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Kant, Immanuel
Elisabeth Ellis
Immanuel Kant founded modern philosophy,
freed morality from religion, laid down principles of human rights recognized everywhere
today, and contributed insights that are still
important to the fields of physics, astronomy,
geoscience, anthropology, and aesthetics.
Political theory is considered one of Kant’s
minor areas of interest; though there is important material for political thought in each of the
three great Critiques, Kant’s main political
work, the Metaphysics of Morals, is central neither to Kant’s oeuvre nor to the canon of
political thought. Nevertheless, Kant achieves
original insights in his political philosophy and
in his philosophy’s political implications; both
prove vitally important for present-day students of politics.
Kant’s astonishing achievements in political
theory, then, contrast sharply with the relatively
low esteem in which his political works are held
by Kant scholars and political theorists alike. A
selective list of his political-theoretical accomplishments would include: the philosophical
foundation of the Rechtsstaat (English-language
scholars would say “the rule of law”); vindication
of autonomy as the basis for legitimate politics
and the concomitant attacks on all forms of
domination; application of the critical method to
the study of political life; authorship of the most
defensible social contract theory, including radical and important theories of property, regime
change, and citizenship; contribution of the ideal
of a peaceful world federation and the principles
of international right that lead to it; analysis and
defense of the public sphere as the locus of critical discourse and the engine for progressive
change; demonstration that “enlightenment” is
an ongoing process of self-critique leading
toward autonomy. As Tracy Strong has recently
put it, “to be truly human is to be called to be
self-critical and, thus, free … What Kant is
talking about is a dramatic but slow transformation of the manner in which people relate to the
world and to themselves” (Strong 2012: 28).
Like his fellow social contract theorists
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Kant was a polymath whose contributions in philosophy and
the natural sciences were on a par with those he
made in political thought. Though history has
vindicated his scholarly achievements, and
though his critical work had become enormously influential by the time he retired from
teaching in 1796, Kant’s academic career was
slow to develop. Recent scholarship has been
calling attention to the continuities rather than
the differences between Kant’s various periods
of productivity. However, we ordinarily refer to
Kant’s writings up to 1770 as “precritical,” to
those from Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
through Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and
Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) up to
the turn of the century as “critical,” and to the
very last and mostly unpublished work as
“postcritical.” Except for two early essays on
Enlightenment and universal history (published in 1784), all of Kant’s political writings
were published after 1790.
Born into a family of harness-makers in
Königsberg, in what was then part of Prussia,
Kant enjoyed a happy early childhood followed
by a difficult time in high school. The Collegium
Fridericianum emphasized rote learning and
neglected mathematics and science education,
though Kant did achieve a solid grounding in
the Latin classics. He then attended the university at Königsberg (the Albertina) and, although
he did well, he left without taking a degree at
first. After working for a time as a household
tutor, Kant completed the three thesis projects
required in order for him to assume an unsalaried lecturer’s position; these works were on
the subjects of fire, cognition, and physical
The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, First Edition. Edited by Michael T. Gibbons.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118474396.wbept0555
monadology. Kant’s courses were numerous
and popular, especially his cutting-edge lectures in the new field of anthropology. However,
he did not acquire a professorship until March
1770, when he was 45 years old.
Kant was well known in Königsberg and
had a broad correspondence, in keeping with
his participation in the eighteenth-century
“republic of letters,” but he did not become truly
famous until the publication of the first edition
of Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. In dense,
careful, systematic language, Kant asks how
synthetic a priori knowledge is possible. Since,
for Kant, a “critique” inquires into some thing’s
conditions of possibility, by pursuing a “critique
of pure reason” Kant aims to discover how
something really new rather than just deduced
from a concept can possibly be known to be
necessarily true. Kant’s answer is his famous
reversal of Copernicus’s insight that the solar
system is heliocentric rather than geocentric:
the conditions of possible synthetic a priori
knowledge inhere in the particular cognitive
apparatus that limited rational beings such as
ourselves bring to the project of encountering
the world. In short: Copernicus showed us that
we were not the center of the solar system, but
Kant demonstrates that we human beings are
the source of the possibility of synthetic a priori
truth. That publication rocked the European
philosophical world, sometimes appropriately
(as in readers’ appreciation of the brilliance of
Kant’s Copernican turn), and just as often inappropriately (as in the romantics’ overwrought
reaction to the misreading that Kant leaves us
permanently estranged from an unreachable
“real” world).
