Immanuel Kant is one of the most notable philosophers in history - nevertheless, he, like many other intellectuals, walked on the delicate line of moral fallibility. As with many of his works, his essay Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose has subtly interlaced racism in it. This paper will discuss Immanuel Kant's Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose and his propositions shared in the essay.
Who is Immanuel Kant?
Through inquiries following Rene Descartes' groundbreaking "Meditations," Immanuel Kant set forth to lay out a framework of comprehending reality with a scope that, simultaneously, not many dared to have nor did many conceive prior to his time. Kant’s studies delved into various fields, from epistemology to anthropology. In an anthropological work, Kant interjected his ethical framework in Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals.
The avid reader of Kant would assume he applied the categorical imperative in pragmatic and societal subjects, and at the same time teleological and universal. That Kant’s stern pursuit of the universal would not be influenced by matters such as race – yet, that it was. Intellectuals such as Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Thomas Hill, and Bernard Boxill wrote about the racial prejudice contained in some of Kant’s works, mainly shown in anthropology but also in ethics, all of which are argued to be based on his transcendental philosophy.
One of his works in anthropology is his essay on the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose. The essay contains Kant’s speculations on how the human race will be able to achieve perfection as a whole. Racial prejudice appears here not explicitly. Rather, some connections can be found between the propositions contained therein and the racist remarks he made in other works. The aim is to lay out the consequences of Kant’s transcendental philosophy being infused with his racial proposition. The infusion represented in his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose reveals the goal of showing that there is a potential danger should such infusions be made a key principle to understanding such works.
The Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose
The Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose is grounded on the metaphysical framework with which he explained reality as a whole. He spoke in his Critique of Pure Reason, in response to David Hume’s skepticism, about the difference between noumena, a thing in themselves, and phenomena, things as they appear to human beings, the observer. An example of noumena is something that exists outside the capacity or manipulation of humans. Phenomena is something humans watch and observe as it happens.
One of Kant’s most profound insights was to cultivate reason to perfection. To be able to speak of reality beyond the perceptions spawned by the fallible senses, into what it truly is as dictated by nature. Through this, Kant gave much emphasis on the nature of reality, the laws by which reality operates and which human beings must abide. To best comprehend such laws, and ideas from these laws, there must be a proper principle of understanding them.
What does "cosmpolitan purpose" mean?
Kant classified these principles into constitutive - what reality is - and regulative - what must be based on the constitutive principles. It is with this conviction that Kant wrote the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals slowly building up to his for the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.
In his essay, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant deduced that the most effective means for humanity as a species is to think and act according to the laws ordained by nature. Each species has a teleological purpose, the fulfillment of the purpose leads to the perfection of the species - for human beings, their purpose is reason. And so reason must be cultivated, not in each individual alone but in the entire species.
Thus, a human being attains best results if he inhabits a cosmopolitan society that works both in unity and in competition with itself and other states. Throughout the text, there is no passage that expressly speaks of racial prejudice. Because of this, attention must be given to a particular passage in Kant’s other work, Physical Geography: Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meager talent. The Negros are far below them and at the lowest point are apart of the American peoples.
Thomas Hill and Bernard Boxill argued that this statement indeed speaks of racial hierarchy, but it does not imply that all other races besides the whites are less deserving of dignity. Nevertheless, it is an attempt at racial segregation that implies a sort of superiority, or at the very least some form of premium on the whites. Very clearly, there is a veil of racism that manipulates the wearer into thinking that it is not there.
Kants’s Propositions in Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose
There are a total of nine propositions in Kant’s essay. The first being all of man’s natural capacities can be improved over time, on their own pace. Second, as stated earlier, a man can act on his capacities with their purpose being reason but man has to do it with the entire species, for man cannot advance alone. Alone, a man can only do so much as time is limited so an option is to pass his every learning and advancement he accumulated to a successor.
The third, man should strive for happiness and perfection that he created and on his own terms. Kant found it to be strange that previous generations work so hard for future generations – that only the latest generations could enjoy all the accumulated advancements throughout time. The fourth is man’s paradoxical tendency of wanting to be accepted and be part of the society and man’s strong will to isolate oneself for he wants to do what he wants as he pleases.
The fifth being the greatest problem for man, is how man will achieve a universal civic society which will lead to the development of every capacity that man could achieve. The sixth is how man is in need of a master to rein him in as man certainly abuses his freedom. The seventh proposition is dependent on the solution of the fifth and sixth proposition with the sixth needing to be the first one to be solved.
The eighth is that Nature’s secret plan is to realize the full advancement of man’s capabilities along with man’s unity. Both can be seen distinctively in man’s history. Finally, the ninth proposition is a philosophical attempt to work out a universal history according to a natural plan directed to achieving the civic union of the human race (Kant, 1963) and it must be believed as possible.
If Kant’s proposition for each species to make use of their utmost faculties is to be obstructed by racial difference, this would imply a hierarchy in the teleological end of reason as well. Though the end is the same for all human beings, whites would be the most capable of perfection - morally and intellectually - much more than non-whites are according to Kant’s other works.
This becomes more nuanced in the face of the sixth proposition in the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose: The problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by the human race. The difficulty – which the very idea of the problem clearly presents – is this: if man lives among others of his own species, man is an animal who needs a master.
Kant, in that notion, speaks in the context of freedom: man is believed to be free insofar as his senses and indulgences are uninhibited; a man is truly free when he is subjugated by a master who will set down laws that would restrict his freedom and emphasize on cultivating reason. This master, he extends, should not be an individual but a society - a group.
If this were nuanced by Kant’s noticeable favor towards whites and his low ordering for non-whites, this would strongly imply that Kant would agree to a primary, utmost subjugation from the whites on the non-whites. Non-whites, he might agree, may be mustered under a master from their own kind to great benefit, but the best benefit comes from being under a white master. In the worst case, this becomes a justification for racial slavery.
No philosopher or intellectual has been admitted to an utmost degree of infallibility. Their contributions, at the very least, attempts to make descriptions of reality as a whole or in its parts. As human beings, such endeavors are prone to error – as are Kant’s. He, himself, argued in the Critique of Pure Reason that each individual human being, with his specially structured a priori structures, perceives the world differently. To him, one can say: “Tu quoque” which translates to “you too” and is an appeal to hypocrisy.
From this, consolation can be found when one perceives Kant’s two worldviews as contrasting and unrelated. One is rigorously formulated based on his own thoughts and experiences; the other, based on experiences outside of his own horizon. The societal environment in which Kant resided is teeming with racial prejudice and talks of racial superiority.
Kant is a product of his own time - a remarkable product, but one bound by both the achievements and atrocities of his society. Whether he can be acknowledged accordingly, at the very least should Kant be offered a concession just as Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau should be. In sum, this is a humbling revelation that brings relief: philosophers are no less fallible than the rest of the humans - they are not at all set apart.
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Kant, Immanuel. Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View. Translated by Lewis White Beck. The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm