Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

2
THE POLITICS OF KANT'S CRITICAL PHILOSOPHY

2.1. Politics in Kant's Intellectual Development

The apolitical conception of German philosophy in the late eighteenth century finds its paradigm case in Kant. It is widely assumed that politics played a very minor role in Kant's thought. 1 Usually, the critical philosophy is seen as the product of Kant's epistemological and moral concerns alone. Its purpose was twofold: to defend natural science against Humean skepticism and to save moral freedom from the determinism of natural science. Nowhere in this grand design, though, did politics play a part. It is readily acknowledged that Kant had a political philosophy, even an important and influential one. But it is then quickly added that it was simply the corollary of his epistemology and ethics. It is as if political philosophy were only an afterthought, the accidental by-product of Kant's reaction to the French Revolution later in his life. Accordingly, most of the major commentaries on Kant's philosophy devote only their last few pages to an exposition of his political philosophy. 2

Yet this apolitical conception of Kant's philosophy fails to consider the importance of politics in his intellectual development. If we go back in Kant's history and context, then we find that his mature philosophy, in its decisive generative phase in the autumn of 1765, was conceived primarily for political ends. The most decisive discovery of Kant's intellectual career was indeed the primacy of the political.

All of Kant's early writings from 1746 to 1764 were dominated by a single ambition: to provide a foundation for metaphysics. "It has been my fate to be in love with metaphysics," Kant wrote ruefully in 1766, "even though I cannot boast of having received favors from her." 3 The source of this love affair was Kant's belief that only metaphysics could provide a rational foundation for morality and religion. These demanded nothing less, Kant held, than demonstrations of the existence of God, Providence, and immortality. The only other options were dreadful to contemplate: skepticism (the denial of belief through reason) or dogmatism (the affirmation of belief through authority).

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Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800
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