Between 1770 and 1781, the so-called “silent
decade,” Kant did not publish but worked on
his critical ideas. The publication of the
Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 was followed
by an astounding burst of scholarly productivity: Kant revised and summarized his theoretical work in the Prolegomena and in a second
edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (which
appeared in 1787); he published his major ethical works the Groundwork of the Metaphysics
of Morals (in 1785) and the Critique of Practical
Reason (in 1788), as well as various essays in
ethics and the second half of the Metaphysics of
Morals, the Tugendlehre or Doctrine of Virtue;
he wrote books and essays on religion, natural
science, anthropology, university life, education, and other topics; and, most significantly
for our purposes, he published his great series
of works in political thought. The most important of these is the first half of the Metaphysics
of Morals, the Rechtslehre or Doctrine of Right,
published in 1797; but there is also a series of
short works, beginning with “What Is Enlightenment?” in 1784, continuing with the influential “Toward Perpetual Peace” in 1795 and “On
the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in
Theory but It Is of No Use in Practice” in 1793,
and concluding with the Conflict of the Faculties
in 1798.
Some of these essays were published in a
well-known monthly magazine of Enlightenment
thought, the Berlinische Monatsschrift, and were
thus engaged in the ongoing cultural controversies of the day. For example, Kant’s famous
essay “What Is Enlightenment?” was written in
response to a question raised by one of the interlocutors in a series of essays debating whether
the state should sanction civil marriage or not.
As would be expected of a Prussian academic at
the end of the eighteenth century, Kant had to
work within the strictures of state censorship,
which were sometimes relatively liberal but
never absent, and which sometimes affected
his publications directly. The essays in the
Monatsschrift trod carefully around controversial issues like civil freedoms and the role of the
state in regulating religion, while they said as
much as they dared; they were publications in a
state under absolute rule, even if the monarch
styled himself relatively progressive. In 1784
Kant could delicately express the hope that
Frederick II would provide civil security while
encouraging progressive freedom in arenas like
religion, business, and science:
If it is now asked whether we at present live in
an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do
live in an age of enlightenment … a good deal
more is required for people [to use] their own
understanding confidently and well in religious
matters … But we do have distinct intimations
that the field is now being opened for them to
work freely in this direction and that the
hindrances to universal enlightenment or to
humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred
minority are gradually becoming fewer. In this
regard this age is the age of enlightenment or
the century of Frederick. (8: 40; 21)
By the end of his career, however, Kant was
struggling with censorship under Frederick II’s
successor, Frederick William II; and, although
he obeyed the letter of the law as he interpreted
it, he did little to hide his disagreement with
official positions. After Frederick William’s
death in 1797, Kant published the three-essay
collection Conflict of the Faculties, in which he
defends philosophers against state interference
by pointing out that philosophical arguments
are subject only to the rule of reason. In the
preface to this work he published both the 1794
royal order restricting his writings on religious
subjects and his response to it: here he is using
the trademark Kantian means of publicity
against censorship while assiduously remaining an obedient subject and encouraging the
sovereign to see that supporting enlightenment
is in the state’s interest. “This nonsense [the old
censorship policy] has now been brought
under control,” Kant writes:
The choice of a wise government has fallen on
an enlightened statesman who has … the
talent, and the will to promote the broad
interests of the entire scholastic profession
and who will, accordingly, secure the progress
of culture in the field of the sciences against
any new invasions of obscurantism. (7: 11; 21)
In both the early essay “What Is Enlightenment?” and the late Conflict of the Faculties,
therefore, we see Kant employing a combination
of public argument and civil obedience to try to
move the state toward more enlightened policies.
Between 1784 and 1798 Kant had plenty of
opportunities to be disappointed in the behavior
of the Prussian leadership – from the partitions
of Poland, which violated international right, to
the imposition of controls on religious expression
domestically. Why, then, did a philosopher
known for his unyielding defense of freedom
counsel obedience to an obviously unjust state?
Before we can answer this question we will have
to unpack, briefly, Kant’s main political theoretical positions.
Here we are interested in Kant’s contributions to political thought rather than in his
epistemological, moral, aesthetic, or other
achievements. However, we should begin from
the fact that all of Kant’s various areas of
interest converge on the idea of freedom. In his
work on pure reason, Kant shows us how we
must think for ourselves and how the mental
apparatus we necessarily use to do this thinking
can lead us astray if we are not attentive the
limits of possible human knowledge. In his ethical works, Kant demonstrates that every
limited rational being is subject to the moral
law that arises from reason itself: we must treat
other people as ends in themselves rather than
as mere means, as one formulation of the
categorical imperative has it. In addition to
these two kinds of rational and ethical freedom, Kant conceptualizes what he calls
“external” freedom, which applies to people’s
interactions and thus to political life. Freedom
in the political sense is freedom from determination by another’s choice (and thus, as the
philosopher of political as well as rational and
ethical freedom, Kant will doggedly oppose
political despotism). Though present-day
liberal theorists sometimes seem to forget it,
Kant consistently posed the critical question
about political autonomy – what are the conditions of possible external freedom? – and his
answers made clear that autonomy is always an
aspiration more or less supported by social,
political, and even ideological conditions.
