Popular Philosophy and Kant´s Genealogy of Morals

Popular Philosophy and Kant´s Genealogy of Morals

Francisco Iracheta Fernández[1]


  1. 1. Kant states famously in the first Critique that the task of philosophy is to answer three fundamental questions, namely, “What can I know?”, which is theoretical according to the limits of the understanding (Verstand); “What should I do?”, a practical question concerning the nature of the faculty of reason (Vernunft) and “What may I hope for?”, which is both a theoretical and a practical question and it converges towards Kant’s teleological philosophy and philosophy of religion.

An important thing to have in mind is that the self who ask these three questions might not be the same self that answers them. The answers come from the transcendental self, whereas the questions can perfectly come from a self who doesn’t have to embrace transcendental idealism in order to be capable of formulating them. Kant’s revolutionary philosophical system would be impossible to resemble Copernic’s if it were grounded in the finite ordinary self, because it would be anthropomorphistic (Caimi, 2018). We are dealing with a self that, according to Kant’s transcendental idealism, on the one hand conceives itself as a logical thinking being who cannot know anything that is metaphysically transcendent, and on the other hand, from the practical point of view, we are dealing with a self that must be thought of as a noumenon personae or as a pure will: a self that is free from inclinations and desires, inasmuch as these are empirically grounded according to natural laws.[2]

  1. 2. Of course, Kant did not leave the philosophical inquiry only to the answers of these three questions. In his lectures on Logic he added a fourth one, i.e., “What is a human being?”, which is a question that belongs to anthropology or the science of man (VII: 343-344). Kant explains that the first three questions “relate to the fourth” (sich beziehen auf). What exactly does this relationship consists on is not easy to answer. But I think that, in order to do so properly, we need to have prior a clear transcendental picture of the self and an independently transcendental picture of the ordinary, pre-philosophical self.

In the Preface of the Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view, the text which struggles with the anthropological question, Kant explains that the work is both “systematically designed and yet popular” (VI: 121. My italics). The work is systematic in the sense that it has a critical order, according to the transcendental method; and popular because it can be read by a vast public and not by professional metaphysician philosophers only. The popularity of the work lies, according to Kant, in that it gives “references to examples which can be found by every reader”, and related with “this or that human quality of practical relevance” that allows each individual of the “reading public” to make it a theme of its own (VI: 122. My italics).

However, the French philosopher Michel Foucault has argued that in the Anthropology “the anthropological question has no independent content of its own” (Foucault, 2008, p. 86). That is, what a human being is according to Anthropology’s examination is foremost what has been previously said in the first two Critiques: “The Anthropology repeats the Critique of Pure Reason on an empirical level where the Critique of Practical Reason finds itself already repeated” (Foucault, 104). According to Foucault’s hermeneutic, Kant’s Anthropology faces the problem of not explaining the identity of men independently of that which does not find its source in human nature at all, namely, the transcendental’s noumenal self.

 I think that Foucault is correct in pointing out Kant’s lack of the fourth question discussion without transcendental presuppositions, which means a lack of attention on the discussion of popular philosophy itself. In my view, which is not necessarily Foucault’s, this problem occurs at some point in Kant’s intellectual history, an episode that can be challenged according to other important Kantian assertions. Now, this intellectual history cannot ignore Kant’s discussions with the Popularphilosophen and Kant’s commitment to popular philosophy itself. In this regard, I think that we need to open a discussion on Kantian anthropology which embraces its critical sources without being committed, nonetheless, to transcendental practical arguments. To put it in other words, I think that we need, in the context of the Kantian studies, to rehabilitate Kant`s popular philosophy. In the reminder of this contribution I will try to defend this claim.  

  1. By the time of the publication of the first Critique, Kant was already convinced that a contrast has to be set between popular or anthropological philosophy, a philosophy that is made for the public, and transcendental philosophy, a metaphysical practice of philosophy that is reserved for the schools and metaphysician scholars only. Popular philosophy finds its place outside transcendental philosophy, for at least two reasons: first, because transcendental philosophy is written in a highly abstract language, due to its property of being a scientific language dealing with a tough scientific problem (the extent to which metaphysics is possible as a science). The language of science is not the same as the language of common folk. Second, transcendental idealism cannot be popular because is counter-intuitive to common understanding, since it proves the incorrectness of the epistemological ‘truth’ which is very dear to it, namely, that the entities of the outer sense (in space) have a real formal structure in themselves. The Copernical Revolution is exactly a philosophical movement against the way common understanding conceives the world and the place of the mind within it (Rivera de Rosales, 2018).

