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Kant’s Novel Interpretation of History
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Kant’s Novel Interpretation of History

In Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (1784), Immanuel Kant philosophizes about a type of story that would have world-historic consequences.1 A forerunner of modern philosophies of history, the essay is renowned for two claims. First, Kant suggests that if we abstract the free actions of individual human subjects and examine them as a whole, we can hope to discover a universally applicable, regular progression toward our ultimate moral goal: freedom. Second, he contends that if a natural, linear plan were revealed, contingent on agentive will, such a plan would accelerate humankind’s development since it is in our character to attempt improvements for future generations. This desire for our advancement is also the reason why it is worthwhile to write philosophical history in the first place, and why reading it should positively affect our sensibilities, as well as effect our actions, as an audience.

Kant circumscribes his Idea essay by remarking on a third issue that has not yet received extensive scholarly attention: namely, how such a teleological model manifests itself in textual form, the intermediary between thought and action. Already in the second sentence of the essay, Kant defines history as a discipline that recounts the tale of the realizations of freedom of the will: “die Geschichte, welche sich mit der Erzählung dieser Erscheinungen beschäftigt” (8: 17). From the outset, Kant’s philosophical history is necessarily a narrative project. To be sure, narration is a nebulous concept that can connote both truthful knowledge and spurious fiction. To avoid doubt about the status of his own intended philosophical-historical narrative, Kant again considers the question of form in the essay’s conclusion. In just one sentence, he addresses the subject of prose and the novel in particular. This framing of an overarching narrative argument might seem flimsy to those of us who take Kant’s words at face value. Contextualized within late eighteenth-century literary debates, however, his brief comments can be read as especially substantive. That is to say, we need to historicize Kant’s essay in order to properly understand its contention and structure. In doing so, we will find that Kant thematizes written form in a way that was far from novel in the period – neither uniquely, nor as the most fashionable genre of the age. [End Page 171]

The novel, we should note, became an ever more salient prose form for literary consumption in Kant’s time. Statistics for novels appearing in German over the course of the period vary, but all clearly present a burgeoning trend. M. Beaujean, for example, counts 73 new novels published between 1750 and 1760; from 1791 to 1800, the number surged to 1,623 (Cited in Schön, 43–44). The boom continued. Thomas Carlyle sums up the German situation for an English-speaking audience in 1827: “the number of Novelists at present alive and active is to be reckoned not in units, but in thousands” (vi). The genre held a reputation for pedagogical service as well as delightful imaginative speculation. Increasingly, the novel was also promoted on account of its philosophical conjecture. Whereas Sulzer equates the original, trivial meaning of the word “Romanze” with that “was wir izt durch Roman verstehen” (988) in 1774, three years later Adelung notes the existence of satirical and political as wells as, crucially, historical, moral and philosophical novels in his dictionary definition of the “Roman” (1475).

One response among representatives of academic philosophy proper was the perception that the novel now posed a threat to their own existence and to their discipline, or at least its serious dissemination and the subsequent expansion of a public sphere informed and guided by scholars. But was this Kant’s reaction? On 13 November 1765, the philosopher Johann Heinrich Lambert exclaimed in a letter to his valued colleague: “Wenn die Architectonik ein Roman wäre, so glaube ich, sie würde bereits viele Verleger gefunden haben, so sehr ist es wahr, daß Buchhändler und Leser einander verderben, und vom gründlichen Nachdenken abhalten” (10: 52). Kant was thus confronted with a perceived bias of the publishing industry toward...