Some Thought Affinities between Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)

William Ross Woofenden, 1980.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is initially of interest to the student of Swedenborg because of the record of Kant's methodical investigation of Swedenborg's clairvoyance and apparent ability to communicate with the spirit world. Kant first gained knowledge of these unusual gifts in 1762, as witness a letter he wrote to Charlotte von Knobloch in August of 1763. Madame Knobloch had written to Kant asking for more information and his opinion concerning the strange stories in current circulation of Sweden­borg's dealing with spirits.

In his reply Kant excused himself for the delay in answering on the ground that he had needed time to make a thorough investigation, in order not to open himself to the charge of credulity.   He said that a Danish officer who attended his lectures had first told him the story of the message conveyed by Swedenborg from the deceased Prince of Prussia to the living Queen of Sweden.   "The authenticity of the re­port stunned me," he wrote.   Then he continued, "In order to refrain from rejecting indiscrimin­ately the prejudice of disbelieving visions and apparitions with yet another prejudice, I de­cided to launch my own inquiries into the matter." He then noted that he had written a number of letters and made inquiries, and that the replies all seemed to confirm the accuracy of the report.

Kant then wrote directly

"to this strange gentleman (Swedenborg), and the letter was de­livered to him personally in Stockholm by an English merchant.   I had news that Swedenborg accepted the letter politely and promised to send a reply.   However, I did not get his reply. Meanwhile I made the acquaintance with an English gentleman, highly educated, who spent last summer here at this place (Konigsberg).   In view of our friendship I entrusted this gentleman with making further investigations into the marvellous gifts which Swedenborg was alleged to possess . . .

"In his first letter, my friend stated that the incident which I had mentioned earlier did really take place in the manner in which I had described it, and this on the testimony of the most respectable people in Stockholm.   He had not yet met Swedenborg personally but hoped to see him soon, though he found it hard to believe the truth of some of the stories which were rumoured amongst the most rational people in town concerning the secret communications of Sweden­borg with the world of spirits.

"His further correspondence sounded quite different; he had managed to meet Swedenborg, he had called on him privately at his home, and he expressed the greatest astonishment about his interview.   Swedenborg, he wrote, was a gentle, highly intelligent and open-hearted person, a true scholar, and my friend promised to send me some of his writings shortly. . . .  When he was reminded of the letter which he promised to send me in reply to mine, he stated he would certainly have replied but that he intended to make the whole affair public before the eyes of the world. He was going to travel to London shortly, in May of this year, to arrange for the publication of another book.   He promised that I would find a reply to my letter, paragraph by paragraph in his new book.

"In order to relate to you, gracious lady, another few examples of events witnessed by many people who are still alive, and where the gentle­man who sent me the report has personally investi­gated the truth of the stories on the spot, allow me to select two specific cases: ..."

Here Kant relates the story of a lost receipt which Swedenborg helped locate by communication, so he claimed, with the deceased husband of a Madame Marteville; and (2) the account of a fire in Stockholm which Swedenborg annotated in detail, at the very time of the fire, while he was in Gottenburg, 300 miles away.

Kant concludes:

"How can we raise any serious objections to the truth and credibility of such a story?  The friend who transmitted to me this in­formation had examined all the facts personally, both at Stockholm and Gotenborg as recently as two months ago.   He is well acquainted with some of the leading families in Gotenborg; everyone concerned told him the same story about this inci­dent ..."

This letter was first published at Konigsberg in 1804.   As William White put it in his 1868 biography of Swedenborg, "It displays a courage and candor very rare in modern philosophers, most of whom would as soon be shot as stand good for a ghost story however authentic."

However, when Kant published pseudonymously his curious little book Dreams of a Spirit-Seer three years later, it would appear that he had by then reversed his good opinion of Swedenborg.

