Transcendental Idealism & Ethics

May 4, 2023 - May 5, 2023
Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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  • UK Kant Society
  • Hegel Society of Great Britain


Trinity College, Dublin
Oxford University
University College Dublin
Durham University

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Ever since Kant, Transcendental Idealism has been a source of both fascination and repulsion. The fascination arguably comes from Transcendental Idealism’s promise to put the human being in a privileged position with respect to nature—a position of freedom, which makes room for the ethical. The repulsion arguably comes from much the same reason. How could we, tiny specks in the whole of nature, freely give the law to nature and ourselves?            

Kant’s answer to these problems lies in his distinction between appearances (phenomena) and things in themselves (noumena). Insofar as we are parts of sensible nature, which for Kant is made up of appearances, we are subject to its laws. Yet insofar as we also have a non-sensible or intellectual nature, then we may think of ourselves as not subject to the laws of sensible nature, but rather as the Subjects who freely give the law to both sensible nature (categories) and themselves (moral law) in the first place.    

At first, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism would seem to make our freedom, and hence ethics itself, compatible with natural necessity. However, more than settling the matter, Kant’s ingenious view created a whole set of new problems.          

Some of these problems concern the “non-naturalistic” conception that Kant has of ethics, by which to think of ourselves as free (let alone be free), we must be able to station ourselves “outside” sensible nature. Indeed, this conception risks flying in the face of most of our beliefs about ourselves and ethics, whereby human beings, their wills, and their actions are parts of sensible nature.          

Other problems regard the very coherence—or potential lack thereof—of Transcendental Idealism. If Transcendental Idealism is coherent, could it be squared with the naturalistic picture of ethics described above? If it is not coherent, what are we left with? Can there be versions of Transcendental Idealism that cannot be said, yet that can be known ineffably, and in which ethics is somehow shown? Or should we just embrace the naturalistic picture? If so, how, if at all, can the latter explain freedom, and thereby ethics?      

This workshop will explore questions such as these, regarding the relationship between Transcendental Idealism, generally conceived, and ethics. We will explore these questions as they arise in Kant, his contemporaries, successors and critics (e.g. Hegel, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Williams), with the help of four outstanding keynote speakers: Prof. Lilian Alweiss (Trinity), Prof. Joe Saunders (Durham), Prof. James O'Shea (UCD), and Prof. Adrian W. Moore (Oxford). (Adrian Moore's talk will be delivered online.)

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