skip to Main Content

Kant’s Teaching of Historical Progress and Its Cosmopolitan Goal

Kant’s Teaching Of Historical Progress And Its Cosmopolitan Goal

Immanuel Kant provides a philosophical justification for cosmopolitanism in education and for internationalism in foreign policy. Like today’s internationalists, Kant asks teachers to promote universal perspectives in their students, educating them in “love toward others” and “feelings of cosmopolitanism.” Children should be made acquainted with their interest in “the progress of the world,” Kant concludes his work On Education, “so that it may give warmth to their hearts.” And so they will “learn to rejoice at the world’s progress, although it may not be to [their own] advantage or that of their country.”[1] So too does Kant’s political teaching provide “preliminary articles for perpetual peace among states” so that we “can hasten this happy time for our posterity.”[2] Kant’s recommendations for education and international organization are supported by his teaching of historical progress toward “a universal cosmopolitan condition” and “an international government for which there is no precedent in world history.”[3]

This historical progress is the argument of his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” While Kant does not imply that there can be a complete coincidence between morality and politics, or that politicians who advance international goals do so for moral reasons, Kant argues that a good international order is necessary for the moral order of a people (IUH 21; see also PP 112–13). Kantian morality, of course, is not based on feelings of cosmopolitanism or love of humanity. Rather, it is based on “the idea of humanity.” Human beings act morally when they guide their actions by maxims that they are able to will as a universal law binding all rational beings.[4] In abstracting from all “private ends” that distinguish them from other rational beings (MM 51), those who follow Kant’s famous categorical imperative act morally, regardless of whether it is to their advantage or that of their country. In this sense they are cosmopolitans, something for which education according to Kant’s recommendation prepares them.

In this essay, I explore Kant’s teaching of historical progress by examining his “Conjectural Beginning of Human History.” This work clearly suggests that history intends humanity’s moral as well as political progress. Here Kant speaks not merely of “a perfect civil constitution,” but also of humanity’s “progressive cultivation of the disposition toward goodness.”[5] Kant’s description of this progress, I argue, suffers from difficulties that he himself recognizes. But even so, he presents his teaching on history as our best hope, given the two options he faces, early modern liberalism and what he regards as Rousseau’s inadequate attempt to correct it. By studying Kant’s teaching on history, we learn not only the dangers of embracing his cosmopolitanism but also the difficulty and desirability of finding a satisfying alternative to it.

Kant’s Account of the Origin of History: Its Scope and Purpose

At first sight, “Conjectural Beginning” does not appear to be a weighty undertaking. Kant himself depreciates his work as “a mere pleasure trip,” “at best only . . . a permissible exercise of the imagination guided by reason undertaken for the sake of relaxation and mental health” (CB 53). It is not “serious business,” he implies, since it presents conjectures rather than records of actual occurrences (CB 53). Kant later claims that the recorded events of history, appearing to human beings as an endless panorama of pointless suffering and injustice, lead them to a despairing dissatisfaction with Providence (CB 68). It is this despair that his teaching about history—its progression toward a perfect condition—attempts to relieve. The “mental health” he is trying to effect is not merely his own, but that of humanity as a whole. His “conjectures,” far from having less worth than the recorded events of history, will counter the baneful influence that those recorded events have on the human psyche. Under Kant’s ironic self-depreciation lies the importance of “Conjectural Beginning.”[6] As an account of the origin of the human race, “Conjectural Beginning” resembles both Genesis and Rousseau’s Second Discourse. Indeed, it explicitly refers us to both works.

Kant claims at the outset that he will follow the biblical account and even take Scripture as his guide. He is in need of a guide, he says, since his goal, knowledge of human origins, cannot be as certain as knowledge of the recorded events of history. Our understanding of our origins must therefore be conjectural.[7] Kant asks his reader to “check at every point whether the road which philosophy takes with the help of concepts coincides with the story told in the Holy Writ” (CB 54). The reader will find, however, not only particular discrepancies between Kant’s account and the Bible’s, but also a different understanding of humanity’s end or goal. Indeed, Kant is examining the beginnings of human history in order to show that they contain the seeds of a development leading to perpetual peace and perfect culture in this life.

Kant also refers to Rousseau’s account of human origins, specifically to his presentation of “an inevitable conflict between culture and the human species” (CB 60).[8] In his Second Discourse Rousseau describes the natural state of humanity as one of simple peace and harmony. Human freedom or “perfectibility” makes possible historical development,[9] including the development of reason, speech, and morality, in contrast to the simple goodness of the natural state. Human development, however, is also the source of countless conflicts and evils (SD 114ff.). Human beings cannot be content, in Rousseau’s view, ultimately because the simplicity of their natural state is in tension with their historical development, their “culture,” and because both simplicity and reflection are essential features of our humanity.

Although Kant admits that Rousseau tries to show in such works as the Emile and the Social Contract how the conflict between nature and culture might end, he claims that the conflict remains “altogether unresolved” (CB 61). The resolution, Kant says, awaits further historical development (CB 61–62). Kant’s account of historical development will substitute a vision of historical progress for Rousseau’s ambivalent view of history’s benefits to humanity. History may be the source of humanity’s ills, but it also leads to their correction. Kant’s “Conjectural Beginning” is thus a reply to both the Bible and Rousseau, and it will attempt to show us a way toward the relief of suffering in this world that neither the Bible nor Rousseau provides.

