Story Behind the Picture: Maria von Herbert

This is a picture of Maria von Herbert (1770-1803), an Austrian woman, whose letter correspondence with Kant arguably poses a serious challenge to Kantian ethics. Maria von Herbert’s brother Baron Franz Paul was a great admirer and follower of Kant’s philosophy. In fact, he left his factory and family to study Kant’s philosophy in Weimar and Jena and, upon his return to Austria, he worked toward spreading Kant’s critical philosophy. Like his brother, Maria von Herbert was not simply an admirer of Kant, but was also quite competent in Kant’s philosophy. Having noted Herbert’s philosophical competence, let us first take a quick look at the content of the letter correspondence between Kant and Maria von Herbert. This will help us to understand why some scholars think that Herbert’s questions are important and possibly pose a threat to Kant’s moral philosophy. Herbert writes three letters to Kant in total and Kant responds to only the first letter.

Herbert’s first letter (August 1791)
In the autumn of 1791, Maria von Herbert wrote her first letter to Kant. She writes that after confessing some truth about herself to the person she loves, the man becomes distanced and stops loving her as he used to. Losing this man’s love, which Herbert claims to be the most valuable thing in her life, she also loses any motivation to continue living. Yet, having read Kant’s works on ethics, she knows that Kant’s ethics deems suicide out of pain immoral. As she puts it: “If I hadn’t read so much of your work I would certainly have put an end to my life. But the conclusion I had to draw from your theory stops me – it is wrong for me to die because my life is tormented, instead I’m supposed to live because of my being” (Zweig, p. 379-80). So, on the one hand she is tormented by the loss and plans to commit suicide and on the other hand she knows that it is immoral to commit suicide. So, she asks Kant to “put yourself in my place, and either damn me or comfort me” (Zweig, p. 380).

From this letter, we see that even though Herbert knows that she is supposed to live, this knowledge does not seem to be enough. She wants Kant to be able to comfort and console her. She writes that her reason fails her just when she needs it: “I’ve read the metaphysic of morals, and the categorical imperative, and it doesn’t help a bit. My reason abandons me just when I need it” (Zweig, p. 380). In other words, Herbert seeks consolation and complains that she cannot find any comfort in Kant’s philosophy.

Kant’s Reply to Herbert (Spring 1792)
In the spring of 1792, Kant replies to Herbert’s letter. In his reply, Kant writes, “I must do as you ask, namely, put myself in your place, and prescribe for you a pure moral sedative” (Zweig, p. 411). By “a pure moral sedative” we see that Kant means an analysis of Herbert’s action from a moral perspective. Kant starts his analysis by clarifying the distinction between reticence (or not saying the whole truth) and dishonesty (or lying). He explains that the latter is a serious violation of our duty (Zweig, p. 411-12). That is why Kant states that Herbert’s beloved man is justified in losing his affection for her. After clarifying the nature of Herbert’s action, Kant asks Herbert to further analyze her feelings of torment. He writes “Ask yourself whether you reproach yourself for the imprudence of confessing, or for the immorality intrinsic to the lie” (Zweig, p. 412). According to Kant, if Herbert’s torment is due to feeling regret for telling the truth, then her sadness, from the perspective of Kantian ethics, is unjustified because by telling the truth, she has done her duty to be honest. Thus, rather than feeling tormented she should be content to act in accordance with duty.

If, on the other hand, Herbert is tormented due to her awareness of violating her duty to be truthful, then her feelings are justified and when her beloved sees that she has had a “change in attitude” his coldness would in time be transformed to love (Zweig, p. 413). Unless, of course, Kant notes, his love was merely a physical attraction (rather than respect for her moral character) in the first place. In that case, his interest in Herbert would eventually disappear anyway and one should meet that possibility with composure (Zweig, p. 413). That is, if the man’s coldness continues, Herbert should not worry too much either. As Kant writes: “For the value of life, in so far as it consists of the enjoyment we get from people, is vastly overrated” (Zweig, p. 413). In other words, Kant suggests that the value of life should not be based on happiness, especially the kind of happiness that depends on external sources, such as the affection we receive from others. Kant concludes his letter as follows: “Here then, my dear friend, you find the customary divisions of a sermon: instruction, penalty and comfort. Devote yourself to the first two; when they have had their effect, comfort will be found by itself” (Zweig, p. 413).

After sending his reply to Herbert, Kant inquires with a mutual friend J. B. Erhard the impact of his letter on Herbert. In response to Kant, Erhard sends the following letter.

