Kant contra Herder: Almost against Nature
Martin A. Bertman, Helsinki University
In Rousseau, Immanuel Kant found a congenial emphasis on (1) morality as the most important aspect of human dignity: its quality being freedom, (2) the perfectibility of humankind, and (3) the need to provide concrete, circumstantial proposals for moral progress in politics, particularly, in terms of the betterment of relations between states, especially the ending of war. Of Rousseau’s impact, Kant writes, “By inclination I am an inquirer, I feel a consuming thirst for knowledge, the unrest which goes with the desire to progress in it, and the satisfaction with every advance in it. There was a time when I believed that this constituted the honor of humanity, and I despised the people, who know nothing. Rousseau corrected me in this. This blinding prejudice disappeared, I learned to honor man.”1
Unlike Rousseau, however, who championed the “reasons of the heart”2 against Cartesian rationalism, Kant responded to the above themes as a philosopher committed to presenting a plausibly systematic and detailed theory of the capacity and limits of knowing: “an inventory of all our (mental) possessions through pure reason, systematically arranged.”3 Yet, he opposed the dogmatic rationalist metaphysics of the Leibniz-Wolffian School, which tried to provide knowledge of reality by logical cum ontological principles.4 Kant’s critical turn avoids this sort of metaphysics whose lineage is locatable to Parmenides and Pythagoras via Plato.
However, as a waterway between two banks, Kant opposed the intuitionist attitude much inspired by Rousseau, which either takes nature as its norm or degrades nature because of a commitment to the supernatural. Rousseau’s heart in harmony with nature was understood more romantically than his influence on Kant. It merged with traditional religious dogma in Jacobi and Hamann or flowed into a romantic modification of the Enlightenment in Herder, Goethe, and Schiller.
For instance, Jacobi provokes an important cultural controversy defending theism; he held that “God as Nature” (Deus sive Natura) in the rationalism of the exemplary Spinoza leads to nihilism and to a pantheistic “atheism.” Impressed by Hume’s skepticism, but an intuitive believer, Jacobi allies himself with the radically subjective theism of Hamann (1730-87), who says, “The light is in my heart but as soon as I seek to carry it to my head it goes out.”5 Further, Hamann, a Christian mystic, writing to Jacobi suggests his distance from Kant, his fellow Koenigsburger: “I am close to suspecting that the whole of philosophy consists more of language than of reason, and the misunderstanding of countless words, the personification of arbitrary abstractions.”6 The Aufklaerer Kant argues against such a defamation of philosophy based on a dogmatic intuition.
Not only theists, in the tradition of St. Augustine7, who rely on God’s grace to find truth by a dogmatic theology, are enemies of the Enlightenment. Rousseau, whose views are open to selective emphasis because of their unsystematic quality and reliance on intuition, is dangerous for Enlightenment. Herder (1744-1803) is conspicuous in taking Rousseau’s nature centered intuitions and marrying them to an organic historical vitalism that challenges a doctrine of humanity molded by the rational qua skeptical knife-edge of such as Voltaire. Kant’s enlightenment direction is beyond skepticism and a commonsense reasonability, which often was larded by a reliance on utility and sentiment, e.g., Hutcheson and Hume. Instead, Kant offers a universal ethical doctrine that propels his speculative systematic doctrine of reality. His approach was challenged by the romantic doctrine of Herder, his former student (1780-2), who had left him for Hamann.
Kant’s program seeks to overcome the limitations of the normative pure heart, with its flirtation with primitivism in Rousseau and, particularly, in Herder’s national personality, which is Rousseauean but without the balance and moderation of Rousseau’s universal morality based on natural harmony. Against intuitional doctrines, Kant offers a philosophical defense of the ethical or “pure will” as the standard for political action. Rousseau’s “general will” inspires Kant; however, he sought to extend its political conception by its universal representation of the ethical realm. For Rousseau, volonte generale combines nature and cultural development of a nation’s personality. Herder interprets this as a cultural organic view of cultural personality in the sweep of history. In contrast, Kant makes the rational universal ethical ground aside from nature the norm for politics. Thereby, he de-emphasizes the national personality, a fact of historical praxis, by subjecting it to the moral progress of humankind. Since the foundation of Kant’s ethics is aside from the natural realm (Reich) he disputes a naturalistic orientation in both Rousseau and Herder, as well as the sentimental theorists.
