Kant 2: The “Zenith of the Enlightenment”

In the interest of space last week, I did not include biographical information about Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as I normally do. This week, I want to remedy that defect. Kant was born in Konigsberg, which is a part of Prussia in 1724. He lived his entire life within a small geographical area around the city. His family had immigrated from Scotland about a century earlier and was poor. His mother was a devout Pietist, and while Kant was not devout nor a churchman, the impact of his mother’s faith and her strict morality formed the young Kant and impacted his life and philosophy in profound ways. Though a product of the Enlightenment, his deepest motivation seems to have been to provide a ground in human reason for the fundamental values of his childhood and adopted nation.

In 1755, in his mid-twenties, Kant began his professional life as a lecturer at the University of Konigsberg. His professional progress was not impressive. In 1770, after being denied positions at least twice, he was made a professor of Logic and Metaphysics. During his career, he also engaged in the kind of scientific pursuits common among intelligent laypersons of his day. His philosophy is impacted by his commitment to Newtonian physics and his own scientific inquiries.

Kant was physically small and unimpressive. On the other hand, he seems to have been gregarious and social as much as his situation in life allowed. His life, however, was quiet. He took walks in the country. He was careful about his health. He lived frugally and within his very limited means. He and worked on his Critique of Pure Reason, the work that made him famous, quietly and obscurely for many years, before finishing it and embarking on the philosophical career for which he is justly famous.

In the years before his death, Kant suffered from growing dementia that ultimately left him helpless and from which he died. This later political philosophy was impacted by this decline and he was unable to finish  all the work he contemplated because of the aging process.

The French Revolution

When the French Revolution (1789-1799) began, Kant was a tenured Professor at the University of Konigsberg nearing the end of his career. He had already published his “The Natural Principles of the Political Order considered in the Light of a Universal Cosmopolitan History” with which we ended last week’s blog. [1] He was deeply influenced by Rousseau, whose work he admired greatly, and embraced the revolution with an ardor rare for a man of his age. If Newton and Hume were the inspiration for his metaphysics, Rousseau was the inspiration for his political thought. To understand Kant, however, it must be remembered that Rousseau is misunderstood as a purely revolutionary figure. Instead, it is best to see him as one determined to restore the kind of thinking prevalent in the Classical Age, which he admired and to defend culture against the worst elements of modern thinking. I think it best to see Kant as this kind of figure as well, though in common with Rousseau, he initially supported the French Revolution and saw in it a hope to transform Europe along more democratic lines. Nevertheless, when Louis XVI was executed, he decried the event as worse than just a murder. Kant as supported the French Revolution in the name of freedom, but not supporting either its methods or all of its results. As to his native Germany, he continued to support the Kaiser and the fundamental form of Prussian government.

The French Revolution marked the end of one period of Kant’s life and the beginning of its last period. In this period, politics and law were to dominate his thought. As Hannah Arendt puts it:

From then on his interest no longer turned exclusively about the particular, about history, about human sociability. In its center was rather what we today would call constitutional law-the way a body politic should be organized and constituted, the concept of “republican,” i.e., con­stitutional government, the question of international relations, etc. [2]

Kant never finished a writing a definitive political philosophy, but the desire to write one and to contribute to the emerging new era in human history, what we call, “the Modern World” drove him in his final years before age and incapacity silenced his voice.

Freedom as the Basis of Society

Kant bases this thinking on politics on the idea of freedom, which is basic to his political philosophy. In this work, Introduction to the Science of Right, he says:

Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another; and in so far as it can coexist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity. [3]

At the time Kant wrote, this “inborn right” had only been recently discovered. In the history of the world and the history of Europe this right had not been celebrated nor even acknowledged prior to the Enlightenment, perhaps because there is not so much an “inborn right” as the emergence in history of the potential for such a right. Second, Kant’s “freedom” is a disembodied freedom of a kind that does not and cannot exist within human history. Human beings are born into physical bodies with strengths and limits, into families which impart further strengths and limits, and into myriad social structures which from the beginning limit and guide choices that can be made. One consistent failure of Enlightenment thinking is a frequent kind of disembodied abstractness of its theories, divorced from the realities of human existence. The Enlightenment notion of freedom, like its notion of a primaeval Social Compact is an intellectual fiction. Where one finds limites inKant’s thinking, those defects largely arise out of a kind of logical disconnect between human reality and the theories that Kant and others in the Enlightenment championed.

Kant as a Natural Law Thinker

Kant divides the rights of human beings into two categories: Natural Rights and Civil Rights. The term “Civil Rights” is roughly identical to what we would call “Positive Rights,” that is rights granted by the society in which the person his located. [4] Unlike positive law, natural law is a law of reason. For Kant, the natural law is deeply connected to his moral theory and the Categorical Imperative. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant specifies the imperative as follows:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law. [5]

Applied to politics, the Categorical Imperative implies that, human beings should act in such a way that as treat humanity, directly or indirectly, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” [6] In this definition, Kant is following Augustine, whose morality is founded on the ultimate worth of each human individual, who must be treated not as a means but as an end. Positive laws, then, to be properly enacted must conform to the principles of natural law, that is the principle of respect for each human being as an end in his or her self. Discriminatory laws would be a primary example of laws that cannot be properly enacted because it treats people has means not ends. Slavery would be the most dramatic example, because it treats some people (the free) as ends and others (the slave) as ends.

