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Kant’s Writings
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Kant’s Life

Academy of Sciences Essay Contests

In imitation of the Paris Academy of Science, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (Königlich Preussische Academie der Wissenschaften or, more accurately, the Académie Royale des Sciences et des Belles-Lettres of Berlin) began holding annual essay contests in 1744 with a prize of 50 ducats (in the form of a commemorative medal). These contests held a wide interest in part because of the philosophical talent found among the Academy members who served as judges. Submissions came in from such luminaries as Lessing, Condillac, Kant, Mendelssohn, Herder, Abbt, Michaelis, Garve, Kaestner. The questions generally drew about a dozen entries – although sometimes none at all – and the 1780 question brought in 42. A number of the questions had to be repeated one or more years before an adequate essay was entered. [Harnack 1900, 1: 397-98; Buschmann 1987; Buschmann 1789]

Kant paid close attention to these essay questions, and wrote responses to four of them: Rotation of the Earth (1754) [writings], Optimism (1759) [writings], Inquiry concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality (1764) [writings], and What Real Progress Has Metaphysics Made in Germany since the Time of Leibniz and Wolff? (written in 1793, but published only postumously in 1804) [writings].  Only the 1764 essay was actually submitted to the Academy (as far as I know), but it received recognition (a certificate of merit or Accessit), and was published alongside Mendelssohn’s winning essay.

The Academy was divided into four “classes” – (1) physical/medical, (2) mathematical, (3) philosophical, and (4) philogical/literary – and these classes took turns submitting the question, normally two years in advance of the year that the entries were due.  That same class was then responsible for evaluating the entries and awarding prizes.  During this process, the entries were kept anonymous, referred to only by coded numbers.

Harnack lists 45 questions, 38 of which attracted prize winning essays.  The winning authors were predominantly German (26), followed by the French (10, including two from Geneva), Italian (1), and Transylvanian (1).  Ten of these prize winners were Lutheran pastors.  The Academy would print the prize essay, along with any receiving an Accessit.

A list of the prize questions and winners (up to the year 1788) can be found in Harnack [1900, 2: 305-9], along with a discursive overview of the prize questions [1: 396-422], and a less systematic discussion of prize essays after 1788 [1: 608-15].[1]

[1] The following material was gathered primarily from Adolf Harnack’s monumental three-volume history of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences of Berlin [Harnack 1900] – see esp. vol. 1, pp. 398-422 and vol. 3, pp. 305-10 – and at the time (years ago) was collected more for my own private use than for public display. Having recently noticed, however, that this information is not readily available on the web, I have thought to add it here, with the hope that, even in its incomplete state, it might be of some use to others.

NB: The years given in the headings, below, refer to when the prize essay was announced; the question itself was usually published about two years earlier.

1745 — On electricity. [top]

Prize essay: Waitz, Financial advisor in Cassel.

1746 — On the wind. [top]

Prize essay: D’Alembert in Paris.

1747 — On the theory of monads. [philosophy] [top]

Prize essay: Justi, Lawyer in Sangerhausen.

This question was hotly debated between the Wolffians (on one side) and Euler on the other (as well as the Academy’s president, Maupertuis — who hadn’t read Wolff, but trusted Euler — and other Newtonians and their friends). The prize was awarded to Justi, an opponent of the theory of monads. Euler later admitted that a certain Leibnizian essayist had been slighted, and should have shared the prize with Justi. (The Academy was so divided on the issue that all four “classes”— not just the philosophical — participated in the judging.)

1748 — How far did the Romans push into northern Germany? [top]

Prize essay: Fein, garrison preacher in Hameln.

1749 — On saltpetre. [top]

Prize essay: Pietsch, Doctor of Medicine in Mansfeld.

1751 — On Leibnizian determinism. [philosophy] [top]

Prize essay: Kästner [bio], Professor of Mathematics in Leipzig.

It was clear that the Academy was looking for a critique of Leibniz here. The mathematician Kaestner, a Wolffian, took the prize. The Frankfurt theologian Töllner [bio] received the Accessit, and so had his essay printed along with Kaestner’s.