In “Mussmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte” (“Conjectural Beginnings of Human History,” 1785), Kant presents his own reading of Rousseau: “the assertions of the celebrated J.J. Rousseau are often misinterpreted and do, indeed, have an appearance of inconsistency. In On the Influence of the Sciences and On the Inequality of Man, he shows quite correctly that there is an inevitable conflict between culture and the human species, considered as a natural species of which every member ought wholly to attain his natural end. But in his Emile, in his Social Contract, and other writings he tries to solve this much harder problem: how culture was to move forward, in order to bring about such a development of mankind, considered as a moral species, as to end the conflict between the natural and species. Now here it must be seen that all evils which express human life, and all vices which dishonor it, spring from this unresolved conflict.”8
The profound reorientation in Kant is the resolution of this conflict by separating nature and morality into two orders and showing, through nature’s purpose, that there is a progressive asymptotic convergence between the two spheres which will result in a mirrored objective (“cosmopolitan”) culture of the subjective unconditional and universal morality. This vision asserts the transcendental unity of reason. It projects a demand for an objective natural and subjective moral determination: in the end, rather Platonically, circumstance is steadied by the unmoved reality that steers it and Kant substitutes the Creator God who set it to teleological motion for Plato’s Idea of the Good and the pagan inclination to hold a doctrine of an eternal nature.
The Critique of Judgment, Part 2, speculates about a teleological principle built into nature for progress culminating in a republican form of government, which is the political representation of the noumenal, ethical realm. The epistemology of the two realms, the natural and the noumenal, are separate; the later, nature, is a creation of a good God. This intention for a systematic doctrine, though admittedly one depending on “rational faith” rather than knowledge, assumes “freedom, God and immortality.”
This is evidence that ethics, the realm of freedom and autonomous identity of rational beings, shares with physics, the realm of determined circumstance, Kant’s Aufklaerung loyalty to reason: both are lawful. Committed to Newtonian physics, Kant agrees with the mechanistic view of nature and defines nature as simply “the conformity of appearance to law in space and time.”9
Herder challenges just this aspect of Kant’s mechanism. Herder’s anti-mechanistic view of nature captivated the Goethe circle in Weimar. At issue is whether nature is an organic continuance from lower to higher, reminiscent of the graded ontology in Platonism, especially the biological functionalism of Aristotle.10 Unlike Herder, Kant held that life in respect to matter, and man in respect to other living beings, is radically different and has a mysterious origin. Consequently, Kant invites a theistic position and yet one in opposition to Spinoza’s rational naturalism. Even Newton’s idea of space as “God’s sensorium” lacks Kant’s sharp differentiation between nature and “super- nature” and could be a deist danger to Kant’s theism.
However, Herder’s vitalist modification of Sturm und Drang proposes a monist consideration of mind as merely the organizational process of body by a romantic concept of nature, going beyond a machine model for physics. For Herder, there is no separation of human faculties; this opposes Kant’s striving for a foundational rational unity of reason, understanding and judgment (Verstand, Verstehen, and Urteilskraft). For Kant’s transcendental or critical philosophy these mental faculties not only decisively separate man from other natural creatures, but they also provide an understanding of his true essence in the non-natural, noumenal realm: they allow man to discover that his essence is ethical rather than natural.
The “mystic” or Schwaermer bent in Herder, which seeks to find in oneself the spiritual force in nature, is romantic. Particularly, Herder and the Weimar Kreis (Circle) stress intuitive sensibility is in harmony with nature. Further, the Genius is a creative force in culture and politics because of this creative intuition. The mystical religion of Hamann, Herder’s mentor after he left Kant’s tutelage, has the characteristic romantic view of the systematic thinker as a “rational spider” (Spinne is a pun on Spinoza11). Hamann’s advice to Herder – “Think less and live more”12 – and his caution to seek the language of the divine in everything, encouraged Herder’s romantic inclinations. The Genius, even as thinker, is in touch with his feelings, in a fullness of feeling which, simultaneously, is rooted in the “deep down under things” of nature. This added to the affect of Herder’s exaggerating Rousseau’s aspect of personality, as the mirror of feeling and the locus of freedom which, in Rousseau, was restrained by a sense of the natural equality of mankind and, further, the education of a nation through its civil law based on that humanity.
