A problem of knowledge

By Razib Khan | April 22, 2011 1:37 am

A boring man

Immanuel Kant is famous. You’ve probably heard of him. And you know some of his ideas, such as the categorical imperative, or have at some point started the Critique of Pure Reason (if you’re like me, you never finish it). But what do you know about his biography? I may not be able to complete a Critique of Pure Reason, but I did read Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography in the winter of 2002. From that I learned one surprising fact: Immanuel Kant in his personal beliefs was not an orthodox Christian, if he had religious sentiment at all. This surprised me because I had read elsewhere in passing that Kant was a Pietistic Lutheran. Ultimately whether Kant was religious or not was not a major issue for me, but I did update my personal factual database.

Fast forward six years to 2008. I was at a party kicking back with some philosophers (as in, people completing their doctorates), and it came up that one of them was doing their dissertation on some of Kant’s ideas. This individual happened to be Roman Catholic, and was trying to work in some religious thought. I expressed curiosity, and mentioned offhand how Kant himself was irreligious. My interlocutor expressed surprise and corrected my confusion, explaining that Kant was a devout Lutheran Christian. I shrugged and accepted the correction. I had only read one biography on Kant, and I wasn’t going to make a stand on the views of one scholar (especially when as I said I didn’t really care).

I bring this up because these issues came to the fore in my mind when Matthew Yglesias issued a correction from an earlier post where he stated that Kant was a Pietistic Lutheran. That correction was prompted by Ian Blecher, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who is writing a dissertation on Kant. He cites the Kuehn book which I mention above. So is the Kuehn book creditable? Should I trust Blecher, or my passing acquaintance?

Analytic philosophy isn’t quite like some of the more “post-modern” inflected fields. There is usually a pretense toward the importance of objectivity and the reality of a set of concrete facts. But even here a simple trivial piece of biographical data can be confused and transmitted in error. It’s not really a big issue in and of itself, but it’s kind of disturbing that simple information like this can’t be taken for granted. It should also remind us that in the age of Google and Wikipedia true certain knowledge is still hard, and often more than a link or two away.

  • Justin Giancola

    reflexive 😮 go Pittsburgh!

  • http://twitter.com/greenideas Matt Henry

    During my abortive career in philosophy, it was my understanding that the Kuehn biography was authoratative.

    It might also be worth recalling that there’s no shortage of thinkers who have been posthumously drafted into the religious ranks by misguided theists (Einstein, Darwin, etc.).

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    I don’t know about Kant’s specific case, but religion, in general, is such a personal matter, that it is easy to imagine individuals being categorized one way based on what they profess or how they act publicly, and yet privately expressing quite different concerns or stances. There is always some fuzziness in knowing the ‘private’ mental lives of individuals.

  • bob sykes

    I think Shecky is right, but I would emphasize the private aspect. I suspect that many people, especially today, are deeply uncertain as to what their religious positions really are. I am officially agnostic, but I live like an atheist and my moral and esthetic sensibility is thoroughly Roman Catholic (pre Vat II).

    Kant certainly reads like he has some sort of religious perspective. Maybe this (like mine) is merely a carry over from his upbringing. Then there are the endless questions of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and Adolf Hitler.

  • Mary

    Mathematics may be the only truth we can know. Beyond that, the truth gets very complicated.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Kant’s parents were devout Pietists. Kant himself was ambivalent about this religious legacy, tossing out Pietism’s anti-intellectualism and overreliance on Scripture but endorsing its moral purity and integrity. As a side note, another interesting case of parental “religion” impacting a scientist in a unique, not straightforward, way is anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s early association with Free Masonry through his father Jedidiah.

  • ChristianKl

    Kant lived in a time where he would have gotten into problems when he would have said publically that he’s an atheist.

  • Chris M


    There are a couple of things one can say about this, but the primary one is: why should this be a case of “simple knowledge”? Presumably to make a well-grounded claim about Kant’s religious beliefs would require both a careful study of his relevant writings, incl. his published work & ‘nachlass’, and as thorough a biographical study as possible.

