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Kant: the Greatest Liberal Philosopher?

The Telegraph

“So what, then, makes someone a liberal? In this piece, I am going to argue that the philosophy of Immanuel Kant provides some clues.”


One thing that liberalism’s critics have often understood better than its friends is that the liberal worldview stretches well beyond politics. It is a weltanschauung par excellence: a worldview that includes views on everything from metaphysics and science down to rudimentary social conventions. This is not to say that the liberal tradition speaks with one voice, a point its critics all too often misunderstand. The liberal tradition has included everything from apologists for capitalism like Friedrich Hayek to liberal socialists like John Rawls, defenders of British imperialism such as John Stuart Mill, to vocal opponents of empire like Hannah Arendt. Even describing a so-called liberal attitude is tough since some liberals have defined themselves as optimists about human progress while others are overtly cynical about the possibility of ever achieving real moral improvement.

So what, then, makes someone a liberal? In this piece, I am going to argue that the philosophy of Immanuel Kant provides some clues. This is because Kant was undeniably the greatest liberal thinker. Consequently, the structure of his thought tells us much about what the architecture of the liberal worldview should be, if it developed to a sufficiently high level of sophistication and reflection. This, of course, is not meant to apologize for any weaknesses in Kant’s thinking. He could be a cantankerous racist, as his lectures on anthropology abundantly showed, and his thinking on women and sex would look regressive in a contemporary evangelical church. With that said, I will that argue the core of Kant’s metaphysical thinking remains staunchly liberal in two respects. First, it is overtly committed to a modern scientific outlook grounded in the universal structure of the human mind. Second, his criticisms of conventional metaphysics have a strongly anti-reactionary edge. 

Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.” 

—Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 

Kant described himself as the Copernicus of modern philosophy, demonstrating if nothing else that he had no faux humility about his place in the history of European thought. This might just seem like meaningless bragging, but the reference to Copernicus, in particular, is significant. The 15th century Polish astronomer has become synonymous with inverting the earth-centered view of the universe present in Ptolemean astronomy and replacing it with a Heliocentric model. Kant similarly sought to invert our normal understanding of what is meant by metaphysics. For traditional metaphysicians, studying the highest science entailed speculating on the basic nature of reality in and of itself. This often led to the conclusion that the world of human experience was unreal or, at least, only partial; the deepest reality lay somewhere beyond experience in a transcendent reality, which could only be comprehended by the strongest and most dedicated intellects and spirits. There were many flavors of this that were popular for centuries. Platonism is an exemplar, with its analogy between human experience and living in a cave filled with illusions that can only be escaped by grasping the pure forms beyond space and time. Scholastic Christianity is another, with Thomistic thinkers trying to suss out the essential character of all individual material beings to understand their ordained role in God’s higher and eternal plan. Once again, the human mind fell short of being able to comprehend adequately this through reason, meaning at some point an appeal to the revelation of scripture was required to fill in the gaps. 

Kant’s Copernican revolution, following in the footsteps of figures like Descartes and Hume, was to change the way that we understand metaphysics. No longer was it going to be a study of the more real-world outside which existed outside the human mind’s—often spiritually self-imposed—limitations. Instead, the proper study of metaphysics has to be circumscribed to the human mind and those precise “transcendental” limitations. This is a technical point, so I will try and be brief. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that the mistake of earlier thinkers was obsessively thinking that we could (or must) gain knowledge of a truer world out there. This world would not only be more real but also provide a sense of moral and spiritual meaning to the illusory existence we found ourselves in. Kant claims that this whole project is misguided. Like Baron Munchausen, these early philosophers dream of pulling themselves out of the mind’s limitations by their own hair or bootstraps. But that is impossible. All of our experience and knowledge of the world is framed by the transcendental conditions of consciousness. Or, to put it more simply, it is the limitations of our mind that fundamentally give structure to our world. It assembles the raw collection of sense data we experience—the manifold—into something that is comprehensible and familiar. For instance, the fact that our mind is programmed to perceive the world in terms of space and time means that we apprehend it in terms of space and time. If anyone tried to think of a world without space or time, he or she would be comprehending nothing very quickly. Moreover, because each human mind is limited in the same way as everyone else’s, Kant argues that this means we more or less perceive and conceptualize the world as being structured in the same way. There is a fundamental universalism to human subjectivity that goes beyond cultural, linguistic, and social differences. 

The Metaphysics of Liberalism

Now, one might be asking: At this point, in what sense does this relate to liberalism? I think there are two senses in which it does. 

The first—and simplest—sense in which Kant is arguing for a liberal position is how his metaphysics provides a justification for the modern scientific enterprise. This might appear strange at first glance given there is a skeptical quality to all the above which some scientific realists might resent. However, Kant’s argument is that it is precisely because we perceive and conceptualize the world in the same way that science becomes possible. An Arab astronomer looking through a high-powered telescope will see the same material objects proceeding along a celestial path as his counterpart in Los Angeles. This means each can conceive of (and run experiments to test) their hypotheses, linking the results to ever greater theoretical conjectures about the nature of the physical world. If it were the case that some people’s minds were capable of apprehending kinds of knowledge—for instance, about God’s higher plan or the eternal forms, which were unavailable to most of us but somehow more real—then the possibility of objective scientific knowledge would fall apart. Later on, philosophers of science such as Karl Popper would build on Kant’s arguments to provide a more refined link with liberalism, which is the cooperative quality of the scientific enterprise. The kind of transcendent metaphysics argued for by earlier philosophers is inherently elitist, privileging sages and wise men who are uniquely attuned to a mysterious and eternal element of existence denied to most of us. By contrast, because science is predicated on our mind structuring the world in some way, enabling objective knowledge, each of us is capable of contributing to it in some small way. Biologists can examine the empirical world at one level, physicists another, and so on. 

This brings me to the second and more important point. Kant’s arguments about the limitations of knowledge have a strong Enlightenment bent in that they are directed at systems of knowledge that back up various forms of domination. For a long time, traditional hierarchies and authorities often justified themselves by appealing to transcendent structures of meaning and significance that could be known only to the few. These could range from scholastic defenses of the Feudal system to the absolutist claims about the divine right of kings. Joseph de Maistre’s anti-Enlightenment demand that politics be treated as a creed centered on throne and altar, backed by obedient faith in divine power, was an exemplar in Kant’s own time. However, for Kant, these kinds of arguments were worse than empty; they were a kind of “transcendental illusion.” Unable to accept the limitations of their own reason, the defenders of reaction assumed that they enjoyed privileged access to transcendent knowledge of a world higher than that discernible to everyone else. This, in turn, granted them special entitlement to know who should rule. But, in fact, they only deceived themselves into postulating pseudo-knowledge about entities and sources of meaning to which no one could have access. One of the most prominent examples is God and religion. Religious traditionalists postulated that they had special insight into the eternal plan of a divine being that existed outside of time and space. But, of course, this was impossible. If God did indeed exist and was outside of time and space, the human mind necessarily could understand nothing about it from the standpoint of pure reason. So the claims of religious traditionalists that their beliefs on metaphysics, morality, and so on were somehow both transcendent and mysterious but also profoundly true and universally applicable simply fell apart. 


Kant’s metaphysics is not where the story ends when it comes to his association with liberalism. But his arguments for a liberal worldview are deeply connected to Kant’s metaphysics on more than one level. His claim that each human mind operates in more or less the same manner, that knowledge can be rationally apprehended by all, and that we should reject the specious claims of speculative authoritarians, who vest their illusions with profound significance, will all be cashed out in more overtly political ways in later works. In his 1785 work Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant develops these arguments in a distinctly liberal fashion to provide a strong framework for a morality of freedom. This can be summarized in the following way: We must regard all individuals as moral equals, or ends in themselves. Since we are all moral equals, no one is entitled to impose his or her will or vision of the good life on anyone else. Consequently, we should enjoy as much freedom as possible compatible with the liberty of everyone else. There are deep problems with Kant’s outlook, as with any figure of significance. Not least is the way he goes too far in overemphasizing the all determinative role the mind plays in framing our understanding of the world, at the expense of other important factors like language, material relations, and the like. However, he remains liberalism’s greatest thinker for opening the door to entirely new ways of thinking about some of our most basic problems and for insisting that each of us should be free to help solve them.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be found on Twitter @mattpolprof 

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