Studia Swedenborgiana

Vol. 10 May,  1997 Number 2 

The Ambivalent Kant

by George F. Dole

In connection with Gregory Johnson's provocative work on Swedenborgian themes in Kant's metaphysics, it may be appropriate to gather together some of the evidences of the dilemma Kant faced early in his career, a dilemma most directly reflected in the discrepancies between his letter to Fräulein von Knobloch and his Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. My purpose is not to break new ground, but simply to make material accessible that is somewhat scattered and easily overlooked.

In Swedenborg in Deutschland, Ernst Benz lists seven contradictions between the Dreams and the letter, as follows (the translations from this and other German sources are my own):

1. In the Dreams, Kant refers to Swedenborg by a wrong name, as "Herr Schwedenberg"; in the letter he uses the correct name, which since his ennoblement was "Herr von Swedenborg."

2. In the Dreams he refers to him as "a certain Herr Schwedenberg, without office or employment"; in the letter he characterizes him as a "scholar."

3. In the Dreams he calls him "the arch-hallucinator of all hallucinators" and a "fanatic" [Schwärmer], whose work is void "of any drop whatsoever" of reason. In the letter Swedenborg emerges as a "rational, pleasant, and openhearted man."

4. In the Dreams, Kant gives the impression that he is familiar only with Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia, and the work is there dismissed as "eight quarto volumes of nonsense." In the letter, Kant writes about how eagerly he is awaiting the works of Swedenborg promised him by his English friend and how he has made all necessary arrangements to obtain the latest work which Swedenborg has proposed.

5. In the Dreams Swedenborg emerges as a fool who is known to Kant and to the rest of the world only as the author of Arcana Coelestia, while in the letter he emerges as a man of significant spiritual stature, whose personal acquaintance strikes Kant as well worth the effort, with whom he enters into correspondence with expressions of regret that he cannot talk with him in person.

6. In the Dreams, the stories of Swedenborg's visionary abilities are introduced as events that are attested only "by popular rumor, whose credibility is very doubtful," and after relating them Kant apologizes "for having undertaken such an ignoble task as repeating fairy tales." In the same vein, he remarks in his introduction to the Dreams, "He [the author] admits with some humility that he was guileless enough to check out the truth of some of the stories of the kind mentioned. He found (as usual, where there is nothing to be found)뾥e found nothing." The letter, on the other hand, takes each individual story and produces living witnesses, sometimes named, with an emphasis on their credibility, specifying in writing how and by whom the most careful inquiry was made of the stories on location, where the events were said to have taken place, that is, both in Stockholm and in Gothenburg. In fact, the main point of the whole letter is Kant's report of the positive outcome of his research. He found not "nothing," not "fairy tales," but a full confirmation of the "popular rumor" on the basis of the statements and inquiries of the most trustworthy witnesses, "the most highly respected people in Stockholm."

7. In the Dreams Kant stresses that his impression of Swedenborg as "the arch-hallucinator of all hallucinators" rests not only on his reading of Arcana Coelestia but also "on the description of people who know him," and that means here people who knew him personally. From the letter, though, we gather exactly the opposite. There Kant reports the impression that the northern spirit-seer made on his English friend, based on a personal visit and conversation: that of a rational, pleasant, and open-hearted man, whose credibility was also attested by any number of his fellow citizens of Stockholm.

Kant published Dreams of a Spirit-Seer in 1766. When the letter was published, its date was printed as "1758," clearly in error, since it deals with the story of the incident of the Stockholm fire which took place in 1759. J. F. I. Tafel argued at length that the letter should be dated in 1768 and therefore amounted to Kant's recanting of the unfavorable image put forth in the Dreams. While this might seem to be a simple case of special pleading on the part of a devoted Swedenborgian, Tafel's "clinching argument" might well be equally attractive to devoted Kantians.

This [proposed dating] becomes an absolute certainty in view of the further circumstance that in the letter Kant not only shows himself much better informed about Swedenborg and his extraordinary deeds than he was in the Dreams, but also by the fact that if we date the Dreams later than the letter, it contradicts it in the most blatant fashion, even to the point that it would have to be called an outright lie. This would flatly contradict Kant's maxim of unconditional truthfulness, which is also praised as the preeminent trait of his own character, and would in fact be a moral impossibility.