    As if that weren’t bad enough (considering how bad his prose is) you then have to bear in mind that his writings were subject to official censorship and his position at Koenigsberg technically made him a State official; there were concrete reasons why he might have to diminish his own religious heterodoxy. In fact, Kant was forbidden by the Prussian royal censor from ever making public statements on religion after releasing a second edition of his “Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone” in 1794. Granted, ’94 was pretty late in the game for Kant, but it illustrates the context if nothing else.

    I think the variety of answers among even people with more than an informed layperson’s knowledge of Kant has as much to do with their indifference as the difficulty in giving a well-established answer. Kant’s philosophy of religion is not exactly a hot topic in academic philosophy, and my informed guess (having known my fair share of Kantians and Kantians-in-training) is that it’s something even most Kant specialists will give cursory attention to at some point in their educations, and then promptly ignore thereafter.

    FWIW, I’d be highly suspicious of anyone who tried to tell me that Kant’s religious beliefs were anything more orthodox than a very thoroughly rationalized, and so pretty tepid, form of Christianity. I don’t know enough to take a position beyond that.

  • http://perfecthealthdiet.com Paul Jaminet

    Kant taught Ethics at his university and his students’ notes, collected as Lectures on Ethics http://books.google.com/books?id=5kCTORPawb4C record Kant making many professions of Christian faith.

    There is little doubt he was a practicing Christian, and by his public pronouncements a devout and serious one. There are many who claim that he was forced to be publicly devout by the ethos of his time. But he was a man of great intellectual integrity and this view is most unlikely to be true.

    Something similar is said of Locke, despite the fact that he devoted the last 15-odd years of his life to Biblical commentary and made many professions of faith.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Something similar is said of Locke

    who says this?

  • Chris P.

    Kant, not being Greek or a Slav was not likely to be an Orthodox Christian.
    As for being an orthodox Christian, I doubt there were a lot of those in a country roughly split between Catholics and the various protestant communities.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    can you just ask to correct the caps instead of insisting on being a tool?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ok dumbass, i didn’t even caps it. plenty of xtians use word orthodox.

  • Chris P.

    Both your comments were beside my point, I don’t think using the word orthodox in either sense was appropriate, and I explain why.

    Not everyone is out to get you….

  • Chris P.

    From dictionary.com: orthodox: of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc.
    At his time, in Prussia, there were a number of christian communities with differing doctrines, living in relative peace.
    Had he lived in Spain during the inquisition, or some other country with a requirement for strict religious adherence, he could be labeled unorthodox.
    To drive the point further, here’s a quote from Frederick the Great, the Prussian king during much of Kant’s life:
    “All Religions are equal and good, if only the people that practice them are honest people; and if Turks and heathens came and wanted to live here in this country, we would build them mosques and churches.”


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I don’t think using the word orthodox in either sense was appropriate, and I explain why.

    seriously, shut the fuck up. i don’t care what you think. i was using orthodox in the way that my serious christian friends would use. someone who is a believer in nicene christianity. ergo, jefferson may have considered himself xtian, but they would not consider him an ‘orthodox christian.’ i’m well aware of the situation in prussia at the time.

  • M Burke

    BTW “Pietism” is a very dirty word in confessional conservative Lutheran circles. To them it means “seeking to be right with God by works.”

  • observer

    I find this in a pretty authoritative source, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “The discovery of Kant’s dislike of Christianity (documented during Kant’s lifetime) is due to the efforts of Manfred Kuehn, University of Marburg. Kant’s first biographers were L. E. Borowski, R. B. Jachmann, and E. A. C. Wasianski. Their accounts appeared in Königsberg, in the year of Kant’s death (11 Feb. 1804). As the three writers knew their subject personally — Borowski had been his frequent guest; Jachmann had been his research assistant; and Wasianski had been his assistant and executor of will — their portraits were accepted as authoritative. All three had degrees in theology; Jachmann held church services, Wasianski was a deacon, and Borowski was a church administrator. They stressed the importance of Pietism for Kant and presented their subject as a good Christian. This distortion was partly due to an innocent projection of the biographers’ preferences, but to some extent, it was also a systematic effort at spinning the facts, especially in the case of Borowski. Borowski worried that his association with Kant would harm his career and tried to preempt critics, for Kant’s scorn for fundamentalists (Schwärmer) was notorious, and his influence was blamed for the empty churches in town. Kant was cool towards Christianity and did not support its doctrines. For the distortions of Kant’s relation to Christianity, see Kuehn 2001, 2-16. For Kant’s contempt for organized religion, disbelief in an afterlife, and rejection of a monotheistic God, see ibid, 328, 369-78, 382, and 392.”

