By Martin Schönfeld

On The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000)

Martin Schönfeld, University of South Florida 

I would like to thank Sidney Axinn, Jennifer Uleman, and Byron Williston for their insightful and generous comments. All three raise interesting questions that need to be answered. Before trying to do so, I should briefly explain what Kant’s precritical philosophy involves and what The Philosophy of the Young Kant is about.

The Kantian oeuvre is divided into two periods. Famous is the period from 1781 to 1804, in which Kant wrote his most influential works, such as the three Critiques, the famous essay “What is Enlightenment?,” the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, and the prophetic treatise “On Universal Peace.” His efforts prior to the critical turn, however, are largely unknown. I wanted to study these precritical writings because their obscurity puzzled me. Not even Kant scholars read them as a rule. This is strange, because Kant wrote a lot before the Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—a book on cosmology, the Universal Natural History (1755); a dissertation on first principles and free will, the New Elucidation (1755); a dissertation on elementary particles, the Physical Monadology (1756); a book on rational theology and metaphysics, The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of God’s Existence (1763); a treatise on aesthetics, Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764); a treatise on the methodology of philosophical research programs, Inquiry concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morals (the so-called “Prize Essay” of 1764), and the obscure and tortured Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766). Up to the Inaugural Dissertation (1770), which initiated Kant’s “silent decade,” he had produced three books, half a dozen treatises, and (depending on how you count them) fifteen papers.

The neglect of the precritical writings is stranger still if one remembers that they were not half-cooked juvenilia but works of a thinker in his prime. One can arguably dismiss Kant’s first book on Living Forces1 as the flawed composition of a twenty-two year old, but to shrug off the works produced afterwards is not so easy. These were not products of immature youth. Kant wrote his second book (the Universal Natural History) in his early thirties and the third (the Only Possible Argument) when turning forty. These texts contain a number of startlingly accurate insights and discoveries. Consider merely their contributions to our current knowledge of nature. In the “Aging Earth” essay (1754), Kant figured out that the axial rotation of the Earth is slowing down until (far, far in the future) a terrestrial day will be as long as a lunar month. In the “Theory of Winds” (1756), he correctly identified the causes of the coastal winds, trade winds, the equatorial passat, and of the seasonal occurrence of the monsoon. In the Universal Natural History, he was the first to understand why planetary orbits are roughly arranged on the ecliptic plane, that the luminous smears visible on the night sky are galactic clusters, and how the present-day solar system originated from a cosmic cloud.

Why, then, this strange neglect? Mostly, it is Kant’s own fault. The Critique of Pure Reason was for him a fresh start based on new insights, and he roundly rejected the works prior to the “great light” of 1769—going so far as resisting their reprint in the first collection of his works. Kant scholars never questioned the claim of their master that the early works were rubbish. I suspect that this is partly due to the comforting subtext of Kant’s self-portrait: it is possible, the story suggests, to remain mediocre for most of one’s life and hold off writing one’s masterpieces until old age. Ernst Cassirer, in his 1918 study of Kant’s life and works, articulated the standard assessment of the precritical period: the young Kant was an unoriginal scatterbrain who worked on obsolete problems and failed to develop a coherent view. In the Philosophy of the Young Kant I argue for the very opposite. I claim that the early Kant was an original and innovative thinker wrestling with timely issues and perennial questions, who systematically constructed an ambitious reconciliation of science and metaphysics. This construction of a “unified field theory,” as it were, was Kant’s precritical project. In my study, I give an account of the precritical project from its misguided beginnings in the 1740s to its development in the 1750s and to its culmination and collapse in the 1760s. I read the ontological dualism of the Inaugural Dissertation (1770) as the aftermath and result of the collapse, and accordingly end my inquiry with the text that acknowledges the failure of the precritical project, the Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766).

So much about the early oeuvre and my reading. Now to the questions, starting with the specific and technical, and ending with the general and philosophical.

Williston: Why did the encounter with the visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg doom the precritical project? Did Kant have to acknowledge defeat in the Dreams of a Spirit-Seer? 

