Neo-Kantianism (German: Neukantianismus) refers broadly to a revived type of philosophy along the lines of that laid down by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, or more specifically by Arthur Schopenhauer's critique of the Kantian philosophy in his work The World as Will and Representation (1818), as well as by other post-Kantian philosophers such as Jakob Friedrich Fries and Johann Friedrich Herbart. It has some more specific reference in later German philosophy.


The "back to Kant" movement began in the 1860s, as a reaction to the materialist controversy in German thought in the 1850s.[1]

In addition to the work of Hermann von Helmholtz and Eduard Zeller, early fruits of the movement were Kuno Fischer's works on Kant and Friedrich Albert Lange's History of Materialism (Geschichte des Materialismus), the latter of which argued that transcendental idealism superseded the historic struggle between material idealism and mechanistic materialism. Fischer was earlier involved in a dispute with the Aristotelian idealist Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg concerning the interpretation of the results of the Transcendental Aesthetic, a dispute that prompted Hermann Cohen's 1871 seminal work Kants Theorie der Erfahrung, a book often regarded as the foundation of 20th-century neo-Kantianism. It is in reference to the Fischer–Trendelenburg debate and Cohen's work that Hans Vaihinger started his massive commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason.


Hermann Cohen became the leader of the Marburg School, the other prominent representatives of which were Paul Natorp and Ernst Cassirer. Another important group, the Southwest (German) School (also known as the Baden School or Heidelberg School) included Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert and Ernst Troeltsch. The Marburg School emphasized epistemology and logic, whereas the Southwest school emphasized issues of culture and value. A third group, mainly represented by Leonard Nelson, established the Neo-Friesian School.

The Neo-Kantian schools tended to emphasize scientific readings of Kant, often downplaying the role of intuition in favour of concepts. However, the ethical aspects of Neo-Kantian thought often drew them within the orbit of socialism, and they had an important influence on Austromarxism and the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. Lange and Cohen in particular were keen on this connection between Kantian thought and socialism. Another important aspect of the Neo-Kantian movement was its attempt to promote a revised notion of Judaism, particularly in Cohen's seminal work, one of the few works of the movement available in English translation.

The Neo-Kantian school was of importance in devising a division of philosophy that has had durable influence well beyond Germany. It made early use of terms such as epistemology and upheld its prominence over ontology. Natorp had a decisive influence on the history of phenomenology and is often credited with leading Edmund Husserl to adopt the vocabulary of transcendental idealism. Emil Lask was influenced by Husserl's work,[2] and himself exerted a remarkable influence on the young Martin Heidegger. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger over the interpretation of Kant led the latter to formulate reasons for viewing Kant as a forerunner of phenomenology; this view was disputed in important respects by Eugen Fink. An abiding achievement of the Neo-Kantians was the founding of the journal Kant-Studien, which still survives today. In the Anglo-American world recent interest in Neo-Kantianism has revived in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, who is a critic of this movement's influence on modern philosophy, and because of its influence on the work of Max Weber. The Kantian concern for the limits of perception strongly influenced the antipositivist sociological movement in late 19th-century Germany, particularly in the work of Georg Simmel (Simmel's question 'What is society?' is a direct allusion to Kant's own: 'What is nature'?).[3] The current work of Michael Friedman is explicitly neo-Kantian.

By 1933 (after the rise of Nazism), the various Neo-Kantian circles in Germany had dispersed.[4]

Notable Neo-Kantian philosophers

Related thinkers

Contemporary Neo-Kantianism

The term "Neo-Kantian" can also be used as a general term to designate anyone who adopts Kantian views in a partial or limited way. The revival of interest in the work of Kant that has been underway since Peter Strawson's work The Bounds of Sense (1966) can also be viewed as effectively Neo-Kantian, not least due to its continuing emphasis on epistemology at the expense of ontology. The converse European tradition drawing on the understandings of the transcendental derived from phenomenology continues to emphasize the converse reading as is shown by the recent works of Jean-Luc Nancy.


  1. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy volume VII (1963), p. 436, states that at the turn of the [20th] century Neo-Kantianism was the dominant academic philosophy or Schulphilosophie in the German universities. He attributes (p.361) the 'back to Kant' slogan to Otto Liebmann in 1865.
  2. Karl Schuhmann and Barry Smith, “Two Idealisms: Lask and Husserl”, Kant-Studien, 83 (1993), 448–466.
  3. Levine, Donald (ed.), Simmel: On individuality and social forms, Chicago University Press, 1971. p. xix.
  4. Luft 2015, p. xxvi.
  5. Hermann Lotze: Thought: logic and language, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. Georg Lukács: Neo-Kantian Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

References and further reading

External links

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