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Kant on belief in God, Rousseau on the General Will


To: Pearl K
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on belief in God, Rousseau on the General Will
Date: 13th May 2009 11:32

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 12 May, with your essay for the University of London module on the philosophy of Kant, in response to the question, 'For Kant, in what sense should we and in what sense should we not believe in God?', and your email of 13 May, with your essay for the UoL module on Political Philosophy, in response to the question, 'Rousseau's use of the term General Will covers up the fact that he is unable to show how human beings can remain free even when they are ruled. Discuss.'

Kant on belief in God

I am impressed with much of this essay. You have managed to give a clear exposition of some very difficult material. However, despite this, I wonder whether you haven't missed the main point about Kant's notion of faith, and what exactly this entails.

The sense in which we should not believe in God is relatively straightforward. Here we stand on the same ground as the atheist. None of the proofs of the existence of God -- the ontological, cosmological or teleological -- is valid. Many regard Kant has having given the definitive judgement on these arguments. Whether or not that view is correct (thee are still philosophers prepared to defend the ontological argument) there is no doubt that Kant's view is that no proof of the existence of God is possible. He has considered (or so he thinks) all the possible kinds of proof and rejected them all.

At this point, if one were not going into this too deeply, one might think that this still leaves open the possibility that God exists. And so long as it is possible that God exists, there is room for faith in God's existence -- all the more worthy for not being based on proof.

But this is not an accurate account of what Kant says. He takes the proposition, 'God exists' and subjects it to deep analysis. It isn't like the proposition, 'The golden mountain exists.' There is no possible course of experience, however far extended into the future, which would verify or falsify the proposition that God exists, because it isn't an empirical proposition. Empirical propositions relate to parts of reality which we focus on in our investigations. If there are seven continents, then the golden mountain, if it exists, is in one of them or none.

As you explain in your essay, according to Kant God is an 'ideal of pure reason'. It serves as a 'regulative principle' which governs our empirical investigations, as well as representing our notion of a 'summum bonum' which yields a 'regulative principle of morality to which we must judge and reform ourselves to bring us closer in line to his moral perfection'.

You offer the example of the Stoic concept of the 'Wise Man'. No human being will ever attain this 'ideal of virtue and wisdom', yet the conception serves a valid purpose in representing a goal of human self-development.

But this is where I have a problem. The Stoic 'Wise Man' does not exist, except in our minds. But that is surely not what Kant's view of God is. If it were, then there would be no sense in which we should 'believe' in God. What we should do, on this view, would be to act 'as if' God exists, which is very different from belief.

(One kind person offering condolences for the death of my wife, advised me to 'keep talking' to her. Of course, I can have an imaginary conversation with June in my mind, but that is not in any sense to 'believe' that she still exists. What remains of June is only her memory.)

Recall Kant's three questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? On the view that we should merely act 'as if' God exists, there is nothing to hope for. In this world, good men die before their time, while evil men flourish. Human justice hardly scratches the surface of what human beings deserve as reward for their moral efforts. For Kant, the point of faith is that, ultimately, there is something to hope for. Maybe not sitting on clouds in heaven as depicted in Sunday school, but something beyond mere cessation of consciousness, something more than the brutal 'Where I am death is not, where death is, I am not' of the Stoic Epicurus which is what the atheist believes.

True to his critical project, Kant avoids engaging in speculation about an afterlife. Nevertheless, there is something for hope to latch onto, even if we cannot state this in language which applies to the world of our experience. According to one author, in Kant's work, 'Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone' Kant refers to the 'blessed and cursed eternity' of the righteous and the wicked. This is something to hope, or fear, even if that is all the critical philosopher can justifiably say.

Rousseau on the General Will

One third of my way into this essay I was asking, 'What about positive and negative liberty?' I'm glad you got there, even though it was only on the last page.

There is a basis for a good answer to this question here. It could perhaps be improved by saying more about what 'positive' and 'negative' freedom are, or are meant to be.

You mention Locke. I think Mill would be the most appropriate philosopher to cite in the context of negative liberty and pluralism. In Mill's terms, the picture which Rousseau gives of our acquiescence to the General Will is the 'tyranny of the majority'. Rousseau's vision of society, taken at face value, invites the evils of paternalism and intolerance.

Consider your example of listening to heavy metal music after 9 pm. Mill would say that it is perfectly acceptable to have a law limiting the amount of noise which you produce at certain times or places, because this is encroaching on public space. You are free to indulge in your love of heavy metal music to your heart's content, provided that this does not cause harm to others. Mill further makes it clear that this 'harm' must be real, and not merely the subjective feeling of offense at tastes or life styles which are different from one's own.

You find that heavy metal music helps you study. Your next door neighbour might prefer the quiet tones of a string quartet, or pure silence. By indulging in your musical preference, you deny others theirs. On the other hand, if your neighbours are outraged by your pink punk hairdo and studded leather biker jacket, cringe in horror whenever they hear the faintest sound of heavy metal music wafting from your earphones, then that is entirely their problem, not yours.

This is reasonable, according to the liberal view. It is irrelevant what others think about your musical preferences. By contrast, in Rousseau's society, if it is decided by the General Will that heavy metal music is morally corrupt and harmful, then the state would be fully justified in banning it altogether, imprisoning anyone who plays it or listens to it.

The idea of 'positive liberty' finds its most articulate expression in Hegel and Bradley. But Rousseau too believes that somehow acquiescence to the General Will can 'make us free' by giving us worthwhile aims to pursue. This runs in the face of liberalism. We don't need to be 'given' worthwhile aims. We can discover these for ourselves, by learning all there is to learn about the wide world of possibilities, and conducting what Mill terms 'experiments in living'. So what if some of these experiments fail -- so long as it doesn't harm anyone else.

Having laid out the two positions in heavy primary colours, the next step would be to see if something could be said, after all, in Rousseau's defence. It could be said that the General Will is such a nebulous idea anyway, that one could interpret it in a manner more favourable to the liberal case. After all, in a society which embraces liberal ideals, surely this would be reflected in its General Will. (Perhaps a little work would be needed here, in justifying the claim I have just made: can Rousseau simply appropriate Mill? why? or why not?)

Now (if I'm right) it looks as if Mill is the one who is intolerant, not Rousseau. The latter is prepared to allow that liberalism might not be the ideal solution at all times and places. Certainly, it is very far from ideal from the point of view of theocratic states, where, e.g. Islam gives meaning and purpose to the lives of the citizens. Are you prepared to state, a priori, that theocracy can never be an acceptable form of political organization? That seems a rather dogmatic view.

(My impression is that theocracy is quite a hot topic in political philosophy at the moment, so if you can find a way to squeeze it into a political philosophy essay you might gain an extra mark or two.)

All the best,