CHRISTOPHER INSOLE | Kant and the Creation of Freedom. A Theological Problem | Oxford University Press, 2013 


By Christopher Insole

I consider myself privileged to have received this attentive, insightful, and appreciative treatment from Wolfgang Ertl. There is so much in Ertl’s piece that is rich, provocative, and worthy of extensive reflection. It will provide me with much food for thought in my future research. In this response, I want to just pick up on three main criticisms, which are as follows:

1. My focus on Thomas Aquinas occludes other potentially significant scholastic sources, such as Occam, Scotus and Luis de Molina.

2. I neglect an alternative conception of ‘concurrence’, which might be closer to Kant’s position.

3. It is not clear that ‘creation and mere conservationism’ (without concurrence) are compatible with the significant freedom that Kant desires. Therefore, my claim that Kant’s transcendental idealism preserves such freedom is debatable.

1. The Focus on Thomas Aquinas

Ertl is, of course, correct that attending to other mediæval sources could have been illuminating. To an extent, I simply receive this point gratefully, and will allow some of Ertl’s suggestions to shape future research and reading. In terms of whether or not figures such as Occam, Scotus, and Molina should have been discussed in Kant and the Creation of Freedom, I am inclined to make the following defence.

Kant and the Creation of Freedom is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of the mediæval heritage in Kant’s thought. If it were, than the neglect of these other figures would be something of a lacuna. Rather, the book is organised around a conceptual question:

How, for Kant, can it be said that human beings are free, given that they are created by God?

I argue that the only conceptual options available to Kant, tracking the theological tradition that he receives, are occassionalism, mere conservationism, or concurrentism. Of these three, only the latter two, mere conservationism and concurrentism, are live options for Kant. The key thing here is to get correct the shape and nuance of the conceptual distinction between mere conservationism and concurrentism. Under the philosophical guidance of Alfred Freddoso, and also drawing inspiration from the theologian Kathryn Tanner, I use Aquinas, Suárez, and Leibniz, to give us the shape of this distinction. If these figures manage to deliver the conceptual nuance and precision we need, then there would be no particular case for drawing upon, say, Molina.

This does not, in itself, answer Ertl’s challenge, but it does provide the proper framing for the challenge. The question is rather this: does a figure such as Molina throw up an alternative way of carving up the conceptual map, such that some of the conclusions drawn in the book are shown to be partial, or inadequate? This takes us to the next criticism.

2. Alternative Conceptions of Concurrence 

Ertl comments that there are “two very different versions of concurrentism developed by philosophers and theologians who claim that God’s cooperation with secondary causes goes beyond mere creating and conserving them”. In outline, the two models, as presented by Ertl are as follows:

(a) The Thomist model: On this model, God provides a “causal contribution to the secondary causes, and that this activity is required to release their causal power”. So God “premoves the will of a rational agent to render it active”.

(b) The Molinist model: On this model, God provides “a causal contribution, along the finite causes or together with them”.

Ertl finds that I do “not really discuss this alternative model of concursus“.

My worry is that neither of these models, as set out by Ertl should be considered accounts of concurrence, properly and traditionally speaking. They both seem to involve breaking up the single action into discrete strands, one of which is contributed by God, and another by the human being. The ‘Thomist model’, as set out by Ertl, would be compatible with the idea that the action is broken up into a temporal sequence: first of all, the divine action ‘prior’ to the movement of the will, which is needed in some sense to move the will, and then the human action. The Molinist model is even more clearly not concursus: it seems to conceive of a divine action as one strand in an action, alongside human action. The point of concurrence is not that God can act alongside human beings, where, as Ertl puts it “created causes on their own” can never be “sufficient to bring about an effect in the world”. Rather, the point of concurrence is this: when the human being acts, God acts immediately and directly in this action, in a way that does not, in any way, threaten the freedom of the creature.

This can be set out rather unpoetically, by using the following scheme. Where HA stands for ‘human action’, and DA for ‘divine action’, we can depict Ertl’s ‘Thomist model’ in the following terms:

First of all, DA, and then, following this, HA (and where there is no DA, there is no HA).

