Engstrom Deconstructs Kantian Philosophy

On April 20, Stephen Engstrom, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, visited Colgate to speak at the Philosophy Colloquium. During his lecture, Professor Engstrom outlined his paper, “Understanding Autonomy: Form and Content of Practical Knowledge,” which discussed German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s connection of morality to autonomy of the will. 

Engstrom aimed to address the problem in this connection of whether Kant’s autonomy could help us understand our ordinary obligations as “both necessary and contentful.” Engstrom did so by breaking down Kant’s argument, discussing two “impediments” to our understanding and finally connecting these insights to the problem of understanding important moral obligations.

Engstrom first discussed the meaning of “will” as the first impediment to understanding Kant’s argument. 

“Kant equates the will with practical reason, yet there are many cases in ordinary usage of the term that does not mean reason,” Engstrom said. “Nonetheless, Kant built on this definition to create the rest of his argument of autonomy.”

The second impediment involves society’s skepticism of practical reason in truly guiding people towards moral understanding. Engstrom explained that Kant addressed this issue by arguing for a practical knowledge that the proper use of goodness depends on. This knowledge is what Kant further built his argument of autonomy of the will on. 

“If the will, in the broadly scholastic sense employed by Kant, is practical reason, and if practical reason is a capacity for practical knowledge, then Kant’s doctrine of autonomy pertains to this capacity,” Engstrom said.

Since Engstrom recognized the importance of practical knowledge to the central argument, he then sought to describe it further. He explained three features of rational knowledge, which include “unity, discursivity and determinacy.” 

“Knowledge is unified in that it is in agreement with everything else. It is discursive in that it continuously grows and expands from one subject to another,” Engstrom said. “It is determinant in that it acts as law based on its necessity and universality.”

After determining the characteristics of knowledge, the speaker connected this insight to understandings of moral obligations. He explained that practical knowledge is a “form of self- knowledge, in which persons determine themselves.” Therefore, this practical knowledge acts as a mechanism of self-rule for those who abide by these judgements. According to his argument, if the will lies in the capacity for practical knowledge, and morality is based on the will’s autonomy, then morality’s obligations “constitute the rule of knowledge in practical life.”

Sophomore Serena Mathew noted that the lecture may have been too theoretically and ideologically advanced to a non-philosophy major at Colgate.

“[Engstrom’s talk] was not accessible to those not familiar with Kant or his concept of the autonomy of the will,” Mathew said.

Sophomore Anthony Duffy thoroughly enjoyed the talk, commenting on the speaker’s prowess in analyzing this school of philosophy.

“Professor Engstrom is one of the best interpreters of Kant that there are and it was a privilege to attend his talk,” Duffy said. “Kant’s conception of autonomy of the will is very complex and somewhat dense to the untrained eye, but Professor Engstrom’s insights, through which we can connect this conception to our ordinary understanding of obligations, was very helpful in that it has furthered my understanding of many of the ideological principles present in Kant’s philosophy.”