Early fruits of the movement were Kuno Fischer's works on Kant and Friedrich Lange's History of Materialism (Geschichte des Materialismus), the latter of which demonstrated the way in which transcendental idealism superseded the historic struggle between material idealism and mechanistic materialism. Fischer was early involved in a dispute with the Aristotelian Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg concerning the interpretation of the results of the Transcendental Aesthetic, a dispute that subsequently prompted Vaihinger's massive commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason.
One major thinker of importance in the first generation of the Neo-Kantian movement was Hermann Cohen who became known as the leader of the Marburg School, the other prominent representatives of which were Paul Natorp, Nicolai Hartmann and Ernst Cassirer. Another important group, the Southwest School (or Baden School, in Southwest Germany) included Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert and Ernst Troeltsch. The Marburg School emphasized epistemology and logic, whereas the Southwest school emphasized issues of culture and value.
The Neo-Kantian schools tended to emphasize scientific readings of Kant, often downplaying the role of intuition in favour of concepts. However the ethical aspects of Neo-Kantian thought often drew them within the orbit of socialism and they had an important influence on Austromarxism and the revisionism of Edward Bernstein. Lange and Cohen in particular were keen on this connection between Kantian thought and socialism leading Ludwig Von Mises to view Kantian thought as pernicious. Another aspect of the Neo-Kantian movement that was important was its attempt to promote a revised notion of the Jewish religion particularly in Cohen's seminal work, one of the few works of the movement available in English translation.
The Neo-Kantian school was of seminal importance in devising a division of philosophy that had durable influence well beyond Germany. It coined such terms as epistemology and upheld its prominence over ontology. Natorp had a decisive influence on the history of phenomenology and is often credited with leading Edmund Husserl to adopt the vocabulary of transcendental idealism. The debate between Cassirer and Martin Heidegger over the interpretation of Kant led the latter to formulate reasons for viewing Kant as a forerunner of phenomenology although this view was disputed in important respects by Eugen Fink. An abiding achievement of the Neo-Kantians was the founding of the journal Kant-Studien one of the foremost journals of academic philosophy that still survives as a key resource of importance to all studying Kant. In the Anglo-American world recent interest in Neo-Kantianism has revived in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, who is a critic of this movement's influence on modern philosophy, and because of its influence on the work of Max Weber.
The term "Neo-Kantian" can also be used as a general term to designate anyone who adopts Kantian views in a partial or limited way. The revival of interest in the work of Kant that has been underway since Peter Strawson's seminal work The Bounds of Sense can also be viewed as effectively Neo-Kantian, not least due to its continuing emphasis on epistemology at the expense of ontology. The converse European tradition drawing on the understandings of the transcendental derived from phenomenology continues to emphasize the converse reading as is shown by the recent works of Jean-Luc Nancy.