Ertl’s ‘Molinist model’ looks like this:

DA + HA (occurring simultaneously) = a concurring action

But the main claim of the concurrence account of human freedom is that there is no such thing as a self-standing HA. Human action always depends, immediately and directly upon divine action. We might depict concurring action then as


Now, ordinary human actions, and indeed all created secondary causes, are such cases. Molinism, by my reckoning, is not an “alternative model of concurrence”, but rather, a version of the denial of concurrence. This is made clear by Ertl’s comment that, for the Molinist, the “human capacity of cooperation is beyond the reach of divine power, and this in turn is precisely where human freedom predominantly manifests itself”. If, as Ertl claims, “Molina places humans and God on the same level with regard to their freedom”, then this is, indeed, as Ertl says “a truly revolutionary claim, from a most unlikely source”. Molina does not, therefore, present an alternative conceptual space, somehow between mere conservationism and concurrence. He is, on the account set out by Ertl, simply a mere conservationist.

Even if Molinism (according to Ertl’s account) is a type of conservationism, there might still be some value in a comparison of Kant and Molina, if it turns out that Molinism is the type of conservationism that Kant backs. Ertl describes the heart of Molinism as the view that God knows, by virtue of his omniscience, how a “free agent would act in every possible circumstance”, such that, by “virtue of his middle knowledge”, God knows how “each agent would ‘react’ to acts of grace on the part of God”. The recommendation to read Kant as a Molinist is suggestive, and worth following up (as some already have). Any such attempt does, though, have to reckon with two difficult issues:

(a) There is little textual evidence, in Kant’s writings, of anything like Molinism, or of the category of ‘middle knowledge’.

(b) More substantially, there are philosophical grounds to doubt that Molinism could be attractive to Kant. First of all, it is not clear that middle knowledge is compatible with human beings having non-compatibilist freedom. This is a standardly contested issue. But, for the sake of argument, let us say that, in some sense, middle knowledge is so compatible, in that human beings, on some interpretation, are ‘able to do otherwise’, and enjoy ultimate responsibility for their actions. Nonetheless, I do not think it is compatible with what Kant himself requires from transcendental freedom, which involves the human being sharing a quasi-divine property of being an unmoved mover: this involves not being impacted upon by any prior or antecedent causes, and not being moved by any external object, good, or perfection.[1] In this connection the reference to ‘circumstances’ in the Molinist account of freedom is interesting, where God knows “how a free agent would act in every possible circumstance”. For Kant, in a sense, there is only genuine freedom when there are no circumstances. Ertl’s floating the possibility of a Molinist reading of Kant has helped me to understanding something that I only half-grasped before: that transcendental freedom, in its demand for total independence from all external causes, goes some way beyond non-compatibilist libertarianism. Certainly, transcendental freedom involves the possibility of doing otherwise (AP), and the claim that we are ultimately responsible for (at least some) of our actions (UR). But it also involves more than that. Even if middle knowledge is compatible with non-compatibilism, it is not compatible with transcendental freedom.

3. Is Kant Correct that ‘Creation and Mere Conservationism’ are Compatible with ‘Significant Freedom’?

Ertl finds that it is not clear that ‘creation and mere conservationism’ (without concurrence) are compatible with the significant freedom that Kant desires. Therefore, he infers, my claim that Kant’s transcendental idealism preserves such freedom is debatable. Ertl writes that

in Insole’s opinion, Kant thinks that the freedom thesis about human agents can be upheld if and when the creation (and conservation) thesis is applied to the agent as a thing in itself, and not as an appearance.

In response to this, Ertl puts the question “bluntly”:

[C]an we secure a sufficiently strong variant of human freedom in spite of God’s creation and conservation activity with regard to the moral agents and does the Critical Kant think we can?

As Ertl points out, there are two questions here. Is this what Kant thinks he does? And does Kant succeed? Ertl is correct that I answer the first question with an emphatic ‘yes’. I argue that Kant thinks that transcendental idealism about space and time removes the threat to freedom that stems from our ontological dependency on God. This is the main exegetical claim of the book. I do not consider, though, that the book attempts a defence of this claim by Kant.

