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Culture

Kant: Introducing Ideas For a New Age

Hardly a philosopher has had more impact on contemporary politics than the German Immanuel Kant. His seminal theories on perpetual peace and the categorical imperative still hold sway 200 years after his death.

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Immanuel Kant died on Feb. 12, 1804, but his theories live on.


When he published his essay entitled "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch" in September 1795 for the Leipzig Book Fair, the seemingly unimposing Professor Immanuel Kant changed the world. The work contained radical demands on those responsible for creating social harmony by suggesting that an alliance be formed between all republican states. Today such an international body more or less exists in the form of the United Nations and the European Union.

At the time, however, the German philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) was breaking new ground and his views were not embraced by Europe's rulers, many of them despotic nobles. But in Paris, Kant was greeted as a republican comrade, for his tract signified nothing less than the first modern manifesto for world peace.

No less astonishing was the philosopher's previous work, "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals," published ten years before his essay on peace. In it, Kant adopted a universal perspective, assuming that the peoples of the world were so closely knit together that a breach of the law in one place would be felt by people everywhere -- a philosophical foreshadowing of today's notion of worldwide networking and globalization. The moral foundation on which it was based was human reason, which extends beyond the boundaries of individual experience. Kant postulated that reason alone could dictate what was "unconditionally necessary." Thus, it followed that acting in accordance with this dictate was an absolute duty of the human will, which Kant assumed to be autonomous.

This realization gave birth to Kant's seminal theory of the "categorical imperative." Stated succinctly, Kant wrote, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

200 years of Kant

More than one hundred years later, the philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno paid tribute to the genius from Königsberg. As a German Jew Adorno had witnessed the perversion of the German spirit under the Nazis and reflected on the meaning of Kant for those living in post-war Germany.

"To come of age and look one's own historical and social situation and the international scene squarely in the eye, would be the job of those who are liable to invoke German tradition, the Kants of this world. His thinking focuses on the concept of autonomy, the responsibility of each reasonable individual for his own actions, instead of those blind dependencies of which one consists of the unreflected supreme power of the national."

Can Kant be interpreted as providing impulses for everyday practice, for the actions of politicians?

Helmut Schmidt, who was German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, acknowledged Kant's influence on his political work: "Three things in Kant are important to me: firstly, the belief in a human ethics based on the fundamental freedom of all people. Secondly, the duty to achieve peace and a community of peoples as a central moral norm, and not only a political norm, not merely based on expediency. Thirdly, and most importantly, the close connection between the principle of moral duty and the principle of reason, or as one might say today: critical reason and critical rationality."

By applying transcendental norms to concrete cognition and action, Kant provided one of the cornerstones of scientific philosophy. It was a breakthrough in thinking that still exercises a considerable influence, demanding, in the words of Schmidt, "(...) that the politician, if he wishes to act responsibly, must at the same time take into consideration the consequences of his actions on others."

For a contemporary politician, Kant's imperative demands that he not take as his "point of departure that which seems to be opportune -- and for politicians this is a real challenge, a necessary challenge," Schmidt writes, "but rather weigh all interests affected by his decisions, and all consequences arising from his decisions."

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