“Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” by Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant is one of the most notable philosophers in history – nevertheless, he, like many other intellectuals, walked on the delicate line of moral fallibility. Through inquiries following Rene Descartes’ groundbreaking “Meditations,” Kant set forth to lay out a framework of comprehending reality with a scope that, simultaneously, not many dared to have, not many conceived prior to his time. His studies delved into various fields, from epistemology to anthropology, the latter in which he interjected his ethical framework in his “Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals.” The avid reader of Kant would assume he applied the categorical imperative in matters of the pragmatic and societal, and at the same time teleological and universal. That Kant’s stern pursuit of the universal would not be influenced by matters such as race is much less unheard but presumed – yet, that it was. Intellectuals such as Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Thomas Hill, and Bernard Boxill wrote about the racial prejudice contained in some of Kant’s works, mainly in anthropology but also in ethics, all of which are argued to be based on his transcendental philosophy. One of such works on anthropology is his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” containing his speculations on how the human race will be able to achieve perfection as a whole. Racial prejudice appears here not explicitly; rather, some connections can be found between the propositions contained therein and the racist remarks he made in other works. What the aim is, is to lay out the repercussions of Kant’s transcendental philosophy being infused with his racial theory, with such infusion represented in his “Idea,” with the goal of showing that there is a potential danger, should such infusions are taken as canonical to the understanding of such works.
The “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” is grounded on the metaphysical framework with which he explained reality as a whole. He spoke in his “Critique of Pure Reason,” in response to David Hume’s skepticism, about the difference between noumena, things in themselves, and the phenomena, things as they appear to human beings. One of Kant’s most profound insights was to cultivate reason to perfection, to be able to speak of reality beyond the perceptions spawned by the fallible senses, into what it truly is as dictated by nature. Through this, Kant gave much emphasis on the nature of reality, the laws by which reality operates and which human beings must abide. To best comprehend such laws, and ideas from these laws, there must be a proper principles of understanding them. Kant classified these principles into “constitutive” – what reality is – and regulative – what must be based on the constitutive principles. It is with this conviction that Kant wrote the “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,” building up to his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.”
In his “Idea,” Kant surmised that the most effective means for humanity as a species is to think and act according to the laws ordained by nature. Each species has a teleological purpose, with such purpose being fulfilled leading to the perfection of the species – for human beings, their purpose is reason, and so it must be cultivated, not in each individual alone but in the entire species. This, the human being attains best if he inhabits a cosmopolitan society that works both in unity and in competition with itself and other states. Throughout the text, there is no passage that expressly speaks of racial prejudice. To this end, attention must be given to a particular passage in Kant’s other work, “Physical Geography.”
“Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meager talent. The Negros are far below them and at the lowest point are apart of the American peoples.”
Thomas Hill and Bernard Boxill argued that this statement indeed speaks of racial hierarchy, but it does not imply that all other races besides the whites are less deserving of dignity. Nevertheless, it is an attempt at racial segregation that implies a sort of superiority, or at the very least some form of premium on the whites. If Kant’s proposition for each species to make use of their utmost faculties is to be nuanced by race, this would imply a hierarchy in the teleological end of reason as well. Though the end is the same for all human beings, whites would be the most capable of perfection – morally and intellectually – much more than non-Whites are.
This becomes more nuanced in the face of the sixth proposition in the “Idea”:
The problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by the human race. The difficulty (which the very idea of the problem clearly presents) is this: if he lives among others of his own species, man is an animal who needs a master.
Kant, above, speaks in the context of freedom: man is “free” insofar as his senses and indulgences are uninhibited; a man is truly free when he is subjugated by a master who will set down laws that would restrict his freedom and emphasize on cultivating reason. This master, he extends, should not be an individual but a society – a group. If this were nuanced by Kant’s favor towards whites and his low ordering for non-whites, this would strongly imply that Kant would agree to a primary, utmost subjugation from the whites on the non-whites. Non-whites, he might agree, may be mustered under a master from their own kind to great benefit, but the best benefit comes from being under a white master. In the worst case, this becomes a justification for racial slavery.
Whether this justifies discounting Kant’s contributions to philosophy is outside of this essay’s purpose. No philosopher or intellectual has been admitted to an utmost degree of infallibility. Their contributions are, at the very least, attempts to make descriptions of reality as a whole or in its parts. As human beings, such endeavors are prone to error as are Kant’s. He, himself, argued in the “Critique of Pure Reason” that each individual human being, with his specially structured a priori structures, perceives the world differently. To him, one can say: “Tu quoque.” From this, consolation can be found when one perceives Kant’s two worldviews as disparate. One is rigorously formulated based on his own thoughts and experiences; the other, based on experiences outside of his own horizon. The societal environment in which Kant resided is rife with racial prejudice and talks of racial superiority. Kant is a product of his own time – a remarkable product, but one bound by both the achievements and atrocities of his society. Whether he can be acknowledged accordingly, at the very least should Kant be offered a concession just as Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau should be. In sum, this is a humbling catharsis: philosophers are no less fallible than the rest.