KANT IN THE CLASSROOM     Materials to aid the study of Kant’s lectures

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> Kant’s Lectures

The Student Notes

Kant’s Teaching Style

"His lecture was an entertaining discourse.  Jests, wit, and humor were always at his disposal. 

— S. G. Wald [qtd. in Reicke 1860, 18]

“I sit daily at the anvil of my lectern ...” [top]

One of our first glimpses into Kant’s teaching, and one of the very few that Kant himself provides, comes from a letter of 28 October 1759, when he was 35 years old and beginning his fifth year of lecturing at the university, to Johann Gotthelf Lindner [bio], a slightly younger friend from student days who was serving at the time as rector to the Cathedral School in Riga:

For my part I sit daily at the anvil of my lectern and guide the heavy hammer of repetitious lectures, constantly beating out the same rhythm.  Now and then I am stirred by some nobler inclination, a desire to extend myself beyond this narrow sphere; but the blustering voice of Need immediately attacks me and, always truthful in its threats, promptly drives me back to hard work. [AA 10:18-19; Zweig transl. (1999, 56)][(full text)]

Ich meines theils sitze täglich vor dem Ambos meines Lehrpults und führe den schweeren Hammer sich selbst ähnlicher [19] Vorlesungen in einerley tacte fort. Bisweilen reitzt mich irgendwo eine Neigung edlerer Art mich über diese enge Sphäre etwas auszudehnen allein der Mangel mit ungestühmer Stimme so gleich gegenwärtig mich auzufallen und immer warhaftig in seinen Drohungen treibt mich ohne Verzug zur schweren Arbeit zurück.

A number of writers have left accounts of how Kant conducted himself in the classroom.[1]  From the end of his career, we hear that Kant's ...

... presentation is entirely in the tone of ordinary speech and, if you will, not very beautiful. Imagine a little old man who sits bent over, wearing a brown coat with yellow buttons, not to forget the wig and hair bag; imagine also that this little man occasionally brings forth his hands from the buttoned coat where they have been hiding, and makes a small movement with them in front of his face, as one does when one wants to make something fully comprehensible — imagine all this and you will be seeing him to a hair. Even though he does not look all that great, even though his voice is unclear, yet everything that his delivery lacks in form is richly replaced by the excellence of the content. [Hugelmann 1879, repr. in Malter 1990, 419][(full text)]

... Vortrag ist ganz im Tone des gewöhnlichen Sprechens und, wenn Sie wollen, nicht eben schön. Stellen Sie sich ein altes, kleines Männchen vor, das gekrümmt im braunen Rocke mit gelben Knöpfen, eine Perrücke und den Haarbeutel nicht zu vergessen — dasitzt, denken Sie noch, dass dieses Männchen zuweilen seine Hände aus dem zugeknöpften Rocke, wo sie verschränkt stecken, hervornimmt und eine kleine Bewegung vor's Gesicht macht, wie wenn man Einem so etwas recht begreiflich machen will, stellen Sie sich dies vor und Sie sehen ihn auf ein Haar. Obschon dies nun nicht eben schön aussieht, obschon seine Stimme nicht hell klingt, so ist doch Alles, was seinem Vortrage, wenn ich mich so ausdrücken darf, an Form fehlt, reichlich durch die Vortrefflichkeit des Stoffes am selben ersetzt.


[1] On Kant’s manner of lecturing, see Vorländer [1924, i.53-65]; Adickes [1911c; AA 14: xxxv]: “his impromptu lecturing is perhaps the reason that his students did not (or not always) write down his lectures verbatim”; Arnoldt [1908-9, v.291]: “Maybe Kant spoke in such a way that the students could write down a verbatim transcript only with difficulty.  It appears at least that they tried to, and perhaps two or more taking notes in the same semester exchanged notes in order to fill them out ....”.  Ch. 3 of Stuckenberg [1882] is devoted to Kant’s teaching.


