Kant’s Questions:

What is the Human Being?


“The greatest concern of the human being is to know how to properly fulfill his station in creation and to rightly understand what one must do in order to be a human being.” (Immanuel Kant, from a set of handwritten notes written in 1764 in his personal copy of Observations on the Beautiful and Sublime, Ak. 20:41[1])


“The field of philosophy . . . can be reduced to the following questions:  What can I know?  What ought I to do?  What may I hope?  What is the human being?  Metaphysics answers the first question, morals the second, religion the third, and anthropology the fourth. Fundamentally, however, we could reckon all of this as anthropology.”  (from Kant’s logic lectures, as compiled by his student Jäsche in 1800, Ak. 9: 25)


Table of contents/chapter synopsis

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Introduction. In addition to a brief account of Kant’s life, works, and times, the introduction will focus on the importance of the question “What is the Human Being?” both for our own contemporary context and for Kant. In this context I will define the question more precisely and briefly sketch some of the dominant approaches to human nature today. In particular, I argue that what gives this question urgency is its connection to both empirical science and practical life. I also briefly lay out the course that Kant’s answer will take in Part One.


Part One: Kant’s Answer


Chapter 1: Transcendental Anthropology. Chapter 1 covers the “big picture” of Kant’s account of human nature: the importance of freedom in Kant’s ethics, the nature of human “science,” and how Kant’s transcendental idealism makes it possible both to describe human beings empirically and to make sense of human freedom. (Here I draw primarily from Kant’s three Critiques and related smaller works, such as the Prolegomena and the Groundwork.)


Chapter 2: Empirical Anthropology. After a brief discussion of the problems that Kant identifies with a science of human nature and even with trying to observe human beings, this chapter focuses on Kant’s empirical account of human beings. Here I draw primarily from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Anthropology, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, historical essays, and lectures on empirical psychology, anthropology, ethics, and (applied) logic.  In addition to providing a general overview of the structure of Kant’s empirical account of general human faculties and predispositions, I also specifically discuss the status of anthropology as an empirical discipline (but not a “science” in the strict sense).


Chapter 3: Human Evil and Human History. This chapter discusses Kant’s approach to humans' “radical evil.” I argue that this account is fundamentally an empirical one (contra Henry Allison) and thus that it belongs within Kant’s anthropology, but I also show the way in which Kant’s account of the nature and moral importance of radical evil depends upon his Critical account of the human being.  Finally, I show why Kant’s distinctive approach to radical evil is important for his moral philosophy, as well as how it fits into his philosophy of history.


Chapter 4: Human Diversity.  This chapter takes up Kant’s accounts of variations among individuals, races, and sexes, including discussions of their historical context. In this chapter, I also address the issue of the extent to which Kant’s claims about human diversity are compatible with the rest of his anthropology and with his universalist ethics.


Chapter 5: Pragmatic Anthropology. This chapter shows how Kant pulls together transcendental-moral and empirical dimensions of human nature into a new sort of human science, a popular “pragmatic anthropology” that aims at “the investigation of what [the human being] as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself” (7:119).


Part two: Responses to Kant


Chapter 6: From Kant to German Idealism. This chapter looks at the late 18th and early 19th century reception of Kant. I start with the immediate reception of Kant’s transcendental anthropology by his empiricist critics and then by those “defenders” of Kant such as Reinhold and Fichte who inaugurated German Idealism. I then turn to the early Romantic to Kant by such figures as Schiller, Schleiermacher, and Novalis. Then I look at the late Idealists Schelling and Hegel, who combine Fichtean and Romantic criticisms and appropriations of Kant. And I end with a very brief discussion of Schopenhauer’s Kantianism. Throughout, I not only show the ways in which Kant’s conception of the human being influences these thinkers, but also outline the major objections to Kant’s answer to what the human being is.


Chapter 7: German Idealism to the 20th Century. In this chapter, I discuss the most important 19th and early 20th century developments in understanding the human being, using key thinkers to highlight the emergence of new approaches to answering Kant’s question: Darwin and the rise of biological accounts of human nature; Freud and Wundt and the rise of modern psychology; Marx (and Weber) and the rise of materialist and historicist social sciences; Einstein, modern physics, and the challenge to Kant’s transcendental anthropology; and the philosophical genealogies of Friedrich Nietzsche.


Part three: What is the Human Being Today?


