OAC Press Working Paper 12: Thomas Sturm on Kant's cosmopolitan point of view in history.

This forum post is to advertise an upcoming OAC online seminar by Thomas Sturm:

 

What Did Kant Mean by and Why Did He Adopt

a Cosmopolitan Point of View in History?


The paper can be viewed here (as html or in a downloadable pdf ) and the seminar itself will begin on the 19th of March.

 

Themes:

Currently in Anthropology, cosmopolitanism is a topic whose 'star continues to rise', as one commentator has recently put it. A number of international conferences, including the 2006 ASA meeting at Keele and a range of recent volumes, including a special issue of Social Anthropology in 2010, have highlighted the overlap between aspects of anthropological practice and central ideas in the philosophy of cosmopolitanism. At the OAC we have discussed Kant and cosmopolitanism in anthropological terms from the very inception of this web community; for example here.

Thomas Sturm's article contextualises elements of Kant's pragmatic and cosmopolitan viewpoint on history, placing it within discussions taking place in the late 18th Century. He points to tensions that existed during the enlightenment concerning the possibilities for a cosmopolitan history. Amongst these were central questions for historical inquiry such as: 'what is human nature?' and 'how malleable is it?' 'What constitutes a cause in history?' 'What part do human motives play in historical change?' Figures such as Herder came to the fore at this time to decry an enlightenment tendency to project current values onto the history of other peoples and epochs. Sturm proposes that Kant argued for a cosmopolitan viewpoint that simultaneously accepted human plasticity without relinquishing the claim for a universal human nature.

Our hope for this seminar is that it will create a target for fruitful cross-disciplinary dialogue around the idea of cosmopolitanism, help clarify Kant's role, and provide areas for future debate.

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Thomas Sturm has recently published two articles closely related to the theme of this seminar:

(2008) Why did Kant reject physiological explanations within his pragmatic anthropology? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39, 495-505.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039368108000836

(2011) Freedom and the human sciences: Hume’s science of man versus Kant’s pragmatic anthropology. Kant Yearbook, 3, 23-42.

http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/kantyb.2011.3.issue-1/9783110236545...

(preprint version of this one: http://uab.academia.edu/ThomasSturm/Papers/844478/Freedom_and_the_Human_Sciences_Humes_Science_of_Man_versus_Kants_Pragmatic_Anthropology)

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Well, welcome to those of you who have been waiting for this seminar to begin and to people also who are just dropping in to see what is going on at the OAC. And, of course, welcome to Thomas Sturm who has very kindly offered to experiment with us with this trans-disciplinary discussion. 

Thomas, the job of chair, or whatever the online equivalent is, is to throw out a few questions which will hopefully spark some thoughtful commentary from people who have heard, or in this case read, your paper. Many thanks for giving your time to OAC. I have a long list of things I want to ask eventually and hopefully these are consonant with how the discussion will go. One thing to bear in mind here is that our audience is not only anthropologists, who have their particular concerns and reasons for being interested in cosmopolitan ideas, but also philosophers, who have possibly overlapping but perhaps different reasons and interests.

I don't want to ask something very lengthy nor a number of excessively specialist questions that might put people off expressing their own interests freely. Instead, let me begin with a comparison between the historical moment when Kant became engaged in Cosmopolitan history and our current moment. The question is slightly tangential but hopefully useful.

Back in the 90s, I was given a copy of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995). Now, I don't know whether this fat volume has been revised, but in the copy I have, there is no entry for cosmopolitanism, and when you look at the longish section on Kant, there is no discussion of cosmopolitanism as an aspect of his thought, nor of his anthropology. I find this interesting given the great current upsurge of engagement with both these themes. So, I wonder if you could reflect on why Kant became interested in cosmopolitanism and also speculate a little on why there is this new interest?

The second issue is slightly more specific and it relates to the theme of human plasticity you talk about. Many anthropologists, certainly those coming out of the US cultural anthropology tradition might be  more sympathetic to Herder's cultural relativist viewpoint than to Kant's. Herder gets a small but significant walk on part in your narrative. I wonder if you could say a little more about the relationship between Kant and Herder with regard to cosmopolitan history?

And a reminder that these are merely sparks for debate and please anyone who would like to add a question do so as soon as they like by simply adding a reply below!

