In the beginning of William James' 1904 paper "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" he states the following:

At first, 'spirit and matter,' 'soul and body,' stood for a pair of equipollent substances quite on a par in weight and interest. But one day Kant undermined the soul and brought in the transcendental ego, and ever since then the bipolar relation has been very much off its balance.

And later:

If neo-Kantism has expelled earlier forms of dualism, we shall have expelled all forms if we are able to expel neo-Kantism in its turn.

My questions:

  1. How did Kant "undermine the soul"?
  2. How is the transcendental ego different from a traditional dualistic soul?
  3. What is the difference between earlier dualism and neo-Kantian dualism?
  • Short thought: Transcendental Ego = just a logical necessary, essentially 'soulless' notion that is not essential at all; classical 'soul' the essence of human individual being in Christian thought. Kant does shift the essence of being and ego into experience as only source of reality (see Prolegomena, 4:374 fn. and CPR, B195 (definition of reality) together with Bxxx (make room for faith)), while the core of classical dualism is that the metaphysical realm of God and Soul is Reality Prime and only source of infallible knowledge, so to say.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 17, 2016 at 19:33
  • Re: undermining the soul, per this cute viddy ...compared to "divine command theory" and "natural law" Kant's Categorical Imperatives = "no god required." To his larger point, tho, Kant was very critical of how "the soul" was conceptualized. See: plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-metaphysics
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 17, 2016 at 20:31
  • As I see it, Kant's ideas entail there can be no final differentiation between things and this would include souls. (The thing-in-itself' must be singular). So there would be no plurality of souls. There would (or could) still be what might be called a Universal Soul.
    – user20253
    Oct 13, 2017 at 13:20

2 Answers 2


In his work, The Principles of Psychology, James makes the following comments:

"The 'Soul' of Metaphysics and the 'Transcendental Ego' of the Kantian Philosophy, are, as we shall soon see, but attempts to satisfy this urgent demand of commonsense." (The Principles of Psychology, p. 208)

"Kant held to [the soul] while denying its fruitfulness as a premise for deducing consequences verifiable here below." (The Principles of Psychology, p. 211)

"Locke and Kant, whilst still believing in the soul, began the work of undermining the notion that we know anything about it." (The Principles of Psychology, p. 211)

The following might be helpful. It was made in response to the comment of James which you cited:

"The cost of Kant's move was to make each of the constitutive elements of the person primitive, rather than giving them a metaphysical grounding. On his view there is input to the human knower from we-know-not-what (Kant called it das Ding an sich or just 'x'). The two forms of sensibility and twelve categories of the understanding, he held, are necessarily imposed by sentient beings on their perceptual input, though why this should be the case cannot ever be specified, even in principle. And the results is our experience of other persons and things in the world — the whole human world of experience that we inhabit, the only world we will ever know. Nonetheless, Kant did realize one thing more clearly than anyone before him: basic to a metaphysics of personhood is the active principle of unifying diverse experiences into a single whole which he called the 'transcendental unity of apperception.'" (Philip Clayton)

In response to your questions:

  1. Kant might be said to have undermined the soul by denying that anything could be known about its nature by means of metaphysical deduction.
  2. James give no indication that he believed there was any difference between the soul and the transcendental ego, nor do the writings of Kant suggest that.
  3. The difference between earlier dualism and neo-Kantian dualism is a distinction between subject and object, rather than between body and soul.
  • Is 'we-know-not-what' - which I like - a better and closer translation of the das-ding-an-sich? I've usually come across it as 'the thing in itself'; I'm asking because I can't read German ... Nov 27, 2016 at 8:15
  • @MoziburUllah. No, you're correct; "the thing in itself" is the literal translation.
    – user3017
    Nov 27, 2016 at 16:30
  • pe de leao: I thought so, the German das - or so I've been told - is impersonal, which is why the 'we' surprised me; by the way, the usual construction in English is 'Yes, you're correct' and 'No, you're wrong'; unless the 'No' is a bigoted No, in which case it might be right - bigots after all make up their own laws - but I'd consider it morally wrong (and to be honest, gramatically too). Nov 29, 2016 at 7:12

The "undermining of the soul" most likely refers to the deconstruction of Rational Psychology of Leibnizian school, with its soul as "metaphysically simple being", which, along with deconstruction of Rational Cosmology and Theology, was a primary task in Critique of Pure Reason. According to Kant, inferring the substantiality, simplicity, and personal identity of the soul involves concluding “from the transcendental concept of the subject, which contains nothing manifold, the absolute unity of this subject itself, of which I possess no concept whatsoever”. The centerpiece of "undermining" is the critique of Mendelsohn in the Second Paralogism. Here is Kitcher's summary of it from Kant's Transcendental Psychology:

"If Rational Psychologists are permitted to argue for the simplicity and immateriality of the soul by claiming that they do not see how a material substance could realize the unity of thought, then materialists would be free to employ the same strategy to "establish" the opposite conclusion. Since the latter do not understand how an immaterial substance could realize the unity of thought, they may claim that the soul is material".

