Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

Content and Context in Kant’s Anthropology

October 29, 2019

While Kant’s Anthropology from A Pragmatic Point of View may not be immediately considered as relevant to the history of psychology, it is a notable entry into the historical canon for both its content and context. Unlike his philosophical work, the Anthropology was intended as a textbook for Kant’s popular lectures on the subject in the latter part of his career. 

In this essay, I will explore both the content of this work as well as outline some contextual considerations that influenced it, particularly in relation to contemporary psychology. 

Firstly, I will summarise the content of this oft-neglected piece as presented in two English translations.[1] 

Second, I will outline some important contextual considerations, such as the influence of prior philosophers, as well as arguing that Kant’s own philosophy may have biased the content of this text. 

Thirdly, I will reflect on what Kant was trying to achieve with his new ‘pragmatic’ approach to anthropology. 

Lastly, I will conclude by speculating on what Kant might make of modern experimental psychology today.

1. Kantian Anthropology

1.1: Kant’s tripartite soul

Kant begins his book by outlining what some have labelled the Tripartite Model of the Human Soul.[2] Specifically, he divides the mental operation of human beings along three dimensions: cognition, pleasure, and desire. In addition to these modes of operation lies a further distinction between higher and lower faculties. Kant labels the higher faculties the ‘understanding’ or the ‘intellect’ as distinct from the lower ‘sensual’ mode of operation. He regards both faculties as necessary for basic human activity, where the lower sensuous faculties inform the understanding.

In this way Kant assigns the sensuous faculties a passive role, like a conveyor belt that feeds the Understanding with data. In addition, Kant goes to great lengths in emphasising the role of the Understanding in guiding human action by arguing that, within the animal kingdom, it is only human beings who are capable of enforcing top-down regulation, and that we can do so consistently. For instance, he devotes a section on the book to outlining the passivity of Sensibility and argues that these lower faculties are not capable of deceiving or confusing our minds as they merely present us with data, and are thus controlled by the Understanding.[3]

This fits with Kant’s distinction between the lower faculties as passive and the higher faculties as active (or discursive) modes. If any confusion arises within the mind, it is due to the Understanding’s interpretation of the data it is provided with.
 Within the higher faculty of cognition lies three distinct sub-faculties: understanding (often distinguished in a narrower sense from the name of the higher-order category it falls under), reason, and judgment.[4] The understanding is the faculty of rules, concepts, and ideas. This may be understood as the domain of comprehension, such as the knowledge of specific objects.

Reason, by contrast, is involved in being able to extract real-world particulars from the abstract concepts held by the understanding. For example, while the understanding may possess a working knowledge of the idea of horses, reason involves picking out a horse in meadow based on that knowledge. However, reason may be able to offer multiple alternatives (such as a donkey or an ass) and thus cannot decisively rule that a particular is an instance of a concept. For this purpose, Kant assigns the role of judgment.

Thus, for our example, judgment is the arbiter in deciding whether the animal in question is a horse or a donkey. The lower faculties of cognition inform this process also, as they consist of elements such as the five senses and the imagination.
 The next faculty of the soul is human pleasure and is also divided into higher and lower faculties. Pleasure provides us with objects for our daily pursuits by affording us with goals in the forms of thing to pursue (pleasure) and to avoid (pain). Lastly, desire provides the means of connecting pleasure with action, and he takes a dim view of the lower faculties of desire. Specifically, he distinguishes between emotion as a sensation which is fleeting, and passion which lingers (such as hate) which leaves no room for any regulation by the higher faculties.
1.2: Human nature
The remaining sections of the book are a sketch of humanity which looks at differences between individual characteristics, gender, nation state, race, and an overview of humanity in general. With individual characteristics, Kant sketches out a theory of personality by looking at both the physical and moral character of persons in relation to his model of human cognition. He speculates about the relationship between certain characteristics of individuals and the desires they possess.[5] Further, he draws on contemporary phlegmatic theory to explain the role of blood flow in exciting or inhibiting feelings of desire. Lastly, shoe-horned at the end of the book is a brief discussion on the differences between gender (which includes a description of human dating/courting), culture, nationalities, and an overview of what type of animal the human being is. Kant argues that what makes humans unique to other animals is not due to any individual factor but is the result of abilities afforded by our rational capacities such as the self-regulation necessary to facilitate social co-operation. 

He concludes with an optimistic discussion on the potential of our rational mind to build a cosmopolitan civilisation which encompasses the entire world. This is based on a view that, through our ability to act rationally, we are constantly motivated away from doing evil acts and towards performing good acts. Given that we are always in the middle of these two poles, he argues that humanity is neither evil nor good.

