"Relative" Spontaneity and Reason's Self-Knowledge

Studies in Transcendental Philosophy 3 (3) (2023)
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Kant holds that the whole “higher faculty of knowledge” (‘reason’ or ‘understanding’ in a broad sense), is a spontaneous faculty. But what could this mean? It seems that it could either be a perfectly innocent claim or a very dangerous one. The innocent thought is that reason is spontaneous because it is not wholly passive, not just a slave to what bombards the senses. If so, then the rejection of Hume’s radical empiricism would suffice for Kant’s claim. But the dangerous thought is that reason, and the ‘I think’ which expresses it, is free, having the power to produce something entirely from itself. While this freedom is characteristic of practical reason, could it be characteristic of reason in general, even in its theoretical employment? Some contemporary interpreters have admirably defended the ‘dangerous’ conception by stripping it of the implication that it makes reason in general entirely self-sufficient. I attempt to add to this effort. However, what I contend is that this weightier conception of spontaneity (‘absolute’ or ‘non-relative’ spontaneity) requires abandoning a certain approach to the question that has been assumed by virtually everyone in the debate—namely, that the question can be answered by siding with either the so-called ‘metaphysical’ or the ‘epistemic’ interpreters of Kant. My goal is to suggest that the proper perspective on reason’s spontaneity resists such characterizations all together, and thereby resists any of the conditions under which it could be understood as ‘relative’ to anything.

Author's Profile

Addison Ellis
American University in Cairo


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