So whereas, on the one hand, ordinary understanding finds for the most part the discourse of science and the practice of sciences themselves unattractive for the challenge and difficulties they impose to the mind, on the other hand, ordinary understanding embraces a belief about the nature of things perceived by the mind that is based on a so called ‘scientific’ method of cognition that is nonetheless, according to Kant’s idealism, entirely false. A realistic common understanding approach toward the world and its being is naïve because it is grounded in a false epistemological and ontological assertion, namely, empirical idealism and transcendental realism, respectively.[3]

  1. 4. However, on the sphere of morality, Kant contends that common practical understanding has the authoritative word.[4] Kant announces at different places in the first Critique, as he also writes in Prolegomena and to some colleagues and friends in some of his letters during the first years of the 80’s, that a popular treatise is related with the practical part of philosophy. Since the Critique of pure reason is fundamentally a theoretical-metaphysical work, it was not written with the purpose of became popular. This assertion constitutes Kant’s defense against the attacks of Feder and Garve, the Populaphilosophen who have wrote a review against the Critique that includes, among other things, a negative account of the book’s clarity and popularity.

Moreover, Kant says in ‘Dialectic’ that the concepts and principles that can be derived from the transcendental use of reason cannot be proven to be “real” or “possible” by the system of transcendental idealism (A 557-558), and later on, in the ‘Canon’, he explains that the concepts of transcendental freedom, God and soul’s immortality are alien (fremd) to transcendental philosophy, as this philosophy only occupies itself with what is “pure a priori knowledge” (A 801/B829). At this place, Kant seems to have an understanding of morality that is exactly the same as his previously accepted position revealed in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.[5] Having in mind the historical phases of his thought, this position belongs to a period of time prior to the discovery of transcendental philosophy. The statement is important because it tells us that by the time of the composition of the first Critique – between 1770 and 1780 — Kant recognizes that practical philosophy needn’t be justified at all by transcendental arguments. This means that the concept of transcendental freedom, as an Idea, pertains to transcendental philosophy in the theoretical domain of reason (the possibility to think a first cause that does not pertain to the empirical realm), but it is not require for giving practical validity to common’s understanding moral ideas.

By putting morals and popular philosophy next to each other, and by setting aside common morality from transcendental philosophy, the articulation between the second and the fourth questions cannot be that according to which the empirical self requires the presupposition of the transcendental self in order to understand what the human being is. Thus, the ‘should action’ that one ought to perform as an ordinary human being must be contextualized, for knowing its common validity, in the order of finitude, not in the order of transcendental causality. 

  1. 5. In 1785, once the controversy between Kant and the Popularphilosophen had already started with the publication of Feder’s and Garve’s first Critique reviews, Kant published, after Christian Garve’s publication of Cicero’s De Officiis commentary and translation (1784), The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. The first chapter of the work explores “common rational moral cognition”, and from here, Kant intends to show that human morality finds its “objective reality” in freedom’s positive concept (transcendental freedom). Kant has adopted in this work an understanding of common morality that is rational instead of emotional, a radical different approach from the understanding of common morality that he has had before in its most important popular work on morality, the Observations on the feeling of the beautiful and sublime.[6] So Kant changed his mind over the ground of common moral understanding and its positive justification within the system of transcendental philosophy.[7] If we take Kant’s own account in the ‘Canon’ of the first Critique, then we have a good reason to presume that his change of mind took place in-between the publication of the first edition of the first Critique and the beginning of the writing of the Groundwork, that is to say, between 1781 and 1783-84.

I think that some contemporary scholars and commentators are correct in pointing out that Kant’s discussion in the Groundwork follows the rational steps of Garve’s commentary on Cicero’s work (Kühn, 2001; Mardomingo, 1996; Nauen, 1996 van der Zande, 1998). But also are right, in my view, those who affirm Groundwork’s failure to prove the “objective reality’ of moral duty based on the will’s property of autonomy (which implies the idea of transcendental freedom) (Allison, 1991; Ameriks, 1981; Bittner, 1983; Förster, 1992, Kersting, 1983). Since the whole argument starts from rational moral cognition without discussing the sources of that order of things or ideas which are supposed to be common, it is just an ad hoc argument. I believe that we need to follow Kant’s path in that practical philosophy is linked with common moral understanding, but that we are better off with a transcendental idea of the self when dealing with the sources of common moral concepts. 

Despite the criticisms that Kant has received after the publication of the Groundwork, he repeated in the second Critique, by way of a new argument (the “Fact of pure reason” (V:31)), the superimposition of the transcendental self over the finite self. In my view, then, the problem that has been seen by Foucault in the Anthropology (in the published 1798 version) is a consequence of the lack of a discussion in the Groundwork and the second Critique of that which is attributed to common moral thought. The absence of a discussion of what is popular and why in practical domains makes the transcendental dependence of the Anthropology heavily forced, raising a problem with Kant’s introduction of empirical considerations (“empirical ethics” or “practical anthropology”) into his metaphysics of morals, as we can learn from the “Doctrine of Virtue” (Wood, 2008; Theunissen, 2013).



Allison, Henry (1991) Kant’s Theory of Freedom. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ameriks, Karl (1981) “Kant’s Deduction of Freedom and Morality”, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 19, pp. 53-79.