“It was necessary to pay attention ...” [top]

Kant would sit at a little desk, elevated slightly on a platform so that he was higher than the students, and he would often choose a student and look in his eyes while lecturing, using this as a gauge as to how well he was being understood.  Judging from some accounts, there must have been many students whose eyes Kant found discouraging.  After describing Kant's very first lecture (13 Oct 1755), Borowski [bio] notes that...

... it was necessary to pay close attention to his lectures.  The gift that many teachers have to make the concepts and material completely clear for everyone, to make themselves understood, even by students who would skip class or be distracted, by repeating himself using different expressions, and essentially to force these students to understand, was clearly not Kant’s.  Everything must be carefully noted, as is only reasonable. [1804, 185-86] [(full text)]

... Freilich war rege Aufmerksamkeit bei seinen Vorträgen nöthig. Die [186] manchem Gelehrten ganz eigene Gabe, die vorkommenden Begriffe und Sachen ganz ins Klare für Jeden zu setzen, sie etwa durch Wiederholung in andern Ausdrücken auch dem versäumtern und zerstreutern Zuhörern doch faßlich zu machen, diesen, nach dem jetzt in Gang gebrachten Ausdrucke, gleichsam zum Verstehen zu zwingen, war K. freilich nicht eigen. Es mußte auf Alles, wie billig, genau gemerkt werden.

And again:

Of course, a lively attentiveness was always required.  Without this his lectures couldn’t be understood, and one would get lost. [1804, 85][(full text)]

Rege Aufmerksamkeit war freilich immer erforderlich. Ohne diese war sein Vortrag unverstanden, folglich verloren.

Ludwig Baczko [bio], from the early 1770s, noticed that ...

... many students in Kant’s classroom knew even less than me, and I began to believe that they were attending Kant’s lectures just to show off” [Baczko 1824; rprt. Malter 1990, 118] [(full text)].

... manche Zuhörer von Kant noch weniger als ich wußten. Ich fing an zu glauben, dass die Leute in Kants Vorlesungen liefen, um sich ein Ansehen zu geben.

Christian Friedrich Reusch [bio] had a similar experience twenty years later, in the mid-1790s:

To a young man of 15-16 years under those circumstances, not much of his philosophical lectures could be put into a context that made them understandable; what I grasped was an occasional illuminating point or spark in the soul.  I don’t believe that it went any better at that time with the older students.  In contrast, his physical geography lectures were quite understandable, even highly intellectually stimulating and entertaining. [Reusch 1848, 291-2] [(full text)]

Einem jungen Menschen von 15-16 Jarhen konnte unter solchen Umständen von seinen philosophischen Vorträgen nur wenig im Zusammenhange verständlich werden; was ich faßte, war ein leuchtender Punkt oder Blitz in die Seele.  Ich glaube, daß es damals auch ältern Studirenden nicht besser ging. Dagegen war sein geographisch-physikalischer Vortrag wohl verständlich, ja höchst geistreich und unterhaltend.


“How often he moved us to tears ...” [top]

Yet for all the puzzlement he surely caused, Kant also connected with many of his students.  Reinhold Bernhard Jachmann [bio], one of Kant’s early biographers and a student of his from the mid-1780s, wrote:

How often he moved us to tears, how often he forcibly shook our hearts, how often he raised our spirit and our feelings out of the fetters of selfish euidaimonism and up to the high self-consciousness of pure freedom of the will! [1804, 31] [(full text)]

Ach, wie oft rührte er uns bis zu Thränen, wie oft erschütterte er gewaltsam unser Herz, wie oft erhob er unsern Geist und unser Gefühl aus den Fesseln des selbstsüchtigen Eudaimonismus zu dem hohen Selbstbewußtseyn der reinen Willensfreiheit.

