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.



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.


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.


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


(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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See the attached contribution

Allen Wood


Dear Thomas,

Here is another philosopher chiming in.  I very much liked your paper and the fact that you put Kant's position in the context of historiographies of the day.  I see you wanting to link pragmatic history to cosmopolitanism.  I concur with Allen Wood that there are those four sense of pragmatic in the Anthropology but there might be another meaning of pragmatic for the discipline of history.  I want to reread your paper again and will do it later tonight but I wanted to comment on what you said:  "namely, an appropriate understanding of human nature, which he developed more fully in his lectures on pragmatic anthropology."  Am I right that you are saying that Kant's position is that we make our own nature because we develop the rules that guide our actions?  

  I am sorry I have not read your book yet, but I just learned of it and am eager to buy it but noticed that it is $100!  Will have to save up for it.  

I wonder if you have read my book, Kant's Pragmatic Anthropology, and if so, what you think about my position that Kant does have a theory of human nature in his Four natural predispositions.  He gives us three of them in the Anthropology and the fourth one in the Religion.  They are the predisposition to animality, the technical predisposition, the pragmatic predisposition, and the moral predisposition.  The three later ones are guided by reason.  Each predisposition is understood teleologically has having ends that are achieved by means.  The predisposition to animality has the ends of self-preservation, propagation of the species, and freedom.  the technical predisposition has the end of developing skills toward arbitrary ends (so all the arts and sciences fall under this predisposition).  The pragmatic predisposition has the ends of human happiness (an essential end) at the individual level and civilization at the species level.  The moral predisposition has the end of the development of character at the individual level and the moralization of the species at the species level.  Although Kant does not say it, he must be understood to mean that these predispositions are invariant across cultures and therefore of relevance to anthropology.  What would interest me is how if at all you would view this account with your understanding of cosmopolitanism.  Is cosmopolitanism merely a matter of political things, or is it also a matter of civilization?  Also, do you think that what Kant calls cosmopolitanism in his works on history is related to Anthropology as a Weltkenntnis?  Do you think that the citizen of the world that Kant talks about in regard to his physical geography and anthropology lectures is related to the cosmopolitanism of his works on history?  Finally, how is cosmopolitanism related to the highest good?  I am sorry if this is too much for this dialogue but they are the questions that occurred to me as I was reading your paper.

Many thanks, Allen, for the very rich explication of Kant and Herder. I found your points concerning Kant on prediction and cause in human affairs very useful. I hope Thomas will respond to those. I just want to re-post here the quote from Kant that you highlight:

“We desire…a predictive history; [but it cannot be] based on known laws (like eclipses of the sun and moon)…Viewed from the earth, the planets sometimes move backwards, sometimes forward, and sometimes not at all. But if the standpoint selected is the sun, an act which reason can perform, according to the Copernican hypothesis they move constantly in their regular course… But, and this is precisely the misfortune, we are not capable of placing ourselves in this position when it is a question of the prediction of free actions… For we are dealing with beings that act freely, to whom, it is true, what they ought to do may be dictated in advance, but of whom it may not be predicted what they will do… These actions, of course, the human being can see, but not foresee with certitude” (Conflict of the Faculties 7:79, 83-84).

I found your comments on Herder again very helpful, especially since my comment on his 'cultural relativist viewpoint' seems to have sparked some of the extremely interesting discussion in your post. You are quite right to say that the phrase is anachronistic, but of course I am reading backwards through the history of anthropology (especially US cultural anthropology since that strand is the one which was more interested in Herder). I should say that your basic description of Herder's position fits pretty well with what most anthropologists think of as a 'relativist' view -

"There is for him only one objectively correct understanding of any age – namely, the one suited uniquely to that age itself, the necessity of its relation to its geographical and historical conditions, and the necessary connection of its own way of thinking and acting. Any other understanding of it, such as one drawn from the standards and prejudices of a different age, is objectively false."

This view has now become repopularised via debates on ontology (sadly, I doubt most anthropologists even read Herskovits these days...)

Many thanks again.

Holly, Many thanks to you also for this on natural predispositions in the make up of human nature. The last questions are very intriguing; I look forward to the response.

Thanks all for your patience; I was busy with a deadline.

Let me concentrate in a first (probably even then incomplete) response on those of Allen’s and Holly’s which concern the current anthropologist’s interest in cosmopolitanism, and leave Kant scholarship more narrowly defined for email discussions between us three. OK? (If someone else thinks I should say more about one or another of their points, feel free to ask me again.)

1. Pragmatic: My main interest was to show in the article (and more extensively with chapter and verse in the book) that Kant’s characterization of his anthropology as “pragmatic” is not to characterize the status of the discipline as somehow “popular”, unable to become scientific, or excluding completely “scholarly knowledge” (Schulkenntnis).  Quite the contrary.

2. Kant’s own most central meaning of “pragmatic” as a characterization of disciplines – and here he goes further than the historians – is to explain it by reference to the ideas of his cosmopolitanism. 

