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Kant on the Epistemology of Indirect Mystical Experience


While numerous commentators have discussed Kant’s views on mysticism in general, very few of them have examined Kant’s specific views on different types of mystical experience. I suggest that Kant’s views on direct mystical experience (DME) differ substantially from his views on indirect mystical experience (IME). In this paper, I focus on Kant’s complex views on IME in both his pre-critical and critical writings and lectures. In the first section, I examine Kant’s early work, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766), where he defends the possibility that the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s alleged visions of the spirit-world are veridical cases of IME. In the second section, I discuss Kant’s views on IME during his critical period. I first argue that the epistemology of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) accommodates the possibility of IME. I then examine Kant’s views on Swedenborgian visions in his lectures from the 1770s to the 1790s and argue that his critical views on Swedenborg are largely continuous with his pre-critical views in Dreams. Finally, I examine passages in Kant’s late works, Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793) and The Conflict of the Faculties (1798), where he discusses three non-Swedenborgian types of IME. In the final section, I explore briefly how Kant’s views on IME relate to contemporary debates among analytic philosophers of religion regarding the nature and possibility of mystical experience.

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  1. Quotations from Kant’s work are from the Akademie Ausgabe, with the Critique of Pure Reason cited by the standard A/B edition pagination, and the other works by volume and page. Immanuel Kant, Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin: Königlich-Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin [now de Gruyter], 1902–). English translations usually differ insubstantially from the translations in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, general editors Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992–). English translations of German secondary sources are my own.

  2. See Sewall 1900: vii–xi, Du Prel 1889: xv–lxiv.

  3. Du Prel 1889: xv-lxiv.

  4. See, for instance, Smart 1969: 5.62, Baelz 1968: 41, and Ward 1972: 168. For other references, see Palmquist 2000: 300–301.

  5. See, for instance, Palmquist (2000): 17–43 and 297–386, Johnson 2009, and Johnson 2006.

  6. An anonymous referee rightly pointed out to me that certain mainstream analytic philosophers on mysticism—including W.T. Stace and William Wainwright—would not consider the kinds of experiences Kant discusses to be cases of “mystical experience” proper, since they take mystical experience to involve a “union between subject and ‘object.’” I should clarify that whenever I refer to “mystical experience” in this essay, I do not mean to imply that the experience is unitive.

  7. Some of Kant’s many references to non-sensible intuition in the context of mysticism include A854/B882, 28:207, 28:58, 29:759–762, 28/2.2:1325, 29:950–954, 28:1053, 7:57–58, 8:441.

  8. See, for instance, Palmquist 2000: 299–300, Henrich 2003: 67–70, Vaihinger 1892: 513. Johnson, Wouter Hanegraaff, and C.D. Broad are the only scholars I am aware of who have discussed in detail Kant’s views on Swedenborgian IME. See Johnson 2001: 163–183, Hanegraaff 2008: 159, and Broad 1953.

  9. In the letter, Kant misspells her name as “Harteville.” He spells it correctly in Dreams.

  10. An anonymous referee suggested to me perhaps an even more compelling reason for Kant’s dampened enthusiasm for Swedenborg. Kant wrote a letter to Swedenborg to which Swedenborg never replied, and Swedenborg told the messenger of Kant’s letter that he would reply to Kant’s questions in his forthcoming book. As the referee plausibly suggests, Kant may have been quite disappointed to find that Swedenborg’s expensive Arcana did not in fact address any of the philosophical concerns he raised in his letter to Swedenborg.

  11. Hence, I disagree with the various scholars who interpret Dreams as a straightforward “debunking” of Swedenborg’s visions. Guyer, for instance, makes the sweeping assertion that in Dreams, “Kant had little trouble debunking Swedenborg” (Guyer 2006: 25). Johnson 2001: 297–99 provides a helpful bibliography of the work of scholars who accept the “received view” that Kant’s Dreams is a debunking of Swedenborg.

  12. See Johnson 2001 and Johnson 2008 for excellent discussions of the complex structure of Dreams.

  13. Grier 2002: 14 makes a similar point.

  14. See, for instance, §10 of Kant’s Inaugural Dissertation (2:396–397).

  15. Kant notes, for instance, that the “human soul” perceives other spirits in the spirit-world by means of an “immaterial intuition” (immaterielles Anschauen) (2:337).

  16. As Grier 2002: 11 puts it, “it seems to me that most of Kant’s derision is reserved for the suggestion that Swedenborg is having essentially sensible representations of immaterial beings.” For a similar conclusion, see Laywine 1993: 8. Arguing against Laywine’s reading, Johnson 1999 argues that Kant consistently claims that Swedenborg himself understood his visions as cases of IMEs rather than of DMEs: “Kant himself was well aware that Swedenborg did not think that spirits were visible to the eyes….” In my opinion, however, while some passages in Dreams might suggest that Swedenborg did not take his visions to be cases of DMEs—as in Kant’s statement that the “presence of spirits affects only a person’s inner sense” (2:362)—Kant much more frequently reproaches Swedenborg for believing that spirits are physically present to his senses.

