Prompted by the current discussion about Kant’s concept of causality of freedom Can Free Will Exist In A Causal Material World? I would like to understand the scope and the difference of the two Kantian concepts

  • Freedom as a transcendental idea
  • Freedom in its practical sense.

See Critique of Pure Reason (CPR), B561ff. Currently, I understand these two concepts as follows:

An idea is a transcendental idea if it refers to our way to create experience – but not to experience itself. In particular, a transcendental idea lives on the meta-level, it belongs to epistemology.

A concept is practical if it has a normative component, i.e. when the concept considers what should be done. In particular, a practical concepts belongs to ethics.

If you can confirm my understanding of these two concepts, I would like to know – according to Kant

  • Why do we need freedom as a transcendental idea?
  • Why does freedom in its practical sense explain our experience?

Note. I would wellcome a direct answer, not an invitation to a tour de force through the secondary literature :-)

  • That is actually what my BA-Thesis is about and therefore I would be glad to answer, but it takes a lot of time since I lack english sources. It would help to have an english counterpart of korpora.org/kant/verzeichnisse-gesamt.html as a textual grounding for citations, at least for CPR.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 16, 2015 at 8:03
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    This is a solid question. When I look at your sentence "A concept is practical ...", I'm not sure about the use of the word "normative" there. I'm also not so sure about the use of "ethics" as the proper domain for Kant's moral philosophy. (Sittlichen hardly seems the right word, right?)
    – virmaior
    Oct 16, 2015 at 9:04
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    In terms of answering, I think the answer to your second question changes depending on the text in question, do you want it to cover from Grundlegung all the way to Religion or something in between?
    – virmaior
    Oct 16, 2015 at 9:05
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    @MoziburUllah: It definitely is the currently best, but it is not available online afaik and not easy to obtain but by buying it overhere ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 16, 2015 at 10:14
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    Up-voted the question. But I am a little confused by wording. When you say, "Why do we need freedom as...." do you mean "why" for Kant's argument? To save "freedom" is his whole purpose, of course. And I am a little stuck on "experience itself" as apart from the "experience" we create transcendentally. Maybe it's okay, just me. Anyway, got me reading third antinomy. Oct 16, 2015 at 16:36

2 Answers 2


Now that I see your answer I have a better idea of your question, and would like to attempt a slightly different interpretation.

I do not have the right editions to cite, but am basically looking at Preface to CPR,2E (very helpful), Third Antinomy, and Canon of Pure Reason, Sec. I.

I take it that Kant's main concern is not only Hume's skepticism, but the broader issue of his day: How can a natural causal determinism (the basis of scientific knowledge) be reconciled with freedom (the prerequisite of Protestant morality duty or "practical reason")? He is most concerned with preserving "practical reason" against skepticism, utilitarianism, determinism, atheism, and dogmatic authority. Even if sure knowledge loses out.

First, as to the second part of your question. I think he takes our freedom "in experience" as unproblematic.We can simply observe ourselves as "entities" among phenomena and see that we choose this or that. Moreover, to engage in science and discover "causalities" (efficient or otherwise) also requires speculative freedom. We can insert "spontaneity" into the causal chains to do "experiments." Notably he calls this not some "absolute freedom," but a type of "second causality" to preserve, I believe, its moral imperatives. So our "freedom" is traceable as an uncaused, spontaneous "cause" among sensible things, but not determined by them. Hence moral duties.

Now the difficulty. This tells us nothing about the origins, limits, or demands of this practical, experiential freedom. It is free of efficient "causality" and must therefore originate in the noumenal or transcendental realm. Here it can enjoy "logical relations" apart from temporally "causal relations." Like everything else the will or "soul" has a double existence as phenomenal and as "ding an sich." The problem is, how does Kant know? We presumably have no access to such noumenal entities.

In the Preface, 2E Kant argues that we cannot "know" we have this freedom. We cannot "know" things-in-themselves, such as our soul. But we can still "think" them hypothetically, as long as they are not self-contradicting. So we can deduce this freedom from (1) the observation of experience, (2) the fact that it is not rationally contradicted, and (3) the necessity of some transcendental origin of moral freedom. Such knowledge enables Kant to do what he really wants to do. Which is to makes rational claims about this freedom and practical reason, preserving us from epistemological and moral anarchy.

My understanding is that Kant rewrote this material several times and that nobody, himself included, is entirely satisfied with it. To have his "two causalities" he must separate the phenomenal and noumenal, but must then tell us how he can make claims about the "noumenal" origins of "practical" reason. While I agree with the substance of your criticisms, I am not sure they affect Kant's overall argument. Science can always gain more and more knowledge of cosmological or neural "causes" in the sensible realm. But we can never secure any "final" causes except with regard to moral-practical reasoning.

