No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Simmel, G. (1913), Kant – Sechzehn Vorlesungen an der Berliner Universität, dritte, erweiterte Auflage (1st edition: 1904), Munich/Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.


Georg Simmel discusses the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher from the 18th century. According to Simmel, Kant's work is centered on how the mind deals with existence and how it seeks to understand the world through scientific principles. Kant believed that the intellect has certain limits, including the inability to recognize things outside of the physical world, such as God or the soul, and the inability to fully understand the true essence of things. He also believed that experience is formed by both the senses and the mind, and that subjective thoughts can have real effects on our understanding of the world. Simmel also mentions that Kant believed that the true picture of the world arises through the interaction of all spiritual energies and that we must search for deeper unity and individualization in order to fully understand it.


Georg Simmel describes the timeless elements of Kant's philosophy; how our mind deals with existence. Simmel spends no time writing Kant’s biography: Kant's work is his personality, according to Simmel. Kant does not seek satisfaction in the qualities of what is given, but in the scientific principles that can be applied everywhere and thus form a unified, intellectually accessible cosmos.

In Kant's time, belief in the makeable society grew as a result of science that was developing. Kant was unwaveringly strict in his logical fanaticism, which seeks to impose the form of mathematical rigor on all life. Kant's philosophy also stems from the intellectualism appropriate to the emerging money economy of his time: accessible to all, ruthlessly consistent, and rejecting all emotional subjectivity.

Boundaries of the intellect

Kant sets three limits to the effectiveness and importance of the intellect:

1. The naively claimed right to recognize things outside the physical world, such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, moral freedom, and the meaning and purpose of the world behind its mechanism.

2. Our existence cannot derive any value from the functions of the intellect - these functions are directed only at recognizing what is given - but only through the energies with which we master the substance of things.

3. The object of knowledge is never the self-existing essence of things, but only their sensuous image in us.

Kant opposed mere logical conceptual thinking (where the metaphysical objects we think about, would really exist). He also opposed seeing the immediate existence of something in the response of our senses to it (all the metaphysical would then be irrelevant and each experience is unique, so that no concepts and laws can be drafted).

Experience is formed by intellectual forces

For Kant, the principle of whole experience is the starting point. For this we need cognitions, means of experience such as the theorems of mathematics and the causal law. For Kant, experience is a product of the senses and the mind. The senses give the raw material. The isolated, senseless, flying past impressions must be formed into valid, objective experience by intellectual forces.

Where rationalism also considered reasonable claims about the absolute whole or about the absolute character of existence, Kant proved that these are only appearances, because of the impossibility of being filled with sensory content. Yet, assertions are also inserted into the organism of the mind, whose product is the real world for us. They say nothing about things, but are guiding focal points for our research into things, without of course ever being able to reach them. Simmel writes:”For the understanding of organisms, our inquiry must continue, as if the most perfect life were the object of their structure.

Subjective thoughts with real effects

By functioning as a heuristic or regulatory principle, a thought that is a subjective idea certainly has the effect on us that it would have as an objective reality (see the much later Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in theirconsequences.”) These over-empirical concepts, though irrelevant and deceptive as knowledge of reality, have an indispensable function as guides to our attempts at knowledge. Thus, we have no right to refer to anything as being objective. We must search for deeper equality and unity among the differences at first sight, and we must search for deeper individualization among the similarities discovered; it is a stepping stone to sharply distinguishing even finer details. The true picture of the world arises through the interaction of all spiritual energies. “The unity of all teachings, which make one the bearer of truth at the expense of the other, has been overcome.”

No definitive empirical judgments

According to Kant, all empirical judgments, even if they arise from effective categories of the mind, are revocable at anytime through experience. The researched experience provides certainty and validity with regard to the purely sensory perception, but we must always be able to adjust our images. For meaning, causality, geometry and all relations of numbers that go beyond individual experience are not yet knowledge, but only empty schemes that only take on meaning when they are filled with perceptual material. The purer and richer the sensory material, the clearer and more dominant our means of experience come in action, the more the judgment approaches the validity value of the proposition, but it can never quite reach it because of the inevitable coherence.

Cognition as a momentary process

Cognition is a process in the subject. The mind is a living, functioning, moving being. Its content, the objects of experience which are subject to the means of experience, are nothing outside the function of the mind; they are the actions of the mind. All the objects we present are formed by simple elements in the mind. Connection can only be performed by the subject, because it is an act of his/her own self-interest. The experience processes belong to our life context of the moment; they are indifferent to the truth of the content presented. Existence immediately presents itself to us as a mere reality that does not of itself impose its dissolution into matter and form. We ourselves divide existence into these categories, in which we can apprehend it. We constantly combine several elements into a unit. We give meaning by uniting material into an objective structure: I see sunshine, I feel a rock is warm, and I say: the sun is heating the rock. From this example we can learn that we recognize objects by creating them as objects. We find our demands for logical harmony and intelligible coherence fulfilled in them, because it is precisely through the application of these norms that they have become objects.

The ego as the point where the elements of the world of knowledge meet

According to Kant, judging from concepts stems from the fact that our soul forms an ego. The unity of our self-consciousness is the effective force by which individual ideas converge on objects and judgments. The infinite diffusion of atomized, side-by-side elements of existence finds its organization in the soul, in which all those rays intersect as in one focal point. The ego that holds the world together and thereby creates as an objective being is by no means personal, or the soul, but only an idiosyncrasy, a creature of our imagination and arbitrariness. Thus, according to Kant, the sovereignty of the mind does not lie in the ego, but in the dominion that the ego exercises over the material of sense impressions. The ego is the vehicle of the categories; the unity in which the individual contents of the imaginary world come together. The ego is only the function of bringing all this about. The world is a system of mutually supporting factors, and the ego is the activity that converts the sensory elements into counteractions through the sensual connection of elements. The ego is only the point where all the elements of the world of knowledge meet; really only the free-floating complex of our cognitions exists, and the self and the object are only expressions for the uniform form in which they present themselves.