Kant begins his account of “the development of freedom from its original predisposition in human nature” (CB 53) by assuming “the existence of man,” who “could speak” and “even discourse,” or “speak according to coherent concepts” and “hence to think”—“skills,” Kant says, “he had to acquire for himself” (CB 54–55).[10] “The existence of man” must be his starting point because it is something that “human reason cannot derive from prior natural causes” (CB 54).[11]

Although he will proceed to describe the power of reason—the four steps through which it frees humanity from nature—he first indicates a step that his own reason will not take. The power of reason is circumscribed. It is from a recognition of this limit that reason’s power can become clear. Had humanity been derived from prior natural causes, reason’s releasing human beings from “the womb of nature,” its last step (CB 59), would become suspect, as humanity’s origin in nature would make its release less plausible. Nor does Kant refer explicitly to God’s creation of Adam and Eve, even though he intersperses his account with references to Genesis so that we might compare his account with the biblical one. The latter, of course, begins not with the existence of human beings, as does Kant, but with their divine cause.[12] Reason is as unable to derive humanity’s origin from a superhuman source as from a subhuman one. Moreover, the last step of reason is the achievement of equality with all rational creatures, including God (CB 59). Had Kant tried to derive humanity’s existence from God’s creation, reason’s elevation of human beings to the status of gods would have seemed to suffer from lack of self-understanding.[13] Reason’s conscious self-limitation is in the service of its greatest self-assertion.

Kant does follow Genesis in beginning with a single adult pair rather than with many human beings. In this he differs from Rousseau, whose state of nature is inhabited by a number of isolated human beings, who form couples for no longer than it takes to satisfy their sexual desires. Because Kant attributes this greater degree of sociability to the natural state of human beings, it is easier for him than for Rousseau to foresee a resolution to the conflict between nature and society. Kant’s argument for the harmony of the natural state, however, sheds doubt on that very harmony.

He must begin with a single couple, he says, because, if there were more than one couple, war would begin at once, “what with men’s being close to each other and yet strangers” (CB 54). Although Kant here disagrees with Hobbes’s view that the state of nature is one of war, he makes a large concession to Hobbes’s position when he concedes that, if human beings did live together in a state of nature, there would be war. He later admits that war, or the threat of war, dominates human history (CB 66). When he gives a second reason for beginning with a single adult pair, he assumes without argument that nature’s highest end for humanity is sociability. There must then have been a single adult pair in the beginning, for “undoubtedly to that end the descent of all men from a single family was the best arrangement” (CB 54). Kant does not tell us how he knows that nature’s end for human beings is sociability, an end in tension with their mutual hostility that his previous argument indicates.[14] His peculiar argument for human sociability, with its implications of mutual antagonism, throws a dubious light on the prospects for perpetual peace.

Kant’s Account of the Development of Freedom

Kant describes four steps of reason as the basis for human freedom. In the beginning, instinct guides human beings toward some foods and away from others.[15] Human beings break away from instinct when they notice that there are foods other than those to which their instinct guides them. Reason, aided by the imagination, compares the unfamiliar food to the familiar and “create[s] artificial desires,” which eventually “generate a whole host of unnecessary and indeed unnatural inclinations called luxuriousness” (CB 56). Like Rousseau (e.g., FD 36), Kant distinguishes between natural and artificial desires and observes that artificial desires are harmful to human beings. He mentions, for example, our coming to desire food that is not good for us (CB 56). Reason thus initially has harmful consequences.

Kant nevertheless places this development of reason in a positive light by arguing that while individuals suffer from the development of reason, the species benefits (cf. Rousseau, SD 140). Through this first step of reason, a human being becomes “conscious of his reason as a power which can extend itself beyond the limits to which animals are confined” (CB 56). Eventually, reason’s progress will enable us to achieve the status of moral beings (CB 58–59). And the knowledge we gain through science will prevent us from choosing objects that harm us. After the initial stirring of reason, Kant says, human beings do “not yet know the secret properties or the remote effects of anything” (CB 56, emphasis mine). Scientific knowledge will replace the immediate impulsion of instinct in helping human beings to desire what benefits them.

The deeper problem that results from reason’s freeing human beings from instinct, however, is not so much the choice of what is harmful as the inability to choose. No longer guided by nature alone toward any of the objects they confront, human beings experience themselves as standing “at the brink of an abyss” (CB 56). And here science cannot help. Although it indicates the effects of choosing different objects, so that we avoid immediate physical harm, it does not reveal that any objects in the external world are intrinsically good or choiceworthy for their own sakes. Objects are good or bad only because they satisfy or thwart human desires. As Kant writes in his Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals, “All objects of the inclinations have only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and the needs founded on them did not exist, their object would be without worth” (MM 46). Kant thus accepts a modern view of nature, as maintained, for example, by Hobbes: the value of the objects we desire is in our desires rather than in the objects themselves.[16]

As a consequence of this view of nature, human beings are alienated from nature and unhappy. Although knowledge of nature, or science, can teach them how to control nature for their preservation and convenience, it does not bring them into any harmony with nature that truly contents them. Hobbes, for example, accepts what seems to be the inevitable result of this view of nature: human beings are condemned to the restless pursuit of one object after another. The world contains nothing that satisfies our desires (Lev 80ff.). Rousseau, on the other hand, while accepting the harsh fact that nothing is in itself lovable, denies that alienation is its concomitant. He teaches that we need not pursue one object after another without satisfaction, for our imaginations can endow objects with beauty and therefore make them lovable.[17]