For Herder, language is at the basis of the cultural genius of a nation, and formed by the literary Genius, say Goethe. When the Genius intuitively grasps culture, he creates further a national language. The process is a creative, organic development of the natural feelings of the historical development of a nation. The genius/personality of a nation is thereby to be found in its literature and art; it precludes a foreigner and this doctrine of national romanticism, tied to nature cum native soil (Heimat), alienates the humanity of the outsider: historically for Germany, it is particularly anti- urban, anti-Jewish, and, in a sense, anti-intellectual.
It is important to understand this attitudinal complex in terms of the challenge Kant faced to his universalistic ethical and cosmopolitan political views. Kant’s essential rational being – man or woman, Jew or Gentile, Creature or God Himself – is essentially a person: each human creature also has a personality by the “accident” of natural determination.
Herder and the “feeling-first” German romantics follow rather close to Hamann’s path. Isaiah Berlin takes Hamann to be the first German anti- Enlightenment figure that struggles against a cultural invasion from France. Herder’s conflict with the French Enlightenment’s doctrine of classical restraint through universal laws ordering creativity in art and philosophy is Hamann’s direction. Herder’s historico-cultural view, despite the wide sweep of his nature based ideas, also fosters the politically inward and provincial. Herder’s occasional visionary tone with its lack of restraint is characteristic of Hamann.
In Kant’s review (1795) of the second volume of Herder’s Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind, he makes more explicit his defense of the Enlightenment against Herder than in his review of the first volume (1794). Kant is against Herder’s discursively undisciplined erudite showmanship and conjectured analogies. Kant’s commitment to rational argument is also applicable to opposing Hamann and, before him, Bruno, Campanella, and others of a Gnostic and hermetic mystical stamp: “We want to question whether the poetic spirit that enlivens the expression does not sometimes also intrude into the author’s philosophy; whether synonyms are not valued as definitions and allegories as truth … Whether the tissue of daring metaphors, poetic images, and mythological allusions does not conceal the corpus of thought.”13
This also is against Goethe, Herder’s friend from the time of their youthful meeting in Strasbourg and his neighbor in Weimar. In Strasbourg, Goethe had grown passionate over the gothic cathedral and he derided as dead reason the French impulse expressed in Holbach’s System of Nature. In Faust, he famously writes: “Grau, theurer Freund, is alle Theorie, Und gruen des Lebens goldner Baum, Gefuehl ist alles, Nahme ist Schal und Rauch.” (“Gray, dear friend, is all theory. Yet green is life’s golden tree; feeling is all, all else is sound and smoke.”) Against Goethe’s attitude, Kant in “Ueber den Gemeinspruch: Das Mag in der Theorie richtig sein aber nicht fuer die Praxis” (1794, “On the Maxim: It is all right in theory but it does not work in practice.”) defends theory even beyond science; particularly, when theory is applied to moral and political matters. Herder’s biologically inspired viewpoint cannot fit the mechanistic model of science; his emphasis is that nature as creation is a mystery. Of course, Kant’s God’s actuality is a mystery. Kant’s advantage, nevertheless the mysterious character of a “rational faith,” is that he provides an explanation, within limits, for a rational system in concert with human faculties. The intuitive approach of the like of Herder and Hamann not only do not disclose the scope of the human, they obscure it. This struggle against Herder and Goethe’s influence is a context for the technical and polemical work of the last two decades of Kant’s life.
