Immanuel Kant in England:
Henry James Richter

René Wellek


Two strange enthusiasts stand as it were, outside the stream of official literature: a painter, Henry James Richter and a jeweller, Thomas Wirgman. Both of them sat at the feet of Nitsch, the first propagandist for Kant in England, and imbibed there in 1795 and 1796 an unbounded enthusiasm for the cause of Kant, which, in Wirgman, grew into sectarian intolerance and idol-worship. Though both have remained practically unknown to modern scholarship, they deserve some attention, if not for their own sake, at least as highly interesting and diverting illustrations of the background out of which grew the thought of the English romantic period.

Henry James Richter was the son of John Augustus Richter, “Artist, Engraver, and Scagliolist”, who came to London from Dresden with the Marquis of Exeter who introduced him to King George III. [1] Richter, the father, executed several public works, amongst them some columns at Greenwich Hospital. His mother was English. Henry was born in Soho, March 8, 1772 and became a rather successful painter: already in 1788 he exhibited two landscapes at the Royal Academy. In 1811-12 he was President of the Associated Artists’ Gallery in Bond Street, from 1813 until his death he was (with some interruptions) a member and exhibitor of the Water Colour Society (afterwards the Royal Institute) where he exhibited 88 pictures. He died April 8, 1857, aged 85 [2]. it is difficult to form an estimate as to his merits as an artist: he seems to have gone largely into genre-painting as the titles of many items show : “School in an Uproar”, “Brute of a Husband”, “No one knows where the shoe pinches so well as he who wears it”, or “A Tailor’s Bill”, accom panied by an epigrammatic couplet [3] etc. are not very [205/206] promising for unconventionality. Alexander Gilchrist, the biographer of William Blake, mentions his “smooth Book-of-Beauty faces” which had become “the staple of the old man’s doings in later years” [4] . But, in spite of these bad signs, Richter must have had something original in him. Some of his pictures are called a strange mixture of extravagance and genius [5] . The first component must have prevailed in a picture called “The Logician's Effigy”, exhibited in 1810, 1812, and 1823 with this detailed description: “A dispute on a disputable subject: e. g. A Square Circle. — Thesis: A Square Circle is round. — Antithesis: A Square Circle is not round. The object of the dispute in this Picture is 1. The Sensible World independent of the Senses. Thesis: The Sensible World is finite. Antithesis: The Sensible W T orld is infinite. It refers also to three other Notions equally disputable, viz. — 2. A Simple Substance occupying Space. 3. A Forced Free Will. 4. A necessary cause for which no cause is necessary. Nature itself has established this inconsistency in the mind, in order to check Reason in its presumptuous career and to compel it to undertake the task of self -investigation. — Vide Kant’s Prolegomena, sc, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Art. Metaphysics and Day-Light, sc. by H. R.” [6] . It is difficult to imagine a picture of the antinomies in any style and we hope that it is the only picture of the antinomies which history records. Still we would wish to have been able to trace it to satisfy our curiosity as to its execution. But Richter’s paintings must have shown besides his zeal for Kant and the antinomies also some artistic qualities and some agreement with his theories. His little treatise “Day-light” (1817) is one of the earliest, or possibly the earliest formal attack on the indoor-painting of the official artists and a plea for “plein air” long before the school of Barbizon. “He seems to think”, says the painter J. W. Papworth, “that the drapery of his figures, no matter of what colour and texture, ought to reflect in a strong degree the overhanging blue of the atmosphere; so in his colours whether deep red or white, in the vestments a bluish reflected hue [206/207] predominates. There is also an alabaster transparency and copper-coloured surface to his naked limbs, that no reflected light could produce” [7] . Alexander Gilchrist even claims that Richter had some influence on William Blake’s painting [8] . Around 1817 Blake met Richter among Linnel’s friends; he saw more of him in the years 1825/7 and must have talked with him about Kant. Richter, we hear, was “fond of iterating the metaphysical dogma of the non-existence of matter.” According to Gilchrist, “Blake learned to add greater fulness and depth of colour to his drawings, such indeed, as he, used to the old school of slight tints, had hardly thought could have been developed in this branch of art” [9] . One of Blake’s newest biographers doubts this statement, probably justly [10] , but the fact of Richter’s association with Blake is well worth keeping in mind. Richter was also among Byron’s pet portrait-painters [11] .