Kant’s solution is more radical. Since nothing in the world can fully satisfy our desires, we should not depend either on the world or on our desires for satisfaction. The ultimate satisfaction Kant recommends—action grounded on a universal law applying to all rational beings—disengages human beings from the world and the objects they desire. The abyss caused by a world of objects without any intrinsic value is avoided only when an individual, thus freed, accepts his identity with all rational beings.[18] This identification with all rational beings is the final step of reason. Rather than restoring human beings to the initial harmony with nature that was theirs when they were guided by instinct alone, reason impels human beings “from the tutelage of nature to the state of freedom” (CB 59–60). This achievement comes from a progress that this first step of reason initiates.

As the first step of reason involves food, the second step involves sex. When animals experience sexual desire, they immediately seek satisfaction. As in the case of eating, desire ends with satisfaction, and new desires arise in time. Animal life is a sequence of desires and satisfactions. Human beings, however, can prolong and increase sexual desire by removing its object from their senses and holding it in their imagination. Inclination is thus rendered “more inward and constant” and transformed from sexual desire into love. Desire no longer merely arises and disappears with satisfaction but is prolonged over time. In this way human beings gain a constancy or identity that animals lack. The “refusal” or rejection of impulse that an individual shows when he removes what he desires from his senses manifests a mastery of impulse by reason. It is therefore an advance over the first step of reason, which “shows merely a power to choose the extent to which to serve impulse” (CB 57).

The distance between desire and its object that imagination produces makes possible a sense of decency—the “inclination to inspire others to respect by proper manners, that is, by concealing all that might arouse low esteem.” Rather than simply desiring to possess his beloved, in an immediate sense, a human being begins to seek his beloved’s esteem. From here, he soon seeks the esteem of others as well. In this concealment of whatever causes disrespect, Kant detects “a hint of the development of man as a moral creature.” “Here,” he says, “lies the true basis of sociability” (CB 57).

Rousseau is the precursor of Kant in tracing sociability to a transformation of sexual desire. In the Emile, Rousseau attempts to give an imaginary boy named Emile a natural education that prepares him to live in society (for example, E 327). Until adolescence, Emile’s justice involves forming and keeping agreements with others in his own interest (E 98–100). But with adolescence comes sexual desire. Through arousing Emile’s imagination, Rousseau transforms sexual desire into pity, which connects Emile to other sentient beings whose suffering he perceives, and into love, which connects Emile to a particular woman and, through her, to a particular country (E 219 and 324–44). According to Rousseau, sociability is therefore still rooted in the passions, although they are developed or channeled in certain directions. While Kant follows Rousseau in tracing sociability to a transformation of sexual desire, he maintains that this desire, like all others, must ultimately yield to reason, which becomes the cause of action—including social interaction. The desire to be recognized for something more than physical existence prepares humanity to act eventually from reason rather than desire. Sociability is most manifest in a community of rational beings (MM 50). The restraints growing out of human beings’ recognition of one another as rational beings, Kant writes, “are far more essential for the establishment of civil society than [are] inclination and love” (CB 59).

Humanity goes even further beyond natural impulses in reason’s third step, “the conscious expectation of the future.” To some extent, the first two steps forced human beings to think about the future. The one who compares different foods does not eat immediately, but intends to eat in the future. So too the one who imagines a beloved no longer present to his senses and who works to obtain her esteem must think about future enjoyment. In the two initial steps, which necessitate restraint, reason “insinuate[s] itself into the first immediately felt needs”—those of food and sex (CB 57).

Its third step is an advance, because it does not involve any particular need. This restraint of all immediate desires for the sake of future goods is made possible, presumably, by the restraint human beings acquire through the first two steps reason takes. The second and third steps lead human beings to do what Rousseau calls “living outside themselves,” as Rousseau describes the alienated and unhappy “social man” in the Second Discourse. Human beings lose the self-contained and independent life of the natural condition when as social beings they depend on the opinions of others for their view of themselves (SD 179). Moreover, Rousseau argues, human beings become alienated from themselves as they imagine that their happiness lies in some future condition. Instead of enjoying the present, they “live in the future,” seeking a never-ending series of objects. They become the restless, discontented individual described by Hobbes (SD 179; E 82; Lev 80). In the natural condition, in contrast, natural man lives in the present: “His soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the sole sentiment of its present existence without any idea of the future, however near it may be” (SD 107). Consequently, he has no fear of death. Absorbed by the present, those who live in the natural state finally die without its being perceived that they cease to be, and almost without perceiving it themselves (SD 109).[19]

In spite of the unhappiness that comes with society, Rousseau does not maintain that it is either possible or desirable for humanity to return to the natural state. Although he attributes simplicity and harmony to the natural state, Rousseau also speaks in the Second Discourse of the advantages of development. In the epoch of the first revolution, when the human race became differentiated into families, “the habit of living together gave rise to the sweetest sentiments known to man” (SD 146–47, also 115).[20]

And Emile’s education, as we have seen, is one that prepares him to live in society. In its last stages, he meets his future wife, Sophie, and at the end of the book, they look forward to the future, to the time when they will have a family (E 480). Because Rousseau educates human beings to live in families and political communities, their education involves them in the opinions of others and in thinking about events in the future. Thus, there is an unresolved tension in Rousseau’s thought between the value of solitude and independence and the value of society, just as there is tension between natural simplicity, with its freedom from complexity and dependency, on the one hand, and perfectibility, on the other, which allows change into a more complex being who transcends mere animal existence.

