Kant, ESP, and the Inaugural Dissertation

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 24)


We have now seen enough of Leibniz’ philosophy, both his substantive metaphysics and his recommended methodology, to begin to be able to form a fair idea of how Kant will depart from him on points of detail. I will need to develop in detail the form in which Kant was able to accept the Double Government Methodology. I will also have to show specific features of Kant’s rejection of Leibniz’ theory of space and time. These, matters will occupy us in later chapters. At this stage, I want to study one of Kant’s precritical works, one thought to be of little significance by most scholars because of its subject matter—Swedenborg’s spiritualism—and its atypical and nonscholarly style: Träume eines Geistersehers erläutert durch die Träume der Metaphysik [1766]. Whatever else one may think of this book, its study of the “place” of the supersensible, its attempt to deal with the possibility of spirits, serves as an important way station in the journey from Leibniz’ confidence in reason to Kant’s critical departure.


Pure Reason Spirit World Text Edition Actual Influx Intellectual Intuition 
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  1. 1.
    Exceptions are Broad (1953), Benz (1947), Ebbinghaus (1943). Kant (1900) is the first translation into English of the Träume, complete with notes and extracts from writings of other authors, including Swedenborg. The entire book is an effort to show that Kant’s mature philosophy derives from Swedenborg. Among other things, I hope to show in this chapter that this appoach is completely misguided. Kant (1982) is the Reclam text edition of Träume edited by Rudolf Malter, complete with reviews of the work by Mendelssohn, Herder and Feder, Kant’s important letters to Mendelssohn and Charlotte von Knobloch, and other relevant contemporary material. This text edition provides a marvellously balanced sense of the importance of the work and of its reception. It provides confirmation of the significance I will attach to Träume in this chapter.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In a postscript to his essay Broad adds to the literature, introducing reference to Kant’s Lectures on Rational Psychology, in which Kant appears to mention Swedenborg with approval. I will discuss the lecture notes below in Spiritualism in the Lectures on Metaphysics. The date of the letter to Miss von Knobloch is disputed. Broad gives good reasons for dating the letter in 1763, even though the first appearance of the letter in the Borowski biography gives the date as 10 August 1758 [Borowski (1980) p. 103]. Malter dates the letter 10 August 1763 in the text edition; I take this as a sign that the later date is now generally accepted as correct.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    It is a historical curiosity that Swedenborg himself had introduced a form of the nebular hypothesis 21 years prior to the appearance of Kant’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte, in the Principia of his three volume Opera Philosophica et Nineralia (1734). Beginning in July, 1736, Swedenborg travelled extensively in Europe. In the notes on his journeys, he records that at some time in 1736 he began the study of Wolff’s philosophy, had made his acquaintance, and corresponded with him from time to time. I am not a close student of the Swedish magus, and so I do not know how deeply Swedenborg was influenced by Leibniz, if he was at all. The Principia gained for him a European reputation. There is no evidence that Kant had read the work. Kant is not always faithful in naming sources, but in the case of the Allgemeine Naturgeschichte he is careful to say that an account in the Hamburg publication, Freie Urteile (1751), of the work of Mr. Wright of Durham, had suggested that the fixed stars form a system resembling that of the planets. [The Hamburg account appears in translation in full in Kant (1968a) pp. 166–79.] I think it fair to assume that if Kant had known Swedenborg’s work he would have credited it. Finally, it was not Swedenborg’s natural philosophy, but his commitment to the paranormal—which he took to be quite normal—that became well-known in northern Europe. From the philosophy of Leibniz it follows automatically that the planets are all inhabited with live beings; everything in the universe is coextensive with the total set of the monads, and wherever there are bodies there are living and force-active monads.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755) was also published anonymously. In the Preface he explains that the physical cosmology he is introducing will seem to conflict with widely held religious views. He may have anticipated that his views in Träume would also seem impious. In his pre-critical days Kant appears not to have wanted to be recognized by name as an author who opposed popular religion.