Thank you, Thomas Sturm, for an inspired and inspiring paper. Please, let me add another question to Huon's. In your discussion of pragmatic history and Kant's reception of it, you mention a number of criteria that scholars, in one way or another, considered to be crucial for this type of historiography. One of the criteria is that history must be presented in a structured fashion; i.e. it must be given a (meta)narrative structure (this would later become known as structural history). Another criterion, connected to structural historiography, is that one must be able to learn from history ('historia magistra vitae'). This is an ancient topos, as Reinhart Koselleck pointed out on several occasions, which, however, lost in salience with the advent of the 'New Age', i.e. the Enlightenment, of which Kant considered himself a part. Something like the French Revolution, for example, had never happened before, which was one reason why the topos of historia magistra vitae became increasingly problematic. (And we know how important the French events were for Kant.) Kant's idea of a future cosmopolitan order in the shape of a global federal system is similarly unprecedented. The 'historical' reference for this utopian order is what Kant thought of as a communio fundi originaria, an original position, in which the surface of the earth and everything on it are in common possession. So, in what sense did Kantian cosmopolitanism derive from pragmatic historiography or his understanding of it?

Huon's question #1: Correct, Kant's cosmopolitanism has been disregarded a bit, and not only in the Oxford companion. (However, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - which is becoming more and more representative of philosophy today (and online for free!) - has an entry on cosmopolitanism.)

The first glimpses of Kant's cosmopolitanism can be traced back to the 1770s. They have two main sources: his interest in geography (he started to give lectures on this back in the 1750s), and his interest in human conduct (the latter partly motivated by his ethical interests, which started no later than the 1760s). In an announcement of his university lectures of 1775, he speaks of "knowledge of the world" (Weltkenntnis) of two kinds, namely of nature (physical geography) and of man (anthropology). We also know Kant devoured the travel literature of his time, for instance those by James Cook or Bougainville about their voyages into the South Pacific. 

In any case, Kant's talk of "world" is a first element - his cosmopolitanism involves the (obvious) idea that one must know the world (Welt) - but not merely in the sense of having specific empirical knowledge of how humans in all corners of the world behave, what their specific customs are, and so on. Rather, he develops the view that humans are beings who have reason and who therefore - this is his original point - are able to create their own rules of action. Only if one understands this can one be really at home all around the world and become a "citizen of the world" (Weltbürger). This is the core meaning of Kant's cosmopolitanism, but one which is rarely properly grasped because we think of cosmopolitanism in two different senses: (1) simply the unexplained knowing one's way around in, and perhaps belonging to, different cultures - in the paraphrase of a passage in Thomas Jefferson, each man has two countries, his own and France; (2) the further moral and political meanings of the term, associated with being a "citizen of the world" in the more weighty sense of having certain rights (and duties) everywhere by virtue of being human. (Pauline Kleingeld just published a book analyzing these issues and their context in great detail). These are undeniable meanings of cosmopolitanism - but Kant's original recognition was that both of these meanings presuppose the core meaning. It took him some effort to get there. It involved, for instance, understanding how humans could be part of nature and create part of their nature by themselves - a tricky issue up until today.

And why the current philosophical interest in cosmopolitanism? I think it refers more to (2), and it has to do mainly with discussions about the work of the eminent moral philosopher John Rawls. Interpreters of his "A Theory of Justice" (1971) are divided about how far his ethical principles should be realized - with institutions of coercion - on an international level. This has, because of Rawls' partial dependence (and his partial reading) of Kant also led to a renewed interest in Kant's moral and political cosmopolitanism.

There is, then, perhaps a gap in what current (moral) philosophers primarily mean by cosmopolitanism and what anthropologists have in mind. I'd be eager to receive reaction to this issue, including whether the gap can or cannot, should or should not be bridged.

Question #2: For analytical purposes, here we should perhaps first distinguish 2 issues before reconnecting them: (a) Kant and Herder on history; (b) Herder and Kant on cosmopolitanism. As to (a): In two reviews of Herder's philosophy of history, Kant presented a number of criticisms not all of which I mentioned, because they do not all affect (b) - and about (b), the issue is complex. Herder is often criticized as being anti-cosmopolitan, as the guy who is to be blamed for the spreading of nationalism among intellectuals (to say the least) in the 19th century, and so on. But - I don't remember where I read this - the criticism of a caricature is merely a caricature of criticism. Herder wasn't against a cosmopolitanism in general, as Isaiah Berlin has shown nicely. He did place more weight, both descriptively and evaluatively, on the expression of - to put it in hopefully unbiased language - cultural specifics of peoples, but not in the aggressive way later thinkers did.

