Historical story

Cherrypicking through the Kantian tradition

The philosopher Kant and psychology do not go through one door, is the prevailing opinion. This is an incorrect image, partly due to a method struggle in the nineteenth century. Peter Sperber gives the losers their place in the history books with his dissertation.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the greatest modern philosophers in Western history. The German caused a revolution in thinking about the workings of the human mind and sensory perception. Kant used a lot of psychology in his work, a discipline that was not yet an independent science in his time. Peter Sperber (historian and philosopher, Utrecht University) will defend his PhD on psychology in the works of Kant and the Kantian tradition on 21 June. His thesis contradicts the prevailing anti-psychological interpretation of Kant's work.

Forget losers

“In Kant's most famous work, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the philosopher explains that space, time and causality do not exist in the world independently of man. They are shapes used by the human mind to create order and unity in an infinitely complex sensory experience. Without these shapes, our perception would remain completely incomprehensible,” says Sperber. Here he makes clear how Kant used all kinds of terms and ideas that came under psychology for his theories about the human mind. According to Sperber, the fact that philosophers today think that Kant should have nothing to do with psychology is partly due to an ordinary quarrel.

The split of philosophy and psychology as separate sciences did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century, a century after the publication of Kant's book. “In that century a fierce battle took place about the function of psychology within philosophy, in which psychology drew the short straw. Until today, this conflict has remained underexposed in the historiography”. As is often the case in history, the winner's vision is the truth. The losers and their theories have been pushed into the background and then forgotten.

Everything has to be empirical

It all started with a crisis in philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Philosophers investigated the mind of man by thinking about it and by doing empirical research (based on sensory perceptions). The latter, psychology, was not a separate science at that time. The new empirical sciences, such as natural sciences and mathematics, were much more successful than philosophy at the time. Kant's followers, the Kantians, began to think about how psychology could become an independent research direction with its own research methods.

They worked out the psychological theories in Kant's teachings for the first time, but not always convincingly. This caused a split among the Kantians and they were divided into two camps. Sperber:"The psychological Kantians thought that philosophical theories should be based on a psychological theory about the workings of the human mind. The other part of the Kantians thought that psychology should be eliminated.

A now forgotten sound came from the radical Kantian Friedrich Eduard Beneke (1798-1854). He favored the idea of ​​replacing philosophy entirely with empirical psychology. “That way, philosophy would be saved from destruction and become as successful as the empirical sciences. This view receives no attention at all in the historiography, but was very important in the debate at the time.”

Out of psychology

Sperber thus shows that it is historically incorrect to separate Kant's philosophy from psychology, for the simple reason that these two sciences were not yet separate in his day. “That contrast only began to take shape in the middle of the nineteenth century.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the division between philosophy and psychology had become final. They were two separate sciences that mainly emphasized the differences in order to legitimize the separation. Psychology was no longer seen as a useful contribution to philosophy. For this, philosophers already cherry-picked Kant's teachings.

“It is true that Kant criticized psychology, but it cannot be separated from the zeitgeist. In fact, there was a strong methodological battle going on during his lifetime about how best to study the mind. Kant feared that his theories would be subject to change if he attached them to psychology. And that was not his intention, they had to last forever.”

History restored

Sperber is not the first to argue for more room for psychology in Kant's work. “Since the 1990s, there has been a renewed focus on psychology within philosophy, including Kant. But that Kant wished to steer clear of psychology is still the predominant opinion. With this thesis I want to make it clear that he had many sources of inspiration, including psychology. There is now too much tendency to reduce Kant's teaching to a coherent program and I think that is not possible.”

With this research, Sperber adds a forgotten image to the Kantian tradition. “The struggle between philosophy and psychology, which has hitherto been disregarded, was very great and not only among the followers of Kant. Now that I know this, I also look differently at other philosophers and their work. It is suddenly striking what stance they took in the debate, for or against psychology, and how that influenced their work. But the best part of this research was to see how a scientific discipline has slowly developed itself.”