Until recently scholars of Kant’s ethical and
political thought tended to take a narrow, rigoristic view of what Kant meant by freedom
under the moral law, relying on the Groundwork
and on minor essays like the 1797 “On the
Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,”
where Kant argues on the basis of the universalization principle that it can never be right to
lie – not even to a murderer at the door asking
whether his proposed victim is at home.
Attention to the specifics of Kant’s careful
distinctions (in this case, between right and
virtue) can usually explain Kant’s sometimes
strange positions, but inquiring into the details
of this debate would lead us too far from our
focus on Kant’s political thought. What matters
for us here is that Kant scholars now generally
reject the rigoristic interpretation of Kant’s
ethics, and Kantian political theorists now generally reject the narrow version of abstract
individualism that was said to follow from
Kant’s rigoristic ethics. Instead students of
Kant’s political theory are discovering Kant’s
fully realized political thought, present as it is
throughout his works and not just as an offshoot of the ethical theory. An important
advantage to this more accurate and complete
reading of Kant’s political thought is that it
reflects a Kantian commitment to cosmopolitanism rather than an attempt to impose a
narrowly European view of political right on
the rest of humanity, as was once commonly
assumed. As Pauline Kleingeld has recently
written, Kant’s citizens are emphatically not
individualistic citizens of nowhere, who relish
their unattached and unencumbered existence,
are self-satisfied with their self-styled identity
… and regard the more rooted mortals around
them with unmistakable condescension …
Instead, on Kant’s view, cosmopolitanism is an
attitude taken up in acting: an attitude of recognition, respect, openness, interest, beneficence and concern toward other human
individuals, cultures, and peoples as members
of one global community. (Kleingeld 2013: 1;
see also Bayefsky 2013)
So how can people exercise their freedom
from determination by another’s choice in the
kind of global community envisioned by Kant
and Kleingeld? The answer to this question
will place Kant firmly in the social contract
tradition, though his version of social contract
theory is a distinctly Kantian one, emphasizing the function of the social contract as an
idea. Like other social contract theorists, Kant
is interested in how to reconcile the apparent
contradiction that arises from the need to vindicate both individual freedom and civic
order at the same time. In order to be free
from determination by another’s will, I need
to be able to prevent other people from interfering with my pursuing my independent
choices. But using my own force to prevent
them from interfering with me would not
only be unlikely to succeed, it would also subject them to the same illegitimate determination by my choice that I was trying to avoid
from them. Thus the only legitimate coercion that is possible must be exercised by
everyone (Kant says, it must be omnilateral
rather than unilateral). What basis for coercion could be truly omnilateral? Only coercion based on the rule of law, rather than
coercion based on the will of any person or
group, can legitimately constrain individuals
from interfering in one another’s free choices.
Thus Kant moves from the critical question
of how external freedom is possible to the
necessity of the civil condition as the basis of
any possible exercise of freedom.
We can now begin to understand how Kant
could counsel obedience even to an unjust
monarch: according to Kant, the coercive order
of the state undergirds the possibility of the
exercise of external freedom. But Kant is no
Hobbes, and he is not satisfied with unaccountable sovereignty. Though any order that
guarantees the rule of law makes progress
toward civic freedom possible, and thus one
should not act to undermine such order
according to Kant, legitimate political authority
must be republican in spirit, by which Kant
means that its laws must correspond to the
universal will of the people. We saw already
that, for Kant, only an omnilateral will can
rightly coerce us. But there is, plainly, no really
existing mouthpiece of the people’s omnilateral
will available, for Kant or for present-day
students of politics interested in electoral mandates or in the public good. Kant devises several strategies to deal with the necessary but
unavailable omnilateral will. He argues that the
test of whether a policy is legitimate is whether
a people could have reasonably supported it;
this test allows Kant to criticize any policy that
benefits part of society, or “rogues” as he calls
them, at the expense of the whole. Kant proposes that we use publicity as another test of
legitimacy, arguing that any policy that is
incompatible with being made public is necessarily wrong. And in his accounts of property
and international relations Kant uses the idea
of provisional right as a way of moving toward
legitimacy when the civil condition that would
make right conclusive is absent.
In Kant’s view, with everyone we might
interact with, we are obliged to enter into a
coercive regime that guarantees reciprocal
rights; and, since the world is round and
connected by waterways, we are potentially
interacting with everyone else. Thus, if we fail
jointly to enter a civil condition, we do wrong
to everyone who cannot be assured of our good
conduct. This logic seems to lead naturally to
the idea of a world-state; but Kant expresses
not only skepticism that this would ever come
about in the empirical world but also the worry
that a world-state would threaten to become
despotic. How can we act justly in the
real world, then, if the only condition of just
interaction – omnilaterally justified coercion
under law – seems beyond our grasp? Kant
works through one version of this problem in
his exposition of property rights in Metaphysics
of Morals. Here he argues, against Locke, that
property rights do not apply between owners
and objects but are effectively agreements
among people to respect one another’s rights to
objects of their choosing. By making an object
my own, I am declaring that everyone else has
an obligation to leave it to me. But I cannot
unilaterally declare that everyone else is under
an obligation just because it suits me; only an
omnilateral will can bind everyone justly. It
might look at this stage as if Kant is radically
undermining the institution of property rights,
and certainly one might take the argument in
this direction. However, Kant does not do so.