Professor Williston doubts that Kant has, because of his perceived analogy between body- substance and soul-substance, painted himself into a corner, and he is certainly right. An analogy between bodies and souls, or any compatibilist ontology, is not incoherent by default. What triggered Kant’s recognition of defeat was not this analogy in particular, but rather a fatal mix of ontological and methodological concerns. Kant suggested with the Universal Natural History a model of physical reality based on Newtonian principles. In the New Elucidation, he proposed that the structure of physical reality is fundamentally compatible with the structure of the part of reality that is not physical—the “intelligible sphere” of free action, thoughts, souls, and God. In the Only Possible Argument, he tried to illustrate this unified ontology by constructing two parallel proofs of God, one about God’s intelligible features, the other about God’s mark on nature, and by showing how both derive from the same ontological presuppositions. In the Prize Essay he articulated the methodological constraints of a philosophy of nature based on unity and certainty.

Enter a Swedish seer who claims, in his wildly speculative Arcana Coelestia (8 vols., 1749-56), that the world is indeed ontologically unified and that he, Swedenborg, has access to both its physical and intelligible spheres. This self-styled visionary describes the “world of the angels,” the intelligible sphere of the soul-substances, as a mirror-image of physical reality which, coincidentally, reveals the afterworld to look like a heavenly Stockholm. Kant recognizes an unintended caricature of his precritical project in the Arcana Coelestia, raising doubts about the verifiability of unified and compatibilist models in general. The crucial question, for Kant, is over knowledge. How can we substantiate any claims about the intelligible? In the Prize Essay, written before the encounter with Swedenborg, Kant proposes that the phenomenological certitude that accompanies the correct analysis of abstract concepts constitutes the decisive criterion of metaphysical truth. Then he reads the Arcana. He sees that Swedenborg trusts his visions; Swedenborg is evidently the proud proprietor of the inner certitude demanded from metaphysics—but he is nevertheless wildly wrong! In the subsequent Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Kant recognizes that the Arcana highlights a flaw in his criterion of truth, undermining his hope for elucidating the intelligible and persuading him that the precritical project was overly ambitious.

Williston: Can the precritical project as a whole be defined as the attempt to provide a theoretical reconciliation of science and metaphysics? What about Kant’s treatment of moral feeling in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764)? Doesn’t the notion of moral feeling solve the problem of a determining reason for free action in the New Elucidation? 

Professor Williston is perfectly right in reminding us that the early Kant did not only work on the theoretical reconciliation of science and metaphysics. The precritical project, as the quest for this reconciliation, is a subset of the precritical philosophy. But I claim that most of Kant’s precritical ideas, questions, and texts, concern this reconciliation. I refer to twenty-one of the twenty-four writings up to and including the Dreams; that is, the entire oeuvre except the Eulogy on Funk (1760), the Maladies of the Head (1764), and the Observations. (In the pagination of the Academy Edition, I thus exclude 73 of 888 pages from 1747 to 1767 as irrelevant for the precritical project.) Kant’s treatment of moral feeling as the universal ground of moral action reveals his interest in practical philosophy. But moral feeling does not help to solve the problem of freedom with which Kant wrestles. Ethically relevant actions presuppose responsibility and freedom from external constraints. Compatibilism is an attractive causal account because it acknowledges both the lawfulness of processes in the physical world and spontaneity in the ethical sphere. Yet, compatibilism seems to be impossible to demonstrate. An ontologically unified model of reality will marry free action to lawful process, and because the latter is deterministic, the freedom of the former dissolves. In the Observations, Kant flirts with moral feeling as the ground of free action. For action to be free, the ground must be a motive deliberately embraced by the will, not a compulsion subjecting the will. The appeal to moral feeling thus merely illustrates the precritical ontology without repairing its flaws.

Uleman: How might the teleological causation of the will of living beings, such as animals, fit into nature? 

