All of the philosophy of mind courses I've seen seem to follow a basic pattern:

  • Start with Descartes and substance dualism
  • Jump to the 20th century and discuss behaviorism, functionalism, identity theory, eliminativism, Turing, AI, Searle, Nagel...

None of them ever mention Kant. See here, here and here for typical syllabuses.

My knowledge of Kant is peripheral, but from the answers I am getting on the philosophy SE to some of my questions, he seems to have made serious contributions to philosophy of mind, at least as important as those of Desacartes. Especially with regards to freewill. mental causation, and to dualism in general.

  • So why is he getting side stepped all together in all the phil. mind courses I've seen?
  • am I overestimating Kant's contribution to philosophy of mind?
  • Can someone point me to a phil. mind lecture that includes Kant and his connection to the various mind-body problem positions?
  • 4
    That also means they have skipped the rest of the German and English idealists, from Leibniz and Berkeley through Hegel, who all have notions of mind closely related to Kant's. It may be that "realistic idealism" is so alien to current reputable theories of mind that it would be introduced at great length only to be discarded. Idealism is at a strict nadir of late, and unless you go all the way back to Plato, you probably can't make a cohesive whole out of the two sides.
    – user9166
    Jan 5, 2016 at 20:52
  • 1
    As addition to @jobermark's comment: One point may also be that while major authors know Kant well and often had one of their academic theses on him, their comments on Kant are not even recognized as such if Kant is not well known. He has strong influence, but readers often do not even get it. The same with Hegel. Plus, for taking them seriously you need at the very least one course for each of them on their own.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 5, 2016 at 22:16
  • @jobermark so Kant is too wacky to teach, but Penrose and Chalmers aren't? Jan 6, 2016 at 0:58
  • 1
    Obviously current schools are current, so they cannot be disowned by current schools... But Kant's notions of mind lie in a tradition that modern philosophy has marginalized, and that takes a lot of context and patience for modern people not to find alien. We have a paradoxical and unproductive relationship with our religious history that makes non-religious or religion-neutral idealisms hard to present credibly alongside anything else.
    – user9166
    Jan 6, 2016 at 11:00

4 Answers 4


Most introductory philosophy of mind courses at the undergraduate level focus on the issue of the relationship between mind and body. Descartes tends to make it into intro Philosophy of Mind classes because his position, (the modern form of) substance dualism, is the foil against which other positions, like the various kinds of physicalism, dual aspect theories, anomalous monism, etc. are contrasted. Kant's contributions to philosophy of mind are more tenuously related to this central issue. (Kant does sometimes get discussed in "Free will" classes, although usually not in a very flattering light.)

At the graduate level, however, Kant (or more likely, contemporary defenders of positions like his) does get more air time. One place in contemporary analytic philosophy where 19th century debates between Kantians and Hegelians show up is in the philosophy of perception. John McDowell's Mind and World is an example that springs immediately to mind. Note, however, that this is kind of advanced stuff that wouldn't ordinarily show up in a survey course intended for undergrads, at least not at my institution.


My college included Kant in its philosophy of the mind "101" course. My Professor's lecture regarding Kant blew the doors off my mind, and changed me forever. However, writing the required 5-page Kant-focused comparative philosophy paper relative to his "take" on the mind, using only source material, nearly killed me. Hence my interest. Three searches with variations in keywords Kant, Mind, College, Intro, Philosophy, syllabus, lectures reveals the following trends:

1) Professors or TA's, who include Kant in their survey courses, usually have doctoral backgrounds in which aspects of Kant's philosophy were central to their doctoral theses, or his philosophy played a predominant role in their graduate school education.

2) Many of these professors have education backgrounds either: a) influenced by professors hailing from Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, or Stanford, or b) partially completed in Cambridge or Oxford, or c) influenced by professors who were partially educated in Cambridge or Oxford. If these professors did not attend these schools, their philosophy department is dominated by someone who did. Some of the professors who attended Cambridge or Oxford also taught in Western Europe, or in one case, HongKong.

3) When Kant is not included in an intro-philosophy of the mind course, his philosophical contributions regarding the mind, knowledge, thought, metaphysics, religion, logic, and their relative importance to today's cognitive and physical sciences, are generally discussed in another subject-pertinent first-year philosophy survey course.