Letter from J.B. Erhard to Kant (January 17, 1793)
I can say little of Miss Herbert. She has capsized on the reef of romantic love. In order to realize an idealistic love, she gave herself to a man who misused her trust. And then, trying to achieve such love with another, she told her new lover about the previous one. That is the key to her letter. If my friend Herbert had more delicacy, I think she could still be saved.

Herbert’s 2nd Letter (January 1793)
In January 1793, Herbert writes another letter to Kant. In her second letter, Herbert explains that she did not lie to her friend, but simply kept a secret from him and that after a period of coldness, the man in question ultimately offered his intimate friendship to her (Zweig, p. 450). Yet, she admits that she no longer sees any point in this friendship and she feels a vast emptiness inside and all around her. She also claims that now that she lacks any contrary desire, she finds following the moral law too easy. In other words, Herbert points out that leading a moral life could be satisfying only when one has incentive to sin. The moral laws, she claims, “only get their prestige from the attractiveness of sin” and because she lacks any contrary inclination, following the moral laws becomes easy and unsatisfying for her (Zweig, p. 451).

Since Kant’s morality does not console her, she asks Kant himself for consolation and comfort: “I ask you, because my conception of morality is silent here, whereas it speaks decisively on all other matters. And if you cannot give me the answer I seek, I beg you to give me something that will get this intolerable emptiness out of my soul” (Zweig, p. 452).

We see in this second letter that Herbert’s emotional pain is replaced with a state of emptiness and apathy in which she finds nothing pleasurable. Her only desire is to shorten her life. In other words, she continues to have suicidal thoughts. At the end of her letter, Maria von Herbert asks Kant for permission to visit him. She wants to know about the kind of life his philosophy has led him and whether he ever thought of marriage, love, or having kids as valuable (Zweig, p. 452).

Kant’s Letter to Elizabeth Motherby (February 11, 1793)
After finding out the reason for Herbert’s suicidal thoughts through his friend Erhard, Kant stops responding to the letters he receives from Herbert. Instead Kant passes on his correspondence with Herbert and Erhard’s letter, which Kant claims explains Herbert’s “curious mental derangement,” to the daughter of his friend, Robert Motherby (Zweig, p. 455). While sending the letters to Elizabeth Motherby, Kant write as follows: “these letters should serve as an example of warning, to guard you against the wanderings of a sublimated fantasy” (Zweig, p. 455).

Herbert’s 3rd Letter (February 1794)
In February 1794, Herbert writes her third and final letter to Kant. She writes that “a moral feeling awoke in me” and that “from that moment on I felt that I had won and that my soul was in good health” (Zweig, p. 475). She further adds that “if people take morality and friends into account they can with the greatest desire to die still wish for life and try to preserve it no matter what” (Zweig, p. 474).

Kant does not reply to Herbert’s third letter either. Nine years later, in 1803, after organizing a ceremonious party, Herbert commits suicide by drowning herself in the Drau River. Eight years after Herbert’s death, her brother Baron Franz Paul also commits suicide in 1811.

Interesting questions about Kant-Herbert’s Correspondence:

1) Does the moral worth of our actions depend on the existence of opposing inclinations?

2) Why doesn’t Kant respond to Herbert’s question regarding suicide directly and instead focuses on another problem, namely whether honesty is morally required? Is it because Kant does not have a convincing account of the wrongness of suicide?

3) By passing on Herbert’s letters to Elizabeth Motherby to serve as a warning, Kant seems to treat Herbert as means to an end. Is Kant not Kantian enough?

4) Did Herbert raise purely philosophical questions that Kant failed to address, or was she also raising psychological issues that Kant could not be expected answer?

5) Was Herbert a Kantian or moral saint as Langton claims? Or, is she in a pathological state in which her sadness blinds all of her other desires and the only desire she has is to shorten her life to put an end to her psychological pain.

6) Is lying ever justifiable? If Herbert had to lie in order to go on being treated as a person, then can we say that her lie is justifiable? Can we think of other cases in which lying is justifiable?

7) Should we expect philosophy to console? Is it a function of philosophy to provide consolation? If so, can we say that Kant’s philosophy fails on that score?


James Edwin Mahon. “Kant and Maria Von Herbert: Reticence vs. Deception.” Philosophy 81, no. 317 (2006): 417-44.

Langton, Rae. ‘Duty and Desolation’ (1992), Philosophy 67, 481-505. Reprinted as ‘Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant’, in Ethics: the Oxford Reader, ed. P. Singer (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Zweig, Arnulf (ed.) (1999). Correspondence. Cambridge University Press.


© Saniye Vatansever (15 December, 2018)



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