Reading Kant’s Significance in the History of Political Ideas | Jake Scott


The purpose of this short enquiry is into the significance that Immanuel Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784) played in the development of political thought. It is widely known and remarked upon that the Answer is a major intervention in the apotheosis of the Enlightenment, and its remarkable brevity has provided great philosophical inspiration. My concern here, however, is the specifically political implications of Kant’s observations and the wider Enlightenment (Aufklärung in Kant’s native German). The fact that German is the original language might seem a minor point, but in reality is the central issue to my enquiry: German is famously difficult to translate directly into English, the most common philosophical examples being Geist (Hegel) and dasein (Heidegger). Kant is, quite obviously, not spared this. 

The opening lines remark that Enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”. Immediately we are faced with a semiotic problem: some translations of Kant’s phrase are “self-imposed nonage”, whilst some also use the more evocative minority. In this sense, “immaturity/nonage/minority”, might seem interchangeable but in the history of political ideas hold varying degrees of weight: immaturity is the most commonly used term because of its relationship to the wider Enlightenment’s project of reason, rationality and clarity of thought, which is a state of achievement of the intellect. Nonage and minority, however – which is the chosen translation of Columbia University and, as Mary J. Gregor shows, was Kant’s intended meaning – mean more specifically a state of dependence, as Kant quickly moves onto, arguing that it is the “inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction of another”. 

The reason minority is more appropriate than immaturity is that the latter implies a lack of critical faculties, whereas the former implies a denial of their existence. It is not that “man” or “the human” cannot make use of rational thought, but that he is not allowed to do so – in a state of self-imposition, of course. Kant is not claiming that the human race has been enslaved, but that it has thus far displayed a “lack of resolution and courage” to use its own powers of intellect. None of this is particularly original or insightful commentary: indeed, Kant deals with it in the first paragraph of the Answer. What matters, however, is the historical context of political thought which was inevitably in the back of Kant’s mind. 

As the Answer moves on, Kant claims that it is unlikely individuals in their own lives will be able to embrace this rational freedom fully, and that those who do will “only make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch”. Kant directs, instead, his call to courage to “a public” (ein Publikum) which has made the mistake of allowing its thinking to be done by a minority (and here the word is specifically denoting a numerical minority) and not itself. “Publikum” offers another linguistic indeterminacy, unfortunately, on both sides of the linguistic barrier: in translation, for instance, “publikum” might mean people, or public, or audience; in English, meanwhile, ‘people’ might mean several individuals, a single mass, a multitude, a greater entity than merely the sum of those alive, and so on. Here, we can reasonably assume, due to Kant’s context, he means “the public” in the pre-democratic tradition, of the wider numbers of individuals who are not “fit to rule”. 

It is this proto-democratic move that makes Kant so significant, and his comment on “minority” often passed over by political theorists. To understand why, we must take a brief detour to the medieval jurists. In late-twelfth and early-thirteenth century England, there arose the idea of a specifically public realm that belonged not to the King, but to the wider entity of the public world; again, not public in the sense of the multitude of undifferentiated people, but the “eminent domain” that, as Ernst Kantorowicz observed, belonged to the continuity of a domain whose matters”touched all”. 

At the same time in history was the slow transference of ideas from the religious to the secular, specifically the application by Baldus de Ubaldis of St. Augustine’s idea of the “mystical body” (corpus mysticum) of the Church, to the public, using the same terminology – a corpus populus mysticum, a mystical public body. The first, emergence, and then alignment of the public with the “political realm” is significant when we read Kant’s appeal to the public, as he was speaking to a surprisingly recent development of political thought, which was still much-resisted by monarchs and republics across Europe (it is important to remember ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ are not synonymous). 

Before understanding Kant’s significance fully, however, there was another major development by Baldus that requires explanation: the idea of the public as a legal minor. Indeed, “the public” was more a legal creation than anything else, but its legal definition and status was as yet undetermined. As Joseph Canning details, Baldus argued in the fourteenth century, that the populus could not possess a “legally valid will”, as it was incapable of acting entirely on its own. Instead, it “acts and wills” through its representative: the King (as in a monarchy) or council (as in a city-republic), whose actions are taken as synonymous with the realm. It was following a rediscovery of a Roman Law Edict, moreover, that the legal terminology which anticipated Baldus’ claim arose in the thirteenth century. This Edict observed that those people “under the law” were “madmen, children, and cities”. The conflation with children and madmen implied that a public had no mental maturity that would allow it to govern alone. It did not merely require a King – it depended on one.

