Kant on Emotions

Table of contents

Emotions are an integral part of human beings. Therefore, human beings are often called emotional beings. In fact, they are the only species among all the other species to have developed a complex web of emotions. Emotions indeed help us to perceive and experience reality better. But many are of the opinion that emotions and reason do not go always together. They have been often projected as two opposing poles in human beings.

Therefore, there is always a prejudice that philosophy (rationality) has no place in emotional life and Philosophers are often projected as emotionless beings, who lay undue importance on the reason only. On the contrary, we discover that many philosophers have systematically thought about human emotions, and have deeply reflected upon their importance in shaping a healthy human being.

In my seminar paper, I want to explore the understanding of emotions and their role in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He seems to be convinced that human emotions are to be guided by human reason. According to him, authentic emotions are only those emotions, which are guided by human reason.

Kant’s major contribution includes that of the reasoned-caused-feeling. With a systematic theoretical enterprise he has contributed two important aspects; the feeling is permanently liberated from the general suspicion of irrationalism, and reason itself is conceived as the origin of emotions. By expressing the emotion as an integral moment of reason, it is specified at the same time with regard to its rational functions: not all arbitrary sensations of pleasure and pain, but those feelings whose origin can be made evident in processes of reflection as an emotional theory.

Theory of Emotions in Immanuel Kant

It is necessary and important to understand and comprehend the taxonomy of emotions and various terms Kant uses to refer to emotions in order to understand Kant’s theory of emotions. It used to be thought that Kant had little room for emotions in his moral philosophy.

However, in the past decades Marcia Baron, Paul Guyer, Barbara Herman, Nancy Sherman, Allen Wood, and others have researched and have argued otherwise. As a result of their research, it is proved that for Kant emotions play a significant role in the moral life. In my seminar paper, I survey the taxonomy of emotions in Kant’s moral philosophy and their significance in moral decisions.

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). The Critique of Judgment makes positive, philosophically interesting claims about emotions and morality. However, it would be wrong to say that Kant has a “theory” of emotions because he never gives a general, overarching account of them in a single place.

Various Terms for Emotions

To say that Kant has a “theory” about the emotions would be a misstatement for at least two reasons. The first reason is terminological. Kant does not use one single general term for emotions. He employs many German words which are generally translated in English as “emotions”; for example Gefühl, Affekt, and Rührung. For Kant, none of these words play the same role. Therefore, it is important that we examine them carefully and define their meaning in the right context.

However, Kant has a long list of affects, passions and he makes a clear distinction between them. Kant employs the words which relate to a particular state of mind and faculties; Inclinations (Neigungen), affects (Affekten), passions (Leidenschaften), desires (Begierden). They are all technical terms.

Inclinations (Neigung)

Does Kant limit the role of emotions in Moral life? This sort of questions arises because of his use of term Inclinations (Neigung). The Inclination is Kant’s technical term for “habitual sensible desire” (habituelle sinnliche Begierde). Inclinations cover a broad spectrum of desire/feelings including love and sympathy. Therefore, it would be wrong to argue that Kant assigns no special moral esteem to inclinations and would be wrong to conclude that Kant has no place for love and sympathy in his moral philosophy.

However, in his Groundwork, he gives two reasons to show that inclinations are not a suitable foundation for morality. First, inclinations cannot be a reliable criterion or measuring rod for morality, since one may be inclined to do what is not right. Second, inclinations cannot be a reliable motivation for morality, since there will certainly be occasions where one may not be inclined to do what is right. Furthermore, there is a third crucial reason to question the moral status of inclinations.

For Kant, inclinations are not the products of an active, free will, but rather the products of deterministic nature that we possess passively without any activity of our own. As such, they are not suitable objects for moral esteem. The notion of Freedom is very important for Kant. Only those actions have moral worth, which is chosen out of one’s free will. Therefore, Kant refuses to inclinations any moral worth. To deny inclinations moral worth does not mean that all other emotions also lack moral worth.

Passions (Leidenschaften)

Passions (Leidenschaften) are within inclinations another sub-class of desires much more dangerous to morality. Passions are reflectively integrated habitual sensible desires. They are simply very strong and very long lasting inclinations. They are persistent, habitual and deliberate. The metaphors Kant uses to describe passions stress the pervasiveness and internality with which they attach to an agent’s maxims: passions are “like a stream that burrows ever deeper in its bed”. The principal danger of passion is that it takes away the freedom of mind.

Three general Faculties of Human Mind

According to Kant, the human mind consists of three general faculties or powers. He makes this clear in the table of faculties included in the Introduction to the third Critique. The three faculties are cognition, feeling (of either pleasure or displeasure), and desire. The relation between feelings and desires is very crucial and important to understand Kant’s view of emotions.

Feelings (Gefühle, Empfindungen)

Feeling (Gefühl, Empfindung) is the capacity to be susceptible to pleasure and pain. The Feeling is also Kant’s term for specific instances of this susceptibility to pleasure and pain, that is, for specific pleasures and pains, not just to the capacity to have them. Such Susceptibility is necessary for any human experience. Susceptibility to sensible pleasure and pain, then, is a condition at the deepest root of human experience.

