15 November 2009

Manfred Kuehn on Kant's Cosmopolitanism

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Kant's ideas about cosmopolitanism are still hotly debated today. They are dismissed by some as a "Eurocentric illusion," and praised by others as the answer to the problem of humanity's survival. Whether they are the one or the other will be for (still) future generations to discover. Nevertheless, they make clear that Kant considered himself first and foremost not a Prussian but a citizen of the world. He was glad to be alive while momentous changes were taking place in the history of mankind, and he saw himself as rising to the challenge, addressing the important issues resulting from the changes, and trying to nurture what was good in them. However insignificant some of the occasions for these essays were, Kant succeeded in transcending them and in saying something of lasting importance.

Kant's cosmopolitan ideas were meant to form part of a civil religion similar to the kind that James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the other framers of the American Constitution envisaged. His transcendental idealism, at least in morality, ultimately is a political idealism, in which attaining the greatest good is not something that will be accomplished in another world but is a task to be accomplished on this earth. Kant's political writings were an attempt to show how rational (or reasonable) ideas can be substituted for religious ones, and why indeed it is necessary for the good of mankind to reinterpret religious ideas to make them fit the needs of humanity.

(Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 384-5)

Note from KBJ: I no more think of myself as a citizen of the world than I think of myself as a citizen of North America or of the Northern Hemisphere. I'm a citizen of the United States (as well as some of its subdivisions, such as Texas and Fort Worth). By the way, one answers questions and solves problems. One does not answer problems.

Note 2 from KBJ: Kant denied moral status to nonhuman animals. Our duties to them, he argued, are actually duties to particular human beings. Animals, being nonrational, have no intrinsic moral significance. Kant's dog, in other words, counts for nothing, while some Chinese peasant counts for as much as Kant himself. So much for cosmopolitanism! It sounds more like parochialism or anthropocentrism to me.