Philosophy Political Philosophy

Immanuel Kant: “History with Cosmopolitan Intent”

Immanuel Kant wrote many important books, but he was also an important essayist—and some of his most important philosophical reflections, with longstanding and consequential legacies, were written as essays.  One of his most famous essays, with a rich consequential legacy, was “Idea of Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent.”  One of the first elaborations on the idea of philosophy of history—a philosophical understanding of history—Kant’s essay later influenced the likes of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Georg Hegel, and Karl Marx.  The essay was also abused by fascists and Nazis, highlighting the seemingly apologetic stance taken over war and conflict.  The essay is also a semi rebuttal to the state of nature theorists, namely Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

Kant begins the essay by acknowledging that history is fundamentally a myth-making project; that is, history is “concerned with telling about these events [of history].  History allows one to hope that when history considers in the large the play of the freedom of human will, it will be possible to discover the regular progression thereof.”  Just as nature produced a Johannes Kepler and an Isaac Newton, human nature, which is unfolding to its telos, corresponds with history, being the plane in which human nature is unfolding—to this end the nature of history will produce a Kepler or a Newton to allow ourselves to begin to understand its nature (and our own).  Kant clearly positions himself as a proto-Kepler or proto-Newton, offering an early interpretation of human nature and history, though he leaves the door open to a more systematic philosophy of history for the future (Herder, Hegel, and Marx all take up the challenge to offer up a philosophy of history).  According to Kant, History is the unfolding of the collective telos of humanity.

What makes Kant’s philosophy of history unique is that seemingly random and unimportant, and even “irrational events,” all serve the purpose of a rational end.  Since human nature is fundamentally rational in Kant, history is rational but only through successive development and antagonisms.  We do not know where history is headed because of our limitedness and finitude—but upon reflection of events, linking them together, and understanding what we do of human nature, we can begin to see the unfolding of history.  But this requires, as Kant tells us, “trials, experiences, and information in order to progress gradually from one level of understanding to the next.”  Readers of Hegel and Marx will immediately see their Kantian inheritance: history is propelled forward by conflict (trials) and the experiences that are gained from these conflicts.

Following Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza—thereby situating Kant as something of a liberal with regard to his outlook of history and society (though not in metaphysics and epistemology)—Kant argues that the end of human nature and, therefore, of history, is a peaceful and pleasant life.  Man uses his reason to his own self benefit, and this is primarily in the realm of easier living and labor so that man can enjoy more the fruits of his labor rather than suffer the pains of labor itself.  What, at first, seems irrational, becomes rational—earlier generations labored hard and without end, not necessarily for themselves, but for the next generation.  Their workaholic endeavors, which we may find unfitting for us today, is precisely because that is what their labor was for: hard work laying the groundworks for easier work in the future which primarily benefits (and benefitted) future generations.  For Kant, looking back on the past should fill us with appreciation, not resentment, gladness, not anger, acceptance, not rejection.  As Kant says, man builds a building and labors endlessly to do this—it is future generations that inherit this building (having done none of the work) and preserve it (enjoying the fruits of their ancestors’ labor and therefore having a more pleasant and peaceful life).

The fourth and seventh propositions, namely that history is moved forward by conflicts and antagonisms, and that the establishment of perfect civil constitutions result from the antagonisms of human relationships: human to human, human to state, and state to state, is wildly consequential upon both Hegel and Marx and deeply influential on modern philosophy and psyche.  Kant argues that the conflicts of war and between humans—those “trials” he spoke of earlier—is the main means by which rational advancement is made.  Hegel took from this idea his notion of the “cunning of reason.”  Human action is, from our contemporary vantage point looking back onto the past, ‘irrational.’  But that’s because our rational consciousness is superior to the past—it required those trials and experiences of conflict before we recognized the more rational way forward.  Here Kant is presenting a very explicit form of progressive rational historicism.

Antagonism, Kant informs us, is what makes men sociable and livable.  Man, in his original condition, is savage and unrefined.  He has the capacity for rational thought and improvement, or advancement, but this primarily comes through the experiences of hardship and conflict.  The first steps from barbarism to culture are through conflict.  In other words, without these trials and antagonisms there can be no progress made in man’s rational nature and, therefore, no progress made in how humans and human societies relate with each other.  Man would, effectively, be stuck in his savage and barbarous state of being.

This has earned Kant a critical reputation for having been an apologist for war.  As he writes, “All wars are therefore so many attempts to bring about new relations among the states and to form new bodies by the breakup of the old states to the point where they cannot again maintain themselves alongside each other.”  War leads to new bonds and relationships between peoples and states.  Without conflict we would become settled with the status quo and prevailing relational status which would be the end of progress:

That is to say, wars, the excessive and never-ending preparation for wars, and the want which every state even  in the midst of peace must feel—all these are means by which nature instigates attempts, which at first are inadequate, but which, after many devastations, reversals and a very general exhaustion of the states’ resources, may accomplish what reason could have suggested to them without so much sad experience, namely; to leave the lawless state of savages and to enter into a union of nations wherein each, even the smallest state, could expect to derive its security and rights—not from its own power or its own legal judgments—but only from this great union of nations and from united power and decisions according to the united will of them all.