These words concerned Kant’s lectures on moral philosophy; the same could likely not have been said of the more challenging lectures on metaphysics.[1] 

Perhaps the best known testimonial comes from Johann Gottfried Herder [bio], Kant’s famous student from his early years as a Privatdozent.  Thirty years after leaving the university, Herder wrote the following encomium to his favorite professor:

I had the good fortune to know a philosopher who was also my teacher.  He was in his best years, and possessed the cheerful vivacity of youth which, I believe, has accompanied him even into old age.  His open, thoughtful brow was the seat of undisturbed cheerfulness and joy; language rich in thought flowed from his lips; jokes, wit, and good humor were at his command; and his instructive lectures were the greatest of entertainment.  In the same spirit with which he investigated Leibniz, Wolf, Baumgarten, Crusius, and Hume, and traced the laws of Newton, Kepler, and the physicists generally, he also examined the writings then appearing by Rousseau, namely, his Emile and his Heloise.  He appreciated every physical discovery that came to his notice, and always returned to an impartial knowledge of nature and the moral worth of man.  The well-spring of his lectures was the history of men, of nations, and of nature, as well as natural science, mathematics, and his own experience.  He was indifferent to nothing worth knowing. No cabal, no sect, no prejudice, no ambition for fame, had the least influence over him compared with the development and clarification of the truth.  He encouraged and pleasantly compelled his hearers to think for themselves; despotism was foreign to his mind.  This man, whom I mention with the greatest thankfulness and esteem, is Immanuel Kant; his picture stands pleasantly before me. [From his Letters on the Advancement of Humanity (#79); Irmscher 1991, 424-25; repr. in Malter 1990, 57]


[1] On this see also Mortzfeld’s remarks: “The opinion had spread even among his students that his lectures were hard to comprehend, for which reason most began with his course on physical geography, or with the moral philosophy” [(full text)] [Mortzfeld 1802, 58; repr. Malter 1990, 32].


“A model of punctuality ...” [top]

An early biographer of Christian Jacob Kraus [bio], a student at Königsberg from 1771-78 and later colleague of Kant’s, mentioned Kant as a standard of punctuality, noting that Kraus was nearly as punctual and conscientious as Kant, and that Kant had missed only a single hour in five years, and that this was on account of an illness [Voigt 1819, 180].[1]  Jachmann offered a similar report: ‘Kant was a model of punctuality in all of his lectures.  I don’t remember a single instance, during the nine years that I attended his classes, that he cancelled a period, or that he missed even a quarter hour” [1804, 27].  Likewise Rink: “he remained up to the end a very conscientious teacher, and I can’t recall of a single time, other than the usual vacations, that he did not hold class” [Rink 1805, 47] [(full text)].  And Borowski [bio], a student during the first years of Kant’s career, notes that he never missed a lecture, canceling classes only during the normal academic vacations [1804, 184].


[1] This appraisal of Kant likely stems from Kraus’s own experiences as a student in Kant’s classroom during the early 1770s.  See Stark [1987b].


“He would enter the room in a sort of enthusiasm ...” [top]

Christian Friedrich Jensch, who would have matriculated in time for WS 1763/64, recalled ...

... how interesting Kant was in his lectures.  He would enter the room in a sort of enthusiasm, saying: we left off here or there.  He had memorized the main ideas so deeply and vividly that the entire hour was lived in these alone; often he took little notice of the textbook over which he was lecturing. [Abegg 1976, 251] [(full text)]

... wie interessant Kant in seinen Vorlesungen gewesen sey. Wie in einer Begeisterung sey er aufgetreten, habe gesagt: da oder da sind wir stehen geblieben. Er habe sich die Hauptideen so tief und lebendig eingeprägt, daß er nun nach denselben und in denselben die ganze Stunde lebte, und oft wenig Rücksicht auf das Compend. nahm, worüber er las.

Kant would bring with him his copy of the required textbook used for the class[1] and possibly some notes on loose sheets of paper (some commentator’s mention him bringing a notebook, but perhaps this was referring to his set of notes on Physical Geography, which he used in place of a textbook).  Kant had his textbooks bound and interleaved with blank pages, so that there was ample room for his own notes.  He would never read his own prepared text,[2] nor would he read and comment upon the assigned textbook.  Rather, his voice was conversational, engaged in a discussion with the author of the text.   The textbooks served as organizing principles and as spring boards.  Kant would read a proposition from the textbook, discuss it, criticize it, improve upon it, or support it with his own arguments.  In doing this he often made long asides, which Borowski assures us were nonetheless interesting and useful. 


