Crimes of Logic in Kant’s Universal History
In between his first and second critiques, and just two months before his more well-known “What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant penned a political essay intended for a public audience entitled “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.” Though it has received less attention than his more formally rigorous and extended “Perpetual Peace”, Kant’s “Idea” holds on its own as an open window into his historico-philosophical worldview, particularly in its proto-Hegelian faith in universal history. In what follows, I offer a brief critique of Kant’s early political thought in terms of its limited vision of politics as such and its dangerously understated capacity for sanctioned violence. The theoretical and historical insights of Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus will provide most of the muscle for this critique. Rigor, comprehensiveness, and perhaps proper historiographical decorum will be slightly traded for the sake of bringing together voices rarely considered side-by-side within a shared problem-space.
In the “Idea,” Kant outlines a mode of historical inquiry that he considers philosophical in nature. If carried out according to his guidelines, this philosophical history is capable of determining the laws that push the whole of human activity eventually toward the founding of a perfect political constitution: a cosmopolitan state. Broken down to a few of the main propositions, he first posits that “Nature” necessarily demands its potential to be fully realized. So, when it comes to humankind, which possesses the natural capacity for reason, there is a need for a stable civil society that can administer, or really enforce and maintain, justice universally such that the exercise of reason can flourish. This civil society in any local context is necessarily dependent on a legally maintained peace with other societies as well — otherwise war and related matters will disrupt the functioning of the rational society that Kant strives for (war takes money away from public education, for example). The motor of history that drives this gradual perfection of collective human faculties and organization is what he terms the unsocial sociability, or general antagonism borne out of “enviously competitive vanity and the insatiable desires for possession or even power” that motivates individuals to liberate themselves from their own “laziness” (45).
A philosophical historian who recognizes this can, in turn, “perceive the mechanism of nature’s scheme” through a concentration of-
“-our attention on civil constitutions, their laws, and the mutual relations among states, and notice how these factors, by virtue of the good they contained, served for a time to elevate and glorify nations (and with them the arts and sciences). Conversely, we should observe how their inherent defects led to their overthrow, but in such a way that a germ of enlightenment always survived, developing further with each revolution, and prepared the way for a subsequent higher level of improvement” (52).
So, against more recently fashionable understandings of history as being composed of discontinuities and ruptures (see Foucault), Kant sees it as not only possible but also imperative for philosophical historians to serve as midwives for the process of Enlightenment by tracing precisely those movements of history that have carried us thus far and will continue to propel us forward to the final telos.
If this is a reasonable understanding of Kant’s project, it seems to me, then, that Kant already completes much of his own task; that is, although he hasn’t filled out the content of the past that he outlines, he has already determined the future waiting for us: Enlightenment as realized in the world through the foundation of a cosmopolitan state. In other words, any futures alternative to the one Kant insists upon have in a sense already been foreclosed. The only remaining task is to shed some light on this path with scientific care and due diligence. The purpose of human action and history writ large is to be revealed through philosophical history of the kind Kant prescribes, but at the same time this implies that human action is largely unconscious and meaningless or at least obscured from the individual perspective. In Kant’s terminology, it would be nothing short of that irrationality that has stood against the forces of Reason, plunging us repeatedly into the depths of war and derailing us from our destiny — the results of what Kant lamented as a “melancholy haphazardness” in human action.
In order to stray away from just giving you a stale, bare summary of the points and to introduce a more critical bent, I’d like to refer to Hannah Arendt’s comments on Kant’s vision of history and politics, which I think more or less encapsulate the bulk of my own reactions. Kant serves as the focus of a few pages of Arendt’s essay “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern,” published in Between Past and Future in 1961. Her overarching concern here is to counteract certain philosophies of history that eliminate the space for politics once they subscribe to the possibility of an objective comprehension of History. Once all events and individuals are placed within a clearly delineated timeline, with meaning shot through and through, the space for natality or individual beginning is lost — that elusive and alluring promise of Arendtian politics. The human attempt to trace its own predetermined historical path, reaching into the past and future, purports to be objective, but can in reality only ever be postulated and upheld by humans barred from that objectivity. The scope of human intellect runs up against its limits, and cannot simply excuse itself and step outside of history to get a good look — as some like to phrase it.
Unsurprisingly then, transgressions of this epistemological boundary concealed by ideological pretensions of intellectual omniscience become a habit of cruel regimes and societies, epitomized by totalitarian societies that for Arendt “tend to demonstrate that action can be based on any hypothesis and that, in the course of consistently guided action, the particular hypothesis will become true, will become actual, factual reality” (87). In other words, actions will be rendered meaningful by inclusion within a historical grand narrative, and if it doesn’t, reality can be forced and reshaped to fit that history, thereby reaching an apparent but false objectivity.