Concepts and causes exist within us

Kant thus says: sense perception is not yet knowledge; the elements of sensation become intuitions by organizing themselves in consciousness in a spatial form. Looking means that we intuitively bring sensations into the order we call spatiality. What we call watching is nothing but the encapsulation of sensations. If our sensations are states of the soul, their form cannot exist outside the soul and its contents. Only when one has understood that the presented object cannot encompass the representation beyond itself, only then can one break with the o-so natural representation that the representative ego coexists with other things in space. In addition, the category of cause does not refer to "the thing that does something", but only designates what it is for us, i.e. is in us.

The futile pursuit of happiness

While the will is usually stimulated by the idea of ​​realizing external objects, this is because we expect a more satisfying existence from these objects than we have without them. Our inwardness, according to Kant, has no happiness in itself, and to feel it depends rather on something being shown, on something given, or on something yet to be won. Any pursuit of happiness binds us in dependence and breaks our freedom, for it forces us to listen to what lies outside the path the soul would walk alone on its own. The desire for happiness is forced upon us by our finite nature itself.

Kant the moralist

According to Kant, the accidental nature of emotional interest is the direct opposite of the necessity with which the moral law confronts us. The motive for acting morally can therefore never lie in a feeling; the action must be done because it is a moral duty. Independence of the individual and incorporation into something universal fight incessantly in and for our will; each party under the sign of moral virtue, the good conscience to represent a highest human value. Kant argued that this struggle does not exist, because the free man can only act according to a absolutely universal moral law. The evidencefor this basic ethical claim, is lagging in Kant’s work, Simmelwrites.

Laws and the context in which they apply

If we were moral beings, our actions would be immutable and, of course, lawful; because we are not, it becomes an obligationfor all of us. Kant indicated that an action is only moral if theactor can want everyone to act in exactly the same way in thissituation. This moral formula leaves room for consideration of the particular circumstances under which the act takes place. Absolute attention to the individual and his situation is the only condition under which the observance of absolutely general laws can be demanded.

Problems with the categorical imperative

Norms should not be logically contradictory, according to Kant, because our soul is set up in such a way that it cannot want what is contradictory, because it cannot think it. However, countless things can be asserted without the slightest logical contradiction, the truth of which is either unprovable or whose untruth is provable. The categorical imperative may hold true in Kant's simple bourgeois milieu, says Simmel, but it does not hold up when decisions have become entangled in a tangle of crossed interests and ties. Simmel points out that although Kant's morality deepens and elevates life to the maximum on an ethical level, there are also other values ​​that Simmel would not include in it, such as creativity.

Disregarded instincts and pain

According to Simmel, countless times we are motivated to act, not by goals, but by instincts on all levels. For Kantian rationalism, this impulsive nature of our volitional life is completely disregarded; According to Kant, we are constantly aware of a purpose for our actions. Simmel disagrees: We prefer one partner over the other; it is not the ethical, the will, that decides here, but the being. Kant also disregards the peculiarity of pain as a deepening and reviving of existence.

Every moment of our existence has, as it were, two sides: one that is the content of the cognitive consciousness with which we are connected with nature and with the processes in and with our body; the other alone in and for itself, whose mere appearance is that other, and who is not dependent on any prior by any natural law.

Where Kant’s theory of freedom falls short

The fundamental shortcoming of Kant's theory of freedom, according to Simmel, lies in the fact that the transcendent being of ourselves lingers between knowability and unknowability. After all, without some degree of knowability, there would be no judgment at all about the moral value of an action. Our empirical character, the psychological fact of our actions, is entangled in the unbroken causal chain of world events.

The tendency of Kant's whole thought was to divide the realms of existence among the psychic energies which absorb or produce them:

1. All sensual interest attaches itself to that which is sensory, which is real, or which we desire to be real.

2. All moral importance attaches to what should be real, even though it may be very imperfectly realized.

3. The aesthetic judgment is tied to the mere image of things, to their appearance and form, regardless of whether they are supported by the tangible reality or not. What draws modern (wo)man so strongly to aesthetic values ​​is this unique interplay between the objective and the subjective point of view, between the individuality of taste and the sense that it is rooted in something super-individual, universal.

The historical context of Kant’s idea of freedom

In the 18th century, the privileges of the upper classes appeared as slave shackles under which one could no longer breathe: the despotic control over trade and change, the still powerful vestiges of the guild constitution, the intolerable coercion of the church and the obligatory duties of the peasantry such as the political paternalism in the state life and the limitations of city constitutions as overgrown and rotten. In the suppression of such institutions which had lost all inner rights, the ideal of mere freedom of the individual arose. Man must absolutely stand up for himself, be responsible only for himself, in stark contrast to all the norms known to man only as a member of a trade union, element of a collectivity, subject of a supra-individual omnipotence. With Kant, the ego has gained its absolute sovereignty from all its interdependence with nature, with society. Laissez faire has become the signature of what is most essential and deepest in our intellectual existence.

The complexity of society that escaped Kant

It had not yet occurred to Kant that our actions and qualities could have meaning precisely because they distinguish those who wear them from others. This would imply a different and equally deep sense of personal responsibility. This glorious diversity of mental existence has value and wealth of life beyond quantitatively graded morality. By shifting the human value from being to willing and doing, Kant liberated humans from being imprisoned in mere nature. However, because the meaning and content of this freedom was equated with the performance of duties within society, the ego remained shackled to society - a consequence that Kant remained unconscious to. After him, historicism and socialism were adopted and the individual became hopelessly entangled in the material and moral dependence of the social powers.