Kant’s Empirical Psychology

Book Prospectus

Patrick R. Frierson

This book offers a detailed explanation and analysis of Kant’s empirical psychology and applies that analysis to thinking through several particular issues in Kant’s philosophy more generally.  Kant is one of the most important and widely discussed philosophers today and Oxford has a long tradition of publishing excellent monographs on Kant's philosophy (including, for example, recent books such as Robert Hanna’s Kant, Science, and Human Nature and Robert Louden’s Kant's Impure Ethics).

Many scholars have argued that Kant can allow for a detailed and mechanistic empirical psychology in principle.[1]  In an early essay on Kant’s theory of freedom, Allen Wood aptly described Kant’s account as a “compatibility of compatibilism and incompatibilism” (Wood 1984: 74), which captures the fact that Kant reconciles a conception of freedom as standing beyond all natural law with an account of the whole world – including human action – as governed by natural law.  In my previous book, Freedom and Anthropology in Kant's Moral Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), I took this account a step forward by showing how Kant can rightly insist upon the moral importance of his empirical account of human psychology while still preserving an asymmetry between this empirical account and the transcendental-practical account of the free will that grounds actions in a non-empirical way.  But recently, scholars such as Allen Wood (Wood 2003) and Robert Louden (Louden 2000: 67), while admitting the possibility and moral importance of empirical psychology in theory, have argued that Kant nonetheless fails to provide such an empirical psychology in fact. This book offers an important response to such accusations by explaining in detail what Kant's empirical psychology actually is.  Moreover, philosophers typically take Kant's transcendental idealism – according to which human beings can be considered both free rational agents and causally determined natural beings – as a justification for focusing attention on the nature and structure of free rational agency.[2] This has left under-appreciated Kant's distinctive empirical account of human beings.  The primary purpose of this book is defend the claim that Kant has an empirical account of human action by showing in detail what that account actually is.

In addition to defending substantial philosophical positions in Kant interpretation, this book will provide an invaluable resource for scholars of Kant, regardless of their subspecialty, by clearly laying out the overall structure of Kant's empirical psychology. Kant's empirical psychology informs the structure of his Critical work, from the general way in which the three Critiques map onto Kant's distinctions between different faculties of soul (cognition, volition, and feeling) and different powers of cognition (understanding, reason, and judgment) to specific ways in which details of Kant's empirical account affect particular critical discussions (such as the role of pleasure in moral motivation or the nature of aesthetic feeling). While this book will not discuss every philosophically relevant aspect of Kant's empirical psychology – indeed, it will hardly scratch the surface of the ways in which details about Kant's empirical psychology are relevant to assessing arguments in his Critical philosophy – it will provide a clear and concise empirical-psychological framework that others can use for filling in the connections between Kant's empirical and transcendental projects. Moreover, by including several chapters that “apply” Kant's empirical psychology to philosophical issues (see chapter outline), the work both offers original contributions to important issues of current contention and presents models for using Kant's empirical psychology to better understand his philosophy in other areas.

            Finally, this book is important as a contribution to the increasingly important issue of the relevance of empirical human sciences for philosophical research. Recently, philosophers ranging from John Doris (Lack of Character) to Michael Bishop (Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment) to Patricia Kitcher (Kant's Transcendental Psychology) have made extensive use of results of empirical psychology for settling debates in philosophy. Others have rightly objected to overly simplistic attempts to merely settle philosophical disputes with empirical research. As empirical human sciences become more successful, it is increasingly important to understand both the power and the limits of these sciences for philosophy.  Kant is typically and rightly used to defend the importance of a normative realm within which issues cannot simply be settled by appeal to empirical data. But Kant does make use of his empirical psychology in subtle ways in solving a wide variety of philosophical problems, and the care with which he does so provides an important alternative to those who would either ignore empirical research in philosophy or reduce philosophy to a subset of empirical psychology.


