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Schleiermacher contra Kant

In his introduction to Schleiermacher’s On Religion, Richard Crouter covers five distinctions between Schleiermacher’s religious theories and those of Kant, who (along with Fichte) heavily influenced Schleiermacher. In the following piece, I’ll present Crouter’s five distinctions and where possible include supporting passages from the text to further clarify the points.

(Please contact me with any suggestions for expansion or corrections. I am by no means a scholar of Kant or Schleiermacher, as this rudimentary text should attest to. I would love to be guided in the right direction.)

1. The Eschatological Framework

Richard Crouter points out that “both works have an eschatological framework. The idea that ultimate religious fulfillment can only occur in an indefinite future is shared by both thinkers.” [Schleiermacher: xxii] Essentially, religion’s complete role will not be felt until some “end time”, though there is some disagreement in what that time may consist of.

Kant believes “the struggle for fulfillment in the form of duty that acts against inclination and desire is dominant”. [Schleiermacher: xxii] In his view, we are far from achieving the perfect world, but may someday attain it if we follow a duty-based morality.

In Schleiermacher, “a serene moment of eternity is disclosed in the immediate relationship of an individual to the universe.” [Schleiermacher: xxii] He says, in fact, that “intuition of the universe … is the highest and most universal formula of religion on the basis of which you should be able to find every place in religion, from which you may determine its essence and its limits.” [Schleiermacher: 24]

“To have religion means to intuit the universe, and the value of your religion depends on upon the manner in which you intuit it, on the principle that you find in its actions.” [Schleirmacher: 52] Intuition of the universe is more important to religion’s aims than even God himself, an idea I will return to in point five.

2. Humanity and the Broken World

Crouter says that “both philosophies of religion envisage the human in a broken world.” [Schleiermacher: xxii-xxiii] Both also accept the doctrine of the free will. (Schleiermacher explicitly says that an “individual instance of religion … cannot be established other than through free choice” — no free will, and the concept of religion loses all meaning.) [Schleiermacher: 104]

“Kant’s account of human nature goes far beyond simple ‘dualism’. In addition to an inherent ‘propensity for good’ the human ‘inclination to evil’ is inextirpable, even if able to be overcome by a good will.” [Schleiermacher: xxii-xxiii]

In fact, contrary to Crouter’s phrasing, Kant stresses the “propensity” to evil more than to the good. He does, however, makes clear the distinction between “propensity” and “predisposition” — Kant believes in free will, and accepts that while man may be drawn to evil, he is by no means already determined to set down such a path. I is man’s frailty that allows evil in. (To complicate things, Kant further says a “propensity” is a “predisposition” to crave what is delightful. I find this blending of turns more confusing than helpful.) [Kant: 24]

Kant further says “man is evil by nature” but quickly qualifies this claim by tempering his definitions to reduce the initially blunt assessment. “Evil” is defined as “conscious of the moral law” but deviating from it regardless. And “evil by nature” means that “we may presuppose evil to be subjectively necessary to every man”. He does not claim, as the term possibly implies, that evil is the driving force of mankind. [Kant: 27]

Man’s “predisposition” is to good. He inherently has a “good will” and strives for what is good and right. We may think of these two concepts as the division between man’s animal and moral instincts… while our most basic instincts and appetites do not take morality into account, a rational man realizes his desires may not be morally upright and more often than not will choose to deny himself that desire. [Kant: 21]

“Kant’s acknowledgment of ‘radical evil’ in human nature complicates Schleiermacher’s perception of a shallow optimism and artificiality in Kant’s anthropology. The analogue in On Religion lies in the analysis of the interplay of finitude with the infinite, the loss of wholeness that occurs in the quest for higher unity.” [Schleiermacher: xxii-xxiii]

Schleiermacher doesn’t draw such a strong distinction between the will and desire. In On the Worth of Life, he says “Knowing and desiring should not be two in me, but one.” [Schleiermacher: xxi] In general, he refuses to see the two forces as a struggle but more as a “dance”. Schleiermacher would not necessarily deny that man has evil desires or good intentions, but would put less emphasis on separating these forces in the human spirit, as they are complementary.

In other words, Kant saw a “division of reality” between “the realms of necessity and freedom”, and Schleiermacher makes no such claim. [Schleiermacher: xxvi]

3. External Authority and Morality

Crouter points out that both believe “external authority cannot be a compelling guide on questions of morality or religion. The moral and rational truth of religion symbolized in biblical and church teachings needs the philosopher for its explication.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii]

“For Kant, Jesus is the archetype and exemplar of the categorical imperative in the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii] Certainly, many have noticed the similarity between Kant’s ethics and the ethics of Jesus, with the Categorical Imperative being little more than a reworking of the Golden Rule, itself not an idea original to Jesus.

