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Kant's "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View"

Last week we considered how, whatever it exactly is, we should see justice as good and preferable to mere power. This week we seek to apply that ideal to the arena of historical human action. 

A typical “pragmatic history” provides causal explanations for historical events and attempts to draw practical lessons. This activity, however, risks all sorts of problematic assumptions about which events are important. How can we assign value to events across the historical nexus without undue reliance on prefigured notions of the human good?

This is the theme of Immanuel Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”

Kant agrees that understanding and drawing lessons from history is possible only against some system of "universal history" as a whole. What the pragmatic historian needs, however, is a guiding cosmopolitan "idea" - the human being as  “citizen of the world”. Only then is a true pragmatic history possible; one that "makes prudent, that is instructs the world how to reach its advantage better” as opposed to using other human beings simply for our personal gain.


The short essay is posted here


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  • Terry

    If human progress is rough as it is, then the purpose of philosophy might be just to keep rational dialogue going, and history might be that about the past. It's a good thing that nature preserves reason, if I read that right in his essay.

    2 · September 22, 2014

  • Derwin

    I love it when Kant ponders alien life forms.

    September 20, 2014

    • Brian

      Welcome to the space age! !!

      September 20, 2014

  • Brian

    TRIBUTE TO CEPHALUS!!! "And Roussaeu was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained"

    September 20, 2014

    • Derwin

      "This, indeed, is the genuine cause of all these differences: the Savage lives within himself; sociable man, always outside himself, is capable of living only in the opinion of others and, so to speak, derives the sentiment of his own existence solely from their judgment. It is not part of my subject to show how such a disposition engenders so much indifference to good and evil together with such fine discourses on morality; how everything being reduced to appearances, everything becomes factitious and play-acting: honor, friendship, virtue, and often even vices in which one at length discovers the secret of glorying; how, in a word, forever asking of others what we are, without ever daring to ask it of ourselves, in the midst of so much Philosophy, humanity, politeness, and Sublime maxims, we have nothing more than a deceiving and frivolous exterior, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness" - Rousseau, Second Discourse

      1 · September 20, 2014

  • Poe

    By posting Kant via Marxists.org, are you subtly proclaiming your affiliation, Brian? (I'm kidding.)

    1 · August 15, 2014

    • Poe

      We are animals given the ability to reason, our ability to reason gives us the ability to act justly and, in turn, we grant our being freedom. We are able to express those actions fully when we’re not hindered by external forces (the state & beyond). We can look at it as a guide where our history and nature unravels into universality. The unsocial sociability as a part of our “nature” is not a negative hiderance, It’s something we use as a means of self-improvement in ways.

      1 · September 18, 2014

    • Derwin

      and I think each one of these ideas should be seen through the problem of hope. They're how we have to "take" or "assume" the world to be if we are to to pursue the highest good, and to act without self-contradiction, even. But we can't strictly *know* any of these things, such as "nature's aims" (so this isn't theoretical philosophy, or even "history" history), nor is he deducing or proving any ethical principles here (the work of moral philosophy). This is like -- practical theology? (cause somewhere he says the subfield of philosophy that addresses the problem of hope is "theology")

      1 · September 20, 2014

  • Imran M.

    I'm sad to miss this. I've been reading a late historian of religion named Mircea Eliade whose attitudes resonate with this essay. Here is a quote from him: "It would be frightening to think that in all the cosmos, which is so harmonious, so complete and equal to itself, that only human life is happening randomly, that only one's destiny lacks meaning."

    2 · September 20, 2014

  • Brian

    "Whatever concept one may hold, from a metaphysical point of view, concerning the freedom of the will, certainly its appearances, which are human actions, like every other natural event are determined by universal laws. However obscure their causes, history, which is concerned with narrating these appearances, permits us to hope that if we attend to the play of freedom of the human will in the large, we may be able to discern a regular movement in it, and that what seems complex and chaotic in the single individual may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steady and progressive though slow evolution of its original endowment."

    2 · September 14, 2014

    • Derwin

      I love Kant.

      September 14, 2014

  • Derwin

    I'd also be interested in looking at Kant's "Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View" together one of these days. You know, Kant spent many years (decades?) lecturing on anthropology, and he was known to be an avid reader of travelogues even though he famously never traveled anywhere himself.

    1 · August 15, 2014

    • Derwin

      FUN fact: Foucault wrote his dissertation on Kant's Anthropology.

      2 · August 15, 2014

    • Derwin

      fun update: Kant indeed lectured on anthropology for decades - from 1772 to 1796.

      1 · August 15, 2014

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    August 15, 2014

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