Kant 2: The “Zenith of the Enlightenment”

In the interest of space last week, I did not include biographical information about Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as I normally do. This week, I want to remedy that defect. Kant was born in Konigsberg, which is a part of Prussia in 1724. He lived his entire life within a small geographical area around the city. His family had immigrated from Scotland about a century earlier and was poor. His mother was a devout Pietist, and while Kant was not devout nor a churchman, the impact of his mother’s faith and her strict morality formed the young Kant and impacted his life and philosophy in profound ways. Though a product of the Enlightenment, his deepest motivation seems to have been to provide a ground in human reason for the fundamental values of his childhood and adopted nation.

In 1755, in his mid-twenties, Kant began his professional life as a lecturer at the University of Konigsberg. His professional progress was not impressive. In 1770, after being denied positions at least twice, he was made a professor of Logic and Metaphysics. During his career, he also engaged in the kind of scientific pursuits common among intelligent laypersons of his day. His philosophy is impacted by his commitment to Newtonian physics and his own scientific inquiries.

Kant was physically small and unimpressive. On the other hand, he seems to have been gregarious and social as much as his situation in life allowed. His life, however, was quiet. He took walks in the country. He was careful about his health. He lived frugally and within his very limited means. He and worked on his Critique of Pure Reason, the work that made him famous, quietly and obscurely for many years, before finishing it and embarking on the philosophical career for which he is justly famous.

In the years before his death, Kant suffered from growing dementia that ultimately left him helpless and from which he died. This later political philosophy was impacted by this decline and he was unable to finish  all the work he contemplated because of the aging process.

The French Revolution

When the French Revolution (1789-1799) began, Kant was a tenured Professor at the University of Konigsberg nearing the end of his career. He had already published his “The Natural Principles of the Political Order considered in the Light of a Universal Cosmopolitan History” with which we ended last week’s blog. [1] He was deeply influenced by Rousseau, whose work he admired greatly, and embraced the revolution with an ardor rare for a man of his age. If Newton and Hume were the inspiration for his metaphysics, Rousseau was the inspiration for his political thought. To understand Kant, however, it must be remembered that Rousseau is misunderstood as a purely revolutionary figure. Instead, it is best to see him as one determined to restore the kind of thinking prevalent in the Classical Age, which he admired and to defend culture against the worst elements of modern thinking. I think it best to see Kant as this kind of figure as well, though in common with Rousseau, he initially supported the French Revolution and saw in it a hope to transform Europe along more democratic lines. Nevertheless, when Louis XVI was executed, he decried the event as worse than just a murder. Kant as supported the French Revolution in the name of freedom, but not supporting either its methods or all of its results. As to his native Germany, he continued to support the Kaiser and the fundamental form of Prussian government.

The French Revolution marked the end of one period of Kant’s life and the beginning of its last period. In this period, politics and law were to dominate his thought. As Hannah Arendt puts it:

From then on his interest no longer turned exclusively about the particular, about history, about human sociability. In its center was rather what we today would call constitutional law-the way a body politic should be organized and constituted, the concept of “republican,” i.e., con­stitutional government, the question of international relations, etc. [2]

Kant never finished a writing a definitive political philosophy, but the desire to write one and to contribute to the emerging new era in human history, what we call, “the Modern World” drove him in his final years before age and incapacity silenced his voice.

Freedom as the Basis of Society

Kant bases this thinking on politics on the idea of freedom, which is basic to his political philosophy. In this work, Introduction to the Science of Right, he says:

Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another; and in so far as it can coexist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity. [3]

At the time Kant wrote, this “inborn right” had only been recently discovered. In the history of the world and the history of Europe this right had not been celebrated nor even acknowledged prior to the Enlightenment, perhaps because there is not so much an “inborn right” as the emergence in history of the potential for such a right. Second, Kant’s “freedom” is a disembodied freedom of a kind that does not and cannot exist within human history. Human beings are born into physical bodies with strengths and limits, into families which impart further strengths and limits, and into myriad social structures which from the beginning limit and guide choices that can be made. One consistent failure of Enlightenment thinking is a frequent kind of disembodied abstractness of its theories, divorced from the realities of human existence. The Enlightenment notion of freedom, like its notion of a primaeval Social Compact is an intellectual fiction. Where one finds limites inKant’s thinking, those defects largely arise out of a kind of logical disconnect between human reality and the theories that Kant and others in the Enlightenment championed.

Kant as a Natural Law Thinker

Kant divides the rights of human beings into two categories: Natural Rights and Civil Rights. The term “Civil Rights” is roughly identical to what we would call “Positive Rights,” that is rights granted by the society in which the person his located. [4] Unlike positive law, natural law is a law of reason. For Kant, the natural law is deeply connected to his moral theory and the Categorical Imperative. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant specifies the imperative as follows:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law. [5]

Applied to politics, the Categorical Imperative implies that, human beings should act in such a way that as treat humanity, directly or indirectly, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” [6] In this definition, Kant is following Augustine, whose morality is founded on the ultimate worth of each human individual, who must be treated not as a means but as an end. Positive laws, then, to be properly enacted must conform to the principles of natural law, that is the principle of respect for each human being as an end in his or her self. Discriminatory laws would be a primary example of laws that cannot be properly enacted because it treats people has means not ends. Slavery would be the most dramatic example, because it treats some people (the free) as ends and others (the slave) as ends.

