The Metaphysician Who Didn’t Know That He Was Dreaming: Kant and the Spirit-Seers

In Violetta L. Waibel, Margit Ruffing & David Wagner (eds.), Natur und Freiheit. Akten des XII. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses. De Gruyter. pp. 867-874 (2018)
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Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit Seer has puzzled most of its readers since its publication in 1766. Herder complained in general terms about the lack of unity and coherence of the book as well as Kant’s dialectical method of presenting both sides of a problem without offering his own solution. Mendelssohn was in doubt about whether Kant wanted to ridicule metaphysics or make a case for Swedenborg’s visions. Another exegetical puzzle has not been noted yet: Dreams discusses not one, but three different versions of a ‘metaphysics of spirits’. All of them are mutually incompatible. In other words, the two versions of a metaphysics of spirits that Kant criticises in the first part of the book are both of them different from Swedenborg’s own claims, as they are discussed in the second part. And the two versions discussed within the first part are not homogeneous, either: the metaphysics discussed in the first chapter of the first part (the ‘tangled knot’) and those that seem to form the foundation for the second chapter of the first part (the ‘fragment of occult philosophy’) are again incompatible. And neither of them fits with what Kant analyses as Swedenborg’s metaphysical position in the second part: The position of the ‘tangled knot’ can tentatively be labelled as ‘crypto-materialist’. Swedenborg’s own position is characterised in the text as ‘idealist’. The ‘fragment of occult philosophy’ in contrast is probably best described as ‘dualist’. If this diagnosis is correct, it reinforces Herder’s complaints about the lack of coherence of Dreams as well as Mendelssohn’s worry about its targets. And it adds the additional challenge to explain how there can be a ‘crypto-materialist’ metaphysics of spirit-seeing. I propose to weaken the impact of these problems by identifying a second target of Kant’s scorn in Dreams – a metaphysical position Kant could be sympathetic with as far as its fundamental intentions are concerned, but that draws his ire because of an equally comprehensive failure in the realisation of these intentions.



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Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter
University of Münster (PhD)

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Kant-Bibliographie 2018.Margit Ruffing - 2020 - Kant Studien 111 (4):647-702.

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