(a) That doesn’t exclude Allen’s first meaning (pragmatic vs. physiological), but that’s another story (I’m telling a short version of that in one of the other papers suggested as additional reading).

(b) It excludes, however, Allen’s idea that pragmatic knowledge, in Kant’s own preferred “proper meaning of the word” instructs humans how to realize their individual happiness, especially by using other people. When Kant speaks like that, I think he is more referring to widespread understandings which he himself does, at the end of the day, not share. The reasons for this are complex and include his skepticism about the notion happiness, but also – as I tried to show in the paper – reflect his views about the (limited) plasticity or historicity of human nature.

3. Human nature: Holly, I agree that Kant assumes that some aspects of human nature aren’t plastic or historical. Not only, but also the dispositions (towards various kinds of practice). In this, I think my reading is less historicist than Allen’s. – As to your complex questions about cosmopolitanism, perhaps just this: I want to amend Kleingeld’s very fine analyses, which distinguish between various kinds of cosmopolitanism in Kant (moral, political, legal, economic…) by adding a distinctively anthropological notion, which I think is even basic to all other notions. I have called this in our discussions  - though not in the paper, which I realize I should have – “anthropological cosmopolitanism”. Its content is explained by the Kantian (empirical!) claim that we are all producers of part of our modes of conduct, a claim which is rooted in the steps (1)-(6) outlined in section 5(I) of the essay.

4. Freedom: I agree with most of Allen’s points – the rest I can tell him in an email, just like some other points he and Holly raise.

Holly L Wilson said:

Also, do you think that what Kant calls cosmopolitanism in his works on history is related to Anthropology as a Weltkenntnis?


Do you think that the citizen of the world that Kant talks about in regard to his physical geography and anthropology lectures is related to the cosmopolitanism of his works on history?  

YES for history, not for physical geography. There are two kinds of Weltkenntnis for Kant, see Ak. ed. vol. VII, p. 120: theoretical Weltkenntnis versus genuinely pragmatic Weltkenntnis.

Finally, how is cosmopolitanism related to the highest good?  

Complex question... But surely the theory of the highest good isn't very closely related to anthropological cosmopolitanism (see my general response of today).

Dear Thomas,

Kant speaks of using other people for one's own purposes all the time in his lectures on Anthropology and I find nothing there to indicate he doesn't agree with the opinion.  I think there are many places where he clearly speaks of pragmatic in this regard.  In fact the pragmatic predisposition is for the development of prudence and Kant explicitly speaks of it as having the end of human happiness and key to that is learning how to use other people for one's own purposes.  in fact in the text of 1798 he speaks of knowing people well enough to use them.  I don't think by use, Kant means "without their consent" - because the examples he gives, for instance, of the proud man, is that we honor the proud man in order to use him, and that is giving him what he wants, so he is consenting to our use.  I think "use" simply means "gaining their cooperation" in our ends.  If Kant meant something nefarious by that he would not have distinguished it from the "cunning" person who uses us without our consent by deceiving us.

Just some thoughts.

I think the Anlagen (Predispositions) are invariant and fixed and not historical at all but characterize the human being in its very nature.

Dear Holly,

I fear to lose the current anthropologists in our conversations by answering your points here. We should think of ways to address their needs, at least sometimes... But if you would like to have some clues about Kant's views about what "pragmatic" ought to truly mean in contexts of history and anthropology, here are some (and I hope they look interesting for current anthropologists too):

1. the repeated criticism of pragmatic historians: " … since the authors of many history books have little knowledge of human nature, they have no idea of pragmatic history and much less of how to write it." (Ak. ed. XXV: p. 1212; cf. p. 857f.) - That is, the historians lack a certain kind of knowledge of human nature and so have an improper understanding of "pragmatic". So what do they lack exactly?

2. Groundwork (Ak. ed. IV: p. 416 footnote):  the "proper meaning of the word pragmatic" - how the word should really be understood, as opposed to problematic meanings, which may or may not be widespread -: "Pragmatically written is a history if it makes prudent, that is if it instructs the world how to reach its advantage better, or at least as well as its preceding world". And "pragmatic sanctions" teach "general welfare", not individual happiness or how to use other persons for one's individual goals. The interpreter must again ask what could be on Kant's mind more positively, given that he so strongly emphasizes that he gives "the proper meaning"(!) of a term here. My reading is that he speaks about the neglect of many to see that human beings are often real players in social exchange, that is, invent their own rules to deal with conflicts. (Again, I have a lengthy and detailed account of the complex social psychology behind this claim, which I could only hint at in the seminar paper by the six claims in section 5(I).)

3. Remember what Kant says is the "sum-total" of "pragmatic anthropology": to actively develop one's own humanity (Ak. ed. VII: 324f.) and, more basically, one's own character (Ak. ed. VII: p. 329). Not to learn how to become happy or to use others.

I think therefore that, while you are perfectly right about about the example of the honorable man, we need to state Kant's notion of "pragmatic" much more positively, and that the allusions to happiness and using others are too easily misleading about what his real intentions were.

