Hoping Cosmopolitanism: Notes On Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim”

Philosophy, for Kant, like Hegel after him, is that which gives and makes intelligible history’s meaning.  Whatever human deeds there are under the sun, philosophy has the power of organizing them in such a way as to give a meaningful account of their happening and the significance of their having-been. Kant thus finds in philosophy the solution to the problem of gleaning meaning from the world of human affairs.  Philosophy is that which can give to human history a purpose, a significance, without which it would seem altogether to be devoid of meaning.  This anxiety about meaninglessness can be sensed when Kant speaks of the “melancholy haphazardness” (trostlose Ungefähr) of historical events when treated in isolation.  Hence, a philosophical history would aim to divine the underlying purpose of all that has come to past, indeed, would make possible the apprehension of the past as history, albeit a history whose truth-content is merely implicit—there for the philosopher to discern. It would appear, then, that the philosopher emerges as the most able historian, supplanting both the chronicler and the historiographer. Insofar as the philosopher comports himself toward the past with the purpose of contemplating and sussing its barely perceptible meaning, he is the historian par excellence. This is so because what the philosopher possesses that the professional historians lack is precisely the power of philosophical abstraction and synthesis; or, more succinctly, the power of interpretation—but one, as we shall see, with a very specific interpretative procedure. Under the philosopher’s eyes, the past becomes connected to an idea of the absolute, which elevates human events from their contingent contexts and particularistic interests; the philosopher, in turn, synthesizes and assembles them so as to reveal their world-historical significance. One might therefore say that philosophy supplies a kind of globalizing optic that transforms mere chronology into a truth-revealing “world history.”  As Kant argues (less forcefully so than later would Hegel), it is by means of philosophy alone that one abstracts from the manifold heap of seemingly disconnected, contingent, and haphazard events a  single underlying process of development:  through philosophy one can extract human history’s implicit purpose (telos), whereby one  could hold onto an inherent optimism concerning the realization of the latent meaning of humanity. As Hannah Arendt would later say in her essay on “The Concept of History,” the philosophy of history that Kant exemplifies supposes “that once you look at history in its entirety (im Grossen), rather than at single events and the ever-frustrated intentions of human agents, everything suddenly makes sense , because there is always at least a story to tell.”  It can be said that this, at the very least, is the wager of Kant’s philosophy of history, and the affect produced by it is the consoling hope that meaning, indeed, can be had and rationally apprehended.
What follows is a brief examination of the hope called universal history in Kant. As is known, Kant exemplifies an Enlightenment position which expresses a great deal of faith in philosophy’s power to give meaningful form and rational systematicity to human thought and action. By hope I mean a structure of feeling directed toward the desire to assert universal meaning in human history: it is a meaning not simply of one phenomenon but rather the meaning of human history in its entirety, hence, “universal history.” Indeed, historical meaning—or historical phenomenality in general—must indicate not the merely particular but the universal, and this move from the particular to the universal limns the arc of Kant’s argumentation in this text. Yet, because human thought and activity necessarily belong to the realm of the contingent and subject to the mechanistic laws of nature (as he argues in the Critique of Pure Reason, see my post on Kant and Freedom), this meaning is never immediately apparent, or sensible to use a Kantian term: universal historical meaning must be made intelligible.  And it is precisely at this point at which philosophy comes into view, for it is the science that can render an understanding of human relations and human affairs as not only a product of nature, but in fact the work of Reason (Vernunft). It is in this sense that philosophy emerges for Kant as the privileged framework to grasp Reason’s unfolding in human history. Kant’s narrative is the reconciliation of human thought and activity with the laws of nature under the twin figures of freedom and humanity.  Universal history presented philosophically would thus be the representation of human history as the historical expression of a hope concerning human rationality and its purposive direction toward freedom and the attainment of perpetual peace, which in Kant takes the form of cosmopolitanism as the political-moral perfection of humanity.