It is not clear why he so radically changed his stance.   He did write to his friend Moses Mendelsohn that he was irritated by the persist­ent talk about Swedenborg's visions.   "I rea­lized that I would have no peace from incessant inquiries, because many people who thought I knew something about this subject kept bothering me about explanations.   I admit that I had the greatest difficulty finding a suitable method of expressing my thoughts on the subject without in­curring the risk of being ridiculed.   Then I de­cided the best way of forestalling any attacks of mockery directed against my person would be to mock at myself.   This I did quite sincerely, for my own mind was in a state of paradox."

There also seems to be evidence on the work in question that another motive for this publi­cation was jealousy; although I have not seen the original myself, White gives the following as a quotation from the 1838 Leipsic edition of Kant, Vol. III, p. 95:

"The system of Swedenborg is unfortunately very similar to my own philosophy.   It is not impossible that my rational views may be consider­ed absurd by reason of that affinity.   As to the offensive comparison, I declare, we must either suppose greater intelligence and truth at the basis of Swedenborg's writings than first impres­sions excite, or that it is a mere accident when he coincides with my system —a lusus naturae. Such a wonderful agreement exists between his doctrines and the deepest results of reason, that there is no other alternative whereby the corres­pondence can be explained."

In the Introduction to the 1969 English edition of Dreams the translator John Manolesco concurs with the thesis that jealousy, or just plain spite, may well have been at the root of Kant's decision to lampoon Swedenborg.   He writes:

"Would it be far-fetched to assume that Kant's sudden hatred for speculative metaphysics . . . was the sequel to a deep psychological change due to unrequited love, not by metaphysics but by Swedenborg himself?  The disappointment at not receiving a reply to his letter, addressed to Swedenborg, and his final hope that such a reply might have been included in Swedenborg's latest book which was to come off the press shortly, a promise made but not kept, must have caused the deepest revulsion and hatred for his former idol. From the general tone of the Spirit Seer one can­not fail to notice that Kant was carrying on a personal vendetta against the Swede, something which he never did again in his entire life.   On the contrary, Kant is known for his tactfully conducted polemics and for many a homage paid to an adversary.

"However, the Kant of 1766 was still a com­plex-ridden man, and Swedenborg had scorned him in public.   Many of Kant's intimate friends knew of his private investigations into the truth of the strange stories that circulated all over Europe with regard to Swedenborg's alleged supernatural powers, and many more friends must have known of Kant's personal letter addressed to the great visionary to which no reply had ever been made public, in spite of repeated promises by Sweden­borg.   Thus, it appeared that the Great Sweden­borg had purposely ignored the little Prussian lecturer of Konigsberg who had not even been able to secure a professorship by 1766."

A little further on in the Introduction, attention is drawn to this passage in Spirit Seer: "Either there is a great deal more wisdom and truth in Swedenborg's writings than we may have thought at first glance, or the fact that his ideas agree with my own system is a mere coincidence."   This—from the Cassirer edition of Kant—may be the same passage cited above from the Leipsic edition.   If so, it perhaps should be noted that no more than a page later Kant dismisses Swedenborg's magnum opus as "eight quarto volumes of sheer nonsense."

Let us try our hand at reconstructing Kant's mood.   We know he was already engaged on the prodigious labor of thinking out a philosophical system that was eventually to establish his re­putation as a top ranking philosopher.   No doubt he found opportunity to discuss some of the features of his system with friends—who officious­ly told him from time to time, "You have been an­ticipated on this or that point by the Swedish spirit-seer."   Rather than baldly deny or even question that he had been anticipated, the methodical Kant decided he had better see for himself.   By his own testimony he set out to read Swedenborg himself and judge firsthand rather than on hearsay.   Unfortunately he made a bad be­ginning.   He bought the verbose and rather ram­bling exegetical work Arcana Coetestia which, as has been noted, occupied eight quarto volumes and cost him seven pounds sterling (which he begrudged). For one who was then a metaphysical philosopher a more likely beginning would have been Swedenborg's purely philosophical treatise Divine Love and Wisdom (1763).

However, having bought the eight heavy tomes, and worse yet, having read clear through them, so he claims, Kant apparently had to give vent to his exasperation in some way.   His Traume could be described as his sardonic attempt to reduce Swedenborg's Arcana to an emasculated and thus non­sensical abridgment.