Dear Thomas,

Don't worry. You have not lost us. But I would remind you that there have been as many philosophers as anthropologists active in this discussion. Moreover, Allen's and Holly's interventions served as a salutary reminder that Kant scholarship is not a field people play around with casually. I was deeply impressed by Allen's contribution and went to a couple of his papers as a result. But if the spirit of a seminar was contravened, it was by his dumping the equivalent of a paper on us, not by Holly's shorter and more dialogical interrogations. Unfortunately this coincided with your temporary absence, so some momentum was lost. But we had already reached the point of agreeing that a workshop would be necessary to take forward the issues we have raised effectively; and your distraction was in fact to write a research proposal involving collaboration with some of the participants in this discussion. From my point of view this has been one of the most lively and productive sessions we have hosted here, one moreover that has concretely advanced interdisciplinary exchange beyond its own limits. It is up to Huon as moderator, but we will keep this thread open and hope that someone else will decide to intervene. Speaking for myself, I feel that my attempt to sketch elements of the anthropological terrain never matched your precision and that, rather than pick up on some of my points for active discussion, you usually chose to ask for further clarification. In that sense perhaps we were talking past each other. But that is a quibble. This has been a very intense and fruitful exchange, mostly thanks to you.

Well, this is the final day allotted to the seminar. I agree with Keith that it may well be just as useful for us to see philosophers disagreeing over, or debating, the fine detail of what Kant intended as to press ahead with agreeing about what his ideas means for latterday anthropologists. Either way, for better or worse, an online seminar of this kind won't ever achieve the kind of coherence a seminar in a university department would and so we should look to what it does differently.

On these last few exchanges. It has been noted that Kant's Anthropology looks at first sight closer to a work of social psychology than to what anthropologists now usually engage in. In the same vein as any kind of social science today, some of the ideas there could be deployed to 'use' or manipulate other people in that sense of the word. At the same time there remains the notion of cosmopolitanism as a regulative idea that would change the scope of how anthropological knowledge was or should be understood and put to 'use' (i.e. the harm done if an individual or a small in-group uses other people is vitiated if the scope changes to individuals using their knowledge with the idea of world community in mind)

I think Holly's point is valuable, though, since we can clearly see that much social science is pragmatic or prudent in the sense she is indicating and/or in the negative sense of using people as a means (social Darwinist rhetoric etc.). So, the debate isn't esoteric - it has to do with the ethics of what is now called social science, and anthropology specifically. For example, in Britain these questions are highly relevant to what is called the 'impact' agenda - what is the research going to be used for and how will people be used in the process.

we are all producers of part of our modes of conduct

I have called this in our discussions  - though not in the paper, which I realize I should have – “anthropological cosmopolitanism”. Its content is explained by the Kantian (empirical!) claim that we are all producers of part of our modes of conduct, a claim which is rooted in the steps (1)-(6) outlined in section 5(I) of the essay.

This is certainly, as Keith said, one of the ideas I will be taking away from this seminar. Probably too late to develop this line of discussion, but is this just an empirical claim - isn't this directly related also to how human beings produce knowledge synthetically according to Kant?

I must say I have enjoyed the seminar very much - the back and forth flow of the exchanges made all the better thanks to Thomas' precise responses.    

One lesson I've learned is that the philosophical stereotypes we might all too easily reach for - Kant as the stern universalist versus Herder the amiable relativist - clearly won't do. Although, for the same reasons, it seems to me that

anthropological positions can be equally nuanced and complicated. Allen Wood's description of Geertz, for example, as a 'cultural relativist' - is in need of some qualification, I think.

Speaking as an anthropologist, I must say I still find Herder more interesting than Kant if only because he seems to have given much more thought to problems of language. Kant, by contrast, appears to have had little interest in linguistic issues. But so much hard anthropological work often begins and ends with problems of translation, a problem that is both empirical - faced everyday in fieldwork, even if it's conducted in one's own country - as well as theoretical.

But having said that, I can see that the wider context - one that encompasses us all, anthropologists and philosophers both - is this problem of how we might understand each other. It is fitting, I think, that the passage of Kant which Allen Wood quoted to this effect, reached for a cosmological metaphor. It is the Copernican problem of where we place ourselves in trying to make sense of the often elliptical orbits of human action.     


True, perhaps something along the lines "forgive us our stereotypes as we forgive those who stereotype against us"

Dear Thomas,

To bring the Anthropologists into it I have to say that I have been fascinated by their dialogue and the points they have raised.  And it would very much interested me to know what you all think about this issue:  Would a theory of a fixed human nature be more conducive to anthropological research or rather a theory of a malleable human nature?  Would for instance it make a difference to research in anthropology is Anthropologists accepted Kant's theory of human nature as the Four Natural Predispositions:  animal, technical, pragmatic, and moral?  Would such a theory be helpful in discovering new truths about other cultures for instance?  Would it be conducive to discovering new truths about human beings?



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