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The Impossible Possibility of Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2020

Chris L. Firestone
Trinity International University
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Stephen R. Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism revisits his earlier work on Kant and Swedenborg, arguing that, contrary to standard interpretations, the arguments of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer expand into ‘Critical mysticism’ throughout the Critical philosophy and into the Opus Postumum. Although the beginning portions of Palmquist’s book successfully disturb the standard portrait of Kant as the all-destroyer of metaphysics and religious experience, his argument for critical mysticism is inconclusive. It is impossible to know if his interpretation of the Opus Postumum is more right than its competitors. The conflict of interpretations shows Palmquist’s interpretation to be a hermeneutic impossible possibility.

Author Meets Critic
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Kantian Review

This discussion of Stephen Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism: Critique as the Experience of Baring All in Reason’s Light (Palmquist 2019; henceforth KM) will be limited to three areas of general engagement: the nature of the overall project, key topics in the interpretation’s first part and a methodological dilemma that plagues the interpretation’s concluding part.Footnote 1

KM is divided in good Kantian fashion into twelve chapters organized into three parts. Think of the whole book as a diamond-shaped argument supporting what Palmquist calls ‘Kant’s Critical mysticism’. Part I forms the top of the diamond, where Palmquist revisits his earlier work on Kant and Swedenborg. He argues that, contrary to standard interpretations, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (henceforth Dreams) provides the seed of Critical mysticism that will grow in and through Kant’s Critical philosophy and eventually blossom into ‘Critical mysticism’ proper in the Opus Postumum. Part II presents the thicker part of the diamond, where Palmquist mines the various Critical writings for every conceivable place they might be interpreted as supporting Kant’s mystical tendencies. Palmquist’s goal is to make it feasible for the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to get to part III — the bottom tip of his diamond-shaped argument, focusing on Kant’s posthumous writings. The whole book is a bold attempt to overturn and dismantle the standard interpretation (namely, that Kant is primarily an empirical philosopher, the all-destroyer of metaphysics and a reducer of religion to morality) and its frown on any form of mysticism in Kant whatsoever.

Palmquist’s interpretation is not his first attempt to make this case; he has done a yeoman’s job in laying the groundwork for it in books such as Kant’s System of Perspectives (1993) and Kant’s Critical Religion (2000), as well as numerous essays and supplementary publications. He also is not alone in making strong arguments in favour of a more religiously affirmative Kant, as a groundswell of scholars (including myself) have made convincing cases for dismantling and overturning the standard portrait of Kant. However, Palmquist is unique among the burgeoning voices in this ‘New Wave’ of interpreters. He argues that the best way of interpreting Kant’s philosophy is as religiously mystical or as culminating in a transcendental type of religious mysticism. For his special interpretation to be successful, it must accomplish three goals. First, it must show that some semblance of mysticism survives the transition to and through Kant’s three Critiques.Footnote 2 Second, the interpretation must show that this seed is watered and nourished in the Critical philosophy in such a way that it eventually comes to bloom in Kant’s posthumous writings. Third, it must demonstrate that it has more explanatory power with respect to the relevant texts in Kant’s Critical corpus than other metaphysically affirmative readings. Exploring this third point would take us well beyond the confines of the present occasion, so I will focus the lion’s share of my attention on assessing the first two goals.

To my mind, the beginning portions of Palmquist’s book successfully disturb the standard account. Kant does indeed have a fascination with Swedenborg and, even though Swedenborg’s writings disappointed Kant’s thirst for intellectual rigour, his reading and interpretation of them are nevertheless suggestive that some form of religious affirmation remains. Why else would he order these books on his meagre salary, then read and interact with them publicly in search of a sound philosophical rationale? Kant also refers to Swedenborg’s dream-theories as uncanny resemblances of his own metaphysical theories. The thin thread of optimism exhibited in Kant’s prose requires some explanation, and the whole exercise allows for interesting interpretative implications to be thought up and reimagined. Palmquist is a master at teasing out these suggestive tropes and trajectories in Kant’s thinking and leveraging them for his interpretative ends.

