Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Kant and Education

Related Links in the GSR:
Related Links:

Source: Introduction to Kant on Education (Ueber Paedagogik), trans. Annette Churton, introduction by C.A. Foley Rhys Davids (Boston: D.C. Heath and Co., 1900).


Nearly a century after its original publication in Germany Immanuel Kant über Pädagogik is now for the first time presented to English readers in the translation made by Miss Annette Churton. The little work, as is well known, was not compiled for publication by the master himself. In the last years of his long life he handed over to his younger friend and former pupil, Theodor Rink, the notes he had written for his professorial courses on Physical Geography and on Pædagogics, and commissioned the latter to select and compile from the loose leaflets as much as he thought might prove serviceable to the reading public. Rink set to work and brought out the notes on education in 1803, the year before Kant’s death. The lectures, it seems, were not intended, nor à fortiori the notes, to give an exhaustive theory of education, nor do they present any well-formulated body of philosophical doctrine based on either metaphysical or psychological or sociological data. Kant’s chair at Königsberg University was that of logic and metaphysic, but his lecturing work—both as professor and, before that, as Privat-docent—included a number of subsidiary subjects. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century pædagogics was included as a subject of instruction in the university, certain professors taking it in turn to deliver a course of lectures thereon. When the course fell to Kant he conformed, as was his wont, to the not unusual custom of taking a standard text-book on his theme—in this connection it was that of his colleague, Prof. Bock, Ueber die Erziehungskunst (Königsberg, 1780)—as a nominal guide to procedure. But he did not allow the exposition of the book to hamper him in the original and constructive treatment of his subject. There is, indeed, no very apparent trace of Bock in these notes. The text-book, being in his hand and accessible to his hearers, probably required no memoranda for exposition and criticism of it. Whether he expounded and criticised or not, the legacy transmitted through his pupil to posterity consists simply of a number of independent reflections, of criticisms not relating to Bock, of series of apophthegms, suggestive points, aperçus, with here and there digression and repetition.1 Above all we feel that, according to his usual method, the master is addressing the average youth among his listeners. The toughest things of the Critiques are not drawn upon, nor is there any terminological paraphernalia to deter the listener. The Kantian ethic is there, right enough, but the teacher is feeling out after a theory of education. He is deeply interested in his theme, but his attitude towards it is inductive and experimental. He realised its importance and the magnitude of its issues, but also the imperfect and provisional nature of existing conclusions on the subject. There was his nine years’ experience as a private tutor to correct any rash theorising—he used to say he had never been able to apply his own precepts in any specific case among his pupils! And his long academic career must have afforded him very varied insight into the nature of youthful development.

But it was above all the time and the man that left the thoughtful minds of the last quarter of the eighteenth century no option but to be intensely concerned with the problem of education. The doctrine of the rights of man, the conviction of the worth of the individual as such, was taking flesh to dwell among us. The child too, quâ child, had rights to be let live his child-life and enjoy his youth. Laissez mûrir l’enfance dans les enfants! pleaded the book which was the charter of the rights of the child—I allude, of course, to the Émile—they have their own ways of seeing, thinking, feeling. Be not for ever seeking the man in the child, heedless of what the child is in and for himself. He is not simply ‘undeveloped man, but diverse.’ His plane of being is one of transition, no doubt, yet in a way it is independent, positive, integral, a microcosm. If he die young, look on him not merely as a failure, a bud nipped off, but as one who for a while and in his own way has tasted sweet life. And see to it that life to such has been made sweet! Let the child, echoed Kant, be trained as a child and not as a Bürger. He had, of course, to be trained up in the duties he owed to a social macrocosm, but this entity was not so much a definitely conceived state—that ideal was of the past and not yet re-born—as a vaguely comprehensive humanity of independent individuals. The child was to graduate as a Weltbürger. Nor was the community of children, nor were their claims on each other, very definitely taken into account. That also was to come. The individualism of the time saw only the Child and the Man, the nature of him overlaid by a crust of privilege, convention, and corrupt tradition. This was to be broken away; and the common nature that lay stifled beneath elicited and developed by a wholesome culture that should be all-powerful to redeem and reform. So would the moral sense innate in him sprout and burgeon, till the dignity of Man in the blossom of the Youth should stand confessed and vindicated.

