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Kant on History






English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived through a period of anarchy precipitated by civil war.  Such a period is called an "interregnum" since it falls between (inter) the reign (regnum) of order.  Hobbes described two basic kinds of human situation: 

·       A "state of nature," in which no effective government exists to establish order, a condition in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

·       Civil society, in which the "social contract" is generally obeyed, and government power is adequate to maintain order in society.

Our duties depend on whether or not we find ourselves in a civil society.  According to Hobbes, in a state of nature, we have a right to defend ourselves by any means necessary, whereas in civil society, government has a monopoly on the use of force; private revenge yields to a law-governed system of police and courts.  In a state of nature our only duty is to try to get out of such a miserable condition, to try to gain agreement on a social contract that will establish civil society.  In civil society, we may reasonably enter into all sorts of contracts and undertake all sorts of duties, since it is reasonable to assume that others will cooperate; in case they do not, one may go to court to have things set right.

            It is interesting to think of Hobbes’s rigid dichotomy as a continuum.  The more civilization advances, the more you can trust your neighbor and enjoy the benefits of cooperation.  As civilization declines, the more you need to look out for yourself and the groups with which you identify.  It is difficult to estimate the condition of civilization in the present, since depressing trends exist alongside the progressive efforts of many individuals and groups, and since the media would go out of business if they serve up very much good news.

            German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) saw among nations the same problem that Hobbes observed among individuals in a state of nature.  (See Kant's essays, "An Idea of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" and "On Perpetual Peace.")  Just as Hobbes saw that the misery of the state of nature was solved by establishing a national government, so, according to Kant, the misery of unstable peace—with enormous military expenditures, and the horror of war breaking out here and there, from time to time—requires the establishment of a world government that can effectively outlaw war.  The very title of the book, World Peace Through World Law (by the second and third editions a classic on the topic), expresses the idea.  Although Kant was not the only thinker to propose this solution, his ideas were an important part of the history behind two twentieth century attempts to solve the problem of war.  After the horrors of WW I, the nations formed the League of Nations, an organization that remained vulnerable to the very forces of nationalism that it was trying to overcome.  After the even greater horrors of WW II, the nations formed the United Nations, an organization that has had some limited success and that struggles to evolve today.

Kant held that progress to world peace would necessarily be a gradual, evolutionary process, since the lessons of reason become acceptable to the world powers only after they endure great suffering.  He therefore distinguished two types of principles for promoting planetary political evolution:

·       Principles that strictly prohibit certain actions, principles that have no exceptions and that are to be applied rigorously starting now.  For example, no nation should take over another nation.

·       Principles that advise progressive actions that cannot proceed too rapidly without blocking progress to the very goals they have in mind.  For example, disarmament is a goal, but sudden, unilateral disarmament would destabilize world peace, not help the cause.

How can we achieve high goals in political practice?  Kant distinguished three types of politicians: (1) some make a show of ethics but were actually motivated by the pursuit of personal or national self-interest; (2) some have high principles but are moral fanatics who would use power to demand that changes happen now that can realistically can only be achieved over time; (3) some combine high principles with evolutionary wisdom.

            Kant’s teachings about historical and political evolution offer a framework for applying the traditional principles of just war theory.  Can a war reasonably be justified as necessary to help the world progress toward that better civilization?  From a Kantian perspective, nationalism (defined as the pursuit of national self-interest regardless of the harm to the wider global community) is the chief barrier to world peace.

            If universal peace is to be established, what role will religion and spirituality play?  Can there be peace among nations without peace between religions?  Kant’s ideas about political peace have analogies for interreligious relations.  Although Kat was critical of religious experience and of philosophical theology, he did propose the idea of God as a Father of all human beings, and Kant’s teachings stimulated late nineteenth century theologians to discern anew the religion of Jesus—the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.  This concept of religion does not hinge on particular traditions, scriptures, institutions, rituals, or creeds, but on relationships in the universal family of God.  Here is an article discussing a Kantian approach to the religious component of world peace. 


            Here are the theses from Kant's 1784 article,

“Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent”

[Introduction] Even though most human beings do not consciously pursue any purpose as the goal of history, it may be possible to discern such a goal by surveying history on a large scale.

            First Thesis.  All of a creature’s natural capacities are destined to develop completely and in conformity with their end.

            Second Thesis.  In man (as the sole rational creature on earth) those natural capacities directed toward the use of his reason are to be completely developed only in the species, not in the individual.

            Third Thesis.  Nature has willed that man, entirely by himself, produce everything that goes beyond the mechanical organization of his animal existence and partake in no other happiness or perfection than what he himself, independently of instinct, can secure through his own reason.

Fourth Thesis.  The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all of man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society, as far as in the end this antagonism is the cause of law-governed order in society.

Fifth Thesis.  The greatest problem for the human species, whose solution nature compels it to seek, is to achieve a universal civil society administered in accord with the right.

Sixth Thesis.  This problem is both the hardest and the last to be solved by the human species.

Seventh Thesis.  The problem of establishing a perfect civil constitution depends on the problem of law-governed external relations among nations and cannot be solved unless the latter is.

Eighth Thesis.  One can regard the history of the human species, in the large, as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an internally, and for this purpose, also an externally perfect national constitution, as the sole state in which all of humanity’s natural capacities can be developed.

Ninth Thesis.  A philosophical attempt to work out a universal history of the world in accord with a plan of nature that aims at a perfect civic union of the human species must be regarded as possible and even as helpful to this objective of nature’s.