But doesn’t this have to conclude for history to reach fulfillment?  (The answer is yes, but this first requires the exhaustion of conflict—again, readers of Hegel and Marx should immediately find Kantian residue in their similar ideas.)

Here we see that contemporary liberals and their views of universal history run into the dilemma of universal homogenization or particularized federal unions.  For Kant, particular nations will exist, even with their particular constitutions, but the universal constitution, represented by the universal union of nations, is that which reigns supreme over all nations and all men.  This is because all men rationally act for, and desire, a peaceful and pleasant existence.  Kant is more Lockean than he is Hobbesian insofar that Kant’s cosmopolitan federalism is bounded by internationalism rather than a homogenous leviathan.  All of this is only possible, as Kant makes clear, through the sad and sorry experience of conflict.  Eventually, a rational people will say “no” to more war—thus reaching that consummation of human nature and history.  This is the completion of human nature to its end and the completion of history from those sad, sorry, trials and experiences which drive rational consciousness to new levels and brings about universal history with cosmopolitan intent.[1]

Kant’s dream of perpetual peace comes through the fire of conflict.  And these conflicts between humans, and between human civil orders—e.g. states—is something that is necessary and unavoidable.  Hegel takes from Kant the view that these conflicts do, in fact, enhance man’s rational consciousness leading to the perfect harmonious union of men with their society.  Marx took from this, via Hegel, the view that dialectical conflict does advance history but this is primarily through material conflict rather than progressive rational growth (because Marx is a materialist and not an idealist like Kant and Hegel; note, idealism here does not refer to political idealism but the philosophical school of thought that argues the world is experienced through rational consciousness and ideas developed in the human mind).

One of the other major problems that Kant sees unfolding through history is the question of human master, or guidance.  Man needs a master because he misuses and abuses his freedom.  Thus, man needs a master or superior force to check his abuses and bring him back into line.  Yet, history is the unfolding of progressive freedom—enlightenment being the breaking of the social and institutional bonds that restrict man’s choices.  Kant’s resolution to this dilemma is that one is their own master (self-master) under the constitution (or law) which is, itself, a byproduct of man.  The only masters of men are other men—and this man over man (master-slave relationship) is dissipating to the point that all men will be their own masters under the law.  Since law is a product of man it remains the case that man is his own master since man crafted the laws by which he lives under.

By the end of the essay Kant argues that philosophy is the handmaiden to mankind.  Philosophy helps mankind understand itself and its rational nature, and what it is moving toward.  Kant offers a speculative philosophy of history to help serve as a guide to future human conduct and international relations.  Kant does not, however, in this brief essay offer the same systematic account of history as do his heirs: Herder, Hegel, and Marx most notably.  But Kant is written all over them, especially Hegel.  Hegel even takes from Kant the suggestion by Kant that one should start a philosophy of history with the Greeks and Romans and how they built off of each other (Hegel does precisely that as anyone who has read his Lectures on the Philosophy of History).  Nevertheless, Kant does not seem to see himself as the Kepler or Newton per se.  Rather, he is the precursor to the Kepler or Newton that History will produce.  Hegel takes up this ending challenge by Kant to produce that systematic philosophy of history which will guide men forward to their destiny:

If one starts with Greek history as the one through which all older and contemporary history has been preserved or at least certified, one may trace the influence of Greek history upon the formation and malformation of the body-politic of the Roman people who devoured the Greek state.  Again, if one traces down to our time the influence of Rome upon the Barbarian who destroyed the empire; if one then periodically adds the history of the state of other peoples as knowledge of them has come to us through these enlightened nations; then one will discover the regular procession of improvements in constitutional government in our part of the world which will probably give laws to all other states eventually.

To use a colloquial meme, Hegel read Kant and said, “challenge accepted.”

What can we say of Kant’s brief sketch of a philosophy of history?  History, for Kant, is unfolding to a rational end because man is a rational animal.  Man’s actions are seemingly irrational and erratic, but we learn from these encounters and engagements and their purpose become clear to us in the present while not necessarily known to the people who had engaged in said actions in their time.  History is driven forward by conflict, those “sad and sorry” “trials and experiences” that man learns from and leads to new relationships with one another (human to human, human to state, and state to state) as a result. 

Kant’s end of history is a world united in cosmopolitan peace leading to pleasant lives where man enjoys the fruits of his labor. All men desire and act toward peace.  In this sense Kant follows St. Augustine who wrote in The City of God that all wars aim for peace—but Augustine had a more tragic view of war and its misguided belief that war will lead to peace while Kant really does believe that the fires and trials of conflict will eventually exhaust itself into perpetual peace.  Furthermore, the nations of the world will be united in a cosmopolitan federal union where all nations retain a de facto sovereignty and independence but are really bound under a universal de jure constitution which regulates the actions of all states with one another.  This is the most rational thing to act and desire (at least in Kant’s perspective).  This world will not be achieved by force; it will be rationally consented to.

From Kant’s perspective, History is the plane in which human nature is unfolding to its end.  This unfolding of human nature is what we call History.  Because the two are linked together this is what permits History to have a teleological end.  And this is bringing all humans together—hence the cosmopolitan intent.

This essay was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 8 June 2018.


[1] Francis Fukuyama and many liberals misunderstand themselves as “Hegelians.” Rather, they are Kantians with regard to philosophy of history.

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