    One can pretty well see from these circumstances both why some believe he was a Lutheran Pietist — for that was the spin put upon his set of beliefs by those who had a high motivation so to understand him — and why others (far more objectively it would seem) would hold he was not a conventional Christian.

    Certainly if Kant rejected the afterlife and a monotheistic God, he was no standard Christian.


  • http://perfecthealthdiet.com Paul Jaminet


    The notion that Locke was not a believing Christian was widespread in elite philosophical circles when I was studying. I heard it from both MIT and Harvard philosophy professors. But perhaps few dared to put the claim in writing.

    One essay (http://www.chafuen.com/home/locke-and-christianity-2) reports a few not-quite-definite assertions:

    It seems that there is a deliberate attempt by some students of Locke to hide or belittle his religious views. The introduction written by Enrique I. Grossman to a Spanish edition of selected Locke’s writings is a case in point. Grossman argued that “Locke’s opinion definitely pulls apart from the theological model”[ii] (Locke 1973, p. 23). Grossman added: “The biblical quotes and his professions of faith should not misguide us: the threat of burning at the stake, from which, by his retraction, Galileo could barely escape. The effort of that generation for detaching itself from the theological ties turns evident in Grotius statement that the law would still exist even if God did not.”[iii] (Locke 1973, p. 24)

    Mark Goldie, a professor of history at Cambridge University, and one of the most renowned Locke experts, recently wrote a piece to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Locke’s death. Goldie mentions only one of Locke’s religious writings, The Reasonableness of Christianity and describes it as “minimalist as to Christian doctrine, and reflecting his fear of clerical power and of religious ‘enthusiasm’ or fanaticism.” (Goldie, 2004)

  • Onur

    The notion that Locke was not a believing Christian was widespread in elite philosophical circles when I was studying.

    Yes, that is roughly how I have envisioned Locke all along.

    But for Kant, it is much harder for me to think that he was non-believer (the Kant I know is a devout practising Christian who reflected his Christianity on his philosophy). Maybe I should investigate him more.

  • John Emerson

    Newton also spent years in esoteric Bible study.

    One thing to remember is that when someone spends years studying the Bible, they often end up with an original and unorthodox form of Christianity (look up Swedenborg). Newton and Milton were Arians (denied the divinity of Christ) and Locke was at least accused of it. All of them tried to rationalize Christianity, which took them in the direction of Deism or Unitarianism. From a long historical view, deism might be watered-down Christianity and the last steppingstone before atheism, but many deists regarded themselves as the best sort of Christian.

    Jefferson cut up the Bible to produce his own Deist version. He honored Jesus as a wise man and teacher. For him this was probably Christianity. A lot of the impiety of the Founders was opposition to established churches, and to the institutional churches even if not established. Many relied on a kind of natural religion or civil religion acceptable to Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and even Muslims. So they were religious, but not in a fundamentalist way (though they shared fundamentalist contempt for liturgical religion and state religion, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, or Orthodox). Some devoutly Christian groups believed that the Bible had been corrupted and used an edited Bible, as did Jefferson.

    Pietism began among Lutherans but was influenced by Calvinists and influenced Methodists and Anabaptists. Pietism was also anti-liturgical and thus was a step in the same direction. It also produced an individualist, subjectivist Christianity.

    The fundamentalism we see is a 19thc creation and, while it is highly antagonistic to the enlightenment and much of science, was in a sense a result of the enlightenment, or at least had the same ancestry, with the difference that the Bible became an absolute standard and belief was prior to knowledge. They shared individual conscience, anti-ritualism, opposition to state churches, moralism.

    Once you get started with stuff it’s hard to get away from it. Hans Nielsen Hauge, a revivalist preacher in Norway in the 19thc., played a significant economic role by founding a number of mills, shipyards, paper mills, textile mills, and printshops.

    Another n. European philosopher was an actual Pietist: Kierkegaard. The similarity to Kant is not evident, but the individualist subjectivism is the same. The opposite pole of either one of these would be the Orthodox.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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