Kant’s Progressivism

As earlier mentioned, Kant, as the prototypical Enlightenment thinker, has a notion of infinite human progress, and of history as moving human society towards a predefined goal, what he identified as “the perfect cosmopolitan community.” The freedom of human beings as moral creatures and the inevitable forces of nature, including human nature, work together to drive the human race forward into a better future. In fact, Kant saw himself and his social philosophy as a part of that progress. This is a theme that Hegel and Marx will develop, and in the case of Marx on a purely material basis.

Kant’s view of progressive history finds its mechanism in his famous thesis of ‘unsocial sociability’:

The means which nature employs to bring about the development of innate capacities is that of antagonism within society, in so far as this antagonism becomes in the long run the cause of a law-governed social order. By antagonism, I mean in this context the unsocial sociability of men, that is, their tendency to come together in society, coupled, however, with a continual resistance which constantly threatens to break this society up. This propensity is obviously rooted in human nature. Man has an inclination to live in society, since he feels in this state more like a man, that is, he feels able to develop his natural capacities. But he also has a great tendency to live as an individual, to isolate himself, since he encounters in himself the unsocial characteristic of wanting to direct everything in accordance with his own ideas. [7]

Human beings have both a social nature, which drives them to human society and a natural self-centered, selfish interest. It is the interaction of these two propensities, “the unsocial sociability of human beings” that drives humanity forward in the progress of human society.

The idea that human beings are in a state of perpetual progress has fallen from favor in recent years. Two world wars, the development of nuclear weapons, the destructive impact of industrialism on the environment, and other factors, have caused thinking people to move away from an idea of the historic inevitability of progress. From the point of view of American politics, both liberal and conservative American politicians invoke the idea of “being on the right side of history,” which is the side on which the speaker finds his or herself. This notion of progressivism in history is rightly critiqued for its implicit assumption that prior periods of history are valuable only for producing the present—and the present exists and is valuable only for its contribution to the future, which underlies the justification of the violence of Marxist totalitarianism.


One of the focuses of Kant’s later years might be termed an interest in the formation of constitutions consistent with the promise of human freedom and his notion of a “cosmopolitan community” in which the human race might achieve a just and lasting peace. His thought, naturally, was important in the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War and the United Nations after the Second World War.  In more recent years, his influence is apparent in the European Union.

Human beings naturally seek peace and security in a civil constitution founded upon law. [8] Such civil constitutions are to be judged by the degree of freedom that they allow and maintain and the degree to which they conform to natural law. Kant did not necessarily conceive of a modern democratic state as the only form a constitutional government might take, and so supported the German monarchy of his own day as one of the potential forms a constitutional government might take. He was, however, aware of the emerging American constitution and a supporter of its values.


We will now pass from Kant to Hegel and then back to America to look at Tocqueville’s writings about America. We will return to Kant a bit later, for he is not without impact on American pragmatism, especially in the form of Josiah Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community, which is a descendent of Kant’s Cosmopolitan ideal. We will also return to Kant when we return to political theology, for his reduction of religion to morality impacted generations of continental and American religious thinkers in important ways.

In the blogs to follow, I may be a bit more critical than I have tried to be to date, for we are now at the point where the thoughts of those we will be examining, like Kant, Hegel and Marx continue to have impact on society and on thinking and whose errors continue to impact decision making. As mentioned in this blog, much of the political language labeling opponents positions as “against the flow or goal of history,” which is both harmful and without content, stems from the notion that progress is inevitable and that history has an inevitably progressive direction.

History is made of the choices leaders and societies make, and the human race has experience long periods of destruction, stagnation and decline as bad decisions have been made by conquerors, emperors, dictators, visionaries and the like. The goal of studying history and the history of ideas is not to “enter a flow of predetermined progress” but instead to learn lessons that can avoid bad decisions and make good ones, something our politicians right and left need to learn.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Immanuel Kant, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Idea_of_a_Universal_History_on_a_Cosmopolitical_Plan (Downloaded September 21, 2021).

[2] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy Ronald Beiner, ed (Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press, 1992), 16.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “Introduction to the Science of Right” in “Kant” Britannia Great Books, Vol. 42: Chicago, IL: Britannia Great Books, 1987), 397. Hereinafter, all citations are to this volume unless otherwise noted.

[4] Id, at 402.

[5] Kant, Groundwork, at 37.

[6] Kant, Groundwork, at 45-51.

[7] Kant, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History,” Previously cited, Proposition the Fourth. I have italicized the phrase “unsocial sociability of men” for emphasis.

[8] Id, at Proposition the Seventh.