Professor Uleman observes that living beings cause the realization of objects through their representations, and that these representations guide action as ends. There is thus a teleological causation of the will. The conception of teleology prevailing in the early 18th century (shared by Wolff, School-Philosophers, Newton, Pietists, and Physico-Theologians) had stipulated that God imposes purposes on nature from a supernatural vantage point. Kant rejects this because he finds it incompatible with the causal structure of physical processes. Divine interferences would create effects in nature without natural causes; they would remain inexplicable miracles, violating the law of cause and effect. In their stead, he suggests that purposive developments must obey the natural patterns of causality. For Kant, teleological self-organization (to borrow Professor Uleman’s phrase) is written into the script of nature itself.

The teleological causation of the will of living beings conflicts neither with the purposive developments of natural systems nor the lawful regularity of physical processes. According to Kant’s immanent teleology, both kinds of final causation (of living beings and of natural systems) mesh with the efficient causation governing physical processes. A purposively realized event is genuinely caused, and its cause is within nature, either as the telic striving of natural systems or as the goal-directedness of animals. Kant also avoids the trap of retroactive causation. Final causes do not act backwards through time but precede their effect in both kinds of teleological process. The striving of natural systems antedates the event of unfolding that brings the purpose of nature’s self-perfection about; likewise, the will of a living being leads, as intended goal, to the action that then furthers this goal.

The immanent teleology is the driving force behind the precritical project. As the glue bonding physical nature with living beings, it suggests to the young Kant a way of reconciling efficient and final causation and motivates him to attempt their reconciliation with spontaneous causation as well (although the latter venture failed). Still, Kant is a child of his time. He discusses organic nature only in passing, and his attention on inanimate nature reflects the fact that the Newtonian revolution of physics dominated his age. We now know that inanimate nature cannot be described in terms of purposes. Nonetheless, this projection of purposes on physics was heuristically useful, for by regarding nature as a directively organized system Kant came up with a number of actual astrophysical discoveries. Particularly his revision of final causation as an immanent teleology seems to have withstood the test of time. The failure of reductionist philosophy of science has reinforced the claim of various philosophers of biology about the methodological value of functionalist explanations in the life sciences. This failure has also led to a revival of immanent teleology in current environmental ethics as the best explanation of the phenomenon of life and the most compelling case for life’s intrinsic value.

Uleman: Does a consideration of Kant’s early work point toward the preferability, for Kant, of either a two-world or two-aspect solution to the problem of determinism and freedom? Or does it point toward neither of these? 

In the New Elucidation, the early Kant fails to achieve a compatibilist resolution of the problem of determinism and freedom by means of a unified ontological theory of causation. In the Inaugural Dissertation, he cuts through the Gordian knot of the hoped-for unified ontology and slices the world into two halves, a deterministic and physical mundus sensibilis, and a free and conceptual mundus intelligibilis. The bifurcation of reality into the empirically accessible phenomenal realm and the inaccessible noumenal sphere remains his definitive position. Seen in this light, the fate of the early work points us directly to the positions Kant advocates later. The critical philosophy was Kant’s attempt to make the best of his previous defeat. The two-world/aspect solution, in the critical period, is the result of his inability to solve the problem of determinism and freedom. The two-world view, then, is a concession of defeat. At best, it is a heuristic assumption, a stepping- stone to an eventual resolution of the puzzle, for judged as a genuine solution, the two-world view of the critical Kant is utterly unsatisfactory: the reality of deterministic processes and free actions is acknowledged, as well it should be, but we know little about either. Deterministic processes supposedly govern nature, but nature is merely the arena of our representations that are as empirically real as they are transcendentally ideal. Ethics presupposes freedom, but freedom is merely an unproven and unprovable regulative idea. We need to do better than this.

Axinn: Why do you consider Kant’s “Material Condition” as a fatal flaw, particularly in light of Nelson Goodman’s development of a very similar idea? 

