On Madness and Free Will: A Kantian Debate in Denmark in the First Half of 19th Century

Ingrid Marina Basso

Risultato della ricerca: Contributo in rivistaArticolo in rivista


In a cultural context saturated with German romantic literature and philosophical idealism, the so-called Howitzfejde, or “Howitz-dispute”, which arose in Copenhagen in the second half of the 1920s, represents a sort of tear in a monotonous and uniform ideological fabric, a “breath of fresh air” destined to last until the middle of the century and ideally join together with the strongest continental currents. The philosophical Parnassus and in general the Danish intelligentsia was turned in the direction of "Naturphilosophie". Therefore, the voice of a young Danish Frantz Gotthard Howitz (1789-1826), who claimed in a deterministic key the concrete reasons for a homo phenomenon (to which no homo noumenon would be opposed as imperium in imperio), was bound to raise a sensation and, above all, be disconcerting. The real origin of the debate was a problem to which the entire post-revolutionary civil society was looking for a fair solution, namely, the problematic relationship between madness and the ascription of responsibility. In order to answer this question (which, on the juridical and medical side, had in theory already received an almost unanimous answer everywhere on the continent) one had to consider an “epistemological demarcation” of the field of investigation and application: how to qualify madness? This was one of the problems of nascent psychiatric science, and it was this question that the 35-year-old Frantz Gotthard Howitz wanted to address when he wrote his treatise in 1824, "On Madness and Ascribing Responsibility: A Contribution on Psychology and Jurisprudence". Thus, when Howitz’s treatise appeared, it immediately evoked a number of critical reactions, since the author “accused” the Danish law of the time of being based on Kant’s view of morality. Howitz criticized Kant’s conception of freedom as the ability to determine one’s own actions based on a correct rational understanding of the situation. According to Howitz, it is not true that human beings, as moral agents, are independent of everything empirical. Humans are complex entities, comprised of both elements, the natural and the rational. He argued against Kant’s view – according to which there is an a priori practical reason that dictates that one follows the moral law – that the moral development essentially depends on the material organization of the brain. What Howitz criticized in the Danish law concerning the issue of the mental illness and ascribing responsibility was its Kantian assumption.
Lingua originaleEnglish
pagine (da-a)225-250
Numero di pagine26
RivistaPhilosophical Inquiries
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2020


  • Ascribing Responsibility
  • Denmark
  • Howitz
  • Kant
  • Madness
  • Will


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