Psychology in the Kantian tradition

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Psychology in the Kantian tradition

In history the vision of the winner is the truth

The prevailing opinion is that the philosopher Kant and psychology simply do not fit together. This is an incorrect perception, which is partly due to a methodological conflict that took place in the nineteenth century. With his PhD thesis, Peter Sperber gives the losers their place back in the history books.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the great modern philosophers in Western history. The German caused a revolution in the thinking about how the human mind and sensory perception work. In his work, Kant used a lot of psychology, a discipline that in his time had not yet become an independent academic discipline. Peter Sperber’s work goes against the prevailing anti-psychology interpretation of Kant's work.

Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft. First print, 1781.Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft. First print, 1781. Photo: H.P.Haack, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

‘In Kant's most famous book, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the philosopher explains that space, time and causality do not exist independently of people in the world. They are forms that can be used by the human mind to create order and unity in an infinitely complex sensory experience. Without these forms, our perceptions would remain completely incomprehensible,’ says Sperber. Here Sperber explains how Kant used a wide range of terms and ideas from psychology for his theories about the human mind. The prevailing view currently held by philosophers that Kant wanted nothing to do with psychology is, in part, due to quarrels in the past.

Did you know? The splitting of philosophy and psychology into separate academic disciplines took place at the end of the nineteenth century, a century after the publication of Kant's book.

The splitting of philosophy and psychology into separate academic disciplines took place at the end of the nineteenth century, a century after the publication of Kant's book. ‘In that century there was a fierce dispute concerning the purpose of psychology within philosophy, and psychology drew the short straw. Up until now historiography has paid little attention to this conflict.’

As is often the case in history, the vision of the winner becomes the truth. The losers and their theories are pushed into the background and subsequently become forgotten.

Independent line of research

It all started with a crisis within philosophy at the start of the nineteenth century. Philosophers carried out research into the human mind by thinking about this and by doing empirical research based on sensory perceptions. This experimental aspect, psychology, was not yet a separate academic discipline at the time. The new empirical sciences, such as the natural sciences and mathematics, were far more successful than philosophy in that period. Kant's followers, the Kantians, started to think about how psychology could become an independent line of research with its own research methods.

For the first time they elaborated the psychological theories in Kant's doctrines but they did not always manage to do that convincingly. This split the Kantians into two camps. Sperber: ‘The psychological Kantians held that philosophical theories had to be based on the psychological theory about how the human mind works. The other Kantian camp held the view that psychology had to be eliminated.’

A since forgotten voice came from the radical Kantian Friedrich Eduard Beneke (1798-1854). He was a proponent of the idea of completely replacing philosophy with empirical psychology. ‘That would save philosophy from its own demise and allow it to become just as successful as the empirical natural sciences. This vision received no attention whatsoever in the historiography but at the time it played a very important role in the debate.’

With this, Sperber demonstrates that it is historically incorrect to view Kant's philosophy independently of psychology for the simple reason that in his era these two sciences were not yet separate academic disciplines. ‘That discrepancy only started to gain shape in the mid-19th century.’

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) around 1790Duitse philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) around 1790. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Publiek domein

At the end of the 19th century, the split between philosophy and psychology had become a permanent reality. They were two separate academic disciplines that mainly emphasised the differences in order to legitimise the separation. Psychology was no longer viewed as a useful contribution for philosophy.

‘Although it is true that Kant expressed criticism of psychology, this cannot be seen independently of the period in which he lived. During Kant's life there was a considerable methodological conflict about how you could best study the human mind. Kant was scared that his theories would be subject to change if he based them on psychology. And that was certainly not his intention because he wanted his theories to be applicable indefinitely.’

Kant feared for changes of his theories under influence of psychologie. They had to be applicable indefinitely.
- Peter Sperber

Sperber is not the first person to call for more room for psychology in the work of Kant. ‘Since the 1990s there has once again been more attention for psychology within philosophy, also in Kant's work. However the prevailing view is still that Kant wanted to distance himself from psychology. With my research I want to make it clear that he had many sources of inspiration, including psychology. At present there is too much of a tendency to reduce Kant's doctrines to a coherent programme and I do not think that is possible.’

With this research, Sperber has added a forgotten view to the Kantian tradition. ’The conflict between philosophy and psychology, which has been disregarded up until now, was quite considerable and not just among the followers of Kant. Knowing this, I look at other philosophers and their work through different eyes. Now it is suddenly clear which viewpoint they assumed in the debate, for or against psychology, and how that influenced their work. However, what I enjoyed most about this research was seeing how the academic discipline has gradually developed.’

More information

Peter Sperber defended his doctoral thesis entitled  'Kantiaans Psychologisme' [Kantian Psychologism] on 21 June 2017 at Utrecht University. The research was funded by the NWO programme Free Competition (humanities).

Author: Marjolein Overmeer (Nemo Kennislink)