Research by Michael Behrent for KÖNIGSBEGR IS DEAD by Max & Gilbert



I.                    COSMOPOLIS



I.                    Kant's Königsberg


A.     German Towns in the 18th Century


In the area roughly known in the 18th century as "Germany" - a vague term corresponding to no clear "nation" in the modern sense of the word, even if the Holy Roman Empire came closest to giving it some political form - there existed some 2000 cities, of which Königsberg was one. For the most part, these towns were distinguished less by the features we have come to associate with modern cities - a mobile, often transient population, an openness in spirit, a predisposition to innovation - than they were by their stability and a rootedness in tradition. One can even speak of a "self-conscious insularity" in German towns of these periods: in the midst of what remained an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural society, cities walled themselves up from the surrounding countryside, restricted citizenship (Buergertum) and staunchly defended the privileges granted to them by royal authorities.[1] Though organically linked to a surrounding hinterland, which supplied the towns with natural resources and to which they provided markets for their goods, as well as to international trade routes, these towns were for the most part socially stable and culturally conservative.

Yet even if these towns were insular by contemporary standards, forces were at play in the 18th century that contributed to integrating them into wider and more transformative relations than they belonged to when they were founded in the Middle Ages. Towns located on the Baltic shore from the Danish sound to Memel, historically associated with the Hanseatic League [dates?], engaged in an intricate network of trade in such goods as grain, salt, fish, lumber, flax and hemp. Being situated along these relatively far-flung routes meant that the social texture of these towns was less tightly woven then elsewhere: the presence of bankers, merchants and shippers made available capital and connections unknown to more locally based business; there were greater distinctions between social groups; a larger share of laborers worked outside the framework of guilds. Yet whereas markets of this type had already existed for several centuries, a newer force of transformation was the state. Increasingly, large, bureaucratized states standardized and centralized the patchwork of urban privileges that had proliferated since the Middle Ages: for instance, the promulgation of the new Prussian legal code, the Allgemeines Landrecht, in 1794, placed the regulation of urban guilds under the authority of the Prussian state.


B.    Königsberg in the 18th Century


Königsberg in the 18th century was a characteristic German town situated on the Baltic Sea, distinguished by its historic role in the establishment of the Prussian state (first as duchy, then as kingdom) and by the reputation of its university, the Albertina, founded in 1644.

Physically, it was a town with a roughly 14 kilometer circumference situated on the Pregel River, 37 kilometers from the sea. In the earlier part of the century, Königsberg consisted, in reality, as it had since the early 15th century, of three towns: the Altstadt, the home of the Schloss, was located between the northern bank of the Pregel and the Schlossteich; Löbenicht, which lay to its East; and Kneiphof, where the Dom had been built, was an island in the river. In 1724 - the same year as Kant was born - the three villages were formally unified. Around 1800, the town consisted of some 4000 houses.

Economically, Königsberg's status as a port town brought it into contact with other towns along the Baltic and in Germany, as well as ports in America, Asia and Africa. During the first half of the 18th century, its commerce brought it considerable wealth. At the same time, Königsberg was vulnerable to the military consequences of Prussia's emergence as a major political power in the 17th century: as it had earlier suffered from the devastation left by the Thirty Year War, it once again saw its prosperity undermined by the Seven Year War (1754 - 1763).

Königsberg's population during this period was somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 inhabitants (not including the garrison population). Though a "German" town, it was culturally, linguistically and socially diverse. It continued to be marked by its Slavic past (until 1660, Königsberg had been formally under Polish suzerainty). Trade representatives and seaman from Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Holland and England abounded. Though a large majority of the inhabitants practiced some form of Lutheran Protestantism, this did not prevent an element of religious pluralism from being present: within Protestantism, the Pietist movement had distinguished itself from Lutheranism; some members of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church could be found; the Russian presence led to the building of some Orthodox churches; and Jews had their own religious institutions. In 1729, there were 14 Lutheran churches, compared to 3 Reformed.

            In addition to merchants, Königsberg's had other institutions that served as magnets to attract people from elsewhere. It was, in the first place, the provincial capital of East Prussia within the Prussian Kingdom. This made it a regional administrative center of political, economic and judicial life, as well as a significant cultural and literary center. At the same time, the growing influence over the 16th and 17th centuries of the Franconian branch of the Hohenzollern Prussian royal family gradually had the consequence of displacing Königsberg as Prussia's capital in favor of Berlin: the former capital's political status had, in effect, declined proportionally to the rise of the Prussian state. Even so, Königsberg remained a major educational center: Albertina University had four faculties, the three "superior" ones of law, medicine and theology, and the "inferior" one of philosophy. It also served as a major center for training the officials upon which the increasingly bureaucratized state depended. Aside from the university, there were numerous elementary schools and five gymnasia. Finally, as throughout the town's history, Königsberg was of strategic importance to Prussia, and hosted a major military garrison.


II.                   Königsberg's Kant


A.     Early Life


Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg on April 22 - "Immanuel Day", according to the Prussian calendar - in a house on Sadler [German?] Street, near the Grüne Brücke. He was thus born in a neighborhood that, especially in the summer, would have been a vibrant trading center, and a crossroads at which Germans, Jews, Dutch, English and Poles would regularly cross paths.

            Kant's origins were modest. His father, John George Cant, had been born in Memel to a family of Scottish emigrants, worked as a saddler. His mother, born Regina Dorothea Reuter, was German, and died when Kant was only 14. Both were devoted followers of the Pietist trend in German Lutheranism, and the rigor with which they ordered their lives according to their faith left a deep impression on Kant. His parents had 10 children - 3 sons and 7 daughters - only 4 of whom lived beyond childhood.

Though Kant grew up amidst the crowded bustle of the city, he grew familiar with the more peaceful environs. In his old age, he would recall how his mother would take him for walks outside the city's fortified walls: "Often she took me outside of the city, directed my attention to the works of God, spoke with pious rapture of His omnipotence, wisdom and goodness, and impressed on my heart a deep reverence for the Creator of all things."[2]

It was to his family's faith that Kant owed his opportunity to consider a fate other than the modest one to which his family origins might have destined him. The family pastor, Dr. Schulz, recognizing the young Kant's talents, had him enrolled in the Collegium Fridericianum, the Pietistic school which Schulz himself directed. From here, Kant went on to attend his town's university, the Albertina, where he enrolled himself in 1740, at the age of 16 (it is not known in which faculty he was initially registered).

At the time that Kant entered university, the major movements which were shaping intellectual life in the age were Pietism and the spirit of Aufklärung - "Enlightenment", or Lumières.


B.    Intellectual Influences: Pietism and Aufklärung.


Pietism was a major religious movement within the Lutheran Church that began in late 17th century Prussia. Like other contemporary movements, Pietism aimed at introducing a more personal experience of religion into the more formal and erudite constraints of the established church. It became a powerful force in Prussia, with a particular grip on the lower levels of society; Pietists were responsible for founding schools and charitable works, notable Francke's model orphanage in Königsberg. [check]. Kant, who at one time had probably considered becoming a pastor, was skeptical of the fanaticism that was a tendency within Pietism, but its extreme ethical rigor - a living example of which he had experienced through his parents - was no doubt an inspiration for the development of his own moral thought in the 1790s.


Aufklärung is the name used to describe newfound self-confidence of intellectuals and the educated classes in 18th century Germany in their ability understand the world in rational terms. An important origin of this was the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and, most importantly, the works of Isaac Newton, who showed that human reason was commensurable with the laws that governed the universe, making them potentially knowable. The Aufklärung in Germany shared many of the characteristics the French Lumières - considering the physical sciences should be the model of human knowledge, a belief in progress, an opposition to intolerance, etc. -, but distinguished itself in several notable ways. In the first place, the German Aufklärer, perhaps because they generally did not live in Catholic states, were rarely anticlerical, favoring instead a rationalization of religion. Moreover, their epistemology tended not to follow John Locke's empiricism - the position that all knowledge is derived from the senses, but rather adopted rationalism, the belief that the mind itself is the source of certainty. In Kant's day, the most important thinker in this tradition was Christian Wolf, who had systematized Leibnitz's thinking into an accessible synthesis. Wolf taught for many years at the University of Halle, but doubts about the depth of his faith led the Pietists there to have him expelled.