Kant’s Political Thought

As mentioned in the last blog, David Hume created a critical empirical philosophy that was ultimately skeptical in its conclusions. If you remember, David Hume took the position that all we really “know” are successive sense impressions. Taken literally, this undermined in Hume’s eyes the reality of the human person, the reality universal concepts, causality, and other ideas central to modern science.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) credits reading Hume with “awakening him from his dogmatic slumbers”, leading to the creation of the most important work of continental philosophy of the late 18th century. Kant’s thinking continued to influence philosophy through the 19th and 20th centuries and until today. After reading Hume, Kant set out to reestablish a ground for human knowledge, religion, science and morals in light of Hume’s critique.

Kant’s Structure for Philosophy

Kant adopts the Greek division of philosophy (the love of wisdom) into three categories:

  • Physics (natural philosophy),
  • Ethics (the study of what humans make of their freedom) and
  • Logic (the study of formal logical systems, such as mathematics and formal logic).

Logic has no empirical component and so can arrive at analytical a priori certainty, but both natural philosophy and ethics have empirical components and so operate differently. [1]

One writer describes Kant’s position as follows:

Like Locke and Hume, Kant thinks we must realize that the boundaries of human knowledge stop at experience, and thus that we must be extraordinarily circumspect concerning any claim made about what reality is like independent of all human experience. But, like Descartes and Leibniz, Kant thinks that central parts of human knowledge nevertheless exhibit characteristics of necessity and universality, and that, contrary to Hume’s skeptical arguments, we can have good reason to think that they do. [2]

Kant’s Categories of Knowledge

Kant’s first philosophical move was to agree with Hume that all of real, positive knowledge of reality flows from experience. Kant’s second move, however, was to establish his position that reason forms this knowledge according to certain a priori categories, such as time, space and causality. These categories are not aspects of reality but aspects of the way in which human beings organize human knowledge. For example, the language of pure mathematics is analytically prior to all experience. Time, space, and causality, they are synthetic (or empirical) a priori categories of human thinking.

Before going forward, I want to look more deeply into Kant’s notion that time, space and causation are facets of the human mind, a priori ways in which experience is structured. Interestingly, this analysis will help understand his political philosophy and its weaknesses. Quantum physics and relativity theory cast doubt upon Kant’s  ideas as regards time, space, and causality. Time and space are not eternal ideas in the mind of God or human mind, they are relative features of the universe dependent upon one another for their determination. In the case of causality, one of the features of quantum physics is the breakdown of the Newtonian, common sense, everyday notion of causality in the subatomic realm. Our ideas of time, space, and causality, as important as they are, are relative features of the physical universe that we have uncovered to make sense of a variety of human experiences. They do not appear to be inevitable features of the human organization of experience. [3]

Kant also operates within the boundaries set by Descartes division between subject and object, the universe and the human knower. Quantum physics does not favor this approach, since it is a feature of quantum physics that the observer cannot be totally removed from his or her observations, in fact the observer determines to some degree the outcome of their observations. Quantum physics and Relativity theory would seem to favor a view of the human mind (observer) as part of the observed (the universe).

These observations lead to quite different conclusions from the stark division of Kant between what is a priori in the human mind and synthetic aspects of human experience. The human mind is part of the reality it is observing, and structures its thought around aspects of reality that have emerged in human history as important to understand the reality of which the human actor is both an observer and a part of the unfolding reality itself. This participation of the observer in what is observed is a feature of all human experience, including moral and religious reasoning.

Kant’s Ethics

As to ethics, Kant also believed that we have moral knowledge independent of experience, that is a priori. This was not analytic a priori, such as mathematics, but synthetic a priori. His categorical imperative is one such a priori kind of knowledge. For Kant, the fundamental moral principle, the categorical imperative requires human beings to act as if the action that they are contemplating could be universalized. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant specifies the imperative as follows:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law. [4]

It goes without saying that Kant might be in error concerning just how, a priori this statement might be. It is found in the form of the Golden Rule in Christian faith and in other religions as well. It seems to be a part of that moral wisdom that human beings have intuited based upon the lives of generations of human beings, not an a priori aspect of the human mind. It is more as likely that this principle is not a synthetic a priori, a creature of the human mind, but a principle, like E=MC2, that human beings have abstracted from human experience and regularities humans have noted in observing the inverse. In other words, morals are not solely internal to the human subject but features human beings have abstracted from a moral and ethical reality they experience and of which they are inevitably a part. In other words, the foundation of moral reasoning is not a priori rules, but rules of behavior which synthesize historic human experience as found in many traditions.

Foundations of Kant’s Political Philosophy

Freedom and Determinism. For Kant, political philosophy is a part of moral philosophy, which means that it operates with both an a priori and empirical (synthetic) component. This implies that Kant’s political philosophy is conditioned and directed by the early Enlightenment division between mind and matter and the radical schism between subject and object. As we shall see, this division impacts Kant’s political philosophy in fundamental ways.

For Kant, science is the realm of the determined while morals and politics are realms of human freedom. As material creatures, human beings seek their own best interests in a kind of constant economic and political warfare, but as moral beings, human beings seek to fulfill the demands of the moral law—to act according to universal moral principles intuited not from experience but from innate features of human thinking. These two forces (deterministic struggle and moral freedom) operate in tandem in human history, driving human history and the evolution of human societies. Interestingly, Kant does not see these two forces as necessarily opposed to one another. The forces are driving the human race towards peace, harmony and a better world. [5]

At this point, I return to the observation made earlier that Kant’s acceptance of a division between mind and matter leads him to divide the a priori and the synthetic and a similar division between determined economic forces and human freedom. It is more likely that there is an interplay between the moral, physical and other forces in human history than some kind of tandem coordinated operation. This is more in line with the thinking of C.S. Pierce than with the ideas of Kant.