2. Contextual Considerations

2.1: Philosophy and human nature

 It should be noted that investigations of human nature, including human cognition, was firmly within the province of philosophy prior to the advent of experimental psychology. Consider, for instance, the Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume in 1738 contained a model of human moral reasoning that is supported in contemporary moral psychology.[6] Several scholars have speculated on the influence that other philosophers may have had in shaping Kant’s project. For instance, Falkenstein suggests that while Kant’s higher vs. lower faculty distinction was not mainstream in his time, that it echoes a distinction laid out by Aristotle between sense and intellect.[7] It has also been noted that the Tripartite account entails a similar taxonomy made by Alexander Baumgarten, who Kant would have been familiar with given that he used Baumgarten’s Psychologia Empirica as a supplementary textbook for his classes on Anthropology.[8]

In addition, Kant’s own philosophical work has, I believe, influenced his understanding of human cognition. Consider that the most influential aspect of his ethical doctrine consists of the Categorical Imperative from his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.[9] It requires that, when assessing the moral permissibility of an action, that there must be no conceivable scenario where the action in question is impermissible. For instance, as there are scenarios where lying is not permissible the Imperative states that it is not permissible to lie in any circumstance. Such a rigid doctrine requires considerable effort in deploying top-down monitoring and regulation, if consistent application of this rule is to be upheld. It is fortunate for Kant that his own model of moral reasoning is, unlike Hume’s, such that the Understanding is in control of the Sensibility. In other words, top-down regulation features prominently in Kant’s model of cognition which conveniently allows for practical consistency with the requirements of his prior work.

2.2: A new ‘pragmatic’ discipline

While Kant is often considered a philosopher of the rationalist rather than empirical tradition, some scholars have noted a departure from his usual a priori methods of investigation for the Anthropology.[10] This work is the product of observation rather than reason and logic, the latter of which Kant was more accustomed to using in his investigations. In addition, the approach he adopted for is understood to be an attempt to carve out a third academic framework for investigating human behaviour, given his dissatisfaction with the two competing approaches of the time. In one corner was ‘Empirical Psychology’ championed by Baumgartner and Christian Wolff who sought to understand human behaviour in terms of the underlying mental states that drive them.[11] In the other corner was the ‘Physiological/Medical’ paradigm which understood human activity on the basis of biological processes, as pioneered by Ernst Platner.[12]

The basis for Kant’s objection to these approaches were theoretical. Regarding the physiological approach, it has been argued that he considered the mind-body connection redundant given his own tripartite model in explaining human motivation.[13] Kant’s dynamic between cognition, desire, and pleasure does not require any supplementation with accounts of physiological processes. It also bypasses the role of top-down regulation in understanding changes in human behaviour, which may have offended Kant’s deified faculty of the Understanding.

Relatedly, we can infer from the motivation behind Kant’s project as to the basis of his objection to Empirical Psychology. In the introduction to the Anthropology, Kant makes the case for his new discipline by arguing that these approaches omitted the context in which human beings operate, namely as “citizens of the world”.[14] The literature on this subject is saturated with speculation around Kant’s insistence that his new Anthropology is ‘pragmatic’. For example, Wood claims that pragmatic refers to the project’s methodology as Kant’s approach was a combination of observation and the inclusion of cultural references, rather than being strictly theoretical in content. Frierson suggests that pragmatic also refers to the teleological aspect of his approach, wherein Kant considers the function or purpose of certain behaviours such as laughter.[15] However, it may also refer to the practical utility of his work. For instance, it has been suggested that the Anthropology is meant to be accessible to a wide audience, as Kant once remarked this work was to accessible to anyone even “women in dressing rooms”.[16]

In addition, the content of the book means that it is a useful guide to life and self-improvement. This has been picked up by authors such as Cohen who note that Kantian Anthropology deals with phenomena that Kant believed both help and hinder personal development.[17] As for Kant’s use of the term ‘Anthropology’ rather than ‘Psychology’, this may be a reference to Kant’s investigation of humans within their natural social environment: civilisation.[18] This would mean that his objection to Empirical Psychology might be twofold. Firstly, the knowledge gleaned by an approach that examines the relationship between mental states and action is of no practical utility to women in dressing rooms who want to change their lives. Secondly, it examines mental states without incorporating the social objects which elicit those states.