            The Aufklärung spirit was not only present in philosophical and scientific thought. It also deeply marked politics, especially in Prussia: King Frederick II, who ruled from 1740 to 1786, became the European model of an "Enlightened Despot", inviting and conversing with French philosophes like Voltaire, d'Alembert and La Mettrie at his Potsdam palace at the same time that he continued the work of his predecessors in introducing uniform, rationalized policies into the state. Kant would speak of Frederick as a "shining example, with respect to which no monarch surpasses the one whom we honor" of a head of state who "realizes that there is no danger to his legislation in allowing his subjects to use reason publicly and to set before the world their thoughts concerning better formulations of his laws, even if this involves frank criticism of legislation currently in effect." [3] Finally, the Aufklärung was not just a simply a particular set of ideas, but a way of discussing them: Aufklärers gathered together in salons to read, talk and discuss new ideas together, and created journals to bring educated opinion scatted throughout the large but unified German lands together into the "Republic of Letters."


C.    Kant's Pre-Critical Thought


While attending university, Kant was deeply influenced by the thought of Wolf and of Newton, particularly as it was presented by Martin Knutzen, an eminent professor who taught Kant at the Albertina. His first published work was an attempt to arbiter the conflict between Descartes and Leibnitz's methods for measuring bodies in motion, which he published in 1746 under the title Gedanken von der wahren Schatzung der lebendigen Kräfte, or Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces - unaware, from his position in Königsberg, that d'Alembert had already successfully solved the problem in Paris several months earlier.

            Without passing his qualifying exams, Kant left Königsberg - for the longest spell in his life - to spend nine years working as a private tutor for families living in the surrounding countryside. These experiences seem to have given him a sense of the varieties of social life in the East Prussian countryside: he worked for a Silesian pastor who preached in a Lithuanian community; next, he taught the sons of a prosperous landowner who owned many serfs; finally, he became a noted figure in local aristocratic society in the household of Count Keyserling. [4] Upon returning to Königsberg in 1755, he published his doctoral dissertation, acquired the status of privatdozent at the university, before becoming a full professor in 1770.

            Kant's thought during much of his career - through the 1770s, in any case - was marked by the Wolfian tradition of what he later called "dogmatic rationalism." Originating with Descartes, for whom the mind, through its ability to suspend judgment on any reality until it reached a bedrock of "clear and distinct ideas", and extending through Leibnitz, for whom the principle of sufficient reason (the notion that the cause of any thing must be that which is most susceptible to bring it into being) and the principle of contradiction (which holds that "A" and "not A" cannot at the same time be true) provided the basic structure of rationality, rationalism held that the mind's ability to uncover the logical structure of reality was the primary way in which certain knowledge could be acquired. Kant used this approach to investigate the nature of the universe, the existence of God and the meaning of beauty. But it was only when, later in his life, that he began to read David Hume that Kant took the philosophical turn that raised his stature from a significant 18th century philosopher to that of one of the most challenging thinkers who ever lived.


D.    Kant's Critical/Transcendental Thought.


1.      Awaking from Dogmatic Slumbers


Rationalism rested on the assumption that the categories according to which the mind grasped the world actually existed in the world itself - not just in the mind. This school of epistemology stood in opposition to the British tradition of empiricism, which maintained that there were no innate properties of the mind, but that all of its properties were more or less complex fabrics woven together out of the material provided by the senses. Though David Hume came out of the latter tradition, his radical skepticism appeared to challenge both the rationalist and the empiricist school. According to Hume, it was impossible to assert any rational ideas or categories as absolute, as they were inevitably merely based on repeated experiences - on habits, that is, rather than certainties. Kant was particularly impressed by Hume's analysis of causality. When we say "when the sun rises, it becomes light", Hume argues, it is impossible to attribute any certainty to this statement: all that this statement means is that up to now, we have constantly experienced the conjunction of the sun rising and there being light. But we do not experience the logical relationship of "cause": rather, this relationship is merely the nickname that we give to the fact that we constantly experience them together. In short, one could say that from Hume's perspective, it is dogmatic to assert that the sun causes light, simply because it flatters our human consciousness to think of the relationship that we. It is more accurate to say: we have always seen the sun rising and it getting light conjoined.