Other noteworthy positive elements in KM’s opening stages help move the argument along and make the book worth reading. Palmquist expertly distinguishes between the Critical method and the Copernican revolution. The Critical method is a general term describing Kant’s way of synthesizing the good elements of two opposing positions into a higher order position.Footnote 3 The Copernican revolution, by contrast, is Kant’s new insight that reason provides the constitutive features of all human experience. Kant came to portions of this thesis, in particular the ideal nature of space and time, in his 1770 Inaugural Dissertation. He later refined the thesis, adding the twelve categories as necessary subjective forms of conception in the first Critique. For this reason, it is a misnomer, thinks Palmquist, to label as ‘Critical’ only Kant’s writings of 1770 onwards. Kant employed the Critical method for years prior to 1770 and, argues Palmquist, Dreams can be interpreted as exemplifying that method. Thus Kant interacts with Swedenborg’s work not because he wants to dismantle and destroy it, but because he wants to promote something in it.

If this were as far as Palmquist were to go, I could end my assessment right here. This is not the case, however. He builds an entire hermeneutic around this insight, one that is traceable right through Kant’s Critical philosophy. This is KM’s ambitious project in parts II and III. However, in his attempt to portray Kant as ‘Baring All in Reason’s Light’, I could not help but think there is something fishy in the ‘BARL’. My main concern is that Palmquist has a penchant for making ‘inferences of possibility’ into ‘inferences of actuality’. That is, Palmquist’s interpretation of Kant’s Critical writings uses possible implications stemming from the early writings as the basis for assertoric claims that constitute the essence of what Kant actually thought in the later writings. One example is the way Palmquist thinks of immediate and mediated experience. Most scholars of Kant would think that, to have any experience at all is, in the Critical writings, to have what one might call a ‘mediated immediate’ experience. Palmquist, however, thinks he sees a difference stemming from the Critical method as applied to Dreams. The term ‘immediate’, derived from implications Palmquist sees in Dreams, must mean an unconditioned experience, whereas ‘mediate’ must mean the later Copernican kind of conditioned experience. I do not think this is in Kant’s mind at all as he makes the transition to the ‘island of truth’ that eventually becomes the Critique of Pure Reason. Unconditioned experience is an oxymoron for humans. We are defined by our limitations; God alone experiences the world in an unmediated way.

Of course, good interpreters always follow such leads and look for how much explanatory value they may have. It is not impossible that Kant may have thought something like this, I suppose. Palmquist, however, does not present his interpretation as a hypothetical test case and then compare its explanatory power with other possible interpretations. Rather, he presents his hypothesis as Kant’s, both in terms of content and modus operandi. With this approach, there is no way to work out exegetically where Kant ends and eisegetically where Palmquist begins. I have no doubts that Palmquist succeeds in showing that Kant really is interested in affirming religion and the human religious impulse, even in the midst of his relentless critique of reason and revelation. Palmquist cannot, however, redefine terms and thereby easily dismiss Kant’s consistent marginalization of mysticism in the Critical corpus. Kant has real suspicions about mysticism and its role in short-circuiting critical reasoning. At best, Palmquist shows that Kant may be a forerunner of the early Wittgenstein. He feels a sense of mystery, fascination and awe that is not explainable in transcendental terms, but, for this very reason, he must remain silent (as opposed to ‘Baring All in Reason’s Light’). Claims that mystical experience promotes moral decision-making or that immediate mystical encounters serve to unify or make whole human experience are groundless on Kant’s terms. They may be true, but we cannot know them to be true. They are inscrutable, more dangerous to reason than enlightening of it. They must remain outside the Critical philosophy altogether.

KM’s third part attempts to drive home the interpretative quest for Critical mysticism by looking more closely at the writings that were sitting on Kant’s desk when he died. If there were concerns about potentially too much ‘eisegetical license’ being taken in parts I and II, then part III will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Palmquist’s twin-humped thesis simply cannot bear so much weight. As I wrote in Firestone (2009: 118):

Palmquist’s interpretation has the great merit of making sense of many often-neglected passages in Kant’s writings, and yet none of these passages comprises the central theme of a ‘text’. The closest possible example of such a ‘text’ is the Opus Postumum, and yet it went unpublished by Kant and, as it stands, does not have the hermeneutic signposts necessary to allow us to go beyond conjecture with anything like certainty.

