Book Review: Rorty & Schmidt’s Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim

Amélie Rorty and James Schmidt. Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim: A Critical Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

The collection presently under review is devoted to the understanding of Kant’s essay Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim (original German title: Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in Weltbürgerlicher Absicht). Kant’s article was published in 1784 a full year before his monumental Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals (1785) which has for almost two centuries dominated the reception of Kant’s ethics. There is a striking difference between the two works. Idea presents us with a historical account of both the history and the continued prospects for the development of a truly moral society, while the Groundwork presents us with a theory purporting to explain to us why we are, always have been, and always will be, capable of being moral. The project of the Groundwork is thus essentially justificatory while Idea explores the conditions for the possibility of morality becoming something we actually live by rather than merely being capable of. The fact that Kant had both ideas in mind at the same time deserves to be underlined, especially given the received (but now less dominant) interpretation of Kant as a strict moralist who believes we are at all times capable of acting morally. The present collection of essays goes some way toward softening this interpretation.

Kant’s essay (only 14 pages long), included in the collection and well translated by Allen Wood, is concerned to show that human history can be understood as a plan of nature which seeks to move us toward morality, whether we intend it or not. It is part of Kant’s critical project that such a plan of nature cannot, however, be known but must remain at the level of an idea of reason. (More on this below.) Kant proceeds by way of nine propositions which outline how nature pushes us to become rational and hence moral.

The early part of Kant’s essay is given to the vexing question of how we moved from the state of nature to civil society (—a discussion to which Kant’s contribution marks the end). Kant rejects the social contract approach of self-interested humans coming together to facilitate survival because he does not believe a social contract, which must, after all, be voluntary, can constitute a binding and hence necessary, association. Rather, Kant characterizes human nature as one of unsocial sociability. Employing a Rousseauian idea, Kant argues that our tendency to want to keep to ourselves in order to be free (to safeguard our wild freedom, as he says) necessarily leads us to come in contact with others since all that egotism creates in us is other related: greed, vanity, ambition all cannot be lived apart from others. But coming into contact with others like this, Kant argues, is also the means to overcoming our egoism. A Barbara Herman points out in her contribution “A Habitat for Humanity”, the child too must come into contact with the adult through non-rational desires in order to be educated by the adults. The argument Kant makes is that the institution of the state is essentially a retrospective justification of a naturally occurring event, the joining together of people to live under laws. Thus Kant does not deny the human consolidation into societies, only that this consolidation carries normative weight. (This is, in part, the concern of Terry Pinkard’s “Norms, facts and the philosophy of history”.)

The second half of Kant’s essay explores how, once we have civil societies, these will, by way of external laws, lead us to morality. Essentially the argument is that through the relation between states as well as through just laws within the state, both of which are initially designed to serve the particular interests of individuals, we gradually internalize these laws, make them our own and no longer see them as constraints. This will lead to a federation of states, an issue explored at greater length in Toward a Perpetual Peace (1795).

The essays in this volume focus by and large on the philosophical justifications Kant gives for the claims he makes. Herman, for instance, argues that what is really at play in Kant’s essay is an argument about the prolepsis of the idea of morality. That is, how can what Kant describes as the quasi-mechanical progress of history driven by human need turn into something more than that. The point, for Kant, is to see that the effects caused by our self-serving striving is more than just the simply related to that cause. There is an emergent quality here, something that the cause did not intend, but that becomes an essential part of the effect. This emergent property, for Kant, is the gradual human consciousness of their own reason. The point might be put simply as saying that while engaging in instrumental reasons, the results of this activity take on a significance which is not reducible to instrumental reason and must be attributed to something beyond it, morality.

Of course, it is far from a given that all will indeed interpret the events of history as pointing to the emergence of reason in history. (Kant does not, after all, like Hegel, believe that history is a giant rational organism seeking to become self-conscious to itself.) Thus, Eckart Förster’s contribution “The Hidden Plan of Nature” cast doubt on the idea that, as Kant puts it, “experience reveals something of such a course [of a rational history] as nature’s aim; I say: it reveals a little.” (Kant 19) That is, the events that Kant cites to buttress his claims, social organization, trade, international law, and others, are all susceptible to being again reduced to merely the results of human desires and self-interests, to instrumental reason. There is thus nothing inherently moral about the development of civil society.

Förster is right to point out that at the writing of Idea Kant did not yet have the theoretical tools to address the question of why it is necessary for us to believe that there is a rational purpose to nature beyond the satisfaction of our desires. This issue is the topic of Henry Allison’s essay “Teleology and history in Kant: the critical foundations of Kant’s philosophy of history”. Allison gives an account of how Idea fits with the theory of purposiveness articulated in the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). The general idea here is that in order to make sense of the world at all, we must believe that it is in some sense organized such that it is intelligible for us. Judgments of purposiveness come in the general forms of judgments of taste and judgments of teleology. The idea that history has a purpose is thus clearly a judgment of teleology which takes as its a priori principle the idea that there is some fit between human activity and the structure of the world. And if, as has already been established in the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason, morality is our highest vocation, then history too must be judged as if it were in the service of this goal.

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Stefan Bird-Pollan teaches philosophy and social theory at Harvard. He is currently working on a book about the relation between Kant and Hegel’s practical philosophies.

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1 Response

  1. csbllj says:

    “experience reveals something of such a course [of a rational history] as nature’s aim; I say: it reveals a little.” (Kant 19) That is, the events that Kant cites to buttress his claims, social organization, trade, international law, and others, are all susceptible to being again reduced to merely the results of human desires and self-interests, to instrumental reason. There is thus nothing inherently moral about the development of civil society.