  17. See Johnson 2008: 99 for an account of what he calls the “received view”—accepted by most scholars—that I.3 of Dreams represents Kant’s own view. Following Johnson, I militate against this received view and argue that we have to consider Dreams as a whole in order to determine Kant’s ultimate position.

  18. According to Henrich 2003: 67–9, the early Kant “defended the view that space and time, as well as moral sense, depend on intellectual intuition” in his work, “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space” (1768), but then rejected this appeal to DMEns shortly thereafter.

  19. See, for instance, A42/B59-60 and A249-253.

  20. See also Kant’s footnote at A314/B371 where he refers to Plato’s “mystical deduction” of Ideas.

  21. I think Palmquist 2000: 299 is not justified in claiming that Kant admitted the possibility of a “direct form of communication or communion with a personal God.”

  22. See, for instance, A180-81/B223-24.

  23. Allison 2004: 460 lists the following places in CPR where Kant refers to “affection by things in themselves”: A44/B1, B72, A190/B235, A358, A380, A393, A494/B522, A288/B344, A613-14/B641-42. Westphal 1997: 415 also mentions A359, A419/B447, and A538-39/B566-67.

  24. Also see A288/B344 on the “transcendental object.”

  25. See, for instance, Jacobi 1787: 336, Schulze 1792: 199, Vaihinger 1892: 53, and Strawson 1966: 249–56.

  26. See, for instance, Rescher 2000; Baldner 1988; Allison 2004: 50–73, Hall 2010; Visintainer 1996.

  27. See Westphal 1997 and Piché 2004. For a different approach to the problem of noumenal affection, see Adickes 1924: 14–19.

  28. Westphal 1997: 214. Similarly, at A538/B566, Kant refers to the “intelligible cause” of our actions in the phenomenal world.

  29. See Westphal 2007: 241.

  30. Johnson 1996 and 1997 provide a thorough discussion of Kant’s references to Swedenborg in the Lectures on Metaphysics.

  31. For a similar passage from Metaphysik Volckmann, see 28:447–48.

  32. Kant makes this clear in Metaphysik Volckmann, where he explains the first possibility as follows: “either the soul takes on a body, and then souls would come before us as corporeally appearing beings” (28:447).

  33. There is some scholarly controversy regarding Swedenborg’s own views on the nature of his mystical experiences. Alison Laywine, for instance, claims that Swedenborg conceives his own mystical experiences as cases of DMEs: Swedenborg, she claims, treats “immaterial things as though they could be objects of human sensibility” (Laywine 1993: 8). Johnson 1999 rejects Laywine’s interpretation of Swedenborg, arguing instead that Swedenborg understood his own mystical experiences as cases of IMEs: “Swedenborg himself did not think that souls can be the objects of sensuous intuition….Rather, spirits make themselves visible by directly stimulating the mind, causing it to experience the spirit as if it were an object of the external senses.” For the purposes of this paper, I prefer not to take a stand on the difficult question of whether Swedenborg himself understood his own mystical experiences as IMEs, DMEs, or DMEns (or as all three). What is relevant here is that Kant himself attributed all three types of mystical experience to Swedenborg at various points in his work. It would require another paper in its own right to assess the accuracy of Kant’s interpretation of Swedenborg.

  34. Johnson 1997 makes this suggestion.

  35. Hence, I disagree with Vaihinger 1892: 513, who argues that by 1770, “a serious consideration of Swedeborgian fantasies was…completely ruled out” for Kant. I have argued, in contrast to Vaihinger, that even in his critical period, Kant continues to admit the possibility of Swedenborgian IME.

  36. Kant makes a similar remark in The Conflict of the Faculties (7:58–59).

  37. The German word “Schwärmerei” is difficult to translate, and I have opted to translate it as “enthusiasm” in accordance with many Kant scholars. However, the reader should bear in mind that Schwärmerei does not mean enthusiasm in the usual English sense of the term.

  38. According to Palmquist 200: 306, Kant’s inclusion of Wilmans’ letter suggests that Kant was “not entirely antipathetic towards mysticism.”

  39. See also Kant’s explicit reference to Swedenborg’s “mystical” interpretation of the Bible in The Conflict of the Faculties (7:46).

  40. For a helpful discussion of Kant’s “principle of the primacy of practical (moral) reasoning over any theoretical interpretation of objective experiences,” see Palmquist and Rudisill (2009).

  41. Kant makes a similar point in Religion at 6:87 and 6:186–7.

  42. Palmquist and Rudisill (2009) make an interesting case that Kant’s charge of immoral conduct against Abraham is, in fact, invalid according to Kant’s own principles.

  43. See especially §8, §9, and §22 of the third Critique.

  44. See, for instance, Alston 1991: 25–28, Hick 1980, Hocking 1912: 230–31, Baillie 1962: 88–89.


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Maharaj, A. Kant on the Epistemology of Indirect Mystical Experience. SOPHIA 56, 311–336 (2017).

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  • Kant
  • Swedenborg
  • Mysticism
  • Mystical experience
  • Epistemology
  • Philosophy of religion