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Kant and the Problem of Human Nature

Allen Wood

What is the human being?” Kant sometimes treated this question as the most fundamental question of all philosophy:

“The field of philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense can be brought down to the following questions:

  1. What can I know?

  2. What ought I to do?

  3. What may I hope?

  4. What is the human being?

Metaphysics answers the first question, morals the second, religion the third, and anthropology the fourth. Fundamentally, however, we could reckon all of this to anthropology, because the first three questions refer to the last one” (Ak 9:25).1
What Kant actually thought about this fundamental question is harder to discover. Kant’s lectures on anthropology, which he delivered regularly after 1773 and were the most popular lectures he gave, have not been widely studied and only recently have the transcriptions of them been published. But even in these lectures, Kant was reluctant to address the most fundamental question. As we shall see later, this reluctance anticipates some of the issues (about human freedom and about the historical variability of human ways of life) that have led others since Kant’s time to declare that there is no such thing as “human nature” uniformly and equally determining all human beings at all times and places. 2 But Kant himself does not doubt that there is a single nature common to human beings. Nor does he have any doubt that the investigation of this nature is the proper object of the branch of human knowledge he calls “anthropology”. Kant argues against doing what he calls a merely “local anthropology” – studying only the behavior or characteristics of human beings as they are found in a particular time and place. “Anthropology, is not a description of human beings but of human nature” (Ak 25:471). Further, he does not think that “local” knowledge of human beings is even a starting point for an investigation of human nature in general. On the contrary, Kant thinks that a “local knowledge of the world” must rest on a “general knowledge of the world” (a knowledge of human nature as such) if it is to be useful to us (Ak 25:734). Kant rightly sees that our deepest interests, both prudential and moral, in studying ourselves and other human beings always lies in discovering what the members of the human species have in common. This is what makes it both possible and necessary for us to take human beings as a subject of our investigation. The search for a common human nature, and the presupposition that there is here a genuine object of inquiry, is even what gives (paradoxical) force to all rhetorical declaration that there is no such thing. Like all such skeptical paradoxes, moreover, these declarations make sense at all only when seen as caveats or correctives against overconfidence in particular findings or methods. Taken literally and for themselves, they could not lead to any productive line of investigation, but would simply put and end to every study of human beings by depriving such inquiries of their point.

Pragmatic anthropology. Kant’s reluctance to discuss the fundamental question “What is the human being?” appears rather to be due to his convictions about its inherent difficulty, about our limited capacities to acquire knowledge of human nature in general, and about the poor state of anthropology at present even in relation to its inherently limited possibilities. We find these worries expressed as early as Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755):

“It is not even known at all to us what the human being now is, although consciousness and the senses ought to instruct us in this; how much less will we be able to guess what one day he ought to become. Nevertheless, the human soul’s desire for knowledge snaps very desirously at this object, which lies so far from it, and strives, in such obscure knowledge, to shed some light” (AN 1:366).

Kant’s desire to lecture on anthropology, and even to reconceptualize the study of human nature, was apparently stimulated in 1772 by his dissatisfaction with the ‘physiological’ approach to the subject taken by Ernst Platner. According to a 1773 letter to Marcus Herz, Platner’s popular treatise on anthropology provoked Kant to institute an empirical study of human nature aimed at avoiding Platner’s “futile inquiries as to the manner in which bodily organs are connected with thought” (Ak 10:146).3 Kant’s “pragmatic” approach is grounded on a repudiation of the idea that human beings can be fruitfully understood in merely physiological terms. Human beings must be viewed as free agents, not as mere links in a causal mechanism; anthropological inquiry must be the activity of a free agent engaging other free agents.

In calling his approach to anthropology ‘pragmatic’, Kant uses the term in four distinct (though related) senses.

(1) Pragmatic vs. physiological. First, as we have just seen, Kant distinguishes the pragmatic approach to the study of human nature from the physiological approach he finds in Platner. The latter, he says, studies only what nature makes of the human being, whereas pragmatic anthropology considers “what the human being as a free agent makes, or can and ought to make, of himself” (Ak 7:119). Pragmatic anthropology deals with human actions, and with human nature as something that is in part self-produced by free action. From this description, it looks like pragmatic anthropology is intended to include ‘practical anthropology’ -- the empirical part of moral philosophy (Ak 4:388), since that study too is supposed to deal with human nature in light of human freedom and what human beings ought to do. This impression is confirmed by some of the manuscript versions, especially by the Mrongovius version (1784-1785) which is most contemporaneous with the Groundwork. There the part of pragmatic anthropology entitled “Characteristic”, which deals with human character and action, is called the “practical part of anthropology” (Ak 25:1367).4 The scope of pragmatic anthropology is broader than that of practical anthropology, since it seeks knowledge of human nature in light of all the uses we may choose to make of this knowledge, and not only for its moral use.

The “self-making” of the human being denoted by “pragmatic anthropology” must be taken to include the way each of us is (and ought to be) made through the actions of others and the influence of society. In Kant’s view, human beings are human at all only through the actions of others who educate them: “A human being can become human only through education. He is nothing but what education makes of him” (Ak 9:443). Kant also holds that the development of our human predispositions is a social process, a result of the collective actions of society (most of which are unknown to and unintended by individual agents (Ak 8:17-18). Moreover, in Kant’s view the evil in human nature is a social product, and our fulfillment of our moral vocation ought to be social in nature (Ak 6:93-100): Our only hope for human moral improvement lies in an ethical community with shared or collective moral ends. (On all these points, the common characterization of Kant as a moral “individualist” could not be more mistaken.)

