A short critique of Kant

This is an excerpt from a draft chapter of my book Evolutionary Social Theory. This is still in progress but is getting closer to completion. This is not intended as a comprehensive critique of Kant-that would take volumes. This is an except from Part I, which traces the origins of Evolutionary Social Theory to the Enlightenment. In this section, I critique the abstract and mythological character of social contract theory and argue that social contract theory (with the exception of Montesquieu) made  at best limited contributions to the origins of Evolutionary Social Theory. The next part of the chapter addresses the contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment and those of Voltaire, Turgot and Condorcet in France to an evolutionary understanding of social theory.

Kant’s mitigated teleology is not evolutionary

In his Universal Natural History Kant presented a rationalist and teleological account of Newtonian physics. As an admirer of Newtonian physics Kant found Hume’s mitigated skepticism to be damaging to the orderly and rational world of causal relations implied by Newton’s physics. In response to Hume, Kant modified his position in Critique of Pure Reason. Kant’s critical method of using reason itself as a means to critique the limits of reason, coupled with his distinction between noumena and phenomena, and his maintenance of reason as the foundation of knowledge, leads to the conclusion that there is a limit to what we can know either through experience or a priori. Similarly, Kant’s method lends itself to typological thinking. Yet at the same time, his assertion of the possibility of a priori synthetic knowledge, though advanced as an argument for knowledge of intuitive understandings of time and space, is reflected in his writings on politics. This gives Kant’s political essays a teleological cast. Consequently, Kant’s arguments, though in some respects attractive as normative propositions, exhibit the same defects of Rosseau: that is Kant can only treat social forms as abstractions, not as concrete changing entities. This defect in Kant’s writings is demonstrated in his political essays.

In his essay on Universal History Kant articulates the foundations of his transcendental idealist views of politics. Kant argues that in spite of the apparent disorder in human affairs, it is “possible to discover a regular march” (p.3). This march towards the realization of the manifestations of human will take place in accordance with Natural Law in the same sense that the weather is regulated by Natural Law to take care of nature. Kant argues that the principle directing this march is human reason. This reason is manifested in what he argues is the species’ “unsocial sociability” (p. 10). This “unsocial sociability” leads to struggle and development and the creation of morality in turn leading to a progressive realization of freedom. Though Kant stresses autonomy as the basis for freedom, when Kant talks about autonomy and freedom, he is stressing a definition of freedom as consistency with the nature of humans, which is defined by reason. Freedom in Kant’s view is not anarchy and license. In order for freedom to be realized, humans require a master in the form of the State to assure that individuals do not impinge on the freedom of others. This master can increase the freedom of all, but the master in turn must be regulated by Law, which is also the embodiment of reason. Just as the State necessarily emerges out of the struggle within society so too the eventual establishment of an international Federation of states under International Law is destined in accordance with the plan of nature. Kant acknowledges that his argument is contradicted by the facts of history and that his argument is a priori. In his defense, he contrasts what he terms metaphysical history with the empirical narration of history.

This view is further developed in his essay on Political Right and Political Progress. Kant acknowledges that the concept of the Social Contract is a fiction, but it is a fiction that expresses the mutually agreed upon obligations of citizens as expressed in the general will. In contrast to Hobbes, Kant argues that the State has obligations to the citizens, but that the citizens are obligated to obey the State even if the State does not adhere to the contract. However, citizens must be free to criticize the State’s departure from the Social Contract. Here again, Kant views the development of Republican forms of government as inevitable and asserts that progress is occurring. Progress, Kant argues must occur due to the love of humanity because if humans are not capable of progress, they are not worthy of love. The appearance of the lack of progress in Kant’s view is not evidence that progress will not occur. In addition, the apparent lack of progress is owed to the general improvement of human expectations. Consequently, the creation of a system of International Law that embodies these principles is predetermined.

In his essay on Perpetual Peace Kant outlines his schema and requirements for the creation of this system. Kant argues, in contrast to Hobbes and Machievelli, that politics must be guided by moral action and that there should be no moral distinction made in the exercise of domestic politics or in international politics. Kant articulates these articles in the form of Preliminary and Definitive Articles. The articles Kant proposes are derived from his general view of morality as duty and his categorical imperative for ethical standards. The articles can be summarized as requiring states to act in a way that will not undermine the international rule of Law, establish Republican government and respect the sovereignty of all peoples. Notably, in his Definitive Article 3 Kant criticizes colonialism as inconsistent with the Universal principle of sovereignty. The system, it should be noted will be based on a confederation, rather than a Union, as the principle of a confederation retains respect for sovereignty.

Though one might doubt that this development is guided by an underlying teleology of unfolding reason, the principles which Kant lays out, if enacted, would clearly represent an advance in international relations. Kant’s argument does to some extent work as a purely ethical argument. Nevertheless, in defining justice Kant begins from the abstract and moves to the concrete as he does with politics and the form of the State. Reason, and its unfolding in history, is consequently separated from actual concrete experience in Kant. Furthermore, in grounding his ethics in abstract reason, Kant cannot address the importance of custom and habit in defining what part of our ethics should be based on duty and what part should be based experience. As with other social contract theorists both the state of nature and the social contract retain a mythological quality. In the Scottish and French Enlightenment a very different approach, one grounded in actual experience took shape.

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