The evidence against Tafel's dating, however, is overwhelming. Henry de Geymuller points out that after 1763, Fräulein von Knobloch was no longer Fräulein von Knobloch but Frau von Klingsporn and refers indirectly to an "irrefutable" argument by Kuno Fischer prior to 1904 establishing 1763 as the actual date. While it is true that if an editor had altered the date he could also have altered the name, it is clear from the Dreams, as de Geymuller points out, that when he wrote it, Kant had read material whose receipt he was still awaiting at the time of the letter. Further, there is evidence from Kant's correspondence that he had already made his inquiries and knew what he was doing when he wrote the Dreams. In a letter that has not been preserved, Moses Mendelssohn evidently expressed surprise at the tone of that work. Kant replied, on April 8, 1766:

The surprise you express at the tone of the little book is to me a proof of the good opinion you have formed of the integrity of my character, and your reluctance to see that character presented in the work as equivocal is dear and pleasant to me. I do not know whether, as you read through this seemingly carelessly written work, you noticed certain signs of the reluctance with which I wrote it. For though the persistent inquiries into the visions of Schwedenberg "both by persons who had the opportunity to know him personally as well as through correspondence, and finally by procuring his works" had given me much to talk about, I saw very clearly that I would have no rest from the incessant questioning until I disavowed my presumed knowledge [Kenntnis, perhaps with the connotation of "recognition"] of all these anecdotes.

Benz proceeds to give substance to Kant's reference to "incessant questioning." He says,

. . . Fräulein von Knobloch was not the only one to write to him about this subject. His letter, read at the coffee circles of ladies of the nobility, must have made Kant seem not only like a witness for the authenticity of Swedenborg's visions but as Swedenborg's apologist and in general as a philosophical witness for the possibility of association with the spiritual world. Kant would have been besieged from all sides, as the preface to his Dreams informs us, speaking of the "urgent questions of friends both known and unknown." The "urgent questions" are particularly understandable in view of the fact that the themes of Swedenborg and spiritualism were in vogue. At the courts of Hessen-Darmstadt, von Kurnessen, and von Braunschweig, spiritualism was very much at home. Under Friedrich Wilhelm II, who issued the well-known admonition to Kant, it had even taken hold in the Prussian court.

Much the same thing happened to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger in the south. As soon as he reported to his friends the favorable impression that Arcana Coelestia had made on him, "everyone began to read Swedenborg."

Philipp Matthäus Hahn, well-known theologian and mathematician . . . Chancellor Reuss of the University of Tübingen, Professor Kies, Dean of the philosophical faculty in Tübingen, Professor Clemm, Professor [Ordinarius] of systematic theology in Tübingen, Pastor Ricker, the well-known Swabian scientist, representatives of charitable foundations such as Hartmann, various councillors of the consistory, all studied Swedenborg . . . .

It was an age when the successes of the scientific method were challenging the traditional belief in immortality and the reality of spirit, and Swedenborg's reports of conversations with spirits were welcomed by many of the devout. Oetinger's correspondence offers an instance of the seriousness with which these reports could be taken. Oetinger was one who was trying to reconcile science and religion, and as such had come to respect Swedenborg as a scientist before he encountered his theological works. He therefore read the latter eagerly, and was immensely impressed not only with the reports about the spiritual world but also with the theological system that Swedenborg presented. However, when it came to Swedenborg's insistence that the book of Revelation was not to be taken literally, he drew the line. There had to be a literal judgment and a literal Holy City descending to this earth. He wrote to Swedenborg, "I beg you to beseech the Lord, who has appeared to you, that you talk with John himself, whether he agrees with your interpretation."

Oetinger also stands out as one who did not read Kant's Dreams of a Spirit-Seer simplistically. On December 4, 1766, he wrote to Swedenborg,

We have a book, "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer," that is full of lofty praise, but at the same time, in order not to seem fanatical [Schwärmerisch] is equally full of derogatory remarks against you.

Then as now, interest in spiritualism could be idiosyncratic. Kant had undoubtedly seen what strange things could happen once one opened the door to spiritualism. In the Dreams he expressed his determination not to encourage what he saw as damaging consequences.

