Jane Kneller (Colorado State University) recently published with Cambridge Press an exciting new work on Kant titled Kant and the Power of Imagination (Cambridge, 2007). I am preparing a review of it for the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and thought I would first share my thoughts here. All citations are to her book.
Kneller's book is just as much about the German Romantics (Novalis in particular) as it is about Kant. Kneller argues for a continuity thesis between Kant and the Romantics that brings Kant closer to the Romantic's enthusiasm for the creative imagination and Novalis closer to Kant's modesty about knowing the absolute, unconditioned ground of the self. Fichte, on such a reading, is taken to have overstepped what one can reasonably say about the self with his claim that intellectual intuition provides a rational insight into the grounding act of self-consciousness.
The lynchpin of Kneller's arguments for the continuity thesis is her claim that imaginative freedom (reflective judgment) suggests that "political and moral progress may be intimately connected with our ability to make universally valid aesthetic judgments" (38). Kneller believes if we consider imaginative freedom, it is possible to show how the highest good can actually be realized. Such a reading is meant to found hope for a moral world not in Kant's postulation of God, but in the human, imaginative capacity. Novalis' imperative, "The world must be romanticized", does not seem too far off.
Along with the Kantian ideas of theoretical and practical freedom, Kneller points to imaginative freedom, which is grounded in aesthetic reflective judgment and independent of the theoretical and practical domains. Reflective judgment does not exactly involve the categories and operates independently of the Categorical Imperative; "no concepts must be applied, no commands must be followed," Kneller says (43). The imaginative freedom of reflective judgment can be defined negatively as not constrained by theoretical reason or practical reason. Even further, when judging an object with disinterestedness the imagination is not tied to inclination, the good, habit or anything of the like, but reigns free. The imagination also operates freely for the artist who produces in art "aesthetic ideas".
Kneller's account of imaginative freedom is meant to reveal the possibility of the highest good's realization. A requirement it seems for one to believe in the possibility of a moral order is that one believe that through our own agency we can possibly bring about a moral world. Kneller thinks that this belief can be grounded in the power of imagination: "Our ability to represent such a world in imagination would allow us to believe in the possibility of a moral world on earth and in ourselves as creators of that world" (52). In other words, it is through imagination that we conceive of such a world order, which is then the highest good. God does not need then to be some motivating postulate since our own imaginative capacity is good enough to motivate us.
Many find Kant's postulation of God as reason to believe happiness and a moral world order are possible to be at least suspect and quite possibly inconsistent with his critical project. What is nice about Kneller's argument is it seems to displace the need for a postulate and grounds the possibility of a moral world order in human capacities. The argument seems to be a conceivability argument.
I guess the difficulty I find with the argument is that it does not seem to make any progress in demonstrating the possibility of our actualizing a moral world order. There is a real difference between the possibility of something and the possibility of our actualizing something. The difficulty is that something's possibility is simply not a motivating factor, and as it stands achieving a moral world order seems to lack a motivating factor. Kneller does remark on this point: "Whether in this world or in the next, it is hard to see how any mere postulate of reason, whether as a belief in God and immortality, or in human progress in history, or as a pact with reason itself, really solves the problem for Kant, because the problem is not just one of attitude, but of rational motivation: It is a matter of having good reason to imagine ourselves achieving what reason demands, of feeling that possibly we ourselves can accomplish a just world" (50). I think there is a disconnection between possibility and motivation, and I guess Kant would want to fill in the lacuna with the idea of respect for the moral law.
I think Kneller is right to suggest this as a consistent way of reading Kant. I also think she is right to claim that because of the argument's emphasis on thinking imaginatively about the world, Kant is brought closer to the Romantics in a way consistent with his own project.