Although Kant mentions no undesirable consequences of seeking the esteem of others, he does acknowledge the evils that Rousseau attributes to an awareness of the future. This step, Kant writes, is “the most inexhaustible source of cares and troubles, aroused by the uncertainty of [the] future.” Kant mentions the man’s foresight of the hardships of labor and the woman’s of the pangs of childbirth, citing God’s pronouncement of the punishment of Adam and Eve for their sin. Moreover, human beings foresee not only the miseries that may come to them while they live but also their inexorable deaths. Experiencing the unhappiness that reason brings, humans denounce its use as a crime because of its ill consequences, Kant says, citing God’s denouncing the disobedience of Adam and Eve (CB 58).

But if an action is determined to be a crime because of its consequences, more distant consequences could revise our understanding of the act. Kant’s progressive account of reason’s steps indicates the benefits for humanity that come from individual hardship. Whether the human race has won or lost by moving “from the tutelage of nature to the state of freedom” is not an open question “if one considers the destiny of his species” (CB 60). The miseries that history brings are justified by the end for which they are the indispensable means. And foresight of the future, which had been the source of humanity’s ills, becomes necessary for overcoming the despair that arises from living in the present.[21] “This capacity for facing up to the very distant future, instead of being wholly absorbed in the present,” Kant claims, “is the most decisive mark of a human’s advantage.” For it is this capacity that enables an individual “to prepare himself for distant aims according to his role as a human being” (CB 58). In speaking of the miseries produced by reason’s third step, Kant mentions the possibility that humans may derive comfort from the prospect of “living through [their] children who might enjoy a better fortune” (CB 58). Seeing oneself in one’s children might be a helpful, if not necessary, transition to identifying oneself with the human species. For it is only by doing the latter that individuals can accept the miseries that history brings.

Individuals suffer because of the conflicts of history, but humanity benefits. Insofar as one is “a member of a whole (a species),” Kant writes, “he must admire and praise the wisdom and purposiveness of the whole arrangement” (CB 60). Moreover, an individual’s identifying himself with his species serves as preparation for reason’s fourth and final step. In this last step, a human being understands that he is the true end of nature and that other animals are “mere means and tools to whatever end he pleases.” One may not treat other human beings as mere means to one’s own ends without denying humanity’s status as the end of nature (CB 58). Hobbes’s citizen, by implication, has not taken this step, for in contracting with others for the sake of his own preservation he is treating them as means to his own ends. But with this final step of reason, human beings treat one another as “ends in themselves” and “enter into a relation of equality with all rational beings” (CB 59). One who progresses this far in freedom follows what Kant calls in other works “the categorical imperative” (for instance, MM 31). Those who follow this imperative act as purely rational beings with regard for any private interests or passions.

They live as members of “a realm of ends,” “a systematic union of different rational beings through common laws,” where they “abstract from the personal differences” that separate them, “and thus from all content of their private ends” (MM 51). Acting only on maxims that can hold good as universal laws, they do nothing that other rational beings would not also do in the same circumstances (see also MM 38). Although Kant might seem to strengthen the individualism of early modern liberalism by grounding it in reason rather than in passion and self-interest, nothing distinguishes one whose acts conform to universal law from any other moral being. Individuals, insofar as they are distinct from others, do not belong to Kant’s realm of ends.[22]

Kant’s description of the rational being who acts according to the categorical imperative recalls Rousseau’s description of the citizen in the Social Contract who wills the general will. The citizen overcomes his private interests and desires, and transcends attributes that belong to him as a particular being, in order to act simply as a citizen, willing the same common good any other citizen would also will.[23] In overcoming his private interests and passions, the citizen achieves a moral freedom, as opposed to the freedom experienced in the natural condition, where there are no passions or interests that need to be overcome (SC 56). The citizen is no more distinct from any other citizen than Kant’s rational being is from other rational beings. Kant, of course, goes further than Rousseau, providing human beings not merely identity with fellow citizens in a small republic but identity with all rational beings.

In asking us to accept the end of reason’s progress as good, Kant might seem to be rejecting one side of Rousseau’s thought. He seems to choose perfectibility, sociability, moral freedom, and reason, while rejecting simplicity, independence, self-containment, and natural goodness. Kantian morality, however, offers some of the desirable characteristics of Rousseau’s natural state. In acting only on the basis of universal humanity, the moral actor avoids the complexity that plagues Rousseau’s civilized man, who is pulled in different directions by his nature and his social duties. Since he follows duty irrespective of any demands made upon him by others, he is independent of others. Since he “is subject only to his own, yet universal, legislation,” and obeys no law that does not arise from his own will (MM 51), he is completely self-contained. Moreover, he does not suffer the miseries of society described by Rousseau, where individuals live outside themselves. The one who acts morally, for Kant, by definition does not seek the good opinions of others when he acts, for then he would lose his autonomy. Nor does he compare himself to others with pride and envy, for as rational beings humans do not differ. He does not live in the future, constantly desiring what is never present, for he acts not for the sake of a future object but because his action is that of a rational being (MM 44–45, 60–61).

