Linguistic Puzzles in Kant’s Groundwork

These are some thoughts sparked by the last Kant class

There is a puzzle in the start of Kant’s Groundwork. It’s a puzzle of language that may or may not be important. It was important to our class yesterday. The puzzle has to do with Kant’s use of good and its many forms. In the opening to the Groundwork, Kant says, “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will. Understanding wit, judgment and the like, whatever such talents of mind may be called, or courage, resolution, and perseverance in one’s plans, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable for many purposes, but they can also be extremely evil and harmful if the will which is to make use of the gifts of nature, and whose distinctive constitution is therefore called character, is not good.” (49). Kant uses the word good four different times in these two sentences, but the sense the word has is different in each application, depending on its interpretation. I want to explore the words being used to attempt a clear reading of these two sentences.

In the first sentence of the quote, Kant says that the only good thing without limitation is a good will. The good here could have a number of readings. One is that this is some matter of degree. There are many good things but there is only one thing that is good without limitation. The good without limitation is, for lack of a better term, good-er than good simpliciter. So, the good will is such that it towers over the good things, it can be called the good-est thing. This reading harmonizes with the second sentence. He claims that courage, resolution, and perseverance are undoubtedly good, but not good without limitation. So, a good will takes its place as the highest good. Later in the sentence, however, we encounter phrases that combat this reading.

Kant claims that the good things (courage, resolution, perseverance) could be bad things. It seems then, that the difference between good and good without limitation could not be a matter of degree. Kant seems to describe the good without limitation as good without exception, which juxtaposes with the things which can change from good to bad. So, as opposed to other things that could be good at times or bad at times, a good will is something which is good all the time. So, under this reading, a good will is related to other good things, in that it is also good, but it is special in that the good will has no possibility of being anything but good.

There are problems with this reading. Courage has the possibility of being good or bad. It can be bad if used for evil ends. It seems we could read this different ways as well. This could mean that courage itself is good or bad, that is, we could say to the person using his courage for evil that the courage is bad itself. Or, we could say that courage is good in and of itself, but its application is what can be good or bad. So, if we use the latter reading, we change (possibly) how a good will is different from other good things. Is it that the good will (the thing which is good without limitation) is good in all possible applications? Or is there something different in the ontology between good without limitation described this way and the way described earlier? That is, instead of the good without limitation being good regardless of application, it is characteristically different than the good used to describe other good things. Whether we use one reading or the other drastically changes the interpretation of the good will.

Another reading: we could read the good as a description of utility. Like for example, ‘a good chair’ is chair that fulfills its role well (it’s sturdy, comfortable, etc.). This reading is supported by the second sentence of the quote when Kant says, “[certain qualities] are undoubtedly good and desirable for many purposes”. So, they are good for something. It is not that the particular qualities themselves are good, but that they can be used for many good things. This supports the reading that the good without limitation has a different ontology than the good simpliciter. Other kinds of good things are good for something, but the good without limitation is good in itself. That is, it is good regardless of application or not. Our good indicator for courage is determined by what it is used for. The good will is good always, regardless of application. Not only is the good will good in all applications, but it itself is good. The good will, being good without limitation, is something fundamentally different from other things which can be described as good. I think this may be what Kant has in mind. The bad will turns the courage into the bad, has the possibility anyway. Yet again, is it that the bad will corrupts the courage into something bad (ontological reading) or is it that the bad will applies the courage badly (utility reading)? This I’m not sure of.

~ by Barky on September 1, 2011.

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