Instead Kant argues that, in the absence of the
conclusive right to property that would be possible in circumstances of civil justice, we should
recognize a provisional right to property:
“Possession in anticipation of and preparation
for the civil condition, which can be based only
on a law of a common will, possession which
therefore accords with the possibility of such a
condition, is provisionally rightful possession”
(6: 257; 410).
Two years earlier, in “Toward Perpetual
Peace,” Kant used the idea of provisional right
to solve a similar problem about how to move
the real, imperfect world closer to a just one. In
his political writings, the social contract and its
corresponding principles – “1. The freedom of
every member of the society as a human being.
2. His equality with every other as a subject.
3. The independence of every member of a
commonwealth as a citizen” (8: 290; 291) –
function as an ideal for critical comparison
with actual states of affairs. In Kant’s day as
today, international relations posed an especially wicked version of the problem of choosing between corrupt realism and ineffectual
idealism. Kant uses the idea of provisional
right to explode the dilemma: states should act
such that their actions promote the possibility
of progress toward just relations among themselves. Thus in some cases states need not give
up practices that, on the face of it, violate contractarian ideals, so long as the temporary continuation of those practices promotes the
eventual realization of justice. Kant’s examples
of provisionally permissible practices include
treating the state as personal patrimony, using
sovereign debt to fund military adventure, and
maintaining standing armies (8: 343–7; 317–
21). None of these practices could withstand
the Kantian tests of legitimacy we introduced
earlier, but it is possible that their sudden or
unilateral cessation would worsen rather than
improve the prospects for eventual international justice. The rule Kant set down in his
account of international right in the Metaphysics
of Morals holds equally well for Kantian provisional right generally: “always leave open the
possibility of leaving the state of nature … and
entering a rightful condition” (6: 347; 485).
Kant’s political thought offers important
lessons for present-day students of politics. His
provisional perspective arises from the real
conflict generated by the combination of
empirical and normative factors that produce
politics as such: we are limited rational beings
with access to the moral law, applying it provisionally, contingently, and with inadequate
understanding to the task of critical assessment
of our real-world circumstances. As Kant says
in the introduction to his Metaphysics of
Morals, systematic completeness is not possible
for knowledge of politics. In his third Critique,
moreover, Kant makes similar arguments
about the possibility of empirical observation
generally, emphasizing that scientists necessarily employ theoretical rules of thumb before
they are able to make any observation at all.
From both these points of view, then, the
Kantian critic of method in contemporary
political science will have much to say. On the
one hand, such a critic will caution us to avoid
transgressing the bounds of possible knowledge
by giving too much credence to rational models
of political behavior or by putting too much
trust in our techniques of empirical observation (however sophisticated these may have
become). On the other hand, the Kantian critic
might also support a mode of investigation that
attempts to delineate the formal conditions of
political interaction as such, especially as these
are approximated in practice. From Kantian
provisionalism, political theory can gain a
model of incremental knowledge accumulation,
a theory of the dynamic interaction between
norms and institutions, and a set of hypotheses
about regime change, social movements, and
other important political phenomena. From
Kant’s philosophy of science, students of
politics can learn about the conditions of
empirical knowledge in general. Together,
these Kantian observations have a significant
contribution to make to ongoing debates about
how to understand political life.
Political theory is part of the discipline of
political science, of course. Political science has
suffered lately from unproductive internal
strife, increasing neglect from those with
resources to distribute, and, worst of all, persistent public ridicule. Governments around the
world are reducing their support for political
science research and teaching at just the
moment when global political dysfunction
needs most to be understood. At least twice
since 1781, Kant has come to the rescue of disciplines in need. With the publication of his
Critique of Pure Reason, the legitimate pursuit
of scientific knowledge through empirical
observation was shown to be possible, even if it
is limited by the nature of our mental apparatus.
Two centuries later, the moribund world of
Anglo-American political philosophy, caught
in a sterile dispute between utilitarians and
deontologists, was revived with the publication
of John Rawls’s deeply Kantian Theory of Justice
in 1971. Having provided crucial insights for
the enterprises of empirical natural science and
analytical political philosophy, Kant may well
be able to do the same for the study of politics
more generally.
