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Immanuel Kant: a Conservative Philosopher as Much as a Liberal One

“This suggests that Kant’s Copernican turn in metaphysics, in both the theoretical and practical spheres, has the potential to be interpreted in both liberal and conservative directions.”

In a recent piece, Matt McManus called Immanuel Kant “the greatest liberal thinker.” McManus argued for Kant’s liberalism by highlighting two main metaphysical commitments: an overt commitment to a “modern scientific outlook grounded in the universal structure of the human mind” and his criticisms of conventional metaphysics that “have a strong anti-reactionary edge.” In this piece, I hope to point out some ways in which—contrary to both McManus and conservative Kant-detractors—Kant is compatible with a kind of moderate conservatism. This is not to say that Kantian innovation has not inspired liberal thinkers. The claim is only that Kant’s system turns out equally to support a kind of conservatism.

Before I address this, there is an initial worry about calling Kant “the greatest liberal thinker.” Kant was unapologetically sexist, and he argued for a racial hierarchy for at least the first part of his life. McManus puts this to the side at the beginning of his article, so I will not focus on it here. However, two things should be noted. First, it is not clear that Kant’s views on race and sex can be so cleanly separated from his most abstract, philosophical claims. Indeed, as Charles Mills has argued, Kant’s constant invocation of “humanity [Mensch]” should be eyed with skepticism. Indeed, Kant seems to think that the only persons capable of making full judgments—moral and theoretical—are white men. Second, when choosing the “greatest liberal thinker,” we have to consider that there were others just as committed to innate equality and rationality as Kant. One example is John Stuart Mill, who also openly opposed—against the trend of the time—excluding minority groups from his universalist claims.

Did Kant’s Contemporaries Think He Was a Liberal?

I find it important to start with whether Kant was considered liberal in his own day. While he was living, he was rightly seen as one of the most important philosophers alive. After the publication of his first edition of Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 and his moral philosophy in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785, and Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, Kantian philosophy was established as a distinct and powerful school of thought in Prussia. However, despite his work on morality, Kant did not publish explicitly on a system of rights and politics until 1793. In this time, his followers in Prussia, in the wake of the French Revolution, had begun to develop their own ideas about what a Kantian system of politics would look like. As Reidar Maliks has shown extensively in his 2014 book Kant’s Politics in Context, Kant’s contemporaries attempted to develop his philosophy both in a leftist (through making politics a means to the achievement of moral autonomy (i.e. Fichte, Erhard)) and conservative manner (i.e. Rehberg, Von Gentz). Left-Kantians wanted to develop politics in line with Kant’s early What is Enlightenment essay, where politics was seen as a means to achieve the desirable end of moral autonomy. Thus, political society should be structured in order to bring about the greatest amount of individual autonomy. The Right-Kantians, on the other hand, who were generally critics of the French Revolution, wanted to develop Kant’s a priori metaphysics to insist that politics had to be filled in with historical judgments from tradition.

Kant’s attempt to speak directly to politics after 1793 did little to settle the issue, as he conceded positions to both conservative and leftist interpreters. Regardless of whether Kant should be seen as a part of contemporary liberalism, it is telling that the political implications of Kant’s core metaphysics were ambiguous, even to his closest interpreters. This suggests that Kant’s Copernican turn in metaphysics, in both the theoretical and practical spheres, has the potential to be interpreted in both liberal and conservative directions. Indeed, that is precisely what happened.

A Liberal Metaphysics?

McManus argues that Kant’s core metaphysics is liberal on two fronts. First, it is “overtly committed to the modern scientific outlook grounded in the universal structure of the human mind,” and second “his criticisms of conventional metaphysics have a strongly anti-reactionary edge.” Two critical questions should be asked of these two questions: Are these actually Kant’s commitments, and do these commitments make Kant’s metaphysics liberal?

