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Kant's Cosmopolitan Philosophy

The thinking of only a few great philosophers is entirely cosmopolitan. Immanuel Kant, the world citizen from Königsberg, is an outstanding exception, writes Otfried Höffe, professor for political philosophy at Tübingen University.

The thinking of only a few great philosophers is entirely cosmopolitan. Immanuel Kant, the world citizen from Königsberg, is an outstanding exception, writes Otfried Höffe, professor for political philosophy at the University of Tübingen.


Immanuel Kant, undated painting from around 1800

​​We understand the expression world citizenship above all in political terms. Since its beginnings, however, philosophy has attached a wider meaning to the term. The reason for this is self-evident: The medium of philosophy consists in general human reason that transcends all political, linguistic and cultural barriers.

The year 2004 marks Immanuel Kant's 200th anniversary of his death. In an age of globalisation, Kant's thinking is gaining a new relevance. Where extremely diverse cultures share the same world, and do so not only "in principle", as they did in the past, but in a way that is generally evident, culturally-independent thinking needs to be similarly evident. Argumentation is required that is not ethno-centric, but valid between and across cultures.

If such argumentation is combined with the minimum standards required for intercultural coexistence, with basic conditions of the rule of law and democracy, it may be referred to as political and, on account of its global dimension, as cosmopolitan and universal. Of course, it is not cosmopolitan in the legal, but in the epistemological sense, i.e. it is based on knowledge.

Moral cosmopolitanism

Kant extends this first, epistemological cosmopolitanism by adding a second, moral cosmopolitanism. His concept and criterion of the moral principle, the categorical imperative, even go so far as to make a principle of the essence of this cosmopolitanism. The categorical imperative demands that only principles ("maxims") be followed which may be conceived of or desired as a general law in the strictest sense.

And the examples Kant gives are in fact recognised as moral principles in practically all cultures, namely the ban on telling lies or being deceitful, and the command to help those in need.

The philosophy of "Perpetual Peace"

Finally, Kant’s legal and political thinking is cosmopolitan. Whereas the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and later of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, lacks a theory of an international league of peace based on the rule of law, Kant brilliantly develops such a theory in his philosophical sketch Perpetual Peace.

In spite of his general condemnation of war, which he presents as illegitimate except in case of self-defence, Kant endeavours to reform what he condemns for as long as it remains a reality.

In the preliminary articles of his sketch, he outlines how wars should be changed for the sake of perpetual peace, developing ways of reforming war with a view to bringing about the effects of peace.

At least three requirements are still relevant: that standing armies should gradually be abolished (the principle of disarmament); that no state should interfere by force with the constitution or government of another state, as states have the right to reform themselves (ban on intervention); and that a perpetual peace requires trust, which should not be put at risk through the manner in which war is waged.

A global state of peace and qualified cooperation law

The definitive articles deal with the three dimensions of public law. In "The Civil Constitution", Kant specifies two driving forces for a peaceful world order, firstly, experience of the horror of war, and secondly republicanism, which amounts more or less to global democratisation.

When these two forces come into play, citizens are consulted, and, in their own interests, are hardly likely to start a war of aggression. (A slight proviso: Under special circumstances, for example, when their power is far superior to that of their opponent, self-interest may not veto war).
In "The Law of World Citizenship", Kant advocates a law of cooperation limited by certain conditions.

Traders may offer their goods, researchers their knowledge, even missionaries their religion, but they may not use force. It does not matter whether individuals, groups, companies, peoples or states are involved, or whether the interests pursued relate to economics, culture, tourism, or even politics. While one may always knock on other peoples’ doors, one does not have the right of entry. One merely has the right of temporary sojourn, but not the right to be a permanent visitor.

A league of peace of all states

In the middle dimension, "The Law of Nations", Kant develops the idea of a peaceful league of all states. He remains sceptical towards a state consisting of existing nations, towards a federal world republic. Here, however, one should develop Kant’s thinking further on the foundation of his own basic ideas.

The moral imperative that only the law, guaranteed by official (constitutional) means, should decide upon any human conflicts, and not private opinion or force, also applies to inter-state conflicts. Since it is the task of individual nations to guarantee basic rights, however, the world republic, as a secondary state with relatively few competencies (a league of nations in the sense of a state consisting of nations) is only legitimate in legal coexistence with them.

In the long run, however, it is a moral imperative to set up courts with global competence, and also instances for globally applicable laws and their enforcement.

Thus, a world judiciary, a world parliament and a world government are required. For pragmatic reasons (to gather experience) and for reasons of moral law (because states may not be forced into joining a global legal order), the world republic will for a long time be no more than the totality of all the legal institutions gradually set up to deal with the world’s various areas of international conflict.

A more advanced world republic can only be created if it is prepared for dangers such as a distance from its citizens, over-bureaucratisation, an accumulation of power and a lack of political openness.

Two strategies already advocated by Kant for the promotion of peace are recommended, not as a substitute, but rather in preparation for a world republic: The democratisation of all states and the free exchange and trade that promotes global (economic, scientific and cultural) prosperity.

Otfried Höffe

Translation from German: Eileen Flügel

Otfried Höffe teaches philosophy and is Director of the Research Centre for Political Philosophy at the University of Tübingen.

Goethe Institute © 2004

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