What can we even think about immaterial spirits?

By guest contributor Matthew Rukgaber. See the full article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Incompatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Arguments in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.”

Perhaps it is because Immanuel Kant’s life was so uneventful that his minor controversies seem to take on a heightened significance. Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics from 1766 is a moment of self-created controversy that resulted in a worrisome review from Moses Mendelssohn that could have derailed his entire future. Charged with making metaphysics into a laughing stock, Kant made clear to Mendelssohn in correspondence that that had not been is intention. But it seems that Kant is laughing at something in the text and scholars have had a rather hard time figuring out what exactly.

Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is nominally concerned with the visionary theosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Perhaps this is the target of his laughter? After all, throughout Kant’s life he was a critic of what we know under the untranslatable term of Schwärmerei, which he defined as “a delusion of being able to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e., to dream in accordance with principles (to rave with reason)” (AA 5:275). Mendelssohn himself seemed unable to determine whether Kant’s aim was to make Swedenborg’s communion with the world of spirits into something credible or ridiculous. Even today some scholars argue that Kant’s text has a hidden agenda to support esotericism. Although entirely mistaken about such esoteric undercurrents, the Swedenborg apologists are certainly justified in attempting to counteract the unusually large influence that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer has had on the fortunes of Swedenborg’s thought. The reason that they are justified is that Kant’s text says almost nothing of substance about Swedenborg. When Kant finally turns to Swedenborg’s writings in the sixth of seven chapters, he abruptly ends the discussion for fear that in reproducing these ecstatic visions that he might frighten pregnant women (AA 2:366). Although Kant has some rather harsh words for these “spirit-seers,” he ultimately sees them as akin to ecstatic poets, whose imaginings hold a sort of internal logic that, while detached from true reason and fact, are not the sheer irrational nonsense of complete madness. He concludes that his own philosophical treatise is not of much use to such prophets of the netherworld, but he does offer a brief account of why people are drawn to the possibility of spirit-seeing: we are afraid of death and hope for an afterlife.

When Kant sardonically cuts off his discussion of Swedenborg, he pulls back the curtain and confesses that he had “a purpose in mind” that is in fact “more important” than the purpose that he claimed to have in discussing spirit-seeing (AA 2:367). According to some scholars, that more important purpose is in fact to ridicule metaphysics as a whole and the dominant rationalist Schulphilosophie. His claim to Mendelssohn to not be doing so and to actually hold that that “lasting welfare of the human race” depended on metaphysics (AA 10:70) must be, according to this reading, Kant recognizing that he had insulted one of the most respected thinkers in Germany. He was in no position at this stage in his career to burn such a bridge. Those who believe that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer intends to demolish metaphysics in general see within his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime from 1764 a shift towards a common-sense, anti-metaphysical school of thought referred to as Popularphilosophie. This skeptical destruction is presumably a step along the way to Kant’s mature philosophy as spelled out in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. But there are serious textual problems with such a reading, not to mention the fact that Kant seems to return to the metaphysics in the 1770 “Inaugural Dissertation” that he supposedly laughed at in 1766. If Kant is laughing at metaphysics in the 1766 text, then that also means he is repudiating over a decade of his own previous publications. Major works interpreting Kant’s early writings have claimed that this is so. But is there any evidence that Kant has tossed his previous labors out the window?

One would expect such a radical change in Kant’s thinking to be rather obvious. Given the divergence of interpretations, it obviously has not been. What has plagued the interpretation of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is the fact that the first four chapters of Kant’s text obscure what his own view is. The first chapter offers a “metaphysical knot” that asks what sense we can make of the idea of immaterial spirits. Because Kant wants the most charitable reconstruction of what we may be thinking of when we talk about immaterial spirits, he uses his own past metaphysical writings to illuminate this concept of a sort of entity that is in space and time but that will never constitute an impenetrable body no matter how many are combined together. Those scholars who believe that Kant is rejecting his own past metaphysical beliefs and the rationalist metaphysics that dominated Germany at the time must contend that this charitable reconstruction is a) an accurate representation of his earlier thinking and b) that he rejects this attempt to make intelligible the notion of an immaterial spirit. In the article “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Compatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Argument in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer” in volume 79, issue 3, of JHI, I show that (a) is false: this is not a legitimate application of Kant’s philosophy from the 1750s and early 1760s. So although (b) is true, it does not have the implication that most scholars have claimed. It neither repudiates all metaphysics nor overturns Kant’s earlier reflections on the metaphysics of simple substances (i.e. monads). Instead, the view that Kant ultimately holds is that although legitimate philosophical metaphysics leads us to the idea of metaphysically simple substances at the foundations of rational physics, rational psychology, and rational theology, the nature of such entities is not given to us and cannot be made comprehensible. It is this fact that is overlooked by metaphysicians using reason and spirit-seers using mystical visions. Thus, they both mistakenly believe that the idea of an immaterial spirit is something we can understand. Kant makes very clear that even the possibility of immaterial spirits is beyond the limits of human understanding, whereas the metaphysical notion of simple substances is a necessary rational posit indicating a nature that remains beyond our understanding.

Besides the fact his early works are generally misread as advancing a Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy that they actually diverge from in numerous ways, a contributing factor to misreading Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is that Kant ignores his own view of the limits of legitimate metaphysics in order to reconstruct a notion of what spirits are that he then facetiously allows to spin out of control in the second chapter dedicated to “occult philosophy.” He counteracts the excesses of the second chapter in the third chapter by offering a reductive, physiological explanation of all this talk of spirits that he calls the position of “ordinary philosophy.” Spirit-seeing may not be full-blown madness, but ordinary philosophy views talk of spirits as the result of a non-rational disturbance in the body. Neither the second nor the third chapters actually represent Kant’s own views. The first chapter does at least give us an accurate picture of Kant’s metaphysical beliefs, but the extension of those beliefs for the sake of rendering intelligible the idea of immaterial substances is not something Kant endorses or had ever endorsed.

At the end of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Kant seems to have contained his laughter fairly well. Although his harshest comments are certainly directed towards the visionaries like Swedenborg, ultimately he believes that a passionate hope in a future life, which is not to be sneered at, naturally leads us down this path. Although we may continue to hope for such things, we should not deceive ourselves into believing we either see or understand the possibility of a ghostly realm of souls and spirits. But that real purpose that Kant announces when setting aside Swedenborg is the goal of reforming metaphysics towards a more critically restrained and, therefore, less laughable version of itself. This is what Kant had in fact been doing his entire career and would continue to do.



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