For Kant, one of the main tasks in philosophy became to purge it of all dogmatism - which he defined as "a general confidence in principles without a previous criticism of the power of reason itself." Once dogmatism had been unmasked for what it was - an unwarranted assumption that the way the mind grasps the world is the way the world actually is - it was impossible to ever again seek solace in it. Kant wrote: "whoever has tasted critique is forever disgusted with all the dogmatic products with which he was formerly obliged to content himself because his reason needed something and discovered nothing better for entertainment."[5]

Kant's task thus became to take full measure of the devastating damage which Hume's skepticism inflicted on epistemology, while at the same time rebuilding a stronger foundation for human knowledge. As he famously wrote in Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in 1783: "I freely admit that it was David Hume's reminder which, many years ago, first aroused me from my dogmatic slumber, and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a new direction."[6] He was then able to turn to the task of his "critical" or "transcendental" philosophy, undertaken when he was already well into his 50s - and which is one of the defining moments in modern philosophy.


2.      The Transcendental Nature of Space and Time


The landmark of Kant's critical turn was the publication of his Kritik der reinen Vernunft, or Critique of Pure Reason (often referred to as the "First Critique") in Königsberg in 1781. The basic solution which he proposed to overcoming dogmatism was the following: if the problem with dogmatism was that it presumed the world actually existed as the mind grasped it, then philosophy had to shift its focus. Rather than interrogating the world itself, it had to ask what it was possible for the mind to know in the first place - to find out not what could be learned from questioning the world, but what questions could be legitimately answered. Philosophy had to become, as Kant called it, transcendental. He writes: "I entitle transcendental all knowledge which is occupied not so much with objects as with the mode of our knowledge of objects in so far as this mode of knowledge is to be possible a priori."*[7]

Kant's first step in his Critique is to investigate the most immediate form of knowledge: that which we acquire through sensory experience. To avoid dogmatism, however, we must not assume that what we feel, touch, smell and so on actually corresponds to the way the world is. After all, Hume taught him there is no reason to assume the because he always had the sensation of a bad smell whenever he was near a rotten egg that this actually meant that the latter causes the former. The question was rather: what is it that allows us to have sense experiences in the first place? What is the nature of our receptivity to the things (or at least what we consider to be) in the outside world?

Kant's answer was that there are necessary ways in which we (humans, or at least rational beings) perceive the world. To use Kant's terms, there are certain inevitable "conditions of possibility" for all sense experiences, that are a priori, that is, not within the experience itself, since they are rather what organize and constitute the sense experience in the first place. The philosophical task of determining the a priori forms of any possible sense experience is what Kant calls "Transcendental Aesthetic": "transcendental" because it involves forms that make possible, but are not within experience, and "aesthetic" because it is the Greek word for sensation.

The two main form of a priori sense experience are space and time. The technical language should not obscure the radical nature of Kant's claim: space and time are not - or, to be more precise, it is meaningless to speak of them as - properties of the world. "Space does not represent any property of things in themselves", Kant tells us; and as for time, if "we abstract from our mode of inwardly intuiting ourselves [...] and so take objects as they may be in themselves, then time is nothing."[8]

Yet Kant's position is not a skeptical one, as Hume's is. Kant argues that space and time may only be the subjective forms of all sensation, that is, the way we organize all the "stuff" we perceive in the world. Yet at the same time, for all that they are subjective, they are necessary. It is impossible, Kant, believes, to have an experience that is not mediated through the forms of space and time. He writes: "What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us. We know nothing but our mode of perceiving them - a mode which is peculiar to us, and not necessarily shared in every human being, though, certainly, it is shared in every human being."[9] The latter point is the way in which Kant can claim to bring a certain universalism, or at least a humanism, back into his thought: once we have renounced certainty about knowledge of the world independently of our way of perceiving it, we can nonetheless claim real knowledge about how we do see it. In Kant's terms, we must renounce knowledge about "things in themselves", or noumena, but we can have meaningful knowledge of things as they appear to us, or phenomena, because we can understand their modes of appearing.

