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Kant, Infinite Progress, and Personal Immortality

. . . . [According to Kant] infinite progress is possible only if the existence and personality of rational beings continue on into infinity; the immortality of the soul is therefore a postulate of pure practical reason. The attainment of the highest good, the coincidence of happiness and virtue, lies in the far reaches of infinite personal existence and is not possible in a finite existence. Kant was so completely imbued with the truth of this train of thought that he was astonished that philosophers could even entertain the possibility of this-worldly perfection and fulfillment of existence.

When we see ourselves compelled to seek at such distance—namely in the connection with an intelligible world—the possibility of the highest good, which reason presents to all rational creatures as the goal of all their moral wishes, it must appear strange that philosophers of both ancient and modern times have been able to find happiness with virtue in very proper proportion even in this life (in the world of the senses) or, at any rate, have been able to persuade themselves that they had.1

Based on his assumed contradiction between sensory existence and reason in earthly life, Kant considered the finitist observation on personality pointless. The essence of man, Kant maintained, consists of his intelligible rational personality, and as long as this is bound to man’s nature, it cannot exclusively influence his volition [Willkür ]; the tendency to follow one’s drives [Trieb ] can never be completely excluded. Only God’s will is holy and as such not capable of any maxims that contradict the moral law.

For rational but finite beings, only unending progress from lower to higher levels of moral perfection is possible. The Infinite Being, for whom time is nothing, sees in this progress, which for us is endless, a whole appropriate to the moral law; and holiness, which his law inexorably demands in order to be fitting for his justice in the share of the highest good he assigns to each, can be found in a single intellectual intuition of the existence of rational beings.2

Thus the problem of the finiteness of existence is changed because the sensory nature of man’s earthly being is seen as only a symptom of finiteness, not its constituent, for the person does not lose any of his finiteness when he dies and lays aside his sensory body. Life in the hereafter is not perfect all at once just because it is freed of its earthly fetters; rather, it is also a finite existence in contrast to the one infinite existence of God.

The complication of the problem through the question of man’s sensory nature is resolved, and the essence of his finiteness is placed in the development of the person through an infinite becoming; what for divine intuition is a unified, self-contained substance, resting in its perfection, can only be understood by finite human beings in the infinite process. The incomprehensible disintegration of being in time, which becomes complete and whole again in God’s eternity, is for Kant—as it was for Augustine—the formula in which he expresses the nature of finiteness. From the necessary parallels of temporal disintegration and divine eternity follows his astonishment at attempts to get a finite view of the whole of the person.

We will take up the problem [of the primary phenomenon of the human form in the fullness of its physical-spiritual {leiblich-geistig} totality] at the place where Kant dealt with it, although it has a long and great history prior to that. The mathematical aspect of the problem of the infinite basically had already been elucidated by Leibniz, though neither he himself nor thinkers of the late eighteenth century drew the appropriate conclusions regarding the treatment of the problem of the person.

In Leibniz’s letter to Bernoulli of August, 1698, cited earlier, we find the statement: “Sane ante multos annos demonstravi, numerum seu multitudinem omnium numerorum contradictionem implicare, si ut unum totum sumatur.” [Many years ago I completely demonstrated that the number or multitude of all numbers implies a contradiction if it be construed as one whole.] The infinite amount of numbers is already clearly seen as a contradiction in terms by the end of the seventeenth century, but for a number of epistemological problems pertaining to the infinite an appropriate analysis was not provided until Kant’s antinomies, and even here the issue of infinity as applied to the person remains entirely unsettled.

Leibniz had posited the monads, including those endowed with reason as uniquely created and indestructible until the total annihilation of the world. And throughout the entire eighteenth century, whenever a rationalization of the problem of the person is attempted, we still find a doctrine of infinity that typically assumes either the Christian form of an immaterial afterlife in the beyond or the form of the transmigration of souls, the repetition of finite existence for an infinite number of times.

The most significant German formulation of the question before Kant seems to me to be Lessing’s, enunciated in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts of 1780. Humanity as a whole in the infinity of its being is to be led to the goal of love and virtue for its own sake; over an infinite period of time humanity is to be brought up to a final state of perfection. But how can this challenge for mankind as a genus be reconciled with the meaning of the confined, finite existence of the individual? Does the individual’s life then have no meaning, and is only the totality to be guided to perfection?

Lessing solves the question by assuming an infinite migration of the individual immaterial soul. The whole progresses by imperceptible steps, and the large, slow wheel that brings humanity closer to the goal is moved by the small cogs of the finite lives. “Each individual person (one sooner, the other later) must first travel the path by which the whole race [Geschlecht] arrives at its perfection.”  The individual ego may repeat its existence as often as it is destined to acquire new knowledge and skills; all of eternity lies before it, and over this time it can perfect itself along with the race; thus, the perfection of the genus coincides with the perfection of all individuals through the series of their rebirths.

“Life” here is altogether incorporeal, substantially simple soul, in its permanence no different from the elements of inanimate matter, and we now see more clearly why Kant could call the organism only an analogon of life and had to distinguish it from life itself when the latter is conceived of as a lasting substance, unlike the already elaborated finite concept of natural purpose. The same observations made about the problem of infinity in the sequence of numbers and the series of preformed germs would now have to be repeated for the series of soul migrations. Nor should their “eternity” be taken as a totum, as something concretely given, as an infinite process of perfection, for all events lose their meaning when they are conceived of as infinite.

An infinite process of perfection is synonymous with an absolute standstill for any finite intuition, for every finite step on the way and every finite phase of perfection are infinitely small in relation to the whole when the latter is seen as something infinite. Every finite stretch on humanity’s path of education, no matter how big we envision it to be, cannot show any perceptible change if the measure of change is taken from an infinitely large one. The idea of the whole universe [Weltganzes] as the unity in which the perfection of the ego takes place necessarily destroys the meaning of the finite life of the person in his earthly existence.

Faced with this problem in his philosophy of the person, Kant tried to find a solution in both directions marked out in the schemas indicated above. First, by assuming the immortality of the individual person as the precondition for the infinite approximation of perfect virtue, second, by assuming an infinite historical process, in which the human race is led to its goal under the guidance of providence. In both solutions Kant finds himself compelled, in view of the break between finitude and infinity, to express his astonishment at the emerging inconsistencies—both times in a way that allows us to look deeply into the mysteriousness of the situation.

 

Notes

1. Kant, Kritik dei praktischen Vernunft, 115. All quotations are taken from the edition of the Philosophische Bibliothek, Meiner; page numbers are from the Akademie edition.

2. Ibid., 123.

 

This excerpt is from The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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