restricted access 3. From Kant to Schmid (and Back): The End of All Things
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73 3 From Kant to Schmid (and Back) The End of All Things Submit yourself to the rule of a necessity from which you cannot escape. —Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist Critique of Practical Reason . . . I must mention here en passant that the concept of “the practical” should not be confused with the degenerate concept that has become current nowadays. —Theodor W. Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy But it is of greatest importance to be content with providence. —Immanuel Kant, “Conjectural Beginning of Human History” A “Groundwork” of Fatalism In the historical move from religious to philosophical fatalism , from defending predestination against the assumption of free will to defending it in order to undo the Aristotelian identification of freedom and capacity, fatalism appears at the center of any properly rationalist position. It can therefore seem predestined that in the late eighteenth century the claim arises that rational beings—simply because they are rational beings— cannot but be fatalists. Peculiarly this claim was presented as the consequence of a position that seems to argue for the opposite , namely for linking rationality and an absolute capacity of freedom. How did this happen? In 1785 Kant’s Groundwork of 74 · From Kant to Schmid (and Back) the Metaphysics of Morals was taken by some of its readers as a demonstration of the necessity of practical fatalism, even if the author had not intended this. This interpretation of the Groundwork then provided the basis for reading the entirety of Kant’s philosophy as a complex plea for a rationalist fatalism. Before turning to one of the most impressive of Kant’s interpreters , it is instructive to first clarify how this interpretation was possible at all. How and why can one read Kant as providing the metaphysical foundations for practical fatalism? The Groundwork has a peculiar structure. Its three sections all deal with transitions: first, the transition from common rational to philosophical moral cognition; second, from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysics of morals; third, from the metaphysics of morals to pure practical reason. It is clear that we are confronted here not only with a transition into metaphysics but also with a metaphysics that is essentially concerned with transitions (from everyday life to pure reason and back to a different practice of everyday life). The idea behind this structure seems to arise from the introduction of a distinction between commonsense thought and philosophical thought. This distinction is generative of the concept of morality—the latter emerges from a critique, and it is the other side of common sense. Morality must be distinct from the way one commonly perceives the world because otherwise morality would depend on the commonality of perception. But common sense is not only contingent but also rarely even exists as a collectively binding phenomenon. Morality grounded on common sense would thus be quite shaky, and a shaky ground for moral judgments and actions is practically no ground at all. Also, if morality could be derived from common experience , then it could be explained by experiential, that is, natural causality. If this were the case there would simply no longer be any morality: natural entities and phenomena are not free. From Kant to Schmid (and Back) · 75 One would thus end up with a sort of bad determinism, a bad fatalism that abolishes freedom. Kant clearly does not go in this direction. A quick glance at the titles of the Groundwork’s sections makes clear that the distinction between commonsense approaches and a moral philosophy alone is insufficient for grounding morality proper. The book’s structure suggests that the temptation for giving a commonsense account of morality resurges within philosophy in the guise of popular moral philosophy. This resurgence results in a struggle between the commonsense conception of morality and a properly metaphysical account of morals.1 This struggle presents an instructive entry point into Kant’s line of argument. If transitions determine the form of the problem, there is no better place to start than the transition from one transition to the next. This is also where the transition from moral philosophy to the metaphysics of morals takes place, which provides the groundwork for critical fatalism. Kant starts the second section of his book by taking up a simple fact: “It is absolutely impossible by means of experience to make out with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action otherwise in conformity with duty rested simply on moral ground and on representation of one’s duty...