(2) Pragmatic vs. scholastic. Kant intends pragmatic anthropology to be a ‘knowledge of the world’ (Weltkenntnis) as distinct from a scholastic knowledge (Ak 7:120). The latter involves knowing or being acquainted with the world (die Welt kennen), but a truly pragmatic knowledge of human nature involves ‘having a world’ (Welt haben): “The one only understands the play (Spiel), of which it has been a spectator, but the other has participated (mitgespielt) in it” (Ak 7:120, cf. 25:9, 854-855, 1209-1210). In other words, pragmatic anthropology is supposed to involve the oriented sort of knowledge of human nature which people gain through interacting with others rather than the theoretical knowledge of a mere observer. At the same time, however, Kant emphasizes (as we saw earlier) that anthropology must be Weltkenntnis also in the sense that it is cosmopolitan in its scope.5 It must be a universal knowledge involving acquaintance with and reflection on the entire species (Ak 7:120).

(3) Pragmatic as useful. The term ‘pragmatic anthropology’ refers not only to our knowledge of human nature insofar as it is a result of human actions, but also to knowledge acquired with the aim of using it in action. When we study memory, for example, as pragmatic anthropologists, Kant says, we are not mere “spectators of our play of ideas” but we “use our observations about what has been found to hinder or stimulate memory in order to increase its scope and efficiency” (Ak 7:119). (This use of ‘pragmatic’ is explicitly derived from the idea of “pragmatic history,” or the study of history undertaken for the purpose of utility in action (Ak 25:1212). In Germany the term was particularly applied to Hume’s historical writings.6) “Utility” here is meant to encompass technical knowledge, prudential knowledge, and moral knowledge. Kant’s emphasis on the pragmatic character of his anthropology is partly to be explained by the popular intent of the lectures, which leads him to advertise the utility as well as the worldly character of the information he is providing.7

(4) Pragmatic as prudential. Yet in naming his lectures ‘pragmatic’ Kant is also sometimes thinking of his theory of the three kinds of rationality, contrasting the pragmatic with both the technical and the moral. That aligns the pragmatic with prudence – with a knowledge that furthers our happiness, especially through the use we make of other people (Ak 25: 469, 1210). Kant’s audience is often being told what will help them to use their own capacities to advance their ends, especially their well-being, and also what will help them make use of the characteristics of others for their own advantage (Ak 7: 312).

The empirical investigation of freedom. Alasdair MacIntyre doubtless speaks for many when he comments that Kant’s only conception of the human nature is one that involves merely “the physiological and non-rational side of man.”8 As we have seen, however, his assertion could not be farther from the truth. It was in fact precisely the project of repudiating Platner’s version of this conception of anthropology that got Kant interested in the subject in the first place. Nevertheless, there are real grounds in some of Kant’s texts for people to think that his conception of anthropology must be as MacIntyre describes it. We therefore need to look at the part of Kantian doctrine those texts express and show how it can be reconciled with his pragmatic approach to anthropology.

Remarks like MacIntyre’s result from an acquaintance primarily with Kant’s writings on metaphysics and the foundations of ethics, and from a certain (mistaken) projection of what his metaphysical views are thought to imply about the empirical investigation of human beings. We all know from the first two Critiques and the Groundwork that Kant regards human freedom as theoretically indemonstrable and empirically uncognizable. We know also that Kant regards the empirical world of nature as a strictly deterministic causal mechanism, in which no free agency could be found, and therefore that he locates our free agency in the noumenal world, inaccessible to empirical investigation. He therefore also infers that if human beings are considered merely as parts of the natural world that is accessible to our empirical cognition, human actions cannot be regarded as free.

"All actions of human beings in the domain of appearance are determined in conformity with the order nature, ... and if we could exhaustively investigate all the appearances of the wills of human beings, there would not be found a single human action we could not predict with certainty and recognize as proceeding necessarily from antecedent conditions. So far, then... there is no freedom" (KrV A550/B578).
"Since the past is no longer in my power, every action I perform is necessary from determining grounds which are not in my power; that means that at the time I act I am never free" (Ak 5:94). "If it were possible for us to have so deep an insight into a human being's character...that every, even the least incentive...were known to us, then his future conduct would be predicted with as great a certainty as the occurrence of a solar or lunar eclipse" (Ak 5:99).
Based on such eye-catching statements, it is easy to form lively expectations about Kant’s conception of the natural or empirical study of human nature. We think he must project anthropology or empirical psychology a mechanistic natural science that altogether excludes human freedom and treats human behavior as merely part of the mechanism of nature. We therefore do not expect to find in Kantian anthropology any empirical investigation of human beings as free agents, much less a naturalistic investigation of the development of the rational capacities which presuppose freedom. Kant’s talk of two “standpoints” and of considering ourselves in “speculative” and “practical respects” (G 4:455) are easily interpreted as a theory positing two radically different and wholly incommensurable conceptions on ourselves: that of the “spectator”, from which I must view all human beings (including myself) as causally determined natural automata, and that of the “agent”, from which I view myself as a free but wholly uncognizable member of a supernatural noumenal realm.9