In my view just as the quantum level of physical reality is characterized by freedom as well as the operation of scientific laws, so also in the realm of politics all decisions and all forms represent the free acts of human beings within the limitations of the laws of the physical universe, choices that may lead for good or evil. In other words, there is no universal movement towards a better future separate from human choices that create such a world.

The Unfolding of Universal History. In 1784, Kant published a work entitled, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History”. [6] This essay is important as it sets out a line of thinking that eventually emerges as a materialistic idea of the unfolding of history found in Marx. Kant theorizes that the forces of human history seen as the actions of the human will unfold in a deterministic pattern. Kant sets out his thesis as follows:

Considering that men, taken collectively as a body, do not proceed, like brute animals, under the law of an instinct, nor yet again, like rational cosmopolites, under the law of a preconcerted plan, one might imagine that no systematic history of their actions (such, for instance, as the history of bees or beavers) could be possible. At the sight of the actions of man displayed on the great stage of the world, it is impossible to escape a certain degree of disgust: with all the occasional indications of wisdom scattered here and there, we cannot but perceive the whole sum of these actions to be a web of folly, childish vanity, and often even of the idlest wickedness and spirit of destruction. Hence, at last, one is puzzled to know what judgment to form of our species, so conceited of its high advantages. In such a perplexity there is no resource for the philosopher but this,—that, finding it impossible to presume in the human race any rational purpose of its own, he must endeavour to detect some natural purpose in such a senseless current of human actions; by means of which a history of creatures that pursue no plan of their own may yet admit a systematic form as the history of creatures that are blindly pursuing a plan of nature. [7]

Kant unpacks his thesis noting that while human actions are free, these actions are guided by “nature” to a predetermined social end, the formation of a “universal civil society of all human beings founded on the idea of political justice.” In this line of thinking, Kant, whether consciously or unconsciously, laid the foundation for the kind of Marxist Millennialism that was found so destructive in the 20th Centuries, and which evolved not into a “universal civil society of all human beings founded on the idea of political justice,” but into a kind of intolerable dictatorships that in its current forms look much like Nazism—a union of wealth and government in all-encompassing, dictatorial oligarchy.


Originally, I had intended to spend only one week on Kant and move to Hegel before returning to the American Constitution, but Kant is too complex and rich for such a plan. Next week, I will return to Kant as an interpreter and admirer of Rousseau, and look at the way in which the Romantic ideas of Rousseau influenced his political philosophy. For this week, I want to leave readers with the understanding that, at just the time that America was formed, the Enlightenment was entering a new period—a period that would produce Darwin, Marx, and others, whose thought is not sympathetic to the American constitutional project or free human societies.  Perhaps more fundamentally, cracks were forming in the optimistic, progress expecting, human centered foundations of the Enlightenment project, cracks that continue to grow. By the early to mid-20th Century, the foundations of the Enlightenment had completely eroded and human history was entering the period in which we know live, often referred to as “post-modernity.”

[1] Kant begins his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by explicating this division and its fundamental importance. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals tr. Allen W. Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 3-4.

[2] “Kant on the Synthetic A Priori” (August 21, 2018). https://phil871.colinmclear.net/notes/kant-on-synthetic-a-priori/ (Downloaded September 17, 2021)/).

[3] See, Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1958), 60-66. Importantly, Heisenberg concludes that, “no physicist would be willing to follo Kant here if the term “a priori” is used in the absolute sense given to it by Kant.” Id, at 62.

[4] Kant, Groundwork, at 37.

[5] I would just note that it would take a pretty big optimist to see in the current unfolding of the polities of the East and West anything like inevitable progress, which is one of the reasons many thinkers view the Enlightenment project as now clearly failed.

[6] Seem Immanuel Kant, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Idea_of_a_Universal_History_on_a_Cosmopolitical_Plan (Downloaded September 21, 2021).

[7] Id.

Postlude to Adoption of the Constitution and Berkeley and Hume

This week’s blog is a breather and chance to take stock of where we are in this review of political philosophy and theology and to look just a bit at the way forward. The adoption of the United States Constitution was the high-water mark of the Enlightenment’s contribution to politics. The establishment of the United States created for the first time a government born of the theories at which we have been looking from Hobbes through Locke (especially), Rousseau, Montesquieu, as well as other 18th century thinkers we have not been able to review. The American Revolution was successful and a high point in the development of the modern world and modern democracy. History, however, never stops—and difficulties were to come.

French Revolution

Immediately after the Constitution was enacted, the French Revolution (1789-1799) erupted, with its nihilistic violence and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, causing thinking people everywhere to question its revolutionary idealism. The French Revolution, like other revolutions since, did not produce in France the stable democratic government and prosperity for which Enlightenment thinkers hoped. Instead, it produced deadly and erratic violence followed by a dictatorship that was a return to an imperial form of government characteristic of Alexander the Great and the Roman empire. Inevitably, the nations of Europe were engulfed in a long war against an aggressive military conqueror. Despite the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment, history seemed to be moving backwards.