Book Outline

1.  Introduction.  The introduction will explain the differences and relations between Kant's empirical psychology and the sort of psychology directly involved in Kant's transcendental philosophy (including the “transcendental psychology” of Kant's first Critique and the discussion of action from a practical, free perspective). In this context, I will also discuss the importance of an account of Kant's empirical psychology for understanding his philosophy in general and suggest ways in which a better explanation of how Kant uses empirical psychology can provide for more sophisticated rapprochements between Kantian philosophers and those interested in incorporating empirical human sciences into philosophical research.


Part One: Kant’s Empirical Psychology


2.  Can Kant Have an Empirical Psychology? After briefly laying out the sources for Kant's empirical account of human action (primarily his lectures on empirical psychology and his Anthropology and related lectures), this chapter addresses objections to the possibility of a Kantian empirical psychology. Of these, the two most important are offered by those who argue from Kant's claims in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science that psychology can never be a science[3] and those who argue by appeal to specific problems that Kant highlights in his Anthropology.[4]  This chapter will end with an explanation of the nature and limits of any Kantian empirical “science” of human beings.


3.  Biological Bases of Empirical Psychology. This chapter lays out Kant's faculty psychology but focuses on discussing the nature of the biological bases of that psychology.  In particular, I discuss the differences and relations between germs (Keime), natural predispositions (Naturanlage), natural talents and temperaments, particular mental faculties and powers, and mental states as such.  In this context, I also discuss the relationship between mechanistic and teleological explanations of natural predispositions, making clear both why Kant considers teleological explanations legitimately “empirical” and also the extent to which the biology underlying Kant's empirical psychology is consistent with contemporary understandings of the empirical nature of biology.


4.  Kant’s Empirical Account of Human Action. This chapter lays out Kant's account of human action, focusing on how particular sensations or cognitions give rise to action.  (This chapter is largely based on my “Kant's Empirical Account of Human Action,” Philosopher’s Imprint 2005: xxx.)


5.  Kant’s Empirical Account of Human Cognition. This chapter serves two purposes. First, it finishes the account of human action begun in the last chapter. The account there started with human cognitions and then showed how actions arise from those. This chapter shows how those cognitions arise. Second, this chapter presents an independently important empirical account of human cognition. Chapters four and five combined, then, lay out an empirical psychology of all human mental states.  (This chapter is largely based on my “Kant’s Empirical Account of Human Cognition,” under revision)


6. Kant's Theory of Mental Disorder.  The empirical psychology laid out in chapters 3-5 dealt with “normal” human beings, and while I discuss in those chapters various ordinary ways in which human beings can vary with respect to the exercise their predispositions, I do not consider cases of mental illness.  This chapter lays out Kant's elaborate taxonomy of mental disorder and discusses the implications of this taxonomy for Kant's empirical psychology as a whole.  (This chapter is largely based on my “Kant's Theory of Mental Disorder I: An Overview” and “Kant's Theory of Mental Disorder II: Implications,” both forthcoming in History of Psychiatry.)



Part Two: Applications


7.  Respect for the Moral Law: Kant’s Empirical Account of Moral Motivation. This chapter takes the general account of human action offered in Chapter Five and applies it specifically to the case of moral motivation. I show how Kant's empirical psychology clarifies the way in which – within empirical psychology – a feeling of respect is a necessary precondition for choosing in accordance with the moral law.  I argue, however, that Kant's moral philosophy requires that he distinguish this empirical-psychological account from a first personal “practical” account within which choosing to obey the moral law necessarily precedes any feeling of respect, and I show how this account can be compatible with his psychology. Moreover, I suggest that Kant's interest in this practical led him to rethink the role of feeling in human motivation in general, and I show how Kant begins in the Critique of Practical Reason to develop a negative conception of feeling to account for the empirical-psychological feeling of respect.


8.  Kant’s Empirical Markers for Moral Responsibility. In this chapter, I show how Kant uses his empirical psychology to explain the empirical markers by which one can identify moral responsibility.  After explaining the problem of discerning such markers within a Kantian framework, I show both the limits and the value of Kant's empirical psychology for articulating the nature of those markers.  (This chapter is largely based on my “Empirical Psychology, Common Sense, and Kant’s Empirical Markers for Moral Responsibility,” forthcoming in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.)