Kant does not have all the answers to political
science’s questions. Some of his political views
fail to transcend his historical context (examples
include Kant’s relegation of women and working
people to passive citizenship and his sometimes
dismissive assessments of the contributions of
nonwestern cultures). Worse, some of Kant’s
innovative contributions to the new science of
anthropology, and especially his work on the
concept of race, helped justify racist practices
like slavery and opposition to racial intermarriage (Bernasconi 2001). In making distinctions
between various races of human beings (whites,
Negroes, Huns, and Hindus were the designations he used), Kant was mainly interested in
establishing a monogenetic theory of human
development in which there is only one human
species. Even so, a troubling tension remains
between Kant’s ringing defense of human freedom and equality, on the one hand, and his
views on women, workers, and nonwhites, on
the other. However, for the most part Kant’s
potential contributions to political theory can be
made independent of his eighteenth-century
prejudices (but see Marwah 2013).
To be sure, a Kantian perspective cannot help
a political science that would abandon its practical orientation and turn to behavioral science
in the strictest sense of the word. Such a turn
would ultimately be self-defeating, even disregarding its incompatibility with Kantian theory,
since any empirically accurate description of
interacting human beings would have to recognize the practical role of justice-based arguments in the public sphere. If, however, scholars
of politics have something to contribute to the
world at large, then we would be well advised to
pay attention to a few of Kant’s more salient
arguments. In “Theory and Practice,” for
example, Kant could be writing directly to an
audience of present-day scholars of politics:
This hope for better times, without which an
earnest desire to do something profitable for
the general well-being would never have
warmed the human heart, has moreover
always influenced the work of well-disposed
people … Confronted by the sorry sight, not
so much of those troubles that oppress human
beings from natural causes as rather of those
that they themselves inflict upon one another,
the mind is nevertheless cheered up by the
prospect that matters could become better in
the future. (8: 308–9; 306–7)
Most of the great challenges facing humanity
today are political rather than technical; we
will make progress toward solving them by
learning to interact with each other better.
Consider the following challenges: how to constrain ourselves from collectively overheating
the atmosphere and acidifying the ocean, how
to police ourselves such that none of us begins
a nuclear war, how to overcome differences
that prevent us from ensuring just life circumstances for every human being. These are all
problems that Kant would categorize as
“self-inflicted,” and “well-disposed” political
theorists must address them.
So what wisdom can Kant offer a discipline
facing such weighty problems? In the first
place, he provides guidance to anyone who
seeks knowledge, and particularly to anyone
who seeks knowledge of things like politics,
which exist at the border of freedom and
nature. As we have seen, Kant in his first
Critique demonstrates that the workings of the
human, limited but rational, mental apparatus
necessitate certain limits to what can be known
of the natural world. For example, human
beings must conceive of things in terms of
extension in space and persistence in time,
although we have no external proof that space
and time are real beyond our subjective experience of them. Many of the problems that appear
to us to be philosophical or scientific conundrums are just artifacts of the interaction between our cognizing selves and a world that is
not directly knowable in itself (since all our
knowledge is mediated by the mode of thinking
that is given to us by nature). By directing our
attention to the epistemological conditions of
knowledge as such, Kant reminds us that science is a product of the relationship between
cognizing minds such as ours and the natural
world of which we are a part.
Famous problems, such as the existence of
god, the reality of freedom, or even our reliance
on consistent laws of nature, are real for us
because our interactions with nature necessarily
produce them. But these issues remain in large
part generated by our particular mental
apparatus; we do not have any information
about their independent reality. In order to
make sense of the world, and indeed in order to
pursue scientific knowledge, we have to make
certain regulative assumptions about nature. In
the second half of the Critique of the Power of
Judgment, Kant discusses the way in which such
assumptions make scientific knowledge possible
for beings like us. Were he able to address present-day scholars of politics, Kant might well
remark upon our ungrounded faith that the
observations we quantify with so much sophistication reflect a reality independent of our cognizing mental apparatuses.
Kant did not address the question of a science of politics in today’s sense of the word,
though he did discuss the possibility of a
systematic treatment of political right in the
introduction of the Metaphysics of Morals.
There he argues that any such knowledge is of
necessity incomplete, since it combines theoretical principles of right with the empirical
conditions of their always partial implementation in practice. Elsewhere Kant also considers
the scientific status of other enterprises with
less capacity for certainty than morals or
physics, such as chemistry and psychology.
Such disciplines can indeed achieve a degree
of scientific status, even if they are always
imperfect. These imperfect disciplines, like
the study of politics, use regulative principles
(such as the teleological ideal of progress in
history, or the assumption that what looks to
us like a distinct object is in fact a distinct
object with inherent unity) to guide their
investigations. Applying these ideas to the
study of politics, a Kantian political theorist
would seek to identify and make known the
regulative principles we necessarily use in
making our observations.