With Herder in mind, when Kant discusses the principle of teleology in Analytic of the Teleological Judgment (Kritik der Urteilschaft [61-68 and 70-71]), Kant concedes that the purposive supposition of judgment is heuristic in science, though the laws of nature once discovered are based on a mechanistic or non-purposive principle. Kant’s concession to Herder is that a heuristic guidance of imagination may lead to discovery. However, in a speculation about nature as an individual whole the teleological principle leads to a rational theology. Kant continues to hold that reason, through the understanding, yields universal and absolute criteria for phenomena or nature. Though both provoked and influenced by Herder, Kant enlarged his transcendental system to include the a priori basis of art14 (and Genius), using teleology to understand nature as God’s artifact. In this regard, Hutcheson’s aesthetic ontology of God’s design was certainly an influence.
Furthermore, Kant’s third Kritik argues that speculative or suppositional ideas and not discursive concepts ordered by the categories of the understanding must relate to the moral purpose of nature. As far as possible, Kant explores the necessity of a transcendental union of the cognitive faculties, where the teleological principle of judgment is the “bridge” between moral freedom in the noumenal and natural determination in the phenomenal. Kant moves from the supposition of the idea of freedom or spontaneity of ethical action to the postulates of God and immortality: the ideas of a rational faith. This is his systematic reach of reason and its limits. He writes, “To have recourse to God, as the Author of things, in explaining the arrangements of nature, and their changes is at any rate not a physical explanation but a complete confession that one has come to the end of his philosophy, since he is compelled to assume something of which in itself he otherwise has no concept.”15
Kant’s critical philosophy when presenting the work of the understanding in terms of nature need not have recourse to God. Here he is against the deists and the pantheists. Within a natural science, Kant recognizes the distinction between the parts of nature organized into living individuals, which, can be dealt with by a heuristic or regulative concept of final purpose; nevertheless, he offers the crucial consideration that heuristic final purposes lead to mechanical laws solely on the basis of efficient causality.
The method of biology – the vis-viva of Herder’s articulation of reality – assumes final causality in treating individual living systems, distinguishing between what is internal and what external to them, e.g., between a tree organized by its internal principle and the “mere” relation of a river to the herbage that grows at its banks. Yet, for Kant, biology is superficial in its explanations in relation to physics; the ultimate reduction in science of natural processes is to mechanical laws. These, as exemplified by Galileo and Newton’s treatment of the uniformity of space and time, do not consider some internal “force” of individual objects like the discredited Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics, where the quality of ontologically diverse sorts of things cause different motions. When nature is considered as an epistemological individual, Kant qualifies it and speculates about a supernatural mover: God.
This is not strange to the mechanical form of thinking: its very principle asserts an external agent causes motion. Without God, the final cause, the pagan supposition of an eternal nature is reasonable. Kant’s disagreement with Herder can be put in terms of opposing Herder’s evolutionary view of nature as a continuous creation, rather, in their varied ways, like Aristotle and Spinoza. For Herder, however unlike them, this is evolutionary. Nature creates higher forms. Against Herder, Kant’s divine teleology stresses nature needs a supposition of the supernatural to ground ethics, which is not natural; and further, to bring a nexus between the two realms by historical progress though the instrument of conflict (Streit).
In addition, Kant struggles against the romantic notion of creative unity with nature is intuitive knowing; the romantic turn does not understand that the immediate and strong feelings of beauty or of the sublime do not certify knowledge. They are cognitively empty. Kant oppose a nature oriented aesthetic that overwhelms ethics, the perception of beauty rather represents morality; the sublime represents God or the dignity of morality in awesome power. These feelings are not cognitive determination for knowing; the aesthetic merely symbolizes or stands-in for some aspect of the noumenal; beauty for the ethical, the sublime for God’s action. In themselves, they are part of a man’s natural constitution.
Kant’s system of reality is presented as a combination of reason and reasonable implication. The difference between knowledge, limited to the natural and reasonable speculation is emphasized. Kant writes, “The autonomy of the moral law is the fundamental law of supersensuous nature and a pure world of the understanding, whose counterpart must exist in the world of sense without interfering with the laws of the latter. The former could be called the archetypal world (natura archetypa) which we know only by reason; the latter, could be called the ectypal world (natura ectypa) because it contains the possible effect of the idea of the former as the determining ground of the will.”16
The bridging of the realms in a system is how Kant intends to overcome the skeptical turn in Hume. Hume’s divides fact and values. Kant divides the factual as natural, about phenomena, and value, that is, the ethical realm. However, Kant found that Hume’s division of “is and ought,”17 which makes his politics conventional, loses the unconditioned and universal ethical law. For Kant, Hume’s sentimental humanity, like Herder’s historicism, finds nature cum culture necessary for human thriving. Kant takes this to be the mere provincial distortions of a cultural glass.