[1] Purgstall describes the tattered condition of Kant's copy of Meier's logic text: “He always brings the book along.  It looks so old and soiled, I believe that he has brought it daily to class with him for forty years.  All the blank leaves are covered with writing in a small hand, and besides, many of the printed pages have leaves pasted on them, and lines are frequently crossed out, so that, as you might imagine, scarcely anything of Meyer’s Logic is left.” [(full text)]  Even by the early 1760s, Jensch reported that Kant's copy of Baumgarten's Metaphysica was “covered with notes all over.”

[2] In a closing note to his Conflict of the Faculties, Kant describes a pathological condition of his eyes that began occurring when he was forty, and that would leave him temporarily unable to read: “This condition, which does not last longer than six minutes, could be very risky for a preacher in the habit of reading his sermons from the page.  But since, after a suitable preparation I can lecture freely (from my head) in my courses on logic and metaphysics, my own concern was that these attacks might be the precursor of blindness” [AA 7: 115].  On Kant’s eye trouble, see also Rink [1805, 90-1; repr. in Malter 1990, 290].


“To think for oneself ...” [top]

Kant noted on numerous occasions that his pedagogical intentions were to teach not beliefs, but rather how to think.  In reflecting back to the Kant of the ‘60s, Herder wrote that Kant “encouraged and pleasantly compelled his hearers to think for themselves”; and Borowski wrote:

Equipped with all the knowledge necessary for the discipline in which he was to lecture, he appeared in his lecture hall with the most unassuming modesty — always reminding us that he would not teach philosophy, but rather how to philosophize, etc. [..] To think for oneself — to investigate for oneself — to stand on one’s own feet — were expressions he uttered constantly. [1804, 84, 188]

Mit allen Kenntnissen für das Fach, in welchem er dozieren sollte, ausgerüstet, mit der anspruchslosesten Bescheidenheit erschien er in seinem Hörsaale, — erinnerte immer daran, daß er lehren würde nicht Philosophie, sondern philosophieren u. s. [...] Selbst denken — selbst forschen, — auf seinen eigenen Füßen stehen, — waren Ausdrücke, die unablässig wieder vorkamen.

In the context of discussing Kant’s logic lectures, Jachmann wrote that “it was never his intention merely to recite a logic to his listeners, but rather to teach them to think” [1804, 28-29].[1]  And near the end of his career, in his logic lectures of 1792, we find: “Not to learn philosophy, but rather how to philosophize; all else is just imitation” [Dohna-Wundlacken 3; AA 24:698].[2]


[1] Original: “nur war [29] Kants Absicht nie, eine Logik seinen Zuhörern beizubringen, sondern sie denken zu lehren”.

[2] See also a recently discovered reflection of Kant’s:

I do not intend to teach philosophy, but rather to teach how to philosophize. [Naragon/Stark 2013, 5]

Ich habe nicht die Absicht die Philosophie zu lehren sondern philosophiren zu lehren.

and Kant’s Lecture Announcement for WS 1765-66 [AA 2:306][writings]:

The youth who has completed his school instruction has been accustomed to learn. He now thinks that he is going to learn philosophy. But that is impossible, for he ought now to learn to philosophise. [Walford transl.]

the Critique of Pure Reason [A 838/B 866][writings]:

Until then one cannot learn any for where is it, who has possession of it, and by what can it be recognized? One can only learn to philosophize, i.e., to exercise the talent of reason in prosecuting its general principles in certain experiments that come to hand, but always with the reservation of the right of reason to investigate the sources of these principles themselves and to confirm or reject them.

the Dohna Logic [AA 24:698] from SS 1792:

One can make a distinction between the two expressions, to learn philosophy and to learn to philosophize. To learn is to imitate the judgments of others, hence is quite distinct from one’s own reflection. {Not to learn philosophy — but rather to learn to philosophize, otherwise it remains only imitation — but to attain it oneself through exercise of the understanding, that is what matters. Only he who is capable of the self-use of his reason is called a philosopher. [Young transl.]

the an-Jäsche [AA 9:25][writings]:

To a philosopher two things chiefly pertain: 1) Cultivation of talent and of skill, in order to use them for all sorts of ends. 2) Accomplishment in the use of all means toward any end desired. The two must be united; for without cognitions one will never become a philosopher, but cognitions alone will never constitute the philosopher either, unless there is in addition a purposive combination of all cognitions and skills in a unity, and an insight into their agreement with the highest ends of human reason.