Along the same lines, Kant would advise students of politics interested in the accurate characterization of their objects of inquiry to be
sensitive to their particular standpoints. An
ideal standpoint, of course, is not available to
limited rational beings like us. Discussing the
impossibility of obtaining an ideal standpoint
with regard to the question of whether there is
progress in human history, Kant writes:
If the course of human affairs seems so senseless to us, perhaps it lies in a poor choice of
position from which we regard it … But, and
this is precisely the misfortune, we are not
capable of placing ourselves in this position
when it is a question of the prediction of free
actions. (7: 148; 149)
Here, in Conflict of the Faculties, and elsewhere,
too, Kant recognizes the difficulty of obtaining
the proper standpoint on social questions, but
he does not counsel resignation. Instead he
offers a rough guide to good research about
politics. First, Kant argues, one must identify
the appropriate regulative principle with which
to guide one’s characterization of the problem
at hand. In this case of the question of progress,
Kant looks for evidence of human agency. “An
event must be sought” that demonstrates the
existence of realized freedom in the world,
even if such freedom can never directly be
observed (7: 150; 151). His theory of freedom
tells him to look for disinterested action motivated by respect for the moral law, and he finds
such an event in the willingness of Prussian
observers of the French Revolution to voice
their support even at the risk of paying a substantial personal price for doing so (7: 152; 153).
Now, it is evident that, in Conflict, Kant did not
consider the possibility of entirely disinterested
expressions of opinion that support morally
abhorrent views (against self-sacrificing Prussian freedom lovers, for example, we might
oppose self-sacrificing radical ethno-nationalists).
However, his argument depends not on the
moral content of the particular principle for
the sake of which really existing human beings
are willing to endanger themselves, but only on
the fact that human actions have happened
that can only be explained by reasons of the
moral (and not material) type. In other words,
the moral reasoning in question need not be
sound, but only formally moral and not
material. Though Kant does occasionally forget
this distinction, presupposing that all moral
reasoning must necessarily have the same contents he describes in The Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals, the overall thrust of his
political work is toward the ubiquity of the
structure of moral reasoning rather than
toward any narrowly specific view of its contents. In “Theory and Practice,” for example,
Kant writes that empirical reality includes
“human nature, in which respect for right and
duty is still alive” (8: 312; 309). When Kant
claims that “all politics must bend its knee
before right,” he is referring to the fact that
political reasoning everywhere uses arguments
about justice to legitimate itself (leaving the
contents of particular accounts of right open)
(8: 380; 347). Thus Kant has used a regulative
principle (he assumed that there must be real
human agency, though he could not know that
in any strong sense) to make an important
empirical observation about political life (there
are instances of human action that can only be
explained by moral motivation).
This finding of Kant’s raises important
issues for present-day students of politics. We
might look for conditions that make morally
motivated political action more or less possible for human subjects (for example, the
Prussians admirers of the French Revolution
might not have been able to communicate at
all under different political conditions). We
might use these investigations to raise critical
questions about our own societies (for
example, our public sphere might facilitate
some kinds of communication while preventing others, or it might operate in such a way
that the critique–action nexus posited by Kant
is disabled). At its most basic, Kantian theory
teaches students of politics to attend to the fragility, value, and context dependence of human
agency. Though we must assume, with Kant,
that we “are dealing with beings that act freely,”
we must also attend to the conditions that
make this ideal more or less real (7: 148; 149).
After all, we can easily imagine – indeed we
can both find and remember – circumstances
in which moral argument does not affect
political life, and thus circumstances in which
politics as we understand it recedes. As
Hannah Arendt says, “the trouble with modern
theories of behaviorism is not that they are
wrong but that they could become true”
(Arendt 1958: 322).
For Kant in his political work, there are two
types of political theory. On the one hand,
there are ideal theories of justice. These are
based on moral truths known theoretically, not
empirically, and they result in such famous
Kantian principles as the injunction to treat
others always as ends, never as means. On the
other hand, Kant is very interested in empirical
theories of political life and contributed a
number of them himself. Probably Kant’s best
known empirical theory of politics is the
democratic peace hypothesis, which asserts
that democracies are unlikely to start aggressive wars (Doyle 1983). These second sorts of
theories are open to empirical confirmation,
disconfirmation, and modification, just as any
scientific hypothesis would be. But, for Kant as
for Rawls and for other liberal contract theorists, members of the first type of theory – basic
principles of political justice – are not open to
empirical confirmation or disconfirmation.
We reach them in a number of (always contestable) ways – such as by thought experiments,
histories of discourses, and public deliberation
(among other means). For his part, Kant uses
his critical method of deduction to construct
norms of political justice.
Even so, there is room for empirical elements like emotion in Kant’s normative
political theory. Certainly emotion plays less of
a role in Kant’s ethics than it does for other
moral thinkers. Reacting perhaps partly against
the emotional Pietist teachings he experienced
in high school at the Collegium Fridericianum,
but in the main on the basis of philosophical
considerations, Kant famously gives us a
modern moral theory based not on religion
or emotion or on anything material or
conditioned, but on reason alone. As we have
already seen, the moral law is expressed in the
form of a categorical imperative (that is, a rule
that must be followed under all circumstances).
