History of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Life and Political Ideas

Life and Work of Immanuel Kant:

Immanuel Kant was born at Konigsberg, Prussia, in 1724. He came of a very poor family. His forefathers lived in Scotland. His parents were religious—minded and this influenced young Kant. He was also a regular visitor to the church.

He received very little formal schooling or education. Kant lived in the age of Rousseau, Voltaire and Hume. All of them profoundly influenced his thoughts and ideas, though he wanted to refute their thought.

Immanuel Kant led a very regulated and disciplined life. Heinrich Heine in his Religion and Philosophy in Germany has said that it is very difficult to portray the history of Kant for he had neither life nor history.

His life was so mechanical that there was no change or variety. Every day, at a fixed time, irrespective of summer, winter or rainy season, he went out for walk. Rising in the morning, coffee-drinking, writing, reading, dining and walking all were done according to time.

There was no change in his style or dress. He was a bachelor. Inhabitants of the street of Konigsberg knew this man. Rather, he was a popular figure, though they understood very little of his philosophy.

In 1755 Kant began his life as a private lecturer at the University of Konigsberg. He remained in the post for fifteen years and twice his application for the post of professorship was rejected. Finally he was made professor of logic and metaphysics in 1770. He died in 1804.

His Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781 at the age of 57, and Critique of Practical Reason in 1788. Kant established himself as an author at an advanced age. Kant’s political ideas are chiefly found in his Metaphysical First Principle of the Theory of Law published in 1796. He wrote two essays – The Principles of Political Right and The Natural Principle of Political Order.

Commenting upon how Rousseau influenced Kant, Durant writes:

“When Kant read Emile he omitted his daily walk under the linden trees, in order to finish the book at once. It was an event in his life to find here another man who was groping his way out of the darkness of atheism, and who boldly affirmed the priority of feeling over theoretical reason in these suprasensual concerns. Here at last was the second half of the answer to irreligion; now finally all the scoffers and doubters would be scattered. To put these threads of argument together, to unite the ideas of Berkeley and Hume with the feelings of Rousseau, to save religion from reason, and yet at the same time to save science from scepticism—this was the mission of Immanuel Kant”.

Besides Rousseau, Voltaire (1694-1778), John Locke (1632- 1704), George Berkeley (1684-1753) and David Hume (1711-1776) moulded his thought system in one way or the other.

Political Ideas of Immanuel Kant:

Like Rousseau and many others Kant was not, in the strictest sense, a political thinker. His main interest centred on philosophy and he is known to us as a great idealist philosopher.

Scholars have discovered his indebtedness regarding political ideas to Rousseau and the French philosopher Montesquieu. Analysis of Kant’s political ideas reveals that he supported the contract as the origin of state and separation of power as the key to the individual’s freedom.

Immanuel Kant thought that there was an atmosphere like state of nature where men were not quite happy and their freedom very often faced danger and hurdles. They, in this situation, decided to ensure freedom this and decided to set up a civil society or state which could secure freedom. Thus, according to Kant, the state is the product of a contract and people voluntarily made the contract.

If we enter into the details of Kantian contract theory we shall find that Kant followed Rousseau in this regard. Kant was a great worshipper of natural rights and human freedom. He thought that putting all these under the governance of the body politic would enable men to enjoy them with full satisfaction.

Immanuel Kant was not interested at all in the historicity of the social contract. He used it as a weapon for legalizing the natural rights which people enjoyed in the state of nature, but were not always secure there.

Kant’s political ideas, to a large extent, were influenced by the prevailing political situation of Germany. Germany of his time was a feudal state and feudalism was absolute. He lagged far behind England in industrial progress.

Economically, he was backward. He could not support the royal absolutism. In every sphere of life there were disorder and anarchy. Equality before law or obligation to law was scantily addressed to.

On, concept of sovereignty, Kant followed Rousseau. He believed that sovereignty in a state resides in the people as a whole and their will, which is called general will, is the source of all authority. Following Rousseau, Kant argued for the popular sovereignty and thought that this general will was the source of law.

It means that like Rousseau, he thought of open assembly where all people met and took decisions regarding the state administration. This is direct democracy. We can say that Kant was not concerned with the possibility of direct democracy in Germany but Rousseau’s influence inspired him to accept the concept of direct democracy.

Immanuel Kant accepted the principle of the separation of powers elaborated by Montesquieu. The functions of the government can be divided into legislative, executive and judiciary. He did not favour the doctrine of the balance among the different organs or branches of government. He supported the supremacy of legislature over the two others organs.

The supreme will of the people is expressed through the legislature and, naturally, the executive and legislative powers cannot be combined in the same body of person. The legislature shall have power to remove the executive from exercising authority.

He also recommended that the judiciary should be allowed to discharge its functions independently of the two other organs of state.

The prevailing conditions of Prussia led Kant to find out reconciliation between Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty and the Prussian system of monarchical government. “The general will of the people is sovereign, but the sovereign power could be exercised through a monarchic form of government”. Kant’s theory of popular sovereignty is not a consistent one.

If people’s will is supreme, people will have the absolute power to decide any issue. But in Kant’s ideas we do not find that. Even men are helpless when the legislature exercises the sovereign power. Furthermore, popular sovereignty and monarchical form of government cannot make any logical combination. But Kant has done that.

