Interpreting the World: Kant’s Philosophy of History and Politics

Booth, W.J. Interpreting the World: Kant’s Philosophy of history and Politics. University of Toronto Press, 1986.

From a review:

“In his writings on history and politics Kant straddles a narrow divide between optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, the view of man in his pure moral philosophy is that of a dualistic, rationally incomplete individual who may, indeed, aim at doing his duty but cannot, because of his flawed nature, be certain of putting it into effect. On the other hand, the view of man’s predicament in his writings on history and his later essay, Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, is more positive. Although now weighed down by our incomplete and morally imperfect natures, Kant does not rule out the possibility that some time in the distant future we shall be able to get our passions almost wholly under our control and create a society fit for rational beings. It is always tempting to take the view that Kant, as an Enlightenment figure, was more wedded to the optimistic than the pessimistic view — his reaction to the French Revolution (greeting its achievements but denouncing its methods)–appears to prove the point.

How-ever, Booth persuades the reader that the issue is less clear-cut than this and that Kant is at times more inclined to give in to the contrary feeling of pessimism. This stress on the less optimistic aspect of Kant’s assessment of the human species is what gives Booth the title of his book — Interpreting the World. Although he acknowledges in the first section that for Kant practical reason takes precedence over theoretical reason, Booth suggests that this does not lead Kant to an activist style of politics. According to the author, Kant would prefer nature to take its own course rather than force the pace of historical development. For Booth, there appears to be a disjuncture between the teleological development Kant detects in history and the moral motives we have as good citizens to will improvement.”