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Ten Practical Reason in the Revolution: Kant's Dialogue with the French Revolution
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The First Great Political Philosopher of Modernity

And yet, we can draw the unambiguous conclusion from the sparse facts at our disposal that some of the central actors of the Revolution not only heard vague rumors about the crucial significance of Kant's philosophy but even guessed that the Revolution, which in Robespierre's words intended to real-


ize the promises of philosophy, needed Kant's theory, or a confrontation with this theory, for its own special purposes. In letters written to a friend in 1794–1795, Abbé Grégoire, the actual head of the constitutional clergy and one of the earlier founding fathers of the important, socially and religiously radical Le cercle social , made inquiries about Kant's book on religion. (He obviously had in mind the Religion Within Reason Alone .) And he knew what he was looking for. Grégoire needed a theory that would serve as the grounding for his complex strategy of a Christian democracy which fought against the terrorism of the earlier periods of the Revolution, against the relapse pure and simple into the prerevolutionary hierarchic structure of the Gallican church (which was the end result of the Napoleonic concordat), and against the barely concealed atheism of the leaders of the French Republic between the tenth of Thermidor and the eighteenth of Brumaire. Grégoire correctly guessed that Kant's theory, banned in Prussia, could serve as the foundation of such a position. What he could not realize without actually reading the book was that for Kant even Christian democracy was an unacceptable degree of institutionalization of the "invisible church."[5]

Sieyès, who along with Condorcet was one of the greatest theoretical minds among the protagonists of the French revolutionary drama, expressed an even livelier interest in Kant's philosophy. When Wilhelm Humboldt visited Paris in 1798, Sieyès, then for a moment back again at the apogee of political power and gravely concerned with designing the proper constitution for the Revolution after so many constitutional crises, organized a colloquium for Humboldt in which Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, and other idéologues participated. The purpose of the seminar was to get an authentic summary of Kant's philosophy from someone who seemed to be the adequate interpreter. When the semiofficial Moniteur published an enthusiastic review of Kant's book on perpetual peace in 1796, it characterized the German philosopher as a fellow republican. From this source alone Sieyès must have been aware that Kant not only had a general theory of knowledge and morals but also a political philosophy.[6] And despite the apparent fiasco of the encounter, the theoretical instinct of the great revolutionary statesman was correct again. Throughout his active career from the convocation of the Assembly of the Three Estates to the eighteenth of Brumaire, Sieyès had been constantly preoccupied with how best to establish the republican institutions. Their essence was for Sieyès, just as for Kant, not a matter of technical arrangement. Both of them were convinced that the appellation of the form of the state is secondary. What is of primary relevance for the Republic are the actual forms of the channels through which genuine power is exercised.

The most famous encounter between Kant and the theoretical-political actors of the Revolution was his public debate in 1798 with Benjamin Constant over the "supposed right of telling a lie motivated by philanthropy," as


Kant characterized Constant's position. It is almost never appreciated that this exchange had a political dimension as well as an ethical one. Constant intended, with his famous parallel between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns, the former illiberal, the latter liberal, to provide a theoretical framework for the Republic that could serve as a safeguard against both Jacobin terror and a (new or old) kind of personal power. Paradoxically, neither of the polemicists realized that they shared a common premise: the criticism of ancient democracies as illiberal establishments. For Constant, Kant's ethical rigorism was doubly suspect. He believed he detected in what he regarded as Kant's collapsing of the ethical dimension into legality the vestiges of a terrorisic moral rigor similar to the ruthless style of ancient city-states and the "democratic" zeal of Robespierre , which had just recently been overthrown in Thermidor but which could return any time. A moral rigor of this kind, Constant was convinced, gave no latitude for the individual's self-defense against merciless laws. Furthermore, Constant was deeply troubled by Kant's very example: our absolute moral duty, regardless of consequences, to truthfully answer the question of a prospective murderer who comes to our house to make inquiries into the whereabouts of an innocent victim. For who could not grasp immediately that Kant's example, wittingly or unwittingly, referred to a situation that had been typical of the Jacobin terror, its atmosphere of constant house searches and quick executions? Without discussing the merit of the issue, I would only state that of the two positions that clashed here, Constant's thesis represented the mainstream liberal, habeas corpus principle according to which one owes obligations only to such laws as have been (directly or indirectly) endorsed by him or by his representatives. Constant further contended that truthfulness, a moral duty, implied no legal obligations. But for Kant, in spite of certain important similarities between his theory and Constant's political philosophy, there was no difference between the rigor of moral and of legal obligations: both barred exceptions.[7]