See What are the problems with the argument for the mind-body dualism from immateriality of thoughts? for reincarnations of such reasoning (which Kitcher calls the Rational Psychologist's fallacy) in the modern mind-body problem debates.

As for the transcendental ego or transcendental subject, this usually refers to the abstracted sum total of "faculties" like sensibility, understanding, productive imagination, etc., and especially the mysterious "transcendental unity of apperception", often interpreted as Kant's formalistic stand in for Cartesian "I", present in all cognitive syntheses. Except it is not something individual, personal or emotive, like the traditional soul, and is not even derived from self-introspection, like Cartesian cogito. It is one of those "conditions of the possibility of unified experience" extracted from transcendental arguments, a formal perspective. The transcendental subject later became an object of sharp criticism and revision, first by classical German idealists, who pointed out its dubious status as a kind of thing-in-itself about which Kant nonetheless talks (Hegel later identified it with sedimented historical Geist), and then by life philosophers and existentialists, for reducing human existence to an abstract rationalist phantom.

Nor are Kant's other candidates for "soul" particularly glorified. The "empirical self" of introspection is the object of study of empirical psychology, which Kant wrote will never become a science because of the obscurity of its subject. Perhaps the closest thing to the "soul" would be the "noumenal self", the seat of moral autonomy and free will. But of that nothing cogent can be said, as it belongs to the supersensible. This aspect is "undermined" at length in the Third Antinomy and Critique of Practical Reason, see Is Kant's "noumenal self" argument on freedom flawed?

Compared to all of that matter, the "stuff" of the faculty of sensibility, "that in the appearance that corresponds to sensation", the filler of the "a priori form of outer sense", space, subject to the a priori laws of Newtonian physics with its unbreakable causal chains, Kant's ideal of what science ought to be like, has a much more solid status. But Kant's philosophy is not a dualism in any conventional sense. It is barely even a realism, that hanging on the transcendent, supersensible and unknowable thing-in-itself. To draw an ontological mind/matter distinction one would have to apply categories of experience to "things" beyond any possible experience, a no-no that the antinomies warn against.

What I think James refers to is the dualism between sensibility and understanding, which neo-Kantians eliminated and which is a kind of epistemological shadow of the mind/matter distinction in Kant. He writes after the quoted passage:

"For the thinkers I call neo-Kantian, the word consciousness today does no more than signalize the fact that experience is indefeasibly dualistic in structure. It means that not subject, not object, but object-plus-subject is the minimum that can actually be. The subject-object distinction meanwhile is entirely different from that between mind and matter, from that between body and soul."

Neo-Kantians subsumed sensibility under understanding and made it changeable, evolving, after Euclidean space as an a priori form of intuition did not work out. Friedman discusses in Parting of the Ways how this revision collapsed Kant's architechtonic of pure reason, and forced a sharpened analytic/continental divide after its diverging mendings by Carnap and Heidegger.

  • 1
    Didn't James refer to Liebniz's Theodicee as "superficiality incarnate"? I don't think his meaning of Kant's undermining of the soul was related to Liebnitz's conception of it. William James "On the Theory of Soul", "This substantialist view of the soul was essentially the view of Plato and of Aristotle"
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 17, 2016 at 23:58
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    @Mr.Kennedy Kant grew up on Leibnizian metaphysics (specifically as systematized by Leibniz's successor Wolff), Critique of Pure Reason is largely a polemic with it. Plato and Aristotle are barely mentioned in CPR, and they lack the kind of personalism about the soul that marks modern times, but of course some notion of "soul" can be traced already to Pythagoreans. Theodicy is only tangentially related to it though, and more to Rational Theology than to Rational Psychology.
    – Conifold
    Nov 18, 2016 at 1:07
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    And yet the OP asks about what William James meant by his comment that "one day Kant undermined the soul", and not how you think Kant undermined the soul. Have you read James? If you haven't, I've linked his writings in the comments here and with my edit to the OP. Please note that philosophy is not hermeneutics and nowhere does James reference Leibniz except as superficiality incarnate. Feel free to cite source from James otherwise.
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 18, 2016 at 2:07
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    James describes how he thinks Kant "undermined" the soul one page after the OP quoted one, and it is the standard view from the late 19th century: "Souls were detachable, had separate destinies; things could happen to them. To consciousness as such nothing can happen, for, timeless itself, it is only a witness of happenings in time, in which it plays no part... Consciousness as such is entirely impersonal - 'self' and its activities belong to the content... Thus, for these belated drinkers at the Kantian spring, we should have to admit consciousness as an 'epistemological' necessity".
    – Conifold
    Nov 18, 2016 at 21:41
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    Thank you for demonstrating my point: you knew exactly what was referred to by "rational school" and yet, again, the OP asks quite clearly what James meant by "one day Kant undermined the soul" not how does Conifold interpret what James meant about Kants "undermining of the soul" as "most likely" referring "to the deconstruction of Rational Psychology of Leibnizian school, with its soul as 'metaphysically simple being'."
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 19, 2016 at 2:21

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