Change is a constant in our political lives - from small changes of policy, to leadership and even regime changes, both nationally, internationally and globally, we experience change on a regular basis and take it as a given. Yet, change (any kind of change, including political change) can only be experienced against a background of more or less extended stability. We may remark that a person has changed when we notice a difference between the way the person was and the way she (the very same person) is now. Similarly, a change in leadership makes sense against the background of the same institution or group which is being led by new leaders.
Many changes are simply responses to different external circumstances: we need to adapt ourselves and respond when faced with new situations or factors which can potentially affect our lives. One assumption in modern political thought has been that we can do so (namely, adapt ourselves and respond to new situations) from the perspective of certain relatively stable principles of justice, which can provide guidance. Yet, the existence of such principles is continuously questioned under the pressure of pluralism, private interests, populism and a variety of moral pathologies, including readiness to lie, to dis-inform, to manipulate or, at a more abstract level, to question any principles for the sake of justifying actions which break them. As a result, the positions which sometimes take precedence are moral relativism, scepticism and pragmatism.
Now, one reason for the increasing influence that Kant’s moral, political and legal theory exerts in contemporary philosophy is perhaps precisely Kant’s aim to defend a cognitivist moral theory against moral relativism and scepticism. Part of the attraction is Kant’s commitment to the validity of principles of justice and ethical standards, in spite of his accute awareness of most of the conditions which are also characteristic for contemporary liberal societies (including the need to question and justify principles of justice, when there are reasons to think they might be unfair). It is not surprising, therefore, that a sikgnificant number of very influential moral and political philosophers today are drawing on Kant’s texts.
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 have already 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 with over 40 speakers. 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” in his famous First Critique; 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 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 have made a step forward and are organising a section which examines 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. We anticipate each panel will focus on one such global challenge. Topics may include: 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.
Kant’s work continues to attract the attention of moral, political, social and legal philosophers, although some excellent recent works have been published in these areas and more works on the same and some new topics are currently under way. While the literature on certain aspects relevant for political change is significant and growing (for instance, on revolution or cosmopolitanism), with a very few notable exceptions (Williams 2001 and Keating 2007), no authors have focused on the topic of political change and even fewer on the contribution Kant’s account can make to tackling today’s global challenges.
We would therefore like to organise a workshop on the topic "Kant on Political Change: Theoretical Grounds and Global Implications", which would synthesise the results of the two sections we organised for the ECPR 2017 and 2018 General Conferences and would lead to the publication of an edited volume on the theme, as well as to the formation of a research network and to a major grant application.
* The current debate between ideal 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).
Baiasu, S. et. Al. (2017) Special issue on “Toleration and Pragmatism in the work of John Horton”, in Philosophia. 45(2): 397-501.
Keating, P. (2007) “Kant’s Logic of Political Transformation”, in Morgan, D. and Banham, G. Cosmopolitics and the Emergence of a Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, H. (2001) “Metamorphosis or Palingenesis? Political Change in Kant”, in The Review of Politics. 63(4): 693-722.