- Kant’s Politics in Context by Reidar Maliks, and: Kant and Rational Psychology by Corey W. Dyck
Reidar Maliks and Corey W. Dyck do the important work of situating Kant’s political philosophy and metaphysics, respectively, in their contemporary context. Other recent texts in this vein are Pauline Kleingeld’s Kant and Cosmopolitanism (2011), James DiCenso’s Kant, Religion and Politics (2013) and Patrick Frierson’s Kant’s Empirical Psychology (2014). In their attention to the historical Kant, these books contribute to a growing body of literature on the eighteenth-century sociocultural and intellectual environment within which Kant was working.
Maliks canvasses nearly all of Kant’s political writings against the backdrop of the debates of the day. Between the conservative position of Justus Möser, which grounded state legitimacy in cultural tradition and modeled political institutions after the ancient estates of the German Reich, and the natural law theory of Wolff, which combined politics and ethics in positing the goal of the state to be the happiness of its constituency, Maliks identifies Kant as a progressive of a particular stripe. Across his political writings, Kant argued for freedom rather than eudaimonistic well-being—a political/moral divide codified in the two distinct parts of The Metaphysics of Morals (1797): “The Doctrine of Right” and “The Doctrine of Virtue.” Maliks reads the right/ virtue distinction in Kant as both a critical response to Wolff’s perfectionism and as an implicit rejection of Frederick II’s statist paternalism (23).
There is a speculative tone to Maliks’s historical reconstruction of Kant’s politics. On the issue of citizenship rights, Maliks claims that it is “reasonable to assume” that Kant followed the debates of the day because of his familiarity at first- or secondhand with its main participants (101, emphasis added). The tentativeness of Maliks’s language fits his subject. As Kant writes Schiller in 1795, the “discussion of political … topics is currently subject to certain restrictions”; exercising prudence, Kant continues, “one must conform … to the times” (Akademieausgabe, 12:11–12). Throughout the 1780s and ’90s Frederick II’s public ministers closely checked political and religious publications; Kant himself was officially censored in 1794 for Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason (Maliks, 5). Equally, while his correspondents regularly asked for his opinion, Kant tends in his letters to avoid their queries. In a 1793 letter to the publisher Johann Carl Philipp Spener, Kant explains his hesitancy to discuss politics. Humbly, Kant declines his invitation to reprint “Idea for a Universal History” (1784) in a forthcoming issue of the Berliner Monatsschrift. Invoking Hecuba’s comment in the Aeneid to an aged Priam preparing for battle, Kant explains that aged philosophers are “not the defenders this hour needs” (Akademieausgabe, [End Page 172] 11:417). Wary as Kant was of Frederick II’s censors and deferential to the political opinions of younger men, the explicit record on Kant’s politics is scant. If he is to be made party to eighteenth-century Prussian public discourse, the best approach is Maliks’s: a historical reading of Kant’s political philosophy that discerns points of possible contact with the events of the day.
No event loomed larger for Kant and his contemporaries than the French Revolution. Fittingly, Maliks’s study revolves around the Revolution while still acknowledging that Kant’s political philosophy was largely settled in the 1770s and ’80s (3). To balance the obvious historical significance of the French Revolution for Kant against the pre-1789 date of his political lectures and notes, Maliks incorporates references to the Revolution into his discussion of Kant’s theories of citizenship, suffrage, revolution, and international relations. In this reading, the Revolution was an occasion for Kant to reconsider his position on political franchise and republicanism, among other things, rather than the single prompt for his political ideas. On revolution, Kant first formulated his prohibition on a people’s right to...