Kant on Political Change: Global Challenges
Endorsed by the ECPR Standing Group on Kantian Political Thought
Change plays a significant role in Kant’s thinking, particularly in his political writings. Written in a context in which important political and, more generally, social changes took place, Kant’s work approaches the issue of political change both directly (for instance, by advocating reform and rejecting revolution or by examining the process of historical change) and indirectly (e.g., by considerations on the relation between theory and practice in politics, or on peace and conflict).
What critics usually point to is not the lack of an account of change in Kant’s thought, but the lack of significance that change seems to be given from the perspective of Kant’s account of the a priori, necessary and unchangeable structures through which he thinks we are in interaction with the world. These structures appear as unchanging, since they are conditions which make possible for us the perception of change and, more generally, the experience of the world.
We organised a very successful Section on “Kant on Political Change” for the 2017 ECPR General Conference in Oslo. The Section attracted considerable interest and included 10 Panels. These examined some of the difficulties which seemed to follow from Kant’s view of change. For instance, Kant’s account of the a priori structures of interaction with the world or, in short, his account of pure reason (whether theoretical or practical, moral-political) seems in contradiction with his attempt to discuss the “The History of Pure Reason”; if pure reason consists of a priori structures which make possible our cognition of the world and of its natural and moral laws, then there can be no history of pure reason.
Moreover, in his account of political revolution, Kant acknowledges it as a historical phenomenon, but dismisses it as not legitimate from a normative point of view. As a radical change in a society, a revolution is a focal point for a discussion of political change and, yet, Kant seems to reject it not only as unable to achieve what it sets out to do, but also as clearly detrimental to that aim.
Furthermore, Kant’s account of the transition from the state of nature to a juridical condition acknowledges the provisional character of rights in the state of nature, but also enjoins us to leave the state of nature and move towards a juridical condition. And, yet, the provisional character of many of our rights can be easily observed as an enduring feature of our social and political existence.
What is more, Kant’s comments on cosmopolitanism and the closed commercial state indicate that a similar tension can be found at work in Kant’s discussion of the relations between states. More generally perhaps, Kant offers priority to ideal theory and then seems to find it difficult to account for the clear significance of non-ideal theorising. As a result, in many instances in the literature, the debate between ideal and non-ideal theory has worked with a shared assumption that Kant’s and other Kantian theories are idealised and focus on the necessity of the laws they consider, to the detriment of the contingent, and non-ideal circumstances in which we actually live our lives.*
The overall aim of the 2017 section, which was precisely to demonstrate, against some of the objections mentioned above, the significance of political change in Kant’s corpus, was fully achieved. For the 2018 General Conference in Hamburg we would like to make a step forward and examine the way in which Kant’s account of political change and in particular of the standards of political change is mobilised in his work in order to deal with some of today’s global challenges.
Each Panel will focus on one such global challenge, with topics such as: ethics and cosmopolitanism; environment and duties regarding nature; democratisation; welfare and the gap between rich and poor; education and learning; peace and conflict; the status of women; science and technology.
* The current debate between idea and non-ideal theory has its origins in the work of Rawls, who draws the distinction in A Theory of Justice (1971); a particularly strong emphasis in the debate is on contingency and the way in which Kant’s account fails to consider seriously the particularity, provisionality and circumstantial nature of our situations and condition. For recent discussions as part of this debate, see Papers by Sorin Baiasu, John Horton, Rainer Forst, Peter Jones, Susan Mendus, Glen Newey and Albert Weale (2016).
Rawls, J. (1971): A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baiasu, S. et. Al. (2016) Special issue on Toleration and Pragmatism in the work of John Horton, in Philosophia.