Bertrand Russell described Kant's claim as follows. Kant teaches us  that "things appear to be thus because the nature of the appearance depends on the subject in the same way that, if we have blue spectacles, everything appears to be blue. The categories of Kant are the coloured spectacles of the mind; truths a priori are the false appearances produced by those spectacles. Besides, we must know that everybody has spectacles of the same kind and that the colour of the spectacles never changes."[10]

Kant himself described his thought as a Copernican Revolution. According to a recent critic, this term's meaning lies in the fact that Kant has provided us with the "guiding metaphor of contemporary thought, of all thought since his time [...] that the world as we know it is at least partly a creation of the conceptual and linguistic resources that we bring to it."[11]


E.     A Königsberger philosophy?


Not long after his death, Mme. de Staël introduced Kant to her French audience by writing: "Kant lived until a very advanced age, and never did he leave Königsberg; it there that, in the midst of Northern ice, he spent his entire life meditating the laws of human intelligence."[12] Commentators have been obsessed with trying to determine the exact relationship between Kant and the hometown to which he was so attached that he (almost) never left it. The question might be described as that of the relationship between the narrow particularism the life he lived and the vast universalism of his philosophical enterprise (and its universalism is at the very least plausible: he is still taken very seriously two centuries later).  The problem can be broken dealt with in several possible ways:

1.      Kant's universalism was made possible by the implicit universalism of Königsberg.

2.      Kant's universalism existed in spite of the particularism of Königsberg.

3.      Königsberg's particularism secretly pervades, and undermines, Kant's universalism.


1.      Kant's universalism was made possible by the implicit universalism of Königsberg.

In many ways, Königsberg was a little cosmopolis - a city of the world. Though it was becoming increasingly woven into the administrative network of the Prussian state, its main opening onto the world remained the trade networks of the Baltic and the intellectual environment of the university. It was not yet strongly identified with anything like German nationalism, so it could relish its own "multiculturalism." Kant himself cultivated the idea that his own town was cosmopolitan, having once remarked: "A large city, the center of government, in which the officers of the Government are found; which contains a university for the culture of the sciences, and is also situated as to have commerce by sea; which is favored with communication, by means of rivers, with the interior of the country, as well as with more distant adjoining lands of various tongues and customs; such a city, for instance, as Königsberg on the Pregel, may be regarded as a suitable place for enlarging one's knowledge of men and of the world, a place where this knowledge may be gained even without travel."[13] One might wonder how the final remark ties into a critique of empiricism - the transcendental claim that not experience per se, but reflection on the conditions of experience, are what philosophy should investigate.

Rosencranz, Kant's 19th century editor and biographer, found in the social conditions of Königsberg the source of Kant's universalism. He found there "a remarkable mixture of all conditions, but not as in many places, a mixture lacking in character or destructive of individuality. This mixture is supported by the fact that the town is not small enough to fall under the domination of the ordinary middle classes, nor big enough to lose itself in the masses, its individualism in a feeling of nullity. It is precisely big enough to contribute to the philistery of an ordinary town, and precisely big enough to preserve a connection between individuality and the whole. In the way one can surmise how children of poor classes, such as Kant and Hamann, managed to enter into relationship with the upper classes of society. This enlightened democratic spirit certainly lent Kant many shades that were later said to be British and French influences. But Königsberg is still a remarkable town, in that it places before one's eyes all the phases of the development* of the spirit, from the child in the forest through the most cultivated of people. Here he can observe, as in all large towns, the brutality of corruption lying beneath the rags of misery, in basements as well as in garrets; not only the vulgarity of sailors, but also the immediate naturalness of the Poles, who, in the summer, on immense carriages made out of a single piece of iron, bring in, guided by Jewish speculators, wheat, hemp and bails of hay [check: paillassons] - individuals who, though baptized, are nevertheless still savages. Finally, as far as Kant and Hamann are concerned, one must not forget that Königsberg was a Protestant city, in which one notices little of the Catholic element, even it is not totally lacking."[14] Königsberg thus makes possible a form of cosmopolitanism precisely because it is a moderately sized town, avoiding the distorting conformism brought about by an overbearing community in a smaller town or the isolating individuality of a larger one.