4) When none of the above apply, first-year undergraduate curricula often present Kant's philosophy of the mind as a significant "chapter" in courses surveying the profound, multidimensional, dense, and intricate complexities of Kant's philosophical works. Since my original iteration of this answer, I have taken the opportunity to confer with the undergraduate philosophy department heads of the schools listed above, many of whom are friends, or friends of friends. These professors agreed that Kant's philosophy of the mind is more suitable to graduate study. Further, they considered Kant more akin to contemporary philosophical thought relative to the philosophers generally reviewed during a first-year survey course. The more ardent the professor concerning Kant, the more impassioned the opinion that singling out one aspect of Kant's philosophy may deprive the student of a deeper, comprehensive understanding of Kant's philosophical genius. Despite these professors' knowledge of Kant being a superpower relative to my own basic understanding, they confirmed my impression of an overall renewed interest in Kant, especially as it predates and contributes to contemporary cognitive, subatomic science, and religion.

5) The same department heads agreed with the question's core observation: Kant is frequently not included in first-year undergraduate philosophy of the mind courses. These department heads suggested that such an omission reflected a tendency, preference, prejudice, or even a philosophical schism in different schools' teaching methodologies. These differences notwithstanding, the professors generally attributed the omission of Kant during first-year studies a necessary sacrifice. By doing so, first-year students became acquainted with fundamental philosophical concepts central to man's evolution of thought, within a historical context. Conversely, the professors considered Kant to be a contemporary philosopher, whose considerations of the mind, cognition, and the metaphysical, were tangential to the central tenets of his philosophy.

6) Leiter reports reveals patterns in educational scope and focus that may repeat themselves in how Kant is then taught in undergraduate courses. They suggest U.S. doctor of philosophy degrees are "favored" over those from Cambridge or Oxford with regard to employment. Further, prejudices exist regarding the breadth, scope, rigors, and requirements of a U.S. philosophy graduate education versus a more narrowly focused U.K. philosophy degree, which requires far fewer courses, less breadth of focus in a student's overall undergraduate and graduate education, and only a doctoral thesis.

The following 2 citations offer a lecture that addresses your last question or lead you to information where you can find the answers you are looking for. I found more cited information and will gladly share it if you are interested - however, a few searches with the key words above will surely yield what I found and much more with little effort on your part.

http://wwwf.imperial.ac.uk/~abellott/lecture-notes-on-immanuel-kant.pdf (addresses Descartes and Kant vis-a-vis the mind towards end of lecture) Imperial College of London


  • 1
    This post could use some editing -- there's some really weird wording choices going on here.
    – virmaior
    Jan 6, 2016 at 2:31
  • There are much more direct ways to try to estimate the impact of location of PhD on hiring decisions in US philosophy departments than by polling syllabi. For instance. philjobs.org/appointments Oxford places a large number of their graduates in US departments, as does Cambridge. The less well-known UK programs don't do as well in the US, but that's understandable, given how many really excellent philosophy departments there already are in the US.
    – user5172
    Feb 8, 2016 at 21:56
  • Thanks Shane, I did not know about philjobs.org/appointments. Originally, I figured it out, as you adeptly noticed, indirectly - using an old research method - but not by polling syllabi. My relationships with US and European dept. heads of many diverse graduate programs, inform what I know. I wanted, however, to verify my experience through basic research and comparative logic, as if I were the person asking the question. I followed up my research by directly asking a substantive sampling of US and UK philosophy dept. heads and faculty. Thank you very much for your reference. I love tools!
    – Swampgirl
    Feb 10, 2016 at 18:18

I recommend to look at Andrew Brook's book Kant and the Mind, see also critical review by Watkins. The introduction reads like an extended answer to the title question, literally. Kant was first and foremost interested in mind's "isotropic features, such as consciousness and the powers and unities required to be conscious", and as Dennett noted "no theory, or even theory-sketch, of consciousness is to be found in the writing of Fodor, Putnam, Davidson, Stich, Harman, Dretske, or Burge, for instance". According to Fodor, this is because "the more global (i.e., isotropic) a cognitive process is, the less anybody understands it". The book itself is a detailed reconstruction of Kant's model of the mind, and makes a decent argument that he is the godfather of modern functionalism and cognitive science, and that his positions are easily recast in functionalist terms, and reconciled with contemporary materialism.