His effort went something like this: "The style is flat.   The volumes are packed with nonsense.   No proof is entered for the many start­ling assertions.   Despite this the author is apparently sincere.   Let the reader draw his own conclusions."   Kant, in this vein, neatly pooh-poohed the ponderous work.

Let us now look at some of the areas of thought in which Kant could uncomfortably have found himself anticipated by the Swedish Aristotle.   In the introduction to his Kant Selections, Theodore M. Greene says of Kant: "His active interest in science is evident from the fact that his earliest writings were purely scientific in character, e.g. his 1755 Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens in which he gave an original and correct explana­tion, in terms of Newtonian principles, of the origin of the tangential movements of the planets."

One might comment in passing that it is also true of Swedenborg that his earliest writings were purely scientific in character; not only that, in this instance, the same area of scientific thought had occupied him over two decades earlier. Samuel Beswick, commenting on Swedenborg's 1734 Principia, writes: "Kant . . . was the first (German) who published a true conception of the distribution of matter in space. . . .  About this time Mitchell was revolving the matter in his mind, but had not published anything thereon. Lambert, in 1757, followed Kant with his Letters on Cosmogony.   Two years subsequently (1759) Boscovich published his celebrated theory of the Constitution of the Universe. ...  In 1780 Herschel gauged the heavens and literally beheld what had hitherto been only theoretical, and to some absolutely impossible.

"Yet preceding all these," continues Beswick, "and when Kant was only ten years old, Swedenborg had formally given the same ideas and views of creation—expressly calling his essay 'The Theory of the Sidereal Heavens'—in his immortal Principia, (written) in 1733—being twenty-two years before Kant, twenty-four before Lambert, twenty-six before Boscovich, thirty-four years before Mitchell, and forty-seven years before Herschel.   This work, which preceded all others in the suggestion of true views regarding the clustering of stars, and their arrangement and distribution in space, was published under royal auspices, and at the expense of the then reigning Duke of Brunswick.   Considerable ex­tracts, with brief notices, were inserted in the Acta Eruditorum of Leipsic (the journal begun by Leibniz) . . . These extracts could not fail to strike the attention of the German astronomers, and give rise to certain general considerations; to plant the germs of more universal and enlarged views of creation, and to be suggestive of a most rational and comprehensive theory of the sidereal heavens."

Lest I leave you with the impression that the obviously sympathetic Beswick intended to give Swedenborg credit for complete originality in this matter, later he noted:

The honor of conceiving and publishing the first crude notion of heavenly bodies being formed from nebulous vapors belongs unquestionably to Tycho Brahe and Kepler . . . long antecedent to the time of Swedenborg.   The hypothesis appears to have remained latent, through the insuffic­iency of well observed data, until Halley came forward in 1677, Swedenborg in 1734 . . . and lastly Laplace in 18O9 (Systeme du Monde) , who gave to the nebular hypo­thesis its present elaborate structure. The idea of heavenly bodies being formed from nebulous vapors, therefore, preceded Swedenborg, and upon this one point Swedenborg is merely one in the foremost rank of its brilliant advocates.

This modest disclaimer to the contrary not­withstanding, the implication of Beswick's statement we first cited cannot be passed over lightly.   While it is true that Kant was merely a boy when Swedenborg's Principia was published, and it therefore could be argued that Kant may never have had firsthand knowledge of Swedenborg's cosmogony, this in no way invalidates the claim that Kant should have had the opportunity to be aware of Swedenborg's theory.   Even granting the insularity of Kant's life, it seems unlikely that he could have remained unaware of the scholarly publications that issued from Leipzig.

Next let us look at some of the dovetailing of thought in the philosophic ideas of time and space, as found in Kant and Swedenborg.   Kant argued that space and time "belong to the form of intuition, and therefore to the subjective constitution of our mind." (B37)   Korner writes: "To use a very crude analogy, (for Kant) space and time are the spectacles through which our eyes are affected by objects.   The spectacles are irremovable."

