Kant on collectivism and war [EP]

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Kant on collectivism and war

Of the major figures in German philosophy in the modern era, Kant is perhaps the one most influenced by Enlightenment social thought.

There is a clear intellectual connection between Rousseau and Kant. Biographers often repeat Heinrich Heine’s anecdote about how Kant always took his afternoon walk at a set time, a time so regular that neighbors could set their clocks by his appearance—except on one occasion he was late for his walk because he had been so caught up in reading Rousseau’s Emile that he lost track of time. rousseau-jj-50x60Kant had been raised as a Pietist, a version of Lutheranism that emphasized simplicity and eschewed external decoration. Kant therefore had no pictures or paintings hanging anywhere on the walls of his house—with one exception: over his desk in his study hung a picture of Rousseau.[37] Wrote Kant, “I learned to honor mankind from reading Rousseau.”[38]

Neo-Enlightenment thinkers attack Kant for two things: his skeptical and subjectivist epistemology and his ethic of selfless duty. Kant’s account of reason divorces it from cognitive contact with reality, thus destroying knowledge; and his account of ethics divorces morality from happiness, thus destroying the purpose of life. As discussed in Chapter Two, Kant’s powerful arguments were a mighty blow to the Enlightenment.

Politically, however, Kant is sometimes considered to be a liberal, and in the context of eighteenth-century Prussia there is some truth to that. In the context of Enlightenment liberalism, however, Kant diverged from liberalism in two major respects: his collectivism and his advocacy of war as a means to collectivist ends.

In a 1784 essay, “Idea for a Universal History With Cosmopolitan Intent,” Kant asserted that there is a necessary destiny for the human species. Nature has a plan. It is, however, “a hidden plan of nature,”[39] and as such it is one that requires special discernment by philosophers. That destiny is the full development of all of man’s natural capacities, especially man’s reason.[40]

By “man” here, Kant did not mean the individual. Nature’s goal is a collectivist one: the development of the species. Man’s capacities, Kant explained, are “to be completely developed only in the species, not in the individual.”[41] The individual is merely fodder for nature’s goal, as Kant put it in his “Review of Herder”: “nature allows us to see nothing else than that it abandons individuals to complete destruction and only maintains the type.”[4] And again, in his 1786 “Speculative Beginning of Human History,” Kant argued that the “path that for the species leads to progress from the worse to the better does not do so for the individual.”[43] The development of the individual is in conflict with the development of the species, and only the development of the species counts.

But it is also not the case that the species’ development is about happiness or fulfillment. “Nature is utterly unconcerned that man live well.”[44] The individual and even all existing individuals collectively now living are merely a stage in a process, and their suffering is of no account in the light of nature’s ultimate end. In fact, Kant argued, man should suffer, and deservedly so. Man is a sinful creature, a creature that is inclined to follow its own desires and not the demands of duty. Echoing Rousseau, Kant blamed mankind for having chosen to use reason when our instincts could have served us perfectly well.[45] And now that reason has awakened it has combined with self-interest to pursue all sorts of unnecessary and depraved desires. Thus the source of our vaunted freedom, Kant wrote, is also our original sin: “the history of freedom begins with badness, for it is man’s work.”[46]

kant_50x64Accordingly, Kant admonished us, “we are a long way from being able to regard ourselves as moral.”[47] Man is a creature made of “warped wood.”[48] Powerful forces are therefore needed in order to attempt to straighten our warped natures.

One of those forces is morality, a morality of strict and uncompromising duty that opposes man’s animal inclinations. A moral life is one that no rational person would “wish that it should be longer than it actually is,”[49] but one has a duty to live and develop oneself[50] and thereby the species. Inculcating this morality in man is one of nature’s forces.

Another force to straighten the warped wood is political. Man is “an animal that, if he lives among other members of his species, has need of a master.” And that is because “his selfish animal propensities induce him to except himself from [moral rules] wherever he can.” Kant then introduced his version of Rousseau’s general will. Politically, man “thus requires a master who will break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will.”[51]

However, strict duty and political masters are not enough. Nature has devised an additional strategy for bringing the species man to higher development. That strategy is war. As Kant wrote in his “Idea for a Universal History”: “The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all of man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society.”[52] Thus, conflict, antagonism, and war are good. They destroy many lives, but they are nature’s way of bringing forth the higher development of man’s capacities. “At the stage of culture at which the human race still stands,” Kant stated bluntly in “Speculative Beginning,” “war is an indispensable means for bringing it to a still higher stage.”[53] Peace would be a moral disaster, so we are duty-bound not to shrink from war.[54]

Out of this self-sacrifice of individuals and the war of nations, Kant hoped, the species would become fully developed, and an international and cosmopolitan federation of states would live peacefully and harmoniously, making possible within themselves the complete moral development of their members.[55] Then, as Kant concluded in a 1794 essay entitled “The End of All Things,” men would finally be in a position to prepare themselves for the day of “judgment of forgiveness or damnation by the judge of the world.”[56] This is the hidden plan of nature; it is destined to happen; so we know what we have to look forward to.


[37] Höffe 1994, 17.

[38] Quoted in Beiser 1992, 43.

[39] Kant 1784/1983, 27/36.

[40] Kant 1784/1983, 18/30 and 27/36.

[41] Kant 1784/1983, 18/30.

[42] Kant 1785/1963, 53/37.

[43] Kant 1786/1983, 115/53.

[44] Kant 1784/1983, 20/31.

[45] Kant 1786/1983, 111/50.

[46] Kant 1786/1983, 115/54.

[47] Kant 1784/1983, 26/36.

[48] Kant 1784/1983, 23/33.

[49] Kant 1786/1983, 122/58.

[50] Kant 1785/1964, 398/65.

[51] Kant 1784/1983, 23/33, italics in original.

[52] Kant 1784/1983, 20/31.

[53] Kant 1786/1983, 121/58; see also 1795/1983, 363/121.

[54] Kant notes a fundamental opposition between human desire and nature’s goals: “Man wills concord; but nature better knows what is good for the species: she wills discord” (1784/1983, 21/ 32).

[55] Kant 1784/1983, 28/38.

[56] Kant 1794/1983, 328/93.


[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

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