Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Freedom and Moral Agency in the Young Schleiermacher

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Freedom and Moral Agency in the Young Schleiermacher

Article excerpt

IN HIS EARLY, UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS ON ETHICS, Schleiermacher sketched the framework for a theory of human agency in which he defends a soft determinist view of freedom. He developed his theory as an alternative to noumenal causality, which he had come to reject as inconsistent with a comprehensive scientific conception of the world. Even as a young student, Schleiermacher was convinced that some form of naturalism is inescapable--we are firmly rooted within nature and history--and that, accordingly, our conceptions of morality and religion, to some extent, must be carved out within a naturalistic framework. Naturally, Schleiermacher found transcendental freedom to be an indefensible exception to natural causation and to our interconnectedness with the natural world. Equally important, he found it to be unnecessary for and an obstacle to a sound moral theory. In his early notebooks we find the following entry: "Speculative reason's concept of transcendental freedom is indispensable only for an otherworldly subject." (1) Yet, on the first page of his treatise on freedom, Schleiermacher highlights the impasse between Kantian and Leibnizian conceptions of freedom and intimates his dissatisfaction with both theories. (2) The dissatisfaction with Leibniz, though never directly stated, stems from Leibniz's atomistie conception of causality and inspires Schleiermacher to think seriously about issues in moral psychology which had been ignored or left undeveloped in the Leibnizian and, as it turns out, Kantian views. As we shall see, Schleiermacher discerned that human action originates from a complex constellation of motives and character, which coalesce at the moment of decision to determine what an agent will choose to do. Rather than appropriate an atomistic model for human action--the strongest single or composite desire determines what one chooses to do--Schleiermacher constructs a more organic model, one based on a richer moral psychology in which human decisions represent what Albert Blackwell has called the vector sum of an intricate lattice of representations and incentives. (3) Central to his treatise On Freedom is the attempt to unpack the moral psychology that underlies and grounds human agency.

In the very early notebook entries, particularly the short commentary on Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics 8-9, we observe Schleiermacher occupied with the issue of moral motivation. This was a time in which, as we know, he was also engaged in an intense study of Kant's first two Critiques. Significantly, from the beginning Schleiermacher writes of sentiment (Empfindung) or feeling (Gefuhl) as providing the motivational force for human action. He was convinced that sentiment--the satisfaction or pleasure that one receives for performing an act of beneficence, for instance--was too precarious to develop or sustain a habitual pattern of behavior. In short, Empfindung is not a reliable motivation to perform one's duty to those less socially and economically blessed. Schleiermacher writes: "A beneficence, which actually nourishes social sentiments and is to awaken the need for them, can only be a beneficence that goes beyond the system of its own ideas and acts in accordance with an alien purpose." (4) When exploring alternative motive-forces, Schleiermacher still refers to feelings, especially moral feelings, and never considers seriously that the mere recognition of duty could provide the sufficient motivation for beneficent action. A rationalist theory of motivation was thus never tempting bait, although he never goes so far in the Aristotle commentary as to maintain explicitly that feeling is a necessary condition for motivation. There certainly is no evidence in that commentary that he was prepared to defend feeling as a sufficient condition. His primary concern is with our interconnection (Verbindung) with others--thus the reflection on beneficence--and the way in which that interconnection can be nurtured so as to provide the foundation for community. …

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