Swedenborg, also approaching the subject in its relation to human thought, says: "The ideas of interior thought with man, though they are above material things, still terminate in mater­ial things, and where they terminate, there they appear to be, and hence is his perception of what he thinks. ...  To illustrate this by an example: man can in no wise think without the idea of time and space, which idea adheres to al­most everything which he thinks; if the idea from time and space were taken away from man, he would not know what he thinks and scarcely whether he thinks." (AC7381)

To this observer, Swedenborg's concept that thought is contingent on the idea of space/time sounds very much like Kant's irremovable spectacles.Objects can be seen only through them.

Both men also expressed concern about the relationship of space/time to God.   In a work published in 1763 (Divine Love & Wisdom) Sweden-borg wrote:

"The fact that the Divine, or God, is not in space (even though He is omnipresent . . .) cannot be encompassed by means of a merely natural concept, but it can be encompassed by means of a spiritual concept.

"The reason it cannot be encompassed with a natural concept is that space is involved in such a concept. . . .  Every measurement, shape and form is a matter of space. ...  A spiritual concept does not draw on space for anything; it draws rather on state for everything it has. State is predicated of love, life, wisdom, affec­tions, and consequent delights—broadly speaking, of the good and the true.

"A really spiritual concept of these elements has nothing to do with space.   It is higher, and looks to concepts of space the way heaven looks at earth. . . .  There do appear in the spiritual world, where spirits and angels are, spaces like spaces on earth.   They are not spaces, though, but 'appearances.'   Actually, they are not fixed and ordained as on earth.   They can be stretched out or contracted, altered and varied.   And since they cannot be delineated by measurement, they cannot be encompassed by any natural concept, only by a spiritual one.   As concerns spatial distances, this is nothing but a matter of distances of what is good or distances of what is true, which are affinities and likenesses depending on their state.

"We can conclude from these considerations that man, on the basis of a merely natural concept, cannot grasp either the fact that the Divine is everywhere and yet not 'in space,' or the fact that angels and spirits grasp this clearly. We can conclude that in consequence, man too could grasp this if only he let some spiritual light into his thought." (W7)

Having stated this concept, Swedenborg later elaborates the thesis (W73) noting that "just as the Divine is in all space, and is nonspatial, it is in all time, and is timeless."

Although, so far as I know, there is no evidence that Kant read this 1763 work of Sweden­borg's, it is nevertheless striking to find in Kant's 1781 Critique of Pure Reason the following:

"As conditions of all existence in general, (space and time) must also be conditions of the existence of God.   If we do not thus treat them as objec­tive forms of all things, the only alternative is to view them as subjective forms of our inner and outer intuition, which is termed sensible, for the very reason that it is not original, that is, not such as can itself give us the existence of its object—a mode of intuition which, so far as we can judge, can belong only to the primordial being.   Our mode of intuition is dependent upon the existence of the object, and is therefore possible only if the subject's faculty of repre­sentation is affected by that object. . . .

"It is derivative (intuitus derivativus) , not original (intuitus originarius} , and there­fore not an intellectual intuition.   For the reason stated above, such intellectual intuition seems to belong solely to the primordial being, and can never be ascribed to a dependent being . . ." (B72)

Both Kant and Swedenborg, we may conclude, got caught up in the dilemma of how God could be in time and space and yet at the same time apart from time and space.   Swedenborg solved the problem to his satisfaction by defining natural time/space and spiritual time/space differently; Kant tentatively dealt with it by positing different modes of intuition of time/ space—only God having original intuitions; all creatures having at best derivative intuition. Thus Kant seemed to sense a radical difference between natural objectivity and spiritual reality, but fell short of a calculus of relationship.