The “Material Condition of Possibility” is an assumption needed for the demonstration of God’s existence in the Only Possible Argument; that is, the idea that anything that is possible must be thinkable, and for anything to be thinkable, the presence of material data to the mind is required. Kant infers from this that something must exist if anything is possible, and given that possibility cannot be negated, it follows that it is impossible that nothing exists. This, in turn, suggests to him that something must exist no matter what, and that, therefore, something exists necessarily. Now Kant has all he needs to complete his demonstration and to show that an ens necessarium, a divine necessary being, exists. Why can we not pull the divine rabbit out of a conceptual top hat? In The Philosophy of the Young Kant, I identify the location of Kant’s error in his interpretation of the Material Condition of Possibility. Possibility is instantiated in possible concepts, and possible concepts are determined by predicates. Nothing can show us that such predicates have to exist prior to the possible concept itself. They have to, however, for Kant’s argument to work. Accordingly, I argue that therein consists the first fatal flaw of the argument. 2

Professor Axinn refers to Nelson Goodman’s doctrine that the only possible entities are actual ones, a quasi-empiricist doctrine evidently resembling the Material Condition.3 In his “Kant and Goodman on Possible Individuals,” 4 Professor Axinn argues that Kant’s critical view on possibility, articulated in the “Postulates of Empirical Thought of the Critique of Pure Reason55 dovetails with Goodman’s doctrine. Axinn explains there that this doctrine is more plausible than it might seem, for both Goodman and the critical Kant are concerned with constructions relative to human systems of understanding, and both authors would agree that a possible individual is composed of actual, experienced parts.6

I think Professor Axinn is right in chiding me because I dismissed the Material Condition too quickly. Admittedly, the Material Condition is not flawed if taken as a claim similar to Goodman’s doctrine, as a logical condition relative to human language systems. Interpreted epistemically and in relation to human constructions, the Material Condition makes sense. But I am afraid this does not let the precritical Kant off the hook. Kant employs the Material Condition with ontological intent, using it, in a Leibnizian way, as referring to a regio idearum that posits experienced data as Platonic predicates. This changes the reference of the condition from relative to absolute possibility, and I doubt that Kant can get away with it.

Axinn: If we lost the precritical work, would it be a serious loss? 

The precritical work compares to the Critiques like Karl Marx’s Paris Manuscripts relate to the later Capital. Just as the early Paris Manuscripts shed light on the motivations and rationales of the mature Marx’s masterpiece, the precritical oeuvre helps us to better understand Kant’s critical philosophy. The critical Kant is notorious for his architectonic proclivity, which appears as a puzzling Prussian obsession with tidiness and order. Viewed in the context of the precritical oeuvre, however, this seeming obsession turns out to be a legitimate longing for a system of knowledge that integrates data in logical fashion. The critical system was supposed to deliver what the precritical project promised. Acquaintance with the precritical project also instructs us about the cornerstones of the critical system and their underlying rationales. Why did the critical Kant embrace dualism? Because he had learned the hard way that monism has intractable problems. Why did he relegate the ideas of God, soul, and world to the transcendental dialectic? Because he was familiar with the shortcomings of their constitutive employment through personal experience. Why did he subscribe to such an optimistic view of humankind’s evolution? Because this envisioned progress is a corollary of the precritical teleology.

Like the Paris Manuscripts, the precritical oeuvre also has merits of its own. Consider the already mentioned scientific discoveries. Because the early works remained virtually unknown, each discovery was effectively made twice, first by Kant, then by others in later times. Now we “have” these discoveries, and if the precritical oeuvre were lost, nothing would change. But this does not undermine the significance of Kant’s insights. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1434 has “given” us the printed word. This does not lessen the importance of earlier inventions of movable type by the Chinese and Koreans. Bentham and Mill “gave” Western ethicists the greatest happiness principle. But this does not reduce the value of the same utilitarian idea conceived by Mo Tzu two thousand years earlier. Among the philosophical innovations of the young Kant, I am intrigued by the immanent teleology already described. Other precritical insights impress me in their farsightedness too: that existence is not a property; that there are incongruent counterparts; that metaphysics must start with conceptual analysis; that there is no fundamental distinction between humans and other animals; or that biological diversity, the “Mannigfaltigkeit der Natur,” is intrinsically valuable. I find these ideas remarkable.

