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The Key to All Metaphysics: Kant's Letter to Herz, 1772

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Jennifer Mensch
The Pennsylvania State University


Kant's 1772 letter to Markus Herz is celebrated for its marking the ‘Critical turn’ in Kant's thought, a turn that would move Kant away from the speculative metaphysics of the 1750s towards the Critical philosophy of 1781. It is here, seemingly for the first time, that Kant asks the question concerning the relationship between concepts and objects, telling his former pupil that the answer to this question ‘constitutes the key to the whole secret of hitherto still obscure metaphysics.’ For anyone interested in the development of Kant's thought this makes for exciting news since it is the posing of this question that marks Kant's first step towards the Critique and it is the answer to this question that will come to identify the ‘objective portion’ of the Transcendental Deduction, a text that already begins with a rehearsal of points raised in Kant's letter. But while the letter to Herz is clearly itself a key to what Kant sees as the ‘whole secret of hitherto still obscure metaphysics’, the question concerning concepts and objects itself poses interpretive problems that need to be addressed. Above all, one needs to ask how Kant arrived at such a question.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2007

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I would like to thank Rudolf Makkreel for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

1 See A 92/B 124. All citations from the Critique of Pure Reason are given according to the standard formula whereby ‘A’ refers to the 1781 edition, ‘B’ to that of 1787, and with pagination as set by the German Academy of Sciences edition of Kant's Gesammelte Schriften. English translations by Smith, Norman Kemp (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965)Google Scholar or Guyer, Paul and Wood, Allen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar

2 Letter to Herder, 7 May 1768. Kant's letters translated by Zweig, Arnulf, Immanuel Kant. Correspondence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)Google Scholar, and cited with volume number followed by page as set by the German Academy of Sciences edition of Kant's Gesammelte Schriften. With the exception of quotations taken from the Critique of Pure Reason, all further citations from Kant will follow this format and all will be included in-text where possible.

3 Nova Delucidatio: 1: 415; Physical Monadology: 1: 484. For discussion of Kant's early account of forces see Laywine's, AlisonKant's Early Metaphysics and the Origins of Critical Philosophy, North American Kant Society Studies in Philosophy, 3 (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Co., 1993)Google Scholar, and Friedman, Michael, Kant and the Exact Sciences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 152.Google Scholar

4 Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics in Immanuel Kant. Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770, translated by Walford, David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

5 Letter to Moses Mendelssohn, 8 April 1766.

6 Letter to J. H. Lambert, 2 September 1770.

7 That Kant's intentions in the Dissertation anticipate, in some sense, the Antinomies, is a commonplace. But the discussion of subreptive axioms also explains and connects seemingly disparate comments by Kant regarding the spur from his ‘dogmatic slumber’. It is well known both that in the Prolegomena Kant cites Hume for having woken him from the dogmatism of speculative metaphysics (4: 260) and that in a late letter Kant describes the Antinomies as ‘what first aroused me from my dogmatic slumber and drove me to the critique of reason itself’ (12: 258). Viewed through the lens of logical subreption we can now see how Kant took the problems posed by Hume and the Antinomies to be virtually the same for dogmatic metaphysics.

8 The word Schein is drawn from the study of optics, and Lambert, ever impressed with the successful methods of astronomers, accordingly called phenomenology a ‘transcendent optics’ to maintain its sense as a study of appearance in all of its modes, namely, as both illusion or bloβes Schein and as real appearance, i.e. that which is indexed to the real. See Lambert, J. H., Neues Organon [1764] in Gesammelte Philosophische Schriften (Hildesheim: Olms, 1965), IVGoogle Scholar, §4. For some discussion of this see Beck, Lewis White, Early German Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 407–11.Google Scholar

9 On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World [Inaugural Dissertation], translated by Beck, Lewis White in Kant's Latin Writings, American University Studies, 9 (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).Google Scholar

10 Herz, Markus, Betrachtungen aus der spekulativen Weltweisheit [1771] (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1990), p. 72Google Scholar. While the Inaugural Dissertation does not distinguish between empirical cause and a general principle of causality, a new distinction does appear between what had previously been treated as identical concepts, namely cause and force, so that now force is given by experience (2: 417) whereas cause becomes intellectual (2: 395).

11 ’Nachtgedanken eines Skeptikers”, published anonymously, 5 July and 12 July 1771, Königsberger gelehrte Zeitung. Cf. Kuehn, Manfred, Kant. A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 197fCrossRefGoogle Scholar. For more on Herz's influence, though from a different perspective so far as it seeks to link Herz with Locke, see Watkins, Eric, ‘The “Critical Turn”: Kant and Herz from 1770–1772’, in Proceedings of the Ninth International Kant Congress, 2 (2001), 6977Google Scholar. For an account of Herz (and Mendelssohn's) role in raising the problem of connecting perceptions in time and thus towards the problematic posed by the unity of apperception see Klemme, Heiner, ‘Kants Wende zum Ich,’ Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 53 (1999), 507–29.Google Scholar

12 Lewis White Beck and Alison Laywine each take up the question of Lambert's influence on Kant though their agendas, particularly in the case of Laywine, differ from the discussion here. See Beck, Lewis White, ‘Lambert and Hume in Kant's Development’, in Essays on Kant and Hume (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 108fGoogle Scholar, and Laywine, Alison, ‘Kant in Reply to Lambert on the Ancestry of Metaphysical Concepts’, Kantian Review, 5 (2001), 148CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While it will not be a focus of this essay, Kant's letter to Herz includes a discussion of points raised by Mendelssohn and Lambert's critique of the Dissertation's account of the relationship between time and change. For consideration of these as instead the decisive influence for Kant's Critical turn see Vleeschauwer, H. J. de, The Development of Kantian Thought, translated by Duncan, A. R. C. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd, 1962), p. 57ffGoogle Scholar., though it might be agreed that these were decisive for the development of the ‘subjective portion’ of the deduction whereas the former concerns problems associated with the task of the ‘objective portion’.