1752 — How did Germans come to colonize the land between the Elbe and Oder? [top]

Prize essay: von Hertzberg, Legationsrath.

1753 — On nerves and muscles. [top]

Prize essay: Le Cat, doctor of Medicine und Surgery in Rouen.

1755 — On Pope’s system: Whatever is, is right. [philosophy] [top]

Prize essay: A. F. Reinhard, Justizrath des Herzogs von Strelitz:

“An examination of the system of Pope as it is contained in the dictum: Everything is good. The examination shall: (1) specify the true sense of the proposition, according to the hypothesis of the author; (2) compare the author’s hypothesis with the system of optimism, or the choice of whatis best, with a view to establishing as precisely as possible their particular similarities and to specifying the difference between them; (3) adduce the most important arguments for either establishing or demolishing the system.” [Walford transl.]

At least eight essays were submitted, three received the Accessit, among which was the pro-Leibniz essay by Künzli.

The question was announced in 1753; although referring to Pope, it was really a question about Leibniz’s theory that this is the best of all possible worlds. Sulzer, an admirer of Leibniz’s, had tried to keep the question from being chosen. Leibniz’s various supporters complained when the question was announced that it was yet another attempt to besmirch Leibniz. The French composed essay by Reinhard, which attacked the Leibnizian position, was given the prize. Mendelssohn and Lessing composed an anonymous essay entitled Pope a Metaphysician! (Danzig: 1755) which they entered after the prize had been awarded but before the essays had been published, attacking the whole affair, and Mendelssohn wrote yet another piece against the prize essay, once it was published. In general, the Academy received widespread and bitter criticism for awarding the prize to an exceptionally mediocre essay.[1]

Kant wrote several drafts towards an essay to this question (Refl. # 3703-5; AA 17: 229-39) but did not complete or submit an essay, although he eventually published a brief defense of optimism, against Crusius, in his lecture announcement for WS 1759/60 [writings].

[1] See also Walford’s discussion [1992, lv]: Reinhard published his essay in German (the Academy always published in French) as Vergleichung des Lehrgebäudes des Herrn Pope von der Vollkommenheit der Welt, mit dem System des Herrn von Leibnitz (Leipzig: 1757).  A collection of the various essays surrounding this debate were collected by C. Ziegra, Sammlung der Streitschriften über die Lehre der besten Welt ... welche zwischen dem Verfasser der im Jahre 1755 von der Akademie zu Berlin gekrönten Schrift, und einnigen berühmten Gelehrten gewechselt worden (Rostock: 1759).

1756 — Has the speed of the earth’s rotation been the same or not over time? [top]

Prize essay: Pater Frisi, Professor in Pisa.

Kant wrote on this question, but published his essay in a local paper.

1759 — Question on the reciprocal influence of language and opinion. [top]

Prize essay: J. D. Michaelis [bio], Orientalist Professor in Göttingen.

1760 — A question on historical geography regarding the Mark Brandenburg. [top]

Prize essay: Bucholtz, first pastor at Lichen in the Uckermark.

1763a — On the inner structure of the ear and the process of hearing. [top]

Prize essay: Belz, Dr. med. in Neustadt-Eberswalde.

1763b — Are the metaphysical sciences capable of the same sort of proofs as the mathematical sciences? [philosophy] [top]

Prize essay: Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin.

Moses Mendelssohn, Kant (“Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral”), and Thomas Abbt [bio] were among the entrants. Kant’s essay received the Accessit and was published with Mendelssohn’s in 1764.  Sulzer, a Wolffian, was currently the head of the philosophical “class” in the Academy.

The actual question posed was (in Walford’s English translation): “whether the metaphysical truths in general, and the first principles of natural theology and morality in particular, admit of distinct proofs to the same degree as geometrical truths; and if they are not capable of such proofs, one wishes to know what the genuine nature of their certainty is, to what degree the said certainty can be brought, and whether this degree is sufficient for complete conviction” (Walford 1992, lxii).

1764 — On Greco-Roman history. [top]

Prize essay: Sabbathier, professor in Chalons sur Marne.

