By Sidney Axinn

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

Sidney Axinn, University of South Florida; Temple University, Emeritus 

Professor Schönfeld had a difficult problem: how can you keep the attention of your readers when they already know the outcome of your story? His story is Kant’s precritical project, and we all know that it failed, in Kant’s opinion. (And we are glad that it failed—from the failure came the three Critiques, and the other significant work.) Amazingly, Schönfeld does keep his readers’ attention. He keeps us interested even though we know that we are reading about empty metaphysics.

Schönfeld gives us a lot of philosophic material, not just anecdotes. He reconstructs Kant’s argument in each paper or book that he considers, gives us the historical background and adds his own comments. I’ll select just a few items here and there, and raise a question or two about them. But, nothing I say takes away from the fact that this is a very valuable study of Kant’s precritical work, and should stand for a long time. Even those who are not persuaded by the thesis that Kant had a unifying project in the early work must be impressed by Schönfeld’s analysis and supporting material and notes. Apart from the main theme of Kant’s project, we learn a lot about Kant’s intellectual environment. For example, Schönfeld gives us the only clear description I’ve ever seen of the five Bernoullis, the family of mathematicians and philosophers. Also, we find Christian Wolff’s views in some detail. There are regular turns to Leibniz to find with what Kant did or did not agree. And many more very significant connections are made.

The Introduction gives generous space to Schönfeld’s opponents, those who take the precritical period to be trivial, philosophically. He quotes Lewis White Beck’s remark that prior to the critical philosophy “Kant . . . would deserve a quarter of a page in Ueberweg.” 1 Actually, in the English language translation of Ueberweg (done in 1873), Kant gets 57 pages, of which there are eight pages devoted to the precritical period. 2 Since this is a very small print edition, eight pages are a lot of material. But, of course, Beck’s point is that it is the critical works that give us any interest in the earlier writing. Actually, Ueberweg, himself, published on some of the precritical works, so this attention in his history is not surprising. Enough Ueberweg: back to Schönfeld.

Schönfeld surprises us by first mentioning Kant’s “extraordinary honesty,” and shortly after that telling us that Kant denied having a position in the Living Forces debate, although he really did have “a stake in the conflict.” 3 Schönfeld also suggests that “perhaps in an effort to pretend greater originality, Kant emphatically rejected aspects of the standard Leibnizian position—only to argue for a view “almost indistinguishable” from it. It looks as if Kant is ordinarily human rather than extraordinarily honest. Of course, later on, Kant would tell us about the dear self that speaks in each of us.

Schönfeld’s style is quite smooth. He remarks on the role that Newton gives to God, that of a supreme creator who later becomes a mere handyman, calling this a “bad career move for a god.” 4 He also enjoys the pun on the author, named Seidel, who wrote on caterpillars secreting silk threads, which are seide in German.

In the 1755 work, New Elucidation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition, Kant tries to combine physics and freedom, as Schönfeld describes it. This involves, among other matters, the basic logical concepts, negation and possibility. I’ll say something about each of these.


Kant held that, in Schönfeld’s words, “True propositions . . . express both affirmative and negative contents.” 5 Schönfeld follows this with an odd statement, “[b]ecause one can derive neither a negation from an affirmation nor an affirmation from a negation, the basis of all true propositions must express both.”6 It is not clear whether this is Kant’s or Schönfeld’s belief. In either case, it is odd because a statement, A, is equivalent to the denial of not-A. A denial counts as a negation. There is a certain ambiguity in the remark, “the basis of all true propositions must express both [affirmation and negation].” Does this mean that affirmation and negation say the same thing in different ways, or that they say different things? If they say different things, that is interesting and calls for a further analysis of the different contents.

At any rate, as Schönfeld says, this was a break with the tradition. It is an interesting one and, of course, varieties of negation continue to be seen. An article by this commentator,” 7 uses an idea similar, although not identical, to Kant’s. In one version, a consequent of one interpretation of Kant’s view is that a situation may be described by either an affirmative or a negative statement. (For example: The statement that I am not wearing a hat is equivalent to the statement that I am bareheaded.) Put another way, whether a statement is affirmative or negative depends on the context: no statement is either affirmative or negative independent of context. If this holds up, no properties are positive or negative, apart from a context. While this idea has not been generally adopted, one prominent logician, Quine, has spoken favorably about it. I don’t think that Kant, himself, did much with it, from the logical standpoint; but the ontological proof for the existence of God hovers in the background of this position. If there are no independently positive or negative properties, the standard version of the Ontological Proof is in trouble.