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    I agree mostly, except on "freedom in experience". Kant is pretty straightforward that it is incoherent, a particular case of transcendental illusion, which pure reason can not help but generate by applying categories of experience beyond any possible experience. This is a direct result of his belief in unbroken causality for appearances. Then he notes that abolishing "spontaneity" would eliminate freedom altogether, unless an alternative is found. It is described as "reflection" of noumenal self in empirical character as a whole. But we can not secure final causes even in practical reasoning.
    – Conifold
    Oct 20, 2015 at 1:45
  • Thanks, chewing on that. Late here. Question has moved over a bit to one asked by Klocking. Since I am actually reading CPR now, citations would also help. Use of term "reflection" is intriguing. Oct 20, 2015 at 1:57
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    @Nelson Alexander I appreciate your answer. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that my criticism does not affect Kant's overall argument. I think you are right when recalling Kant's arguments 1 - 3. But are they striking? Ad 1: Our experience covers only the conscious part, not the unconscious where it's happening. Ad 2: Just pointing out that an explanation is possible does not increase the explanatory power. Ad 3: Sure, Kant's needs a transcendental origin for his concept of morality. But herefrom one cannot conclude that such an origin exists. One does not need to follow Kant's theory.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 8, 2015 at 12:19

Thanks to the comments on this site to my question and because of continued reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reaons (CPR) I would like to give an answer to my own question.

Why do we need freedom as a transcendental idea – according to Kant?

Kant accepts the thesis of the third antinomy. It states:

Causality according to the law of nature is not the only causality from which all the appearances of the world can be derived. In order to account for theses appearances, it is necessary also to admit another causality, that of freedom. (CPR, B472)

In the proof of this thesis Kant argues: The law of causality which governs experience establishes an infinite chain of causes. But without a first cause each cause of this chain is up in the air and the whole chain does not constitute anything. As a consequence, one has to assume as hypothesis a first cause. It starts the whole chain of causes. The way this first cause acts, is named transcendental freedom (B474).

My short answer: Kant needs the hypothesis of transcencental freedom to accept the law of causality as valid for our experience.

Why does freedom in its practical sense explain our experience – according to Kant?

Kant defines

Freedom, in its practical sense, is the independence of our will from coercion through impulses of sensibility. (CPR B561)

According to Kant, freedom in its practical sense is established by the fact that we can start actions on the base of rational decisions. Also “independent of the necessitation through sensible impulses” (B561) - even against them, I would add. The rational decision initiates a new chain of causality.

The basis of this argumentation is a certain view on human rationality and decision making.

Eventually, I would like to criticize both claims of Kant.

First, Kant’s scope of thinking about causality is too narrow. The only type of causation Kant considers are monocausal linear chains. He does not take into account that a certain effect may presuppose more than one cause. Neither does Kant consider the distinction between necessary and sufficient causes. About which type of causes does Kant speak? Most of all, Kant does not consider cyclic causality in the form of feed-back chains. One can discuss, whether the hypercycle of Manfred Eigen, a model of the interaction of nucleic acids (carrier of information) and amino acids (protein), exemplifies a chain of causality without a first cause.

Of course, one can apply Kant’s argument with linear chains of causality to the standard model of cosmology. Here we must admit: We do not know how the concept of causality applies when extrapolated into the far past. Using this question, one can exemplify the different methods of metaphysics and physics: The former makes the hypothesis of a first cause, the latter leaves the question open for further scientific progress.

Secondly, Kant’s scope of rational decision making is too narrow. Kant considers man primarily as a rational being. For Kant rational mental processes are conscious processes. But most processes in our brain start as unconscious process, not reachable for our introspection.

Up to now we do not have a scientific model about how a decision derives from former experiences, about their evalution and about the unconscious alignment of conflicting alternatives of action. But such models are the subject of current neuroscience, working on a determistic basis. I consider these mechanisms an “ignoramus” but not an “ignorabimus”.

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    As a first input for you I will give you a short objection to your first criticism: The scope on causality is because otherwise freedom (here considered as psychological and comparative) would be "the freedom of a turnspit" (V:97): If reason was not able to become causal in nature, all responsibility for our actions would be an odd practice. I'm going on writing my work, October 28th is my deadline and I can send it to you then if you wish ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 18, 2015 at 11:53
  • Concerning " If reason was not able to become causal in nature, all responsibility for our actions would be an odd practice.": Is there a certain affinity to Morgenstern "Weil, so schliesst er messerscharf / nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf = For, he reasons pointedly / That which must not, can not be."?
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 18, 2015 at 12:29
  • One could think so and it is not far from what the critical project ends up like: In the Critique of Judgement he points out at various points that it's all about the necessary conditions of our experience within the bounds of the constitution of our abilities of cognition (especially reason!). We must think so because it lies in the constition of our subjectivity and above that we cannot possibly know anything. E.g. CJ V:404 about freedom. So he has to consider our practice of blaming or he has to be a fatalist (clearly his point in V:94-99!). That has connections to rejecting solipsism.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 18, 2015 at 12:58
  • Regarding the main question a very short answer: Practical freedom is directly defendable as knowledge, transcendental freedom is definitely not, but indirectly through practical freedom, because of its dependance on the former.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 18, 2015 at 16:59
  • I think we agree in our text understanding of transcencental freedom. But we differ in our view whether Kant is right or wrong. Where do you see the verification of practical freedom? - My argument above is, that we do not know how decisions result from our unconscious processes, and that we do not know any mechanism for the kind of mental causation advocated by Kant. Hence I would not give up prematurely the principle of natural causality, a cornerstone of scientific explanation above the level of quantum phenomena.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 18, 2015 at 17:36

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