The best known of Kant’s various formulations
of the categorical imperative is “act only in
accordance with that maxim through which you
can at the same time will that it become a
universal law” (4: 421; 73). We are subject to
the moral law not because God wills it (though
this law does certainly resemble the moral
imperatives expressed in many different Scriptural traditions) or because God will punish us
in the afterlife if we fail to follow it, or for any
other material reason. The moral law according
to Kant governs us categorically, beyond all circumstance, necessarily: as long as we conceive
of ourselves as choice-making agents at all, we
are subject to the moral law and its categorical
imperative. Though there is not enough space
in this entry on Kant and political theory to
explore all the political implications of his
categorical imperative, we should pause here
briefly to appreciate the radically egalitarian
implications of a moral theory whose law binds
us just as human beings (and therefore
regardless of social station, political condition,
gender, history, or any other material matter).
However, returning to the question at hand
(emotion in Kant’s theory), we see that, despite
Kant’s restriction of morality’s origin and rules
to reason alone, emotion persists in Kant’s
theory in its role as moral motivation. We experience awe with regard to the moral law, and we
are moved to pursue the good. Just as the laws
of external freedom do not depend on material
circumstance, but the degree to which any
particular society is able to follow them is
deeply conditioned socially, so Kant does not
admit any particular emotional calculus into
the determination of the principles of justice,
but emotions can move us to act upon them. No
one who rejects emotion could possibly have
made Kant’s famous remark in the Critique of
Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with
ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one
reflects on them: the starry heavens above me
and the moral law within me” (5: 162; 269).
The restriction on material sources of law is
part of Kant’s system for the same reason that it
is part of Rawls’s and every other liberal thinker’s: if normative principles are to justify coercion, they must apply on the truly universal
basis of reason rather than the material and
particular ground of emotion (for the most
trenchant of the many critiques of this view, see
Young 2000). Thus, while Kant, like present-day
students of politics, is interested in empirical
advances in the human sciences, he does not
accept that new knowledge of politics could
alter basic principles of justice.
Students of politics should attend, then, to
the Kantian solution of separate standpoints in
the study of human life, one for each ruling
logic. Political life is hard to understand and
hard to construct rules for, just because many
of the most important aspects of politics exist
at the confluence of these two spheres that
Kant calls the realms of freedom and nature.
New empirical work on the genetics of partisanship, the evolution of cooperation, or the
epistemological quality of democratic public
opinion may add important insight into our
ability to realize moral-political goals, but it
cannot, in principle, resolve disputes about the
moral rightness of political principles.
How, then, should students of political
theory approach their subject, existing as it
does at the intersection of the realms of freedom and nature? Kant would not recommend
seeking a unified science of politics that would
apply a single set of regulative principles to the
investigation of all elements of political life.
Reality, Kant argues, must itself be a seamless
whole. But human seekers of knowledge are
merely limited rational beings, forced to use
their inadequate senses, understanding, and
reason to come to terms with themselves and
with the world. The nature of our knowing
apparatus forces us to analyze the world as if it
contained two spheres of existence: of freedom
and of nature. That we must see the world this
way does not mean that it “really is” divided,
and in fact some things about the world throw
us hints, as it were, that our division is artificial.
Kant mentions the presumption of agreement
we make about claims of beauty, and the
existence of self-sacrificing revolutionary sympathizers, as pieces of evidence that the two
spheres meet. Bridging freedom and nature
remained an object and a puzzle to Kant up to
the end of his productive career. In epistemology
and in aesthetics, he offers some suggestions, if
not for a resolution, then for a means of getting
on with the problem. But in his political work
Kant makes a sustained argument for the
contingent separation of the normative and
empirical spheres. For example, he calls for a
free sphere of public discussion of political
principles, isolated from the empirical interests
and power differentials that characterize
everyday politics. This isolation of the public
sphere from what we would call private interest
gives arguments in the public sphere their
legitimacy, and ultimately their power to motivate change over the long run (as unjust practices gradually become indefensible). While
Kant argues that publicity has concrete if
indirect effects on political events, the study of
these effects proceeds according to different
principles from those of the study of the arguments themselves. Thus a political theorist
guided by Kantian principles would attend to
the history of conceptual change and to the
dynamics of politically relevant discourses.
These would be studied under a regulative
principle that assumes, for the purposes of
the investigation, that agents are freely
making arguments under specific discursive
conditions, even if empirically we have good
(Foucauldian and other) reasons to doubt that
this is always the case.