Having said this, here is the link between (a) and (b): Herder did not grasp what Kant was after with his core meaning of cosmpolitanism. This infects also Herder's inability to understand a central - if not the most important - criticism Kant makes concerning Herder's philosophy of human history: Herder tries to have human (cultural) history grow out of human physical anthropology or biological history, but to grasp the "vocation" (Bestimmung) of humankind we do not need to study skeletons and skulls, and so on. We need to understand the potentials and limits of our rational nature, our ability to make up new rules of conduct.


Huon Wardle said:

Well, welcome to those of you who have been waiting for this seminar to begin and to people also who are just dropping in to see what is going on at the OAC. And, of course, welcome to Thomas Sturm who has very kindly offered to experiment with us with this trans-disciplinary discussion. 

Thomas, the job of chair, or whatever the online equivalent is, is to throw out a few questions which will hopefully spark some thoughtful commentary from people who have heard, or in this case read, your paper. Many thanks for giving your time to OAC. I have a long list of things I want to ask eventually and hopefully these are consonant with how the discussion will go. One thing to bear in mind here is that our audience is not only anthropologists, who have their particular concerns and reasons for being interested in cosmopolitan ideas, but also philosophers, who have possibly overlapping but perhaps different reasons and interests.

I don't want to ask something very lengthy nor a number of excessively specialist questions that might put people off expressing their own interests freely. Instead, let me begin with a comparison between the historical moment when Kant became engaged in Cosmopolitan history and our current moment. The question is slightly tangential but hopefully useful.

Back in the 90s, I was given a copy of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995). Now, I don't know whether this fat volume has been revised, but in the copy I have, there is no entry for cosmopolitanism, and when you look at the longish section on Kant, there is no discussion of cosmopolitanism as an aspect of his thought, nor of his anthropology. I find this interesting given the great current upsurge of engagement with both these themes. So, I wonder if you could reflect on why Kant became interested in cosmopolitanism and also speculate a little on why there is this new interest?

The second issue is slightly more specific and it relates to the theme of human plasticity you talk about. Many anthropologists, certainly those coming out of the US cultural anthropology tradition might be  more sympathetic to Herder's cultural relativist viewpoint than to Kant's. Herder gets a small but significant walk on part in your narrative. I wonder if you could say a little more about the relationship between Kant and Herder with regard to cosmopolitan history?

And a reminder that these are merely sparks for debate and please anyone who would like to add a question do so as soon as they like by simply adding a reply below!

 he develops the view that humans are beings who have reason and who therefore - this is his original point - are able to create their own rules of action. Only if one understands this can one be really at home all around the world and become a "citizen of the world" (Weltbürger).

That is extremely helpful, Thomas, thank you. The idea that people create/construct their own rationales is a point that comes down to us in anthropology via Dilthey, Max Weber and, for example, Clifford Geertz, but the aspect that seems to have been lost en route is that individuals do this and, not just 'cultures', and that individuals do this freely in the sense that they cognise their experience in their own way and act on their own judgments.

So, this in turn links directly to what Kant is trying to do anthropologically which, as I see it, is to explore human experience from the point of view of the human being who, by putting the ideas and schemas they have to use (and these can be highly culturally relative/specific), acts freely. I think this is certainly one of the most valuable areas in which anthropology can think again about Kant and cosmopolitanism and thereby rethink routine assumptions.

Herder wasn't against a cosmopolitanism in general, as Isaiah Berlin has shown nicely. He did place more weight, both descriptively and evaluatively, on the expression of - to put it in hopefully unbiased language - cultural specifics of peoples, but not in the aggressive way later thinkers did... [For Kant] we need to understand the potentials and limits of our rational nature, our ability to make up new rules of conduct.


I am very glad you are guiding us away from some of the caricatures in the treatment of these two. Perhaps more on that later.

Dear Ronald,

thanks for a beautiful question. It helps me to make a few points more explicit than I've done in the seminar paper. One brief remark in advance: This paper is an abbreviated version of especially ch. 6 of my book "Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen" (yes, in German, sorry; an English translation of which is in preparation), where I deal at great length with Kant's views on history - and Koselleck has inspired my views, despite some problems that I see with them.

