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Immanuel Kant, Skeptic

by Bruno Van de Casteele

August 31, 2014

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Donate Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the greatest philosophers the world has seen. He is especially known for his "critical" works, namely Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788), but he also wrote a small treatise on a skeptical subject.

That seems a bit out of place given his other works in metaphysics. I must admit that I consider him one of the greatest in philosophy, but I might be a bit biased. Before we delve into the details of his skeptical work, do remember that he anachronistically refuted the myth that you can only be productive (in literature, business, science, music, or any other pursuit) in your twenties or thirties. Kant was 59 when he published Pure Reason. At least that gives me some more time to plan and write my magnum opus...

Those so-called "critical" works (which do not have to do anything with skepticism as we know it in the 20th and 21st centuries) gave him the nickname of the "Crusher of everything" (Allerzermalmer in German) because he was considered to have crushed all philosophy until then and given it a new, rational foundation. Apart from that, he also jointly invented the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis on the origin of the planets of the solar system (still reasonably correct, even after all those years). And he was also quite good (in his youth) in billiard and binge drinking. (Or did you think that Monty Python invented from nothing the line about Kant from their Philosophers Song?)

Monty Python's "The Bruces Philosophy Song" from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982).

I learned those last bits from a 2003 biography of Kant by Manfred Kuehn. I highly recommend that book. We were long overdue for a new biography, as historical research has challenged some received truths about Kant as a person and the evolution of his thinking—things, by the way, that are still taught in universities.

I also learned that Kant even wrote something explicitly skeptical. Kuehn calls it a curious book, for it discusses the case of a spirit-seer Emanuel Swedenborg. It's not what you expect from an academic who specialised in metaphysics. In the book, called Dreams of a Spirit Seer (Trume eines Geistersehers in German), Kant denounces the possibility that spiritual "essence" could have any impact on the material world based on his metaphysical view. If you did believe that such impact was possible, Kant thought you were ripe for the (lunatic) hospital. And he has some quite strong language to make his point...

But first the reason why he took a byway in his philosophical writings: Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist who, in middle age, became a mystic and seer. He made a number of predictions and was reported to make precise descriptions of events happening miles away. Kant was at first interested, but after delving into Swedenborg's writings (especially the Arcana Caelestia of 1749), he was severely disappointed. He rushed a response (the above book), which wasn't his usual way of working, and which also got him a fine from the censors, having printed the book before requesting approval to publish it. (The fine was 10 thalers, quite a sum out of his annual salary.)

The book has two parts, a theoretical and a practical one. The theoretical part points out, as I said above, that there is no possible way that spirits could influence our external perceptions. Kant allows for the possibility that our mind is influenced because it too, he believed, belongs to that spiritual realm. He later abandoned this dualistic mind-body position. However, the spiritual realm can only influence our mind through the capacity of imagination. It is because of this that spiritual influence might and will become a deception. A person who could (in principle) be fine-tuned to that spiritual realm must pay for that by losing his worldly intelligence, ultimately rendering him a "fool." That is why Kant thinks such persons ought to be banished to a lunatic hospital.

Harsh words, but we're not even at the conclusion of the theoretical part. In the Kuehn translation, Kant asserts: "if a hypochondriacal wind should rage in the guts, what matters is the direction it takes: if downward, then the result is a fart; if upwards, an apparition or an heavenly inspiration."

Kant obviously did not subscribe to Wheaton's Law (also proposed by Phil Plait). He's not going to make any friends or be able to have a decent discussion when that is how you write the first, theoretical part of the book. The gloves are off when he's discussing woo and pseudoscience, and I'm not certain that is a good thing. Maybe he thought he could get away with it because the book was initially published anonymously.

After having refuted any upfront possibility of the seeings of Swedenborg, Kant then goes through the supposed seer's writings in the second part of his book. One can read his frustration in that second part, because he laments all the visions of the spiritual worlds that he had to read through before getting to those things that one can experience with our senses. These are the only useful things he wants to discuss. He even hopes the reader will be grateful because he kept only some quintessential drops and left out all the wild chimeras.

What follows is a long discussion of those "visions," something we skeptics recognize. Kant is not impressed by Swedenborg's ability to read into the minds of deceased persons because they cannot refute any claim and because it makes the Idealistic mistake: the material world could not exist without the spiritual world. However, when the spiritual world needs to communicate, it is always under the illusion (or deception) of it being material, which is a contradiction. The fact that the spiritual body in Swedenborg's writings is mapped one-to-one to the material body, organ by organ, seems laughable to Kant.

Kant gets tired of the detailed discussion, and ends with a more general conclusion. He states that there are better things to do in the world than this, and one should get to work on more important matters. To his biographer, Kuehn, this can only be understood as Kant following philosopher David Hume's sentiment to base a morality in the here and now, and not in the promise or hope for some future better life. And as in a very vague hint to his later critical work, Kant seems to conclude that wishing to obtain knowledge of the spiritual realm is a folly, and leads to no actual knowledge at all. To Kant (who, after all, was still a child of his time), one wishing to satisfy this curiosity about the spiritual realm has to wait simply until he "gets there."

To me it was quite a nice discovery that a man with the intellectual capacity like Kant would delve into a skeptical topic. His friends at the time criticized him for writing that book, and he apologized for having written it in both the introduction and conclusion. He promises that he is done with it, and that it will not concern him any more. On the one hand, I completely agree (though I'm probably biased) that his later work was absolutely worth giving up on pursuing this investigation. However, I am a bit sad that he didn't write more on skeptical topics. Maybe he would have learned not to sling insults while writing an interesting argument...

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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