2.3: Implications for modern empirical psychology

 What might Kant make of modern psychology? For a contemporary analogy, consider the difference between top-down psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as against anti-depressant drugs. Framed in this way, we can imagine that Kant would be a staunch advocate for psychotherapeutic interventions given his commanding role of the Understanding. By contrast, he might find the idea of a drug that alters mental states as an insult to the dignity of humanity as the rational animal. As a result, he may favour the subdiscipline of Clinical and Abnormal psychology in their mission to improve the lives of individuals. In addition, he might praise popular psychological academics such as Pinker, Haidt, and Kahneman in their attempts to take the fruit of their research and make it accessible to a popular audience and help improve lives in the process. By contrast, it is likely that he would take a dim view of the neurological and cognitive subdisciplines of psychology if they strip mental and neural processes from the objects these processes interact with. Lastly, his criticism of academic studies being cut off from the issues of the world are, I believe, a criticism which is as relevant today as it was in Kant’s time.

3. Concluding Remarks

In his Anthropology, Kant outlines a model of human cognition that delegates a powerful role to higher order processes. Fortunately, this fits in with his wider philosophical project, particularly his ethical doctrine which requires considerable top-down effort to sustain in daily life. While Kant’s project was motivated by an objection to contemporary approaches to human nature, those approaches influenced the development of experimental psychology more than his own project. Despite this, it is likely that Kant would approve of the underlying foundations of some subdisciplines of psychology more than others. The basis of these objections, that academic knowledge should be pragmatic and accessible, is one that still bears great relevance today. 


Cohen, Alix A. "Kant’s Answer to the Question ‘What Is Man?’ and Its Implications for Anthropology." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008): 506-14.
 Falduto, Antonio. The Faculties of the Human Mind and the Case of Moral Feeling in Kant's Philosophy. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc., 2014.

Falkenstein, Lorne. "Kant's Account of Intuition." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21, no. 2 (1991): 165-93.
 Frierson, P. "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview." Hist Psychiatry 20, no. 79 Pt 3 (Sep 2009): 267-89.
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Hume, D., L.A. Selby-Bigge, and P.H. Nidditch. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding. Read Books, 1978. 1738.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Victor Lyle Dowdell. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. 1798.

———. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Robert Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 1785.

———. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 1785.

Louden, Robert B. "Anthropology from a Kantian Point of View: Toward a Cosmopolitan Conception of Human Nature." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008): 515-22.
 Schmidt, Claudia M. "Kant’s Transcendental and Empirical Psychology of Cognition." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008): 462-72.
 Sturm, Thomas. "Why Did Kant Reject Physiological Explanations in His Anthropology?". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39, no. 4 (2008): 495-505.
 Sweet, Kristi. "What Is Philosophical About Kant’s Anthropology?". International Journal of Philosophical Studies 25, no. 3 (2017): 336-47.

Wood, Allen W. "Kant and the Problem of Human Nature." In Essay's on Kant's Anthropology, edited by Brian Jacobs and Patrick Kain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Victor Lyle Dowdell (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978); Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Robert Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For this reason, references to the primary text will use the more traditional citation method of designating section number rather than the page of any specific book.

[2] P. Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview," Hist Psychiatry 20, no. 79 Pt 3 (2009).

[3] §8-11.64               

[4] Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."

[5] §89.2

[6] D. Hume, L.A. Selby-Bigge, and P.H. Nidditch, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding (Read Books, 1978); Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

[7] Lorne Falkenstein, "Kant's Account of Intuition," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21, no. 2 (1991).

[8] Antonio Falduto, The Faculties of the Human Mind and the Case of Moral Feeling in Kant's Philosophy (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc., 2014), 55, 62.

[9] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

[10] Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."; Kristi Sweet, "What Is Philosophical About Kant’s Anthropology?," International Journal of Philosophical Studies 25, no. 3 (2017).

[11] Thomas Sturm, "Why Did Kant Reject Physiological Explanations in His Anthropology?," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39, no. 4 (2008); Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."; Claudia M. Schmidt, "Kant’s Transcendental and Empirical Psychology of Cognition," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008).

[12] Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."; Robert B. Louden, "Anthropology from a Kantian Point of View: Toward a Cosmopolitan Conception of Human Nature," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008); Sturm, "Why Did Kant Reject Physiological Explanations in His Anthropology?."; Allen W. Wood, "Kant and the Problem of Human Nature," in Essay's on Kant's Anthropology, ed. Brian Jacobs and Patrick Kain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[13] Sturm, "Why Did Kant Reject Physiological Explanations in His Anthropology?."
 [14] §Introduction
 [15] Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."
 [16] Alix A. Cohen, "Kant’s Answer to the Question ‘What Is Man?’ and Its Implications for Anthropology," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39, no. 4 (2008); Frierson, "Kant on Mental Disorder. Part 1: An Overview."
[17] Cohen, "Kant’s Answer to the Question ‘What Is Man?’ and Its Implications for Anthropology."
[18] Sweet, "What Is Philosophical About Kant’s Anthropology?."


Follow this website

You need to create an Owlstown account to follow this website.

Sign up

Already an Owlstown member?

Log in