Why Read Kant’s Anthropology?

By Dr Basil Salman, Teaching Associate in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

When I was a graduate student, I became very interested in one of Immanuel Kant’s lesser-known works, his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. In this weird and wonderful book, which has received renewed attention in recent years, we see a very different side of Kant to the one we are used to. It is a Kant removed from the transcendental idealism of the Critique and the abstract principles of the Groundwork; and with the aim, not of explaining the basis of knowledge or morality, but of offering a practical guide to living. What we find in the Anthropology is a kind of applied ethics: a number of observations about human activity, coupled with guidance on how to live successful lives. We find advice on how to use the imagination, how to remain good-tempered, and even how to hold a good dinner-party.

One may well wonder why we should be concerned with a work like this. No doubt there are a number of reasons why I myself became attached to it (some of these strategic of course—the most obvious being that I wanted something new and interesting to write about for my dissertation!). But despite the fact that numerous passages from Kant’s Anthropology strike us as odd, undeveloped, and rather disconcerting today, I think there is a lot in it that recommends itself to us as legal scholars. Indeed, going back and revisiting my thinking from that time, I should like here to offer some reasons why I think legal philosophers should go ahead and read it. 

The first and most important is that it appears to support a liberal (but non-universalist—I will come back to this) explanation for the existence of rights, something that Kant scholars have famously struggled to provide. By ‘explanation’ here, I of course mean a normative explanation. The explanation is normative because it seeks to recommend certain kinds of political rights by rooting them in a moral foundation. Usual attempts to ground Kant’s system of rights in moral autonomy—the character of the will determining itself—have been unconvincing. Not only do they lack textual support, but they also seem to miss the obvious truth that Kant’s moral autonomy is a property of the will, i.e. it is realisable with or without external freedom (both points are well made by Gunnar Beck in ‘Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Rights’ (2006) 19(4) Ratio Juris 371-401).

So what is this foundation? Well, looking at the Anthropology, and making connections with his historical oeuvre generally, we see that Kant has an argument for the existence of liberal rights that is not a million miles away from that of someone like J. S. Mill. For—as with Mill—we see a series of observable human tendencies that a liberal ordering will harness in order to help our talents and capacities bear fruit. In broad terms, Kant roots his explanation in an inner tension or conflict that he helpfully calls ‘unsocial sociability’. We are pulled at once to seclusion and to community—to freedom from as well as with others. However, both these tendencies, when taken to their extremes, can be destructive; for at the extremes Kant thinks the will is corrupted. Too much isolation leads to self-absorption, and too much reliance on (the opinions of) others to hubris. These corruptions, Kant describes in the Anthropology as ‘passions’, and they are described in some detail. One is for honour (where one’s life is lived purely in pursuit of the esteem of others). Another is for the domination of others (where one is compelled to use others according to one’s own will). There are a few more. But there are, I think, two key points about them. The first that they are pathological: passions are ‘cancerous sores for pure practical reason’, precisely because they involve the deployment of maxims (good) in pursuit of their end (bad). Kant, in other words, thinks that these passions are truly evil precisely because they are principled (for example, Kant describes Sulla as someone who possesses an evil character, but who is nonetheless admired for he stays true to his maxims and does nor ‘fly off hither and yon, like a swarm of gnats’.) The second important point is that they involve the (pathological) use of others for one’s own ends. This goes directly against the second formulation of the categorical imperative—‘always act so that you treat others as an end, and never as a means only’.

So how do liberal rights enter the picture? A number of commentators have suggested an explanation along the lines that the civil constitution is a preparation or propaedeutic for virtue. Liberal orderings are important because they provide the kind of social (and, also, I might add, a-social) environment to help keep our unsocial sociability in check, and to stop the harmful passions from materialising. The dots here are not difficult to connect. Liberal societies champion a number of opposites that seem to make sense in light of this picture: privacy and openness, competition and benevolence, tolerance and criticism. Without principles of peace and justice, moreover, there can be no development and no progress whatsoever. We would be left at the behest of our unsocial sociabilities in something akin to Hobbes’ state of nature. But the psychology to one side, note how the argument here respects the contours of Kant’s system. Moral autonomy, we said, does not require the protections afforded by rights and external freedom. But that is essentially because autonomy is not an object in the world (Allen Wood, ‘Autonomy as the Ground of Morality’, O’Neil Memorial Lecture One, 1998/99). Autonomy is best seen, and I am grateful to Wood here, as a way of telling us how moral obligation makes sense: namely, as a law proceeding from will that is non-heteronomous, i.e. not grounded in contingent interests. The political state emerges in Kant’s historical and anthropological writings not as a necessary condition of autonomy, then, but of the perfection of our natural talents—a moral end if and only if it is pursued for its own sake.

Be that as it may, I appreciate that you may have doubts about the psychology here, particularly when compared with Mill’s more worldly empirical observations on human nature in On Liberty. Indeed, you may be wondering why we should engage with this rather clunky view given that Mill’s case for liberty continues to shine so brightly for us today (yes, even for us ‘millenials’). There are also points about the general nature of the claims I am making. Is the argument that connects liberalism and the passions not a form of philosophical artistry? Relatedly, is the above argument not a kind of Kantian heresy? For is Kant not supposed to offer a theory of rights that is not reliant on a thesis about empirical human nature?

As for the first objection, I think that there is much in Kant’s historical writings on the link between unsocial sociability and the liberal state. The Anthropology is simply an extension of those arguments, and it explains in greater detail the psychological bases for them. As for the second argument, it makes a familiar mistake that students often fall into. It assumes that Kant’s ethics is a formalist ethics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Kant emphasises the need to work out ‘a pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that may be only empirical and that belongs to anthropology’ (whence the principle of autonomy and the categorical imperative). But both there and in later works he also stresses the need for an ‘empirical’ side to moral philosophy—‘morals applied to human beings’—which he says we need, not to apply universal moral principles, but to ‘indicate’ their ‘inference’ from those overarching principles using experience.

Alas, we arrive at the central theme of this piece. Kant intended moral anthropology and the metaphysics of morals to be separate. That is why I said above that the historical-anthropological argument respects the contours of Kant’s system. But note that it also helps to define those contours. No one makes this point better than Michel Foucault (Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, R Nigro and K Briggs trans. (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles 2008)), when he writes that the Anthropology serves as a kind of bumper on metaphysics: ‘To critical thought, which represents that which is conditional in the founding activity, Anthropology responds by offering an inventory of what is unfounded and conditioned’. And in doing so it also has a mediating role: ‘liberated from its transcendental use and the illusions that it can’t help but give rise to, the idea acquires its meaning in the plenitude of experience…’ In short, we understand the one by understanding the other. Reading and engaging with the Anthropology helps bring into relief the different dimensions of Kant’s thought, and that is important for us when it comes to rights and their relationship with morality.

So, in summary, we dismiss Kant’s Anthropology at a cost. As a complex and many-sided thinker, Kant’s Anthropology helps to flesh out important aspects of his political and liberal theory that are routinely forgotten and misplaced. That, of course, is important in itself, and for understanding the different sides to the Kantian enterprise. And evidently there is a political dimension to this, too. The justificatory shift away from autonomy and metaphysics engendered by it also helps to take some of the pressure off rights in modern contexts. As Beck makes plain, Kant was not a liberal universalist, and so those who wish to export liberal democracy around the world cannot rely on Kantian ethics to do so. But I think there is also a uniting reason here. For, in the contrast of the Anthropology, we have an illustration of both the significance of reflecting on human nature in ethics—on what ‘we can and should make of ourselves’—as well as its inherent ambiguity and fallibility.

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