The Phenomenon of Existence (part7)

By Will Baker


Of Kant and Collective Consciousness

Throughout history there are numerous examples of individuals who have personally excelled at one or more aspects of their being to the betterment of society (read: Plato, Voltaire, J.K Rowling, Einstein, Curie, Salk, Arendt, Camus, Hawkings, etc.). In fact I would argue that it is a rare event when such an individual excels without providing some sort of societal benefit. For example, it can be argued that for all his hatred and the ills he caused, Hitler, due to his promotion of early rocket science is in part responsible for making space discovery possible. Conversely many instances come to mind where the circumstances that societies have created seem to put in play a dynamic whereby the individual members seem to be held back from excelling. In Part 6 when we discussed the "chicken and egg" scenario as it relates to the actualization of the Individual vs. the Collective, we briefly touched upon these ideas. In this part we will examine this material in greater depth. However as we do so it should be noted that, as this material is metaphysical in nature, and since we are creatures who exist as part of a seemingly empirical reality, we might well be struggling with a handicap.

It can be argued that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was among the most influential philosophers in the history of Western Philosophy. Say what you will about the man but his contributions to ethics and metaphysics have had a profound effect on almost every philosophical movement that came after him. One of Kant’s major projects was attempting to answer the question: "What can we know?" To state it simply the answer which he arrived at is that our knowledge is limited to mathematics and the science of the natural, empirical world. In writing on this subject Dr. Matt McCormick states: "The reason that knowledge has these constraints, Kant argues, is that the mind plays an active role in constituting the features of experience and limiting the mind's access to the empirical realm of space and time." I agree with McCormick, however it should also be noted that in his "The Critique of Pure Reason" Kant argues that given this above referenced constraint, it is still possible to extend knowledge to the supersensible realm of speculative metaphysics. It is my belief that Kant based this assertion on the fact that such speculation has as its basis the empirical world.

In Part 2 of this series we touched on societal transformation and we drew a distinction between Convenience vs. Morality driven transformation. And we noted that societal transformation (what Sartre might refer to as the development of the Essence of the Collective, and what Maslow might say is the Collective's attempt at satisfying its Growth Needs) is a fluid thing and whether the transformation is driven by convenience or morality it is relative in nature. In examining the implications of the relationship that I believe exists between the actualization of Sentient Beings to the actualization of the Collective, I will use this as the point of departure. And in the process I will attempt to synthesize some of Kant’s, Sartre's and Maslow's ideas with my own.

Kant spoke to the duality of the "human situation." He said the question of moral action is not an issue for two classes of beings. The animal consciousness (the non-sentient being that Sartre would say exists "In-Itself") is entirely subject to cause and effect determination. It is part and parcel to the empirical world, but not an originator of "causes" the way sentient beings (those that Sartre would say exist For-Themselves) are. Therefore subjective, relative determinations such as right or wrong do not apply. When an animal kills in the wild there is no right or wrong associated with the action: it is what it is. However, as regards the actions of sentient beings, Kant would say that since they are by nature rational actions, they are in accord with moral principles. Yet Kant argues that we humans exist astride these two realities, hence the dual nature of our existences. As Dr. McCormick states: "We are both sensible and intellectual. We are neither wholly determined to act by natural impulse, nor are we free of non-rational impulse. Therefore, Kant argues that we need rules of conduct. We need, and reason is compelled to provide, a principle that declares how we ought to act when it is within our power to choose."  As an important aside, bear in mind my belief that the attributes of the individual are transferable to the Collective and it seems to me that this above referenced "need" is no exception. In addition, I believe when we look at the examples of societal transformation that have their basis in "convenience" they might speak to the Kantian idea of "animal consciousness," whereas transformation that has its basis in morality would speak to a "rational consciousness."

Kant argued that sentient beings bear a special burden--other creatures are "acted upon" by the world, but possessing the ability to choose makes sentient beings "actors." The reason to act must be exercised, and "Will" is the capacity to act according to the principles provided by reason. Reason assumes freedom and conceives of principles of action in order to function.

However, according to Kant, two problems present themselves. First, as stated above, due to the dual nature of human existence we are not entirely rational beings, therefore it is likely that at times we might act out of non-rational motivations. And second, even when our actions have their basis in pure rational thought, since we have free will with a range of choices and moral laws with which to choose from as the basis for our actions, oftentimes we do not know which course of action is the "best" one for a particular situation. This is where Kant’s idea of Good Will comes into play.

According to Kant the "Will" is the faculty of acting according to a conception of law (read: moral construct). However, when we act the morality of our actions does not depend upon the outcome. This is due to the fact that often times, the desired outcome is out of our control. What we can control, however, is the "Will" behind the action. He argues that the only thing that is good without qualification is the Good Will. For example, wealth and courage can be used for evil purposes and therefore cannot be intrinsically good. Happiness is not intrinsically good because even being worthy of happiness, Kant says, requires that one possess a good will. The Good Will is the only unconditional "Good" despite all negative encroachments. For example, happenstance  may render someone incapable of reaching her goals however the goodness of her "Will" remains unaffected.

But what does all of this have to do with the relationship that exists between the actualization of the individual and Collective Actualization? Well for starters, if Kant is correct and there really is a dual nature to human existence and if I am correct in my assertion that the attributes of the individual are transferable to the Collective, then the Collective might very well exhibit the attribute of duality. And this might explain how the examples of societal transformation based upon Convenience and Morality that I previously outlined can occur simultaneously. It would also explain how the Human Collective does seem to be marching forward in a transformative linear progression, however haltingly, two steps forward and one step backwards towards ultimate actualization.

In Part 6 I argued my belief that the actualization of the individual came before the actualization of the Collective. However in considering the dynamic that exists and the implications that flow from this possibility, it seems to me that once the Collective becomes actualized a critical mass of Kant’s Good Will would most certainly have to exist, and this might pull the individuals forward towards their actualization as well.

When I think of Kant, abstract concepts such as Duty, Freedom, and Morality come to mind. However I also think about reason, and specifically, how sentient beings can use reason to determine what is and what ought to be. Is this attribute of reason transferable as well? If so, perhaps this implies that the Collective as an entity is an organism unto itself. And if this is true then the Collective is more than a societal group think or cultural expression. It is an expression of Collective Consciousness.

Part 8: Of Weltgeist and the Collective



 (Essay Collection)




Life's meaning