Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Purpose

Also known as "Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent"

By Immanuel Kant

First published in 1786
As Translated by T.M. Greene and H. Hudson

  1. First Principle
  2. Second Principle
  3. Third Principle
  4. Fourth Principle
  5. Fifth Principle
  6. Sixth Principle
  7. Seventh Principle
  8. Eighth Principle
  9. Ninth Principle

Reading Emmanuel Kant's works is, depending on who you ask, the best or the worst introduction to philosophy. Anyone who reads Kant without a solid background in philosophy will think that philosophy is useless, pretentious and masturbatory banter. That's probably the best possible introduction, because then that person will stop pestering you with philosophy-related questions and will let you enjoy Socratic dialogue or tantric philosophy or something. However, for such a widespread and delicate audience as this one, I think it's important to node a proper introduction to Kant's Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Purpose so that noders can truly appreciate Kant's work, and hopefully through it the brilliant mind as well as the others who shaped the ideas which helped form the world in which we live.

Nine Principles

Kant wrote this essay in the form of nine short proposals (or principles) at the end of his life, to try and revive the idea of a Universal History. He fears he won't have the time nor strength to extensively explore the idea but tries to kickstart it so that other philosophers will do so after he's gone. When Kant asks whether there is a Universal History, he asks whether history as the historians tell it is rational. Does it have a purpose? Is it possible there is some unity in the tumult of historic events? Is there a progression toward a political unification of the human species? Kant obviously concedes that these are hardly easy questions to answer. However, to him it is not up to the historians but to the philosophers to answer those questions about history. In that sense, they reclaim history from theologians who claim that the course of historical events was shaped by, or at least conformed to divine Providence.

"A philosophical attempt to write a general world history according to a plan of nature that aims at a perfect civic association of mankind must be considered possible and even helpful to this intention of nature."
9th Principle

In Kant's philosophy, Nature (not as in "the trees and the birds and the water" but in the sense of the whole universe) is personified to take on the role of the Christian Providence. Nature uses the contradictory passions of men to make them involuntarily serve its purpose.

"The means that Nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society. I mean by antagonism the asocial sociability of man, i.e., the propensity of men to enter into a society, which propensity is, however, linked to a constant mutual resistance that threatens to dissolve this society."
4th Principle

Kant eventually concludes that it is the vanity of men, their desire to dominate and their inventivity in the pursuit of this desire and to compete with the other men, from which all social creativity originates. Before Hegel did, he perceives that nothing great is accomplished by men without passion, and passion is a part of human nature, through which Nature uses us to serve its masterplan. From struggle to struggle, the entire species comes closer to realizing the one regime which will let us have compleat freedom. Kant calls it a Republic, that which we call a liberal democracy. In that way, Kant's Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Purpose is a precursor of Hegel's interpretation of history and the theme of an end to history.

The end of history

An idea that history can have an end may seem paradoxical. What it means isn't that nothing will ever happen again, that there won't be any political turmoil, or that nothing important will ever happen again. Saying that history has reached its end simply means that it has reached its goal, by leading men to the constitution of a social order which guarantees full liberty to everyone and the recognition they expect.

Hegel first theorized the idea of an end to history. To him, man goes into conflict with others because he wants his superiority or his dignity to be recognized. This conflict involves a risk and it is in taking this risk that man manifests his freedom. Society then becomes divided between the masters, those who manifested this freedom, and the slaves, those who refused the conflict for recognition. However, the master is frustrated because then he is only recognized by his slaves. In his thirst for recognition he battles with other masters, and we end up with the war of each against all.

The way out is liberal democracy. Through it, man's desire for recognition is satisfied, since everyone is equal and recognized as such. Thus, security and freedom are no longer incompatible and history in its universal form has reached its goal—its end.

We there yet?

So, is there an end to history, and if so, are we getting there? The last dictatorships of Europe fell in the eighties, whether it be Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal or the colonels in Greece. Over the following decade, South America (Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil), some of East Asia (the Philipines, South Korea), and almost all of Eastern Europe got a democracy. For the past thirty years there has been a remarkable surge in the progression of the democratic regime in its democratic and liberal form. So, was Kant right? Are we headed for the end of history?

Contemporary American philosopher Francis Fukuyama thinks there is no doubt about it. To him, the recent spread of liberal democracy and the similarity of lifestyles which ensues will necessarily lead to what he calls the end of history. However, has the western political model really managed to impose itself? Inside democracies, nationalistic or antiparliamentary movements challenge their well-being. At the same time, the Western world is challenged by the emergence of more radical religious movements, and not only in islamic countries. The West and the end of history it seems to want to bring about becomes a lot less convincing when it tries to export its institutions.


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