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Kant’s Politics in Context by Reidar Maliks

Matt Qvortrup puts Kant’s Politics in Context.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Thus wrote Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784). The philosophy professor from Königsberg, known for his dense sentences in his three Critiques had a Nebengeschäft, or sideline, as a public intellectual. In this role he excelled in quotable quips and witty puns such as the above. It is this role which is the subject of Reidar Maliks’ book Kant’s Politics in Context.

Kant’s political philosophy commendably being the subject of a book-length study follows a perhaps belated recognition of his work as a political thinker. To be sure, others have engaged with Kant’s political thought, above all Hannah Arendt, yet as she said in her posthumous book Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (1992), “the literature on Kant is enormous, but there are very few books on his political philosophy.” This is still largely the case. Apart from Elisabeth Ellis’s Kant’s Politics: Provisional Theory for an Uncertain World (2008), we are still awaiting a comprehensive work on Kant’s political philosophy.

Maliks’ book does not however provide us with an understanding of the unity of Kant’s political thought. Indeed, it seems the author is more interested in uncovering Kant’s motivations and private views than in understanding his remarkable and often prophetic political philosophy. To be sure, it is interesting to read how Kant engaged in debates with his erstwhile pupil, the romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). While Kant clearly was interested in contemporary issues, his writings addressed other great minds. In Theory and Practice (1793) he crossed swords with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). But apart from Herder, Kant’s contemporary intellectual adversaries were in an inferior intellectual league. The likes of Friedrich Bouterwek, Johann Benjamin Erhart and Friedrich Schlegel have hardly even become footnotes in the history of political philosophy (although the latter made a cameo appearance in Monty Python’s ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song’).

Was Kant a major political philosopher? Notwithstanding the universally acknowledged genius of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and the perhaps equally masterful brilliance of the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), political writings like What is Enlightenment? (1784), Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History (1796), and even On the Perpetual Peace (1795), fall short of the detail that characterised great works of political philosophy such as Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. And yet, when patching together his writings, political and otherwise, we see glimpses of the perspicacity that justly made Kant famous for his sharp analytical mind. It is as if we can see the contours of a not yet chiselled-out statue in the unpolished literary marbles he left behind.

What is so striking when reading about Kant’s politics in Maliks’ book about him is how modern he was, and how this most German of thinkers departed from the stereotype of the Teutonic Meisterdenker, and instead came close to the ideal of the British constitutionalist. This ideal is of “a constitution allowing the greatest possible human freedom in accordance with laws which ensure that the freedom of each can coexist with the freedom of all the others.” John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859)? No – Kant in Critique of Pure Reason. What is even more remarkable is that this sentence was written eight years before the French revolutionaries penned the Déclaration des droits de l’homme (1789), where a similar phrase was used. It’s not surprising that the poet Heinrich Heine called Kant the philosopher of the French Revolution.

This quote from his first Kritik is also a reminder that the Anglo-American concept of the rule of law is mirrored by the equally strong continental tradition of the Rechtsstaat– the moral state – a tradition that preached that we should not only follow the letter of the law, but also aspire to do what is morally right. This tradition was inaugurated by none other than Kant. His espousal of der Rechtsstaat might have been a throwaway remark cited out of context; but in fact it was representative of views he later expressed in his Rechtslehre (1797), where (at a time when Prussia was an absolutist state) he dared to express the view that “legislative power can belong only to the united will of the people.”

“There is a right of every people to give itself a civil constitution of the kind that it sees fit”, Kant also boldly and courageously declared in The Contest of Faculties (1798), his last comprehensive political treatise. This view seems centuries ahead of its time.

However, Maliks is an unashamed devotee of the ‘Cambridge School’ – according to which group the great books should be read as in their historical context rather than as a part of a timeless debate – and suggests that Kant’s political thinking is in large measure written in response to contemporary local debates.

Prussian Infantry 1745
Attack of the Prussian infantry, Carl Röchling, 1745

Politics, Ethics & Philosophy

Kant is often credited with the ‘law’ that democracies don’t go to war with one another. He never quite put it like that. Rather, in The Perpetual Peace he stated that “if… the consent of the citizenry is required in order to determine whether or not there should be war, it is natural that they consider all its calamities before committing to so risky a game” – a view which, if anything, is just as powerful as the one attributed to him, and shows the intelligence and insight at work in his political philosophy too.

Regrettably, Maliks’ book does not engage philosophically with Kant’s arguments. As a consequence the great thinker somehow disappears amidst the rich historical details. Yet to fully understand the political Kant it is useful to recall the major points of his moral philosophy. In his ethical writings – especially The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) – Kant had taken pains to distinguish between the nature of the things we do in order to achieve something, and the nature of the things we do out of duty. But under what conditions does such duty arise? Because God demands it? No; for if we only obey the Almighty lest we should be tormented in the afterlife, our reasoning is based on a ‘hypothetical imperative’ (that is, a ‘goal-achieving principle’) of the form, ‘if I keep the Commandments, then I will go to Heaven’. Kant had no time for this sort of reasoning in the foundations of morality, and in fact considered it unethical. Indeed, in his short essay The End of All Things (1794), he even said that the promise of the eternal life was a “bribe”.

Sapere Aude” – “Dare to think” – wrote Kant in What is Enlightenment?, and his big ethical idea was that we could establish a foundation for ethics in reason. Kant thought that reason would impel us all to follow the ‘categorical imperative’ (meaning, a principle applying in all circumstances), which he first set out in The Groundwork – namely, “to act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.”

In his ethical writings, Kant dropped heavy hints that his project was to use his moral theory as the basis for his political philosophy, much as Aristotle (384-322 BC) had used his Nicomachean Ethics as the basis for his Politics. But Kant ran out of time. He was an old man when he turned to political philosophy in earnest. But then again, even his masterpieces the three Critiques were written when Kant was at would then be considered retirement age (when he was 57, 64 and 66 respectively).

Kant’s political writings, although they contained many original thoughts, also had inconsistencies, and he sometimes reached conclusions that ran counter to his espoused ideals. For instance, his early endorsement of the French Revolution was partially reversed in his short essay ‘On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory but Does not Apply in Practice’ (1793), in which he limited the vote to property-owning men and rejected the right to rebel that even Thomas Aquinas had endorsed. Maliks dutifully points this out, and implies – though he does not say it explicitly – that Kant’s flawed views makes it impossible to use the great man’s political philosophy today. This attitude is the main problem I have with this book.

“It may be theoretically possible for a man to produce an original, insightful, book on a subject whose voluminous literature he gives little indication of having read. And it is conceivable that an individual could write a masterpiece on a subject largely by introspection. But the odds seem discouragingly low”. Thus began a now long forgotten but surprisingly eloquent review in the Administrative Science Quarterly some fifty years ago. Reflecting on the merits of Reidar Maliks’ Kant’s Politics in Context, one is left wondering if the opposite might be theoretically possible – namely if a book necessarily must be original and insightful just because its author has read “the voluminous literature”? The answer, alas, is negative.

© Matt Qvortrup 2015

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University, and the author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Kant’s Politics in Context, by Reidar Maliks, OUP, 2014, 195 pages, £50, ISBN 978-019-964515-2

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