His career as a writer on Kant began with a long letter to the “Monthly Magazine” in 1797 [12], entitled “On Mr. Hume’s Account of the Origin of the Idea of necessary Connection.” He expounds there Hume’s doctrine of causality in great detail and criticizes it on Kantian lines showing that “custom” does not explain the “necessity” of the causal nexus. “The gap is still unclosed, and the space between the has been and the must be is as wide as ever.” The recourse to instinct, to common sense principles and the like is also a futile evasion of the question. Richter points to Kant’s solution: “There is one reason why I wish we were able to account not only for this, but for a thousand other phenomena in the mind; and that is, that we might have some plea for rejecting, without examination, the system of Professor Kant; for it would be an excellent excuse for treating the philosophy of other nations with contempt, if we could but produce a reasonable and consistent theory of our own.”

Richter’s second contribution was in the “Morning Chronicle” of March 12, 1814, entitled “On German Metaphysics, or Kant’s Philosophy of the Human Mind.” It refers to the anonymously published articles by William [207/208] Hazlitt in the same paper [13] with many compliments. “The candor with which the writer admits excellence in the great German philosopher, who is, indeed, the intellectual soul that is beginning to dawn upon the long infancy of the world, does him the highest honour, especially as his means of knowing that excellence appear to be very limited.” A mere logical interpretation of Kant must ever remain on the surface, for Kant “has dug into the mine below, and was exploring the matter of which it consists. These mere logicians could not, therefore, follow him in his discovery of an original and constitutive use of the understanding, . . whose business is to give an intelligible nature to the ob jects of knowledge, that is to constitute them such before any consciousness or logical classification can take place.” This is obscurely phrased, but it shows that Richter had some idea of the insufficiency of the sceptical interpreta tion then current, and that he knew that no consciousness is possible of the generative, synthetic processes which constitute our experience. “Kant”, Richter continues, “is therefore an idealist, but he is totally free from the old absurdity of attributing to the Mind the creation of Matter. He proves, that in acquiring objects of knowledge we are both active and passive.” “Pity, that this excellent starting-point is again abandoned in favor of a more conventional exposition of Kant’s doctrine of space and time. It exaggerates, with no advantage to Kant, the contrast between the mere rude matter, upon which the understanding thus stimulated necessarily reacts, and the form and unity created by the understanding. Time and Space are called “intrinsic and essential qualifications of the Experiencing Faculty” and the whole doctrine is praised as self-evident, axiomatic and the rock upon which the whole of Kant’s system stands. “It is apodictally certain as that the radii of a circle are all equal.” The ideality of space and time is the “true reason why human knowledge is restricted, as we find it to be, to objects in Time and Space, and that all beyond those bounds are unintelligible.” “Still, however, everything would be dark and formless in this [208/ 209] vast theatre of knowledge, thrown open by the Passive nature of man; all would be diffused and dissipated in an infinite expansion, were there not some restrictive and connecting power to settle the outlines and the boundaries that must convert the shapeless mass of sensation into a world of intelligible and distinct objects.” Richter imagi nes this function of the understanding too much like a temporal process when he explains the detail of the table of categories. But much of the exposition is unusually correct. These “twelve connecting acts” are “the intellect itself.” “What Kant terms original notions or notions a priori, are merely the conceptions which we form to ourselves of these acts, after having originally performed the acts themselves; and are therefore not to be confounded with the puerile fancy of innate ideas.” Richter describes then Kant’s teaching about the things in themselves, the permament inaccessibility of which “humbles for ever the vanity of human wisdom.” He claims that the evidence for Kant’s teachings is not of the nature of a “hypothesis”, but a “fact of internal experience, clearly exhibited and firmly established in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” Finally he recommends the writings of his friend Thomas Wirgman [14] and Nitsch’s book and concludes with the promise to send another letter “illustrative of the Faculty of Reason, both Speculative, and Practical; in which I hope to show that Morals and Religious Faith have at length found a sanctuary in the Human Mind, from whence the sceptic dare not raise a hand to displace them.” But not more was published, possibly because the news of Napoleon’s surrender and the Peace Conference took up all space for the following months.