First, is Kant committed to a modern scientific outlook? Well, it is true, as McManus points out, that Kant thinks that human beings share a common way of experiencing the world that makes objective knowledge possible. However, what McManus fails to mention is that this ability to have common experiences of the world is based on the possibility of, what Kant calls, synthetic a priori judgments. This is a bit complicated, but, simplistically, synthetic a priori judgments are judgments about all of human experience, whose meaning and truth are strictly undetermined by sensory impressions or contingent natural objects. Kant thought that these sorts of judgments had to be possible in order to explain central notions of scientific inquiry, like inductive reasoning. Importantly, synthetic a priori judgments are not something that can be reduced to a product of our experience (an empirical judgment) but are the conditions for the possibility of experience as such.

Interestingly, Karl Popper, whom McManus mentions as Kant’s modern scientific successor, along with many modern philosophers of science deny the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments because they are judgments that cannot themselves be subject to scientific critique. Thus, while McManus is correct to point out that Kant thought we had a common structure to human experience, Kant’s theory is not a modern scientific view (and that is, of course, perfectly fine). Regardless, is Kant’s view of a common structure to human experience liberal? No. Indeed, Kant’s view is an epistemological stance on the possibility of objective science, a view that plenty of conservatives took to be convincing in Kant’s own time, as well as in ours. Perhaps even Ben Shapiro’s schoolboy commitment to “facts” and “reason” is a commitment to the idea that human beings are generally structured in a way that allows them to recognize objective facts and true claims. Commitment to a shared structure of experience that makes objective knowledge and scientific inquiry possible is not incompatible with the idea, as Kant well knew, that some truths are (and ought to remain) uncriticizable.

Perhaps McManus is assuming that conservatism is, by definition, a reactionary stance against iconoclast positions such as Kant’s critical metaphysics. However, this is far from obvious.

Second, is Kant committed to an anti-reactionary metaphysics? McManus is again correct to point out that Kant’s metaphysics was aimed at critiquing “transcendental illusions” and in limiting the inquiry of reason to the field of human experience. Indeed, this did curtail the claims, common in that day, that we could reach—through rational proof—transcendent truths. However, two clarifications are in order. First, Kant’s criticism was not aimed at religious traditionalists, as McManus suggests. Indeed, Kant ends up insisting that a belief in God’s existence is a necessary assumption of his system. Rather, as he famously says, he is limiting reason to make room for faith. His opponents were rationalists who insisted that God and his will were accessible through rational inquiry. This brings me to my second clarification: Kant’s opponents, in general, would have been equally opposed to knowledge of divine will and purpose being available only to a religious elite.

They argued that this knowledge was gained through rational argument, from observable premises. The idea, at least, was that rational knowledge should be understandable to all. Keeping these clarifications in mind, is Kant’s commitment to “anti-reactionary” metaphysics a liberal commitment? Perhaps the first thing to say is that his conservative contemporaries whole-heartedly embraced Kant’s polemic against the reigning rationalist metaphysics and its transcendental illusions. Indeed, conservatives accused radicals in the face of the French Revolution of not adhering to Kant’s limitations on reason. Such a limitation, in the mind of the conservatives, pointed to the necessary recourse to tradition and pragmatism in politics. The critiques of these conservatives on Kantian lines echo the often-heard call for a more realist approach to politics that does not directly apply abstract ideals. In any event, McManus takes this to be a liberal idea because it apparently eliminates an elitist class of knowers who rule over the ignorant masses. Yet, again, Kant’s commitment to limiting the claims of rational theology does not entail a particularly liberal outlook. Conservatives—in our own time as well as Kant’s—were opposed to the divine right of kings and a hereditary nobility and called for reform. Perhaps McManus is assuming that conservatism is, by definition, a reactionary stance against iconoclast positions such as Kant’s critical metaphysics. However, this is far from obvious. Conservatives from Burke to Scruton have been openly critical of corruption and have continuously called for reform in their own governments. As mentioned above, neither Kant nor conservatives want to criticize everything. Rather, they are open to criticizing the things that ought to be criticized.