Or is its universalism to be explained in terms of the pretensions of commercial capitalism? Marxist and/or Soviet critics have frequently drawn the connection between Kant and an emerging bourgeois consciousness (a commercial, not an industrial bourgeoisie: Germany was decades away from its industrial revolution), between the way Kant filters all experience through rational categories and the way in which capitalists convert all goods into the exchange values expressed in a price.[15] Yet contemporaries found such a connection lest evident. Amand Saintes remarked: Königsberg is at the same time a city of scholarship and of commerce, something that is quite rarely encountered."[16]

Finally, Königsberg's universalism may lie in the way that it symbolizes human self-assertion against the foreboding forces of nature. Rosencranz, speaking of the Prussians in his book on Kant, writes that "a people which surmounts the poverty of nature and which, to compensate for it, builds for itself an ideal world, can never be ridiculous or contemptible."[17] Arseni Goulyga, for his part, writes that "The rigorously built theories of the philosopher evoke the granite of this town and are animated by its breath."[18] The notion of Königsberg as a city overcoming hostile natural elements echoes Kant's epistemology, which writes off any understanding of the world as it is in itself in order to assert that it is only the capacities of the human mind that present themselves to philosophical inquiry (although Kant did develop, in his Third Critique, a complex theory of "purposiveness in nature"). On the other hand, in Kant's reputation as an "Alleszermalmer", it was understood that the target of his critiques was not only the a natural world inhospitable to human meaning, but also the very philosophical constructions by which humans try to make themselves - falsely  - secure in the world.


2.      Kant's universalism existed in spite of the particularism of Königsberg.


Perhaps it is just a paradox that a philosopher like Kant could have been from Königsberg. Whatever the mixture of people or distinct social dynamics that might have been found there, Königsberg, from this point of view, simply cannot be considered to have been very "happening" in the age of Voltaire, Mozart or Frederick II.  Simon Blackburn writes of Kant: "He spent [his life] entirely within a few miles of the desolate coastal town of Königsberg, or Kaliningrad [sic], in northeast Prussia. He never travelled. In all his life he never saw a mountain and never heard a decent orchestra."[19] In this account, Königsberg's isolation dovetails metaphorically with the relative isolation often used to characterize Kant's own life: he never married and, most likely, never had sex.

Yet it is hard to deny that his knowledge of the world was quite extraordinary, even if he saw little of it. He was the caricature of an absent-minded professor, with encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of place he never visited, yet unaware of much around him. According to one biographer: "Once he described Westminster Bridge in the presence of a resident of London, giving its form, its dimensions, and the arrangements of the parts, so accurately and minutely, that the Englishman inquired how many years he had lived in London, and whether he had devoted himself especially to architecture? With surprise he learned that Kant had never been outside of the province."[20] Referring to Kant's Critique of Judgment, Blackburn observes: "He may never have seen a decent painting, but he wrote the most interesting work on aesthetics in Western philosophy after Aristotle."[21]

In short, Kant was a world-class philosopher despite coming from what, at the end of the day, was a second-rate provincial capital.


3.      Königsberg's particularism secretly pervades, and undermines, Kant's universalism.


Or is it that Kant is not so much a paradox, a cosmopolitan preaching in the provinces, as an all-too-understandable, all-too-human product of his own provincial setting: a self-important thinker too lacking in imagination and too contemptuous of what was unfamiliar to him to rise above the stuffy conservatism lying behind by Königsberg's walls? This is not the most common opinion about Kant, but it can be found: Anthony Quinton wrote that Kant was "a wild and intellectually irresponsible arguer. Any innate leaning that way must have been enhanced by the intellectual isolation of Königsberg, which preserved him from serious criticism."[22]


III.                The Culture of Aufklärung in 18th Century Königsberg


The regularity according to which Kant led his life - his walks, his eating and sleeping habits - paid off: he died in February 1804, having nearly reached the age of 80, and having completed his critical project, which he only began publishing in the last quarter of his life. Still, he questioned, in his later years, the merits of prolonging life artificially, even if it was through natural means: "It is to this that the art of prolonging life leads, namely, that one is merely tolerated among the living, a state which is not the most enjoyable."[23]

Yet Kant was not the only figure of intellectual significance which 18th Königsberg produced or attracted, nor was he the sole or most typical representative of the Aufklärer spirit.


