By Byron Williston

Critical Commentary on Martin Schönfeld’s The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000)

Byron Williston, Wilfrid Laurier University 

Schönfeld’s book on the young Kant has an argument I find unassailable, namely that reality is, for the precritical Kant, coherent and unified. This is of course at odds with the fundamental assumption of the critical philosophy that there is a basic breach in reality between the noumenal and phenomenal realms. So, rather than try to upset this elegant way of presenting the distinction between early and late Kant, I want instead to look at two more particular interpretations of the Young Kant. The first concerns the nature of what Schönfeld takes to be Kant’s self-critique in the Dreams of a Spirit Seer; the second concerns the problem of freedom, and especially its connection to morality.

Dreams of a Spirit Seer 

Kant wrote Dreams in 1765. One of the reasons I want to look at this book is because it is so bizarre, so difficult to interpret, and, for anyone who has laboured over the prose of the first Critique, such a delight to read. The book was ostensibly an attack on the weird angelology of Emmanuel Swedenborg. In the preamble to this book, Kant predicts that the reader will be completely satisfied with what he has to say: “[f]or the bulk of it he [the reader] will not understand, parts of it he will not believe, and as for the rest—he will dismiss it with scornful laughter.” Swedenborg, evidently, believed himself capable of conversing with the angels and the dead. Furthermore, the dead themselves are said to form a society of spirits organized into the form of a Great Man. That is, each spirit occupies a place, equivalent to a bodily organ, within a larger spirit-body. These spirit-bodies then occupy the place of yet larger organs, this time belonging to the Greatest Man. Significantly, the whole show takes place in the context of a world that looks just like ours, complete with gardens, galleries, and arcades.

For Schönfeld, it is this last feature of Swedenborg’s vision that is troublesome. He writes, “ . . . Swedenborg’s world of angels is the ultimate and absurd consequence of Kant’s own precritical project.”1 So, Kant’s critique of Swedenborg is ultimately a self-critique. Why? Schönfeld’s master- argument, as I have already hinted at, is that Kant’s precritical project is defined by the attempt to  wed two seemingly incompatible philosophical vantage points: Newtonian mechanics on the one hand; purpose, human freedom, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God, on the other. Here, the immortality of the soul is most relevant. But Kant’s precritical take on the soul is deeply ambiguous. That is, Kant seems committed to the claim both that the soul is somehow of a material nature—as distinguished from being matter—and that it is immortal. Here, then, is how Schönfeld expresses Kant’s dilemma:

[T]he inevitable consequence of the precritical project was that bodies and souls, or material and immaterial substances, are subject to the same laws. At the same time, the precritical project must not rule out the possibility of an after-life. . . . Because souls are substances that obey the same fundamental laws as bodies, the immaterial community of the souls must contain the same structure as the physical world. The reductio ad absurdum of the precritical project is Swedenborg’s spirit-world–-a world whose inhabitants are not even aware of their postmortal state because it looks and feels just like their old home. 2

This is a compelling interpretation, but do we need to go this far? Let me suggest a way in which Kant might have resisted this conclusion from within the confines of the precritical project. Kant makes a distinction between two ways of conceiving of the soul. He agrees with those who argue that the soul is not matter, but insists that the soul is nevertheless of a material nature. As Schönfeld points out, being of a material nature means that the soul must be an “elementary wellspring of force,” and even that souls must be “subject to the same fundamental patterns of reality deduced in the New Elucidation.”3 From this, it is supposed to follow that Kant cannot distinguish his account of spirit-life from that of Swedenborg. But does this follow? The critique of Swedenborg is obviously not aimed at the general premise that there exists an afterlife. With this Kant agrees right until the end of his career. The attack, rather, is aimed at Swedenborg’s claim that he has experience of the afterlife, very detailed experience. Kant clearly thinks that this is impossible, and ridicules it accordingly

In other words, I don’t see any reason to suppose that Kant has, because of his claim that we must understand soul-substance on analogy with body-substance, painted himself into the corner Schönfeld puts him in. He does not need to say that the postmortal state looks and feels just like this one. The description of souls as elementary wellsprings of force is just too general or sparse to warrant that claim. Perhaps an analogy would clarify my point. Imagine Mary, born deaf. It might be that in the course of her interaction with other people, she came across frequent reports of strange things called sounds, for example the sound of trumpets. Suppose she has good reason to think that those who speak of “the sound of trumpets” are generally reliable and not given to deceiving her. She might then conclude with good reason that something called “the sound of trumpets” exists. She might even explain this to herself in the form of a transcendental argument: the condition of the possibility of my friends being non-deceitful (or, more basically, being my friends) is that such reports generally refer to existent things.

