Reflective Judgment and Real Public Reasoning

A key question is whether the claim “to think from the standpoint of everyone else” in Kant's Third Critique should be interpreted as making an appeal to context, which is assumed in Arendt's extension of reflective judgment to the public faculty. Validity in the Kantian model is grounded in the universal communicability of particular judgments. Thus, it might be argued that the emphasis is still on universality rather than particularity conceived as context. Universality is, however, based in a public sense that is possible to share with others only to the extent that it is communicable and may thus gain universal validity. Thus, I think it makes good sense to interpret particularity in Kant's account of judgments as an appeal to the context of particular judgments, on topics concerning reason just as well as judgment. In other words, I see no good reason why reflective judgment should not apply to all of our cognitive faculties: understanding, judgment, and reason. I think it is important to interpret Kant's claim on universality as always context sensitive in a certain respect: to think from the standpoint of anyone will, by necessity, always be context dependent since the action will always take place in some particular context.

What is at stake is still the relation between the particular and the universal, and how the former derives validity by relating to the latter. The claim on universal validity in Habermas' discourse theory has been countered by some of his critics who have argued that the contextual conditions of communication are ignored in his model (Habermas 1996; Young 2002). The importance of transcending the merely private subjective conditions, however, appears to be recognised by both Habermas and his critics. Rather, what is contested concerns the role of the particular: as constituent and necessary of all kinds of judgment, or as contextual limitations of legitimate communication in public deliberation. In the following we shall explore the relation of Kant's faculties of cognition and maxims of common human understanding with public reason in deliberation.

Kant's Maxims of Common Human Understanding

A main concern in Kant is to explain the grounds and limits of human reason. In doing so, he holds practical use of reason to be the more fundamental, according to Onora O'Neill (1989). Practical use of reason is fundamental by enabling us to act autonomously, i.e. not to be ruled by external forces. The only limit to this freedom is the categorical imperative or the universalization principle. Likewise, we have connected reflective judgment to public reason by way of publicizability of particular judgments. This point is fundamental to understanding why public use of reason is of such importance

[1]. Basically, it is due to Kant's claim that the public use of reason should always be free. In order for our public use of reason to be free we must look upon acts of communication as the proper objects of toleration. The reason why is because toleration is seen as a response to communication. This is a more profound concept of toleration as compared to viewing utterances by others as mere expressions. The basic point is that communication rather than expression is required in public reason. Part of this claim on freedom to make public use of reason builds on the maxims of common understanding: (1) to think for oneself, (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else, i.e. enlarged thought and (3) always to think consistently (Kant 1952, § 40, p. 294). The first is the maxim of understanding, the second the maxim of judging, and the third the maxim of reason. All of these maxims of public reason are more profound than any other use of reason, and they are standards for addressing “the world at large” (O'Neill 1989, p. 48). In addressing the world at large reason accepts no external authority. It is this use of reason that is at work in judgment of particular situations, derived from the human capacity for reflective judgment.

Thus, we see how reflective judgment and enlarged thinking in Kant is basic to any other form of communication. This is the important point to be drawn from his model for validation in the public faculty, and it is particularly interesting because it gives an account of how reflection of particular situations and conditions can make a claim to validity. This holds true as far as the appeals put forth address a universal audience. By contrast, addressing only a restricted audience cannot make claim to something that is universally communicable. Still, private uses of reason may be legitimate for certain purposes. The important point to be made is that “[t]here are no good reasons for tolerating any private uses of reason that damage public uses of reason” (O'Neill 1989, p. 49). Thus, arguing with Kant, it would be legitimate to accept uses of reason that do not address the world at large—perhaps even by accepting external authorities—as long as they serve public reason[2].

In returning to our case of Breivik's Manifesto, we clearly face an example of a kind of reason that is likely to damage public use of reason. Whether his use of reason should be considered private rather than public is not the most important. In line with the distinction between real and fictitious outlined above I shall argue that the fictitious even more than the private character of Breivik's use of reason is the more important. Not only is it an attempt to conceal that his opinion has not been exposed to public scrutiny; the method at hand, i.e. publication on the Internet, reinforces the impression of being public. This is particularly so as it resembles documents and uses of reason that are genuinely public in a Kantian sense. Reflective judgment and public use of reason is the liberation of our judgments from subjective private conditions, a necessary condition for weighing our judgments with the possible judgments of others, by putting ourselves in the position of every one else. Failing to do this while arguing as if one's opinions qualify as public is the main flaw of Breivik's Manifesto. Still, as an expression within the public domain of utterances it remains to discuss whether we are in any sense obliged to tolerate it. As has been argued in the ongoing debate of liberal democratic freedom of expression there seems to be no substantive criterion for drawing a line. Instead this paper is an attempt to establish a procedural criterion for toleration.

  • [1] The distinction between public and private use of reason demarcates the difference between sensus communis and sensus privatus (O'Neill 1989, p. 45). The former is identified with enlarged thinking, addressing an unrestricted audience, while the latter is restricted, for instance, by filling the roles of clergy, officers, and civil servants.

  • [2] It is disputed whether public reason should be seen as a gradual process towards more enlightenment, which concerns the relation between the first and the third maxims of sensus communis: the maxim to think for oneself and the maxim to think consistently. If it is conceived in developmental terms, then we may envisage an ongoing process towards better understanding that can only be judged along the developmental line.
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