Philosophy Broadly Construed (Part III): Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties and Beyond



Drawing of the old university building in Königsberg, circa 1850, by Ludwig Clericus (Archiv Corps Masovia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the previous posts in this series, I gestured toward the broad and inclusive use of the term ‘philosophy’ that I think is most relevant for my work on the Public Philosophy Journal. I also suggested a general view of the ongoing legacy of philosophy that is consistent with this use of the term, and contrasted this general view to an alternative way of characterizing the relationship between philosophy and other disciplines. Understood broadly as the free pursuit of truth1, philosophy not only plays a part in the historical development of different sciences and arts, but it also lives on as one of many important aspects of these practices. As each continues in its own relatively unique direction it takes on more and more of the characteristics by reference to which we distinguish it from the others (i.e., it becomes specialized). Philosophy broadly construed is not one among many of these practices. It is the common thread that continues to run through them and that enables us to relate them to one another within a maximally broad conversation that is open to all, but is not (or, at least, as I see it, should not be) dominated by any one.

This is the clearest articulation I have so far given for the guiding idea that directs me in thinking about the work of the PPJ. I don’t take this idea from any one author or any one school of thought, yet the idea is also clearly not original with me. There are too many authors and schools of thought in which similar ideas can be found for me to claim this as my own or, even, to acknowledge all the debts I owe to each of them. There is, however, one particular author with whose works I have spent a fair amount of time and to whose way of thinking I find myself returning in contexts like this one. The exercise of articulating this broad conception of philosophy has led me, once again, back to Kant!   

One particular model for the use of the term ‘philosophy’ in something like the sense I have suggested can be found in Kant’s discussion of the structure and functioning of Eighteenth-Century German Universities. I believe this use also resonates in various ways both with much older and with much more recent ways of employing the terminology. A more detailed discussion of this model will have to wait for the full text of the paper we are working on, but I can give a brief overview of it here.

Kant was not only one of Eighteenth-Century Europe’s leading intellectuals and the author of several works now considered to be classics of the Western Philosophical Tradition. He was also the first major modern philosopher to make his living teaching courses in philosophy at a university and writing books and essays addressed to a public that consisted of both academic and non-academic readers. In 1798, Kant published a book, entitled The Conflict of the Faculties, that addresses some significant points of dispute that had arisen from the particular positions in which he found himself within the university and within the state.2 The rhetorical strategy Kant employs in defending himself and his practices in this work, the view he presents concerning the university in relation to the state, and his characterization of the faculty of Philosophy in relation to the faculties of Theology, Law, and Medicine are all relevant for my purposes.

The central points I will draw attention to in the full-length discussion of that work stem from Kant’s description of the philosophical faculty of the university primarily in terms of the freedoms it enjoys: namely, freedom from government-sanctioned doctrinal constraints; and freedom to pursue the truth wherever it might lead in making a contribution to the world of learning. Kant realizes all to well that this freedom can, and in many cases does, appear to threaten the status of the various traditional doctrines on which the state relies for maintaining the order necessary for its well-being. Thus, this kind of freedom can also appear to pose a threat to the primary interest of the state. Despite its perceived and much hyped dangers, however, the exercise of this freedom actually plays a vital role in securing the well-being of the state. By taking up received doctrines and investigating them out of a concern for truth, philosophical activity provides a check on the tendency to rely on these doctrines in a largely mechanical fashion, and to lose sight of the real reasons for accepting them in the first place.

According to this configuration of the university, the philosophy faculty clearly is not comprised entirely of people who we today tend to think of as philosophers. It wasn’t even comprised entirely of people who specialize in one or more of the particular areas of philosophical study that Kant himself specializes in. The particular subject matter of one’s research and teaching really plays little or no role in this way of carving up the university at the faculty level. The philosophy faculty is comprised of scholars who are free to pursue and to teach what we now consider to be the arts and sciences in a critical fashion, without interference from the other faculties and from the government. It turns out that they are also the members of the university community whose work is most closely aligned with the pursuits of educated non-academics, with whom they interact as free participants in a community pursuit.

What I am drawing attention to here (in ways that are, admittedly, more suggestive than authoritative) are aspects of the broad conception of philosophical discourse and public engagement that I take to animate the PPJ project. There is, clearly, a lot more that could be said. There is also a lot more that needs to be done.

This is the third of a series of posts in which I will join Chris LongAndré Avillez, and Kris Klotz in reflecting on various aspects and challenges peculiar to our work establishing the Public Philosophy Journal – a joint venture between the Philosophy Department at Penn State and the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University.






  1. Chris Long’s comment on the first post in this series has made me slightly more reluctant to include ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ as, even admittedly imperfect, synonyms for ‘truth’ here. As I note in response to that comment, I think the broad senses of these terms can be used without conflating them, or doing too much violence to more specific uses, but that thought requires some further development. 

  2. Parts of the book had been written up to five years earlier, but Kant withheld them from submission for publication due to political pressures. For a discussion of the context of the production of this work, see Mary J. Gregor’s Introduction to the English-German edition of the work The Conflict of the Faculties/Der Streit der Fakultäten

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