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Immanuel Kant’s essays played a decisive role in defining the philosophical and political meaning of “enlightenment.” Indeed Kant developed the critical-philosophical essay as the very site where the process of “enlightenment” occurs. Prior to the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason)—i.e. in his “pre-critical” period—Kant was known in Germany primarily for his writings on natural science, metaphysics, and psychology. His early essays—which he frequently titled Versuch (“essay,” “attempt,” “experiment”)—examine questions of both physics and metaphysics with one purpose: the attempt to redefine the method and presumptions of theoretical science. Kant strove to revolutionize philosophy the way Newton had revolutionized natural science. In the brevity and openness of the essay form he found a literary means to challenge the dogmatic method and stale language of scholasticism.
Whether discussing proofs of God, mathematical negation, or mental derangement, Kant’s early essays aim less at exhaustive demonstration than at providing “just small beginnings, which is how it goes if one wants to open up new perspectives—that may, however, bring about important consequences.” Although their scholarly nature limits his audience primarily to his peers, Kant’s essays address themselves to readers who have “a universal perspective,” and he never hesitates to deride “scholarly nonsense” when it impedes free philosophical inquiry (Versuch, den Begriff der negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen [1763; “Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy”]). Kant’s popular literary aspirations are also evident when he hopes his results will prove “just as charming as they are instructive” (Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen [1764; Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime]).
Stylistically the pre-critical essays take their cue not only from the scholastic precision of Leibniz and Wolff but also from Montaigne’s erudite versatility and Rousseau’s incisive moral fervor. Kant cautions against the seductive style of French authors but admires the “Swiss” Rousseau. Likewise he draws upon the ironic wit of English writers—Swift, Sterne, and Samuel Butler—not as an end in itself but as a means of provoking understanding. Irony thus takes on an epistemological function. In the stylistically most accomplished and theoretically most daring essay of this period, Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik (1766; Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated Through Dreams of Metaphysics), Kant explores the related subjects of spiritualism and metaphysics with an irony so pervasive that it turns on the essay itself, and he predicts of his reader: “the bulk of it he will not understand, parts of it he will not believe, and as for the rest—he will dismiss it with scornful laughter.” Yet this ironic laughter, for Kant, is the beginning of critical thinking.
Kant uses the essay form to experiment with literary-philosophical modes of reflection that question the theoretical presuppositions of knowledge itself. This method comes to fruition in the revolutionary achievement of the first Critique (1781). Despite its seemingly monolithic, “architectonic” structure, the work can be read in terms of essayistic style: but now it is the process of thinking itself that must be understood—in other words “criticized”—as a series of “attempts” to transcend its own limitations. When knowledge can be grounded only through such a self-critical articulation of its possibility, the medium of thinking essentially becomes this form of “critique.” As the site where the transcendental turn is first inscribed as such, the essay is thus transformed into the privileged vehicle for Kant’s “transcendental style” (Willi Goetschel, 1994).
The essays of Kant’s “critical” period—published in the 1780s and 1790s—combine the self-conscious irony of his early writing with the tools of rational self-criticism developed in the Critiques. In their application of a critical method grounded in “pure” reason these essays achieve a tone of profound self-assurance and even idealistic conviction. At times this also leads to a presumptive sort of rigor that can be extremely demanding to the reader unfamiliar with the Critiques. Thus while Schopenhauer praises Kant’s “brilliant dryness,” Nietzsche is unforgiving of his “bulky pedantry”—an opinion that has endured, perhaps unfairly, into the present.
Even after developing the critical method Kant continues to exploit the formal possibilities of the essay as a means of examining implications that lead beyond scientific truth. His titles indicate genre experiments: a useful but unprovable “idea” of universal history whose goal is a “cosmopolitan” republic; a “conjectural” interpretation of Genesis as an allegory of rational freedom; and a “sketch” of the “articles” of right that could lead to “perpetual peace.” His unflagging concern in these essays is the rationality of moral judgment and the teleological necessity of human freedom in history. The inherently provisional, inventive quality of essayistic expression for Kant mirrors the dialectical potential of the “idea” itself: as a mode of thinking—and writing—that only posits knowledge theoretically insofar as it enacts it practically.
Kant’s mature essays seek to establish and delimit a public sphere of free discourse, an intellectual “culture” that will contribute inevitably to the progress of enlightenment. The concept of public dialogue becomes the intrinsic principle in his understanding of the essay form. Thus in pieces like “Was ist Aufklärung?” (1784; “What Is Enlightenment?”) and “Was heisst: Sich im Denken orientieren?” (1786; “What Does It Mean: To Orient One’s Self in Thinking?”), Kant does not simply provide answers. Rather, these essays are interventions that seek to formulate the very possibility of a discourse in which such questions can occur: “But how much and how accurately would we think if we did not think, so to speak, in community with others to whom we communicate our thoughts and who communicate their thoughts to us!” For Kant, the essay is not merely a privileged forum for philosophical reflection on questions of political and moral progress; it is, in fact, the objective form of that progress.
Born 22 April 1724 in Königsberg. Studied at the Collegium Fredericianum for eight years; physics and mathematics at the University of Königsberg, 1740–47. Private tutor; adjunct assistant professor, from 1755, and chair of logic and philosophy, from 1770, University of Königsberg. Also worked as assistant librarian in the royal castle. Lived alone and kept to a strict routine, which included an hour-long daily walk after lunch.
Awards: Royal Academy of Science (Berlin) Award, 1754.