The underlying question of Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” (1784) is the question, “How is a history possible a priori?”   [Citations for this summary are from Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim,” trans. Allen Wood, in Anthropology, History and Education, eds. Günter Zöller and Robert B. Louden, Cambridge University Press.  German references are from Kant, “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht,” in Werkausgabe, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel, vol. 11, 1968].  In the “Idea,” Kant sets out to articulate the a priori concept, the guideline (Leitfaden), by which human history is to be understood in order to disclose its universal meaning and final end (Endzweck).   This a priori concept functions as a regulative idea, which posits a definite aim toward which human history progresses. As indicated in the title of his essay, this aim is what he calls cosmopolitanism, which is submitted as the normative horizon of human history, a matter of a political-moral right. For Kant, world history (Weltgeschicthe) is determined by a “cosmopolitan aim” (weltbürgerliche Absicht), understood as the gradual realization of the perfect civil union of humankind. One can perhaps say that Kant in this essay produces an image (Bild) of human history’s final end, visualized as the establishment of a cosmopolitan order. Cosmopolitanism as history’s final end becomes figured as precisely what must be desired, worked toward, and ultimately hoped for in order for the development (Bildung) of humanity to attain its perfection. The establishment of a confederation of free states united to secure perpetual peace among and between nations is Kant’s Bild of man’s total perfection. But it is final end, as we shall see, that is in fact nature’s ultimate intention for humanity, for cosmopolitanism as humanity’s final end (Endzweck) means that it is an “end which needs no other as the condition of its possibility.”  The cosmopolitical aim is thus an end that is universal and unconditional. Given the superlative status of cosmopolitanism, Kant argues that the proper task of the philosopher-historian is not simply to chronicle the past but to discern and make explicit this hidden plan of nature for humanity. My suggestion here is that we can understand this Kantian interpretive procedure under the sign of hope, wherein the regulative idea of a final end becomes connected to a conception of nature as a teleological system of ends in order to disclose world history’s truth-content and universal character.
Originally published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift IV in November 11, 1784 as a response to Kant’s friend and disciple, Johann Schultz, the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” is Kant’s primary statement concerning a philosophy of world history. Kant’s Toward a Perpetual Peace, which elaborates further his concept of political cosmopolitanism, comes a decade later. But, already here in the “Idea” we find Kant’s articulation of what he regards as the final purpose of the entire human race (Endzweck des Menschengeschlechts), which is the vocation of a philosophy of history to narrate and make intelligible. But there is a fundamental ambiguity that must be clarified at the outset with regards to what Kant had set out to do in the “Idea.” The ambiguity can be stated as follows: How are we, exactly, to read the task of Kant’s project in his avowed intention to present an “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim”? Are we to read Kant as claiming that human history is in fact progressing toward this final development, whose account would therefore primarily be descriptive? Or is Kant suggesting that human history ought to develop toward this aim of establishing a cosmopolitan world order, whose account would take the form of a normative claim? Or, rather, are we to read Kant as supplying an interpretive method for reading world history, wherein history would be regarded as if it were moving according to an implicit cosmopolitan purpose? The first interpretation would be insufficient because the descriptive operation would require a prior systemic justification for the process being described. The second interpretation comes closer to Kant’s aim but falls short on just how to understand the basis of its normativity. It seems to me that the third interpretation is what informs Kant’s purpose in developing the concept of cosmopolitanism in the “Idea,” wherein a philosophy of universal history would not be merely descriptive or normative but rather in the order of the theoretical, that is, in the mode of the as if.