9.  Affects, Passions, and Weakness of Will.  In this chapter, I apply Kant's empirical psychology to two related issues that arise both in the interpretation of Kant and in moral psychology more generally.  The first is the moral status of emotions, and in particular a distinction that Kant draws between “affects” and “passions,” the former of which (for Kant) is “merely a lack of virtue” while the latter is “properly evil” (6:408). I argue that although Kant consistently draws this distinction in terms of the difference between the faculty of feeling (in which affects are located) and the faculty of desire (which passions are said to affect), the difference between affects and passions is more fundamentally a difference between a disorder that bypasses the exercise of higher powers of choice and one that corrupts those higher powers.  The second issue discussed in this chapter is the status of weakness of will, both in Kant and in general.  In the light of Kant's empirical psychology, I show how one with a weak will can have good maxims but fail to act on them.  More importantly, I use this account to show how Kant's account of weakness of the will, properly understood, requires a bold reading of his transcendental idealism according to which human beings can be held morally responsible for aspects of our character that might not seem to directly result from choice, ordinarily understood.


10.  Character in Kant's Moral Psychology. This chapter brings Kant’s empirical psychology into dialogue with recent arguments that seek to use empirical-psychological research to argue against character-based ethical theories (see recent work by John Doris and Gilbert Harman). Given the central role of character in Kant’s empirical-moral psychology, some might see these criticisms as a threat to Kantian moral philosophy. However, a close look at Kant’s account of character provides an alternative way of reading the empirical data. By showing that Kantian character is a practical and even quasi-moral achievement, I argue that Doris and Harman misinterpret the normative implications of recent work in empirical psychology. In the context of this discussion of Kantian character, I also make sense of an apparent conflict between two aspects of Kant’s account of character: Kant sometimes seems to identify character with moral virtue, but his primary example of character is one who is evil – Sulla.  Kant even emphasizes that the evil character of Sulla makes him admirable and “worthy of respect” (25:823).  By situating character in the context of Kant's empirical psychology, I show how one can have an evil character, why such a character would nonetheless be “worthy of respect,” and how even this evil character brings a person closer to morality than a lack of character. (This chapter draws from but substantially modifies my “Character and Evil in Kant’s Moral Anthropology,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 44 (2006): 623-34, and “Kantian Moral Pessimism,” forthcoming.)


11.  Virtue Epistemology, Ameliorative Psychology, and Kant’s Empirical Logic.  This chapter draws on the discussion of empirical influences on human cognition in Kant’s Logic to show how Kant incorporates some of the best insights of contemporary virtue epistemology and ameliorative psychology while steering clear of the naturalizing tendencies of both schools of thought.  Within his Logic, Kant offers a robust account of intellectual virtues and vices informed by an empirical account of human cognition. Kant's virtue epistemology not only diagnoses the psychological causes of epistemic error, but includes detailed descriptions of the nature and importance of intellectual virtues in addressing those causes.  Importantly, Kant distinguishes between virtues and vices that are properly intellectual (such as the virtues of wit and acumen) because tied to human cognition strictly speaking and those moral virtues and vices that are relevant to epistemic excellence (such as the vice of laziness).  Within his account of properly intellectual virtues and vices, Kant discusses the role of “prejudices” in ways that anticipates contemporary discussions of “biases and heuristics” in psychological studies of human irrationality. Like these recent trends in what has come to be called “ameliorative psychology” (see, e.g., Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment, Oxford: 2005), Kant aims to use empirical details about human cognition to improve that cognition. Kant’s own accounts of prejudice, while sophisticated for his time, are not up to the standard of contemporary psychological analyses of biases in human judgment, but his use of these accounts is generally more philosophically sophisticated than recent uses of contemporary psychology of cognition.  Kant’s empirical logic is fundamentally secondary to pure logic in the way that moral anthropology is secondary to pure moral philosophy in his Groundwork. Thus intellectual virtues and ameliorative measures are means for achieving an epistemic standard defined independently of those virtues. Kant thus shows one important way of incorporating psychological and virtue-based insights about human cognition into a fundamentally non-naturalist epistemology.