As such, McManus’ points about Kant’s liberal metaphysics fall short of painting Kant’s critical system as a particularly liberal one—and surely not as the pinnacle of liberal thinking. Neither Kant’s metaphysics of science nor his critiques of transcendental illusions make Kant a liberal. Yet, as McManus points out, Kant’s relationship with liberalism goes beyond his metaphysics. Are Kant’s politics more clearly liberal?

A Liberal Politics?

It is undeniable that Kant’s politics share commitments with what we recognize as liberal positions. As McManus emphasizes, Kant’s commitment to the innate dignity and capability of every person translates into the political sphere, where Kant insists that everyone’s innate right to freedom entails that governments ought to incorporate the rule of law at the constitutional level. Kant insists that his commitment to the innate right of each implies that crusty elitisms like hereditary nobility could not be justified; every person should have equal standing under the law. Furthermore, Kant’s commitment to universal dignity of human beings underlies the modern human rights tradition, which is surely a mainstay of liberalism. All these aspects of Kant’s politics are important commitments that he shares with liberal positions, but are his politics liberal? One notices certain positions of Kant’s that should lead us to question his liberalism. Two of the most significant are the following.

First, Kant’s commitment to freedom and equality under the law does not necessarily translate into there being no class hierarchy. As conservatives at the time were quick to point out, Kant’s system indeed eliminates the possibility of a divine hierarchy from birth, but it does not rule out a nobility defined by merit and even natural talents. In fact, Kant seems open to this possibility when he divides members of a state into active and passive citizens, only the former of which participates in the creation of laws (though he stipulates that it should be possible for passive citizens to become active). This is because for Kant, one needs to have a kind of economic (and perhaps even intellectual) standing in order to create laws for all. In one instance, Kant even connects active citizenship to land-ownership, which suggests that Kant’s system would, in principle, be compatible with a land-owning political elite. Indeed, Kant thinks that laws ought to be made as if the whole of the community were voting; however, this only means that the ruling elite is obligated to make laws in a certain way.

Second—and this is perhaps Kant’s biggest concession to the conservatives of his day—Kant denied (three years after Burke’s critique of the French Revolution signaled the beginning of modern conservatism) that there was a right to revolution. Indeed, Kant, as well as other conservatives, had been happy to see the possibility of the reform of the monarchy in France, but Kant’s enthusiasm grew cold when the radical nature of the Revolution became apparent. (Kant even compared the beheading of Louis XVI to a state committing suicide.) Kant’s idea was that the state was the only environment in which humans could have rights. The state of nature was a condition of injustice only solved by the creation of institutions in the civil state. Thus, having a right to rebel against the state which itself is constitutive of one’s rights is incoherent. Kant goes even further down this Hobbesian path. Kant insists that we have a categorical imperative (an obligation that admits of no exceptions) to obey the laws in our state. This means, according to Kant, that we have a duty to obey even the laws of a tyrant. The duty to obey given laws by even tyrannical government seems to be a strong endorsement of the status quo. Kant did advocate for internal reform in line with the ideals of freedom and equality, but this was only slow, conservative reform, balanced with the preservation and promotion of the current state.

Liberalism and Kant

In the end, Kant’s system is obviously not the pinnacle of liberal thinking. Perhaps this realization points to the problem with defining a tradition of liberalism itself, especially against conservatism. Liberalism is, no doubt, an amorphous tradition, one that accommodates diverse thinkers from Robert Nozick to John Rawls. However, whatever liberalism is, it must go beyond simplistic ideas of iconoclastic thinking and universally available rationality. Liberalism—if it is to remain the powerful school of political thought it once was—must go beyond platitudes towards more substantial foundations. Furthermore, Kant’s conservatism does not negate the liberal-sounding claims above. Kant’s system is equally conservative and moderate as it is liberal and radical. Perhaps both of these intuitions can and should exist together.

Michael Gregory is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He is writing his dissertation on Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy and contemporary republicanism.

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