American Unresolved Questions

The American Constitution, as critics often point out, left unresolved the question of slavery. During the first two-thirds of the 19th Century, after a brief period of solidification of the national government and its structures, the question of slavery was the dominant political issue of the day—and an issue that American politicians found impossible to resolve peacefully. This led to the American Civil War and the adoption of the several amendments to the Constitution that both permanently outlawed slavery and eventually vastly expanded the powers of the national government. The Civil War and its amendments will be the subject of future blogs this fall.

The Civil War settled the questions of slavery and of whether the states were sovereign and free to leave or sovereign but subordinate to the Federal Government. Furthermore, the Civil War began the rapid emergence of the United States as an industrial, economic, and military power. This set the stage for American involvement in the two great world wars of the 20th Century and what has been called, “The American Century.”

Political Philosophy After Locke

Philosophically, in my view, two thinkers brought the first phase of the Enlightenment to a close: George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-1776). In particular, Hume’s radical skepticism threatened the entire Enlightenment project. [1] Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who credited Hume for “waking him from his dogmatic slumbers,” and Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831) represent attempts to salvage Enlightenment on idealistic grounds. With Hegel the stage was set for the work of Karl Marx and the rise of 20th Century Marxism. This period is what I will call the second stage of the Enlightenment Project.

Interestingly from the point of view of political philosophy, Hume and Kant represent a continuation of the hopeful political thought of Descartes, Newton, Locke and others. They tacitly accept the division of the universe into matter and energy (force) and the division sponsored by Descartes between mind and matter, as two sperate things. They are suspicious of revealed religion and especially the Roman Catholic Church. They supported republican democracy, and their work was designed to defend the social and political achievements of the Enlightenment.

Naïve Idealism

George Berkeley was a critic of the materialism of Hobbes, the rationalism of Descartes, and the empiricism of Locke. Faced with the stark mind body dualism of Descartes, Berkeley defended a kind of naive idealism in which the fundamental reality is not matter but mind. There is no mind body dualism because everything is mind. Berkeley saw the weakness of Lockean empiricism in the fact that all the ideas and knowledge human beings possess comes from the senses via the mind. There is no necessary connection in Locke’s empiricism between the material world and our ideas of it. We do not know things, only sense impressions.

In Berkeley’s system, there is no stable external reality, only ideas. The ground of the continuity of our ideas is God, who functions for Berkeley as the ground of reality and the guarantor of the validity of human perception and thought. Politically, Berkeley viewed God as the source of the moral and laws. As one author notes, “Berkeley conceived of his immaterialism as part of his lifelong struggle against what he variously called atheism, skepticism or free-thinking – the challenge to religious authority over the social world.” [2] Politically, he was a supporter of the status quo, of slavery, and of social stratification. His political thought has never been popular or important

Hume’s Skepticism

The radical idealism of Berkeley was gleefully and most people think successfully attacked by David Hume. Hume died the year tyear the American Revolution began, and in this sense he is a thinker that preceded the Constitution. His work, however, has been more influential in years since the American Revolution. Born in Scotland, Hume was the leading thinker of what is sometimes called the “Scottish Enlightenment. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister, who gave up his faith for a kind of radical skepticism. Although Hume was a congenial person, his conclusions made him anathema to the Scottish leaders of his day, and he was twice denied professorships. Early on he published his Treatise on Human Nature (1737-8) which did not receive the notice for which its author hoped. Only later was his work appreciated, which is why he appears at this stage of our study.

No less a skeptical thinker than Bertrand Russell found the conclusions of Hume convincing but horrifying, and could only hope for a valid refutation, none being forthcoming up to his lifetime. [3] Hume accepted Berkeley’s notion that all we know are sense impressions. In Hume’s system, however, there is no God to guarantee the stability of the world and human perception, nor is there any necessary connection between successive sense impressions. His radical disjunction between the human mind and the material universe led to conclusions that undermined the validity of all human knowledge, including Newtonian science.

In this regard, most philosophers focus on Hume’s denial of causality. Hume denies that we can know causes. We only observe a succession of impressions and infer cause from that succession, but that inference is not a direct observation of cause. In other words, Hume uses empiricist idea that all of our ideas are based on sense impressions to eliminate one of the foundations of modern thought, the notion of cause. Thus, he concludes:

In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it a priori, must be entirely arbitrary. [4]

Taken at face value, this conclusion makes scientific thought impossible. All science could conceivably do is establish wholly arbitrary connections among sense impressions. [5] Here we see the beginnings of Positivism, which will emerge in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

From the standpoint of moral and political thought, Hume’s skepticism has two other results. First, is Hobbes conclusion that there is no human “self”. Remember that Descartes began his philosophical system with the observation that the thinks therefore he must exist. [6] Hume denies that this is a valid conclusion. According to Hume, all we can know is successive perceptions which succeed on another. In this, as in other areas, Hume is a forerunner of the radical denial of a stable “self” characteristic of some forms of modern and post-modern thought. [7] Although his common sense approach to morals and politics ignores the implications of his conclusions, in the end if there is no stable self, there can be no stable moral actor in personal or public morality.