As to your question of how Kant's cosmopolitanism "derives" from his views about pragmatic anthropology, I would first note an ambiguity in "derive" (sorry, that's just a philosopher's job). You may mean two different things at least: (1) Did the specific content of Kant's core concept of cosmopolitanism derive from his views about pragmatic history? (2) Did Kant think that pragmatic history can be used to derive the idea of a cosmopolitan order of mankind? Answer to (1): To some extent, yes; to (2): No.

As to (1): Kant's basic notion of cosmopolitanism, the core idea that we are citizens of the world in the sense that we create our own rules of conduct, is partly at least rooted in his refined notion of pragmatic history - a notion which he thinks even most historians of his own time who defended a version of pragmatic history did not have. This is a textual or historical point about when and how he developed his core cosmopolitanism. Note that this does not imply moral and/or political cosmopolitanism, which is about what kind of institutions humans should erect to guarantee international peace, human rights, and so on.

As to (2): Indeed, Kant wholeheartedly agrees that there can be novelties in human history. He differs here vividly from David Hume, who said that, "Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular." Kant, in contrast, declared that humanity undergoes great changes - although they sometimes take a thousand years or more. We have to be patient. In one anthropology lecture (of 1775/76), he claimed that the Earth's ecliptic will develop so that across the entire earth we will ultimately have an equality of days and nights, which he said will happen in about 140,000 years (I don't know where he got the numbers from). Humanity may not reach perfection (meaning broadly moral perfection) any faster than that, but it nevertheless can be expected to undergo substantial changes.

However, Kantian cosmopolitanism in the richer, more demanding sense of moral and/or political cosmopolitianism does not derive from any of this, because it's a more strongly normative position. Still, pragmatic history plays an important role here: It permits us to do is to look for facts and developments in human history that give us good grounds to hope that the evolution towards such moral and/or political cosmopolitianism is possible. We need not despair, even in the light of the occasionally apparently all-too-slow development or even cessation of human history. That is why pragmatic history ought, in Kant's view at least, to study the emergence of new and progressive political institutions or revolutionary changes. It does not guarantee that such changes will come, but it can show that and why in the past some have occurred. Note: This is not value-laden history writing in a bad sense: Whatever factual statement and explanations the historian presents must be about actual events in the past.

Last remark: I'm not so sure Kant's proposal for a global federal system was entirely unprecedented. At least, thinkers such as Rousseau or the  Abbe de Saint-Pierre had developed earlier ideas for a league of nations.


Ronald Stade said:

Thank you, Thomas Sturm, for an inspired and inspiring paper. Please, let me add another question to Huon's. In your discussion of pragmatic history and Kant's reception of it, you mention a number of criteria that scholars, in one way or another, considered to be crucial for this type of historiography. One of the criteria is that history must be presented in a structured fashion; i.e. it must be given a (meta)narrative structure (this would later become known as structural history). Another criterion, connected to structural historiography, is that one must be able to learn from history ('historia magistra vitae'). This is an ancient topos, as Reinhart Koselleck pointed out on several occasions, which, however, lost in salience with the advent of the 'New Age', i.e. the Enlightenment, of which Kant considered himself a part. Something like the French Revolution, for example, had never happened before, which was one reason why the topos of historia magistra vitae became increasingly problematic. (And we know how important the French events were for Kant.) Kant's idea of a future cosmopolitan order in the shape of a global federal system is similarly unprecedented. The 'historical' reference for this utopian order is what Kant thought of as a communio fundi originaria, an original position, in which the surface of the earth and everything on it are in common possession. So, in what sense did Kantian cosmopolitanism derive from pragmatic historiography or his understanding of it?

Dear Huon and all others,

I had forgotten so click "reply" to add in a first welcome from my side, so here it comes.

Thanks to Huon, Keith Hart and Justin Shaffner for setting this up. I look forward to our discussions, and hope others will profit as much as I doubtlessly will from this encounter. In the 18th century, not few important thinkers - among them David Hume and Adam Ferguson - practiced philosophy and anthropology as one and the same thing. Kant didn't, of course, and neither do we have to think the disciplinary distinctions that evolved in occasionally tough debates over last centuries could or should be neglected. But Kant also thought it useful to pursue both kinds of inquiry, and a little conversation between the two certainly cannot hurt. For my part, I am highly grateful for this opportunity to learn what the currently growing interest of anthropologists in the topic of cosmopolitanism, and especially their interest in Kant is all about.