In these comments about Kant’s view of negation in this early work, I’ve drifted between considering propositions and statements. A careful discussion would have to be more consistent.


Kant’s view of possibility is particularly interesting. In The New Elucidation, Schönfeld quotes the following, somewhat mysterious, claim: “nothing can be conceived as possible unless whatever is real in every possible concept exists . . .” Then, in “The Only possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God” (1763), Schönfeld tells us that Kant “hopes to show that the complete set of thinkable data is the complete set of all positive[?] properties that exists as a unified entity endowed with divine qualities.” 8 Further on, we get Kant’s premises, one of which is “The Material Condition of Possibility, Anything that is possible must be thinkable, and for anything to be thinkable, the presence of material data to the mind is required.” 9

Schönfeld takes the Material Condition to be “a fatal flaw.” Why? Because “a conceptual analysis of ‘possibility’ reveals the possibility of a conceptual whole and the possibility of its conceptual elements—it does not reveal the possibility of a conceptual whole and an independent and prior existence of its conceptual elements. This is the fatal flaw.”10 Here Schönfeld is not as generous to Kant as he usually is. Schönfeld looks for the source of this material condition in Leibniz. That certainly is a reasonable place to go. But there is another move to consider.

In the first Critique, Kant has a few pages on possibility. In both the A and B editions he introduces the matter modestly.

To enquire whether the field of possibility is larger than the field which contains all actuality, and the latter, again, larger than the sum of that which is necessary, is to raise somewhat subtle questions which demand a synthetic solution, and yet come under the jurisdiction of reason alone. 11

Are there more possibles than actuals, or more actuals than possibles (or are they equal in number)? Common sense since Aristotle holds that there are more possibles than actuals. But Kant sneers at “the poverty of the customary inferences through which we throw open a great realm of possibility, of which all that is actual (the objects of experience) is only a small part.”12 Shortly after this he insists that “without material nothing whatsoever can be thought.”13

Where does Kant go with this idea that there are not more possibles than actuals? Not very far. This section started with his remark that this topic raises “subtle questions.” And he ends the section saying, “[w]e have therefore had to content ourselves with some merely critical remarks; the matter must otherwise be left in obscurity until we come to the proper occasion for its further treatment.”14 The analysis of possibility is so complicated that Kant didn’t want to go into it in a book as simple and clear as the Critique of Pure Reason.

Although Kant dropped the topic, Nelson Goodman, the American philosopher of science, seems to have taken Kant’s idea and developed it.15 I’ll introduce Goodman’s view with an example. We have seen horses and wings, so we can imagine Pegasus, a winged horse. We can imagine the wings put on upside down, put both on one side, etc. But, were there something made of parts that we have never experienced, how could we tell it to anyone else, or even to ourselves? If we have never experienced something, we don’t know its color, shape, size, material, texture, etc. Originality involves arranging and rearranging what we have or have experienced: originality can’t hope to create from nothing. Even the greatest of art schools must have a supply store where the artists get their materials. (Even the creator, in Plato’s Timaeus, had to start with something, the chaos, to make the world.)

In the vocabulary of the Critical Kant (and ours) one can name objects that cannot be thought. He distinguished between “real possibility” and “merely logical possibility.”16 Such names for objects that are not real possibilities, that are not to be thought of as in the phenomenal world, he famously takes to be in a noumenal world, if they are logically consistent. The names of noumenal entities can be mentioned grammatically, but not used to refer to anything in the actual world. Nor can they be thoughts for humans. Our ability to name is not an ability to create a possible object from nothing, from no parts.

Can there be a possible object that is not constructed of parts? If there were anything simple rather than compound, it could not be constructed in thought. If there are no parts to be analyzed, there are also no parts to be synthesized. Since possible objects are synthetic, an ultimately simple entity cannot be understood, on this basis.

