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Kant's Taxonomy of the Emotions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Kelly D. Sorensen
Yale University


If there is to be any progress in the debate about what sort of positive moral status Kant can give the emotions, we need a taxonomy of the terms Kant uses for these concepts. It used to be thought that Kant had little room for emotions in his ethics. In the past three decades, Marcia Baron, Paul Guyer, Barbara Herman, Nancy Sherman, Allen Wood and others have argued otherwise. Contrary to what a cursory reading of the Groundwork may indicate, Kant thinks the emotions play an important role in the moral life. I want to extend the work of Baron, Guyer, Herman, Sherman and Wood in three ways. First, I will set out in a diagram Kant's taxonomy of feelings and emotions. Agreement on such a taxonomy should make it easier to evaluate debates about Kant and the emotions. Second, I will focus on a certain subclass of emotions – reason-caused affects – that have previously received little attention, even from these Kant scholars. Third, these scholars base much of their defence of Kant on his later works – especially the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) and the Anthropology (1798) – but Kant's fairly rich taxonomy of the emotions, including reason-caused affects, is clearly in place at least as early as the Critique of Judgment (1790). I believe that the Critique of Judgment is an importantly ignored resource for understanding the moral role of the emotions for Kant. The third Critique makes positive, philosophically interesting claims about the emotions and morality. Kant emphasizes certain roles for emotions in this work that he develops to the same extent nowhere else. Nevertheless, the Critique of Judgment goes all but unmentioned by many who write on these issues. In what follows, I will defend as many of my claims as possible using the third Critique.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2002

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1 See Baron, Marcia, Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Herman, Barbara, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Sherman, Nancy, Making a Necessity of Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Guyer, Paul, Kant and the Experience of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; and Wood, Allen, Kant's Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

I cite books by book name and Akademie volume and page numbers. I use the following abbreviations for book names. Also listed are the translations I use. When I alter these translations for terminological consistency, I will so indicate.

A Anthropology from a Pragmatic Standpoint (1798), tr. Gregor, Mary (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974).Google Scholar

G Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), tr. Gregor, Mary, inGoogle Scholar, KantPractical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

K2 Critique of Practical Reason (1788), tr. Gregor, Mary, in , KantPractical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

K3 Critique of Judgment (1790), tr. Pluhar, Werner (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987).Google Scholar

MM Metaphysics of Morals (1797), tr. Gregor, Mary, in , KantPractical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

R Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), tr. Giovanni, George di, in , Kant, Religion and Rational Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

2 I will discuss three of these reason-caused affects later. Two of these affects appear in the Critique of Judgment; a third and very interesting affect (‘fortitude’) does not appear there. It is the existence of the class of reason-caused affects within Kant's taxonomy of the emotions that I mean is clearly in place in the 1790 third Critique.

3 For example, Werner Pluhar's translation of the third Critique uses ‘emotion’ for Rührung.

4 For one particularly clear use of ‘inclination’ as a technical term see MM 6: 213. Kant concedes here that ‘ordinary speech’ does not use the term 'inclination' as narrowly as he does. He suggests that if we want to accommodate ordinary speech, we could call ‘habitual desire from a pure interest of reason’ (or ‘moral feeling’) ‘sense-free inclination’. In this paper, I will follow Kant's standard, narrower use of inclination as a technical term for only ‘habitual sensible desire’.

5 Lectures on Ethics, Infield tr.; quoted in , Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, p. 339.Google Scholar Kant's distinction here parallels Hutcheson's distinction between justifying reasons and motivating reasons. (I thank Allen Wood for pointing out this parallel.) As I indicate above, Kant does not think that empirical desires or inclinations can play either role in an action that is done from duty.

6 However, see G 4: 400.

7 Paul Guyer defends the importance of the active/passive distinction for , Kant in Kant and the Experience of Freedom, pp. 344–50.Google Scholar

8 Throughout this paper, I will be assuming that inclinations never have moral worth for Kant. This is a tempting assumption, given certain well-known passages (for example, G 4: 428). Some interpreters disagree: for instance, Paul Guyer has recently argued that inclinations can have moral worth when they fall under an agent's commitment to the fundamental maxim of morality - the maxim to always do what duty requires from respect for duty (Guyer, ‘Moral worth, virtue, and merit’, in Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness). My argument concedes more than this to a possible objector: suppose inclinations do not have moral worth for Kant; even so, I argue, he believes certain feelings and emotions have a positive moral status.

9 Kant generally uses the terms Begehren and Begehrungsvermögen for the broadest sense of desire in this picture, but sometimes he also uses Begierde. When Kant uses Begierde, he is often careful to indicate whether he is talking about the faculty of desire as a whole or the subclass of pleasure-caused desire. For example, at A 7: 251 he calls pleasure-caused desire ‘desire (Begierde) in the narrow sense’.