Dear Thomas,

Thank you for your reply, which clarifies a number of points. Hidden in my question was the issue of how to connect Kant’s cosmopolitanism to other aspects of his intellectual life. My own inclination is to emphasise that which you mention as one of the sources for his cosmopolitan vision, namely his interest in geography or, more broadly, in natural history. Kant considered the surface of Planet Earth to have been the common possession of all human beings (see, e.g., his Metaphysik der Sitten, § 16: ‘Alle Menschen sind ursprünglich in einem Gesammt=Besitz des Bodens der ganzen Erde (communio fundi originaria)’; (‘The territory of the entire Earth is originally the common possession of all human beings [communio fundi originaria]’). Kant clarifies that this statement should not be misinterpreted as referring to some myth of primeval communism (communio primaeva), which he declares to be an invention that presupposes the existence of an original contract in which everyone agreed to abandon any claim to property.

Each human being, then, has a fundamental right to the surface of the planet (‘das Recht der Oberfläche’). Kant refutes John Locke’s notion that property rights arise from the labour we invest in objects. Kant argues that to take possession of a piece of land (apprehensio), e.g. by cultivating it, does not give a right of ownership, because that would violate the universal right of everyone else by shutting them out from using or occupying the land. Kant, however, concedes that it would be unjust (that is, not be in accordance with general principles of right) to occupy a piece of land already taken by someone else.

So how does Kant solve this dilemma? Reinhardt Brandt explained Kant’s use of the notion of lex permissiva: universal principles of right can be suspended out of practical necessity, e.g. in order to legitimate existing property relations (see Brandt, R. 1982. ‘Das Erlaubnisgesetz, oder: Vernunft und Geschichte in Kants Rechtslehre’, in R. Brandt, ed. Rechtsphilosophie der Aufklärung. Berlin: de Gruyter). Kant’s cosmopolitanism is such a compromise or proviso. Property is not a natural right, it is a social relationship. Nonetheless, existing property relations, e.g. in the shape of an international system, must be acknowledged. There is no way back to a situation in which the territory of the entire Earth is the common possession of all human beings (thought Kant). The future may bring a man-made ius cosmopoliticum, a global federation led by a strong nation that can enforce the will of the majority. But: is this cosmopolitanism?

Thomas, you ask what interest contemporary anthropologists might have in Kant. The plain truth is that Kant’s Anthropology has been almost entirely missing from our professional discourse, including the history of the discipline. Foucault wrote an Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology over 25 years and he has been something of a hero of many anthropologists for several decades, but I have not seen the connection being made. What interest there has been in Kant is linked to his reputation as an arch-cosmopolitan and here, as Huon has suggested, stereotypes rule rather than close attention to what he wrote. It is only in 2006 that Cambridge published a widely accessible version of the Anthropology.

What struck me immediately about your text was that you offer a possible bridge into current anthropological thinking through a focus on pragmatic history. For there is a lot of interest in pragmatism, drawing on James, Peirce, Dewey and more recently Rorty. I thought Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club offered a fascinating window on this distinctively American school. In my own field, the study of money, Bill Maurer has explicitly called for a shift from a focus on cultural meaning to a pragmatic approach and Jane Guyer, in Marginal Gains and elsewhere has a similar line. So I will take this up first.

Here is what I understand and I am open to correction, of course. Kant once summarized “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” as four questions:

What can I know?

What should I do?

What may I hope for?

What is a human being?

The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology. But the first three questions “relate to anthropology”, he said, and might be subsumed under it. Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was thus both an investigation into human nature and, more especially, into how to modify it. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to any interaction involving human agents. It is thus “pragmatic” in a number of senses: it is “everything that pertains to the practical”, popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action.

So of your four criteria for a pragmatic history, three brought no surprises: human action (object), causes (motives of human agents) and practical consequences (lessons). What blew me away was the fourth, universal history. The first set may all be subsumed under “humanism” and many anthropologists would be comfortable with them as ways and reasons for doing ethnography, although the anti-humanists have a strong hearing, especially if they are French. The case that has to be argued forcefully and against the main professional trend is for a link to be re-established with world history, said link having been severed by the ethnographic revolution of the early twentieth century. Chris Hann and I, in Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique, make a case for the necessity of a such a link (with critical philosophy also), but it is an uphill battle.