A.     Other Königsberger Aufklärers


Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1741 - 1796) was both a successful humorist and novelist, in addition to being an important political figure in his native Königsberg. His studies at Albertina were interrupted when he - unlike Kant - seized upon the opportunity to travel to the court of one of the most famous enlightened despots elsewhere than in Prussia: the court of Catherine the Great in Saint-Petersburg. Upon returning, he completed legal studies that eventually led him into a political career in which he became first the chief bürgermeister, then the President of Königsberg. During this time, he also acquired for a reputation for his witty, oddly digressive novels: Lebenslaufe nach aufsteigender Linie (1778 - 1781), an autobiography interspersed with random philosophical reflections, and  Kreuzund Querzuge des Ritters A bis Z (1793—I 794), a social satire. He died a rich man in 1796.

Christian Jacob Kraus (1753 - 1807) was professor of political economy at the university of Königsberg. He preached the doctrine of the Scottish school of political economy, and was influential in arguing for its relevance to Königsberg's and, more generally, East Prussia's economic situation. Friedrich Meinecke writes: "East Prussia's grain surplus, which could only be sold abroad, and her role as broker between her Slavic hinterland and international trade, drove her to favor free trade. Together with the economic theories of Adam Smith and Kraus, which were of the practical benefit to Königsberg merchants, they also adopted more liberal social and political ideas."[24]

One of the most important post-Kantian philosophers was Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 - 1814). Like Kant, he was born into poverty, but was successful enough in his studies to attend university and, after being thunderstruck by Kant's writings, made a pilgrimage to Königsberg in 1791. His meeting with Kant on July 4 left the master unimpressed with the would-be disciple. To impress Kant with his mastery of critical thought, Fichte promptly wrote An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation. Drawing on Kant's moral philosophy, Fichte argued that no Biblical teaching could be taken as true that portrayed the creator as violating the rational moral law. Kant was impressed, and the book was published by his editor. For unclear reasons, the book appeared in print without naming its author, leading many to assume the work was Kant's own. Once it became known Fichte was the true author, he acquired notoriety instantly. By 1793, he had received an appointment that took him from Königsberg to Jena.

Finally, the Aufklärer movement did not only emerge out of Christian culture: a related development was underway in 19th Judaism, known as Haskalah. After Berlin, Königsberg was an important center for its diffusion in the German-speaking world.


B.    Königsberg and the Counter-Enlightenment


At the same moment that the Enlightenment was conquering minds throughout educated Europe, the seeds of reaction against its hegemony were pushing their first sprouts, preparing the ground for early Romanticism and beyond. Königsberg played a central role in this transition as well.

Perhaps the most radical, and at times bizarre, opponent to the Enlightenment from Königsberg was Johann Georg Hamann (1730 - 1788). An early advocate of mainstream Aufklärer truisms, Hamann, while on a business trip to London for a prominent trading firm, went through a religious conversion that led him to vehemently reject the self-confident rationalism of much enlightened thought. Like Kant - who, despite the total divergence in their philosophical positions, remained a good friend of his - Hamann was deeply influenced by Hume. But whereas Kant read Hume's skepticism as a challenge to find a new basis for human knowledge, Hamann read it as proof that no knowledge can be certain, and that humans cannot live without faith. In a letter he wrote to Kant in July 1759, Hamann wrote: "To eat an egg, to drink a glass of water Hume needs belief."[25]

            Despite his personal affection for Kant, Hamann's disposition left him with but little choice to view his thought as representing anything more than the vain hubris of a rationalism which denied god's power and detested the world. Kant's thought partook in the "old, cold prejudice in favor of mathematics" and testified to a "gnostic hatred of matter" and a "mystical love of form". Kant's focus on consciousness ignored the real presence of matter and bodies in God's order: "The senses are to the intellect what the stomach is to the vessels which separate off the finer and higher juices of the blood: the blood-vessels abstract what they need from the stomach ... our bodies are nothing but what comes from our parent's stomachs. The stamina and menstrua of our reason are properly only revelation and tradition."[26]

            The Enlightenment, with its commitment to rational knowledge an universal truths, cut humans off from meaning experiences with the world as it actually was - messy, vital, illogical and refractory to classification. His ironic and impudent writing abounds with metaphors of castration and amputation: "How can a man who has mutilated his organs feel?", he asks in one place. In 1773, he mocked an enlightened grammarian who advocated the abolition of the letter "h" in German because of the arbitrariness of its usage: for Hamann, the existence of the irrational letter "h" is proof that God is not the sensible being deduced by logicians, but one whose mysterious ways make the world rich with subtleties that defy the vain folly of philosophers to rationalize all aspects of existence.