What we have are isolated pieces of information with traces of a literary context, but not much if any indication of Kant’s argumentative intent. The text presents questions. Is this Kant’s serious attempt to craft something for the Critical philosophy or is it merely Kant noodling over issues of the time percolating in his mind? Does Kant want to turn these thoughts into an argument, and if so, how would he have done it?

My hunch is that it may be impossible to answer these sorts of questions ‘to the satisfaction of all those who have asked them’, as William James once said about philosophy more generally. Palmquist is essentially setting up an abductive experiment to infer the best explanation of the Opus Postumum. There is something not quite right, however, with the experiment’s conditions. What KM does not make clear is that the textual and contextual data leading up to the writing of the Opus Postumum suggest several good hypotheses. I will mention three:

  1. 1. The Opus Postumum consists merely of an old philosopher’s musings that were never intended to be part of a text or argument. They therefore cannot be interpreted as real contributions to the Critical philosophy proper.

  2. 2. Eckart Förster’s hypothesis, advanced in his CUP translation of the Opus Postumum, is that the work attempts to fill a gap in the Critical philosophy itself. Yet not all or even most of the material is theological. So Förster and Palmquist simply choose to identify the supposed ‘gap’ and its solution differently.

  3. 3. The Opus Postumum represents the brainstorming notes of a philosopher whose philosophy is now complete or nearly complete, but who is responding to the latest philosophical trend (namely, Fichte’s idealism).

Palmquist does well to show that Critical mysticism provides one hypothesis worthy of further inquiry as a possible interpretation. It is, however, impossible to know if his interpretation is more right than its competitors. Each focuses differently on the interpretative data within Kant’s Critical corpus. The resulting conflict of interpretations shows Palmquist’s interpretation to be a hermeneutic impossible possibility. Too many ‘good’ hypotheses exist for explaining too many conceivable formulations of what might count as relevant textual and contextual data.

Let me close with a brief defence of hypothesis 3. It is no secret that Kant was aware of Fichte’s work, specifically, An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (which Kant read in 1792 when Fichte visited him in Königsberg), and The Science of Knowledge (Wissenshaftlehre, 1794/5). Kant had read reviews of the latter book in the mid-1790s. The Opus Postumum gives the impression that Kant is working with ideas common to the Kantian idealists of the time – God, man and world as a whole system – to see what sense he could make of them from the perspective of his own finished work. If this is right, Kant’s thinking is forward-looking in terms of engaging German idealism and very far removed from Palmquist’s backward-looking hypothesis of Critical mysticism. Of course, I am not sure this is right. But this simple exercise shows that, with just a modicum of imagination, an interpreter can make this material come to life in ways that challenge Palmquist’s hypothesis to its very core.


1 Palmquist defends two theses (p. 9): ‘nothing in Kant’s philosophy militates against the possibility or the value of having mystical experiences’; and Kant’s ‘philosophy positively encourages such experiences, if the person having them interprets them as motivations for deepening one’s awareness of conscience’. These two theses extend and elaborate on arguments first made in Palmquist (2000).

2 Kant is often interpreted as delivering a crushing blow to all forms of mysticism in Dreams; the Critique of Pure Reason pulverizes what remains of it into a dusty powder; and his later writings on religion blow the dust into the air and set it aflame in an ensuing explosion that eliminates even its residue. The first two parts of KM square off against this narrative.

3 The standard example of such a Critical synthesis is between empiricism and rationalism yielding Kant’s transcendentalism. Palmquist (2000) does well to show that the opposition between dogmatism and scepticism yields the philosophical openness to establishing a Critical form of theism.


Firestone, Chris L. (2009) Kant and Theology at the Boundaries of Reason. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Palmquist, Stephen R. (1993) Kant’s System of Perspectives: An Architectonic Interpretation of the Critical Philosophy. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Google Scholar
Palmquist, Stephen R. (2000) Kant’s Critical Religion: Volume Two of Kant’s System of Perspectives. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Palmquist, Stephen R. (2019) Kant and Mysticism: Critique as the Experience of Baring All in Reason’s Light. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Google Scholar

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