This leads me to zero in on how a humanist approach claiming to be pragmatic can be reconciled with universal history, given that the idea of such a history would inevitably be very abstract and far removed from what passes between the ears of most human beings. I know some of Kant’s answers to that question, but I wanted first to establish if you are with me all the way up to here. Then we can take up the connection between pragmatic and cosmopolitan history in more detail.

Allow me to intrude a counterpoint to Keith's remarks and ask Thomas what he thinks of the issues raised.

A universal history is, almost by definition, a grand narrative. The wholesale rejection of grand narratives during the postmodern moment of the interpretive turn threw out this baby with the bath water—when the ethnographic imperative of functionalism, to understand in some local context, was inflated from a methodological principle to a metaphysical stance. 

It was and remains possible to do ethnography, with careful attention to local detail, and still see the work as a contribution to a universal history. That history must be conceived, however, as an epic of infinite riches in detail as well as in narrative arcs that tie the local stories together. The one thing it must not be is "very abstract and far removed from what passes between the ears of most human beings."

The one thing anthropology must be is a global project to which local and personal contributions, however small, can contribute. The one thing that will kill it is the search for some "final solution" that is, being purely abstract, inherently vacuous as well as potentially, when turned into ideology, lethal. 

Dear Ronald,

your comments concern a topic I haven't discussed in my own work: What is the relation is between Kant's cosmopolitanism and his moral views about our joint inhabitation and use of the Earth?

There is a connection, but we must be careful not to put the cart in front of the horse. I think I agree with what you say about possession and use of the Earth or parts of it, but let me rephrase just to be sure. Kant claims that there is a cosmopolitan right of all human beings concerning the whole of the Earth - however, not a right of joint possession but  of peaceful interaction or "commercium" (Metaphysics of Morals (MoM) §62; Kant is clearly appealing here the the transcendental category of causal interaction, often termed "commercium" - but he might also be toying with the economic association of this term: every human being has the right to participate in using the Earth for peaceful commerce, economic exchange, and distribution of its surface and the goods extracted from it). In this context he indeed speaks of cosmopolitan right (Weltbürgerrecht).

But while that’s so, this is again a right related to the moral/political – or perhaps one might here add: economic – dimension(s) of his complex cosmopolitanism. The anthropological aspect of this cosmopolitanism, the core concept I have been talking about in the seminar paper, and which I think is dominant in his writings on anthropology and history is about the ability of rational human agents to create rules of conduct – which is primarily if not exclusively necessitated by our complex interaction with other rational agents. This is an anthropological fact about humanity which underlies all of his moral/political cosmopolitanism – not in the sense of justifying the latter.

An additional, hopefully not too pedantic remark: what Kant says in MoM are strictly moral claims, and so by his own lights cannot be viewed as stemming from geography or natural history. In MoM, he speaks of the Earth, but in relation to the question of its legitimate use, not its physical or geographical properties. 

Ronald Stade said:

Dear Thomas,

Thank you for your reply, which clarifies a number of points. Hidden in my question was the issue of how to connect Kant’s cosmopolitanism to other aspects of his intellectual life. My own inclination is to emphasise that which you mention as one of the sources for his cosmopolitan vision, namely his interest in geography or, more broadly, in natural history. Kant considered the surface of Planet Earth to have been the common possession of all human beings (see, e.g., his Metaphysik der Sitten, § 16: ‘Alle Menschen sind ursprünglich in einem Gesammt=Besitz des Bodens der ganzen Erde (communio fundi originaria)’; (‘The territory of the entire Earth is originally the common possession of all human beings [communio fundi originaria]’). Kant clarifies that this statement should not be misinterpreted as referring to some myth of primeval communism (communio primaeva), which he declares to be an invention that presupposes the existence of an original contract in which everyone agreed to abandon any claim to property.

Each human being, then, has a fundamental right to the surface of the planet (‘das Recht der Oberfläche’). Kant refutes John Locke’s notion that property rights arise from the labour we invest in objects. Kant argues that to take possession of a piece of land (apprehensio), e.g. by cultivating it, does not give a right of ownership, because that would violate the universal right of everyone else by shutting them out from using or occupying the land. Kant, however, concedes that it would be unjust (that is, not be in accordance with general principles of right) to occupy a piece of land already taken by someone else.

