Lacan webpages banner

The Subject of Freedom
in Kant’s Practical Philosophy



‘If a science is to be advanced, all difficulties must be exposed and we must even search for those, however well hidden, that lie in its way.’ (CPrR 5:103)1

This statement comes at the close of the Analytic of Pure Practical Reason, serving to further admonish those ‘dogmatic teachers of metaphysics’ who have hitherto hidden from sight the true basis for the subject of freedom, which Kant has now brought to critical elucidation via his radical break with traditional ethics. The meaning of this statement is perhaps obvious: what we modern deontologists are in most need of today is simple intellectual honesty. But the possession of scientific earnestness must be more elusive than first imagined, as historically there seems to be no shortage for its renewed call.2 This seems to indicate that for scientific endeavors, inclusive of the hermeneutic tradition of textual analysis, something other than mere interpretation is at stake. At the very least, Kant’s presentation of his critical philosophy through a carefully crafted ‘architectonic schema’ serves to remind the reader that the meaning of a particular concept found therein is incomplete without also considering its occupation within the overall organization of the argument. Accordingly, any analysis of a Kantian text must have both conceptual and structural concerns. But it is further argued that Kant must be read much more radically; and moreover, such a demand is actually placed on us by Kant’s own ethical breakthrough. One of the consequences of Kant’s philosophical revolution was its direct contribution to the discovery of the unconscious, so it is only fitting that we read Kant in a properly psychoanalytic manner: by confronting his text with its own hidden presuppositions, we thus entice his text into revealing its disavowed truth.3 This truth has everything to do with the subject, and just as Kant’s practical philosophy reveals how the subject cannot hide behind the moral Law, neither can we interpreters scapegoat the text for our reading of it.

This subject is the transcendental subject and this paper takes as its point of departure the thesis that Kant was the first, in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, to articulate the cogito ‘for-itself,’ endeavoring to bring it fully to its proper notion as an empty, purely logical form of a transcendental I of apperception.4 Of course, it is certainly true that Kant himself drew back from his own radical conception of subjectivity, often treating it as if it were merely a noumenal entity and not properly that which constitutes the very gap which sustains the difference between the phenomenal and noumenal realms, as his critical philosophy necessitates. But while his theoretical philosophy involves a (somewhat functional) ambiguity between the pure I of apperception and the noumenal ‘thing that thinks,’ maintaining a clear distinction between the two becomes absolutely crucial to his practical philosophy, which is first announced with the publication of the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785. Together with the Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, we see in these texts a new emphasis on the subject’s radical freedom, couched within a bewildering variety of ways in which Kant conceives and discusses that freedom.5 Thus, if we are to articulate the truth of Kant’s ethical revolution, we must not only analyze Kant’s conception of subjectivity and freedom in isolation from each another, but more importantly consider their intimate interrelation. We will find that the perplexing claims Kant makes regarding the relation between freedom and the unconditional practical law can be precisely accounted for with reference to the structure of subjectivity. As well, this intimate relation also accounts for much of Kant’s discussion regarding the affect the moral Law has on the ethical subject.

Hence, our discussion naturally breaks into two (albeit unequal) parts. In the more extensive of the two, we will examine the intimate relation between the constitution of the subject and the formulation (and realization) of the moral Law. Here, we introduce Kant’s distinction between the pathological and the ethical to better focus on the formal determination of the will. Closely related to this is Kant’s introduction of the faculty of desire, which necessitates another Kantian distinction be made between the legal and the ethical, which is crucial to understanding the categorical imperative. We are then prepared to enter a more direct discussion of freedom and will attempt to isolate its operative notional logic from the myriad of conceptions Kant provides. Only then are we able to appreciate the overall topology supporting his practical philosophy. In the second part, we will briefly look at how Kant articulates the encounter between the subject and the moral Law at the level of affect.6 While we will make much use of Kant’s thoughts on how the affect of guilt on the subject indicates the existence of freedom in the first part, here we will focus on the singular affect of respect. Along with a final discussion of the ‘type’ of the moral Law – the categorical imperative – we will move toward some concluding remarks on the deficiencies of Kant’s practical philosophy, particularly how he overlooked the act of the subject.

In terms of Kant’s texts, we will largely limit ourselves to focusing on the Grounding and the second Critique, since Kant’s later practical works after 1788 start to betray his most radical thinking on ethics – something of which we can only comment on in passing as this issue falls outside the scope of the present paper.7 We will also need to exclude a thorough examination of Kant’s thinking on aesthetics. This means our discussion in part two will be somewhat incomplete, as the experience of the sublime is crucial to a more complete understanding of how the moral Law affects the subject.

Other Lacanian Texts

Lacanian-themed puzzles