But this picture entirely ignores Kant’s view, expressed quite clearly both in all three Critiques and throughout his ethical works, that our only coherent conception of ourselves, as moral agents or even as subjects of theoretical judgment, is one which presupposes from a practical standpoint that we are free (KrV A546-547/B574-575, A801-802/B829-830; Ak 4:447-448, 5:3-4, 50-57, 6:475, 8:13-14, 17). Although Kant never pretends to seek or find empirical proofs of human freedom, his empirical anthropology always proceeds on the fundamental presupposition that human beings are free, and at all times it interprets the empirical observations it makes solely from the standpoint of this presupposition. As pragmatic, Kantian anthropology even emphasizes those very features of human life which he takes to be empirical manifestations of freedom -- the development of new capacities, the variability of ways of life, the progress of human culture, the development of reason and the historical phenomenon of Enlightenment. Though Kant does anthropology from what he calls a “pragmatic viewpoint” (the standpoint of human action), he never suggests that this viewpoint is radically incommensurable with the viewpoint of an empirical observer of human affairs. Kant places anthropology right alongside physical geography, seeing these two studies as the two main divisions of our empirical acquaintance with the natural world in which we live (Ak 9:157; cf. KrV A849/B877). As we have seen, the contrast to which Kant appeals is not that between the moral agent and the detached spectator of a deterministic causal order, but that between the ‘scholastic’ standpoint, making detached observations of no use to the human world, and the “pragmatic” standpoint, engaged in the empirical investigation of human actions for the purpose of understanding others and interacting with them based on prudential and moral interests.

Statements like the ones quoted above from the first two Critiques must always be read in light of that fact that Kant denies that we can ever be in a position to have anything approaching an exhaustive knowledge of the appearances of the human will. These statements therefore express only metaphysical propositions. They do not indicate anything about any possible program of empirical research into human actions. That is because in Kant’s view, the “if” clauses in these statements about our knowledge of the causes of human actions are never true and never can be true. Thus in speaking of the unpredictability of human history Kant says explicitly that the future "is not discoverable from known laws of nature (as with eclipses of the sun and moon, which can be foretold with natural means)" (Ak 7:79).

There is no prospect that we will ever be in a position to have detailed knowledge of the psychological causes of individual human actions or to predict human actions as we predict astronomical events or physical interactions in mechanics. Metaphysically we know that as natural beings we fall under the universal causal mechanism. But Kant holds that our capacity to investigate this causality empirically is virtually nonexistent. Commonsense guesswork may enable us to foretell what people will do some of the time, but in Kant’s view there never could be anything approaching a predictive science of human behavior as the science of mechanics permits us to predict the motions of the heavens or of balls rolling down an inclined plane. If there is to be any empirical investigation of human nature at all, it will have to proceed on an altogether different basis.

One factor here is Kant’s denial that there is any solution to the mind-body problem (KrV A381-404). We can never know whether the empirical self is a material or an immaterial thing, and any noumenal self wholly transcends our powers of empirical cognition. No causal connections between the corporeal and the mental can even be made intelligible to us, much less empirically investigated. Hence any mechanistic laws governing acts of the mind would have to involve a psychological determinism cut off from the causality of objects of outer sense that is investigated by physics. As we shall see in just a moment, Kant also thinks our awareness of the appearances of inner sense is characterized by uncertainty and deceptiveness, and no study of them can ever achieve the precision of a genuine natural science (Ak 4:471, cf. Ak 7:121). Insofar as Kant has a conception of its methods at all, he thinks of anthropology as following the looser method of biology, based on regulative principles of teleological judgment.

The unsatisfactory state of anthropology. In Kant’s time the study of human nature was generally treated under the heading of ‘empirical psychology’ (it was Baumgarten’s treatment of this science that Kant used over many years as the text for his lectures on anthropology).10 Though his earliest lectures on anthropology (1772-1773) appear to equate anthropology with empirical psychology (Ak 25:8), he later refers to ‘empirical psychology’ as the part of anthropology which deals only with appearances of inner sense (Ak 25:243, KrV A347/B405). Kant was always dissatisfied with the way his predecessors dealt with both subjects. Both in his earliest lectures and in the Critique of Pure Reason, he criticizes the practice of confusing the questions of empirical psychology with those of metaphysics or transcendental philosophy, which must claim a priori status (Ak 25:8, 243, KrV A848-849/B876-877). Yet in the Critique he also makes the following strange concession:

“Nevertheless, in accord with the customary scholastic usage one must still concede [empirical psychology] a little place (although only as an episode) in metaphysics, and indeed from economic motives, since it is usage one not yet rich enough to comprise a subject on its own and yet it is too important for one to expel it entirely or attach it somewhere else where it may well have even less affinity than in metaphysics. It is thus merely a long-accepted foreigner, to whom one grants refuge for a while until it can establish its own domicile in a complete anthropology (the pendant to the empirical doctrine of nature)” (KrV A848-849/B876-877).

From this remark it is evident that Kant regards neither empirical psychology nor anthropology as currently in a satisfactory state. It is equally evident that he regards empirical psychology as only one part of anthropology, which in turn is a subfield of the empirical doctrine of nature, and hence a branch of “applied’ rather than “pure” philosophy (KrV A848/B876). But he regards such a subject as incapable of mathematical treatment, hence incapable of becoming a natural science in the proper sense (Ak 4:471).