1766a — On metabolism in the human body. [top]

Prize essay: Durade in Geneva.

1766b [top]

Prize essay: Hennert, Professor of Mathematics in Utrecht.

1768a — On natural inclinations. [top]

Prize essay: Cochius, Court Pastor in Potsdam.

“Whether it is possible to destroy natural inclinations, and how one strengthens the good and weakens the bad.”

Apart from the prize winner, Garve [bio] and Meiners [bio] also submitted essays.

1768b — In praise of Leibniz. [philosophy] [top]

Prize essay: Bailly from the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

This was the last question on the Leibniz-Wolff philosophy.

1769 [top]

Prize essay: Meyen, Pastor of Coblentz in Pommern.

1771 — On the origin of language. [top]

Prize essay: Herder [bio], Hofprediger in Bückeburg.

“En supposant les hommes abandonnés à leurs facultés naturelles, sont-ils en état d’inventer le langage? Et par quels moyens parviendront-ils d’eux-mêmes à cette invention? On demanderoit une hypothèse qui expliquât la chose clairement, et qui satisfit à toutes les difficultés.”

The question was announced in 1769.  Herder wrote his essay while in Strasbourg, towards the end of 1770.  Thirty-one essays were submitted; six of these received the Accessit.

1772 [top]

Prize essay: Hennert, Professor of Mathematics in Utrecht.

1773 — On arsenic. [top]

Prize essay: Monnet, Mineralogist in Paris.

Another essayist received the Accessit.

1775 — On the decay of taste among peoples. [top]

Prize essay: Herder [bio], Court Pastor in Bückeburg.

On the cause of the decay of taste among different peoples (“Quelles sont les causes de la décadence du goût chez les différens peuples?”).

This was Herder’s second of three prize essays; see also his essays on the origin of language (1771) and on the mutual influence between the government and the literature of a country (1780).

1776a — On determining the worth of money. [top]

Prize essay: von Kessenbrinck, President of the government in Stettin.

On determining the worth of money (in terms of food) beween the time of the death of Constantine and Theodosius I, paying attention to any correlation between the worth of money and the socio-political changes in the kingdom.

1776b — On the two faculties of the soul. [top]

Prize essay: Eberhard [bio], Pastor in Charlottenburg.

On the two basic faculties of the soul: the cognitive and the sensitive (“Examen des deuz facultés primitives de l’ame, celle de connoître et celle de sentir”).

This question had been announced for 1775, and then re-announced for 1776. Herder was one of the essayists (he had written prize essays for 1771 and 1775, and would write another in 1780).  Three other essays received the Accessit.

1778 — On calculating the orbit of comets. [top]

Prize essay: Marquis de Condorcet (Paris) and Tempelhoff (a Prussian artillery sergeant).

This question was repeated several times, and the prize was doubled. The prize was divided between Condorcet and Tempelhoff, and two other essays received the Accessit.

1779 — On the basic force. [top]

Prize essay: Pap de Fagaras, reformed pastor in Transylvania.

One other essay received the Accessit.

1780a — On the mutual influence between the literature and the government of a nation. [top]

Prize essay: Herder, Generalsuperintendent in Weimar.

“Quelle a été l’influence du Gouvernement sur les Lettres chez les nations où elles ont fleuri? Et quelle a été l’influence des Lettres sur le Gouvernement?”

1780b — Should the State deceive the people for their own good? [top]

Prize essay: Friedrich von Castillon jun. (1708-1791; Professor of Mathematics at the Ritterakademie in Berlin) and Rudolf Zacharia Becker (1753-1822; Governor of Baron Dachenröden in Erfurt).

“Est-il utile au Peuple d’être trompé, soit qu’on l’induise dans de nouvelles erreurs, ou qu’on l’entretienne dans celles où il est?” (announced Nov. 1777) [“Is it useful to the people to be deceived, either that they be led astray in new errors, or that they be maintained in those they already have?”]