Such and much more was in the air when these lecture-notes were written. And its Conjunktur had brought forth the man. Comenius and Locke, over and under a century earlier, had been fashioning him. And now Voltaire had gone to Locke comme l’enfant prodigue qui retourne chez son père, and had brought that father home to the adopted land of Rousseau. Émile saw the light in 1762, and the effect of its absorbing fascination on Kant when he opened the book is an old story. The next two decades witnessed the ideas therein put forth taking root and germinating in Kant’s native land. Educational innovations were tried; educational reformers were maturing. The Philanthropist schools were founded in Germany in and after 1774, Kant taking a lively interest in the parent Philanthropin at Dessau. Bahrdt, Basedow, Campe, were avowed Rousseauists. Pestalozzi was preparing his aphorisms. Oberlin, Herder, Lessing, were in their prime; Olivier yet a youth. Herbart was in the nursery; Fichte and Froebel in the cradle.

If these slight suggestions be worked out, the reader of these Thoughts on Education will get a more lifelike background to them than if he held in his hand the defunct text-book on which Kant embroidered his lectures. Rousseau far more than Bock—the pioneer and not the pedant—is the real inspirer, I do not say of Kant’s underlying principles, but of so much in these notes as indicates an inductive search for a fresh theory of education. This is patent throughout. Bock, as I have said, is never quoted. Apparently his colleague’s views did not get woven up into the tissue of Kant’s theorising. Rousseau, on the other hand, appears throughout, explicit and implicit, though the tender insight of the father is replaced by the relatively rigid and crude standpoints of one who had never gone in and out among infants of his own. It is Rousseau’s Baby who sits enthroned in the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics of the elderly bachelor philosopher, and hears curious things said respecting his temperature, a Spartan treatment prescribed for his many tears, an impossible reasonableness in expressing his wants required of him, but a glorious freedom in dress and limb declared essential to his happiness. It is Rousseau’s Child for whom Kant claims that he be brought up independent of the stunting assistance of tools and apparatus generally; that his nature, devoid of original perversity, but depending for its moral growth on right nurture, be drawn out, not repressed—be allowed the play of regulated freedom and not moulded into an automaton of habits, nor be worried by arguments appealing to faculties yet undeveloped. We do not catch distinctly in Kant’s teaching the real Leitmotif of Émile, viz. education not by precepts but by ‘things’—in other words by the laws of Nature. What, again, we find in Kant and not in the Émile I will outline presently. But through both works, while the ideals of liberty and equality are held up as supremely worthy, both the Stoic Prussian and the sympathetic Genevan submerge that of fraternity in the concept of the free Weltbürger, jealous of his own liberty so it encroach not on that of others, jealous for the dignity of humanity in himself and others. To the ideal of liberty Kant attained by a road peculiar to his own philosophy. As to that of equality, by his own admission it was Rousseau—l’ami de l’égalité—who had dragged him from his exclusive and aristocratic standpoint, and had made him sensible of the claims of all men on him in virtue of the common humanity in all. At times, offended by Rousseau’s extreme and paradoxical conclusions couched in a style of great charm, Kant accused him, just as Rousseau himself had accused many old and newer philosophers, of attempting to trick out well-worn doctrines in new forms. Yet the profound impression made by Rousseau remained, and so too does Kant’s confession remain, that never before were sagacity of mind, loftiness of genius, and sensitiveness of soul so combined as in this man.

Thus it was during the dawn of a new era of social philosophy, during the re-birth of the art of education, that Kant compiled his lectures on pædagogics. They bear the impress of these conditions. Both dogmatic and inductive, like his critical philosophy, they show also a standpoint which is characteristic of an age that was passing, and yet affords glimpses into the future. There is the optimistic construction of man’s destiny; the antithesis between man and beast, reason and instinct; there is the familiar analogy between family and state; values are not an evolutional growth, but are essential and intrinsic; nurture is all-important; nature as handicapped by heredity is not yet a problem. ‘Man is nothing but what education makes of him.’ There is no account taken of the wear and tear of the career, of the strain and stress of competition. That the boy’s education is to be compressed or expanded from such considerations as the overcrowding of professions, the struggle for life, the race for wealth, the commercial status of his fatherland, is undreamt of in these quiet, hazy horizons.

I say ‘the boy’s education’—for we do not find nor should we expect to find, the problem of the education of the girl faced and discussed, even though (and indeed just because) Rousseau had supplemented Émile by Sophie. Sophie was not an individual, an integer, a potential equal among equals; she was an adjunct. In a Königsberg Chair especially she was a negligible quantity. It is true that the question of intellectual development for her, in so far as it was raised by Rousseau, made its impression upon Kant. And possibly his tutorial experience may have given him glimpses of the needs and capacities of girls for more adequate cultivation. Nevertheless the indefinite sex of his child becomes solely masculine when its more advanced training is discussed. In the second appendix to Vogt’s edition of these lectures we find the problem cautiously raised—and put aside, for the same reason as Kant put aside the problem of teaching theology inductively, viz. the practical exigencies of current tradition. So the Woman bode her time.