Far from living in constant fear of his own death, he gains a certain immortality through his identification with his species. Like Rousseau’s “natural man,” he would seem to die “almost without perceiving it” (SD 109; cf. IUH, 14). Total independence coincides with total community. A similar coincidence is found in the natural state Rousseau describes in the Second Discourse, where there is both asociality and homogeneity. Kant thus suggests that we can attain the blessings of Rousseau’s simple natural condition without having to give up civilization. Indeed, it is only through the final development of civilization that those blessings can be attained. Kant transforms Rousseau’s idea of history into the idea of progress.

The Limits and Dangers of Kant’s Cosmopolitanism

Kant’s teaching of history’s progress is intended to comfort his readers in the midst of their sufferings and to encourage them to advance the ends of their species. But there could be little comfort if progress appeared impossible or even improbable.[24] Kant gives a brief description of the human condition after history has begun (CB 63–65). The early division of human beings into farmers and herdsmen, whose interests were antagonistic, posed the constant threat of war. As long as rulers faced war, Kant observes, they depended on the people. Consequently, the worst despotisms did not develop. But eventually, and inevitably, the herdsmen were attracted to “the glittering misery of the cities.” The threat of war then subsided, and “all liberty” came to an end. Humans suffered “a despotism of powerful tyrants and—culture having barely begun—not only an abominable state of slavery, but along with it soulless self-indulgence mixed with all the vices of an as yet uncivilized condition.” Humanity was “irresistibly” diverted from “the progressive cultivation of its disposition to goodness” (CB 65).

Kant seems to be referring here to a very early period in human history. But surprisingly, he does not describe any progress away from the abominable state of slavery and soulless self-indulgence. He allows us to wonder how much progress has actually occurred. This final description of humanity, as the title of this section of “Conjectural Beginning” says, is “The End of History.” But progress has stopped in a “perpetual peace” of brutish pleasure and slavish servitude rather than in one of perfect culture. Since this situation is “irresistible,” human beings appear to need a redeemer, a miracle. Although Kant cites the Old Testament to support his description of progress, “Conjectural Beginning” contains no reference to the New Testament. Human beings are as yet unredeemed.

The existence of the historical progress necessary to encourage us depends on the four steps of reason. While the first three steps indicate development away from mere animal existence, they do not in themselves constitute cause to rejoice at human progress. The third step, the conscious expectation of the future, is “the most inexhaustible source of cares and troubles” (CB 58). If human development went no further, history would not be clearly preferable to the merely natural state. As Kant writes, “Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, that the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained” (IUH 21). It is only with the fourth step of reason that we achieve the freedom that constitutes human dignity.[25] “We are civilized,” Kant insists, but “to consider ourselves as having reached morality—for that, much is lacking” (IUH 21, emphasis Kant’s). The “fourth step of reason,” for example, is based on imperfect understanding. In taking it, the human being “came to understand, however obscurely, that he is the true end of nature” (CB 58, emphasis mine).[26] This crucial step requires, at the very least, Kant’s clarification. But even if Kant does not completely persuade us of the necessity of history’s progress, does his project for humanity nevertheless deserve our sympathetic understanding? Is the project possible and desirable?

Both the means and ends of Kant’s project demand that human beings view themselves and act as members of their species rather than as individuals. They must sacrifice their private inclinations and interests in order to effect the destiny of humanity, for the beneficiary of the endeavor will be the human race, which shall attain its goal at the end of history, and future generations, who will live then (IUH 14). That goal, moreover, is moral as well as political—not merely a perfect civil constitution but the completion of culture, life as a moral species. Moral beings treat one another as ends and thereby act only on maxims that can serve as universal laws for all. Kant includes a note in “Conjectural Beginning” on the conflict “between man’s striving toward the fulfillment of his moral destiny, on the one hand, and, on the other, his unalterable subjection to laws fit for the uncivilized and animal state” (CB 61). But if our subjection to these laws is unalterable, how can “art [become] strong and perfect enough to become a second nature—the ultimate moral end of the human species” (CB 63)? Perhaps Kant means that there are some needs so basic that art cannot transform them but that with the perfection of culture, these basic needs will no longer interfere with morality.[27] He gives three examples of the conflict between nature and culture.

Kant’s first example involves a conflict between sexual desire and the demands of civilized life. Around the age of sixteen, youth are disturbed by sexual desire. Whereas in a simple state of nature, no harm comes from the immediate satisfaction of desire, in a complex society a sixteen-year old has not acquired the means, skills, or external circumstances necessary to discharge the responsibilities of adulthood and provide for a family.

Culture therefore demands that he suppress natural desires. Surprisingly, Kant emphasizes that he is not condemning the natural desires, “for surely nature has not endowed living beings with instincts and capacities in order that they should fight and suppress them.” Kant no longer mentions any transference of the desired object to the imagination nor any gain in inwardness through self-restraint. He appears to be conceding nature’s power over humans. But although that power is unalterable, in the end it will not be distressing, for “a perfect civil constitution could end [this conflict], and such a constitution is the ultimate end at which all culture aims” (CB 61).