So how does Kant solve this dilemma? Reinhardt Brandt explained Kant’s use of the notion of lex permissiva: universal principles of right can be suspended out of practical necessity, e.g. in order to legitimate existing property relations (see Brandt, R. 1982. ‘Das Erlaubnisgesetz, oder: Vernunft und Geschichte in Kants Rechtslehre’, in R. Brandt, ed. Rechtsphilosophie der Aufklärung. Berlin: de Gruyter). Kant’s cosmopolitanism is such a compromise or proviso. Property is not a natural right, it is a social relationship. Nonetheless, existing property relations, e.g. in the shape of an international system, must be acknowledged. There is no way back to a situation in which the territory of the entire Earth is the common possession of all human beings (thought Kant). The future may bring a man-made ius cosmopoliticum, a global federation led by a strong nation that can enforce the will of the majority. But: is this cosmopolitanism?

Dear Keith,

I too found but few references to Kant's anthropology by anthropologists. There was a paper in 1985 by a Raul Pertierra, then a 1994 paper by S. Levinson & P. Brown, and perhaps a few more - before you and Huon really went into it. Foucault can be ignored here; the text is out of date with respect to the state of the art in Kant scholarship, and I don't see it has any other significance. It's more interesting from the point of view of Foucault scholarship. 

There were two English translations of Kant's Anthropology, however, and I would especially recommend to anyone interested in Kant's anthropology the still pretty excellent introduction by the eminent Kant scholar Mary J. Gregor to her translation:

I. Kant (1974): Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Transl. with an introduction by M. J. Gregor. The Hague.

Now as to whether I am with you on the points of content you make. I am in many respects, but not in the following ones:

1. As to the four questions, I have my reservations - because this is a passage from a logic lecture that is not frequently repeated in Kant's major writings (in the first Critique, there is no reference to the fourth question!). The passage has misled interpreters to think Kant's anthropology is philosophical - more specifically, that it's the foundation of all of his philosophy, which it surely isn't (I argue why in a lengthy footnote in ch. 7 of my book).

2.That Kant calls his anthropology "pragmatic" is meant to leave genuinely moral tasks out of it. True, many interpreters (such as Robert Louden, Werner Stark or Allen Wood) think otherwise - they view it more or less as the intended counterpart to his ethics - the "moral anthropology" of which he speaks in his late Metaphysics of Morals (1797; Academy edition vol. VI p. 217). I, however, argue (ch. 8 of the book - sorry to be mentioning my book repeatedly in these discussions, but if I didn't my replies would get far too long!). In a nutshell, Kant wishes to develop anthropology from his very first lecture on (in 1772/73) into an autonomous discipline. That's serious. It's his own distinctive version of an empirical science of human thinking, felling, desire, and action - rooted in psychology but spreading out to topics nowadays covered by several social sciences. It has its own systematic structure, rationale, methods, and goals - and if it should serve moral tasks, it should do so on a basis developed independently from those latter tasks. Admittedly, some moral examples and ideas enter the anthropology, but mostly because human beings are also that, moral agents, and so the Kantian anthropologist can't ignore that. - My claim that there are moral as well as non-moral dimensions to Kant's cosmopolitanism is one of the grounds of the possibility for drawing the fine but clear line to ethics and "moral anthropology".

3. I'm unsure about the humanism/antihumanism divide in anthropology today, so I can't help here. I need more explanation what this has to do with the issue of the relation between "pragmatic" and "cosmopolitan" in Kant.


Keith Hart said:

Thomas, you ask what interest contemporary anthropologists might have in Kant. The plain truth is that Kant’s Anthropology has been almost entirely missing from our professional discourse, including the history of the discipline. Foucault wrote an Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology over 25 years and he has been something of a hero of many anthropologists for several decades, but I have not seen the connection being made. What interest there has been in Kant is linked to his reputation as an arch-cosmopolitan and here, as Huon has suggested, stereotypes rule rather than close attention to what he wrote. It is only in 2006 that Cambridge published a widely accessible version of the Anthropology.

