In this video on Youtube (Kant, la experiencia posible y la experiencia imposible) at about 12minutes 50seconds, the presenter seems to say (my translation from the Spanish subtitles)

... Kant's thing-in-itself - that is to say that which is unknowable for human beings - has influenced Freud. In Freud this becomes the unconscious ... that which the human does not dominate and which frequently dominates the human

Here is my understanding (in everyday language):

In Kant, the thing-in-itself is unknowable to humans because the human brain is limited (i.e. the human can only think in categories). According to Kant, there is no way to know the real essential nature of a thing.

In Freud, the unconscious is something we might suppress and not be consciously aware of but a good therapist can help reveal the unconscious.

To me it seems the 2 concepts (thing-in-itself and unconscious) are completely different.


  1. Can Kant's thing-in-itself be equated with Freud's unconscious?
  2. To what extent can those 2 concepts be equated?
  • 2
    You are correct. Kant's thing in itself refers to the unknowable to us substrate of reality, whereas Freud's unconscious is just the normally inaccessible part of our own psyche. Freud's therapies are, in fact, directed at bringing the unconscious drives to consciousness so that they can be confronted, as embodied in his motto "where id was ego shall be". Not something that can be meaningfully done with the thing in itself. But superficial reasoning by loose association, like the one in the video, is common in popular presentations.
    – Conifold
    Jun 26, 2019 at 5:26
  • The passage you translated says that Freud was influenced by Kant. That's a lot different from saying that the two ideas are equivalent.
    – E...
    Jun 26, 2019 at 16:10
  • Freud had Frank Bretano as a teacher. Also, remember, Freud made empirical observations. This unconscious he "observed", that is, what arose from it. He reasoned it must had arose from it in the "transference" because the therapist himself provided no judgment, no direction to the analysand. Since the therapist was a blank sheet to the analysand, the feelings which arose in therapy, some quite extraordinary, where did they come from?
    – Gordon
    Jun 27, 2019 at 17:20
  • I should also mention Eduard von Hartmann. I know he was credited with the beginnings of the death instinct, and perhaps he influenced Freud's unconscious. I do not know if Freud really studied von Hartmann, but there should be scholarly papers and intellectual histories on this subject. But no matter what Freud read, it would mean nothing without confirmation in practice. He had to see it and observe it. Freud was a scientist.
    – Gordon
    Jun 27, 2019 at 19:49

3 Answers 3


I would say they are not equivalent.

If Kant's 'thing in itself' has a psychological/intellectual counterpart it must be much deeper that Freud's subconscious.

Here is Körner summary of Kant’s view.

"In the Analytic of Concepts Kant has drawn a sharp distinction between the ‘I think which must be capable of all my presentations,’ thereby giving them synthetic unity, and the empirical, introspective, self which is itself a presentation. To be truly a priori a rational psychology must have for its subject the former, i.e. the self of pure self-consciousness. This however is not, according to Kant, an object of experience and so of the applicability of the Categories. It is not an instance of any Category."

A counterpart for Kant's unthinkable 'thing is itself' in psychology would have to transcend the categories of thought. This would be a conceptual void, thus something along the lines of Lao Tsu's 'Tao' or Nagarjuna's 'emptiness', not a high level space-time phenomenon like Freud's subconscious.


The thing-in-itself was probably the logical structure of old Metaphysics. It was a nod to it. Remember, old Metaphysics was not just being as things but being as intelligibility. Purpose and so on. So there was a logic from prime mover which connected things through cause. To know the causes, not just the things. The point or purpose of being. Final ends. Now Kant was saying, in the Critique of Pure Reason, that may well be, but we can't observe it. We are on more sure ground not to speculate about it, and just to take up what appears. A very conervative approach. With Kant the necessary connections are not in the world but in us, Copernican Revolution so-called.

We see Hegel going back to a grand Logic (though the Logic was unconnected to the world it was a necessary ground), and even a telos of a sort. There was a necessary intelligibility again, if taken as a whole. Speculative philosophy.

As for Freud, he was a scientist, an empiricist, primarily in that he observed the patient's mind unfolding during therapy through his method (free association, etc) And he met with other psychoanalysts to discuss their observations in regular meetings.

And Freud was very well read, and I am sure Bretano left a large impression on him, as he did with Husserl. There are surely papers on this. So Freud was a combination of his time and place, his reading and study (Eduard von Hartmann?), and most importantly, his scientific observations.

P.S. The YouTube video you watched may make some very good points. Note, Eduard von Hartmann wrote this book: "Das Ding an sich und seine Beschaffenheit ("The thing in itself and its nature", 1871)" The Wikipedia is not very complete on von Hartmann, German Wikipedia could be better. It does say that Jung claimed to have read von Hartmann "assiduously". It says von Hartmann influenced Freud but gives no specifics. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Robert_Eduard_von_Hartmann

This may explain how Freud was introduced: philosophy of the unconscious. "The work was widely read.[11] Philosophy of the Unconscious received a critical discussion in the philosopher Franz Brentano's Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874); Brentano commented that Hartmann's definition of consciousness perhaps referred to "something purely imaginary" and certainly did not agree with his definition of consciousness.[12]". https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_the_Unconscious

So this empirical emphasis from Bretano and the work of von Hartmann could have provided a lot of material for a mind like Freud's.

  • 1
    Albeit a bit fuzzy, I think the overall direction and nods of this answer paint a picture that is quite accurate. I would add that Freud's unconscious and Kant's things-in-themselves cannot be equivalent since the latter can strictly not become object of experience while the the whole point of the former is, theoretically speaking, that that's what has to become object of (conscious) experience for a successful therapy. This would strengthen the answer via a definite statement on the main question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 28, 2019 at 9:52
  • 1
    Oh, and actually, as an aside: Jung's unconscious, especially if taken metaphysically, is much closer to the Kantian noumenal.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 28, 2019 at 9:54
  • @PhilipKlocking Excellent point about Freud's unconscious and Kant's things-in-themselves. I first came across von Hartmann last year when I was commenting on a question and I think I mentioned the death instinct. Then I searched and found Sabrina Spielrein (Destruction as a Cause of Coming into Being, 1912) and from there von Hartmann as an influence on her. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_drive
    – Gordon
    Jun 28, 2019 at 20:13
  • @PhilipKlocking I studied Jung about 20 years ago, on my own. Of course, Freud and Jung were common coin when I was in college, but Freud was easier for me to understand. I was studying this on a very superficial level, and only later did I go back and make a more complete study of Freud. Really study of the Frankfurt School helped me more than anything in this regard. But I have never read von Hartmann, only his English Wikipedia. Thank you for your comment. I am still learning in this area.
    – Gordon
    Jun 28, 2019 at 20:22
  • @PhilipKlocking I just checked Spielrein's Wikipedia again and I noticed for the first time that Bleuler and Jung were her doctoral advisors, so Spielrein could have learned of von Hartmann from Jung.
    – Gordon
    Jun 28, 2019 at 21:26


Kant's thing in itself refers to the "true" state of reality that is beyond the comprehension of perception due to our sensory limitation.

Freud's unconscious is a psychological reality that lies within us but we have not or have yet to grasp in our conscious thought.

They seem to be two separate concepts, in my opinion.

You must log in to answer this question.