Curious about sounds, she asks her friends what they are. Told that the sound of trumpets is like seeing bright red, she remains unenlightened because this does not sufficiently distinguish sounds from sights. Unperturbed, her friends go technical: they tell her that the human ear is an astonishing transducer that transforms the energy of a sound wave into a compressional wave in the inner ear. The energy of this wave is then transferred into nerve impulses that in turn can be transmitted to the brain. Finally—this is the tricky part—the same psychophysical laws that govern the production of other qualia result in the hearing of a sound. Mary is now slightly more informed about the physiology of the ear and brain and knows that the explanation of sound is analogous to those of the other senses. But, clearly, she is still utterly perplexed about the phenomenology of sounds, and nothing in any of the explanations she has received will allow her to speculate accurately about them.

If this is right, then Mary’s knowledge of the laws of nature governing hearing vastly underdetermines any knowledge she might have of the experience of hearing. By analogy, then, if all our knowledge of the soul is as embodied, then when it becomes disembodied—and even if we know that it is an elementary wellspring of force—we will not have a clue what the after-life will be like. This description of the soul also vastly underdetermines our knowledge of post-mortal existence. This is all Kant needs to say in order to distance himself from Swedenborg’s hallucinations.

Freedom and Morality 

Next, I want to look at the problem of freedom and its connection to practical philosophy. Schönfeld has a very clear and penetrating chapter on the New Elucidation, that text where Kant tries to solve the problem of free will. The driving theme here, as throughout Schönfeld’s book, is to show that Kant is trying to reconcile metaphysics and science. More specifically, the problem is freedom and determinism. Kant’s compatibilism is, in brief, as follows. There is a chain of events starting in the external world, continuing to motives, thence to will, thence to action. But Kant breaks this chain in half, claiming that the chain leading from the world to motives is determined efficiently, while the chain leading from motive to the will and ultimately to action is determined spontaneously. If this is right, then we have both spontaneity and efficient causation in a single chain, and freedom—as spontaneity—is not a problem. But of course it is problem, precisely because the relation between intellectual motives and the inclinations of the will has not been specified. If action is to be truly spontaneous, and therefore free, the will must be able to range over the possibilities presented to it by the motives. Kant must say this so as to avoid falling into the trap of determinism. As Schönfeld points out, whereas the motive is passive, Kant sees the will as active, i.e. it ultimately causes itself. Freedom consists in self-determination.

The result of all this is that Kant preserves both rational freedom and necessity. Schönfeld’s question, however, is this: does Kant succeed in deriving both from a common ground?4 It is important to see why the answer to this question is “no.” We might say that a common ground of both kinds of events is the principle of sufficient or determining reason. Clearly, the chain of efficient causes leading to the formation of motives obeys this principle, but so too, it might be argued, does spontaneous action since it is grounded in the self. But Schönfeld very astutely notes that this option is not available to Kant because he can give no content to the notion of self- determination. My free choices are not the product of reason, as the later Kant will say, because rational motives belong entirely to the chain of efficient causes. There is no common ground between efficient and spontaneous causation because there is no determinate ground at all to spontaneous causation. I want to relate this problem to Kant’s early ethics.

Schönfeld points out that in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant denounced the project of the New Elucidation as an impossibility.5 In the later Kant, freedom becomes a practical postulate. This leaves one with the impression that Kant does not have too much more to say in the precritical period about the problem of human freedom. But already within the precritical corpus there is a pronounced move toward the critical position on this issue. Two texts in particular are interesting in this connection, namely, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1763) and the Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality (1763). Now Schönfeld does discuss these texts—though sparingly—observing, for example, that with the Observations “ . . . metaphysics had been cast out, and practical philosophy had usurped its throne.”66What I want to suggest, however, is that Kant actually delivers in this text a foundation for human freedom that can serve as an alternative to the metaphysical foundation sought after in the New Elucidations.

