleology with which free human purpose can be integrated.

In these terms nature, even in its necessary and universal laws, is no longer alien to freedom, but expresses divine freedom and is concealable with human freedom. The structure of his first Critique will not allow Kant to affirm this teleological character as a metaphysical reality, but he recognizes that we must proceed “as if” all reality is teleological precisely because of the undeniable reality of human freedom in an ordered universe.

If, however, teleology in principle provides the needed space, there remains a second issue of how freedom is exercised, namely, what mediates it to the necessary and universal laws of science? This is the task of “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment[16]”where the imagination plays the key integrating role in enabling a free person to relate to a necessary order of nature and to given structures in society in ways that are neither necessitated nor necessitating.

There is something similar here to the Critique of Pure Reason. In both, the work of the imagination in assembling phenomena is not simply to register, but to produce the objective order. As in the first critique the approach is not from a set of a priori principles which are clear all by themselves and are in order to bind the multiple phenomena into a unity. On the contrary, under the rule of unity the imagination orders and reorders the multiple phenomena until they are ready to be informed by a unifying principle whose appropriateness merges from the reordering carried out by the productive imagination.

In the first Critique, however, the productive work was done in relation to the abstract and universal categories of the intellect and carried out under a law which dictated that phenomena must form a unity. Hence, although it was a human product, the objective order was universal and necessary and the related sciences were valid both for all things and for all people[17].

In the “Critique of the Aesthetic Judgment”, in contrast, the imagination in working toward an integrating unity is not confined by the necessitating structures of categories and concepts, but ranges freely over the full sweep of reality in all its dimensions to see whether relatedness and purposiveness can emerge. Hence, in standing before a work of nature or of art it might focus upon light or form, sound or word, economic or interpersonal relations – or, indeed, upon any combination of these in a natural environment or a society, whether encountered concretely or expressed in symbols.

Throughout all of this the ordering and reordering by the imagination can bring about numberless unities. Unrestricted by any a priori categories, it can integrate necessary dialectical patterns within its own free and therefore creative production, and scientific universals within its unique concrete harmonies.

This properly creative work of the human person in this world extends the realm of human freedom to the whole of reality. For this harmony is appreciated not merely intellectually in terms of its relation to a concept or schema (the first Critique), nor morally in relation to the force of a just will (the second Critique), but aesthetically by the pleasure or displeasure of the free response it generates. What manifests whether a proper and authentic ordering has or has not been achieved is not a concept[18], but the pleasure or displeasure, the elation at the beautiful and sublime or the disgust at the ugly and revolting, which flows from our contemplation or reflection.

One could miss the integrating character of this pleasure or displeasure and its related judgment of taste[19]. This would be so if one looked at it ideologically as simply a repetition of past tastes in order to promote stability, or reductively as merely an interior and purely private matter at a level of consciousness available only to an elite class or related only to an esoteric band of reality. That would ignore the structure which Kant laid out at length in his first “Introduction” to his third Critique[20]. He noted there that he conceived this third critique not as merely juxtaposed to the first two critiques of pure and practical reason, but as integrating both in a richer whole.

This opens a rich prospect for freedom in society. It need no longer be simply the capacity of the individual to gather goods about oneself, nor at the second level of freedom to set universal laws. Beyond this it is the capacity creatively to integrate both of these in a process of shaping one’s personal and social life in a unique and beautiful manner. In society this, indeed, becomes the reality of culture. Let us look more closely at this with special attention to the contribution African’s people can make to this challenge of the exercise of social life through technology.

A suivre….







[1] John LOCKE.- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Dover, 1959), Book, Chap. I, Vol. I, 121-124

[2] David HUME.- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Chicago: Regnery, 1960)

[3] The Theory of Justice (Cambridge : Havard Univ. Press, 1971)

[4] An Essay Concerning Human Understanding A.C. Fraser, ed. (New York: Dover, 1959), II, ch. 21, sec. 27; vol. 1, p. 329

[5] Skeptical Essays (London : Allen 1 Unwin, 1952), p. 169

[6] Mortimer J. ADLER.- The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1958), p. 187.

[7] J. S. MILL.- On Liberty, ch. 5, p. 15

[8] ADLER, p. 193

[9] Ibid., p. 253.

[10] Ibid., p. 257.

[11] Immanuel KANT.- Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. R.W. Beck (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), Part II, pp. 38-58 [ 421-441]

[12] PLATO.- Republic 519

[13] Foundations, III, p. 82 [463]

[14] Cf. Hans Georg GADAMER.- Truth and Method (New York: Crossroads, 1982), Part I, pp. 1-2, pp. 39-73; and W. Crawford, espec. Ch. 4.

[15] Immanuel KANT.- Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1968), pp. 205-339

[16] Ibid., pp. 37-200

[17] Immanuel KANT.- Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.K. Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929), A 112, 121, 192-193. Donald W. Crawford.- Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1974), pp. 83-83, 87-90.

[18] See Kant’s development and solution to the autonomy of taste, Critique of Judgment, nn. 57-58, pp. 182-192, where Kant treats the need for a concept; Crawford, pp. 63-66.

[19] See the paper of Wilhem S. Wurzer “On the Art of Moral Imagination” in G. McLean, ed., Moral Imagination and Character Development (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1991), for an elaboration of the essential notions of the beautiful, the sublime and the taste in Kant’s aesthetic theory.

[20] Immanuel Kant.- First Introduction to the Critique of Judgment, trans. J. Haden (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965)


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