Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

„Idea for a Universal History“ and the Politics of Kant’s First Critique

Will Levine, University of Chicago

KWI & Online (Zoom)

In the nineteenth century, a commonplace trope among philosophers was to analogize Kant’s Critical philosophy with the French Revolution. Thinkers from Hegel to Heine figured Kant’s Critical philosophy as the intellectual expression of the French Revolution in its arguments against our capacity to develop true rational knowledge of God. Where the French Revolution overthrew the material institutions of the Ancien Regime, Kant’s philosophy overthrew those same institutions in the realm of ideas. This reading is also reflected among later thinkers in the twentieth century who credit Kant with centering reason as our sole guide in human affairs, a move that would begin a trajectory of thought that culminated in modern critical theory. Recent Kant scholars, however, have come to note precisely how similar Kant’s positions in the first Critique are to the very paradigms in philosophy he is credited with destroying. Where some scholars have emphasized his break with the Leibniz-Wolff School over theological and metaphysical themes, a number of recent scholars have begun to emphasize their similarities. On this latter reading, Kant did not so much overthrow the intellectual Ancien Regime as provide it with an alternative source of legitimacy. Was Kant the “German Robespierre,” as Heine suggested, or actually its Metternich? Was the post-Kantians’ interpretation of the Königsberg master rooted in reality, or a product of revolutionary exuberance? In this talk, I chart an alternative course. Putting “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” in conversation with Kant’s discussions of purposiveness in the first Critique, I suggest that “Idea” explores how Kant was thinking through the ramifications of his critique of metaphysics for his understanding of society and politics. While the first Critique may have exhibited more continuity with the Leibniz-Wolff School than his later works, „Idea“ shows how Kant began to work out a new set of problems that the Critique of Pure Reason opened up. Kant himself recognized the transformative implications of his theological arguments in the first Critique, even as he would come to resist their purportedly revolutionary implications. Reading „Idea“ in this way provides new insight into the relevance of Kant’s first Critique for his approach to his social and political thought.