The encounter of representative French revolutionary actors with Immanuel Kant's philosophy ended on a truly bizarre note. In 1801 Napoleon, then still nominally the first consul of the Republic, summoned Villers, the first French Kant expert. In his usually curt manner Napoleon assigned Villers to make a concise and comprehensible summary of the famous German theory within a short time. The result, which was predictable from the confrontation between the philosopher of perpetual peace and the founder of modern militarism, the thinker for whom the mere pragmatics of politics were worthless and the supreme Realpolitiker , was disastrous. Napoleon deleted Kant from his personal list of VIPs and publicly called him yet another sciarlatano in the style of Cagliostro.[8]

Although these representative examples perhaps prove that "the French Revolution" was ready and ripe for a dialogue with Kant's philosophy, there


is no need for extensive demonstration of such a readiness on the part of Kant even though he referred explicitly and critically only once to a statesman of the revolution: Danton.[9] Such a demonstration is superfluous because, put simply, it was the French Revolution that activated the latent political dimension of Kant's philosophy . There could be no doubt whatsoever that in Kant's view, even prior to the French Revolution, the proper position of the philosophical faculty had been "on the left," as he was to put it later in The Strife of the Faculties . For this, it suffices to read "What Is Enlightenment?" But the new critical philosophy born in the Copernican turn had not extended its legislation to the public sphere proper before 1789.

However, the outbreak of the Revolution, this "crucial fact of nature," imposed the obligation on the philosopher to publicly draw the political conclusions from his critical philosophy. And Kant, who was often accused of "philistinism," lived up to this obligation to the full, albeit sometimes in a thinly veiled manner that never deceived the authorities.[10] Despite the enormous general theoretical results of the works written in the 1790s, The Metaphysics of Morals, On the Common Saying, Religion Within Reason Alone, On Perpetual Peace , and The Strife of the Faculties can be characterized as major works of modern political philosophy.

The reader who is familiar with the history of the French Revolution will find in these works a continuous philosophical commentary by Kant on almost all crucial junctures and decisions of revolutionary France. He was deeply concerned with the fundamental problem of the "legality" of a revolution, and, within the issue of legality, with the ways the Assembly of the Three Estates had transformed itself into a Constituent Assembly. He had a philosophical and highly critical opinion on the relationship between the king (as the repository of the executive power) and the Constituent Assembly, on the manner of practically suspending the king's executive power by the Assembly, and on the unification (which, Kant hoped, was only temporary) of the chief executive and the supreme legislative powers in one body. He had a deep and balanced opinion on the reform of the Gallican church, one that neither the revolutionaries nor the church dignitaries would have been happy with, but which had an important message for both contending factions. Everyone is familiar with his flat condemnation of the trial of Louis XVI which has never ceased to be the topic of heated debates up until today. Kant also had a passionate interest in the constitutional problems and the incessant constitutional crises of the Revolution.

In this dialogue of Kant's with the Revolution, which is not a mere aggregate of aperçus but which sprang from profound meditation on the problems posed by the Revolution under the primacy of practical reason , a completely modern type of political thought emerged. Immanuel Kant, and not Hegel, who forged a methodological axiom from this attitude, was the first great political philosopher of modernity. In marked contrast to most of his predecessors,


Kant did not design political—philosophical blueprints for future action from past models. Rather, through constant thought experiments, Kant transformed the present process understood as history into the raw material as well as a treasure trove of unresolved dilemmas for political philosophy. The Kantian attitude of the observer was not one of au-dessus-mêlée . Rather it was the stance of a new political philosophy and the end of the typical approach of political thought of the Enlightenment. Kant the spectator was far from impartial. But he contended that both the attitudes of a fully committed militant and that of the philosopher—king (one that he explicitly rejected and which was merely the obverse position of the king who reigns philosophically) were incompatible with a political philosophy under the primacy of practical reason.[11]

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