Rather, I was concerned to do two things: first of all, to allow Kant put his ‘best foot forward’, and to ventriloquise the reasons why he thinks that we can be creatures, and enjoy transcendental freedom. I try to show that Kant’s position is philosophically well-motivated (by Kant’s own lights), and not guilty of some of the more ‘obvious’ errors that Kant is sometimes accused of. Secondly, rather than defending Kant’s claim, the book seeks to draw out what is theologically at stake in Kant’s defence of this position. I aim to be fair to both the concurrentist and the mere conservationist. In setting out the case for concurrence, I show that thinkers such as Suárez and Freddoso do indeed consider (as Ertl does) that the logic of God’s creation and conservationism ex nihilo in fact pushes us to accept concurrence. In a way, this gets to the nub of the issue: the theological tradition would deny that we can have something like transcendental freedom (which denies concurrence) and be creatures. In fact, I agree with the traditional judgement here, although (I think) I only ‘reveal my hand’ in one sentence of the book.[2] So by a roundabout route, I find myself in agreement with the drift of Ertl’s objection here. I agree that God’s creation and conservation ex nihilo, when properly understood, commit one to concurrence, which is inconsistent with Kant’s transcendental freedom, inasmuch as such freedom is incompatible with concurrence.

An intriguing strand of Ertl’s response suggests, though, that Ertl takes a difference lesson from this incompatibility. I take it that Ertl does not therefore endorse concurrence, as he seems to have considerable anxieties about concurrence destroying human freedom. I find this, for example, where Ertl praises Molinism, in that it can “defuse a problem which arises in the Thomist model in general”, around the “threat to human freedom” by virtue of the “irresistibility” of divine grace (an ‘inability to do otherwise’), whereby “human freedom” is “under threat”. Ertl comments that “amazingly, Aquinas sees no fatal threat to human freedom” with regard to God being the “final cause as the object of happiness in the form of the beatific vision”, nor as “an efficient cause on the will”. The use of the term “amazingly” here is revealing, pointing, it seems, to Ertl’s reaction against the instincts of the traditional theologian in relation to concurrence. Theologians who accept concurrence do so on the basis of a deeper commitment, which involves the view that no divine action upon the creature, no matter how total and direct, could ever be violent or coercive, or undermining of freedom. For Kant, I argue in the book, any external determination, even from the uncreated perfection that is God, would be considered destructive of freedom. Ertl seems to go beyond even Kant here, finding that not only is concurrence incompatible with our freedom, but that so also is our being created. Ertl floats two intriguing suggestions: first of all, that one might incline to a position (“metaphysical existentialism”) which involves the claim that “free agents are uncreated”, where “their existence is something like a bedrock fact”, and that, secondly, Kant “could be seen as extending” the notion of uncreated divine ideas (about metaphysical possibility, for example) “to maintaining the God-independent actuality of at least some entities, namely free agents”.

The second exegetical claim is, I fear, rather doubtful, although one might get somewhere with the richly ambivalent writings published as Kant’s Opus Postumum. In relation to the more conceptual claim, that a commitment to transcendental freedom should push us to reject both divine concurrence, and our status as created beings, I find Ertl’s suggestion that we regard ourselves as “uncreated” to be thrilling and fearless. Ertl follows through of a sequence of thought, in a way that bears the mark of Kant’s own ruthless intellectual honesty. Although, of course, the claim is ambiguous between a more and a less exciting reading. For the secular atheist to say that we are “uncreated” is unexciting: this simply means that we are uncreated, because there is no creator. For the theist to suggest that free human beings are “uncreated” is far more exciting, sounding Platonic harmonies that got a figure such as Origen into so much trouble. It would be intriguing to hear more from Ertl about how exciting he means to be here.

Received: 12 June 2017.


[1] For a defence of different facets of this claim, see pp. 104–12 of Kant and the Creation of Freedom (‘Noumenal First Causation’), as well as Insole (2015).

[2] The sentence occurs on p. 214, where I admit that I “share Freddoso’s sense” that (quoting Freddoso) “it is obvious enough” that “mere conservationsim derogates from divine power/uniqueness”, although I also endorse Freddoso’s comment that “I see no easy way to convince someone who disagrees”. I describe this as a point where “we turn our spade”. The Freddoso reference is to Freddoso (1991:577).


Freddoso, A (1991), ‘God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes: Why Conservation is not Enough’, Philosophical Perspectives 5: 553–85.

Insole, C. (2015), ‘A Thomistic Reading of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Searching for the Unconditioned’, Modern Theology 31(2): 284–311.

© Christopher J. Insole, 2017.

Christopher Insole is Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, UK. Insole’s work is concerned with the relationship between fundamental metaphysical and doctrinal commitments, and patterns of thought in meta-ethics and practical reasoning. His latest publication is The Intolerable God: Kant’s Theological Journey (Eerdmans 2016).