Uleman: There is something unsettling about reading about the young Kant trying to broker a peace between competing views. Do these facts about Kant’s intellectual biography threaten to subordinate Kant’s arguments to his own ‘peace-maker’ tendencies? Does this drain the life out of the arguments themselves, diverting them into biography, psychology, or historical contingency? 

Kant’s peace-making tendencies are limited to his earliest work, the True Estimation of Living Force (1747). There he suggests a compromise between the two rival conceptions of force, hoping to make both Cartesians and Leibnizians happy. I agree with Professor Uleman that this drains the life out of the arguments, but I think this is no great loss, because these arguments are bad anyway. Apart from this, peace-making tendencies do not exist. To the extent that the precritical project involves a reconciliation, it is of a philosophical sort only: an attempt at harmonizing the then dominant paradigm of physical nature with generally accepted metaphysical desiderata of freedom, purpose, and God. Kant’s argumentative strategies in the 1750s and 1760s show him to be indifferent to compromises. When Kant was impressed by an idea, he developed and applied it in innovative ways (as in his employment of Newton’s lunar theory to the axial rotation); when he was not, he criticized it (as in his mockery of the anthropocentric fantasies of the Physico-Theologians). The aspiring thinker joined the philosophical debate with the words (the first sentence of his first book):

I think I have reason to trust in the sense of the public enough that my freedom to contradict great men will not be regarded as a crime.7

Uleman: What do you think about the benefits and dangers of doing history of philosophy in general? 

The only danger of doing history of philosophy—otherwise a perfectly harmless enterprise—is to the historian herself: the risk of reducing one’s thought to describing the creativity of others. The historian of philosophy is in the same predicament as the art critic or the literature scholar: doing the job well carries the risk of intellectual infertility and impotence. But this risk, I think, is outweighed by the benefits. The history of ideas teaches us about where we come from, and how we differ from others. It also beautifully illustrates an encouraging fact already recognized by Hegel: there is progress; things are getting better; and humankind is indeed evolving. Plus, there is the need to contribute to a record that is accurate and fair. To assume that historians of philosophy merely tread on well-trodden ground is false. Just consider Kant’s own time, the 18th century, and compare the clichés with the facts. It is commonly assumed that Europeans developed the ideas of the Enlightenment then, and that not much happened in the time between Leibniz and Kant. The facts tell a different story: the ideas of the Enlightenment were not developed by Europeans per se, but were rather triggered by the failure of the Jesuit mission in China and its subsequent backwash of Confucianism pouring into Europe. The Leibnizian-Wolffian school philosophers, usually dismissed as uninteresting throwbacks and misguided metaphysicians, actually spearheaded the move towards secularization, towards a reconception of humans as citizens rather than subjects, and towards the universal validity of reason, regardless of background and gender. They popularized non-Western approaches, protected women thinkers in their ranks, and defended the freedom of thought against rabid Christians and other fundamentalists, often at great personal risk. Their story still needs to be told. There are still large white spots on our historical map.

Doing history of philosophy also promises personal benefits to the historian. Tracing the paths of the great minds is a superb schooling for learning the art and craft of philosophy. The historian accumulates not only data but also gains insight into creative strategies for innovation and discovery. I suspect that historians have better odds at becoming good thinkers than others. It’s the same in the visual arts: a painter stands a greater chance at becoming a good artist if she learns how to draw first.

Uleman: What conclusions do you draw from this study—is the abandonment of the precritical project a failure? And is the critical philosophy itself, complete with transcendental idealism and distinct phenomenal and noumenal realms, also a failure—a brilliant one, to be sure, but a failure? 

The abandonment of the precritical project was de facto a failure for Kant, but one vastly outweighed by the insights of his critical philosophy. That was not a failure, on the contrary! I regard the critical philosophy as a great leap forward for human knowledge and progress. Of the three primary components of Kant’s critical system, I would only shrug off his aesthetics as a contrived and spurious venture. But his other insights, on epistemology and ethics, are for me in a different league.

The Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason strikes me as philosophy’s definitive stance on the Great Metaphysical Questions of the universe, the soul, and God. Kant conclusively proved that any speculation on these questions will only amount to, well, speculation. Rational cosmology is dead. So is rational psychology. And we will never prove (or disprove) the claim of God’s existence. All these are articles of faith, not matters of rational discourse. Kant’s analysis of metaphysics is the final word on these riddles. We will never go beyond Kant.

The Transcendental Analytic of the first Critique has flaws, such as the artificial clockwork- model of the mind, or the futile search for the phantom of the synthetic a priori. The division between empirical appearances and an unknowable thing in itself is misguided too. Had Kant lived three generations later and written the Critique of Pure Reason after Darwin, he would have realized that the transcendental organization of sense impressions does not happen in thin air, but is the result of a successful evolution through environmental pressure and random mutations. We organize sensory information by means of certain cognitive forms instead of others because our forms work; if they didn’t, homo sapiens as a species wouldn’t have made it. That they work reveals a structural analogy between the way we pattern observations and how the things are patterned in themselves. But Kant lived before Darwin and therefore cannot be blamed for his ignorance. Aside from this, Kant’s fundamental insight about the flows of data organization is simply correct. He settled the debate between rationalists and empiricists by showing that the mind is neither purely active nor merely passive but rather a combination of both. We now know that cognition is an interactive process that involves the ordering of sensory material by cognitive schemata, a give-and- play of reason and reality, and we owe this insight to Kant.

But perhaps Kant’s most brilliant triumph is his practical philosophy. Certainly, the Categorical Imperative does not achieve everything that he hoped for. But it is the ultimate articulation of an ethical insight that has made the world a better place. Kant recognized the absolute worth of autonomous and rational beings, and the second version of the Categorical Imperative accordingly demands to treat people as ends and never just as means. Kant’s gift to world civilization is the insight that autonomous beings are deserving of inviolable rights, and that it is more appropriate to socially organize them as empowered citizens than as disenfranchised subjects. The United Nations were first envisioned by Kant, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is inspired by his ethics. We are living in a better world because of these Kantian innovations, and we are reaping the benefits from his ethical and political insights. The Global Village is proving Kant right.

Works Cited 

Axinn, Sidney. “Kant and Goodman on Possible Individuals.” The Monist 61 (1978): 477-82.

Goodman, Nelson. Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. 1955. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Kant, Immanuel. Gessammelte Schriften. Ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften. Berlin: Reimer, later DeGruyter, 1910ff.

Kant, Immanuel. Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte (“Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces.”) Academie ed. 1749.

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

  1. Immanuel Kant, Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte (“Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces”) written 1746-7; published 1749; Akademie ed. 1: 1-182.
  2. Martin Schönfeld, The Philosophy ofthe Young Kant: The Precritical Project (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000) 205.
  3. Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, orig. pub. 1955 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1973) 55.
  4. Sidney Axinn, “Kant and Goodman on Possible Individuals,”The Monist 61 (1978): 477-82.
  5. Cf. Immanuel Kant, Gessammelte Schriften, ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Reimer, later DeGruyter, 1910 ff.) A218/B266, A230/B283; B288.
  6. Axinn 481.
  7. Immanuel Kant, Lebendige Kräft (“Living Forces”), preface #1, Akademie ed. 1:7, my translation.

Martin Schönfeld

Martin Schönfeld studied in Regensburg, Munchen, Georgia, and Indiana, where he earned his Ph.D. with F. Beiser and M. Friedman in 1995. Aside from The Philosophy of the Young Kant (Oxford 2000), he has published on the history of ideas, eighteenth century thought, environmental philosophy, and ethics. He is now writing “Kant’s Development” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and translating (with J. Edwards) Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces for the Cambridge edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. He is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida and visiting professor at the Taipai Municipal Teachers College in Taiwan. He serves as the President of the Florida Philosophical Association for 2002.