Here are some highlights:

"Not a single one of the ideas I have attributed to Kant plays any important role in contemporary work on the mind. This is not because they have been examined and found wanting. On the contrary, most contemporary workers have never even considered them. For a number of decades, theorists had what might be called a bias against the mind as a whole, though that is beginning to change... Whatever the interest of Kant's ideas about the mind, it is not easy to dig them out... First, most of Kant's remarks about the mind and its awareness of itself in the first Critique and other works are asides, made in the course of discussing other topics... What they mean is often extremely unclear. Worse, they are widely scattered throughout his texts, both in the first Critique and elsewhere... Even in these places, they occur in discussions of quite different topics... A second reason it is difficult to get at what Kant thought about the mind is that he was so pessimistic about studying the mind empirically; he thought that empirical psychology could never be a science.

Descartes bequeathed at least two major issues to philosophy: (1) the nature of knowledge, where and how it is possible, and (2) what the mind and its awareness of itself is like. Kant wrote the first Critique to resolve the first issue, not the second. The mind enters only because one of Kant's strategies for dealing with the issue of knowledge was to examine what a mind must be like to have it... One reason why Kant's model of the mind has not been more influential is that most contemporary theories of mind are materialist, and Kant, as is well known, was implacably hostile to materialism, at least about the mind. For this reason, some people assume that Kant can have nothing to offer current workers.

And now to what they are missing:

"The functionalist version of the representational model of the mind is virtually the official philosophy of mind in cognitive science at the moment. The basic idea behind functionalism is that the way to model the mind is to model what it does and can do, its functions ('the mind is what the brain does'). The basic idea behind the representational model is that the function of a mind is to shape and transform representations. Kant too had a representational model of the mind (a rather radical one, if my reading of him is right), and his view of the mind as a system for applying concepts to percepts is entirely in line with functionalism... Kant accepted a very strong version of the notion that function does not dictate form. Indeed, his doctrine of the unknowability of the noumenal mind is little more than a strong version of that very idea... materialism has just as good a chance of being true of the mind-as-it-is and representations-as-they-are as any other theory - dualism, (standard, not transcendental) idealism, or whatever.

Kant isolated and was the first to characterize an important form of self-awareness, namely, awareness of oneself as the subject of one's experiences. He also achieved some remarkable insights into the referential apparatus we use to attain it and what I will call its representational base. Closely connected to what he called apperception, this kind of self-awareness is quite different from our awareness of our psychological states... Among the notions that cognitive scientists and the philosophers associated with them have taken over from Kant, probably the most important is the doctrine that most representations require concepts as well as percepts - cognitive acts as well as deliverances of the senses. This doctrine has become as orthodox within cognitive science as it was central to Kant's critical philosophy. In addition, Kant's central methodological innovation, the method of transcendental argument, has become a major, perhaps the major, method of cognitive science."


Alongside the above, I would append a more prosaic answer. And perhaps shove a little blame onto the Kant enthusiasts.

Kant takes a lot of time. One must become at least semi-literate in Kantanese, an elaborate terminology with all sorts of intricate interdependencies. And, as with Heidegger, it feels sui generic, a potential cul-de-sac. Once you've studied it, it doesn't then hook up neatly with contemporary philosophy's ongoing work as the "under-laborer" of physics, as Locke put it.

Worse, it is beset by jealously guarded thickets of expertise. I imagine many philosophers of mind may realize that some problems under discussion have interesting precedents in Kant. But if you in fact mention Kant by name, you gain little... and are only likely to be swarmed by factions who will accuse you of entirely missing the point. So, why go there?

I have no first-hand knowledge of academics, but surely modernism's division-of-labor syndrome, fear of scientific imperialism, and information overload explain a lot of what goes on. I can understand even the best-intentioned academics thinking: "Thank goodness, here at last is something we really don't have to read. Let's keep it that way."

  • 1
    More prosaic, indeed! Well-said! Your first and third paragraphs are accurately descriptive of the types of issues that influence whole philosophy departments, or at the very least, the thinking of a many faculty members. By changing the subject matter and plugging in the respective school's ideological variables, the second paragraph could describe the atmosphere of many (but not all), graduate schools, choosing to ascribe to a particular school of thought, whether one is discussing, philosophy, psychology, physics, religion, political science, medicine, fine arts, or education.
    – Swampgirl
    Feb 10, 2016 at 18:51

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .