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Poster, M. (1974). Kant's Crooked Stick. Psychoanal. Rev., 61(3):475-480.

(1974). Psychoanalytic Review, 61(3):475-480

Kant's Crooked Stick

Mark Poster

Kant's reviews of Herder's Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind suggest a curious psychoanalytic aspect to Kant's concept of man. In his ferocious animus against Herder, Kant revealed significant features of his unconscious emotional needs. I shall argue that Kant's concept of man as a “crooked stick” was as much a product of his emotional structure as it was a conclusion of his reason.

Herder's Ideas was a monumental multi-volume work, published from 1784 to 1791. Acknowledged as his masterpiece,1 it pretended to an empathetic re-creation not simply of all human experience, but also of the natural world. Herder, a student of Kant,2 set out to smash the parochial walls of the Enlightenment view of history, including for once all societies, all Volk, however primitive and strange, through poetic depictions of their mythologies. Evocative, colorful, and imaginative, Herder's philosophical history outlined a nonlinear yet progressivist view of humanity, underlining the equal creativity of each Volk, which was at once both particular and universal, enclosed unto itself and part of the general flowering of human potential. At one with the Rousseau of the early Discourses, Herder struggled against the bourgeois view of history as a linear development of the arts and sciences, the rational and material bases of civilization.3 When Kant girded himself to judge the Ideas, it was an anti-Enlightenment work that he was to review.

In two reviews of the Ideas, one with a supplement and a rejoinder to an anonymous, favorable review, Kant devoted some twenty-five pages to refuting Herder's philosophy of history. The arguments Kant voiced were numerous and of uneven strength, but all were set forth with a hostile, pungent tone.

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