Kant maintained that perception of causation/causality was "a habit" (if I have that translation right).  Contrarily, such notables as Spinoza, Einstein, Bertrand Russell have discounted the notion of "free will" (i.e., human agency independent of causation).  It seems to me that a tremendous amount of philosophical, anthropological, and other learned writing tacitly assumes "free will", out of hand!

I love Russell's wry parable:

"Exponents of free will maintain that a man can, by dint of will-power, prevent himself from becoming drunk, but they do not maintain that after a man is drunk he can say 'British Constitution' as well as when he is sober."

I myself lend credence to Russell et al.

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The problem with Kant is that everyone thinks they know what he said or meant and yet there is intense debate about what that might have been, never mind whether it is right or not. Kant would not have used the term "perception" which belongs to English empiricists like Locke. His own work was an attempt to refute Hume's scepticism concerning causality, yet he claims that Hume "first interrupted my dogmatic slumber". No-one can agree what Hume said either. In any case causality for Kant was one of the pure categories of understanding that we bring to the world independently of our experience of it. To be fancy, it is an ontological predicate of any interaction we have with the world. It has nothing to do with the question of free will. Russell has a lot to answer for since he wrote The History of Western Philosophy as a Manichean tale of two traditions, idealism and empiricism or realism, which hardly helps us to understand Kant who tried to synthesize them. Bertie of course lumped him in with Parmenides, Plato and the rest of the side that got it wrong. There is a modern industry denigrating Kant for a variety of reasons, usually not on the basis of reading and trying to understand him.

Well, there are exposed my own limits of comprehension.  I read Kant's Prolegomena as a callow youth (and neveer again re-read it, as I became a geologist); in fact, at the time I perceived or read into it a confirmation of causation.  Only later, reading great minds, who offered a different interpretation of Kant, did I abandon my long-held (mis?)perception.  That notwithstanding, based on the entirety of my personal experience and reading, it is my view that all of rational thought per se is grounded in causation.

Kant's idea of free will is actually not that difficult to grasp - it makes up a few pages of the Critique of Pure Reason. We can assume that human beings are part of the causal chain of events just like everything else in the universe (he didn't know about quantum theory or other complications etc.). In order to act we have to make the world intelligible to ourselves. Since this making-intelligible is distinct and unique to each of us then with it we begin something new by cogitating about what ought to happen - thinking like that can potentially initiate 'spontaneously' a new 'series of phenomena'. Freedom, if there is such a thing (Kant doesn't say there is or there is not), can be understood as deriving from this process of making what a person ought to do intelligible (book II, chapter II, section III). 

I have been reading a nice paper by Audrey Richards, 'Freedom, Communications and Transport'. She talks about the heterogeneous ideas of freedom the Bemba, the people she worked with most closely, entertain. New kinds of communication were opening up in Northern Rhodesia at that time (1930s-1950s); a lot of flashy kids riding around on bicycles going to new places like the copper belt. Previously the village she worked in had been a remote part of a decentralised kingship, now all sorts of officials kept on turning up telling people to put up latrines and to send their children to school. One kind of freedom corresponded to what she called 'democratic isolation' - being allowed to get on with your life without being pestered by outsiders telling you what to do. Other freedoms included the desire to get rid of the British colonials, other 'freedom phantasies' involved women who saw the trucks leaving dreaming of life on the gold coast and likewise the sense of freedom of the workers who came back and felt free after experiencing the brutal conditions in the mines etc. I suppose it is a good portrait of the heterogeneity of freedom ideas. Maybe we confuse the diverse effects of what we want to do with the particular attempts to make the world intelligible and to create freedoms.

Here is a copy of the paper I was talking about. I obviously wasn't paying enough attention when I wrote this reply: as Keith pointed out I had originally suggested that the Bemba live in Uganda, but now I notice that I also wrote that the 'freedom phantasies' concerned trucks leaving for the gold coast when what I really meant was the copper belt. 


Thank you, Huon!  I'm just now getting my morning coffee, but will read your interesting posted paper within the hour!  And, no worries about getting some facts wrong ex tempore -- everyone does that from time to time; in fact, you're talking to someone here who has gone from "senior moments" to "senior weeks"!