“We must concede [he says] that psychological explanations are in very sad shape compared to physical ones, that they are forever hypothetical, and that for any three different grounds of explanation, we can easily think up a fourth that is equally plausible… Empirical psychology will hardly ever be able to claim the rank of a philosophical science, and probably its only true obligation is to make psychological observations (as Burke does in his work on the beautiful and sublime) and hence to gather material for future empirical rules that are to be connected systematically, yet to do so without trying to grasp these rules” (Ak 20:238).

Here Kant’s skepticism about empirical psychology contains two elements: first, doubts in principle about its prospects as a natural science, and second, doubts arising from the fact that the study of empirical psychology is presently still in a highly unsatisfactory state even relative to its limited possibilities. Kant is doubtful of our capacity to study human nature even when we do it as well as we can. For the present Kant seems to be recommending that anthropology content itself with making unsystematic observations, which are only later (as the science matures) to be taken up into empirical rules. But even when empirical psychology reaches a more satisfactory form, Kant seems to think that psychological explanations will never be more than hypothetical or conjectural. For this reason he has little to say about the scientific structure of empirical psychology. The same seems to be true of empirical anthropology (the larger study of which empirical psychology is a part).

Some of Kant’s doubts in principle about the prospects for anthropology are due to general epistemological considerations, such as the standards for scientific knowledge and the fact that the subject matter of anthropology cannot meet them. But other doubts could be described as due to the findings of anthropology itself. Kant thinks that what we do know about human nature gives us reason for distrusting our abilities to know ourselves.

The indefinability of human nature. Although he places the question “What is the human being?” at the very foundation of philosophy, Kant also thinks it is impossible to define what is peculiar to the human species. For, he says, this species is only one possible variant of rational nature, yet we are acquainted with no other variants with which to compare it and arrive at specific differentia (Ak 7:322). Whatever we say about human nature, its predispositions and its propensities, can have only a provisional character.

Since Kant’s time ‘anthropology’ has come to refer primarily to the study of the customs and folkways of different peoples. Kant’s sense of the term includes this, since he thinks the empirical observation of human behavior can be extended through travel or through reading the accounts of travelers (something Kant did avidly) (Ak 7:120). Histories, plays and novels – Kant specifically mentions Shakespeare’s tragedies, Molière’s comedies, Fielding’s novels and Hume’s history of England – are also “auxiliary” sources for the anthropologist, even though fictional works often represent human nature in an exaggerated fashion (Ak 7:121, 25: 7, 472, 734, 858, 1212-1214). B u as we noted earlier, Kant thinks all “local” knowledge of human beings presupposes a general or “cosmopolitan” knowledge of human nature, without which it can never be satisfactory or pragmatically useful.

The real difficulty of anthropology lies in discerning regularities in human behavior which might be indicative of human nature as such. Most regularities in people’s behavior, Kant observes, are due to habit. But habits provide reliable information only about how a person acts in familiar situations. We could tell which regularity a habit really displays only if we could see how it might make the person behave in unusual circumstances. Yet if we look at human beings in varying situations, we see that different circumstances merely produce different habits. What habits tell us about a person’s underlying principles of action is always ambiguous, for any habit is consistent with a variety of traits or dispositions. Further, habits must be ambiguous in this way if they are to perform one of their essential psychic functions, which is to conceal and disguise people’s real motives and principles (from others, and from themselves). This makes it difficult in principle to formulate any reliable generalizations at all about human dispositions. Kant concludes that it is "very difficult for anthropology to raise itself to the rank of a formal science" (Ak 7:121).

The difficulty of self-knowledge. As we have now begun to see, Kant's anthropology involves a complex individual psychology, but this positive theory itself helps to underwrite some of Kant’s doubts about the possibility of human self-knowledge. For it forces us not only to the conclusion that the laws governing human behavior are extremely variable, but also compels us to admit that their discovery is blocked by obstacles thrown up by human nature itself. Kant denies that we can know even in our own case the principles on which we act. Kantian anthropology says that human beings have a strong tendency to conceal and disguise the truth about themselves “The human being has from nature a propensity to dissemble” (Ak 25:1197). If someone notices we are observing him, then he will either become embarrassed, and hence unable to show himself as he really is, or else he will deliberately dissemble, and refuse to show himself as he is (Ak 7:121, 25:857-859).

In order to see human nature as it truly is, we would have to observe people’s unselfconscious behavior. But human nature in its full development occurs only in civilization, and it is one of the effects of civilization to make people more vulnerable to the opinions of others, hence more sensitive to they way others perceive them. So in its most fully developed form, human behavior will not be unselfconscious at the same time it is being observed. “In crude people their entire humanity is not yet developed,” but if we observe more cultivated people, “then [we] run into the difficulty that the more fully formed (gebildet) the human being is, the more he dissembles and the less he wants to be researched (erforscht) by others” (Ak 25:857).

One way to avoid this difficulty might be by engaging in self-observation. But then we must either do this when we are in a purely contemplative mood -- hence when the true nature of our desires is not displaying itself -- or we must attempt it when we are agitated and active, but in that state our own motives are bound to distort both the data themselves and our observation of it, so that we are likely to misrepresent ourselves to our own observation, and our observation itself is likely to involve self-deception. "When our incentives are active, we are not observing ourselves; and when we are observing ourselves, our incentives are at rest" (Ak 7:121).