This is why Kant’s use of the word “minority” holds so much significance in the history of political thought up to the Enlightenment; Kant directly and boldly refuted the very basis of anti-democratic thought, by claiming that man – in the public sense – was not a minority but in fact did possess the rational intellect capable of making its own choices and, therefore, ought to be given the freedom to exercise that intellect.

There is, finally, a short comment to make before I move on. Kant’s proto-democratic claims did not prevent the nineteenth century thinker, John Stuart Mill, from making the argument that whilst some “publics” (to use Kant’s term) had achieved maturity, others had not – and it was therefore the responsibility of the mature publics to guide the immature publics to civilisation in a benevolent imperialism that, illiberally enough, would influence the imperial project for the rest of its existence. As Jennifer Pitts makes clear, in Mill’s eyes, “progressiveness, the cardinal human quality, was also the monopoly of a select group of societies”.

I do not believe there is such a select group, but that all publics are capable of achieving self-government. In this regard, I follow Burke’s attitude to empire: local cultural practices must be respected as expressions of the universal where they tend in the direction of civilisation, but should not be tolerated if they do not move in that way. I am no apologist for the empire – it is a part of our history, and to flagellate ourselves over it is unbecoming of the civilisation that we inherited – but I do think that the manner in which we ruled foreign nations was too liberal, in the Millian sense, acting as if we were civilising based purely on our elect position in the select few.

Regardless, Kant’s belief that man was entering his maturity, and would be capable of governing himself, can be (indeed, was) a reference point for those of us who believe in national self-determination. There are a multitude of reasons why nations are the superior form of political community, of a public, so I shall not rehearse them here. Instead, I want to focus on what Kant bequeathed to democratic thought, and why his observations ought to influence our approach to global politics.

It is hard to entirely disentangle a nation from global politics, much in the same way it is near-impossible to disentangle a person from the society in which he grew up (which is, frankly, part of the reason I prefer Hegel to Kant, but that is not the focus here). However, Kant’s central point of the Answer – that a public is Enlightened when it depends on no external force for its own governance – ought to be the starting point for all discussions in the realm of national politics. For instance, as I have written before, there is a real possibility that the post-Brexit Right will be torn apart even more viciously outside of Europe than in it. Some of the prominent voices of the Brexit campaign, most notably our current Prime Minister, argue for “Global Britain”, as if that were not a contradiction in terms, whilst the older voices, some of whom have sadly left us, presented a more nation-focused Brexit, in which national forces were actually used, rather than have their existence denied, as in the case of border forces, corporation tax, and anti-smuggling laws, both of people and narcotics.

There is, however, a deeper point to Kant’s intervention. Conservatives are typically in favour of institutions, but when those institutions are turned against us, what is their value? There comes a moment when institutions are no longer moored in the thoughts, actions and identity of the people who created them, and at that moment they are, so to speak, “outside” the people. They become that thing Kant warned us against – a power outside of us. At that moment, institutions no longer are mechanisms of governance but systems of control. What Michael Oakeshott called the politics of faith, and Margaret Canovan re-phrased the politics of redemption, is the democratic impulse that a people must be the corrective force for governance gone astray; and it was this same impulse that saw the Marquis de Condorcet, as well as the Founding Fathers of America, argue for regular constitutional referenda that gave complete authoritative power directly to the people.

In this regard, Kant’s proto-democracy is, in many ways, an appeal to an tradition in political thought even older than the legal fiction of the people-as-minor, which was also articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. This was the belief in the higher-order power of the people’s customs, traditions and mores (indeed, ‘mores’ derives from the Roman mos maiorum, which was the term given to cultural practices and traditions that framed the constitution of Roman Republicanism). Indeed, Aquinas even went so far as to say that custom was more important than written law:

for when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgement of reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of law, abolishes the law, and is the interpreter of law.

Political Writings, Hackett Press, page 80

Written law is important, of course, but the argument from custom should be that, first, the people are the primary shapers of law, and second, the government should not seek to change those customs from without.

Reading Kant’s significance in the history of political thought means recognising that he was both a point of departure, and a point of continuity, for democratic thought. What has often been referred to as “democracy” is actually just institutional governance, which of course matters, but it denies the central source of authority for the democratic polity – the people. In this vein, I follow Carl Schmitt’s argument that a single figure, as the animus of the people and the legibus solutus, is the most effective manner of retrieving our political world from those who do not belong to it – but that is an argument for a different piece.


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