Now, I've read it -- very thought-provoking paper, Huon.

I've done a lot of translating in my day -- some German>English, a little French>English, mostly Russian geological journals into English.  When I was tested by the publisher for proficiency/competence for the Russian translations (a weekend's work at home), I was at first turned down because of a single "error" (which was not, in fact, an error): I had translated "shchit" [this the transliteration] as "uplift", although "shchit" in a Russian-English dictionary is "shield".  Now, "shield" is of course a recognized term in the English-speaking world of geology, referring to areas of very ancient continental rocks, roots of former mountains, such as the Canadian Shield; however, the Russian text described no such area, but rather one covered by sedimentary rocks -- a broad dome or uplift.  I had translated -- as one should, and as the publisher prescribed -- into IDIOMATIC English conventional in geological writing.

I bring this up as prelude to what I do best: belaboring the obvious, with prolixity.  Whereas geological writing is manifestly susceptible to accurate idiomatic translation, owing to the relatively limited conceptual and nomenclatural scope of a science, cultural concepts are much, much more elusive of translation -- and of understanding.  This, of course, is not news to you!  But I think the writer of the paper in question here was a bit too predisposed to detect and use the word of choice -- freedom.  Note that where she writes  "bantu ba ddembe 'or people of freedom'" she goes on to say that this is "a pejorative term meaning people that feel free to flout tradition or established order".  I would maintain that this, then, is mistranslation: would not some term like pariah, outcast, renegade, or derelict be more idomatically sensible here?  (Though, in my utter ignorance of the people involved, I would not be so bold as to say which, if any, of these might be appropriate.) 

My point is -- and I do allow that I might be entirely off-base here -- that the writer's "freedom" theme is something of a forced construct.  I do think that not all concepts are translatable, simply because they may well have no homologue or analogue in another culture.

Furthermore, speaking as one who discounts "free will", I tend to see things as either possible or impossible -- never confusing the former with what's merely plausible, or imaginable:  what happens was manifestly possible, what didn't happen was, to my way of thinking, never possible.  So, humans evince some "latitude" of deportment, which is in terms of causation simply the realization of the possible, not exercise of "freedom".

Huon Wardle said:

Here is a copy of the paper I was talking about. I obviously wasn't paying enough attention when I wrote this reply: as Keith pointed out I had originally suggested that the Bemba live in Uganda, but now I notice that I also wrote that the 'freedom phantasies' concerned trucks leaving for the gold coast when what I really meant was the copper belt. 

Officer Krupke, you're really a square; 
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care! 
It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed. 
He's psychologic'ly disturbed! 

I'm disturbed! 

We're disturbed, we're disturbed, 
We're the most disturbed, 
Like we're psychologic'ly disturbed. 

DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home. 

ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived. 

DIESEL: So take him to a headshrinker. 

ACTION (Sings) 
My father is a bastard, 
My ma's an S.O.B. 
My grandpa's always plastered, 
My grandma pushes tea. 
My sister wears a mustache, 
My brother wears a dress. 
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess! 


Discussions of freedom usually turn on someone being stopped from having some good that other people in the community have access to. Or when they are in a position not to hurt some other person in some way, they seemingly make a choice out of their own 'free will' to do so. Even so, as West Side Story proves, there is no clear model of free will even in the home of freedom and democracy.

Your position seems unnecessarily rigid to me and it was precisely what Kant was answering when he said that thinking about our situation makes a difference. There is no contradiction between saying that 'impossible things are impossible and I can't do them' and saying 'there are a range of options open to me (and blocked to me); in relation to these possibilities I imagine a future that looks like this, and I will act in these ways'. The latter seems to correspond to common sense and also to what many people consider to be the exercise of free will.

There is, of course, a difference between the ideas about freedom that circulate in a community and free will as a potentiality of thought+action and the metaphysics surrounding it. Audrey Richards is saying that people view quite diverse things as signs of freedom; but remember she begins the article by sounding a big note of caution.

On that specific point, I don't find the sentiment Richards is describing difficult to understand - you can encounter it in lots of places - 'those people have too much freedom and are thereby damaging the community'. Audrey Richards worked with the Bemba for many decades so I expect she knew what she was talking about. 



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