By Robert Bonnell
Originally printed in the JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Bonnell, Robert "The Theosophy of Immanuel Kant." Quest 95.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007):30-31.
Immanuel Kant, German Philosopher (1724-1804) and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Koneisberg, was a key figure in the period referred to as the German Enlightenment. In addition to his philosophical treatises, Kant wrote extensively on the theory of the heavens, origins of the planetary systems, effects of the tides upon the earth's rotation, causes of earthquakes, volcanoes on the moon, and other subjects. His treatise on eternal peace formed the basis for the United Nations Charter. Although he was raised Lutheran, he rejected conventional doctrine early in life and regarded independent spiritual integrity as the highest form of morality. In contrast to his brilliant intellect and Prussian rigidity, Kant confessed to moments of passive contemplation and listened to the music of the spheres on numerous occasions.
His intellectual prowess and lifestyle displayed a dedication to his calling, which remains beyond question. Despite occasional misinterpretations of his work by thinkers and politicians of questionable integrity, Kant is considered to be Europe's most respected philosopher. In fact, it's been said that all modern philosophy must orient itself to Kant.
Though Kant is not at the center of Theosophy, it might be helpful for theosophists, who value varied wisdom traditions, to understand the similarities between Kantian thought and theosophy. The terms at the top of the adjacent chart are Kant's terminology, while the terms in the parentheses below are the terminology most akin to that of the Wisdom or Theosophical Tradition.
Kant suggested that humans have two basic ways of knowing, a priori and a posteriori. These two kinds of knowledge are key to the development of human consciousness, instrumental in the pursuit of a moral and constructive state of being—which Kant calls "Pure Reason." Kant's "Noumenal Principle," what we might call the unknowable, is that which is beyond experience but somehow involved in it—something like H.P.B's "unutterable" or Thoreau's "impersonal spectator." According to Kant, a priori knowledge emerges from this Noumenal Principle, this "unknowable." It is, in effect, a representative of the Noumenal Principle deep within the human consciousness. And it recognizes a "voice from afar," independent of human experience as we know it. The a priori knowledge that emerges from the Noumenal Principle is innate knowledge akin to Theosophy's atmic influence. It precedes human experience and serves as a sort of judge and jury (conscience).
For Kant, it is possible for human beings to remain largely unaware of the a priori knowledge available to them. Manifestation of a priori knowledge is dependent in part upon Time, or the readiness (precision) to manifest, and Space, or the direction of its influence. It is also dependent upon moral development. People who adhere to certain moral principles allow a priori knowledge to unfold into consciousness and become available for use—much as etheric energies blend, by way of chakras, into electromagnetic states the body can use.
The first moral principle necessary for the unfolding of a priori knowledge is what Kant calls the "Transcendental Aesthetic." Similar to Theosophy's concept of innate goodness, metaphysical transcendence motivates the use of a priori knowledge and also becomes the modus operandi for its use.
The second moral principle is Synthetic Judgment, a deductive process by which one can move the a priori toward its objective. As theosophists note "I must believe before I can understand," Kant declares that a sense of "revelation" furthers synthetic judgment and opens the way to wisdom.
The third moral principle is Intuition, which has been defined by Spinoza as "higher knowledge." Intuition works with Synthetic Judgment and compounds into an array of invisible insights; perhaps akin to Theosophy's spiritual awareness!
The fourth moral principle is Descending Will, by which one makes use of Time and Space to develop the will to enter the exalted state of Pure Reason. As Theosophy celebrates the idea whose time has come, Kant celebrates the moment in which Will carries one deeper into knowledge.
For Kant, a posteriori knowledge, or knowledge gained by experience, is a product of the Phenomenal Principle. It is exoteric, shadowed by the world of sense perception, and regulated to a large extent by the basic instincts of Experience and Assimilation. These two represent the physical exposure to the elemental realities of the corporeal world and an intellectual growth of the world as it is; perhaps liken to Theosophy's psychophysical confrontations. Thus, a posteriori knowledge is incomplete and in need of things outside itself. Yet it proceeds upward toward the goal of Pure Reason. Like a priori knowledge, a posteriori knowledge requires adaptations in order to proceed toward Pure Reason.
The first adaptation is Earthly Tribulation, which represents the trials and tribulations of the emotional mind as it seeks to satisfy our moral obligations and fulfillments; we may liken it to Theosophy's karmic interludes.
The second adaptation, Analytical Judgment, is the brainchild, so to speak, of the empirical path and its inductive guidelines. Because analytical judgment moderates and refines a posteriori knowledge, it may the closest Kant gets to Theosophy's middle path.
The third Adaptation is what Kant calls Understanding, Proper. It represents the coming forth of accumulative knowledge in highly mechanical but necessary material form, similar to Theosophy's incarnated necessities.
The fourth Adaptation is Ascending Will, by which Experience and Assimilation form the path of both willfulness and wellness. Thus they allow the a posteriori to enter, in a practical manner, Kant's exalted state of Pure Reason. As Theosophy celebrates the need whose karmic time has come, Kant celebrates the path by which a posteriori knowledge is transformed.
The remaining aspect of Kant's exalted state of Pure Reason is assigned to the Aesthetical, which cradles within it ethics, morality, goodness, and beauty. In Kantian philosophy, these nearly synonymous terms underpin the Categorical Imperative. They are something like the Vedic Tattwas, in that they are fundamental to the awakened moral state in which a human being acts for the good of all humanity. They form the basis for a sort of Nirvana.
As our chart illustrates, the pragmatic value of Kant's philosophy lies in its exploration of the relationship between Thought, a well-adjusted thinking process and attitude, and Action, rational behavior under all circumstances. Immanuel Kant might leave the esoteric mind somewhat unfulfilled, but we must realize the reactionary atmosphere at the time and place in which he made his ideas known. These ideas made a profound and expansive impact upon the somewhat crystallized boundaries of academic philosophy which resulted in the popular adage, "If you do not know Kant, you do not know Philosophy." Western philosophy and theology have been forced to acknowledge the basic fact of our incarnation and the sources of wisdom that lie therein.