Kant distinguishes between merely "noticing" oneself (which we do haphazardly all the time) and "observing" oneself (in a methodical way). The latter (he claims) would be necessary for a scientific anthropology, but it is inherently untrustworthy. When a person is being observed by others, "he wants to represent himself and makes his own person into an artificial illusion" (Ak 7:132). It is just the same when we study ourselves: "Without noticing what we are doing, we suppose we are discovering within us what we ourselves have put there" (Ak 7:133). Kant is thus very much in agreement with Nietzsche's critique of "naive empiricism": the "inner" world of our sensations and feelings is even less trustworthy and more "phenomenal" than the world of external objects. Hence those who have sought to make a meticulous record of their inner lives usually record only lies and self-deceptions; zeal in self-honesty leads sooner to enthusiasm and madness than to truth. For those who undertake “this hard descent into the Hell of self-knowledge” (Ak 25:7), coming to know the deeper truth about oneself usually produces only anguish and despair, which unfits them equally for knowledge and for action (Ak 7:132-133). “Nothing is more harmful to a human being than being a precise observer of himself” (Ak 25: 252); “All self-scrutinizers fall into the gloomiest hypochondria” (Ak 25:863, cf.. 25:477-478, 865).11

When Kant's readers come across statements of his view that individual human motivation is opaque and even self-opaque (for instance, in the Groundwork, at Ak 4:407), they tend to associate it with his metaphysical theory of freedom, which locates our agency entirely in the intelligible world. But this is just another form in which Kant’s views on anthropology have been misunderstood on the basis of false projections based on a misreading of his metaphysics, and invalid inferences about what it implies. It would make no sense to draw inferences from the unknowable postulate (which is made only for practical purposes and impossible to prove theoretically) that we are free in an unknowable intelligible world to conclusions about what is true empirically about the causes of our behavior or about what might be empirically knowable about them. Empirical self-opacity could therefore never be validly inferred from the doctrine of noumenal freedom when that doctrine is given the status Kant gives it.

In fact, matters make sense only if viewed just the other way round. It would make little sense to draw empirical conclusions about how far we can understand human behavior from a metaphysical theory whose truth Kant insists we can never know. On the other hand, a practical postulate of noumenal freedom remains a more defensible option if we are forced to acknowledge that we can never have satisfactory empirical knowledge of the way the natural mechanism affects our actions. If we had reliable access to the natural causes of our behavior, then it would be quite far-fetched to claim that the real causes of what we do are different from these and transcend all experience.

Thus Kant’s view that we are psychologically opaque to ourselves and to others has little to do with his metaphysical postulate of noumenal freedom and much more to do with a set of ideas more often associated with later thinkers, such as Nietzsche and Freud. Kant holds that most of our mental life consist of "obscure representations", that is, representations which are unaccompanied by consciousness; if we ever learn about them at all, we must do so through inference (Ak 7:135-137). This is partly because many representations are purely physiological in origin, and never need to reach consciousness. But in some cases, Kant thinks, we have a tendency to make our representations obscure by pushing them into unconsciousness. "We play with obscure representations and have an interest, when loved or unloved objects are before our imagination, in putting them into the shadows" (Ak 7:136). The paradigm example of this, he thinks, is the way people deal with their sexual thoughts and desires.

Humanity and other animal species. Despite the difficulty of saying anything determinate about the nature of the human species, Kant does attempt to identify, at least tentatively, both (a) what makes humans different from other animal species and (b) what seems to distinguish human beings from the general concept of a possible species of rational beings in general. Regarding our differentiation from other species of animals, Kant says:

“Thus what remains to us for indicating the human being’s class in the system of living nature and thus characterizing him is nothing but this: he has a character that he himself makes, in that he has the faculty of perfecting himself in accordance with ends he takes for himself; whereby he can make himself, from an animal endowed with a capacity for reason (animal rationabilis), into a rational animal (animal rationale); and as such he first, preserves himself and his species; second; exercises, instructs and brings up his species for domestic society; and third, governs it as a whole that is systematic (ordered in accordance with rational principles) and fitted for society” (Ak 7:321-322).

Following Rousseau, Kant identifies as the distinctive feature of humanity the faculty of self-perfection.12 Kant rejects the traditional definition of the human being as animal rationale, allowing only that the human being is an animal rationabilis (Ak 7:321). Human beings are capable of directing their lives rationally, but it is not especially characteristic of them to exercise this capacity successfully. Rather, rationality must be viewed as a problem for set for human beings by their nature, for whose solution not nature but human beings are responsible. The traditional definition is also defective in that it belongs to rational capacities to open our nature to modification by being the source of perfectibility. Reason, regarded as an empirical sign of our freedom, is precisely our capacity for an indeterminate mode of life, one that is open-ended and self-devised, in contrast with the life of other animals, which is fixed for them by instinct (Ak 8:111-115). So understood, the traditional definition is only a confession that human nature is in principle indefinable in the way the natures of other living beings are; yet this characteristic itself, understood in the right way, can be used as something like a definition.