But in what sense is Kant’s project theoretical, proceeding in the mode of the as if? As is well known, “idea” is a technical term in Kant’s critical philosophy, which refers to concepts of reason which are distinct from categories of the understanding. As a concept of reason, an “idea” involves the theoretical apprehension of an absolute totality, a completeness which is not phenomenally accessible for possible experience given the nature of human reason’s finitude. In this technical aspect, “idea” is therefore “transcendent” with respect to the categories of the understanding. The word “idea” in the present text, however, does not refer to ideas in the transcendental sense. Rather, “idea” is being used in the theoretical sense, which means that the idea of a cosmopolitanism need not correspond or refer to a present object of sensible experience. Yet, its theoreticality nevertheless serves as a regulative principle, which facilitates in the understanding’s search for unity, meaning, and systematicity in the world of phenomenal experience. Thus, Kant’s project can be said to be not merely descriptive (i.e., an empirical account of chronological historical events) or normative (i.e., the manner in which historical events ought to progress) but rather theoretical: cosmopolitanism as the ideal final end serving as the guiding thread of human history, whose actual realization, however, is by definition impossible yet necessary to posit a purposive end toward which humanity should aspire. The ideal audience for this theoretical task is directed at a future philosopher-historian. For Kant’s aim, indeed, is to supply for the future philosopher-historian a workable framework that would enable the interpretation of human history’s unity and rationality against which history’s truth-content and final meaning can be apprehended. If we follow the third interpretation concerning Kant’s task in the “Idea,” the as if can be said to express a hope that such a theoretical project is indeed possible and that it would be picked up by a future philosopher-historian, who, in turn, would write a world history whose subject would address the progress of humanity’s perfection as a whole. This hope, however, is not limited to a vague historiographical project of world history in the future; it also concerns the belief that such a teleological process is in fact at work in history, which is therefore the task of philosophy to make explicit. In this sense, Kant’s text can be said to be a theoretical conjecture, that is, an exemplification and performance of conjectural history.
Kant’s conjectural history presupposes a thought of totality or completeness in at least two ways: firstly, Kant regards human beings as a whole; secondly, he conceptualizes history as encompassing all generations and embodying an implicit universal purpose, that is to say, history as universal history. As already suggested, Kant’s hope for the possibility of a universal history is formally expressed in the mode of the as if, wherein present and future philosopher-historians are enjoined and would be capable to write a universal history by treating humanity and history as if they were totalities. Kant gives definite shape to this formal hope of universal history by elaborating the workings of a principle of development that takes nature as a “kingdom of ends [Reich der Zwecke].” Hope is thus given definite shape by connecting what is merely a theoretical idea with a concept of teleology that reveals its rationality and purposiveness. In this way, the hope called cosmopolitanism in Kant becomes more than a mere wishing; it becomes transformed and elevated as a universal purpose, indeed, a rational and moral necessity.
For Kant, then, the hope to accomplish universal history becomes more than a wish if human history is thought in terms of a goal and shaped by a teleological end. For Kant, universal history is goal-oriented: it has a definite purpose and end whose form, as we have seen, is expressed as a cosmopolitan aim to install a cosmopolitan political commonwealth. Without this cosmopolitan aim, human history would in fact be shapeless; it would be purposeless and thus cannot be regarded as having a necessity to its movement or universality to its becoming. By positing a political ideal toward which history moves purposively, Kant argues for the possibility of a universal history in the name of Reason (Vernunft). This means that the final end to establish a political cosmopolis corresponds to and is the realization of the perfection of human capabilities in conformity to the laws of Reason. To say that history is purposive (zweckmässig) in the theoretical, conjectural sense is to say that history appears as if designed according to some plan, or more precisely, as if produced with respect to its inner possibility and necessity in accordance to a rational process. Without this purposiveness, the world of human affairs would be mere purposeless play. Such an attitude about human history indicates the absence of a philosophical insight concerning this higher purpose of humanity. In other words, the person who considers history without purpose sees no meaning in history because he lacks the a priori concept concerning humanity’s ultimate goal. Without such an a priori concept, as Kant argues, “no history…appears to be possible” (Idea, 8:17).
At this point, the question that remains to be clarified is: How does Kant articulate the a priori concept that would supply the theoretical ideal by which history would acquire its teleological shape and universal character? If political cosmopolitanism is to stand in for this a priori concept, how is Kant’s cosmopolitan aim philosophically justified with respect to both the laws of Reason and the laws of nature? How does Kant understand the aim to establish a cosmopolitical order as both rationally necessary, as well as politically and morally imperative? Crucial in clarifying these questions is to understand that Kant saw it necessary to reconcile the antinomy between human freedom and the laws of nature, while still maintaining a concept of man as both a natural and rational being.