Kant’s ethics needs no such temporal glass but it does need the speculation of the reflective judgment. However, the reflective judgment’s systematic speculations are very metaphysical indeed. It not only made Hume’s skepticism about causality submit to a necessary condition of the understanding, it asserted an essential rational condition to the identity of human beings. Metaphysics in Kant’s post-critical view does not make logic into ontology; instead, it becomes epistemology by a theory based on the transcendental relations of human faculties. For Kant, without speculative postulates, especially God purposively creating nature, the result is a doctrine of either skepticism or agnosticism, especially about ethics and human progress.
Kant therefore allows two different notions of causality, made stranger because ethical action intrudes, in principle though perhaps not in fact, because of human desires, into the natural or mechanical order. The conative and the cognitive are inseparable at the prius of ethical action. He writes, “Now even if an immeasurable gulf is fixed between the sensible and the supersensible realm of the concept of freedom, so that no transition is possible from the first to the second, just as if they were two different worlds of which the first could have no influence on the second, yet the second use is meant to have an influence upon the first.”18
Kant’s understanding of ontology is based on the dubious principle that because nature does nothing in vain, unconditioned ethical freedom must be an agent of historical qua natural progress because the human essence is expressed teleologically in nature. At best, this is a tortured formulation; since the very essence of man is not natural. Consequently, the ethical will cannot be treated as a natural characteristic on the principle of natural development, e.g., “nature does nothing in vain.”
In any case, because of reason’s conflict with natural passions, moral duty results from recognizing an obligation to oneself as an autonomous ethical lawgiver. Since identity qua ethical law giver to oneself is an essential characteristic, it is universal for all rational beings. This has the corollary of treating other persons, rational beings, as oneself, that is, as an end in itself or “noumenon” rather than as a means to some natural, conditional purpose, e.g., welfare and happiness. Indeed, because happiness is the result of a multiplicity of conditions, Kant calls it indeterminate; its search is open to council (consilia) not to commands (praecepta) of the moral law: He writes, “A man has no principle to decide with certainty what will make him truly happy, since this would require omniscience.”19
Because his theory concludes that ethical purpose guides mechanistic nature in the multiplicity of its conditions, “speculative history” – supposing a transcendental relationship between the principles of ethics and nature – implies an eventual temporal coordination of the two realms. This suggests the determination of natural circumstance for the eventual happiness of humankind based on moral dignity. Such a speculation on humankind’s progress increases the complexity of Kant’s thought; and, it is noteworthy, the unconditioned/conditioned is an aspect of the part/whole problem that had traditionally burdened metaphysics. Many ambiguities reoccur in Kant’s effort to bridge, if not to unify, nature and morality.
Kant’s supposition of immortality adds ontological difficulties. It is a strangely ambiguous and mysterious idea. Kant admits it is less necessary than the postulates of freedom or God. Immortality can mean either each human person has always existed or each will always exist after the creation of nature. Both are possible since the noumenal realm is not the natural and one recalls the ethical equality of man and God. On the other hand, if immortality occurs after the individual’s mysterious creation as a noumenal being, the exile in nature can more closely follow “man made in the Image (Hebrew: zal) of God,” where “image” means, in principle, an ethical equality of humankind and God. Thus, the Biblical Fall might be considered to have occurred by a rather more rational, less childish Adam and Eve. Nature in either case, taken as exile, punishes or tests humankind in the world of appearance or nature: perhaps, it rehabilitates.