In the passage quoted above, Kant distinguishes three functions of the capacity for reason in human life. Human beings alone determine for themselves how they will live; they set their own ends and then develop for themselves the faculties they will need in order to achieve those ends. This applies first and most fundamentally at the level of the preservation of individuals and the species. For all other living species, Kant thinks, their mode of life is determined for them by natural instinct, and their innate faculties are suited to that mode of life. But human beings must invent their own relationship to nature, and Kant is struck by the wide variety of such relationships human beings have adopted in different climates and situations on the earth’s surface. Second, in domestic society human beings must pass on their perfected capacities from one generation to another through education. (Kant realizes, here at least, that the difference between human beings and other creatures is really only a matter of degree: From Linnaeus he draws the observation that young birds must be taught by their parents the songs characteristic of their species, and that the songs of finches and nightingales differ from one country to another, thus showing that animals are capable of “a tradition, as it were” (Ak 7:323 and note).13) Third, human beings are capable of determining for themselves the form of their social interactions with one another, by adopting shared principles for the government of social wholes.

These three functions of reason in human life seem to correspond to three rational “predispositions” ascribed to human beings a bit later in the Anthropology. His account parallels his discussion of human predispositions in the Religion (Ak 6:26-28), but with some interesting modifications. In common with other animals, human beings have a predisposition to “animality”, to instinctive desires and behavior aiming at self-preservation, reproduction of the species, and sociability (association with members of their own kind). But human beings also have predispositions to “humanity” – to set their own ends according to reason -- and to “personality” – to give themselves, and to obey moral laws through pure reason. In the Anthropology, however, he divides the predisposition to humanity into the “technical” predisposition to devise and apply means to the ends people set, and the “pragmatic” predisposition to unite their ends into a single end of well-being or happiness, and to interact rationally with other human beings so as to make use of them to promote one’s own happiness (Ak 7:322).

We may conjecture that Kant sees the technical predisposition of humanity as corresponding to the function of self-preservation, by devising means to acquire food and the other necessaries of life for oneself and others. Kant treats the transition from a hunter-gatherer and a pastoral economy to an agricultural economy that can sustain urban life as the crucial development in human history, underlying property relations and (consequently) forms of the political state. His views on this matter strikingly anticipate Karl Marx’s materialist conception of history.14 The pragmatic predisposition would then correspond to the second function, that of educating the species and transmitting learned behavior through historical traditions. Thus Kant goes on to identify the pragmatic predisposition with the human capacity for culture. This connects the transmission of cultural tradition both to our prudential concern with individual well-being and to the interactions between people in which they attempt to use one another for selfish advantage. It is there also that he asks the Rousseauian question whether human beings are ultimately better off (happier) for the progress of culture, or whether they would not be more content if they remained in a crude or uncivilized state (Ak 7:323-324). Finally, the moral predisposition to personality would correspond to the function of governing society through self-given rational laws. The main issue here is the conflict between our innate propensity toward evil and our capacity for moral good, and which will eventually prove victorious in the course of human history (Ak 7:324).

Kant sums up his discussion of the three predispositions in a way that further supports the conjecture, identifying three kinds of historical progress:

“The summation of pragmatic anthropology in regard to the vocation (Bestimmung) of the human bein and the characteristic of his education (Ausbildung) is the following. The human being is destined (bestimmt) through reason to be in a society with human beings, and in it through art and sciences to cultivate, civilize and moralize himself” (Ak 7:324).

“Cultivation” is the historical development of our technical predisposition to devise means to our ends (most basically, our end of self-preservation); “civilization” is the historical development of our pragmatic predisposition to pursue our total well-being or happiness through modes of life involving other people which can be transmitted from each generation to the next through tradition and education; “moralization” is the development of our predisposition to personality, devising and striving to obey rational laws through which the terms people’s social interactions themselves are made rational, and human society becomes a system of ends united and combined -- what the principle of morality calls a “realm of ends” (Ak 4:433).

Humanity and other possible rational species. The distinguishing mark of the human species in relation to other possible rational beings, Kant also offers a conjecture:

“What is characteristic of the human species in comparison with the idea of possible rational beings on earth in general is that nature has placed in them the germ of discord and willed that out of it their own reason should produce concord, or at least the constant approximation to it; which latter is indeed in the idea the end, but in the plan of nature the first (discord) is the means for a highest, to us inscrutable, wisdom – to effect the perfection of the human being through progressing culture, even if through much sacrifice of the joys of life for human beings” (Ak 7:322).

In comparison to other animals, what distinguishes human beings is that they have a collective history which they themselves are to make, by “cultivating”, “civilizing” and “moralizing” themselves through their faculty of reason. In comparison to the idea of other possible rational beings on earth, what distinguishes human beings is the specific conditions under which their rational faculty has developed, and, in light of these conditions, the specific historical task their reason sets for them. Human reason develops, namely, under conditions of “discord”, or as Kant elsewhere calls it, “antagonism” or “unsociable sociability,” that is, “the propensity [of human beings] to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition that constantly threatens to break the society up” (Ak 8:20). Human beings are sociable creatures in the sense that their animality makes them seek out members of their own kind, both for reproduction and for co-operative activities relating to their survival. But beyond this, they are also social creatures insofar as they possess the rational capacity to be self-aware and to esteem themselves. For as nature has made them, this self-esteem is combined with a competitive impulse to seek a superior status in relation to other human beings, and to wish that things might go as I will them rather than as others will them to go.