Second, Hume is a radical nominalist. All generals are illusory. They are simply names we give successive sense impressions based upon future expectations, which are often unwarranted. All of our general ideas are simply terms annexed to successive sense impressions that enable us to recall those sense impressions. Thus, ideals such as the good, the true and the beautiful, the notion of virtue and other transcendental ideals are emptied of content except for their base in sense and expectation. C. S. Peirce, as readers may recall, viewed this as the end of all thinking and a gigantic error. Once again, Hume raised in Christian Europe and in a traditional Scottish household accepted the common early Enlightenment hostility towards tradition and attitude that Christianity could be stripped of all its supernatural aspects, such as miracles without undermining morality. He did not grasp that the emotional response that a middle-class 18thCentury Scottish intellectual would have towards murder and other crimes might not be sustainable on the basis of a common human feeling of revulsion against such crimes.

Finally, Hume was a religious sceptic. As a child, he seems to have been religious, but in his adult life he rejected the miraculous and any form of orthodox Christianity. His radical empiricism and nominalism resulted in a denial of the rational validity of religious belief. He does not seem to have been an atheist so much as an agnostic, that is a person who does not believe that the question of whether there is or is not a god can be answered. His most famous religious conclusion is that no amount of evidence could possibly be created for miracles since some other natural explanation, however incredible, would be more likely to be true on empirical grounds. This view was based upon his definition of a miracle as something that transgresses a law of nature, a definition that many philosophers of religion reject.

Hume’s Political Thinking

Hume rejected both the notion of social contract maintaining that no government has ever been formed based on the universal consent of those governed, and any supernatural, divine source of government. Historically, Hume sees the contract theory as impossible, since there is no historic evidence for such a contract and many governments have been formed without such a contract, for example by conquest. In any case, even if there had been such a contract, no such contract would bind a future generation. Hume also rejects Locke’s notion of tacit consent, waging at attack on the idea that is nearly impossible to refute.

Hume grounds his political thought on the notion that people are loyal to a political system out of self-interest in the maintenance of a stable society. However a government is formed, it establishes a stable rule by creating conditions acceptable to its subjects. Once a stable government has emerged, it is founded on convention, that is on the mere fact that it exists and is performing the duties of a government. As such, Hume believes that there is no duty to support a government that is not performing its duties on behalf of society.

Hume’s practical, moral reasoning was empirical based upon the utility of an action. [8] Similarly, his political thought is utilitarian. Human governments are matters of convention based upon the need for protection from violence and justice in human relationships. Political legitimacy is based upon a government furthering the interests of its people. Government is legitimate only insofar as it promotes the common good. Once again, Hume seems not to have grasped that the notion of common good in his day was profoundly impacted by the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian tradition, and would not be able to be defended on Enlightenment principles alone.

Hume’s thought is also evolutionary. His view of political life is based upon his understanding of the gradual emergence of existing governmental forms, which was his own experience in Great Britain and its long history of the gradual evolution of democratic institutions. Hume was a political moderate, believing that excessive political conflict is ruinous to government. He supported the mixed form of government characteristic of Great Britain in his day.


I have placed Hume here in our philosophical wanderings because his thought, though not important during his lifetime contains the seeds of the final end of the Enlightenment project that emerges by the end of the 19th Century. His radical skepticism will eventually win the day. Fortunately, by the early 20th Century, a new physics and philosophical approach to fundamental issues will emerge, and with it hope to reconstruct a sound basis for freedom on somewhat different grounds. I am out of time and space, but hope to return to Hume again before this series of blogs is complete.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] When I refer to the Enlightenment Project, I am referring to the Age of Reason and the early enlightenment philosophers and their followers, who believed that human reason would liberate the human race from religious prejudice, monarchy, limited liberty, and usher in an era of unlimited progress. This period ended with the work of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud whose work undermined confidence in human reason and exposed the psychologically dark materialistic, power-worshiping side of modernity. We will cover the “Four Horsemen” of the end of modernity in the Fall of 2021 Spring of 2022, I think.

[2] Tom Jones, On the necessity of obedience https://aeon.co/essays/from-immaterialism-to-obedience-in-the-philosophy-of-berkeley (downloaded, September 10, 2021).

[3] Bertand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1945), 659

[4] David Hume, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Part I, Section 25 in Hutchins, Robert Maynard. 1955. Great books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 35: “Locke, Berkeley, Hume”

[5] This was Alfred North Whitehead’s conclusion concerning the impact of Hume’s reasoning. See, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Beacon Press), 1925. We will examine Whitehead’s response to Hume when we look at process thought and its political implications.

[6] “Cognito Ergo Sum” or “I think, therefore I am.”

