Immanuel Kant’s Unnoticed Ontological Argument

It goes without saying that, in philosophical circles, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is famous – among other reasons – for his criticism of the ontological argument. One might have an impression that Kant rejects ontological arguments altogether because there is an implicit attempt to predicate existence to divine being in such arguments. In a short statement, existence is not a predicate.

However, would you be surprised to find out that Kant offered his alternative version of an argument for God’s existence? It’s important to make comment about where this “little argument” is found and how it proceeds. A short essay (maybe 100 pages or more) in 1763 entitled The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God, written some twenty years before his opus A Critique of Pure Reason (1781) contains his position against Cartesian rationalism and the mathematical world of Leibniz.

In doing so, Kant elaborates on a different approach to establishing a proof for the existence of God. He is exploring the basis of a demonstration rather than on the demonstration itself. This is, according to Kant, a look-back to traditional logic: “The essential parts of any proof whatever are the material and form or the Beweisgrund and Consequenz (Logik, K. G. S. IX).” My translation of this little phrase makes note that the German word Beweisgrund (“argument”) is not to be taken as our English understanding of ‘argument,’ where one assumes a position. Rather, there is an importance stressed on the essential foundation for a demonstration that position.

In Part III Kant says, “Conviction of the great truth, that there is a God, must, if it is to be of the highest degree of mathematical certainty, have this property: that it can be achieved in only one way.” Kant comments that this “way” was discovered by an immense “reflection,” because Kant nonetheless credits categories of possibility, necessity and contingency to the mind. Hence I think you’ll notice throughout this argument a cautious and brash way to relate such concepts to existence and actuality.

The following argument is by Kant’s admission entirely a priori (see below). It begins entirely on the general premise that something is possible. According to Kant, there needs to be no assumptions about the eternality of the universe, wether man is material or religious language being non-cognitive to concede that at least something is possible. Following some understandings of what possible means, and what necessity means, and how these concepts relate to existence, make up a kind of Kantian quasi-ontological argument. It’s fun.

The Argument Stated

  1. Kant on Possibility. 

Kant begins the entire discourse within a framework of viewing concepts such as necessity, contingency and possibility bounded by principles typically known by logic. In other words, he establishes a basis for demonstrating the existence of God. For example, Kant starts with the basic premise that at least something is possible. Of course, he draws two initial distinctions with our understanding of possibility:

  1. “The thing thought.”
  2. “The agreement of that which is thought in it with the principle of noncontradiction.” (67)

Imagine a triangle. This is our usual concept of possibility, that is (1), which designates a thing thought which corresponds to an object “triangle.” However, Kant speaks of possibility in terms of (2), where we consider the data of a triangle that make its being thought possible.

For example, we can think of a right-sided triangle. The data would be the right-angle, consistent with a three-sided figure, and so on. Since a right-angle is possible with a three sided figure, the thing thought (triangle) and its corresponding data (right-angles, three sides, etc) are all in agreement of that which is thought in it with the principle of noncontradiction.

With this understood, Kant proceeds. The interal possibility of all things presupposes some existence. In other words, imagine if all of existence was abolished; nothing exists. If nothing exists, then nothing at all is possible. Kant acknowledges that there is no internal contradiction in the denial of all existence. It is a contradiction however to say that “nothing exists” and yet “something is possible.” Kant keeps this argument short and sweet. In his words:

“But that there be some possibility and yet absolutely nothing actual contradicts itself. For if nothing exists, nothing conceivable is given and one would contradict himself in nevertheless pretending something to be possible.” (69)

It is however, absolutely impossible that nothing exist. Kant reiterates this point that given the contradiction between those two propositions (“nothing exists, “something is possible”), it is impossible that absolutely nothing exists. Proceeding, all possibility is given in something actual. All possibility is grounded in what is actual, or what is ‘real’. Kant distinguishes between two ways in which possibility relates to existence:

  • (1) “Either the possible is conceivable insofar as it is itself actual, and then possibility is given as a determination of the actual; or
  • (2) “It is possible because something else is actual.” (71)

Briefly speaking, according to (1), something that is possible is actual in itself, so that to say of some-thing’s possibility it then becomes a determination of something actual. According to (2), the possibility is not in itself but is rather the consequence of something else’s actuality. Hence, another premise of Kant’s argument is to say that

  • (a’) All possibility is grounded in something actual; either in it as a determination or through it as a consequence.


2. Kant on Necessity.

What is necessary existence? According to Kant, “The contradiction of that which is in itself impossible is absolutely necessary” (75). This is a formal way of saying something is necessary, or something has necessary existence, if its opposite is self-contradictory. How could we apply necessary existence to being? Is it possible that someone’s non-existence be a contradiction?

Pause. I have to admit that I was skeptical of how Kant would proceed. Is Kant going to suggest that necessary existence applies to being? Spolier alert, the conclusion of Kant’s argument is that there exists a necessary being that is God. How does this differ from Anselm’s ontological argument, which Kant allegedly refutes? We might have possible evidence that Kant endorses the argument of Proslogion III, instead of II.  Enough on that, let’s proceed. Kant makes another two distinctions with respect to our understanding of necessity.

“Accordingly, something may be absolutely necessary either (a) when through its opposite the formal element of all conceivability is annuled, that is, when it contradicts itself; or (b) when its non-being annuls the material element for all thought and all data for it. As was said, the former never obtains in existence, and since there is no third possibility either (i) the concept of absolutely necessary existence is an entirely misleading and false notion, or (ii) else it must rest upon the fact that the non-being of a thing would be the negation of the data for all thought as well.” (77)

The two distinctions that Kant makes about necessity are troublesome. Either necessities being properties ascribed to existence are misleading and false, or they are grounded on the supposition that their denial would extinguish all possibilities, data, and thought altogether. Hence, there must exist a necesary being whereby possibilities even exist.

Kant then goes on to elaborate on the kinds of properties this necessary being would have. This necessary being would be unitary, simple, immutable, eternal, and contain the highest reality. Concluding, this necessary being is a spirit, and then finally this necessary being is God. In Kant’s words:

I note only the following here: the ground of proof we give for the existence of God is builty entirely upon [the fact] that something is possible. Thus it is a proof which may be adduced completely a priori. Neither my existence nor that of other minds nor that of the corporeal world is presupposed. . . All proofs that would pretend to lead from the effects of this entity to its being as a cause, and also pretend to demonstrate strictly (which they do not) can never make the nature of this necessity conceivable.” (95)


Formal Statement

1. A necessary distinction in the concept of possibility; “the thing thought and the agreement of that which is thought in it with the principle of noncontradiction.” (67)
2. The internal possibility of all things presupposes some existence.
3. It is absolutely impossible that nothing exist.
4. All possibility is given in something actual; either in it as a determination or through it as a consequence.

1a. The concept of absolutely necessary existence in general.
2a. There exists an absolutely necessary being.
3a. The necessary being is unitary.
4a. The necessary being is simple.
5a. The necessary being is immutable and eternal.
6a. The necessary being contains the highest reality.

1b. The necessary being is a spirit.
2b. It is a God.



Immanuel Kant. The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God. trans. Gordon Treash, University of Nebraska Press: 1994.



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