In the human mind, the faculty of desire is distinct from the faculty of feeling. But they are interconnected in an important way. Such a relation gives rise to two distinguished types of feelings: feelings necessarily not connected with desires and feelings necessarily connected to desires.

The first sort of feelings is not necessarily associated with desires. Pleasure is not attached to the object rather only to the representation by itself. Kant calls this pleasure inactive delight and feelings associated with this ‘Taste’. To experience something as beautiful is to represent it to oneself disinterestedly, that is, to find one’s representation of an object agreeable without necessarily taking an interest in the existence of the object. One can experience this sort of pleasure without trying to make some change in the physical world.

The second sort of feelings is necessarily connected with desires. Pleasure is attached to the existence of the object and not just one’s own representation of it. Kant calls this sort of pleasure particular pleasure (Begehren, or Begerungsvermögen). To desire something, then, is to represent it with a feeling of pleasure and to seek to bring it about.

Further, there are sub-classes of feelings that are not necessarily connected to desires. Kant calls them Rührungen. It could be translated as stirrings. Stirrings are constituted by a movement from or alternation between one feeling and its opposite. This makes them more complex than, for example, aesthetic feelings, which require no such movement between opposites.

If stirrings reach a certain level of strength, they can become affects (Affekten). Affects impede human reflections. An affect is “a feeling of pleasure or displeasure in (a subject’s) present state that does not let him rise to reflection. They are sudden and overwhelming “like water breaking through a dam”. Kant helpfully and consistently contrasts affects with passions in the three major texts where he discusses them.

Affects prevent reflection, but passions are insidiously compatible with it; affects are sudden, short and “open”; passions “cunning,” “hidden,” and long-lasting.
Both passions and affects are threats to the sovereignty of reason. While passion is always evil and vice, affects can indeed co-exist with the best will. Kant considers affects less negatively than passions. Kant believes that reason can produce not only a handful of feelings such as moral feeling and respect but a variety of affects as well.

Desire (Begehren, Begehrungsvermögen)

Desire necessarily involves feelings. But desire is classified into two sorts: pleasure-caused desire and reason-caused desire. Kant calls pleasure-caused desire “desire in the narrow sense” (Begierde). In this case, an agent/person seeks to bring about the existence of some object or state of affairs because of some antecedent pleasure. When these desires are habitual, Kant gives them their own term: inclinations.

In the reasoned-caused-desires pleasure is the effect of the desire. Here it is the reason that causes the desire, which in turn results in pleasure. For Kant, one such reason-caused-desires is respect or moral feeling. Human beings have the susceptibility or the predisposition to moral feeling. It is the condition of morality. Just as there is no experience without the capacity for pleasure and pain, there is no morality without the capacity for the specific feeling of respect or moral feeling.

The moral feeling of Respect (Das moralische Gefühl der Achtung)

The faculty of feeling has important connections to Kant’s theoretical philosophy. He devotes much more attention to feeling’s importance on the practical side of things. But there is one feeling that is consistently celebrated in Kant’s moral theory. It is the feeling of moral respect.

Respect or moral feeling is not the only emotion reason can produce. According to the Metaphysics of Morals, reason can also produce the following four feelings: conscience, love of human beings, moral feeling, and respect.

Moral feeling or respect seems to be the only sort of emotion that we can know about a priori. According to Kant’s model of moral psychology, reason must produce action by producing desire in a person/agent. On the other hand, affects are a posterior.

According to Kant, what is singular about motivation by duty is that it consists of bare respect for the moral law. What naturally comes to mind is this: Duties are rules or laws of some sort combined with some sort of felt constraint or incentive on our choices, whether from external coercion by others or from our own powers of reason. For instance, every social, public and private institution has certain laws which are expected to be respected and abided.

However intuitive, this cannot be all of Kant’s meaning. For certain laws which we abide may be morally despicable. Respect for such laws could hardly be thought valuable. For another, our motive in conforming our actions to civic and other laws is rarely unconditional respect. Out of fear we may obey certain laws. We also have an eye toward doing our part in maintaining civil or social order, toward punishments or loss of standing and reputation in violating such laws. Indeed, we respect these laws to only a degree. Yet Kant thinks that, in acting from duty, we are not at all motivated by a prospective outcome or some other extrinsic feature of our conduct except insofar as these are requirements of duty itself. We are motivated by the mere conformity of our will to the law as such.

What does it mean to act out of respect to moral law? In Kant’s view, it is to be moved to act by the recognition that the moral law is a supremely authoritative standard that binds us and to experience a kind of feeling. It is a sort of awe and fear when we acknowledge the moral law as the source of moral requirements. Human persons inevitably have respect for the moral law even though we are not always moved by it and even though we do not always comply with the moral standards that we nonetheless recognize as authoritative.
Kant’s account of the content of moral requirements and the nature of moral reasoning is based on his analysis of the unique force moral considerations have as reasons to act. The force of moral requirements as reasons is that we cannot ignore them no matter how circumstances might conspire against any other consideration. Basic moral requirements retain their reason-giving force under any circumstance, they have universal validity. So, whatever else may be said of basic moral requirements, their content is universal. Only a universal law could be the content of a requirement that has the reason-giving force of morality.