To return to Kant — of course, this is not all his fault, and Arendt is not unequivocally placing him on trial. Nevertheless, Kant’s political writings are symptomatic of this modern conception of history that she finds so problematic. In one passage, she writes: “In Kant, in contrast to Hegel, the motive for the modern escape from politics into history is still quite clear. It is the escape into the ‘whole,’ and the escape is prompted by the meaningless of the particular” (83). As she puts it, this kind of philosophy of history endows the secular political realm with meaning that philosophers such as Kant and Hegel worked to retrieve and preserve. Nevertheless, she finds the “Kantian and Hegelian way of becoming reconciled to reality through understanding the innermost meaning of the entire historical process…refuted by our experience” (86).
Arendt’s indictment of this philosophical escape from politics into history raises the question as to whether Kant’s early political writings contain any understanding of politics as such. Toward this investigation, it might be helpful to bring in “What is Enlightenment?” to possibly reveal a consistent vision of politics as such between these two pieces, and ultimately whether we want to subscribe to this vision. In the “Idea,” Kant actually rarely uses the term “politics” or “political.” If I counted correctly, “politics” never appears in the essay, but “political” used solely as an adjective makes an appearance a total of seven times in this essay, and all toward the end in propositions 7, 8, and 9. Of course he discusses a number of related topics such as freedom, civil society, and so on, but my basic point is that he doesn’t state outright his understanding of politics. And as much as we can extrapolate from other concepts, and borrow from “What is Enlightenment?” to understand his political vision as one that promotes individuals exercising their public reason in civil society, the secondhand political implications of his philosophy of history propagate a depoliticized vision of society that overemphasizes stability and security at the expense of individual and collective action.
The few times that he does deploy “political,” he uses it to refer to political relations, perfect political constitutions, the great political body of the future, history, and changes — all of which appear to imply politics as anything that relates to the organization of groups of people and structures such as the state, not necessarily related to organic action that springs from human experiences from the bottom up. Politics becomes the property of the state and its legal apparatuses, and the eventual cosmopolitan state. As a result, the idea of the political agent through which injustices can be articulated, and a more just social order can be initiated, is left out. Granular and localized understandings of political agency are let out through the back door. His prioritization of stability and order — which might not be actually what he believes in and only insisted on to save his own skin from political persecution from Frederick the Great — also surfaces in “What Is Enlightenment?” when he argues that the exercise of reason in the private realm must be submissive like a “part of the machine,” for individuals must be “purely passive” because “obedience is imperative” (56). As Foucault elaborates in his own piece on Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, reason cannot always be used freely, because the individual must be a functioning part of society, and so reason must curtailed to the overarching interests of the harmonious state.
My concern here is that the imposition of any limit on the directions that reason can take threatens the essence of what it means to be political. The right to refuse the order of a “superior” in the private realms of a given social order, in our recent political history especially, has been the basis of a number of powerful political movements in the pursuit of justice against deeply instituted structures of inequality. For this reason, I find it even more concerning when Kant extends his analysis beyond the confines of Europe and looks at what he refers to as the “political history of other people.” According to Kant, as we become more aware of “other people,” “we shall discover a regular process of improvement in the political constitutions of our continent (which will probably legislate eventually for all other continents)” (52). The European model, if the philosophical historian can distill a clear enough historical process, can therefore “probably” be imposed onto other countries in a universal history toward a shared cosmopolitan purpose.
To the contemporary ear, these incriminating side-comments of Kant easily bring to mind the blatant eurocentrism and colonial aspirations responsible for permanently marring the face of human history, but I’d like to bracket this for the moment and first focus in more on his idea of “legislation.” This is especially because the obsession with order and stability depends on a reductive vision of politics as legislation perfected and the need to “administer” justice universally. In other words, the ultimate politics for Kant, realized at the end of his History, appears (at least in this essay) to be a perfected administration that keeps the peace. But as we are only too well aware today, “peacekeeping” in this sense can be excessively violent.
This brings me to one troubling observation made by Kant that I want to spend some time on as well. He writes that “What remains disconcerting about all this is firstly, that the earlier generations seem to perform their laborious tasks only for the sake of the later ones, so as to prepare for them a further stage from which they can raise still higher the structure intended by nature; and secondly that only the later generations will in fact have the good fortune to inhabit the building on which a whole series of their forefathers (admittedly, without any conscious intention) had worked without themselves being able to share in the happiness they were preparing.” But as he concludes soon after in the same paragraph, it’s as necessary as it is “puzzling” (44).