What struck me immediately about your text was that you offer a possible bridge into current anthropological thinking through a focus on pragmatic history. For there is a lot of interest in pragmatism, drawing on James, Peirce, Dewey and more recently Rorty. I thought Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club offered a fascinating window on this distinctively American school. In my own field, the study of money, Bill Maurer has explicitly called for a shift from a focus on cultural meaning to a pragmatic approach and Jane Guyer, in Marginal Gains and elsewhere has a similar line. So I will take this up first.

Here is what I understand and I am open to correction, of course. Kant once summarized “philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word” as four questions:

What can I know?

What should I do?

What may I hope for?

What is a human being?

The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology. But the first three questions “relate to anthropology”, he said, and might be subsumed under it. Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was thus both an investigation into human nature and, more especially, into how to modify it. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to any interaction involving human agents. It is thus “pragmatic” in a number of senses: it is “everything that pertains to the practical”, popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action.

So of your four criteria for a pragmatic history, three brought no surprises: human action (object), causes (motives of human agents) and practical consequences (lessons). What blew me away was the fourth, universal history. The first set may all be subsumed under “humanism” and many anthropologists would be comfortable with them as ways and reasons for doing ethnography, although the anti-humanists have a strong hearing, especially if they are French. The case that has to be argued forcefully and against the main professional trend is for a link to be re-established with world history, said link having been severed by the ethnographic revolution of the early twentieth century. Chris Hann and I, in Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique, make a case for the necessity of a such a link (with critical philosophy also), but it is an uphill battle.

This leads me to zero in on how a humanist approach claiming to be pragmatic can be reconciled with universal history, given that the idea of such a history would inevitably be very abstract and far removed from what passes between the ears of most human beings. I know some of Kant’s answers to that question, but I wanted first to establish if you are with me all the way up to here. Then we can take up the connection between pragmatic and cosmopolitan history in more detail.

Dear John,

Kant would certainly never have taken seriously postmodernism. Plus, he indeed said himself that while his anthropology - his philosophy of history is but a part of it - is "general" (about humanity as a whole, that is), it requires input from "local" knowledge about human beings - by which he meant specific psychological inquiries, special histories and travel literature. The function of such local knowledge of human beings, their thoughts, feelings, desires, actions, and modes of conduct is evidential: it is test material for general claims about humanity. At the same time, this mode of research has its limits, because humans, depending on local traditions, individual intentions, and other factors, create a "second nature" which the anthropologist must try to look through. These points are made repeatedly in the introductions to the anthropology lectures (German version: vol. XXV of the Academy edition; an English translation by Robert Louden & Allen Wood is in preparation for CUP) as well as in the published Anthropology of 1798. 

So Kant largely agrees with you. The real difficulty is this: I doubt we can simply put to use all of his "general" views about humanity. What general picture, then, could it be that all specific works in current anthropology/ethnography contribute to? It's not the current practitioners who are to be blamed for this. A very similar problem obtains in, say, history of science: We have countless specific histories of past science, but we don't know what we should say more generally about the development - shall I say: progress? - of science. Even some philosophers who have no sympathy for postmodernism at all think that there are strong reasons to doubt that a "general anthropology" could be reconstructed. Here's a crisp article in this direction by the analytic philosopher Rüdiger Bittner:

Bittner, R. (2004): „Anthropologie – das Projekt und seine Aussichten.“ Wahrnehmen und Handeln: Perspektiven einer Literaturanthropologie. Hg. von W. Braungart, K. Ridder & F. Apel. Bielefeld, 329-336.

John McCreery said:

Allow me to intrude a counterpoint to Keith's remarks and ask Thomas what he thinks of the issues raised.

A universal history is, almost by definition, a grand narrative. The wholesale rejection of grand narratives during the postmodern moment of the interpretive turn threw out this baby with the bath water—when the ethnographic imperative of functionalism, to understand in some local context, was inflated from a methodological principle to a metaphysical stance. 

It was and remains possible to do ethnography, with careful attention to local detail, and still see the work as a contribution to a universal history. That history must be conceived, however, as an epic of infinite riches in detail as well as in narrative arcs that tie the local stories together. The one thing it must not be is "very abstract and far removed from what passes between the ears of most human beings."

The one thing anthropology must be is a global project to which local and personal contributions, however small, can contribute. The one thing that will kill it is the search for some "final solution" that is, being purely abstract, inherently vacuous as well as potentially, when turned into ideology, lethal. 

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