13 Reflexionen taken from Kant's Nachlaβ are my own translations, though often in consultation with those available in Werkmeister, W. H., Kant's Silent Decade (Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1979)Google Scholar, and Guyer, Paul and Rauscher, Fred, Immanuel Kant. Notes and Fragments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)Google Scholar. Page citations are followed by the specific number and date as given by Erich Adickes for the Prussian (now German) Academy edition.

14 For discussion of this Reflexion in particular and Kant's concern, at the time, with the problems of a priori knowledge in general, see Theis, Robert, ‘Le silence de Kant’, Revue de Métaphysique, 2 (1982), 209–39.Google Scholar

15 See Cicovacki, Predrag, ‘An Aporia of A Priori Knowledge’, Kant-Studien, 82 (1991), 349–60Google Scholar. Alison Laywine explicitly supports this conclusion in, ‘Kant in Reply to Lambert on the Ancestry of Metaphysical Concepts’, p. 44. Cicovacki is responding to both Wolfgang Carl's argument for a ‘phenomenal objects’ reading and Lewis White Beck's ‘noumenon’ position. See Wolfgang Carl, ‘Kant's First Draft of the Deduction of the Categories’, and Beck, Lewis White, ‘Two Ways of Reading Kant's Letter to Herz: Comments on Carl’, both in Kant's Transcendental Deductions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), pp. 320Google Scholar, 21–6.

16 Lewis White Beck, H. J. de Vleeschauwer and Alison Laywine all argue against seeing the letter to Herz as a ‘programme for the future’, believing instead that Kant's concern there with noumena shows the letter to be rather a ‘balance sheet of the past’. As the argument of this section makes clear, I take this position to be mistaken given, above all, Kant's rejection of intellectual intuition in the Dissertation. See Beck, ‘Two Ways of Reading Kant's Letter to Herz: Comments on Carl’, p. 23, de Vleeschauwer, The Development of Kantian Thought, p. 59, and Laywine, ‘Kant in Reply to Lambert on the Ancestry of Metaphysical Concepts’, p. 21.

17 Beck reads Kant's use of ‘intellectual representations’ in the letter to be his (Kant's) translation of intellectualia’ from the Dissertation; this convinces Beck that Kant ‘was still thinking that there can be pure conceptual a priori knowledge of noumena …’ in ‘Two Ways of Reading Kant's Letter to Herz’, p. 23. This seems unlikely given the context. Within four sentences in the letter Kant moves from the language of ‘intellectual representations [Verstandesvorstellungen] in the mind’ to ‘the pure concepts of the understanding [die reine Verstandesbegriffe] to ‘intellectual representations’ [intellektuelle Vorstellungen], asking how these representations, resting on the inner activity of the mind, can agree with objects that are independent of them’ (10: 130). That these intellectual representations are synonymous with the mind's own concepts and not noumena is clear in the Dissertation where intellectualid’, translated as ‘intellektuelle Vorstellungen’ in German editions, simply refer to intellectual concepts. See, for example, Kant's admonition against thinking of such concepts as either inductively abstracted from sense or innate when they are in fact ‘originally acquired’ by the inner activity of the mind (§§6, 8; 2: 394–5).

18 Adickes catalogues these reflections under ‘o’, identifying them as later than 1771 but earlier than 1776. Taking the earlier numbers in this series to be written in 1772–3, it is primarily on the basis of Kant's Reflexionen that Carl and Werkmeister each take Kant to be concerned with phenomenal objects in 1772. See Carl, ‘Kant's First Draft of the Deduction of the Categories’, p. 7, and Werkmeister, Kant's Silent Decade, pp. 86–9. Cicovacki bases much of his suspicion of Carl's thesis on the tenuousness of such dating practices at all - see ‘An Aporia of A Priori Knowledge’, p. 354.

19 Lewis White Beck, ‘Two Ways of Reading Kant's Letter to Herz: Comments on Carl’, p. 22. Markus Herz also found this to be a central problem for Kant's account, Betrachtungen aus der spekulativen Weltweisheit, p. 47, as did Kant's good friend, Johann Schulz, ‘Review of Kant's Inaugural Dissertation,’ in Exposition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Morrison, James C. (Ottowa: University of Ottowa Press, 1985), pp. 167–70Google Scholar. Kant's rejection of intellectual intuition is, of course, a problem for the Dissertation only if you take the project there to be predominantly Platonic or dogmatically rationalist. Once it is clear that Kant is not concerned to explain a mental access to noumena, but is concerned rather to describe the intellectual knowledge of ‘things as they are’ as knowledge of ‘concepts and their relations’ made pure due to their having been generated by the mind, (2:393, 394, 411) Beck's ‘lacuna’ disappears.

20 In dismissing Kant's apparent turn away from the sceptical programme set by Dreams of a Spirit-Seer in favour of a speculative metaphysics in the Dissertation, Frederick Beiser argues similarly, ‘Although Kant sometimes loosely speaks of his noumena as if they were a kind of entity, we must be careful not to reify them. They are not a type of existing thing, but simply the forms or structures to which any existing or possible thing must conform … Rather than contradicting the programme of 1766, then, the metaphysics of the Dissertation only continues it. For it does not attempt to extend knowledge into the unknown spiritual world; and its ontology does nothing more than determine those concepts that are necessary limits and conditions of reason,’ ‘Kant's Intellectual Development: 1746–81’, in The Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 49.Google Scholar

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