10 For example, early in the third Critique, Kant distinguishes objective sensation (objective Empfindung), such as the ‘green color of meadows’, from subjective sensation (subjective Empfindung), such as ‘the color's agreeableness’. One more note about this passage: Kant proposes that for clarity we call only the latter (subjective sensation) ‘feeling’ (Gefühl) (K3, 5: 206). But Kant does not seem to follow this stipulation in the third Critique himself (see Werner Pluhar's footnote in his translation of Critique of Judgement, p. 48, Ak. 5: 206). With this in mind, I treat Gefühl and Empfindung as more or less synonymous for the purposes of this paper.

11 These are Kant's italics.

12 I have placed ‘respect’ in two places in Figure 1. Respect is a feeling, but since it is a feeling necessarily connected with a certain kind of reason-caused desire, and because Kant refers to some desires by the name of the feelings necessarily associated with them, I have represented it among these desires as well. Another note: recall that Kant seems to use the terms ‘respect’ and ‘moral feeling’ more or less synonymously until the Metaphysics of Morals in 1797 (see MM 6: 399-403), when he distinguishes them as I will explain. The terms seem to be synonymous in the third Critique: cf. 5: 222,289,292, etc.

13 For consistency here, I substitute 'sensible desire' for Gregor's translation, ‘sensuous appetite’.

14 Kant even cautions against habitual moral maxims, since in this case too an agent would not be acting freely (MM 6: 409).

15 Werner Pluhar, whose translation of the third Critique I follow in this paper, consistently renders Rührungen as ‘emotions’. Both because ‘emotions’ fails to fully capture the movement or alternation in feeling suggested by the German word Rührungen (and related words such as rühren, ‘to stir or move’), and because I am already using the term ‘emotions’ in a more general way, I will change Pluhar's translations accordingly.

16 Affekt is one of the least consistently rendered words in English translations of Kant. Mary Gregor often translates Affekt as ‘emotional agitation’ in her 1974 translation of the Anthropology and her 1971 translation of the Metaphysics of Morals. Once Kant formally defines the term at A 7: 251, she sometimes (but not consistently) renders the term as the English word ‘affect’. However, in her 1996 Cambridge translation of the Metaphysics of Morals she generally chooses to use ‘emotion’. Dowdell's 1978 translation of the Anthropology prefers ‘emotion’. Again, for consistency, I have altered the translations included in this paper so that Affekt appears as the English word ‘affect’.

17 For simplicity, I have drawn Figure 2 so that all affects are stirrings. This seems reasonable to me, but Kant does not settle this issue definitively. Affects clearly involve a sudden change of feeling, but it is unclear whether Kant thinks they always include a movement between opposite feelings. Nothing important that I say above depends on this issue.

18 Pluhar and Bernard render Schwärmerei as ‘fanaticism’ in their respective translations of the third Critique. This rendering has the virtue of lessening the chance that English readers will confuse the term with Enthusiasmus. But an interesting historical point is preserved by rendering Schwärmerei as ‘enthusiasm’: Kant apparently intended Schwärmerei as a German translation of the English term ‘enthusiasm’ as Locke used it in the Essay (see Locke's Essay, bk 4, ch. 19). I thank Allen Wood for this point about translation.

19 As above, Kant's German word for ‘enthusiasm’ in the passages quoted in this paragraph is Enthusiasm or Enthusiasmus, not Schwärmerei.

20 Kant carefully proceeds to note that while the presentation of the moral law can naturally create ‘enthusiasm’ (Enthusiasm), there is no danger of t i creating ‘fanaticism’ (Schwärmerei), a very different sort of emotion -one that includes the expectation of being able to sense something beyond the bounds of sensibility (K3 5: 275). See my earlier comments on Enthusiasmus and Schwärmerei.

21 Interestingly, Kant's discussion of Bewunderung occurs in the same section where he discusses the affect of enthusiasm (K3 5: 272).

22 Does Kant think that the feeling associated with the sublime is necessarily reason-produced? This is not entirely clear in the third Critique. It does not need to be in order to play the positive role of making us aware of our noumenal freedom. However, Kant thinks that the sort of ‘astonishment’ that results in awareness of the supersensible - an affect that appears related t o the feeling of the sublime - can be reason-produced (see A 7: 261).

23 For more on the emotions as morally informative in Kant, see Sherman, Nancy, Making a Necessity of Virtue, and ‘Reasons and feelings in Kantian morality’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 55 (June 1995), 369–77; see alsoCrossRefGoogle ScholarGuyer's, Paul response to Sherman, ‘Moral anthropology in Kant's aesthetics and ethics: a reply to Ameriks and Sherman’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 55 (June 1995), 379–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 I wish to thank Allen Wood for his generous comments on this paper. I also wish to thank Pierre Keller, Karsten Harries, the editor and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.