But why? The justification of man’s two-world position may lead to Leibniz’s optimism of “the best of all possible worlds” or a pessimistic, tragic view of God’s intentions: similar gods to humans in Plato’s Laws where the Athenian Stranger sometimes feels the gods play humankind “like marionettes by golden strings.” Kant prefers the optimism of Leibniz, who is the major intellectual figure for the respected German philosophers, Wolff and Baumgarten: viz. Kant writes, “Everything really stands in the most perfect harmony.”20 Nevertheless, like Plato (if not Calvin and Luther), occasionally he can be pessimistic, writing the phrase found in Plato’s Protagoras: “human nature is like warped-wood.”21
Often the frame of the religio-cultural structure is apparent in his work. In “Mutmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte”), Kant challenges the reader to find anything in his exposition in opposition to Genesis. Rather like Herder, he makes explicit that the Fall of Adam and Eve projects a view of the road from instinctive behavior to reason, which in the end brings mankind to moral maturity. Of course, this is in opposition or at least in tension with his theoretical emphasis on a rational person’s moral essence as something always available. Otherwise, from the pessimism of man as “warped wood” there is no need for the ethical human being to receive any reward of happiness: such a matter would depend not on justice but God’s charity. Kant does not make a “leap of faith.” Nevertheless, Christian structures are present in his important speculations; yet, they are ambiguously and perhaps inconsistently attached, especially the matters of divine creation and immortality.
Kant espouses the transcendental unity of reason; yet how this is understood is the important question. Mere speculation seems inevitably to move toward an assertion about reality despite Kant speaking against this as an unwarranted tendency. Again and again, the third Kritik reminds the reader – and perhaps a mantra for himself – of the critical viewpoint: none of the faculties of man is sufficient to present knowledge of reality in a systematic or fundamental sense. The concepts of the understanding and the speculative ideas from judgment cannot inform of things-in-themselves or noumenal reality, “the really real.” This metaphysical speculation without metaphysical certainty replaces traditional ontological metaphysics. Kant’s rational ethics must stand against Humean skepticism and Herderean historicism since such offer conventional or cultural based positions. The intuition and sensibility that present an ethics of feeling is like a leap to some dogmatic religious picture. Kant is a theist because of a rational ethics; consequently, his theism, as Hegel noted, is abstract. Nevertheless, because of the universalism of this rational ethics, Kant’s sense of obligation to other persons is firm and deep.
Beck, L. W., Ed. Kant on History. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
Hamann, Johann Georg. Briefwechsel. Ed. Henkel. Wiessbaden: Insel, 1955-79.
Herder, Johann Gottfried. Sammeliche Werke. Berlin: Weidermann, 1887.
Kant, Immanuel. Gesammelte Werke (Akademie Ausgabe). Berlin: de Gruyter, 1902-83.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Ed. H. J. Paton. New York: Harper, 1953.
Riess, Hans, Ed. Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.
- Kant’s Gesammelte Werke, xx, 44.
- Cf. my “Rousseau: Il Cuore Puro,” Giornale di Metafisica 25:3 (2004): 295-314.
- Critique of Pure Reason (1781): KRV, A, xx.
- For Kant’s general background see my “Kant’s Orientation,” Journal of the History of European Ideas 28 (2002): 263-280, and in the same journal, volume 30, Kant Anniversary Issue: 1804-2004, “Kant’s Stand to Hobbes and Hume” (2004): 295-316.
- Werke I, 367.
- Briefwechsel v, 272.
- The dualism of a natural and a noumenal realm (Reich) in Kant has a technical need like Augustine’s Platonically inspired distinction between heaven and earth. Cf. my “Augustine on Time, with Reference to Kant,” Journal of Value Inquiry (1986): 223-34.
- “Conjectural Beginning of Human History” in Beck, p. 116.
- KRV, B165.
- Cf. my “Rational Principle in Aristotle,” The Thomist (1973): 769-80.
- Briefwechsel, ii, 203.
- Breifwechsel, ii, 330.
- “Review of Herder,” in Beck, p.61.
- Cf. my “Kant on Beauty,” Indian Philosophical Quarterly 28:4 (2001): 463-72.
- KPV, 139.
- KPR, 43.
- Cf. my “Language and the Is-Ought,” Philosophical Studies XXVI (1986), reprinted in Hobbes Papers, vol. II, ed. Preston King (London: 1993): 334-56.
- KU, 2.
- Grundlegung, 47: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
- KPV, 110.
- “The Idea of History from a Cosmological Intent,” in Riess.