Kant refers to Jesus as “the ideal of humanity”. [Kant: 120] Jesus as an “archetype” is laid out repeatedly. Kant stresses that Jesus could not have risen from mankind “to the ideal of holiness” but could only be an “archetype” that “has come down to us from heaven and has assumed our humanity”, as humans — unlike Jesus — are naturally evil. [Kant: 54] Striving to be as much like the Son of God as possible is a worthy goal.

Schleiermacher sees Jesus as a teacher, guide and mediator, but not necessarily the one and only guide. He says we ought to “seek out among all the holy men in whom humanity is immediately revealed one who could be the mediator between your limited way of thinking and the eternal limits of the world; and when you have found him, go through all of humanity and let everything that heretofore appeared to you differently be illumined by the reflection of this new light.” [Schleiermacher: 41]

“If everything finite requires higher mediation in order not to stray even farther from the universe and become dispersed into emptiness and nothingness, in order to retain its connection with the universe and come to conscious awareness of it, then indeed what mediates cannot possibly be something merely finite that, in turn, requires mediation. It must belong to both; it must be part of the divine nature just as much as and in the same sense in which it is part of the finite.” [Schleiermacher: 120]

“For Schleiermacher, Jesus is the mediator, par excellence, who knows that the finite can only imperfectly become a bearer of the infinite and must undergo death in this cosmic process.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii] “But [Jesus] never claimed to be the sole instance in the application of his idea, the sole mediator, and he never confused his school with a religion.” [Schleiermacher: 121]

Schleiermacher’s goal is to connect people with the infinite, not to connect them with a particular religious leader from a particular time. Jesus was able to connect his followers to the idea of the infinite. In other religions, other leaders may be able to do the same. If we recognize the goal as reaching the infinite, we will have less concern with the specific individual who helped us get there.

Buddhists, likewise, do not see the original or “Supreme” Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) as a solitary figure. There are an infinite number of Buddhas, with the title simply meaning one who has achieved enlightenment. If one is able to teach others, he (or she) ranks no higher or lower than any other Buddha. (The exact beliefs vary depending on the school of Buddhism one chooses to accept.)

For those who take the Bible literally, Kant is clearly in the right. The first letter of Paul to Timothy (Chapter 2, Verse 5) clearly states that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Though, for those who take the Bible literally, this would be the least of their objections to Schleiermacher’s liberalism.

4. Natural Religion versus Positive Religion

Crouter notes that “the moral community envisaged by Kant genuinely exists in history. But unlike Schleiermacher, especially in the Fourth and Fifth speeches, true religion is less able to find expression in institutions. Both figures seek to ward off the corruption of true religion by the false intrusion of politics and the state.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii]

“Kant’s natural or moral religion contrasts with ecclesiastical faith that is rooted in Scripture, myth, miracles, and ritual.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii]

“Schleiermacher argues that natural religion is shallow and artificial and sees actual lived religion (‘positive religions’) as the locus of true faith.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii] He says he must “protest most vehemently against this preference” for natural religion. He “must declare this preference for natural religion to be the grossest inconsistency and the most obvious self-contradiction”. [Schleiermacher: 98]

Natural religion, for Schleiermacher, “is usually so refined and has such philosophical and moral manners that it allows little of the unique character of religion to shine through.” Positive religion, on the contrary, “has exceedingly strong features and a very marked physiognomy, so that it unfailingly reminds one of what it really is with every movement it makes and with every glance one casts upon it.” [Schleiermacher: 98]

Schleiermacher acknowledges flaws in positive religions: how they have principles contrary to what he considers true religion, how they focus on their differences with other positive religions and highlight their uniqueness rather than ignore the trivial differences. He admits they contain “a code of empty customs and a system of abstract concepts”. Schleiermacher accepts these as “distortions”, “degeneration” and “deviation” and shares a “repugnance” for them. [Schleiermacher: 99]

Why then, does he defend positive religion? Because Schleiermacher sees each and every religion as a finite representation of the infinite (even though flawed), whereas natural religion remains vague and unconnected to the infinite.

Or as Schleiermacher asserts in his own words, “You will find that precisely the positive religions are these determinate forms in which infinite religion manifests itself in the finite, and that natural religion cannot claim to be something similar inasmuch as it is merely an indefinite, insufficient, and paltry idea that can never really exist by itself. You will find that in these positive religions alone a true, individual development of the religious capacity is possible and that by their very essence they do no injury at all to the freedom of their confessors.” [Schleiermacher: 100]

5. Christian Orthodoxy

One of the biggest problems in Christianity is trying to reconcile it with logic, science and rationality. Kant tried hard to take Christian views and fit them into a schema that made sense rationally. Schleiermacher, on the other hand, more or less side-stepped the ideas of “God” and “immortality” as more symbolic and less important than traditionally made out to be.