This brings Kant to a preliminary formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. This is the principle which motivates a good will, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of all of morality.

The Aesthetic Feelings ( Die ästhetischen Gefühle)

We need to keep in mind that beauty and sublimity not really properties of objects, rather, they are ways in which we respond to objects. This does not reduce the aesthetic value to a mere function of an individual or personal taste. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are both subjective and universal. They are subjective, because they are responses of pleasure, and do not essentially involve any claims about the properties of the object itself. (What matters is not the picture I see; rather it is the pleasing effect of the picture on me). They are universal and not merely personal.

Kant divided the kind of aesthetic response into the response to the beautiful (Das Gefühl des Schönen), and to the sublime (Das Gefühl des Erhabenen). All judgments of beauty involve four components or moments: namely, disinterested enjoyment, universality, a form of purposiveness, necessity. Disinterested enjoyment refers to an appreciation for an object without desiring it. It refers to desires, which represent objects in terms of what we want. Universality refers to stand, where we judge an object to be beautiful, implicit in the judgment is the belief that everyone should judge the object in the same way.

Beautiful objects sem to be “for” something, even though there is nothing determinate that they are for. This is referred to as a form of purposiveness. Finally, judgments of the beautiful involve necessity. When presented with a beautiful object, I take it that I ought to judge it as beautiful. For example, a flower is beautiful because we can recognize its organization, its symmetry, its colors as useful characteristics in a thing and this pleases us, but the thing itself is essentially useless to us, and so we call it beautiful. It possesses Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck, purposefulness without purpose.

Apart from judgments of beauty, there is another important form of aesthetic experience: the experience of the sublime. The sublime, by contrast, according to Kant, is a response of awe before the infinite or the overwhelming. The experience of the sublime occurs when we face things (whether natural or manmade) that makes the imagination small and make us feel tiny and insignificant in comparison; for example, standing in front of Niagara Falls.

Although this sort of experience can be disturbing, Kant also says that a disinterested pleasure (similar to the pleasure in the beautiful) is experienced when the ideas of reason pertaining to the totality of the cosmos are brought into play. The pleasure it gives us derives from our awareness that there is something in us that transcends the overwhelming power or infinity outside us. This feeling that reason can subsume and capture even the totality of the immeasurable cosmos leads to the peculiar pleasure of the sublime.

Kant identifies beauty with a quality, namely purposefulness, but the sublime he identifies with a quantity and that quantity is unlimited. Beauty, according to Kant, is calming, the sublime disrupts us, disturbs us. The purpose of the beautiful is, as Kant describes it, pre-adaptable to our judgment, and thus constitutes in itself an object of satisfaction. But the purposelessness of the sublime is just the opposite: it seems to violate purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty.  To encounter the sublime, Kant says, “does violence to the imagination.”

There is, in the world, considerable pressure to develop dispositions of disregard. That is, the larger narrative of our lives must be disregarded in favor of the smaller and more varied narratives of hundred small demands: what must be done to get a promotion, to buy a house, to feed the family and secure job. Kant describes an aesthetic experience that seems to transcend these dispositions.

It is an experience of a release that results in a pleasure that is somehow edifying and is connected to an awareness of some kind of higher purpose to our lives that is revealed by reason. In both cases, the experience entails a confrontation with extreme anxiety that yields to a feeling of release and pleasure, which Kant calls joy. I consider this experience in terms of transcendence, a transcendence of sensitivity and openness to the larger structure of our lives.


It was fascinating to discover that Kant does not understand human being as pure rational being. That has been always my prejudice against Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason refers to reason that is at the same time sensuous, and therefore not purely rational (ein vernunftgewirktes Gefühl). Kant acknowledges the delimitation of the human as infinite understanding in contrast to divine intellect.

The feeling can only be a sensual and therefore physical being. But, the notion of reason-caused-feeling (ein vernunftgewirktes Gefühl), which has been thoroughly documented in the two instances of the moral sense of respect and aesthetic feeling, holds in return the rational-theoretical point, the feeling that would not be possible without the element of sensibility, as an element of reason. Emotions entail both sensibility and reason. For Kant, they are authentic feelings.


  • Recki, Birgit, “Keine Theorie der Affekte-eine begrüdete Vernachlässigung‘‘, Landweer, Hilge and Renz, Ursula, Klassischen Emotionstheorien. Von Platon bis Wittgenstein. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.
  • Sorensen, Kelly D, Kant’s Taxonomy of the Emotions. Ursinus College: Philosophy and Religious Studies Faculty Publications, 2002.
    Internet sources
  • Gilmore, Richard, “Philosophical Beauty: The Sublime in the Beautiful in Kant’s Third Critique and Aristotle’s Poetics” see URL: https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Aest/AestGilm.htm (accessed on 07/04/2019).
  • Johnson, Robert, and Cureton, Adam, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: see URL https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/kant-moral (accessed 3003/2019).
    Tim Jankowiak, “Immanuel Kant”: see URL https://www.iep.utm.edu/kantview/#SH7a (accessed 30/03/2019).

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