            So, then, did the thought of the Hamann have some natural affinity with the culture of Königsberg? Isaiah Berlin suggests it might have: "It may be that members of backward communities on the edges of a culture that is being radically transformed, who at once feel powerless to alter the current and are tied more deeply to the older culture that is being displaced, are peculiarly sensitive to such change: Naples at the turn of the seventeenth century, and Königsberg half a century later, were not at the center of events, either politically or intellectually [...] The type of household in which he [Hamann] was brought up, the life lived by the Inspector of Baths, as his father was proud to be described, was being crushed out of existence by the reforms of Frederick and his genuinely enlightened administrators. [...] Despite the calm and serene advice that he gave to other troubled spirits to cease from fretting, to surrender themselves wholly to God, to eat their bread and to drink their wine in merry contentment, he himself nearly went out of his mind when his salary was reduced to five thalers and the size of his garden was cut down. He struck the first blow against the quantified world; his attack was often ill-judged, but he raised some of the greatest issues of our times by refusing to accept their advent."[27]




So we are left with a puzzle. Was 18th century Königsberg a cosmopolitan town that produced a universalist culture? Was it a provincial town that somehow managed to be a center of Aufklärer universalism? Or was it an increasingly marginalized city whose position prevented its resident thinkers from having a plausible view of their world? Which was more authentically "Königsberger": Kant's view that humans could understand the world relying solely on their own way of seeing it, or Hamann's faith that messy reality was everywhere teeming with the presence of the divine? And was there something about Königsberg that made possible Kant's insight that space and time were not properties of the world, but rather forms of the human mind?



Michael Behrent, 2002


Copyright © 2002, TABULA RAZA



















* "A priori" is Kant's term for that which is prior to - or independent of - experience, as opposed to "a posteriori", which means that which is dependent on experience.

* The French word is "culture", which I assume is a translation of Bildung.

[1] James J.  Sheehan, German History, 1770 - 1866 ( Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1989). 

[2] Quoted in J. H. W. Stuckenberg, The Life of Immanuel Kant. London: MacMillan, 1882.

[3] Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" Available online at:

[4] See Arsenij Goulyga, Emmanuel Kant, une vie. Trad., Jean-Marie Vaysse. Paris: Aubier, 1985. [Moscow, 1981].

[5] Quoted in Stuckenberg, pp. 112 - 113.

[6] Ibid., pp. p. 233- 234.

[7] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Norman Kemp Smith translation. (New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1965), p. 59.

[8] Ibid., pp. 71, 77.

[9] Ibid., p. 82.

[10] Bertrand Russell, "The Philosophical Importance of Mathematical Logic". Available online at Significantly, Russell concludes this passage by adding: "Kant did not deign to tell us how he knew this."

[11] Simon Blackburn, "Königsberg Confidential", The New Republic, April 23, 2001.

[12] Germaine de Staël, De l'Allemagne II,  Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1992), p. 127.

[13] From Kant's lectures on "Anthropology", or the science of human nature. Quoted in Stuckenberg.

[14] Rosencranz, Geschichte der Kantschen Philosophie , p. 103, quoted in Amand Saintes, Histoire de la vie et de la philosophie de Kant. (Paris: Cherbuliez; Hambourg: Hérold, 1844), p. 41.

[15] See Goulyga. Versions of this critique of Kant (but not necessarily making the Königsberg connection) have also been made by Georg Lukacs and Theodor Adorno/Max Horkheimer.

[16] Saintes, p. 37.

[17] Quoted in ibid., p. 38.

[18] Goulyga, p. 9.

[19] Blackburn.

[20] Stuckenberg, p. 110.

[21] Blackburn.

[22] Quoted in ibid.

[23] Quoted in Stuckenberg, p. 101

[24] Friedrich Meinecke, The Age of German Liberation, 1795 - 1815. (Peter Paret, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977),  p. 36.

[25] Quoted in Isaiah Berlin, The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism. (Edited by Henry Hardy. London: John Murray Ltd, 1993), p. 33.

[26] Ibid., p. 34.

[27] Ibid., pp. 127 - 128.