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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2022
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

Article Summary

The term ‘neo-Kantianism’ indicates various attempts at a renewal of Kant’s philosophy in the modern context. It began with the rehabilitation of Kant to overcome the speculative turn of classical German idealism and ground philosophy in the investigation of the conditions of knowledge. In this sense, the origins of neo-Kantianism are sometimes dated back to figures opposing speculative idealism in the early nineteenth-century philosophical landscape, including Johann Friedrich Herbart, Jakob Friedrich Fries, Friedrich Eduard Beneke (Beiser 2014). Philosophers from the next generation sharing the commitment to a Kantian theory of knowledge also include Kuno Fischer, Eduard Zeller, Otto Liebmann, Jürgen Bona Meyer, Friedrich Albert Lange. More specifically, ‘neo-Kantianism’ is used to indicate a philosophical movement developed beginning in the 1870s with the intent to shed light on the basic tenets of Kant’s work and face challenges to traditional philosophy coming from nineteenth-century scientific advancements in the spirit of Kant’s critical philosophy (see, e.g., Köhnke 1991; Patton 2005; Luft 2015). The neo-Kantian movement started with Hermann Cohen’s seminal interpretation of Kant (Cohen 1871a; 1877; 1885), and subsequently flourished in German universities, with two main centres in Marburg, where Cohen was appointed lecturer in 1873, and in South West Germany.

The development of experimental methods in nineteenth-century life sciences offered important insights for the theory of knowledge, but also raised the question about the possibility of reducing cognitive processes to physical ones. Kant’s critical philosophy offered a powerful argument against materialism, by limiting the validity of causal explanations to the realm of appearances rather than replacing them with metaphysical explanations. In conjunction with the materialism controversy, the 1860s saw a resurgence of interest in classical interpretative issues concerning Kant, including the assumption of a thing in itself, its relation to the sensibility, the status of a priori elements of knowledge. Following a suggestion first made by the physiologist and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, some of those who argued for a return to Kant believed that Kant’s a priori forms deserved an empirical explanation. In contrast with this, Cohen emphasized that the individuation of a priori elements of knowledge requires a meta-level inquiry into the presuppositions of the sciences, that is, what Kant identified as the transcendental cognition. Cohen took Kant to imply that experience is given in the fact of science, and the transcendental task is to derive the preconditions for the possibility of this fact by regressive analysis. This formulation allowed Cohen to address the controversial issues raised in the Kant scholarship by emphasizing the logical structure of experience, while considering part of Kant’s considerations about the natural sources of knowledge to be a remainder of his reliance on empirical psychology in the precritical period. At the same time, Cohen’s interpretation of Kant set the task of a novel investigation of the historically documented facts of science and culture in the wake of the transcendental method.

Cohen’s interpretation set a standard, not only for its contribution to the historical reconstruction of the development of Kant’s thought, but also for the idea of a fruitful correlation between interpretation and philosophical theorizing. In this sense, the revival of Kant’s critical philosophy involved also the idea of a constant renewal of it. Over the next decade, other influential interpretations were developed with various theoretical purposes, from the attempt to integrate the Kantian theory of a priori cognition with insights derived from the empiricist theory of knowledge (Riehl 1876; 1879) to the appreciation of Kant’s attempt to account for the application of universal rules of thought outside the domain of the mathematical science of nature in the third Critique (Windelband 1878–80). The Marburg School formed in the wake of Cohen’s characterization of the transcendental method. Its main representatives were Paul Natorp, who became Cohen’s colleague at Marburg in 1885, and Ernst Cassirer, who studied there from 1896 to 1899, and continued to subscribe to the methodology of his Marburg teachers throughout his intellectual career. The South West German School developed around Wilhelm Windelband’s teaching at the universities of Freiburg from 1877 to 1882, Strasbourg from 1882 to 1903, and Heidelberg from 1903 to 1915. Other leading figures of this school were Heinrich Rickert and his student Emil Lask. There were also neo-Kantians who did not strictly belong to a school or combined neo-Kantianism with other philosophical traditions. This includes, for example, Alois Riehl, Jonas Cohn, Richard Hönigswald.

Each school focused on some common themes. Marburg neo-Kantians gradually broadened the scope of their research from Kant to the philosophical and scientific roots of what they called a critical or scientific form of idealism, according to which the objects of experience are constructed by scientific concepts. They sought to provide an account for the various spheres of human experience by extending the transcendental inquiry from the fact of science to the facts of culture. South West German neo-Kantians focused on the question concerning the grounds for relating unconditionally valid values to contingent experience. This led them to engage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century debate about the possibility of an autonomous foundation of the human sciences. They pursued the project of a philosophy of culture offering a unitary account of the various human activities from the standpoint of the theory of values. These commonalities notwithstanding, neo-Kantianism was a complex movement, with internal debates and major developments within the same school, as well as connections between different schools and traditions.

Neo-Kantianism dominated the philosophical scene until the early 1910s, and remained in the background of the main philosophical innovations in the German-speaking world for the next two decades until the rise of Nazism. It is considered to have made lasting contribution in epistemology, philosophy of science, history of philosophy and philosophy of culture (see, e.g., Luft and Makkreel 2010; De Warren and Staiti 2015; Edgar and Patton 2018; Kinzel and Patton 2021).

Citing this article:
Biagioli, Francesca. Neo-Kantianism, 2022, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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