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.