No one at all can call himself a philosopher who cannot philosophize. Philosophizing can be learned, however, only through practice and through one’s own use of reason.

How should it be possible to learn philosophy anyway? Every philosophical thinker builds his own work, so to speak, on someone else’s ruins, but no work has ever come to be that was to be lasting in all its parts. Hence one cannot learn philosophy, then, just because it is not yet given. But even granted that there were a philosophy actually at hand, no one who learned it would be able to say that he was a philosopher, for subjectively his cognition of it would always be only historical. [Young transl.]

the an-Pölitz 3.1 [AA 28:534] from the early 1780’s:

How can one learn philosophy? One either derives philosophical cognitions from the first sources of their production, i.e., from the principles of reason; or one learns them from those who have philosophized. The easiest way is the latter. But that is not properly philosophy. Suppose there were a true philosophy, [if] one learned it, then one would still have only a historical cognition. A philosopher must be able to philosophize, and for that one must not learn philosophy; otherwise one can judge nothing. One believes, e.g., that everything that Plato says is true; for one cannot reproach what is learned. But even if I learned a true philosophy, I still must not think that I can philosophize. But there is also no such true philosophy. We learn to philosophize; so we are permitted to view all systems of philosophy only as [the] history of the use of our reason, and as objects for the practice of our critical abilities. [Ameriks/Naragon transl.]

the an-Starke 1 [AA 25:1037 / Bergk 1831a, 210-11] from WS 1781/82:

Reason requires thinking for oneself; repeating the thoughts of another shows understanding, but not reason. So without reason one cannot learn philosophy; one needs only understanding to learn another’s system by heart, but to be able to judge a book is the part of reason. People are wholly misguided if they think they can learn philosophy by way of instruction; because it does not consist in the various things that one learns, therefore it cannot be learned; rather one must learn to philosophize. Where is a philosophy found? There are many books, but it is debatable whether one is philosophy. Therefore one has no other tool for becoming a philosopher than the method of philosophizing. Someone could have learned the Cartesian or Wolffian philosophy, but he is not yet a philosopher for that reason, for he has not learned to think for himself, in order to judge the results of another’s understanding.

Zur Vernunft wird selbst denken erfordert; wer die Gedanken eines Andern nachsagt, der zeigt Verstand, aber keine Vernunft. So kann man ohne Vernunft Philosophie lernen; denn man braucht nur Verstand zu haben, um ein anderes System auswendig zu lernen, aber ein solches Buch selbst beurtheilen zu können, dazu gehört [211] Vernunft. Die Menschen werden ganz irre geleitet, wenn sie glauben, durch Unterricht Philosophie zu lernen; denn diese besteht nicht in dem Mannigfaltigen, das man lernt, sie kann daher nicht gelernt werden, sondern man muß philosophiren lernen. Wo findet man eine Philosophie? Es finden sich viele solche Bücher, aber es ist streitig, ob irgend eine Philosophie sey. Daher hat man kein anderes Werkzeug, Philosoph zu werden, als die Methode zu philosophiren. Jemand mag die Cartesianische oder Wolffische Philosophie gelernt haben, er ist darum noch kein Philosoph; denn er hat nicht selbst denken gelernt, um die Erzeugnisse eines fremden Verstandes zu beurtheilen.

and of course Kant’s essay on enlightenment [writings].  This sentiment is discussed in detail by Weisskopf [1970, 103-15].

Copyright ©2006 Steve Naragon (Manchester University)
Last modified: 11 Sep 2014
Please send comments and questions to: ssnaragon@manchester.edu