After he had referred in the Dreams to the notion that witnessing abortive births in the animal kingdom could have harmful effects on pregnant women, he continued, "Since among my readers there may be some who, as to the conception of ideas, may be similarly pregnant, it would grieve me if they should find anything here that would make things go amiss for them."

Friedrich von Schelling may provide us with an example (albeit a somewhat later one) of the kind of "birth" that Kant was alluding to. In a letter to the Swedish poet and literary critic P. D. A. Atterbom, with whom he had discussed Swedenborg, Schelling wrote:

For a while now I have been seeing very little of our friend Fr. Baader, and I am also quite content with this. The last thing I was obliged to hear from him was that the devil is giving him signs and is seeking him out in his house and persecuting him. Among other people, his daughter (whom I knew as a pure and lovely child) has now fallen into ecstasies in which the evil spirit forces her into godless and impure speech. He spoke of this as a gratifying phenomenon (his obsession is so great) and seems to take no little satisfaction in the fact that the devil has finally taken notice of his assaults.

Dreams of a Spirit-Seer carried the day in the realm of rationalist philosophy, but rationalist philosophy was not without its rivals. Especially in the south, idealist, theosophical, and romanticist trends (that were, incidentally, to fascinate Russian philosophers of the "silver age") were very much alive; and in the arts in particular Swedenborg's view of this world as translucent to spirit found fertile soil. Benz sums up his reading of the outcome in a fable:

A great soul from the north, a soul who was granted first- hand knowledge of heaven and earth, traveled to a more southerly country and proclaimed what he had learned. There quickly gathered around him the quiet folk of the land: the believing souls, the poets, and the seers. One of them said, "This man is saying things that move heaven and earth. Whether he is a prophet or not we do not know, but we do know that he speaks from God." Then, however, in marched the Pharisees, the scribes, and the professors of higher education, muttering against him and shaking their heads. One of them said, "In truth, the world has never seen a greater fool than this," and they all agreed that he was a fool and that no one should mention his name. Still, the quiet folk of the country, the believing souls, the poets, and the seers," believed in him all the more, and he awakened in their souls and minds a power of perception and a power of comprehension that bore fruit a thousandfold in works of art and of the spirit; and from the seed of the fool there proceeded a wondrous blossoming in that very country.



Benz, Ernst. Swedenborg in Deutschland: F. C. Oetingers und Immanuel Kants Auseinandersetzung mit der Person und Lehre Emanuel Swedenborgs. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1947.

------. Vision und Offenbarung: Gesammelte Swedenborg-Aufsätze. Zürich: Swedenborg Verlag, 1979.

de Geymuller, Henry. Swedenborg et les Phénomènes Psychiques. Paris: Librarie Ernest Leroux, [193?].

Ehmann. F. C. Oetingers Leben und Briefe, als urkundlichen Commentar zu dessen Schriften. Stuttgart, 1859.

Horn, Friedemann. Schelling und Swedenborg: Ein Beitrag zur Problemgeschichte des deutschen Idealismus und zur Geschichte Swedenborgs in Deutschland, nebst einem Anhang über K. C. F. Krause und Swedenborg sowie Ergänzungen zu R. Schneiders Forschungen. Zürich: Swedenborg- Verlag, 1954.

Johnson, Gregory R. "Kant on Swedenborg in the Lectures on Metaphysics, Part 1." Studia Swedenborgiana 10, no. 1 (October 1996): 1-38.

Kant, Immanuel. Immanuel Kants Gesammelte Schriften. 29 vols. Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vols. 1?2). Akademie der Wissenschaften der Göttingen (vols. 24?9) Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (vol. 23). Berlin: De Gruyter, 1902.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen. Tr. J. C. Ager. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995, second edition.

Tafel, Johann Friedrich Immanuel. Abriss Des Lebens und Wirkens Emanuel Swedenborgs, übersetzt aus der Penny-Cyclopedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; mit neuen Urkunden über Swedenborgs Leben und einer historischen Untersuchung seiner 12 Erfahrungsbeweise für die Unsterblichkeit und Fortdauernde Wiedererinnerungskraft der Seele, Verbunden mit einer Würdigung der Berichte und Urtheile Stillings, Klopstocks, Herders, Kants, Wieland, und Anderer. Stuttgart & Cannstatt: Verlag von Becher & Mueller, 1845.