"[The human being] finds in himself the unsociable characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. Thus he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, for his own part, is inclined to oppose others. Yet it is this resistance which awakens all the powers of the human being, making him overcome his propensity to laziness; and it drives him, by means of the mania for honor, domination or property, to seek status among his fellows, whom he cannot stand, but also cannot stand to leave alone" (Ak 8:21).

Social life, therefore, is for human beings a life of discord and discontent, which, since these features of life are the means by which nature develops our rational capacities, tends to be all the more so the more we become cultivated and civilized. “It is as if [nature] had cared more about [the human being's] rational self-esteem than his being well off" (Ak 8:20). Yet discontent and discord are only nature’s means for developing rational capacities that are capable of directing human life to ends that are quite different, and even fundamentally opposed, to those devices through which nature has made them possible. And the same social condition under which reason develops provides the conditions for mutual communication and a “pluralistic” perspective, which is capable of overcoming the “egoism” of our unsociable sociability and of making reason self-critical through the systematic inclusion of the point of view of others within rational thinking (Ak 7:128-130, 200, 228-229, cf. 5:294-296). The moral law given by reason tells us that all rational beings are of the same absolute worth as ends in themselves (Ak 4:429). This law directs us not to seek to dominate others or resist their ends, but instead to combine our ends with theirs into a single mutually supporting system, or “realm” of ends (Ak 4:433). Consequently, from the standpoint of this law, the self-conceited impulse to have one’s own way is a propensity to evil, which must be combated through the struggle for virtue. Since the source of the evil against which we struggle is social, it would be futile for individuals in isolation each to strive after his own virtue; so the struggle against it must take a social form. But since the law of virtue is a law of autonomy, and virtue must rest on a free disposition, the “ethical community” which struggles for it must be voluntary rather than coercive. Its model is not a political state but a rational and enlightened form of religious community (Ak 6:94-102).
Human nature as social and historical. To the extent that Kant has a conception of human nature, therefore, what is fundamental to it is a conception of human beings as having a collective history which is theirs to make freely, and in this history a vocation to struggle against their own propensities to unsociability, self-conceit and inequality toward a free and universal community in which all human striving is combined into a single “realm of ends”. This conception of human nature is an authentically enlightenment conception, just as Kant’s critical philosophy as a whole is the greatest and most characteristic product of the intellectual and social movement, known as ‘the Enlightenment’, which remains the unique source in the world for all progressive thought and action (at least insofar as it has its roots anywhere in the Western tradition).

Loose terminology such as “individualistic” and “ahistorical” can of course bear many senses. But once we come to understand the way Kant raised and responded to the question: “What is the human being?” which he saw as fundamental to all philosophy, we are in a good position to see that when these two terms have been used pejoratively in polemics against both Kant and the Enlightenment, they have nearly always been ignorantly misapplied. Kant is typical of Enlightenment thought in defending the rights and dignity of human individuals, and his theory of moral responsibility eschews any notions of collective guilt (or, therefore, of collective crimes and punishments). But he shares with Rousseau the thesis that the ground of human evil is social, and he maintains that the remedy for evil must be equally so. Though only individuals are morally responsible, and individuals are to be held responsible only for their own misdeeds, the moral progress of humanity is not to be expected merely as the result of the contingent strivings of particular individuals. Just as enlightenment, or the disposition to think for oneself, is possible only by means of an enlightened public, sharing their thoughts, correcting one another’s errors, and encouraging one another to act in accordance with their human dignity, so the moral progress of the human species is to be expected only when people consciously set collective ends, swallowing up their individual good in a collective goal – as Kant thinks they do in the relation of friendship, and as he hopes they will do in a rationally reformed universal religious community of all humanity that regards the highest good as a social good. It is with an expression of hope for such a universal community of all humanity, striving after a “systematic cosmopolitan combination” (or realm of ends), that Kant brings his lectures on anthropology to a close:

"In working against the [evil] propensity [in human nature]… our will is in general good, but the accomplishment of what we will is made more difficult by the fact that the attainment of the end can be expected not through the free agreement of individuals, but only through the progressive organization of citizens of the earth into and toward the species as a system that is cosmopolitically combined" (Ak 7:333).


1 Kant’s writings will be cited here by volume:page number in the Berlin Akademie Ausgabe (Berlin: W. DeGruyter, 1902-), abbreviated ‘Ak’, except for the Critique of Pure Reason, which will be abbreviated ‘KrV’ and cited by A/B page numbers. The fact that Kant regarded anthropology as fundamental in this way has been widely known since through Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, translated by James Churchill, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1962), p. 214. The first three famous questions (without the anthropological one listed as more fundamental, are most prominently asked at KrV A805/B853.

2 “[This question] is encountered neither in the lecture notes nor in Kant’s notes for the lectures. It appears in the field of anthropology only in a Kantian manuscript (still kept today in Rostock) in which Kant set down the text for the [Anthropology from a Pragmatic Standpoint], but was not transferred into the book It contradicts the sober inventory of experiences with which Kant wanted to introduce students to ways of dealing both with themselves and with other human beings” (Reinhard Brandt, “Kants pragmatische Anthropologie: Die Vorlesung,” Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 19 (1994), p. 43) (cf. Ak 25:859).

