In 1745 the life of the distinguished Swedish engineer Emanuel Swedenborg took a radical turn, after he allegedly received direct revelations from Christ himself. This made him not only write an elaborate new interpretation of some of the books of the Bible, but it also made him change psychically. From that moment on he claimed to stand in continuous direct contact with the spirit world. Many contemporaries were possibly most interested in the visions which he had, which made him access information which he normally could not have had (the most famous case being his vision of a large fire in a town a long way from where he was). His followers paid more attention however to the moral consequences of his experiences. Swedenborg was convinced that only someone who had discovered his inner self (which is the part of a person which is already in the spirit world, while he or she is alive) could find the source of truly moral behaviour. He was also convinced that this was the core message of Christ.
Those philosophers who know something about Swedenborg mostly do so because his famous contemporary Immanuel Kant wrote a small satirical book about his ideas: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics. This work of the Enlightenment philosopher is seen to be the turning point in his career – it marks the transition of his so-called pre-critical to his critical period. His critical works, e.g. the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical (is: moral) Reason, created a landslide in modern Western philosophy, and consequently in our understanding of science. These works claim to deduce from reason alone the borders of what we can sensibly call knowledge, and of what should sensibly direct our moral actions. In ethics this led to the famous adage to only choose such a principle to guide one’s actions that one would want everyone to choose. Thus Kant removed any arguments from Nature, or from Revelation from reasonable ethics. For theoretical knowledge his critical work had the effect to only acknowledge what we can derive from empirical research, i.e. from controlled sensual experience, which can be described within the limits or borders of sound reasoning.
In Dreams Kant tries his critical arguments out on Swedenborg, whose voluminous works he seems to have studied faithfully. As a philosopher who was interested in metaphysics, he wanted to read these testimonies of contact with the ‘invisible world’. They disappointed him, of course, because even more than those metaphysical works of his fellow-philosophers, they consisted of unfounded theories about realities which one could not check out for oneself. Thus he comes to the conclusion that the sole task of metaphysics should be to know and guard ‘the limits of human reason’. After a very satirical and critical treatment of Swedenborg, Kant concludes: ‘Thus, I have wasted my time in order to save it […] we see ourselves back on the low ground of experience and common sense, happy if we regard it as our assigned place from which we may never depart with impunity and which contains everything that can satisfy us, so long as we stay with what is useful.’
Historically Kant has been the real prophet, and not the spiritually enlightened Swedenborg, since Kant’s wish that serious researchers should ‘leave all noisy doctrines about such remote objects to the speculation of idle heads’ has become reality. Research into spiritual experiences is still mostly derided by those academic researchers who want to take themselves seriously. Testimonies of spirit appearances are treated with a sarcasm similar to that of Kant. But… there is more to the story. Recently the worlds of Kant researchers and of Swedenborg specialists are moving closer, and it seems that Kant took his contemporary much more seriously than his Dreams would show at first sight. Next to his proclaiming the necessity of ‘knowing and guarding’ the borders of the world of reason with an eye to sensible knowledge and action, he seems to have been sympathetical toward the belief in the spirit world as a source for spiritual consolation. And perhaps even to accept implicitly a connection between this belief and the personal sources of morality. For finding the right principle for action does not yet provide us with a motivation for following it.
The lesson of this story? That it is a shame when serious researchers dogmatically keep within the borders that Kant drew for theoretical and practical knowledge. It is like trying to imitate the Zen-master. Philosophy should make us think critically – and thus anyone studying philosophy should cross borders him or herself, like Kant did when he bought and read the work of the famous visionary. Philosophers should cross disciplinary borders, and not only read works that belong to the canon of philosophy. And they should cross the borders of what is produced in academia – and read works that are not even considered to be based on logical reasoning or on empirical research, but which may be inspirational, revolutionary, religious, literary, or just entertaining. Only then can one make use of one’s potential for critical thought to the full.
Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804, Emanuel Swedenborg lived from 1688-1772.
I cited from Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, 2002
Swedenborgs Works can easily be accessed online through: http://www.swedenborg.com/
A good introduction to Swedenborg gives Ernst Benz’ Emanuel Swedenborg. Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason, Swedenborg Foundation 2002
Some of the most up to date critical research on the relationship between the two is in German: Kant und Swedenborg. Zugänge zu einem umstrittenen Verhältnis (Friedemann Stengel hrsg), Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2008