Kant's regulative essentialism and the unknowability of real essences

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In his lectures on Logic and Metaphysics, Kant distinguishes between logical and real essences. While the former is related to concepts and is knowable, the latter is related to things and is unknowable. In this paper, I argue that the unknowability is explained by the modal characteristic of real essences as a necessitating ground on which a priori knowledge is impossible. I also show how this claim is related to the unknowable necessity of particular laws of nature. Since laws of nature are conceived as grounded in real essences, the unknowability of the latter is equivalent to Kant's other claim that there can be no knowledge of the necessity of particular laws of nature. Necessity can only be known a priori, and therefore, the necessity of particular laws is only assumed and conceived as grounded in something unknowable, a real essence. This conclusion will allow me to attribute to Kant a position I label as “regulative essentialism”, meaning that real essences have an indispensable role in accordance with the rational interest to explain nature as a system of laws and natural kinds, combined with an epistemic humility about the correspondence of our empirical concepts to real essences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)887-901
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Journal of Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author. European Journal of Philosophy published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


I would like to an anonymous referee for the for their valuable feedback. I am also grateful to James Hebbeler for his insightful comments at the fifth Biennial Meeting of the North American Kant Society in which an earlier version of this paper was presented. This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (grant No. ISF 2907/21). European Journal of Philosophy

FundersFunder number
Israel Science FoundationISF 2907/21


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