[7] Once again, Whitehead’s philosophy contains an explicit, and I think convincing answer to Hume, which will be dealt with in due time. Our personal identity does evolve under the pressure of all the incidents of our lives, which the self absorbs and integrates all of the experiences of our life, occasionally with fundamental results, but the notion of personal identity is fundamental in the self-identity experienced by human beings. See, Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (New York, NY: Beacon Books, 1933) 186-187. From a religious point of view, a transforming moment of faith changes the human person in fundamental ways, but also leaves present the person who has come to faith.

[8] In this sense Hume is a forerunner of Utilitarianism, which will be dealt with later in these blogs. In passing, I note that Hume can also be seen as the forerunner of logical positivism.

The First Amendment: Freedom of Religion

The first Amendment to the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” [1] As mentioned last week, this provision provides Americans with five freedoms: religion, speech, the press, public assembly, and petitioning government for redress of grievances. In this blog, I am only going to address the first of these, but they are all of fundamental importance to American life.

Freedom of Religion

Why this particular list of rights was placed first in the list? Why was freedom of religion so important to the nation at the time of its founding—so important that Congress was more or less required to pass the First Amendment as part of the process of ratification of the Consitution? Was it just a matter of convenience or chance? I do not think so. The experience of the founders and their study of history persuaded them that these rights are fundamental to the maintenance of the form of representative democracy.

In Europe, prior to the American Revolution, all of these rights were restricted in many ways. As to religion, it was customary in Europe for governments to establish a national religion, to which all persons and all leaders had to subscribe. In Great Britain for example, the king and leaders of the government were required to be Anglicans, and before that Roman Catholics. Often those not of the established religion suffered political and economic disadvantages. Upon occasion those not of the established religion were persecuted. As a result, there was social conflict. The founders did not want the United States to experience the kind of conflict Europe had experienced over these matters. Therefore, they enshrined in the Bill of Rights a restriction on the establishment of any particular religion to be required of citizens..

In addition, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, many of the states had established churches. In the South, the Anglican faith was often the established church, while in the North, it was frequently a particular Protestant faith group. Naturally, there was a fear among all these faith groups that some other group would end up as the established religion of the new nation. This would have provoked the exact situation that many colonists had come to America to avoid—religious persecution. In order to remedy the danger, the establishment clause was deemed necessary.

The text of the amendment was largely authored by James Madison, who modeled the amendment after the Virginia Declaration of Rights. By its terms, the freedom of religion provisions of the First Amendment apply only to the national government; however, in the 20th Century the First Amendment was applied to the states via the 14thAmendment. [2] There have always been tensions between the national government and a particular social consensus and the right of religion and such tensions continue to exist today. [3]

The Central Importance of Freedom of Religion

In guaranteeing freedom of religion, the founders were acknowledging that in our form of government people may have an ultimate loyalty different than loyalty to the state. That is to say that having religious faith, even a faith of which the dominant party does not approve, is a basic American right. It is not unfair to say that freedom of religion is the ground and basis of all other rights, for in granting this freedom a government is acknowledging a fundamental limitation on what government can and should legislate. Government may legislate in matters related to the public good of a society, but cannot interfere with the private ultimate concerns of individuals nor the exercise of their religious faith except under very limited conditions as it regulates matters which is entitled to regulate. [4]

It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of religious freedom to the maintenance of a free society. Totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century have persecuted some religious group. In the Soviet Union it was Orthodox Christians. In Nazi Germany, it was Jews and Christians who did not align themselves with the ideology of the regime. In parts of China today, it includes Muslims and other religious groups. In some Muslim nations it is all non-Muslims. For citizens of the United States, the First Amendment ensures their fundamental right to practice their religion and to speak publicly concerning their faith. [5]

Separation of Church and State

Perhaps the most contentious application of the First amendment in modern times has been the implication of the First Amendment that there must be some kind of “separation” of Church and State. Any analysis of this view must begin with the plain fact that the First Amendment simply says that Congress cannot establish a religion. It says nothing about separation. However, the grant of religious freedom itself implies some degree of separation, since the government cannot make laws that restrict religious freedom and the expression of religious faith.

As early as 1635 Roger Williams, the founder Rhode Island and separatist/puritan, publicly stated his belief an genuine Christian church required “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Williams was a contentious individual, and had been in conflict with the religious and other leaders of Massachusetts over his views on property and religious matters.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “Wall of Separation” in a private letter to describe his feelings about the nature of the separation the Constitution embodies. Jefferson wrote to the leaders of the Danbury Baptist Church:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [6]

Jefferson’s letter, however has been important to the United States Supreme Court. In the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, the Court cited a direct link between Jefferson’s “wall of separation” concept and the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Writing for the Court, Justice Black, after setting out in detail the history summarized here stated:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.” [7]

Before, and ever since Everson, the language of “Wall of Separation” has been a phrase of contention and difficulty for the Court and scholars. The phrase itself is not very helpful, for there never was nor can there be such a “wall.” It is better to stay with the idea of rights to believe and exercise that belief free from interference by the government.

One continuing idea of this series of blogs is the notion that human beings and human societies are inherently social and interconnected. It is neither desirable nor possible to divorce individuals nor to enforce some kind of artificial division between religious faith and public life. There are and must be areas in which religion is free to operate without governmental inferference. There are also areas where government is free to operate which may impact religious groups—and these areas are not necessarily separated. For example, freedom of religion does not permit religious sects to engage in human sacrifice, and the state has a valid concern in protecting “life, liberty and property” in regulating the taking of life.