The prize was split between one essay in the affirmative (de Castillon) and one in the negative (Becker).  Forty-two essays were submitted; of these, five were disqualified because they arrived late, and four were disqualified because their authors had revealed their identity in the essay.  Of the remaining thirty-three essays, twenty answered the question negatively and thirteen positively.  Eleven were designated as “good”: four of the negative, and seven of the affirmative essays.  Nine received the Accessit (three negative, and six positive).

Friedrich II had asked the Academy in October 1777 to pull their earlier question for 1779 and replace it with this one; the Academy instead decided to add it as a second question for 1780 [Harnack 1900, i.416-21]; the prize was announced on May 31, 1780 [AA 15:672].

The interest in this question is reflected in Kant’s lectures: mention of it appears in the lectures on philosophical encyclopedia [an-Friedländer 4.1; AA 29:26], the Puttlich, an-Gotthold, and Reichel notes on anthropology, and in various logic notes (some of these likely from the same source lectures): Hechsel, an-Wien [AA 24:868-69], an-Warszawa, and an-Jäsche [AA 9:75-81]; and see Adickes’ note to Refl. #1482 (AA 15:672).

1782 — On the curves described by cannonballs in flight. [top]

Prize essay: Le Gendre, Professor emeritus of Mathematics at the Military School at Paris.

1784 — Why is French the universal language of Europe? [top]

Prize essay: Prize divided between J. Ch. Schwab [bio] of Stuttgart and Count Rivarol of Paris.

1785 [top]

Prize essay: Ancillon, French pastor in Berlin.

“Quelle est la meilleure manière de rappeler à la raison les nations, tant sauvages que policées, qui sont livrées à l’erreur et aux superstitions de tout genre?”

1786a — On a clear and precise theory of mathematical infinity. [top]

Prize essay: Lhuilier in Genf.

One other essay received the Accessit.

1786b [top]

[a question on fermentation resulted in no qualifying essays]

1787 — On parental authority. [top]

Prize essay: Villaume

Description of parental authority, its foundations and limits, according to “natural law”, with a special distinction of the rights of the father and the mother, along with an investigation as to the role of “positive law” here.

Klein’s essay received the Accessit.

1788 — On foreign literature. [top]

Prize essay: Schwab [bio] of Stuttgart.

How the imitation of works of foreign literature develops and perfects national taste.

1792/1795 — On progress in metaphysics. [top]

Prize essay: Johann Christoph Schwab [bio] of Stuttgart, with second place shared by Karl Leonhard Reinhold [bio] of Kiel and Johann Heinrich Abicht [bio] of Erlangen; the three essays were published in 1796 (Berlin: Friedrich Maurer).

“What Real Progress Has Metaphysics Made in Germany since the Time of Leibniz and Wolff?” [Quels sont les progrès réels de la Metaphysique en Allemagne depuis le temps de Leibnitz et de Wolf?]

Kant prepared an essay [writings] on this question, but did not submit it.  Schwab received one-half of the prize money, and Reinhold and Abicht each received one-fourth.  This question was first formulated in the academy on 24 January 1788, to be publicly announced the following year, but in fact was not announced until 1790, with 1 January 1792 as the deadline for submissions.  Schwab’s essay was the only entry received, however, so the deadline was extended to 1 June 1795, resulting in over thirty submissions.[1]

[1] This follows the account offered by Allison in Allison/Heath [2002, 339].

1799 — On the origin of all our cognitions. [top]

Prize essay: This was put off until 1801. It drew many submissions, and the opposing essays by Bendavid [bio] of Berlin and Degenerando of Paris were given the prize.

1800 — On the Goths and Gothicism. [top]

Prize essay: ?

1805 — On the analytic method in philosophy. [top]

Prize essay: Frank (Husum).

Beginning with this year, the prize money for questions on speculative philosophy was increased by an endowment, good once every four years.]

1807 — Is there an immediate inner perception? [top]

Prize essay: Suabedissen (Lübeck) and Biran (a Praefect at Tarn).

1809 — On the use of analysis in philosophy. [top]

Prize essay: Hoffbauer (Halle) and Francke (Sonderburg).

1811 — On the relation of the imagination to feeling. [top]

[no submissions]

1813 — On the influence of Descartes on Spinoza. [top]