Research Moments

Will Levine on Kant and Neo-Kantian Political Thought

I am currently at work at two research projects, both of which are related to my overall project at the Kolleg, which is to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript.

The first one is a journal article analyzing the role of two little known Neo-Kantian thinkers, Karl Vorländer and Franz Staudinger, in the Revisionismusstreit, the controversy that erupted in response to Eduard Bernstein’s efforts to “revise” Marxism with a different philosophical foundation and account of political agency. Although this started out as a much more panoramic piece on conversations about idealism and utopianism in Marxism from Marx and Engels to the Neo-Kantians, I’m now using it as an opportunity to provide an account of Vorländer and Staudinger’s thought and its relationship to revisionism, on the one hand, and the Marburg school, on the other. I’m finding this work interesting and have come to a new appreciation of Staudinger’s thought, who strikes me as having been incredibly ahead of his time.

The second project is a revision of the first chapter of the dissertation into the first chapter of the book manuscript. Writing this chapter has made me especially miss the Kolleg! Given that its subject matter is at the intersection of modern intellectual history and Enlightenment studies, I’ve found myself really wishing I could draw on the expertise of many at the Kolleg as questions have arisen. Given that we’re all self-isolating in our various corners, I figured I would selfishly use this research moment as an excuse to foreground some of the perplexities that have arisen.

The chapter I’m writing has several aims, some modest, and one very grand. It draws on some recent trends in Kant scholarship and Enlightenment studies to highlight the novelty and epoch-making character of Kant’s thought within the German Aufklärung. Many are likely familiar with recent efforts (here meaning within the last twenty years or so) to reappraise Kant’s political theory and its impact within his historical context. Key here are works from scholars like Arthur Ripstein, Reidar Maliks, B. Sharon Byrd & Joachim Hruschka, Pauline Kleingeld, and others. But surprisingly little has been written about the political ramifications of Kant’s Critical philosophy, arguably even more influential for political theory in Germany than his specifically political writings. This chapter seeks to fill this particular gap.

My argument, which I’m still working out, is that Kant was unique among his contemporaries in his view that the fulfillment of humanity’s telos would involve “the most perfect political constitution.” A number of scholars have situated Kant’s work within Aufklärung debates about the vocation of humankind, prompted by Johann Joachim Spalding’s Betrachtung über die Bestimmung des Menschen [Observations Regarding the Determination of Man]. Thinkers from Thomas Abbt to Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Lessing, Karl Leonard Reinhold, Herder and many others would eventually respond to Spalding. But to my knowledge, Kant was the only thinker to suggest that the determination of mankind would result in the most perfect political constitution.

(One question has been lingering in the background as I’ve been writing this chapter, which is: how unique was Kant in advocating specifically republican ideas? I’m aware that republican thought was in Germany before Kant (in part thanks to articles from Martin and Hans-Erich Bödecker!), but I do wonder if we can credit Kant for popularizing republican thought among German philosophers/Aufklärer/etc.)

Building on this, I want to make two main claims. The first, which builds on a widely recognized claim, is that the French Revolution gave this aspect of Kant’s thought especial significance. But this feeds into what I hope is a more novel argument. While recent efforts to rehabilitate Kant’s political thought have focused on his political theory, what I want to argue is that far more important for the German radical tradition was the teleological view of humanity and human political emancipation that Kant suggested. The claim is that the aspect of Kant’s thought that changed the course of political thought among radical theorists in Germany was not his political theory, but his view that the telos of humanity would involve its political emancipation. Or, in other words, what was radical about Kant was not The Metaphysics of Morals, but the third Critique. The chapter thus seeks to reconstruct Kant’s teleological view of humanity in light of Spalding and the French Revolution to highlight those aspects that would become important for German radicals.

Anyway, if any of this sounds interesting, frustrating, consternating, compelling, maddening, etc., I’d be eager to correspond about them.

I hope everybody is safe and well!

Will Levine

Early Career Fellow, Lichtenberg-Kolleg

Categories: Research Moments