Wall of Separation language is used to buttress decisions made on other grounds—and can lead courts to bad decisions. It is a better notion to talk about religion and government as operating in different spheres of human life, touching upon each other and impacting one another at various points. The goal of the Constitution and courts in interpreting the First Amendment is to express limitations upon each in the proper exercise of their functions. There is and can be no “wall of separation” because human life is unitary and our ultimate concerns impact our political life and our political life impacts our ultimate concerns.

Limitations on First Amendment Rights

The current Covid19 epidemic has provided a series of challenges that can be helpful in thinking through what the First Amendment does and does not allow and prohibit. There have been a number of cases challenging public health initiatives, mask regulations, restrictions on gatherings, and the like on religious grounds. The responses of the courts sometimes have sometimes had a political tone, nevertheless the following seems to be the case:

  1. The states and national government have a valid interest in protecting against Covid19, and religious groups have no absolute religious exemption from reasonable, valid health regulations.
  2. If a state is to have restrictions that apply to religious organizations, such restrictions cannot be different than those on comparable groups, and of course, cannot be motivated by animus against religion or a religious group.
  3. The courts are not equipped or empowered to, nor should they, second guess governmental determinations about the seriousness of the epidemic or adequate health regulations equally applied to all similarly situated entities, including churches. [8]

It would be nice to think that we are past the Covid19 cases, but the emergence of the Delta variant and the pressure to bring back masks and some forms of restrictions on public meetings may render this untrue. On the part of government, restrictions need to be carefully crafted, recognizing the importance of religious institutions to human life. On the part of churches, there needs to be an acceptance of the fact that the First Amendment does not give religious institutions any kind of absolute exemption from public health regulations.

It would seem to me that these principles are those that ought to guide the court in this area as in other areas. For example, there is no absolute exemption to religious groups for zoning regulations; however, a zoning regulation that seems to target churches, is dissimilar to regulations governing other entities that are similar, for example non-profit groups, and which would render the freedom of religion meaningless, should be suspect on exactly the criteria mentioned above.


We are not finished with the First Amendment, to which I will return near the end of these blogs. I count myself among those who are concerned about the state of religion and religious freedom in our nation. It is the premise of these blogs that religion plays an important role in human life and in human society. Its voice needs to be heard in matters of public concern, and there should be few restrictions imposed under the guise of restricting “hate speech.” In a free society, we all have to tolerate a people with beliefs and policy preferences to which we object. This is true for all Americans. On the other hand, the right to speak and to exercise religious faith in public is not a carte blanche to ignore the good of society or not be faced with legitimate regulation for the public good. Public health reputation is a very good example of a legitimate area of governmental interest.

This is where the “politics of love” has something to say, and Christians should be in the forefront of moving our society from its beguilement by identity politics and emotion-laden language about public matters. Public officials need to serve all their constituents, including religious groups, giving them the most freedom that is possible in any given situation. Religious groups need to give public agencies the benefit of their views and the benefit of their willingness to compromise in the process of seeking the public good.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] US Constitution, Amendment 1.

[2] I will discuss the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments when we reach the Civil War and its aftermath in this study. See, Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 US 396 (1940).

[3] For example in Reynolds v. United States 98 US 145 (1879), the U.S. Supreme court was faced with a challenge to a law prohibiting polygamy on the grounds that such a restriction would interfere with the religious beliefs of Mormons. Reynolds was a Mormon and claimed that polygamy was an essential part of the practice of his rekgions faith. The court upheld the law prohibiting polygamy. In Engle vs Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the court held that public schools cannot have a written prayer as a part of the their day, as whatever the form of that prayer, it would interfere with students of some other religion in such a way as to establish a religion.

[4] I am using this term made popular by the theologian Paul Tillich. In his book Dynamics of Faith, Tillich uses this definition of faith as state of being ultimately concerned. If an object of faith (God or whatever any religion claims ultimate) such faith demands the total surrender of the person who accepts this claim on his or her life, and that faith promises total fulfillment even if all others have claim to be subjected to it or rejected (See Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York, Harper & row, 1958), 1.

[5] In the beginning, the First Amendment protected minority Christian sects and Jewish people from religious persecution. Today, the Supreme Court has recognized that, under the pluralistic condition of contemporary America that freedom extends to all religious.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Church (January 1, 1802).

[7] Everson v. Board of Education, 330 US 1 (1947).

[8] The Federal Courts and US supreme court have been faced with a variety of challenges to various restrictions placed upon religions organizations due to the Covid epidemic. Justice Ginsburg died during the emergence of these cases and there has been some change in the direction of the court since Amy Comey Barrett joined the court. However, the general direction of the court has changed only in degree, in my opinion, not in legal substance. For a complete list of cases see, United States courts, “Court Orders and Updates During COVID-19 Pandemic” https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/court-website-links/court-orders-and-updates-during-covid19-pandemic, downloaded September 1, 2021.