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Hegel & History

Kant, Conflict & Universal History

Terrence Thomson asks what Kant’s concept of history can teach us.

In philosophy departments across the world, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), as well as his prominent moral works, such as the Critique of Practical Reason, are analysed, discussed, and often despaired over by students and scholars alike. His ‘critical philosophy’ has even been referenced in popular films: Superman II gives a nod to the Critique of Pure Reason in one of its scenes. By contrast, his philosophy of history remains largely ignored, leading me to ask: Does Kant’s concept of history teach us anything about the world we inhabit? I’d like to briefly argue that Kant’s philosophy of history is actually quite modern and can teach us something about today’s culture and politics.

In 1784, three years after the publication of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant published a curious article in a prominent intellectual newspaper titled: ‘Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective’. Made up of nine Propositions, the article attempted to outline the necessary elements a future historian would have to consider if he or she wanted to compile a universal human history. This may not seem like such a curious idea today, as we see this type of history frequently published, with various subjects as their catalyst. For example, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) or Harari’s Sapiens (2015) are both attempts to construct a universal history from a particular point of view. But what is curious about Kant’s short article is its discussion of conflict in history, as well as nature’s role in conflicts.

Our age is defined by an increasingly wide array of conflicts, whether military or digital, or even conflict which straddles both these elements, such as the military use of drones. Terrorism in all of its appearances can also be considered under this rubric; an element of everyday life for many in the Middle East, and one that increasingly dominates American and European consciousness. Even jostling for a seat on a packed bus or train can be seen as a form of social conflict. In Kant’s view history tells us that conflict is not simply a set of randomly occurring mindless acts, nor is it a sign that we are heading toward an apocalyptical nightmare. Rather, there is something integral to all conflicts no matter how multifarious they are and in what context they appear.

In Proposition Four, Kant outlines a notion commonly linked to a concept of the ‘cunning of nature’ (Hegel’s later doctrine of the ‘cunning of reason’ is a clear reference to Kant). The cunning of nature involves a feature of human social interaction which Kant calls ‘unsociable sociability’, which he defines as the human “tendency to enter into society, a tendency connected, however, with a constant resistance that continually threatens to break up this society.” Put simply, it is a natural human inclination to connect with other people and to be part of a larger whole; yet it is also part of our natural inclination to destroy these social bonds through isolationism and divisiveness. Kant argues that this dichotomy is the source of all human conflict, even attributing conflict between states as emanating from unsociable sociability: countries entering into conflict break sociable links, resulting in a state of war. We need only look at the Cold War for a striking example of unsociable sociability propelling states into dangerous and unresolvable deadlocks.

Yet Kant also attributes historical progress to it – which means that unsociable sociability is responsible for humanity developing toward more enlightened states. Without the antagonistic aspect of humanity, Kant thinks we wouldn’t be compelled to grow culturally or intellectually. In these senses, unsociable sociability is the driving force behind all human history.

Conflict plays a major role here according to Kant, contrary to much post-1945 thought about progress. How can we say that conflict ultimately contributes to progress, especially in light of the tragic horrors of the twentieth century? Surely we cannot judge those things based on a concept of progress devised in 1784?

Actually, Kant can account for these conflicts. According to Kant’s Proposition Five, the point toward which human historical development tends is a perfectly just civil constitution, meaning an egalitarian or ‘cosmopolitan’ society where all are welcome, and equal. Kant attributes this utopian goal also to unsociable sociability, because we may learn from the conflicts it catapults us into. This is the crux of Kant’s article, and perhaps its most peculiar feature: unsociable sociability pushes human beings into conflict with each other, forcing them to learn how and how not to treat one another, and so develop moral laws. Moreover, according to Kant, this will all lead to a state whereby conflict is necessarily eventually abolished. Hence the cunning of nature: conflict occurs in the pursuit of a developmental end we are oblivious to by helping us learn from the mistakes made in history on both an individual and a global level. In a note from 1776, Kant already had a clear inkling of this idea, writing, “The useful aim of philosophical history consists in the preservation of good models and the display of instructive mistakes.”

I think this teaches us a key lesson about today. It is easy to lose sight of our ability to construct laws and institutions which prevent harm to others. It’s easy to look at the social and political situation, globally or in our own country, and determine that things can never improve – that we’re on course to collide with catastrophe. What Kant teaches us is that no matter how unlikely it appears, we must not lose hope that a perfectly just society is possible, and that the social antagonisms and conflicts we see are steps toward this goal. Without this hope we are rendered powerless to change anything.

Kant urges us to strive toward a more cosmopolitan society, for if we do not, then we have truly learned nothing from the horrors which scar our history like craters on the Moon, and we ignore the lamps lighting up the road into the unknown night.

© Terrence Thomson 2020

Terrence Thomson is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy in Kingston University, London.

• An earlier version of this article appeared in Oxford’s The Wednesday magazine (thewednesdayoxford.com).

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