According to Kant, man is natural because he is finite, and yet is endowed with the power of reason that enables him to overcome the finitude of his natural being. We can perhaps say that the struggle of this dynamic between man’s finitude and freedom from it is precisely what is called “history.”  Kant understands the content of this struggle as “[t]he greatest problem for the human species, to the solution of which it is compelled by nature,” namely, “the attainment of a civil society administering justice universally” (Idea, 8:23). By posing man’s final purpose as also its “greatest problem,” Kant regards cosmopolitanism as both the perfection of human capabilities and the culmination of what nature had intended to bring about in humankind as a species. Bringing together the natural as well as rational dimensions of man, Kant presents cosmopolitanism as the idea that human beings have the highest purpose of realizing themselves as a species as the ultimate end of nature.  Kant’s argument concerning man as the ultimate end of nature is more fully elaborated in the Critique of Judgment, wherein he writes:
“[The human being] is the ultimate end of the creation here on earth, because he is the only being on earth who forms a concept of ends for himself and who by means of his reason can make a system of ends out of an aggregate of purposively formed things.”
To be underlined here is Kant’s argument regarding man as the only being on earth endowed with rational powers to posit ends for himself that enable him to develop and perfect his natural predispositions (this is the general arc of the argument presented from the First to the Third Proposition).  Human beings therefore have a special status among natural beings in virtue of their unique capacity to use reason and to posit ends for themselves. Unlike animals who move blindly according to the mechanical laws of nature, man uses his power of reason to posit ends that would enable him to transcend conditions of natural finitude. This power of reason to determine ends discloses man as a rational and moral agent, a free being. It also means that this exclusive gift of reason assigns man with the highest place and responsibility within the teleological system of nature.  Man, according to Kant, is the highest and ultimate end of nature because man’s self-determination and causal powers as a natural and rational being is a product of freedom rather than a product of nature. The most perfect expression of man’s rational powers to posit ends that conform to the moral law and to what nature has sanctioned in him is for Kant cosmopolitanism. It is the ideal around which humanity as a whole develops toward the full realization of man’s reason and capabilities. In other words, the humanitas of man finds its most proper representation of itself in cosmopolitanism.  It is in this sense that a universal history with a cosmopolitan aim is an expression, indeed, projection of a rational hope.
It would be a mistake, however, to say that the individual alone can realize this higher aim. Kant’s philosophy of history regards individuals as mere means to achieve the cosmopolitan aim.  Nature intends, he says, that all natural human capacities be developed to their fullest not in the individual alone, but in the species as a whole. The means by which nature employs to bring about this full development of human beings as a species, whose externalized form is political cosmopolitanism, is what Kant calls “unsocial sociability” (ungesellige Geselligkeit). Kant borrows the term from Montaigne, who in “Of Solitude” wrote: “There is nothing so unsociable and sociable as man.” Kant extends Montaigne’s thesis in the Fourth Proposition to demonstrate nature’s means for the development of human capabilities, indeed, “unsocial sociability” as nature’s way of developing our rational predispositions to our highest humanity. We might say, then, that Kant proposes here a theory of man’s nature where man is both social and unsocial, producing in him a constitutive antagonism. According to Kant, man has “a great propensity to individualize (isolate) himself, because he simultaneously encounters in himself the unsociable property of willing to direct everything so as to get his own way” (Idea, 8:21). But, at the same time, man also “has an inclination to become socialized, since in such a condition he feels himself as more a human being, i.e. feels the development of his natural predispositions” (Idea, 8:21). Thus, man, owing to his will to satisfy his individual needs and particular desires, is naturally inclined to be selfish, but there is also in him a need to enter society. Man wants to enter society in order to be recognized by others and to stimulate the feeling of being human: firstly, in order to enable a comparison against which to measure his own self-worth; secondly, to inspire in him “to obtain for himself a rank among his fellows” (Idea, 8:21). Kant suggests that man feels his humanity only when he belongs to a society, that is, when he no longer becomes a mere individual, but a social being. In this conception of man as possessing an unsocial sociability, Kant understands the development of man the following way: nature requires man to enter society, but man enters with a resistance that constantly threatens to break up this society. This social antagonism becomes precisely the site for man to develop his rational powers. Kant writes:
“all talents come bit by bit to be developed, taste is formed, and even, through progress in Enlightenment, a beginning is made toward the foundation of a mode of thought which can with time transform the rude natural predisposition to make moral distinctions into determinate practical principles and hence transform a pathologically compelled agreement to form a society finally into a moral whole.” (Idea, 8:21)
What is broached here is an understanding of man’s Bildung or development as not only cultural but also moral. Only in the reconciliation of the internal struggle or antagonism between the individual and the social can the highest aim of nature for man to develop his capabilities and predispositions be attained. Without this internal resistance, Kant writes, “all the excellent natural predispositions in humanity would eternally slumber undeveloped” (Idea, 8:21). Yet this struggle is the most difficult because in order to attain a social condition in which genuine freedom can flourish, man as individual must conduct himself in such a way as not to exercise brute self-freedom at the expense of others, that is, he must become social. In short, man must not only be individual (natural being) but must be social (rational being). There is thus a movement from the particular to the universal that is mirrored in the way the argumentation proceeds from the Fourth Proposition regarding Kant’s concept of “unsocial sociability” to the Seventh Proposition regarding the constitution of a cosmopolitan commonwealth.  It seems to me that the struggle of individual man against society is but a metonym to the struggle of individual states to establish a cosmopolis to secure perpetual freedom and achieve maximal development.
If man’s greatest challenge as a species is the installment of a global civil society which would be capable of administering justice universally, this challenge cannot be achieved neither by the individual nor the single state alone, but rather by a cosmopolitical system in which, as Kant writes,
“every state, even the smallest, could expect its security and rights not from its own might, or its own juridical judgment, but only from this great federation of nations (Foedus Amphictynum), from a united might and from the decision in accordance with laws of its united will.” (Idea, 8:24)
What Kant images here as the Bild for the moral Bildung of humanity is a cosmopolitan state of affairs in which a confederation of free and law-abiding states would mutually create the conditions under which the interests of each state could be efficiently maximized for the universal good of preserving peace. As a regulative principle guiding the destiny of the human race, Kant’s Bild of an ideal cosmopolitical system is an idea of humanity in which man is elevated above the animal world and is disclosed as a rational, moral agent. If I understand Kant correctly, I would summarize the thesis of the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” in the following way:  Kant’s universal history presents an underlying telos that is not merely a theoretical a priori but also a moral-political purposive end, grounded on a universal right that is sanctioned by the teleological end of nature and enabled by man’s unique ability to realize this latent potential given to him in virtue of his rational, hence, free being. In grasping the moral-political purpose of history, Kant suggests that present and future philosopher-historians can legitimately hope that no matter how heterogeneous or seemingly accidental human events may appear, one can nevertheless “discover within [them] a regular course; and that in this way what meets the eye in individual subjects as confused and irregular yet in the whole species can be recognized as a steadily progressing though slow development of its original predispositions” (Idea, 8:17, my emphasis). Thus, the Kantian point of view of universal history inspires and produces a “consoling view of the future” (Idea, 8:30), in which humanity’s perfection within the horizon of cosmopolitanism is the ideal aim for which humanity can legitimately and rationally hope.
Image: Tiffany Chung, Berlin Wall, embroidery, painted metal grommets, and buttons on canvas, 2010. Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art (NY)
This entry was published on December 26, 2011 at 5:33 PM. It’s filed under Critical Theory, Kant, Philosophy, Philosophy of History, Reading Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Hoping Cosmopolitanism: Notes On Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim”

  1. This is incredible! Thank you so mucj

  2. Brilliant

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