Turning to Kant's theory of Ethics we find under his proposition that "Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will," this statement: (Grund. 1785 (394) )   "A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for attaining some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself and when considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that it can bring about in pursuing any inclination, nay even in pursuing the sum total of all inclinations.   It might happen that, owing to special misfortune, or the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose.   If with its greatest efforts this will should yet achieve nothing and there should remain only good will (to be sure, not a mere wish but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, good will would still shine by its own light as a thing having its whole value in itself.   Its useful­ness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor de­tract anything from this value."

Before introducing a comparative statement from Swedenborg here, one is tempted to chide the almost invariably logical Kant for seemingly overlooking the fact that a jewel can at best re­flect the light which strikes it, and in the ab­sence of light might as well be a lump of coal. Aside from this apparent breach of logic, Swedenborg's view is in substantial agreement with that of Kant; i.e., he recognizes the valid­ity of the concept that a good will that is good in itself is both logical and real.   What he does not do, however, is allow the ascription of such a will to man.   The Swedish seer was too strongly biblically oriented to ignore such a fundamental Scripture as these words of Jesus: "No one is good but God alone." (Mk. 10:18) Thus, while recognizing the intrinsic worth of the Divine will, he insisted that the finite will derives its worth from and is dependent on the infinite.

In Arcana Coelestia (4776) Swedenborg says, "The internal of man, and heaven in man, is charity—that is, willing well to another." And in True Christian Religion (373) : "Charity is willing well, and good works are doing well from willing well.   Charity and faith are only mental and perishable things unless they are determined to works and coexist in them when possible." (my emphasis)

This means that although both men stressed the importance of works when possible, Swedenborg also anticipated Kant in recognizing that "simply by virtue of the volition," to use Kant's phrase, a person with good will is in possession of some­thing of intrinsic value.

Next let us look briefly at the Kantian con­cept of the summum bonum, the highest good. After establishing to his own satisfaction that it is compounded of "virtue and happiness" (a highly debatable conjecture), the philosopher goes on to postulate: (in both Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and the Critique of Practical Reason)  

"The realization of the summum bonum in the world is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral.   But in this will the perfect accordance of the mind with the moral law is 'the supreme condition of the summum bonum. . . .  Now, the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law is holiness, a perfection of which no rational being of the sensible world is capable at any moment of his existence. Since, nevertheless, it is required as practical­ly necessary, it can only be found in a progress in infinitum towards that perfect accordance . . .

"Now, this endless progress is only possible on the supposition of an endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being . . . The summum bonum, then, practically, is only possible on the supposition of the immor­tality of the soul. . . .  For a rational but finite being, the only thing possible is an end­less progress from the lower to higher degrees of moral perfection."

This, to my mind, is one of the most clearly Swedenborgian concepts in the philosophic writings of Kant.   Choosing more or less arbitrarily from a wealth of statements found in Swedenborg on this subject, I offer the following, both from the Arcana, since by his own testimony Kant not only bought this work but read it clear through. "There is no definite period of time within which man's regeneration (sanctification) is com­pleted, so that he can say, 'I am now perfect'; for there are illimitable states of evil and falsity with every man, not only simple states but also states in many ways compounded, which must be so far shaken off as no longer to appear . . .  In some states the man may be said to be more perfect, but in very many others not so. Those who have been regenerated in the life of the body and have lived in faith in the Lord and in charity toward the neighbor are continually being perfected in the other life." (894)

Further on (8326) he says: "Regeneration begins in a man, but never ceases, being con­tinually perfected, not only while he lives in the world, but also in the other life to eter­nity; and yet it can never arrive at any such perfection that it can be compared to the Divine." That man does this perfecting in a state or moral freedom is also Swedenborg's oft-repeated thesis. Here, then, it would seem that both men are in almost complete accord.

A number of other affinities of thought be­tween these two mental giants could readily be introduced.   But perhaps what has been said is enough to establish at least the credence of my thesis, viz., that the views expressed by Kant in his Dreams of a Spirit Seer, far from expressing his true thoughts about Swedenborg's system, were rather a mask or smoke screen intended to hide what to my idea was to be substantial and repeated use in his own writings of many concepts earlier set forth, formulated and defended by the great Swedish seer.