Died in Königsberg, 12, February 1804.
Essays and Related Prose
Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte und Beurtheilung der Beweise, deren sich Leibnitz und andere Mechaniker in dieser Streitsache bedient haben, nebst einigen vorhergehenden Betrachtungen, welche die Kraft der Körper überhaupt betreffen, 1747
Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, oder Versuch von der Verfassung und dem mechanischen Ursprunge des ganzen Weltgebäudes, nach Newton’schen Grundsätzen abgehandelt, 1755; as Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, translated by William Hastie, 1969, and Stanley L.Jaki, 1981
Principiorum primorum cognitionis metaphysicae nova delucidatio, 1755; as “A New Exposition of the First Principles of Metaphysical Knowledge,” translated by John A.Reuscher, in Latin Writings, edited by Lewis White Beck, 1986
Versuch einiger Betrachtungen über den Optimismus, 1759
Gedanken bei dem frühzeitigen Ableben des Herrn Johann Friedrich von Funck, in einem Sendschreiben an seine Mutter, 1760
Die falsche Spitzfindigkeit der vier syllogistischen Figuren erwiesen, 1762; as “On the Mistaken Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures,” translated by Thomas K.Abbott, in his Kant’s Introduction to Logic, 1885
Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes, 1762; as The Only Possible Ground for a Demonstration of the Existence of God, translated by G.B. Kerferd and D.W.Walford, 1968
Versuch, den Begriff der negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen, 1763
Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764; as Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, translated by John T.Goldthwait, 1960
Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik, 1766; as Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated Through Dreams of Metaphysics, translated by Emanuel P.Goerwitz, 1900
De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis, 1770; as “On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World,” translated by John Handyside, revised by Lewis White Beck, in Latin Writings, 1986
Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781; revised edition, 1787; as Critique of Pure Reason, translated by J.M.D.Meiklejohn, 1855, and Norman Kemp Smith, 1929
Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können, 1783; as Prolegomena to Every Future Metaphysic, translated by John Richardson, 1819; as Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, translated by Lewis White Beck, 1950; as Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Sdence, translated by P. G.Lucas, 1953
Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785; revised edition, 1786; as The Moral Law, and as Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J.Paton, 1948
Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft, 1786; as Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, translated by James Ellington, 1970
Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788; as Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck, in Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, 1949
Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790; as Critique of Judgement, translated by John Henry Bernard, 1891; revised edition, 1914; as Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, translated by James C.Meredith, 1911, and Critique of Teleological Judgement, 1928, and together as Critique of Judgement, 1957; as Critique of Judgment, translated by Werner S.Pluhar, 1987
Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, 1793; as Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore M.Greene and Hoyt H.Hudson, 1934; revised edition by John R.Silber, 1960
Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf, 1795; enlarged edition, 1796; as Perpetual Peace, translated by Lewis White Beck, 1957
Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 2 vols., 1797; part of vol. 1 as The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, translated by J.Ladd, 1965; vol. 2 as The Doctrine of Virtue, translated by M.J.Gregor, 1964, and as The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, translated by J.Ellington, 1964
Der Streit der Fakultäten in drey Abschnitten, 1798; part as “The Contest of the Faculties,” translated by H.B.Nisbet, in Political Writings, 1970
Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht, 1798; as Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, translated by M.J.Gregor, 1974
Essays and Treatises on Moral, Political, and Various Philosophical Subjects, translated by John Richardson, 2 vols., 1798; reprinted, 1993
Logik: Ein Handbuch zu Vorlesungen, edited by G.B.Jäsche, 1800; as Kant’s Logic, translated by R.S.Hartman and W.Schwartz, 1974
Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, translated by Lewis White Beck, 1949
Kant on History, translated by Lewis White Beck, 1963
Political Writings, edited by Hans Reiss, translated by H.B.Nisbet, 1970
Was ist Aufklämng? Aufsätze zur Geschichte und Philosophie, edited by Jürgen Zehbe, 1975
Perpetual Peace, and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals, translated by Ted Humphrey, 1983
Latin Writings (various translators), edited by Lewis White Beck, 1986
Raising the Tone in Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida, edited and translated by Peter Fenves, 1993
Collected works editions: Gesammelte Schriften (Prussian Academy of Sciences Edition), 23 vols., 1902–55; The Cambridge Edition of the Works, general editors Paul Guyer and Allen W.Wood, 1992– (in progress; 14 vols. projected).
Adickes, Erich, German Kantian Bibliography, Würzburg: Liebing, 1967 (original edition, 1896)
Gabel, Gernot U., Immanuel Kant: Eine Bibliographie der Dissertationen aus den deutschsprachigen Ländern, 1900–1975, Hamburg: Gemini, 1980
Walker, Ralph C.S., A Selectve Bibliography on Kant, Oxford: Oxford University Sub- Faculty of Philosophy, 2nd edition, 1978 (original edition, 1975)
Cassirer, Ernst, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970 (original edition, 1945)
Galay, Jean-Louis, Philosophie et invention textuelle: Essai sur la poétique d’un texte kantien, Paris: Klincksieck, 1977
Goetschel, Willi, Constituting Critique: Kant’s Writing as Critical Praxis, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994
McCarthy, John A., “The Philosopher as Essayist: Leibniz and Kant,” in The Philosopher as Writer: The Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Ginsberg, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1987:48–74
Reiss, Hans, Introduction and Postscript to Political Writings by Kant, edited by Reiss, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 (original edition, 1970)
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