Beiser, Frederick (1987) The Fate of Reason. German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press

Bittner, Rüdiger (1983) Moralisches gebot oder Autonomie. Reihe praktische Philosophie, 18. Freiburg i. Br.: Alber

Caimi, Mario (2018): “La Revolución copernicana del modo de pensar. Algunos problemas”, in Gustavo Leyva, Álvaro Peláez y Pedro Stepanenko (Eds.): Los rostros de la razón: Immanuel Kant desde Hispanoamérica. I. Filosofía Teórica, México, Anthropos-UAM-Cuajimalpa, pp. 17-36

Foucault, Michel (2008) Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.

Förster, Eckart (1992) “Was darf ich hoffen”, in Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, Band 46, 2, pp. 168-185.

Garve, Christian (1783) “Kritik der reinen Vernunft, von Immanuel Kant”, in Anhang zur Allgemeinen Deutschen Bibliothek, Bd 36-52. Abt. 2, pp. 838-862.

_____________ (1784) Abhandlung über die menschlichen Pflichten in drey Büchern aus dem Lateinischen des Marcus Tulius Cicero übersetzt von Christian Garve, Breslau: Korn, 294 pp.

Iracheta, Francisco (2020) “La limitación práctica de la filosofía trascendental en la primera recepción de la KrV”, in Revista de Estudios Kantianos Vol. 5, No. 1. pp. 107-139. ISSN-e: 2445-0669 https://ojs.uv.es/index.php/REK/issue/view/1187/showToc


Kant, Immanuel (1900ff) Gesammelte Schriften Hrsg.: Bd. 1-22 Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Bd. 23 Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, ab Bd. 24 Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Berlin.

Kersting, Wolfgang (1983) “Kann die Kritik der praktischen Vernunft populär sein? Über Kants Moralphilosophie und pragmatische Anthropologie”, in Studia Leibnitiana, Bd. 15, H. 1, pp. 82-93.

Kühn, Manfred (2001) “Kant and Cicero”, In Ralph Schumacher, Rolf-Peter Horstmann & Volker Gerhardt (eds.), Kant Und Die Berliner Aufklärung: Akten des Ix. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses. De Gruyter. pp. 270-278.

Mardomingo, José (1996) “Estudio preliminar”, en José Mardomingo (trad.) Immanuel Kant, Fundamentación de la metafísica de las costumbres, Barcelona. Ariel, pp. 7-49.

Nauen, Franz (1996) “Garve – ein Philosoph in der echten Bedeutung des Wortes”, in Kant-Studien, 87, pp. 184-197.

Rivera de Rosales, Jacinto (2018): “El nuevo realismo y el ‘Goodbye’ a Kant de Maurizio Ferraris”, in Gustavo Leyva, Álvaro Peláez y Pedro Stepanenko (Eds.) Op. Cit, pp. 177-200

Sellars, Wilfred (1974) Essays in Philosophy and Its History. Dodrecht/Boston: D Reidel.

Theunissen, Nandi (2013) “Kant’s Commitment to Metaphysics of Morals”, in European Journal of Philosophy, 24, 1, pp. 103-128.

van der Zande, Johan (1998) “The Microscope of Experience: Christian Garve’s Translation of Cicero’s “De Officiis”, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 59, No. 1, pp. 75-94.

Wood, Allen (2008) “General Introduction”, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. xiii-xxxiii


[1] Professor of Philosophy at IBERO, Puebla.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[2] However, as the American philosopher Wilfred Sellars has put it: “Kant is leaving open the possibility that the being which thinks might be something which is not capable of imputation” (Sellars, 1974, pp. 80-81). 

[3] This does not mean that common understanding cannot change the way it understands the world with the acquaintance of empirical realism; what it says is that an attack against something that is accepted generally is always necessarily unpopular at the beginning. This is why Kant looks forward for the cooperation of some of his contemporaries Popularphilosophen, as he writes to Garve, Mendelssohn (X:341) and Herz (X:269), to accomplish this task.

[4] Kant states in Groundwork that “we cannot consider without admiration how great an advantage the practical faculty of appraising has over the theoretical in common human understanding” (IV: 404).

[5] “Alle praktische Begriffe gehen auf Gegenstände des Wohlgefallens oder Missfallens, d.i. der Lust und Unlust, mithin wenigstens indirect auf Gegenstände unseres Gefühls. Da dieses aber keine Vorstellungskraft der Dinge ist, sondern ausser der gesammten Erkenntnisskrft liegt, so gehören die Elemente unserer Urtheile, so fern sie sich auf Lust oder Unlust beziehen, mithin der praktischen, nicht in den Inbegriff der Transscendentalphilosophie, welche lediglich mit reinen Erkenntnissen a priori zu thun hat” (A802/B830. My italics).

[6] As Kant says in Groundwork: “[…] in practical matters, it is just when common understanding excludes all sensible incentives from practical laws that its faculty of appraising first begins to show itself to advantage” (IV: 404).

[7] In this sense I take it to be important the words of Frederick Beiser: “…no history of Kant’s philosophy after the first Kritik can afford to ignore the Popularphilosophen” (Besier, 1987, p. 168).


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