Kant does not say how a perfect civil constitution would do this, but it seems clear that it would not require the young to restrain their desires until they are older, for such suppression would only accentuate the conflict rather than resolve it. What “fortunate external circumstances” would allow the young to marry early and still continue to learn the skills necessary to provide for their families and to contribute to culture’s progress? Perhaps a technology that provided birth control, or a welfare state that supported families at least for a time, would free the young from the responsibilities that interfere with their education. Their satisfaction of desire would then no longer conflict with the demands of culture.

Kant’s second example of the conflict between nature and culture is the brevity of the life of the talented individual. Just as Kant’s first example takes a second look at reason’s insinuation of itself into immediately felt needs, his second example looks again at the “inexorable death” of which our capacity to foresee the future makes us aware. Culture would profit from the continued life of the exceptional individual, Kant writes, for:

“A single man of talent, who had reached mature judgment through long practice and acquisition of knowledge, could further the arts and sciences far more than whole generations of scholars if only he could live, mentally alert, for the length of their life-spans added together” [CB 62].

Because of the deaths of talented individuals, the progress of humanity toward “its destined goal appears to be subject to ceaseless interruptions.” Nature takes the lives of exceptional individuals, however, for she has ends other than the advance of knowledge (CB 62). Kant does not say what end nature could have in depriving us of our greatest benefactors. Nor does he indicate any way in which the progress of history might resolve the conflict, as he did in the case of sexual desire. Indeed the natural mortality of exceptional individuals itself retards the progress of history. Kant seems to have a complaint against nature that he leaves unresolved.

Although Kant laments the death of talented individuals, he clearly subordinates their existence to the good of humanity. He describes them as those who can best serve the goals of humanity and further its progress toward its destined end. It is for this reason that their deaths are lamentable. The inequality among human beings, Kant clearly recognizes, loses significance in light of the good of the whole that superior individuals have a duty to promote. The lives of the unequal few are justified in light of the good of all. Indeed, Kant’s final example of the conflict between nature and culture is that between the natural equality of all and the inequality imposed by social institutions. This conflict will be overcome, he says, when historical progress brings the recognition of universal human rights (CB 62).

Of these three examples of conflict between nature and culture, Kant leaves only the second without a solution of any kind. In the first case, culture will develop so as not to conflict with natural sexual desires; in the last, it will develop so as to fulfill nature’s highest intention for humanity. Standing midway between nature’s care for the human being “as an animal” and its care for him “as a moral species” (CB 61–62) is the death of talented individuals, the purpose of which Kant gives us no reason to understand. Near the end of “Conjectural Beginning,” he returns to the brevity of life and the dissatisfaction it causes. Here he gives an argument justifying death, but the issue is the death of human beings in general rather than the death of exceptional ones. Kant reproaches those who want to live longer, for they “must be [poor judges] of [life’s] value,” for “its greater length would only prolong a game of unceasing war with troubles” (CB 67).

Kant’s argument, however, is hardly comforting, since it in effect urges acceptance of death because of life’s miseries. But even if life were undesirable while culture remained imperfect, when it did become perfect, Kant’s argument would not apply. For then the miseries of life that might make death acceptable would no longer exist. All the more would death be a source of discontent. By his perplexing treatment of death, Kant suggests that an individual’s vision of his own death reminds him that he is not identical with his species, which will live on when he dies. Kant acknowledges an irreducible individuality that the universalism of his project ignores.

Even if Kant’s project were possible, and human beings could identify with their species, would it be desirable for them to do so? What kind of life awaits them at the end of history when a perfect culture has assured perpetual peace? In “Idea for a Universal History,” Kant acknowledges that “a cosmopolitan condition” does carry the “danger that the vitality of mankind [will] fall asleep,” but he finds “a principle of balance among man’s actions and counteractions” (IUH 20). Actions and counteractions, however, seem to indicate conflict. In the end, what conflict will there be?

Kant questions whether a condition of perpetual peace is desirable near the end of “Conjectural Beginning” by criticizing the longing for an original state, “an age of simplicity and innocence,” where there is to be “contentment with mere satisfaction of natural needs, universal human equality and perpetual peace” (CB 67). The original state Kant describes here surprisingly resembles the final condition that he is encouraging us to seek.

For then also there will be perpetual peace, universal equality, and the satisfaction of natural needs. But Kant now disapproves of such a state as the “unalloyed enjoyment of a carefree life, dreamt away idly, or trifled away in childish play.” It could not satisfy human beings, Kant says, for, if it could, they would have never left it. Kant asks us to overcome our desire for such idleness and “to give value to life by actions” (CB 67–68). These actions, paradoxically, are those that contribute to the goal of the human race (CB 68)—a state that uncomfortably resembles that which Kant is now deprecating as idleness and childish play.

The end of history therefore does not seem as good for humanity as the progress toward it—the actions by which human beings give value to their lives. Kant may not be asking that present generations sacrifice themselves for the sake of future ones who will enjoy perfect culture as it first appeared (see IUH 14); rather he may be sacrificing the good of future generations for the vitalization of present ones. Nature has willed that “[man] alone should have the credit and should have only himself to thank [for the advance from the lowest barbarity to the highest skill and mental perfection]—exactly as if she aimed more at his rational self-esteem than at his well-being” (IUH 14). Present generations will act to bring about perpetual peace and develop perfect culture. Future generations, however, will be the mere beneficiaries, who will have to honor their predecessors more than they esteem themselves.