Chapter 8: Scientific Naturalism. This chapter focuses on how the sciences – especially biology and psychology – have been used to answer the question, “What is the human being?” I start with contemporary neuroscience/cognitive science and the attempts in contemporary philosophy of mind to come to terms with the implication of our understanding of the human brain for making sense of the human mind. I then turn to evolutionary accounts of human beings, focusing on recent philosophical appropriations of evolutionary theory by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Finally, I turn to more broadly psychological accounts of human nature, discussing both the general project of a psychologically naturalist approach to understanding human nature and some specific approaches in contemporary psychology (situationism and the biases and heuristics movement) that might seem to challenge Kant’s conception of human nature.


Chapter 9: Historicism and Human Diversity. This chapter raises the question of whether it even makes sense to talk about “the” human being. I start with recent challenges to Kant’s universalist approach to empirical knowledge of the world (his transcendental anthropology of cognition), showing how recent developments in the sciences have prompted historians and philosophers of science (especially Kuhn) to develop a historicized conception of the conditions of possibility of empirical cognition. I then turn to Foucault, whose historicism directly takes on Kant’s conception of human subjectivity and who has been extremely influential for contemporary historiography and social sciences. Finally, I examine the implications for Kant’s anthropology of recent work on human diversity that has become the particular focus of the discipline currently called “anthropology” (with a brief nod to cultural studies, gender studies, and other studies of human differences).


Chapter 10: Existentialism and Deconstruction. This chapter challenges the notion of “the human being” from a different perspective, that of existentialists who argue that “the human being is what he makes of himself.” Focusing on Heidegger and Sartre, I explain how the existentialist notions of being-in-the-world and absolute freedom not only challenge Kant’s particular answers to the question “What is the human being?” but require a revision of the question itself. This chapter ends with a brief discussion of the recent popularity of a broadly Levinasian “ethics of deconstruction” that shifts from an arguably self-centered existentialism of Sartre towards what might be called an existential heteronomy.


Chapter 11: Normativity. This chapter takes up a problem revealed in Kant’s responses to the previous three chapters: naturalism, historicism, and existentialism all fail to address the normative requirements of “transcendental” anthropology. This chapter thus looks at some representative approaches to human beings that highlight the importance of these normative demands. I start with early 20th century analytic epistemology and Husserlian phenomenology as examples of broadly “intuitionist” approaches to normativity. I then turn to the neopragmatism of philosophers like Richard Rorty as a sort of normativity-preserving response to problems with human diversity, and to narrative- and tradition-based approaches to normativity (especially that of Alasdair MacIntyre). I end this chapter with the two most prominent contemporary neoKantian approaches to normativity: Habermasian communicative rationality and the broadly Rawlsian approach currently advocated most forcefully by Christine Korsgaard.


Chapter 12: Radical Evil in a Post-Holocaust World. This chapter will reassess Kant’s approach to human evil in the light of historical developments over the past century. Starting with Kant’s claim that human beings are radically evil, I examine and critique two recent trends in contemporary (moral) philosophy. One, dominant in the work of continental philosophers like Derrida and Levinas, so radicalizes the claim that human beings are radically evil that it becomes in principle impossible for human agents to act properly in concrete contexts. Another, prevalent in contemporary analytical philosophy and in much work in the human sciences, ignores the possibility of radical evil in Kant’s sense, as a universal, individual, and deeply rooted source of moral evil in human life. I then turn to Kant accounts of the nature of radical evil, highlighting (and partially defending) Kant’s distinctive position between recent emphases on the “banality” of evil (Arendt) that underemphasize the severity of evil and alternative approaches that emphasize the possibility (and actuality) of what Kant calls “diabolical evil,” the deliberate choice of evil for its own sake. Finally, I turn specifically to the problem of the Holocaust. After first assessing (and largely rejecting) the claim that Kant’s approach to anthropology helps contribute to the historical emergence of human tragedies like the Holocaust, I then focus on clarifying and defending Kant’s belief in historical (moral) progress in the light of the atrocities of the 20th century.



Conclusion: “The Greatest Concern of the Human Being”. The conclusion pulls together the discussions of the previous chapters, especially from part three, to show how Kant’s view can and should be modified in the light of contemporary philosophical and scientific insights, as well as why Kant’s overall approach to the human being is so important, how it can inform how we live our lives (“fulfill our station in creation”), how it can help us use but not abuse the insights of biology and social sciences, and how it can help deal with issues of human diversity. I also recapitulate why recognizing the presence of radical evil is so important for fulfilling our station and realistically approaching the world. In the end, I exhort my readers to fulfill the intention of Kant’s pragmatic anthropology through applying the best empirical science to cultivating a human nature in oneself and others that meets ever higher normative standards of belief, feeling, and volition.


[1] Throughout, references to Kant’s works are to volume and page number in the Akademie Edition of Kant’s works.