Richter returned to Kant in his diverting book entitled: “Day-light: a recent discovery in the art of painting: with hints on the philosophy of fine arts, and on that of the human mind, as first dissected by Emmanuel Kant.” (London 1817) [15] . This little tract seems to be exceedingly rare. It would be of some interest in a future history of English aesthetics. Not only for its ostensible purpose, the plea for [209/ 210] open-air painting and the attack on the “nonsensical dark lantern” [16] of the older painters, but also for the strong assertion of the romantic principle of creativeness and originality. In course of a highly whimsical imaginary conversation between a young painter and the ghosts of Rembrandt, Teniers, Van Dyke etc. at an exhibition of Dutch and Flemish pictures at the British Institution, Richter praises “Originality as the soul of art” [ 17] . “This in the Fine Arts is Genius — the Inventive Faculty itself. It consists in an exuberant activity of the judgment” [18] . In a language which tries to allude to Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Fancy — or what we would prefer to call Imagination — is described as operating “according to natural and unerring laws, subject only to the restrictions which the legislation of Reason itself in the organisation of a systematic whole imposes upon it.” Painting is a language and also a “species of Poetry” [19] . Kant comes in as a sort of chief witness for the creativeness of the human mind. Shakespeare and Kant are to Richter the two guarantors of a dawning of a period of greatness on British art. By Kant “the true character and destination of man are at length fully laid open” [20] . Kant, by implication, vindicates Richter’s artistic theory that there is no such thing as objective nature independent of the human mind. “The objects of nature have really no such form as we attribute to them; in fact, sensible objects are known to us only as they exist in the mind and for the mind beyond whose boundaries the most powerful microscope would vainly attempt to penetrate.” Real art is always ideal, never imitative. “Real artists as genuine antiquity produced used not only their sensitive faculty merely seeing Nature, but judged what they saw, conceived the objects of nature with the understanding of men, and boldly copied in their works the conceptions they had formed in their minds” [21] . Richter explains again Kant’s ideality of space and time and comes then to a central question of Kant’s philosophy. “All Philosophy of Mind consists in Consciousness which is a reflective that is to say a philosophical act . . . But, cry the [210/ 211]

Dogmatists, the Spiritualists, the Materialists, the Idealists, the Sceptics with one voice: What is this I of which you speak?” But these questions have really no intelligible and consistent meaning. “The mere thinking faculty of man forms chimeras without end; knowledge is quite another affair, and is bound down to stricter laws.” “Kant detected the absurdity of these seemingly important questions of the logicians, which, in truth, ask about nothing. He saw that the matter which should have been enquired into had never once been touched upon; namely the Consciousness itself, through all its ramifications. Here he found a firm footing: for the reflective acts of the mind contain within themselves their own explanation and their own proof.” This shows extraordinary insight into the nature of Kant’s actual achievement and forwards a claim which can be sustained even to-day. We may quote N. Kemp Smith’s words: “Kant was the first in modern times to raise the problem of the nature of awareness, and of the conditions of its possibility.” Descartes — though he is constantly speaking of consciousness — “gives us, not an analysis of the knowing process, but only a subjective interpretation of the nature of the objects upon which it is directed” [22] . Richter saw — what a few begin to see to-day — that the actual problem of consciousness arises after we have decided whether we have to interpret its objects as mental or extra-mental, that is, that the real problem of philosophy is beyond realism and idealism [23]. We will not claim that Richter understood all this, but he certainly approaches it. It is a pity that Richter’s understanding of Kant is known to us only in those few glimpses which he allowed us. The suggestions he has thrown out hint at a finer knowledge than we find in most of his contemporaries. Late in this long life Richter must have returned to Kant. In 1855 he is said to have written a paper on “German Transcendentalism” and he was engaged on translating a metaphysical work by Beck at the time of his death [24] .