3 Ernst Platner, Anthropologie für Ärtzte und Weltweisen (Leipzig: Dukische Buchhandlung, 1772). The book was reviewed by Kant’s student and friend Marcus Herz in the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek 20 (1773); Kant’s comments about his own lectures on anthropology are in reference to this review.

4 The explicit division into “didactics” and “characteristics” is found only in Kant’s published version (Ak 7: 123, 284). But ‘Characteristic’ is distinguished by a new heading in Collins (1772-1773) (Ak 25:218), Parow (1772-1773) (Ak 25:426), Friedländer (1775-1776) (Ak 25:624), Pillau (1778-1779) (Ak 25:814), Menschenkunde (1781) (Ak 25: 1156), Mrongovius (1784-1785) (Ak 25:1367); in Busolt (1788-1789), character is discussed under the heading “Doctrine of Method” (Ak 25:1530) .

5 Kant distinguishes two parts of Weltkenntnis: pragmatic anthropology and physical geography (Ak 25:733).

6 For example, by Herder. See also Reinhard Brandt and Werner Stark, Einleitung, Ak 25:xv, and Reinhard Brandt and Heiner Klemme, Hume in Deutschland (Marburg: Schriften der Universitätsbibliothek, 1989), pp. 53-55.

7 Kant contrasts his “pragmatic” approach to anthropology with the “pedantic” approach of Platner, and in this connection even makes a virtue of the popularity of his approach, which he thinks is necessitated by the inherent limits and the unsatisfactory state of our present knowledge of human nature: “Our anthropology can be read by everyone, even by ladies getting dressed (bei der Toilette)” (Ak 25:856-857).

8 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 52.

9 “Kant does not and cannot offer a single model of human action that can both serve for empirical explanation and guide choice” (Onora O’Neill, Constructions of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 70). This way of reading Kant’s doctrine of the “two standpoints” is extremely common, even among those who are uncomfortable with his theory of noumenal freedom. Cf. Paton, The Categorical Imperative (New York: Harper and Row, 1947), p. 267; Lewis White Beck, Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 194-196; Beck, The Actor and the Spectator (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1975); Robert Paul Wolff, The Autonomy of Reason (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p.222; Wood, “Kant’s Compatibilism,” in Wood (ed.) Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 57-72; Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. x-xii. And Kant is often appealed to by those who think that there is a radical difference between the standpoint of an agent and that of an observer, so that the former view of ourselves is radically opposed to any scientific or naturalistic picture of ourselves. (For instance, see George Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding (Ithaca: Cornell, 1971), pp. 198-199.) This interpretation may be largely correct as an account of Kant’s solution to the metaphysical problem of free will, but it goes wrong whenever it projects metaphysical hypotheses (which can never be more than problematic in Kant’s view) onto Kant’s theory of our empirical knowledge of human nature.

10 The earliest discussion of Kant’s source for these lectures in Baumgarten is Benno Erdmann, Reflexionen Kants zur kritischen Philosophie (Leipzig: Fues, 1882). A more recent treatment is Norbert Hinske, “Kants Idee der Anthropologie,” in Heinrich Rombach (ed.) Die Frage nach dem Menschen (Munich: Alber, 1966).

11 Kant is borrowing his phrase from J. G. Hamann, Abälardi virbii Chimärische Einfälle über den Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, J. Nadler (ed.) Sämmtliche Werke (Vienna: Herder, 1949-1957), 10:164: “This descent into the Hell of self-knowledge paves the way for deification” (cf. SF 7:55). Kant’s principal targets here are religious self-observers, such as Pascal, Haller, Gellert and Lavater (Ak 7:132-133, 25: 863). But he speaks approvingly of Montaigne’s cooler and more skeptical style of self-examination, because he sees it not as a morbid exercise in introversion but as an invitation to put oneself in the author’s place, and hence to make observations of universal validity (Ak 25:472, 735). Knowledge of oneself as an individual is for Kant a moral duty, always burdensome and always to be undertaken soberly, with a view to moral improvement (MS 6:441-442). Those to whom self-examination is an occasion either for pleasure or for moral paralysis are not discharging that duty properly, and are substituting lies and deceptions for the knowledge they should be getting.

12 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Oeuvres complètes, ed. B. Gagnebin and M, Raymond (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1964), 3:142-143, 202-214.

13 But Kant sees this fact as generating a puzzle: “But where did the first song come from? For it was not learned, and if it arose in accord with instinct, why do not the young inherit it?” This puzzle seems to be consequent on the extreme strictness with which Kant takes the thesis that animal behavior results solely from instinct. According to this thesis, as Kant understands it, in the brutes learned capacities themselves must be explainable entirely on the basis of instinctive capacities for learning. Since the first song taught by a bird to other members of its species could not have been learned in this way, and is not itself instinctive, Kant’s conception of the instinctive capacities of brutes seems incapable of explaining it. Kant conjectures that birds may have begun singing by imitating sounds they heard from other sources in nature (Ak 7:323 note). But I think we should just admit that this is one respect, among others, in which Kant tends to oversimplify and underestimate the mental capacities of nonhuman animals.

14 See Allen Wood, “Kant’s Historical Materialism,” in Jane Kneller and Sidney Axinn (eds.), Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, and Kant’s Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Chapter 7.

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