But can the progress of history be of greater value to humanity than the end of history, if the progress is justified only by its end? Kant has been justifying the brutalities of history by arguing that they are necessary for progress toward the end. The inequalities of which Rousseau complained, for example, are inseparable from the development of culture (CB 62). War “is the greatest source of the evils which oppress civilized nations,” but, without the perpetual fear of it, Kant questions whether “there would be the culture which in fact exists” (CB 66). And inasmuch as war is necessary for the further development of culture, “only in a state of perfect culture would perpetual peace be of benefit to us” (CB 67). In retelling the story of Cain and Abel, Kant talks merely about the farmer’s “resorting to force in order to end the nuisance which [the herdsman] had created” (CB 63).

But he is referring to Cain’s murder of his brother. It is this ascendancy of the farmer and his way of life, according to Kant’s account, that leads to human associations, the beginnings of art and culture, and finally civil authority. We might come to believe that the murder of others is justified if it promotes a distant future wherein we no longer treat one another as mere means to our own ends. As Pangle and Ahrensdorf ask, “Will not the Machiavellians in fact contribute more than the men of the categorical imperative to the achievement of perpetual peace . . . ?”[28] Indeed, the respect for others as rational beings that Kant encourages might be consistent with a contempt for human life insofar as it is immersed in particular passions and interests, especially if those interests are in conflict with human progress. Ironically, Kant’s rationalism might eventuate not in the treatment of others as ends but in the brutal, even if selfless, action of fanatics. This of course is the legacy of Kant only at its worst. His philosophy of history is understandable, if not justifiable, in light of the threat that human beings turn to a narrow hedonism as the goal of life or give way to an idle longing for an impossible past. This would, indeed, constitute “the end of history,” but one consistent with “a despotism of powerful tyrants,” “soulless self-indulgence,” and “the end of all liberty” (CB 65). In the face of such possibilities, Kant spoke of dignity, action, and morality. It is a sign of both Kant’s prescient understanding and care for humanity that he cautioned us about his project at the same time that he encouraged us toward noble and self-sacrificing actions aiming at the good of the human race.



[1] Immanuel Kant, Education (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1960), 120–21.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, trans. Lewis White Beck (cited as PP), 85ff.; and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck (cited as IUH), 22, both in On History, ed. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

[3] For an excellent discussion of whether Kant’s thought demands “a world republic” rather than its surrogate, an ever-widening league of federated nations, see Thomas L. Pangle and Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Justice among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1999), 190–209, especially 202–3. “International government,” in the passage quoted in the text, seems broad enough to allow for either possibility. In any case, Kant uses the expression “world citizenship” for this condition of perpetual peace to which human history is moving (see PP 102–3). For contemporary controversy over whether the use of “world citizen” is appropriate, see Martha Nussbaum et al., For Love of Country? ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon Press). This book includes Nussbaum’s essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” and the responses of numerous critics.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1959) (cited as MM), 44ff.

[5] Immanuel Kant, “Conjectural Beginning of Human History,” trans. Emil L. Fackenheim (cited as CB), in On History, 61, 63, 65.

[6] Emil L. Fackenheim points out that expositors of Kant find it difficult to take Kant’s philosophy of history seriously. Fackenheim himself presents a persuasive case that it deserves serious attention for understanding Kant’s philosophical system as a whole. Like the Third Critique, Fackenheim argues, Kant’s philosophy of history “seeks to join together what the first two critiques have put asunder”—namely, nature and morality. Fackenheim’s perceptive analysis explores the dilemmas underlying such a philosophy of history in terms of Kant’s system as a whole and the reasons that Kant’s philosophy of history ultimately fails. “Kant’s Concept of History,” Kant-Studien 48 (1956–1957): 381–98, especially 381, 387, 389, 397–98.

[7] Commenting on this passage, William A. Galston points out that Scripture does not distinguish between the certainty of humanity’s origins and that of its history. Both may be known equally well through revelation. Hence “the principle underlying Kant’s procedure contains an implicit reservation against the Biblical account.” Kant and the Problem of History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), 16.

[8] Kant refers to both Rousseau’s On the Influence of the Sciences and On the Inequality of Man for his presentation of the conflict (CB 60–61). In the former, Rousseau criticized what Kant refers to here as culture, the improvements of the sciences and arts, for corrupting the virtue of simple souls. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964). Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, known as the First Discourse, is cited as FD, and Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, known as the Second Discourse, is cited as SD. For an excellent discussion of the differences between Kant’s “Conjectural Beginning” and Rousseau’s Second Discourse, see Galston, Kant and the Problem of History, 93–102.

[9] Although Rousseau writes that a human being’s “being a free agent” distinguishes him from other animals and that “it is above all in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown,” Rousseau recognizes the difficulties in asserting that human beings are free from necessity, or the mechanical laws of physics (SD 114). Consequently, he soon replaces freedom with “the faculty of self-perfection” or “perfectibility” as the distinctive human trait (SD 114–15). Kant, as we shall see, in effect bridges this difference by attributing to human beings a predisposition to freedom. Kant’s formulation, Galston points out, “stands somewhere between freedom and unfreedom.” Kant and the Problem of History, 76 and 102. See also Susan Meld Shell, The Rights of Reason: A Study of Kant’s Philosophy and Politics (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1980), 58–59.

