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Project of the Month: Solipsism and Autonomy in the German Enlightenment

Each month, we aim to feature a current research topic by a doctoral student or Early Career Researcher. This month, Ingrid Schreiber (Oxford, Wadham College) talks about the tension between intellectual self-sufficiency and the need to test ideas in an intellectual community in the work of Kant and the Königsberg circle.


Human beings, argued philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), cannot escape their own egos. There is an unavoidable sense of selfhood built into consciousness and reinforced by the linguistic ‘I.’ Unfortunately, when left unchecked, this foundational subjectivity spawns egoism: a pathological solipsism where our faculties fail to advance beyond the boundaries of our own minds. Kant diagnosed three forms of egoism to match his three critiques: aesthetic, moral, and logical.

Immanuel Kant Zweite Ausführung für Johann Gottfried Carl Christian Kiesewetter (Gottlieb Doebler, 1791)

Aesthetic egoism is straightforward: the complete self-sufficiency of the faculty of taste, a lamentable self-incurred isolation which prevents any self-development through discourse. Likewise, Kant had only disdain for the moral egoist: someone who, eschewing duty, acts solely out of utility, self-interest, and personal advantage.

But logical egoism — that is, egoism of the faculty of the understanding — is a bit murkier. For Kant, a logical egoist was someone who considers it unnecessary to test their judgements against the understanding of others. Given the need to assess our judgements intersubjectively to reach objectivity, such an attitude easily leads to error. More pragmatically, defying popular opinion too starkly is unlikely to earn thinkers much public confidence!

Yet, simultaneously, he claimed, it is precisely this attitude which enables the act of philosophising at all. Such confidence is the indispensable self-belief of intellectual creativity, the necessary conviction that allows us to form, articulate, and assert subjective opinion. Kant went on to commend the opposite of egoism: pluralism, the state where one sees oneself as a member of a community. But after his treatment of logical egoism, this advocacy seems half-hearted. The imperative of intellectual autonomy, enshrined in the rallying Enlightenment cry to think for yourself — sapere aude! — pervades his discussion of egoism.

Increasingly across the eighteenth century, selbstdenken — thinking for yourself — came to be regarded by German savants as the hallowed centrepiece of their challenge to orthodoxy. Indeed, the ideal of autonomy (whether political, moral, or intellectual) enjoyed such dominance in the moral economy of the Enlightenment that it continues to shape both our understanding of the period and the liberal paradigm we all inhabit.

Autonomy defined citizenship, legal personhood, and rational objectivity. Only truly self-sufficient individuals, those with the so-called Mündigkeit of financial and intellectual independence, could participate in civil society as active subjects and rational thinkers.

Yet, as Kant demonstrated, these concepts are inherently problematic. For just next to self-sufficiency lurks a dark underbelly: isolation, selfishness, misanthropy, even madness. Freethinking was both the prerequisite for intellectual rigour and what undermined it: an invitation to solipsism and fanaticism. To have been a recluse — an Einsiedler — in eighteenth-century Germany seems a precarious balancing act between self-determination and ostracisation. When did independence cross the threshold from virtue to vice? What was the distinction between autonomy and solipsism? Between self-sufficiency and solitude?

Frontispiece of Johann Georg Zimmermann’s Ueber die Einsamkeit (1784)

My doctoral research, which grew out of earlier work on intellectual melancholy in the Enlightenment, seeks to answer these questions. I focus on late eighteenth-century Königsberg, a port and university city in the Kingdom of Prussia, where Kant lectured for decades. Largely through his student Christian Jakob Kraus (1753–1807), Königsberg was also an important site of reception for the political economy of the Scottish Enlightenment — another ideology centred on individual autonomy. Finally, it was home to a particular kind of cosmopolitan sociability: a mixing of scholarly and mercantile life, where intelligentsia, merchants, and civil officials mingled in work and play. One man truly symbolic of this integration was another former student of Kant’s, Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel (1741–1796), a writer, satirist, statesman, and reformer.

Kant, Kraus, and Hippel lived and worked in close proximity; they were members of the Keyserling salon at the Schliebensche Palace, Kant’s own informal dining society, and the so-called ‘Kanter Akademie’, a circle of literati which revolved around Königsberg publisher Johann Jakob Kanter for two decades from the 1760s. Each wrote on the topics of solitude and sociability, and more broadly on the moral, political, and intellectual dimensions of independence.

By reading them together, my work aims to better understand what it meant to be alone in the German Enlightenment.

⁓ Ingrid Schreiber



Ischreyt, Heinz, ed. Zentren der Aufklärung II: Königsberg und Riga, 1995, reprint. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 2012.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology, History, and Education, edited by Günter Zöller and Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007.

Kant, Immanuel. Kants gesammelte Schriften XV: Handschriftlicher Nachlaß Anthropologie. Akademie Ausgabe. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1913.

Kant, Immanuel. Lectures on Logic, edited by J. Michael Young. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.