1 Cp. John Lewis Roget in “A History of the Old-Water-Colour Society”. Vol. I (1891), p. 383-88. Richter’s mother was born Mary Haig.

2 Cp. Roget loc. cit. and Samuel Redgrave, A Dictionary of Artists of the English School. New ed. 1878, p. 357-8, also Algernon Graves, A Dictionary of Artists. 2nd ed. London 1895, p. 233, and A. Graves, The British Institution, London 1808, p. 454. Also, of course, the Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 48, p. 260-61, signed: Lionel Cust.

3 The couplet runs:

“Taylor, ’tis thine, the vast unheard of plan
To make — and then undo the creature man”

   quoted in Roget, loc. cit.

4 Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, new. ed. 1880. Vol. I, p. 340.

5 Quoted in Roget, loc. cit.

6 Ib.

7 Ib.

8 Gilchrist, loc. cit. I, p. 296.

9 Ib.

10 Mona Wilson, Life of William Blake, London 1927, p. 368.

11 Ib., p. 284.

12 Vol. IV, Suppl. No. p. 533, signed: H. Richter.

13 See above, p. 165 seq., Hazlitt’s articles appeared on Feb. 3, Feb. 14, 1814. Richter’s article is signed: A Friend to true Metaphysics. His authorship is proved from Wirgman’s reference in “Science of Philosophy” (1823), p. 159.

14 Wirgman refers to Richter as “my own earliest and most valued friend, who first introduced me to the notice of my ever-to-revered master Professor Nitsch”. (Science of Philosophy, 1823, p. 159.)

15 The text with abbreviated notes was published first in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions etc. Second Series. Vol. II. No. 11 and 12. Nov. 1, and Dec. 1, 1816, pp. 269-77 and 346-50.

16 Daylight p. 7.

17 Ib. p. VIII.

18 Ib. p. 36.

19 Ib. p. 60.

20 Ib. p. VIII.

21 Ib. p. 23.

22 N. K. Smith, A Commentary etc. p. XXXIX-XL. [296/297]

23 Cp. On this question especially the writings of Nicolai Hartmann — on Kant the fine paper: “Diesseits von Idealismus and Realismus” in “Kant-studien”. Vol. XXIX, 1924, p. 160.

24 The Dictionary of National Biography. Possibly Jacob Sigismund Beck’s Erläuternder Auszug aus Kants kritischen Schriften 1793 is meant. It was translated by Richardson as early as 1797, see above p. 15.

SOURCE: Wellek, René. Immanuel Kant in England, 1793-1838 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931), Chapter V: Two Enthusiasts (first part of chapter; the other enthusiast is Thomas Wirgman), pp. 205-211, 296-297 (notes).

See also p. 224: Wirgman cites Richter in “Science of Philosophy, i. e. An Entirely New, Complete, and Permament Science of Philosophy founded on Kant’s Critic of Pure Reason” (1823).

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Henry James Richter - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

On Mr. Hume's Account of the Origin of the Idea of Necessary Connection
(Monthly Magazine, 1797)
by Henry James Richter

Day-light: a recent discovery in the art of painting:
with hints on the philosophy of the fine arts, and on that of the human mind, as first dissected by Emanuel Kant

by Henry Richter

The Love Letter - 1795 by Henry James Richter

Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (1898 ed.)

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