Thus far for peruke and powder. But Kant is too great to be merely historically interesting. There is much in these lecture-notes worthy to be considered by educators for many a generation to come. Now and again the hand of the writer is on the pulse of the future. Always he is earnest, wise, and sane.

Broadly divided, education for Kant is either physical or moral, is either cultivation or moralisation of the individual. In the former what the child is capable of knowing and performing is elicited and practised. His ϕύσις—bodily, intellectual, emotional—is developed by nurture, discipline, and training. The pupil is ‘passive’ (that is, receptive) and not self-determined. In the latter the Character is formed; the reason becomes established as ‘practical or pragmatic;’ that is, as moral and self-determining. This can only be effected through those ‘maxims’ or subjective laws which are implicate in the reason, but are not evolved till the reason attains to self-expression; that is, to the concepts of duty and law. Till then the child is unmoral. Then he does good because it is good, and not from specific motives. This is the coming of age of the moralisation of the individual. And as compared with the amount of ‘physical’ education bestowed, Kant held we were very far from realising the need for that other kind of culture. For to ‘moralise’ a child, recourse must not be had to the usual incentives of discipline—habits, imitation, rewards, punishments. Moral conduct entails a fresh fiat of the practical reason every time the individual is confronted by the need of moral choice. If the child infringe the moral law, the teacher must resent it as an offence against one or more individuals as moral. For Kant, then, the problem of education resolved itself into that of Indeterminism—how to constrain the child without enslaving his moral freedom; how to compel the will, while fitting it to use its liberty. For Rousseau, mindful of an external cosmos of Nature, it resolved itself into an equation between faculties and desires in man’s task of ‘measuring himself avec tout ce qui l’environne.

That the ultimate ideal of education is nothing less than the perfection of human nature was set by Kant in the forefront of his course. And it is not a goal to be attained by a few elect individuals. Academic aristocracy is waved aside by his all-embracing faith: ‘Not particular human beings but the human race is to attain it.’ He does not in these notes attempt any philosophical definition or criterion of perfection.1 We of to-day, as he here says, are not by any means clear on that point. But it is impressive to find the old man not only demanding much of human character, but believing to the last in his dictum: Du kannst denn du sollst.

It is worth while noticing that both Kant and Rousseau, at least implicitly, teach that the proximate ideal best conducing towards that ultimate end is not citizenship, nor fraternity, but fatherhood. For Kant the boy’s training culminates and ceases when he is old enough to have children of his own. And there is nothing wanting in the emphasis laid on the mission of the father in the Émile. What, truly, would be left of most of our painful social problems were all parents always at their best and wisest in intercourse with their children? And who shall say whether we may not come to see progress in concentrating the goal of boyhood in proportion as we expand that of girlhood?

Finally, as to those who should educate the fathers of the coming generation, Kant has left a word pregnant with the future far more than he himself was aware, and going far beyond the educational range of the time. ‘The whole race’—not a group of cities here and there, or an epoch now and then—‘the whole race must educate the individual.’ Though, as he has said, it be chiefly through the agency of ‘those who know,’ it is all humanity, past and present, that must minister to the development of the child, by whom in his or her turn, when rightly trained, the whole race, both present and future and past, is served.

Our modern pædagogics will in no wise suffer from keeping in view Kant’s wide and high prospect. And for the general English reader, in whose eyes Kant still counts, most inaccurately, as a mainly speculative thinker, it should prove a benefit to come to know, through Miss Churton’s translation, some of the less known workings of a mind whose influence on modern philosophic and scientific thought has scarcely been surpassed.

C. A. Foley Rhys Davids.

[1 ]Rink does not appear to have kept any notes made by himself while a pupil, or to have collected any from other former students.

[1 ]In Vogt’s essay Kant’s pädagogische Anschauung vom Standpunkte der Lehre von der transcendentalen Freiheit, &c the following definition of perfection is quoted incidentally (quâ definition) from the Jugendlehre:—‘For the perfection of a human being, as a personality, consists precisely in this, that he himself is capable of determining his purpose according to his own notions of duty.’

Last modified April 10, 2014