Gettel has drawn our attention to a very interesting aspect of Kant’s political thought. Rousseau’s influence led him to support direct democracy and popular sovereignty. These two are features of the Rousseauist model of ideal state.

There are also other features. In practice Kant was faced with a practical state that prevailed in Prussia and there are polar-like differences between the two.

The fact is that Kant could not ignore Rousseau’s ideal state or Prussia’s practical state. He even believed that there was reason behind the practical state of Prussia. He thought that there were reason and historical incident behind the rise and development of Prussian state.

Our view is that Immanuel Kant could not give us a clear conception about state. He was in a sense a prisoner of indecision. Because of his attachment to moral philosophy and idealism Kant showed scant interest in practical politics.

However, whatever he has said about politics and related issues can be said as an integral part of his philosophy. Law is a part of morality. Since people’s will is the source of all laws it would be immoral to disobey those laws.

According to Kant, laws are divided into two parts private law and general law or public law. Marxian critics have discovered that Kant had deliber­ately drawn this distinction. The society in which he lived was a bourgeois society.

There were two things the private ownership of the means of production, and the market economy. In such a society, private law was necessary.

However, in Kant’s opinion, the private law determines the relationship among rational individuals. The private law also deals with the man and property relations, and also the distribution of property.

The purpose of the public general law was to control the relation between the individual and the state or among the several states.

Immanuel Kant’s view on religion is not directly related to his political ideas or conception of state. But he has specifically identified the role and sphere of action of the church. He has analysed religion in the light of morality.

Since religion must be based not on the logic of theoretical reason but on the practical reason of the moral sense, it follows that any Bible or Revelation must be judged by its values for morality, and cannot itself be the judge of moral code.

Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race. Kant once said “Christ has brought the kingdom of God nearer to earth, but he has been misunderstood, and in place of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of the priest has been established among us”.

Here Immanuel Kant clearly indicates that the chief function of the church is to help the moral upliftment of people. It cannot interfere with the political activities of the state. To put it in other words, the church and the state are two different units or agencies and each will have its own area of action and influence.

Kant’s political ideas are combination of several contradictory opinions. He supported Rousseau’s general will in which there is the will of every individual. But he could not support the people’s right to revolt.

He cherished a wrong idea that the monarchy of Germany could not do any work that might go against the interest of common men. In general term this view of Kant is unacceptable.

But behind his apathy to revolution there was a reason. His apathy to revolution can be traced to the violent and cruel activities of his time. He was alarmed at the execution of Charles I and Louis XVI.

The revolution, in his view, was always destructive. In his opinion a revolution destroys normal life, morality and natural order of society. To him all these were more important than a revolution.

On this ground he refused to lend support to a revolution. He thought that change in political system could be brought about not by revolution but by reforms. But if revolution at all comes and a new political order is established, people must show their obedience to it.

Kant’s concept of freedom is to be judged not from a general perspective but from the background of idealism.

He thought that freedom meant the right to will and this will must be moral in all respects. Again, an individual will have a desire, but that desire must be guided by self-imposed imperative of duty. Naturally-man cannot desire to have anything.

Behind the doing and desiring must have moral reason or moral purpose. Kant further said that the pursuit of freedom must not create an anarchical situation in the state, because this will obstruct the enjoyment of freedom by others. From Kant’s analysis we conclude that freedom is based on morality and it exists in an orderly state.

The forms of state, according to Kant, are autocracy, aristocracy and democracy. Forms of government are two – republican and despotic. Any form of government that is not representative, Kant declares to be out of rational consideration.

In England a tradition of representative system developed and the British people accepted this and adjusted themselves with it. In fact, in England, the representative form of government, worked through these institutions.

So they were the integral parts of the British representative system. Earlier we have noted that there were no such representative institutions in Germany. So both Kant and Hegel indulged in a kind of distrust against numerous representative institutions.

Barker makes the following observation:

“Even Immanuel Kant distrusts representative institutions, though he is less full of the zeal for undivided sovereignty than Hegel, he fears that the representatives will tend to be unduly dependent on ministers”.

To sum up, the state, law, sovereignty, institutions and everything else are, Kant thinks, manifestations of morality. Even freedom is a moral concept.

The struggle for existence, according to Kant, is not altogether an evil. Neverthe­less men should perceive that it must be restricted within certain limits and regulated by rules, customs and laws. Its simple implication is that Kant has not ruled out competition among the states but that they must abide by certain rules and they must be limited.

In order to keep the competition within limitations, Kant held, the nations should, like the individuals, enter into a contract. The whole meaning and movement of history is the ever greater restriction of pugnacity and violence, the continuous enlargement of the area of peace. The history of the human race, declares Kant, viewed as a whole, may be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about a political constitution.

In his Eternal published in 1795 Kant said ; “Standing armies excite states to outrival one another in the number of their armed men which has no limit Through the expense occasioned thereby, peace becomes in the long run more oppressive than a short war and standing armies are thus the cause for aggressive wars.” Much of this militarism, in Kant’s judgment, was due to the expansion of Europe into America, Africa and Asia, with the resultant quarrels of thieves over their new booty.

He said, “if we compare the barbarian instances of civilized, and especially the commercial, states of our continent, the injustice practiced by them even in their first contract with foreign lands and peoples fills us with horror”.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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