Arendt commends Kant for recognizing this regrettable feature of any philosophy of history and concept of progress, but I’d like to further critique Kant’s recognition of this, and his eventual brushing it off as “puzzling yet necessary,” if only because this regrettable feature can provide the foundation of political violence and what Camus termed “crimes of logic” as opposed to “crimes of passion.”
This is, at least, what Camus, in his work The Rebel, detected as dangerous and potentially violent in Hegel’s philosophy of history, but it appears that — following Arendt’s intuition, as well — Hegel and Kant are comparable with respect to this position on history and meaning. As Camus saw it, secularization corroded the previously accepted vertical transcendence of divinity, and the reaction was to turn to the divinization of history, thereby creating a horizontal transcendence that could compensate for the loss of meaning in the world. Camus writes, “If history is on the march to the definitive city, and if we are sure we know the way, how are we to respond to those who seek to block the path? What are we to think of their motives? Or their character? Even more, of the consequences of allowing them and their allies freedom of action?” (241). I wouldn’t normally think of Kant as the violent type, but that’s precisely the point of Camus’s intellectual project: to uncover violence concealed within visions of the good, and of the everlasting peace.
This becomes especially helpful when Kant writes in the third proposition that “nature has worked more with a view to man’s rational self-esteem than to his mere well-being. Yet nature does not seem to have been concerned with seeing that man should live agreeably, but with seeing that he should work his way onwards to make himself by his own conduct worthy of life and well-being” (43–44). In other words, the individual is not worthy of their own life (at least not fully) if they lack the proper conduct prescribed by the universal history.
Camus stands as perhaps the most unequivocal and perceptive critic of precisely this hidden logic. In a somber and sober speech he delivered at Columbia University in 1946 entitled “The Human Crisis,” Camus states matter of factly: “If the problem of mankind boils down to a historical task, whatever that task may be, man is no longer anything but the raw material of history, and one can do with him what one wishes.” I’m not committed to the idea that Kant would still consider this “puzzling” or “bewildering” but “necessary” if the problem were to be formulated in these terms. But what I am putting forward for consideration, is whether this danger is indeed implicit in Kant’s philosophy of history and — if my reading is fair — how that might affect our understanding of it — when certain intellectual configurations of history can translate into judging and disputing the worth of human lives.
All this being said, I want to raise a final question that might undermine everything above, and that’s whether Kant even believes what he recommends is achievable, and whether that matters to our critique of his big Idea. With the characteristic caution that marks his writing, Kant throughout this piece undermines his own certainty a few times, which might make criticizing this piece a bit more complex than is implied by my critique. For example, does Kant actually believe in the possibility of perceiving a “future history” through the recognition or determination of the laws of history in the present and the past? Or, as some of his language suggests, is he just more modestly postulating and encouraging us to get involved in this enterprise, regardless of its final end, simply because we need such a faith in the future in order to drive us toward cooperation and the attainment of global peace and enlightenment? He qualifies his essay at the end, for example, with the statement that “My idea is only a notion of what a philosophical mind, well acquainted with history, might be able to attempt from a different angle.”
But the most important excerpt that illustrates his uncertainty can be found when he writes
“Yet if it may be assumed that nature does not work without a plan and purposeful end, even amidst the arbitrary play of human freedom, this idea might nevertheless prove useful. And although we are too short-sighted to perceive the hidden mechanism of nature’s scheme, this idea may yet serve as a guide to us in representing an otherwise planless aggregate of human actions as conforming, at least when considered as a whole, to a system” (52).
If this renders Kant’s philosophy of history into a pragmatic one, how does it affect or perhaps deepen our interpretation of his essay, or of philosophy of history and universal history in general? After all, Kant’s motivating idea that our understanding of history can contribute to a dismantling of oppressive systems or to the improvement of the general condition of humankind around the world, is an inspiring one. So does the self-aware distancing that comes with a pragmatic use of philosophy of history eliminate the dangers that Arendt and Camus insist are part and parcel of the integration of history with nature? And if this question is a worthwhile one, how might it extend to our understanding and evaluation of the Enlightenment more broadly?
Arendt, Hannah. “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern,” Between Past and Future, Penguin Classics (2006).
Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Vintage (1992).
— “The Human Crisis,” Delivered at Columbia University (1946).
Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, Pantheon Books (1984).
Kant, Immanuel. “The Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.” Kant’s Political Writings, Cambridge University Press (1991), 2nd Edition.
— “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s Political Writings, Cambridge University Press (1991), 2nd Edition.