[10] Kant therefore does not accept the classical notion that human beings are rational by nature. As Fackenheim says, “The development of freedom and rationality must be self-development.” Fackenheim refers to Kant’s use of the term “animal rationable” rather than “animal rationale.” He states the “paradox”: “the act which actualizes the disposition to freedom and rationality already presupposes their actuality.” “Kant’s Concept of History,” 388.

[11] Rousseau might seem to locate the origin of humanity in prior natural causes when he substitutes “perfectibility” for freedom and traces the development of society, speech, and reason to “accidents,” such as natural disasters that brought isolated human beings in the state of nature into greater physical proximity (SD 140). But for Rousseau to have recourse to “accidents” admits Kant’s point: human reason cannot derive the existence of man from prior natural causes. Kant, after all, claims to be indebted to Rousseau.

[12] The first reference that Kant gives is to the twentieth verse of the second chapter. When he cites God’s command that Adam and Eve not eat the fruit of a certain tree, he refers us to Eve’s telling the serpent what God said (3:2, 3) rather than to the words of God himself (2:16–17). Kant, in effect, eliminates God from even from his citations to the Bible, since he replaces God with the woman’s perception of God.

[13] Kant cites Genesis 3:22, the passage in which God observes that “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” to support his statement that, with the fourth step of reason, “man had entered into a relation of equality with all rational beings whatever their rank” (CB 59).

[14] On the mutual antagonism of human beings throughout history, see also IUH 15. In “An Old Question Raised Again,” Kant speaks of “a divinatory historical narrative of things imminent in future time” as known a priori rather than through experience. “But how is a history a priori possible?” he asks. “Answer: if the diviner himself creates and contrives the events which he announces in advance.” Trans. Robert E. Anchor, in On History, 137.

[15] According to Kant, this instinct is the command of God to which Genesis refers. Humanity’s transcendence of instinctual guidance is his disobedience of God (CB 55).

[16] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Collier Books, 1975) (cited as Lev), 72–79.

[17] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979) (cited as E), 158, 168–69, 329, 391, 447.

[18] “The inclinations themselves, being sources of want, are so far from having an absolute worth for which they should be desired that, on the contrary, it must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free of them” (MM 46).

[19] Rousseau writes that those in the state of nature fear only pain and hunger. He refers to “pain and not death,” he says, “because an animal will never know what it is to die; and knowledge of death and its terrors is one of the first acquisitions that [comes with] moving away from the animal condition” (SD 116).

[20] In the Social Contract, Rousseau is more explicit. By forming a society based on the social contract, the human being “deprives himself of several advantages given him by nature,” but “he gains such great ones, his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas broadened, his feelings ennobled, and his whole soul elevated to such a point that if the abuses of this new condition did not often degrade him beneath the condition he left, he ought ceaselessly to bless the happy moment that tore him away from it forever, and that changed him from a stupid, limited animal into an intelligent being and a man.” On the Social Contract and Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978) (cited as SC), 53–55.

[21] See Galston’s discussion of the ways in which “civil society is not as radically problematic for Kant as it is for Rousseau,” Kant and the Problem of History, 97ff.

[22] For a “communitarian” criticism of Kant’s understanding of the individual, see Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982).

[23] Rousseau’s description of the citizen applies equally well to Kant’s moral action: “only, then, when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse and right replaces appetite, does man, who until that time only considered himself, find himself forced to act upon other principles and to consult his reason before heeding his appetites” (SC 55–56).

[24] As Kant writes, “human nature is so constituted that we cannot be indifferent to the most remote epoch our race may come to, if only we may expect it with certainty. Such indifference is even less possible for us, since it seems that our own intelligent action may hasten this happy time for posterity” (IUH 22).

[25] For further discussion of the gap between the first three steps of reason and the fourth (that is, between humanity as a natural and a moral species), see Fackenheim, “Kant’s Concept of History,” 388–89.

[26] Kant also writes that a human being’s idea of the animals as his tools “entails (obscurely, to be sure) the idea of contrast, that what he may say to an animal he may not say to a fellow human; that he must rather consider the latter as an equal participant in the gifts of nature” (CB 58, emphasis mine).

[27] See Galston’s discussion, Kant and the Problem of History, 83–84.

[28] Pangle and Ahrensdorf correctly caution that “Kant resolutely resists any surrender to the notion that immoral means may deliberately be employed to or promoted to further just ends.” Justice among Nations, 208.


This excerpt is from Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (University of Kentucky Press, 2011). Also see “Cosmopolitanism: Citizens Without States“; “Introduction to Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization“; “Aquinas’s Mediated Cosmopolitanism and the Impasse of Ancient Political Philosophy”; “Ibn Tufayl’s Critique of Cosmopolitanism in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan“; The Limits of Modern Cosmopolitanism“; “An Introduction to Martin Heidegger“; “The Postmodern Condition of Cosmopolitanism.”

Mary P. NicholsMary P. Nichols

Mary P. Nichols

Mary P. Nichols was a Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. She is author of numerous books, including Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom (Cornell University Press, 2015); Socrates on Friendship and Community (Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Reconstructing Woody: Art, Love, and Life in the Films of Woody Allen (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).

Back To Top