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    I have noted Lambert’s mention of Kant’s authorship of Träume in a letter of April 7, 1766. In Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1769) there is an unsigned review by Lambert of Friedrich Christoph Oetinger’s book Swedenborgs und andere irrdische und himmlische Philosophie (1765). Lambert playfully questions the similarities Oetinger alleges to obtain between the thought of Swedenborg and that of Jacob Böhme (Laibert regarded Böhme as a better chemist!), and ironically suggests that Swedenborg’s visions are an inadequate foundation for the natural sciences. Lambert appears to have known of Swedenborg’s contributions to positive science and engineering. Oetinger, a Württemberg pastor, was a Pietist and a theosophist. The Reclam fragments from his book mention Träume, but not Kant as author of the book.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    I noted earlier that Träume was reviewed by Mendelssohn, Herder and Feder. The reviews by Feder and Herder appeared in 1766 [Kant (1980) pp. 118–127]. These reviewers do not mention Kant as author of the piece. Herder’s is the longest review, and the one most sympathetic to the author’s ridicule of Swedenborg. Herder was Kant’s student during 1762–64, and I think it impossible that he did not know that the book was written by Kant. My discussion below of notes on Kant’s lectures attributed to Herder will bear this out. Mendelssohn’s brief review appeared in the important Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek in 1767. He remarks that the “bantering profundity” (scherzende Tiefsinn) of the writing makes it unclear whether Kant intended to ridicule metaphysics or to render spiritseeing believable. He adds, however, that the work contains seeds of a new theory of the nature of the soul which require to be nurtured in a more serious way. In this and subsequent chapters this new theory of the soul will be a focal point of the analysis and interpretation.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Kant’s Schriften 28.1 pp. 298–99. Menzer dates this transcript at 1778/79 or 1779/80 (thus for lectures given prior to the appearance of the 1st Critique). Lehmann disputes this dating, but for our purposes nothing much turns on the scholarly niceties.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Winterhalbjahr 1765/66. Schriften, II, pp. 308–09. This announcement of lectures is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Kant says that his approach to metaphysics will presuppose the distinction between philosophy as analysis and mathematics as synthesis first set out in the Prize Essay of 1763. Second, and for present purposes more important, he says that he will begin his lectures with an empirical study of man, will investigate the distinction between the living and that which is lifeless, and under ontology he will study the distinction between the spiritual and the physical: are they combined or separate?Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    The two transcripts are nearly equivalent, differing only insubstantially in wording. Metaphysik Herder contains a second reference to Swedenborg at pp. 121–22, where he is listed among the phantasts or seers.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    References are to Kant’s On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World in Kant (1929).Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Kant (1929), p. 39. Notice how characteristic—and decisively final—is the departure from Leibniz even at this early stage in the work. For Leibniz held that each monad represents all that is from its point of view, and hence that “the soul is a little world where distinct ideas represent God and confused ones represent the universe” [Leibniz (1981) p. 109], and that “time and place are only kinds of order” [p. 127].Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    The full title reveals the Leibnizian format of this 1747 work: Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte und Beurtheilung der Beweise, deren sich Herr von Leibniz und andere Mechaniker in dieser Streitsache bedient haben, nebst einigen vorhergehenden Betrachtungen, welche die Kraft Körper überhaupt betreffen [Schriften, I]. It is of interest that this essay contains a proposed solution of the soul/body problem, differing from that of Leibniz, and one that Kant would finally have to abandon as he came to understand more fully the demands of the problem. In the interests of completeness in showing Kant’s abiding concerns about mind/body connectedness, even in contexts of investigation of physical problems, I offer a translation of the requisite section of the text not translated in Handyside [Kant (1929)], and an analysis of the argument. This material will be found in the Appendix to this chapter.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    [A808/B836]. Translations of Critique of Pure Reason in the book are those of N. K. Smith [Kant (1950)], unless they appear within square brackets, in which case they are mine. Baumgarten, Metaphysica (Para. 742): “Totum spirituum est (persona moralis) CORPUS MYSTICUM”. Is this the source of Kant’s idea that identifies the spiritual world and the moral world?Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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