Kantian interest in discursive dynamics
would guide “well-disposed” students of politics
to the study of institutions that might encourage
the latter’s proliferation and effectiveness. For
example, political theorist Jane Mansbridge has
argued for the importance of protected enclaves
for identity communities in which activists create the innovative concepts that are sometimes
taken up in the public sphere (Mansbridge
2005). Similarly, Kant’s favored mode of reasongiving, free expression of moral principle in the
public sphere, depends on a particular set of
contextually specific institutions. The inhabitants of the “republic of letters” conduct their
arguments via a network of coffeehouses,
literary journals, pamphleteers, and even (Kant
hoped) protection of intellectual property
rights, without which their reason-giving in
public would not be possible (Laursen 1986).
The particular set of institutions that protects
enclaves of discourse varies by context; students
of politics should investigate the institutions
that protect such enclaves and thereby facilitate
public discourse. Thus would Kantian political
inquiry join empirical and normative questions: by looking at the conditions of possibility
for the always partial realization of hypothetically given principles. Kant consistently
describes political investigations in asymptotic
terms (7: 166; 167; 8: 277; 280).
On the other hand, present-day attempts to
settle normative questions by empirical means –
whether by communitarian fiat, psychological
research, or neonaturalist declaration – join a
long series of futile efforts to end that messy
aspect of human coexistence called politics.
There are interesting facts about politics out
there to be learned, many of which have important implications for normative as well as for
explanatory – and even predictive – theories of
politics. But none of these facts, however
laden with significance, will resolve questions
of political justice for human beings who aspire
to freedom and persist in their plurality. It
would be pleasant, one might suppose, to live as
sociable animals like bees and ants are supposed
to do, peaceably working toward some universally accepted common good. In such a life,
Kant warns,
all talents would, in an arcadian pastoral life
of perfect concord, contentment and mutual
love, remain eternally hidden in their germs;
human beings, as good-natured as the sheep
they tended, would give their existence hardly
any greater worth than that of their domesticated beasts; they would not fill the void in
creation in regard to their end as rational
nature. (8: 21; 111–112)
A world in which empirical advances would
settle normative questions would not be a
world of perfect justice, but a world in which
justice as a concept has no referent.
SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Cosmopolitanism;
Enlightenment, The; Epistemology ; Freedom;
Human Rights; Liberalism; Liberal Theory ;
Metaphysics and Postmetaphysics; Moral Law ;
Perpetual Peace; Public Sphere; Race; Reason;
Rebellion, Right of; Rule of Law ; Social Contract
References in this entry are to the volume of the
standard “Academy” edition of Kant’s works,
followed (1) by the page number in the standard edition and (2) by the page number in the
Cambridge edition (given below). (Academy
edition volume number and pagination are
given in the margins of the Cambridge edition.)
Kant, I. (1995–) The Cambridge Edition of the
Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Bayefsky, R. (2013) “Dignity, Honour, and Human
Rights: Kant’s Perspective,” Political Theory,
41 (6), 809–37.
Bernasconi, R. (2001) “Who Invented the Concept
of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment
Construction of Race.” In R. Bernasconi (Ed.),
Race. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 11–36.
Doyle, M. W. (1983) “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and
Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy & Public Affairs,
12 (3), 205–35.
Kleingeld, P. (2013) Kant and Cosmopolitanism:
The Philosophical Ideal of World Citizenship.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Laursen, J. C. (1986) “The Subversive Kant: The
Vocabulary of ‘Public’ and ‘Publicity,’” Political
Theory, 14 (4), 584–603.
Mansbridge, J. (2005) “Cracking Through
Hegemonic Ideology: The Logic of Formal
Justice,” Social Justice Research, 18 (3), 335–47.
Marwah, I. (2013) “What Nature Makes of Her:
Kant’s Gendered Metaphysics,” Hypatia: A
Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 28 (3), 551–67.
Strong, T. B. (2012) Politics without Vision: Thinking
without a Banister in the Twentieth Century.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, I. M. (2000) Inclusion and Democracy.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Further Reading
Allison, H. A. (2004) Kant’s Transcendental
Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, 2nd
rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ellis, E. (2005) Kant’s Politics: Provisional Theory
for an Uncertain World. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
Ellis, E. (Ed.) (2012) Kant’s Political Theory:
Interpretations and Applications. State College:
Penn State University Press.
Flikschuh, K. (2000) Kant and Modern Political
Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Goldman, L. (2012) “In Defense of Blinders: On
Kant, Political Hope, and the Need for Practical
Belief,” Political Theory, 40 (4), 497–523.
Höffe, O. (2006) Kant’s Cosmopolitan Theory of Law
and Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Kuehn, M. (2002) Kant: A Biography. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
O’Neill, O. (1990) Constructions of Reason:
Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ripstein, A. (2009) Force and Freedom: Kant’s Legal
and Political Philosophy. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Timmons, M. (Ed.) (2002) Kant’s Metaphysics of
Morals: Interpretive Essays. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
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