12. Conclusion. The book concludes with reflections on what is distinctive both about Kant's empirical psychology and about how Kant uses that psychology.

Outstanding Features List

The book is the first of its kind.  There are many books that make use of features of Kant's empirical psychology (such as xxx, xxx, and xxx).  There are many books that lay out and discuss the transcendental idealist framework that makes room for Kant's empirical psychology (Allison, Korsgaard, Frierson, xxx).  And there are some books that discuss the possibility of Kant's empirical psychology in general terms (Westphal Kant's Transcendental Realism, Watkins Kant and the Sciences, Wood, xxx; Louden xxx.  At present, however, there is no book that lays out Kant's empirical psychology in its detail.  Given the helpful charts and diagrams as well as the clarity of the account in the first half of the book, it will be invaluable as a reference work for Kantians and those interested in the history of psychology.  And the particular applications in the second half of the book will be xxx.


As noted above, there is no direct competition for this book.  As another work on Kant in a market heavily swollen with works on Kant, it will suffer from some competition with other works on Kant that do not directly relate to empirical psychology at all.  The most direct competition will be with works that focus the empirical dimensions of Kant's thought, including Louden, Wood (x2), Munzel, Holly Wilson, and my own forthcoming What is the Human Being? (Routledge).  None of these focus on empirical psychology as such, and none lay out and apply a detailed account of empirical psychology.  Xxx And my forthcoming book is directed towards a popular rather than a scholarly audience, so it will include both less detail and less philosophical rigor than this work.

Market Considerations

The Primary Market

This is primarily a scholarly book directed towards Kant scholars and those interested in philosophical anthropology or the history and/or philosophy of psychology. The application chapters in part two will also have relevance to those working in meta-ethics, moral philosophy, moral psychology, philosophy of the emotions, and epistemology (especially virtue epistemology).

The book will also have an important role as a reference work for Kant scholars and historians of psychology, and thus may have a wider market with both libraries and individuals than typical scholarly works have.

As noted, the book is not a textbook.  It could be used in courses on Kant or Kant's philosophical anthropology, but it is likely to primarily be of interest to graduate students or practicing scholars.

The best way to reach the market for this scholarly book would be book reviews (and perhaps advertising) in philosophy journals (e.g. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Journal of the History of Philosophy) and perhaps journals in the human sciences and a presence (including, perhaps, explicit advertising) at related conferences (e.g., at the American Philosophical Association).  My own presentation of material related to the book at relevant conferences (perhaps even in an “Author Meets Critics” session of the APA) and at departmental colloquia at various universities will help raise publicity for the book.

Status of the Work

At present the work is about 65% finished.  I have rough drafts of chapters 4-6, 8, and 10.  I have written much but not all of chapters 2 and 3, and I have outlined but not yet written chapters 7, 9, and 11.  I have not yet written the introduction or conclusion, but these should be fairly straightforward once the rest of the book has been finished.

I expect that the total length of the book will be approximately 140,000 words, including notes.

The only material I will use that requires permission is my own previously published work.  The journals and volumes in which I have had work published or to which I have submitted it have assured me that permission to reprint my own work in my own book will not be a problem, but I have not yet started the process of getting official permissions.

I would expect to be finished with the book no later than September 30, 2010 or one year from the date of a contract, whichever is later.

Sample Chapters

I am including copies of chapters four (“Kant's Empirical Account of Human Action”) and ten (“Character in Kant's Moral Psychology”). Chapter four lays out the main features of Kant’s empirical psychology. Chapter ten provides one example of the sort of application to which I put this account.

[1] (see Allison, Hatfield, Sturm, and Wood 1984)

[2]  Virtually the whole of neokantian ethics fits into this category. For some prominent examples, see Andrews Reath, xxx (Oxford, xxx); Christine Korsgaard xxx; xxx; xxx.

[3] (see especially xxx and Westphal).  Note that Westphal’s argument culminates in a discussion of MFNS but is fundamentally based on his reading of the first Critique. His argument will be discussed in detail.

[4] (especially Louden and Wood)