Crouter believes that “it is ironic that Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone rationalizes the claims of dogmatic theology, while On Religion stands aloof from the intellectual problems of specific Christian dogmas. Of course, Schleiermacher’s mature theological work, The Christian Faith, makes good on the omission in ways never attempted by Kant. The two works illustrate the transformation of traditional religion in modern Western thought in ways that confound modernizing “neologists” as much as orthodox Lutherans. The Romantic view seems more radical in reaching towards a religious naturalism that offers a distinctive alternative to traditional theism; yet that reorientation provides a new foundation for theology in the post-Kantian period. If we bear in mind Schleiermacher’s radicality on just those issues that Kant defends (God and immortality), his argument stands in stark contrast.” [Schleiermacher: xxiii]

Kant’s views of God do not stray far from traditional Christianity. He views God as the Father, the Creator, an architect, wholly good and infinite. He sees God as a “Necessary Being”. [Kant: 45] Further examination is not necessary, as there is little novelty in Kant’s approach.

Kant also views immortality in a largely traditional and orthodox way, stressing that those who strive to counter evil will be given a another life after this one, what Kant calls the “future life”. [Kant: 62] He believes — falsely — that “no religion can be conceived of which involves no belief in a future life” and singles out Judaism as “not a religious faith at all.” [Kant: 117] He accepts the idea of an “end of the world”, where “immortality commences for both parties [the just and the wicked], to the salvation of one, the damnation of the other.” [Kant: 126] His source is the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which may seem odd considering the alleged claim that this is “religion within the limits of reason alone”.

Michael Forster says that “Schleiermacher sharply rejects Kant’s alternative moral proof of an otherworldly God and human immortality (Kant’s proof of them by showing them to be necessary presuppositions of morality); for Schleiermacher religion can no more be based on morality than on metaphysics or science.” Schleiermacher himself states that in religion, “the idea of God does not rank as high as you think.” [Schleiermacher: 53] Further, that “God is not everything, but one, and the universe is more.” [Schleiermacher: 54]

“If we immediately proceed to the highest concept, to that of a highest being, of a spirit of the universe that rules it with freedom and understanding, religion is still not dependent on this idea… if you cannot deny that the idea of God adapts itself to each intuition in the universe, you must also admit that one religion without God can be better than another with God.” [Schleiermacher: 52]

Schleiermacher has a dislike for the traditional view of immortality and does not shy away from saying so. “I cannot conceal that the way in which most people take [immortality] and their longing after it is completely irreligious, exactly contrary to the spirit of religion.” [Schleiermacher: 53] Recapping his belief in mediating the infinite, he says to “be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite and to be eternal in a moment, that is the immortality of religion.” [Schleiermacher: 54]


Forster, Michael. “Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Published April 17, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Harper Torchbooks, 1960.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Cambridge University Press, 1996. (Translation and introduction by Richard Crouter)

Also try another article under Philosophical, Religious
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Schleiermacher contra Kant”

  1. Jason S Says:

    Hi Gavin,
    Good work on this article. I have not read it entirely, but skimmed it for the gist. I am still only a student of Schleiermacher and Kant. They are very important for philosophy, Kant more so. You’ve done well to stick close to the texts in this article. If you are looking for some extra insight:

    Schleiermacher, though he talked about the infinite more generically in “On Religion”, has a fairly objective interest in what the intuition of this “infinite” is. Overall, it is difficult to see how the infinite distinguishes between God and Nature (they seem like the same thing). This is Spinoza’s influence (see Spinoza’s Ethics). I do not think that Schleiermacher is a pantheist, but I also think that sometimes, by his language, one cannot tell.

    You might be giving Kant a little too much credit for towing with Scripture. When Kant sets up his epistemology in the Critique of Pure Reason, there is not much place for religion. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is more of an ethical work with religion subordinated to it. In the end, Kant would say that God is not necessary–He is only an incentive for willing the good. Eventually, one should do the good as its own end. So, when you say that Kant has Christ being the only mediator of the good, that is because Kant is speaking to a Christian audience–but the criteria for Christ as mediator is not an exclusive criteria. Buddha might just as well be another mediator. But you are right about Schleiermacher going the same route.

    Well, just thought I’d give you one student’s response. Check up my facts for yourself and see whether they are sound.


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