Kant’s Progressivism

As earlier mentioned, Kant, as the prototypical Enlightenment thinker, has a notion of infinite human progress, and of history as moving human society towards a predefined goal, what he identified as “the perfect cosmopolitan community.” The freedom of human beings as moral creatures and the inevitable forces of nature, including human nature, work together to drive the human race forward into a better future. In fact, Kant saw himself and his social philosophy as a part of that progress. This is a theme that Hegel and Marx will develop, and in the case of Marx on a purely material basis.

Kant’s view of progressive history finds its mechanism in his famous thesis of ‘unsocial sociability’:

The means which nature employs to bring about the development of innate capacities is that of antagonism within society, in so far as this antagonism becomes in the long run the cause of a law-governed social order. By antagonism, I mean in this context the unsocial sociability of men, that is, their tendency to come together in society, coupled, however, with a continual resistance which constantly threatens to break this society up. This propensity is obviously rooted in human nature. Man has an inclination to live in society, since he feels in this state more like a man, that is, he feels able to develop his natural capacities. But he also has a great tendency to live as an individual, to isolate himself, since he encounters in himself the unsocial characteristic of wanting to direct everything in accordance with his own ideas. [7]

Human beings have both a social nature, which drives them to human society and a natural self-centered, selfish interest. It is the interaction of these two propensities, “the unsocial sociability of human beings” that drives humanity forward in the progress of human society.

The idea that human beings are in a state of perpetual progress has fallen from favor in recent years. Two world wars, the development of nuclear weapons, the destructive impact of industrialism on the environment, and other factors, have caused thinking people to move away from an idea of the historic inevitability of progress. From the point of view of American politics, both liberal and conservative American politicians invoke the idea of “being on the right side of history,” which is the side on which the speaker finds his or herself. This notion of progressivism in history is rightly critiqued for its implicit assumption that prior periods of history are valuable only for producing the present—and the present exists and is valuable only for its contribution to the future, which underlies the justification of the violence of Marxist totalitarianism.


One of the focuses of Kant’s later years might be termed an interest in the formation of constitutions consistent with the promise of human freedom and his notion of a “cosmopolitan community” in which the human race might achieve a just and lasting peace. His thought, naturally, was important in the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War and the United Nations after the Second World War.  In more recent years, his influence is apparent in the European Union.

Human beings naturally seek peace and security in a civil constitution founded upon law. [8] Such civil constitutions are to be judged by the degree of freedom that they allow and maintain and the degree to which they conform to natural law. Kant did not necessarily conceive of a modern democratic state as the only form a constitutional government might take, and so supported the German monarchy of his own day as one of the potential forms a constitutional government might take. He was, however, aware of the emerging American constitution and a supporter of its values.


We will now pass from Kant to Hegel and then back to America to look at Tocqueville’s writings about America. We will return to Kant a bit later, for he is not without impact on American pragmatism, especially in the form of Josiah Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community, which is a descendent of Kant’s Cosmopolitan ideal. We will also return to Kant when we return to political theology, for his reduction of religion to morality impacted generations of continental and American religious thinkers in important ways.

In the blogs to follow, I may be a bit more critical than I have tried to be to date, for we are now at the point where the thoughts of those we will be examining, like Kant, Hegel and Marx continue to have impact on society and on thinking and whose errors continue to impact decision making. As mentioned in this blog, much of the political language labeling opponents positions as “against the flow or goal of history,” which is both harmful and without content, stems from the notion that progress is inevitable and that history has an inevitably progressive direction.

History is made of the choices leaders and societies make, and the human race has experience long periods of destruction, stagnation and decline as bad decisions have been made by conquerors, emperors, dictators, visionaries and the like. The goal of studying history and the history of ideas is not to “enter a flow of predetermined progress” but instead to learn lessons that can avoid bad decisions and make good ones, something our politicians right and left need to learn.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Immanuel Kant, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Idea_of_a_Universal_History_on_a_Cosmopolitical_Plan (Downloaded September 21, 2021).

[2] Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy Ronald Beiner, ed (Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press, 1992), 16.

[3] Immanuel Kant, “Introduction to the Science of Right” in “Kant” Britannia Great Books, Vol. 42: Chicago, IL: Britannia Great Books, 1987), 397. Hereinafter, all citations are to this volume unless otherwise noted.

[4] Id, at 402.

[5] Kant, Groundwork, at 37.

[6] Kant, Groundwork, at 45-51.

[7] Kant, “The Natural Principles of the Unfolding of the Political Order Considered in Connection with the Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitan History,” Previously cited, Proposition the Fourth. I have italicized the phrase “unsocial sociability of men” for emphasis.

[8] Id, at Proposition the Seventh.

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