The Observations and the Inquiry are Kant’s attempt to come to terms not only with Rousseau but also with the British moralists, most notably Hutcheson. The Observations makes a distinction between the beautiful—feminine, joyous, agreeable—and the sublime–-masculine, earnest, committed to principles, and so on. As far as the emotions are concerned, sympathy and complaisance (Gefälligkeit) are beautiful, while the dutiful subordination to moral principles is sublime. For Kant, the moral feeling of the sublime is the feeling of the beauty and dignity of human nature. This feeling then comes to form the bedrock of moral obligation. It is the immediate effect of the consciousness of the feeling of pleasure combined with a representation of an object. However, as Alfred Denker has argued, this left Kant dissatisfied. He could not decide whether reason, through the formulation of a necessary end of action, constructs the contents of moral feelings or whether the notion of a necessary end is an unanalysable constituent of moral feeling. Denker states the choice this way: we have here either an ethics of “autonomous practical reason” or an “intuitive ethics of value.” 7

While Kant himself does not answer this question, it is important to note that whatever answer he might give to it would go a good way toward solving the major problem of the New Elucidations. Recall that this is the problem of finding a determining reason for free action. In the Observations, Kant claims that the object of moral feeling (the sublime) is different in kind from the object of moral sympathy (the beautiful). More specifically, the ground of moral feeling is universal and independent of our subjective inclinations. The fundamental ground of obligation is rooted in the sublime apprehension of the dignity of human nature. But this now provides a principle for spontaneous action as such, one that can both ground a practical conception of human freedom and remain sharply distinguished from the play of subjective inclinations. There are two reasons for thinking that this is what Kant was up to.

First, Kant’s lecture course of 1764 on the philosophy of Rousseau was explicitly designed to instill in his students a passion for thinking for themselves. The following cluster of ideas recurs throughout the lecture notes. Philosophy is a therapy for the corrupted human condition. Philosophy teaches universal respect. The natural state of humans is to be free and equal. The implication of all this is clear: we are equal because we are all free, and the highest expression of our freedom is to treat others in accordance with their intrinsic dignity, i.e. equally. It is therefore our duty to oppose the injustices that are solely a product of artificial inequality. 8

Second, and more decisively, in the Inquiry Kant marks off his moral philosophy from that of Crusius in at least one important respect, namely, in the distinction between necessitas legalis and the command of God. Crusius believed that morality is externally rooted in the will of God and that moral motivation is therefore predicated on obeisance to this external source. Kant, by contrast, argues that morality is a deliverance of human nature itself. This move encapsulates a trend in the early history of modern moral philosophy, away from divine command theory and toward a notion of autonomous self-governance. Previous natural law theories—those of Hobbes and Cumberland, for instance—held that force, in the form of sanctions and rewards, is a legitimate ground of obligation. Clearly, Kant is already rejecting this theory.

If these reflections are on the right track, then one may have to qualify the claim that, with respect at least to the problem of human freedom, the precritical project as a whole can be defined as the attempt to provide a theoretical reconciliation of science and metaphysics. Rather than attempting to find a theoretical ground of spontaneous action, Kant is already talking about the ground, located within practical judgment as such, of autonomy.

Again, these are minor points. Before reading Schönfeld’s impeccably argued book I was one of those who thought that there was no single precritical project, but that the texts of that period were nothing more than a confused and confusing cocktail of philosophical opinions—some insightful, others crazy red herrings. Happily, Schönfeld has awakened me from that dogmatic slumber.


Works Cited 

Denker, Alfred. “The Vocation of Being Human.” New Essays on the Precritical Kant. Ed. Tom Rockmore. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2001.

Schönfeld, Martin. The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000

  1. Martin Schönfeld, The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000) 241.
  2. Schönfeld 244.
  3. Schönfeld 244.
  4. Schönfeld 159.
  5. Schönfeld 160.
  6. Schonfeld 231.
  7. Alfred Denker, “The Vocation of Being Human,” New Essays on the Precritical Kant, ed. Tom Rockmore (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2001) 139.
  8. Cf. Denker 147.

Byron Williston

Byron Williston is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. He previously taught philosophy at the University of South Florida. Dr. Williston earned his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He has an edited volume on Descartes' Moral Philosophy coming out in fall 2002 with Humanity Books.