Kant Table Talk: Freedom Through Limits

Talk held at Goethe Institut, 24 April 2024

Thank you for this lovely invitation in this Kant year. I will talk a bit about contemporary concerns around the Kantian concept of autonomy, following my book Autonomy, a self-help guide, published in 2022 in the Nieuw Licht series, in which contemporary thinkers reflect on a classic text. In my case, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ by Immanuel Kant.

The reason I started thinking about autonomy came from a continued annoyance, as writing so often starts with me. Autonomy is increasingly associated with technology, think of self-driving cars, or plainly thrown out as non-existent, or claimed by groups who want to cut themselves loose from society. All these annoy me.

For me personally, autonomy has always been important. I think most people know the experience of being hindered in their autonomy and that this is an unpleasant experience. Just think back to such an incident if you want and pay attention to the feelings or emotions this arouses. In any case, I can easily recall this. When I was too young, because I am a woman, in situations not taken seriously enough, or because I didn’t have money, wasn’t healthy enough, you name it. All of these are external, heteronomous factors acting on my personal freedom, which is bad enough. But now there are also these other people who argue that I don’t have any autonomy at all? No, I won’t let that happen. I do still believe in that Kantian human dignity attached to autonomy.

However, it is good to rethink autonomy in order to make it future-proof. And for that, we need to look at where these attacks are coming from.

First of all, technology – my line of work. Algorithms know you better than your own mother, it is said, so why make your own choices when the data can do it much better? You may think you have a will or a strong personality, but the data collectors can just plot you out in patterns and use that to calculate what you will do – or buy – next.

‘Humans are algorithms’ is the short summary of this belief. The crazy thing is that this conclusion – that we are utterly predictable without a will of our own – led to autonomy becoming a predicate of algorithms themselves! Here you see autonomy and automation getting totally mixed up. To the detriment of humans, and to the benefit of the tech giants. We can discuss this relationship between human autonomy and autonomous tech later if you want.

Second, there is a long-standing attack from various directions, which all say that humans can’t be free. Without getting into the free will debate, the bottom line is that we are not autonomous, but are determined by our genes, brain, upbringing, culture, history – everything but ourselves. Thinking you are autonomous is naive, a kind of self-deception.

And of course, I do not deny that I am and have been influenced greatly by all these things. Indeed, some of them influence me to the extent that they fuel my drive for autonomy! This is an important point, which I will come back to later. Precisely from heteronomous determinations, autonomy can flourish, which is a kind of reversal of Kant, who rather wanted to cut away heteronomous determinations in order to arrive at autonomy.

Third is an attack that we could call societal. I’m talking about the group that calls itself ‘de autonomen’ or sovereign people. Autonomy for them means, first and foremost, cutting yourself off from society, unilaterally cancelling the social contract, not wanting to have anything to do with anyone and, above all, not accepting any social responsibility. I find this highly fascinating. Because it is understandable where this naming as ‘autonomous’ comes from, yet that is not at all what I’m after (or Kant). I am an ethicist for a reason, I want to connect, make society better, perhaps even serve it. But only on my own terms… or at least, according to my idea of what’s good, which is or should be…, I don’t know how to put it, except maybe I’m more of a Kantian than I sometimes want to admit.

Finally the attack that I think we owe to Kant himself must be mentioned. In my book I discuss the essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and those famous opening words about the ‘onmondigheid’ or immaturity from which everyone must break free themselves, to use your brains and reason. Ultimately, this wonderful call, which was so important for emancipation, for freedom of thought and expression, nevertheless also ended up in a rather self-centred preoccupation with one’s own ideas and opinions. Kant may have intended it as a call to rationality, but by now it is enough to say: I think/find/feel this way and don’t you dare deny that to me.

It doesn’t help that, over time, Kant has been accused of racism, sexism, the strict scientific worldview that is leading to the destruction of our environment. He has even been accused of being responsible for our total surrender to technology. This is what the philosopher Matthew Crawford argues. Since Kant, people are locked inside their heads, unable to really connect to the world outside. And it is precisely when locked inside your head that you are susceptible to manipulation, Crawford says. Cut off from reality, there is nothing to test your opinions and convictions against. We live in a hall of mirrors, of representations, images, and now of course: TikTok videos, selfies and deep fakes. Whoever controls representations of reality controls human beings. Exit autonomy.

So we need to rescue autonomy from the clutches of those who abuse it for their own right or gain, but also from the rubbish heap of the history of ideas where some want to dump it. And perhaps also from Kant himself. How will we do that?

The attacks themselves provide some clues. We will somehow have to start from autonomy’s embedding in a heteronomous outside world. Because let’s face it, absolute independence does not exist. We are born as helpless creatures, totally dependent. We have to fight for our autonomy on those grounds. So let’s recognise that heteronomous origin. And when we do that, the practice of autonomy, will change in nature. Rather, autonomy becomes like a dance with heteronomy.

This also asks for self-examination. Which heteronomous factors have influenced me? Which of these do I want to retain or endorse, which would I rather change? How can I relate to that which I cannot change?

However, in this relational form of autonomy such self-examination is not inward looking, but rather outward looking. You have to seek out the world (the world beyond your head, says Crawford) and experience its resistance, to discover what you care about, what you stand for. In conversation with others, you discover where your beliefs lie. If you just act and choose at random, then that leaves you not with autonomy but with anarchy.

This also means that this form of autonomy is very much about meaning-making. Hermeneutic autonomy you might say. Complete freedom does not exist, but I can have a say on the conditions under which I call myself free. This is an important lesson we can learn from a very different form of autonomy, that of oppressed peoples who had to fight for their freedom from colonisation. Often, they were eventually handed a form of autonomy. But only our form. While true autonomy should begin with the question, what does autonomy mean to you? To end, analogous to Kant’s famous title ‘What is Enlightenment?’, I would therefore like to pose the question to everyone here present: ‘What is autonomy?’ Because since Kant, we know that we can all very well think about that for ourselves.