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Immanuel Kant

Kant the (P)Russian Philosopher?

Robert R. Clewis considers present implications of Kant’s Russian connections.

According to Immanuel Kant, perpetual peace is the “highest political good”, while war is the source of the “greatest evils that oppress civilized nations.” Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has indeed created suffering for many. It also violated Kant’s principle that “No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state” (Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1795). The war has also affected some surprising areas – even the world of philosophy. In particular it has created some tough dilemmas for Kant societies around the world.

The renowned philosopher was born three hundred years ago, on April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, a port city not far from the Baltic Sea, which was then a major city in East Prussia. Carved up by the canals of the Pregel River, the city was famous for its seven bridges, which gave rise to Euler’s math problem the ‘Seven Bridges of Königsberg’: is it possible to take a walk in which you cross all seven bridges of the city just once and arrive back where you started? (Euler: No.) The city is now called Kaliningrad, and is part of Russia, yet even today shops throughout Kaliningrad are filled with merch and trinkets in Kant’s likeness. He is a valuable symbol of the city.

Kant made great philosophical contributions to the theory of knowledge, space, and time, but he will possibly be most widely remembered for his ethical principle based on the notion of autonomy, which says ‘We should never treat people as mere means, but always as ends in themselves’. Kant also taught courses ranging from logic and metaphysics to law and physical geography. He even commented on the epidemics of his day, including an influenza outbreak that presumably originated from Russia in 1782; years later, he recalled an epidemic that “a few years ago quickly made its course through the world, and in Vienna was called the Russian catarrh.”

For some years now, scholars had been planning to hold a global Kant conference in 2024 in Kaliningrad, to celebrate Kant’s three hundredth birthday on April 22nd. But when Russia invaded Ukraine a question arose: could the festivities and conferences planned for Kant’s Tercentennial rightly go on in Russia? After some debate, the main Kant societies agreed to move the conference to Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. It was a symbolic choice.

Russian officials are still going ahead with their own ‘International Kant Congress’ for April 2024. According to their website, the authorities wish to claim Kant as an inspiration for the future of Russian science. In the official words of the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, “By decree of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, the year 2024 will mark the 300th birthday of Immanuel Kant. The International Kant Congress will be the key event of the year.” Scholars from countries ‘friendly’ to Russia are warmly invited. (The organizers note that it would take some ‘courage’ for scholars from the European Union to attend.)

Of course, the Kaliningrad conference poses some issues for my Russian Kantian colleagues – some still in Russia, some exiled. It also raises questions for organizers of Kant societies across the globe, like me. If we participate in this conference, or help plan it, it looks like we’re condoning Russian policy. Moreover, if we publish articles and conference proceedings from it, these will be instrumentalized – used as propaganda in the name of a ‘Russian’ Kant. But if we don’t participate, or don’t support Russian colleagues who are being ‘asked’ by their government to organize the conference, it seems like we are leaving our fellow scholars and friends behind. In this we risk using them as mere means to a political end – that of denouncing Russian imperialism. Would that be consistent with Kant’s philosophy?

In the end, I find I am unable to participate or attend.

Russian tank
Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol
Image © mvs.gov.ua Creative Commons 4

To celebrate Kant’s Tercentennial, virtual sessions are now being held bi-weekly by Kant societies worldwide; for example, in Greece, Egypt, China, South Korea, Brazil… But online conferences and events raise similar issues. Should the virtual celebrations include members of the Russian Kant society? Russian scholars of Kant, like athletes from Russia competing in the Olympics as ‘individual neutral athletes’, might be able to participate as ‘unaffiliated’ scholars. While this solution seems to be a fair compromise, it still strikes some members of the global Kant community as too permissive. I am forced to admit that reasonable people can disagree about which aspects of this delicate situation are most salient.

Kant’s own analysis of the conditions of peace in Perpetual Peace eventually influenced the founders of the League of Nations and – later still – the United Nations. One of the themes for the 2024 conference in Bonn is indeed ‘Kant as a source of inspiration for the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany’. Kant was enthusiastic about the new French Republic, and okay with peaceful protest, yet he opposed political revolution and rejected any right to violent revolt. He died in 1804, without seeing the full effects of the Napoleonic wars, including the French Emperor’s devastating losses in his failed invasion of Russia.

Centuries later, the Red Army overwhelmed Nazi forces in Kant’s city in April 1945. Now an enclave sandwiched between the NATO states of Poland and Lithuania, the ‘Kaliningrad Region’ includes what was once East Prussia’s capital city. But most of the historical city of Königsberg was either destroyed in battle in April 1945, or purposely left to crumble by the Soviets eager to eradicate traces of the city’s German past. Aside from the Strassenbahn tracks and the restored Cathedral (where Kant is buried), there are few landmarks from the Prussian era.

Immanuel Kant
Kant against a map of the Holy Roman Empire

But the Russian roots run deeper, which is one reason why some Russians feel they can claim Kant as their own. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763), to the dismay of the King of Prussia, Frederick II, Russians occupied Königsberg, and it briefly became a colony of Russia, even if more in the sense of administration by a foreign government than in the modern sense of imperialism and exploitation. Kant became friendly with Russian officers and their companions, and offered them lectures on explosions and pyrotechnics. One can imagine Kant strolling across one of the seven bridges, dressed in bright colors, with his sword bouncing on his hip, talking to Russian officers and nobility. In 1759, Kant even wrote a letter to the Russian Empress Elizabeth, asking for an academic post. But once the Russians left and he was no longer their subject, he petitioned the Prussians in charge instead, finally obtaining a full professorship in 1770.

For some Russian nationalists, acts like this turnaround render Kant a ‘traitor’. Others don’t want him anyway. In light of his Enlightenment views and influential idea for international peace based on a federation of republics, some Russian extremists consider him too German, European, republican, or cosmopolitan. Although the local university was renamed after him in 2005, recent efforts to rename the city and the airport after the philosopher have failed. And amid airport-related polemics in 2018, his statue at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University was pelted with pink paint. Furthermore, how to claim, or use, Kant, remains controversial. In 2013, at an outdoor festival in southern Russia, a fight broke out between two men about how best to interpret Kant’s ideas, leading to one of the men being shot several times (with rubber bullets).

However, I think that not only would Kant have vehemently opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he would have also supported the decision to move the International Kant Conference from Kaliningrad to Bonn, as a kind of peaceful protest. It’s a pity that academia cannot rise above such dilemmas to pursue scholarship and truth, but of course, academia has never been completely insulated from politics – as can be seen from Kant’s own plea to the Russian Empress.

I hope the world’s Kant scholars are on the right side of these dilemmas. I wish the war had not caused these rifts in Kantian communities around the world. I also wish I could go to Kant’s city to study and commemorate his life and work this year, the year of his Tercentennial.

© Robert R. Clewis 2024

Robert R. Clewis is Vice President of the North American Kant Society, which represents Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America, and the islands. But the views here are the author’s alone.

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