For an example of this view of possibility, consider this. On one side of a road there are two auto engines, one red and one blue. On the other side of the road there are two auto bodies, one red and one blue. Assume that a complete auto requires an engine in a body. Now there are four possible autos, the red engine in either the red or the blue body, and the blue engine in either body. Any possible auto must be made of actual parts. 17

This detour is meant to show that Kant’s Material Condition is not a “fatal flaw,” as Schönfeld puts it, but a powerful idea that Kant returned to in the first Critique, but did not develop in detail. The development was carried out by a 20th century philosopher, Nelson Goodman. Would the nominalist dichotomy of part and whole be congenial to Kant? That is a separate question.

Schönfeld has an objection to this version of possibility, if I understand the paragraph at the bottom of p. 203. He holds that “In this reading, Kant’s thesis amounts to the assertion that existence precedes possibility.” One might respond, “yes, it either precedes or is simultaneous with possibility.” Where there are no parts, there are no possible arrangements of parts. Perhaps we can talk about that.


I conclude with the following questions and comments:

  1. 1)  Did Kant have a single precritical project? He did write on other matters— the Lisbon earthquake, for example. But, after leaving out a few such miscellaneous items, Schönfeld does have a smooth story here.
  1. 2)  If we lost the precritical work, would there be a serious loss? Some of the scientific writing has held up. The so-called “Kant-Laplace theory” would not be lost to us, although Kant’s role would be. The philosophic constructions that are valuable are developed in the first Critique. So Lewis Beck is convincing: for his precritical work alone, Kant would deserve merely a paragraph in Ueberweg, at most.
  1. 3)  What can we learn about Kant’s mature work? I enjoyed reading the historyof Kant’s struggles with many things, for example, the several efforts to prove the existence of God. But, we can understand the analyses of these proofs in the first Critique without this history. And so for the other topics.

To stop here would be to miss the main point. This is a history of ideas, and in this way we can see how the mature philosopher developed. Also, the history of ideas is valuable for its own sake, and this is certainly a major contribution to that history.

Works Cited 

Axinn, Sidney. “Ayer on Negation.” Journal of Philosophy 65.2 (1964): 74-75.

Axinn, Sidney. “Kant and Goodman on Possible Individuals.” The Monist 61.3 (1978): 374-385.

Goodman, Nelson. “The Passing of the Possible.” Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. By Goodman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1954. 37-62.

Kant, Immanuel. Gessammelte Schriften. Ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften. Berlin: Reimer, 1900-1942.

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

Ueberweg, Friedrich. History of Philosophy from Thales to the Present Time. 4th Ed. Vol. 2. Trans. G. S. Morris. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1873.

  1. Martin Schönfeld, The Philosophy ofthe Young Kant: The Precritical Project (New York: Oxford UP, 2000) 6.
  2. Friedrich Ueberweg, History of Philosophy: From Thales to the Present Time, 4th ed., vol. 2, trans. Geo. S. Morris (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1873).
  3. Schönfeld 19, 39.
  4. Schönfeld 105.
  5. Schönfeld 133.
  6. Schönfeld 133.
  7. Sidney Axinn, “Ayer on Negation,” Journal of Philosophy, 65.2 (1964): 74-75.
  8. Schönfeld 195. This is incomplete since Schönfeld had given us Kant’s view, above, that “the basis of all true propositions must express both [affirmation and negation].”
  9. Schönfeld 201.
  10. Schönfeld 205.
  11. Immanuel Kant, Gessammelte Schriften, ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Reimer, 1900- 1942) A 230/B283, emphasis mine.
  12. Kant A231/B281.
  13. Kant A232/B284.
  14. Kant A 232/ B 285.
  15. Nelson Goodman, “The Passing of the Possible,” Fact, Fiction, and Forecast (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1954) 37-62. See also Sidney Axinn, “Kant and Goodman on Possible Individuals,” The Monist 61.3 (1978): 374-385.
  16. Kant B xxvi.
  17. This is taken from Goodman’s example, not Kant’s.

Sidney Axinn

Sidney Axinn is Professor Emeritus at Temple University and Courtesy Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. His areas of philosophical interest include Kant, social and political philosophy, military ethics, philosophy of science, and logic. His current work is on “sacrifice and value.”