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Six Varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 3, July 1999
pp. 505-524 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0025

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999) 505-524

In part as a response to the current resurgence of nationalist sentiment in many parts of the world, several authors have recently sought to revive the legacy of cosmopolitanism. They frequently appeal to eighteenth-century cosmopolitans, especially Immanuel Kant, and to their notions of the moral equality of all human beings, the existence of a set of human rights, and the urgency of establishing the political institution of a league of nations. But the full complexity of eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism has not yet been explored. Defenders and critics of cosmopolitanism agree that it is a form of universalism. It is the view that all human beings share certain essential features that unite or should unite them in a global order that transcends national borders and warrants their designation as "citizens of the world." But few scholars have examined the precise content of the various cosmopolitan theories of the time to determine just what these features are and what form this global order takes. While typologies and histories of nationalism abound, cosmopolitanism has so far remained largely unexplored territory. At most, one finds a distinction drawn between moral cosmopolitanism, the view that all human beings belong to a single moral community, and political cosmopolitanism, the attempt to establish a world-wide legal and political order. But there are important further distinctions to draw, for both historical and contemporary purposes.

In this paper I present a segment of the history of cosmopolitanism by focussing on late eighteenth-century German cosmopolitan theory (roughly, 1780-1800). During this relatively brief period the public debate about cosmopolitanism, nationhood, and patriotism intensified enormously and led to a wider spectrum of positions than elsewhere, until around the turn of the century, nationalism became dominant and the cosmopolitan voices died down. Since then this debate has not been the subject of very much research.

The central aim of this paper is to show that in late eighteenth-century Germany cosmopolitanism was not a single encompassing idea but rather came in at least six different varieties: moral cosmopolitanism; proposals for reform of the international political and legal order; cultural cosmopolitanism, which emphasizes the value of global cultural pluralism; economic cosmopolitanism, which aims at establishing a global free market where all humans are equal potential trading partners; and the romantic cosmopolitan ideal of humanity as united by faith and love. These six kinds of cosmopolitanism are by no means mutually exclusive, and I shall clarify the relationships among them.

By highlighting these six different versions of cosmopolitanism I do not mean to suggest that cosmopolitanism was the only or even the dominant view in Germany at the time. It was a significant and respectable view, however, defended by such influential authors as Kant and Wieland; and it remained so until the intellectual climate grew increasingly nationalist in the early nineteenth century. I do not, however, attempt to provide a historical explanation of the rise and fall of cosmopolitanism during these two decades. Obviously, any such explanation would include reference to the fact that Germany was not a nation-state, but a precise historical account lies beyond the scope of this essay. I focus instead on the different incarnations of the idea of cosmopolitanism.

Moral Cosmopolitanism

Moral cosmopolitanism is the view that all human beings are members of a single moral community and that they have moral obligations to all other human beings regardless of their nationality, language, religion, customs, etc. Its defenders regard all humans as worthy of equal moral concern and advocate impartiality and tolerance. Within this broad definition, moral cosmopolitanism can take different forms, depending on how one views the nature of morality.

The root form of this view is the cosmopolitanism of the ancient Cynics and the Stoics. While for the Cynics, cosmopolitanism was more a critique of parochialism than a positive theory, the Stoics developed it into an articulate moral doctrine. In their view all humans deserve our respect and moral recognition, because they share with us a common rationality and moral capacity. All human beings should be regarded as "fellow citizens and neighbors" (Plutarch) regardless of their national, ethnic, religious, or other particular affiliations...


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