Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

14. The final decade of Kant’s public and private career

German intellectuals were drawn to political issues after the French revolution in 1789, and Kant was no exception. Key elements of his political philosophy were presented in essays such as ‘Theory and Practice’ (1793) and Perpetual Peace (1795) before its formal exposition in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797). As was argued above (§10), the foundation of Kantian liberalism is the idea that coercion is justifiable only to prevent hindrances to freedom, and thus to protect personal freedom and regulate property, every claim to which represents a potential constraint of the freedom of others unless they can reasonably agree to that claim as part of a system of property rights; but individual beliefs and conceptions of the good, whether religious or philosophical, do not directly interfere with the freedom of others and are therefore not a proper object of political regulation. Kant’s development of this basic principle into a political philosophy, however, is complex and controversial.

On the one hand, Kant argued from this premise to a firm rejection of any paternalistic government, even benevolent paternalism. Government exists for the protection of the freedom individuals have to determine and pursue their own ends to the extent compatible with the like freedom of others; so a ‘paternalistic government, where the subjects, as minors, cannot decide what is truly beneficial or detrimental to them, but are obliged to wait passively for the head of state to judge how they ought to be happy…would be the greatest conceivable despotism’ (8: 290–1). Further, Kant held that the sovereignty of any government derives solely from the possibility of those who are governed rationally consenting to it, and thus that it is a necessary test of the legitimacy of all laws ‘that they can have arisen from the united will of an entire people’ (8: 297). These constraints could best be met in a republic, without a hereditary monarchy or aristocracy pitting proprietary privilege against public right. Finally, Kant argued in Perpetual Peace, only in a world federation of republics, where no proprietary rulers could identify the forcible extension of their domains with the aggrandizement of their personal property, could a cessation of warfare ever be expected.

On the other hand, Kant accompanied these liberal doctrines with a denial of any right to violent revolution, which has seemed surprising to many. But Kant’s thought here is complex. Underlying his position as a whole is his view that in any situation in which different persons are bound to come into contact with each other we have not merely a moral right but a moral obligation to found or uphold a state. But one could easily argue that a tyranny is a state in name only, and that our moral obligation with regard to a tyranny is precisely to replace it at any cost with a legitimate state. Kant offers several reasons why this is not so. One claim is that violent revolution does not leave time for genuine reform in principles (8: 36), and another argument is that people revolt for the sake of greater happiness, which is an illegitimate reason for the overthrow of a state (8: 298). But these are empirical claims, and do not prove that people cannot revolt solely to remove illegitimate constraints to their freedom. Another argument Kant makes is that a constitution granting a legal right to rebel against the highest authority it creates would thereby not create a single highest authority after all, and would thus be self-contradictory (6: 319). This has seemed to many to be a sophism; but it may have been Kant’s attempt to get his liberalism past the Prussian censorship, denying a legal right to rebel without ever explicitly denying a moral right to rebel.

Kant had been battling censorship even before the death of Frederick the Great in 1786. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1785), he argued that while persons in an official capacity have to obey orders (in what he confusingly calls the ‘private use of reason’), no official, not a professor or even a military officer, has to surrender his right to address his views to ‘the entire reading public’ (the ‘public use of reason’) (8: 37). But Kant’s attack on the necessity of an established church in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), even though legally published with the imprimatur of a non-Prussian university (Jena), outraged the conservative Frederick William II and his minister Wöllner, and Kant was threatened with punishment if he published further on religion. With an oath of loyalty to his sovereign, Kant promised to desist, but after the death of this king in 1797 he regarded himself as freed from this promise, and the next year issued his most spirited defence of intellectual freedom yet, The Conflict of the Faculties. Here Kant argued that while the theological faculty might have the obligation to advance certain dogmas approved by the state, it was nothing less than the official function of the philosophical faculty to subject all views to rational scrutiny; and in any case, a government genuinely concerned with its people’s welfare would not want them to base their morality on fear or dogma but only on the free exercise of their own reason. The new government had no stomach for further suppression of the aged philosopher, and Kant was able to publish this defence of intellectual freedom without incident.

Privately, Kant’s last years were devoted to the project of closing the gap between the metaphysical foundations of natural science and actual physics, begun about 1796. He never published the work, leaving behind only the notes later published as the Opus postumum. Here Kant tried to show that by using the categorial framework and the concept of force we can derive not only the most general laws of mechanics, as he had argued in 1786, but a much more detailed categorization of the forms of matter and its forces. Kant also argued that an imperceptible, self-moving ether or ‘caloric’ is a condition of the possibility of experience. In the latest stages of this work, however, Kant returned to the broadest themes of his philosophy, and tried to develop a final statement of transcendental idealism. Here he argued that ‘The highest standpoint of transcendental philosophy is that which unites God and the world synthetically, under one principle’ (21: 23) - where that principle is nothing other than human autonomy itself. God and the world are ‘not substances outside my thought, but rather the thought through which we ourselves make these objects’ (21: 21): the world is our experience organized by categories and laws of our own making, and God is the representation of our own capacity to give ourselves the moral law through reason. The moral law ‘emerges from freedom…which the subject prescribes to himself, and yet as if another and higher person had made it a rule for him. The subject feels himself necessitated through his own reason…’ (22: 129). This is a fitting conclusion to Kant’s philosophy of autonomy.

Citing this article:
Guyer, Paul. The final decade of Kant’s public and private career. Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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