Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hirsch and the Categorical Imperative

"It remains completely unknown to us what objects may be by themselves and apart from the receptivity of our sense. We know nothing but our manner of perceiving them; that manner...not necessarily shared by every being, though, no doubt, by every human being." (Critique 37)

With this revolution in epistemology, Immanuel Kant forever changes the direction of philosophy. After ensuring that all noumena are permanently and fundamentally hidden behind the veil of human perception and sense in his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant finds religion and morality in quite a precarious position. However, in the Critique of Practical Reason, he discusses the saving grace, in his thought, of morality, an a priori and innate morality not derived from experience. Kant calls this objective foundation of "good", the categorical imperative. A necessary corollary of such an innate drive is a God. Thus, Kant, in his own mind, provides for the necessity of a God, and a general inborn human drive to be moral. This far comes Kant.

The purpose of this short post is not to point out the weaknesses in this theory. Kant's ideas were the turning point of philosophy, and the percussions of his ground-breaking theory of the ultimate reality, conceivable by thought and yet un-perceivable in experience, were felt everywhere. So, it is valuable to see how a Jewish philosopher might respond to this theory that rejects absolute knowledge of Godly command.

And indeed, Rabbi SR Hirsch praised Kant. He considered him one who reached the doorstep of Judaism, and by tragedy of ignorance, came no further. For Hirsch, the categorical imperative is not morality, for the moral universe is not what is, but what must be (Grunfeld LXXV). (Rabbi Hirsch makes this point in discussion of the Golden Calf: that the sin immediately after revelation is yet another indication of the Divine origin of the Law, a Law that is hoisted upon people by God who are not yet morally ready for it, as opposed to an organic moral progressive process of wise men in the life of the people.)The innate moral voice in Man is not the voice of morality, it is the yearning for morality. Man's sense of good and evil is not perfect, too much variation exists to be able to call it that. What is constant however, is the desire, the striving to a moral structure. Kant confused the homonomy (self-commanded law) with the desire for a formulated heteronomy.

By making this simple but crucial adjustment in Kant's theory of Practical Reason, Rabbi Hirsch supremely empowers the categorical imperative. No longer does morality hinge upon the sparse commonality of Man's inner moral voice. Hirsch's innate desire for a moral structure, as Kant's innate morality, posits a God. However, Hirsch's conception of the imperative also posits a revelation of Divine Will -- the definition of the heteronomous morality towards which the yearning innate in Man strives. For if humanity is to strive towards an ideal of morality, and if this yearning presupposes a God, then, taken together, these two ideas require a God-given moral code for Man to work towards. The categorical imperative then, for Rabbi Hirsch, is not the oracle of "good" carried personally in every man's breast. Rather, each man carries within him a piece of the morality puzzle, an innate reminder that there is a moral law that must be attained in this world, and that it must be available somehow.

Of course, this leads in to a discussion of the Torah and the scientific necessity to study it from within instead of from without. Perhaps more on that some other time.