Three Hundred Years of Progress and Reason

The original, Kantian, if you like, anthropology will be common to everyone. If this is so, we have the grounds for building a new world order, one which is organically acceptable for the entire planet. It remains for us, also in the Kantian way, to hope for this.

Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential thinkers in the world, was born three hundred years ago. Generally, he was perhaps too optimistic, believing that humanity had the potential for a good life. It is interesting, of course, to understand how wisely people approached this potential.

Like us, Kant lived during turbulent times. He witnessed several major wars, such as the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War (which some historians refer to as a World War), several partitions of Poland (with the active participation of Frederick II, a ruler whom Kant admired), and, finally, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

It is clear that these events forced Kant, as well as many of his contemporaries, to reflect on the reasons behind what was happening, human nature, the factors that determine specific choices, and the ways to make the world a more harmonious place. However, unlike the majority of his peers, Kant stood out as a true genius with a remarkable work ethic. In essence, he formulated a philosophical framework within which European thinking evolved, and not European alone.

There is no doubt that Immanuel Kant was committed to seeking universal answers to fundamental questions that concern all people living on our planet. A natural question arises, however: are there any universal values on earth that unconditionally unify everyone? Are there goals and objectives that are recognized and shared in every corner of the globe? Kant believed that there are, and for a pragmatic reason: ethical principles function more or less similarly throughout the world. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche referred to Kant as a “Chinese from Königsberg.” Despite the seeming oddity of this remark, there is some meaning behind it.

As previously mentioned, the issues of practical life that concerned Kant have not lost their relevance even today. Today, we seek to understand how to regulate human behaviour in a way that minimizes harm to others, if possible. That is, we aim to prevent acts of violence that occur without justification or purpose. Do such hypothetical possibilities exist? If Kant’s philosophy is to be believed, they do. His understanding of ethical behaviour, the foundation of moral conduct, holds that, in theory, all individuals can successfully cooperate despite religious and cultural differences.

Each individual possesses a moral compass within their soul, enabling them to recognize their ethical obligations.

As the foundations of morality are shared by all, it follows that, under certain circumstances, society, both within individual countries and globally, can achieve a relatively comfortable state for its members. Kant, of course, emphasizes that this requires time, enlightenment (which he understands deeply), and there will be challenges along the way, but it is possible.

In this regard, I reiterate, Kant was a political and historical optimist who believed in a global approach. This approach is rational and logical.

Considering the current state of the world, it appears that there are values and principles that can be regarded as universal and relevant in any or almost any country.

If you believe in modern scientific theories, then all humans on Earth share a common ancestry. Skin colour, eye colour, and height do not significantly determine our individual characteristics; instead, humanity forms a single family that is subject to similar biological laws, regardless of whether they concern reproduction or disease.

This leads to the conclusion that our diverse mythologies, original ancient beliefs about humanity, nature, life’s origin and death, although varied in detail, share many commonalities and unite us. Archaeological evidence supports this notion, revealing insights into the lives of our distant ancestors and their rituals, behaviours, and tools.

From my perspective, this aligns with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, specifically his idea of a categorical imperative and the internal foundation of moral principles in each individual. Furthermore, this foundation extends to a planetary scale, providing a basis for global cooperation and understanding.

Of course, the shared nature of fundamental values does not imply that the social, cultural, and political mechanisms that ensure the functioning of society in accordance with common norms will be identical in different societies, countries, and regions. As historical experience and the human tendency towards individuality demonstrate, the emerging social and political institutions are likely to differ significantly. Nevertheless, the underlying, Kantian, if you will, anthropology will remain common to all.

If this is the case, we have a basis for creating a new world order that is organically appropriate for the entire planet.

We must, in the Kantian tradition, hope for this outcome. In essence, Kant argues that we should do what we must do and perhaps we will succeed. Happiness is not an immediate consequence of rational behaviour, but a possibility that diminishes with adherence to moral obligations. Even if someone is completely evil, their chance of achieving local, temporary happiness is not zero.

Let us return to the main topic of discussion: building peace, or more specifically, finding ways to reach a global consensus. Kant envisioned a path towards the future, and he wrote with incredible clarity about the long historical process that is necessary to transform a collection of individuals into a society capable of directing its own development. This requires the ability to arrive at common understandings and maintain them over time. Incidentally, Kant also wrote about this.

The main question that we must answer is whether or not we will survive, and how much time and effort it will take to achieve our goals. As previously noted, Kant experienced numerous upheavals during his lifetime, the most significant being the French Revolution. This event undoubtedly shocked his contemporaries due to its radicalism and the numerous wars it caused. Kant’s attitude towards the French Revolution was complex. While he was generally critical of the revolution, he also recognized the positive consequences it had. Specifically, he appreciated the results of the revolution in terms of its impact on individuals and society. These results included increased freedom and progress, which Kant saw as essential for human development. According to Kant, the French Revolution taught people valuable lessons and fostered new ways of thinking and interacting. It contributed to the liberation of individuals and the advancement of society as a whole. Despite the challenges and sacrifices involved, Kant believed that the benefits outweighed the costs. It is important for an individual to rely on their own judgment. While it is beneficial to have a wise leader such as Frederick the Second, and to follow his guidance, there are times when challenges are necessary for growth.

In other words, celebrating violence and bloodshed is not sensible, but it is important to consider the consequences. The French Revolution provides an example of this. Kant accurately identified these consequences as positive, leading to the establishment of a just state and a secure position for free individuals within it.

Two final comments. First, what I have discussed here and more will be explored in greater detail in Kaliningrad on April 22, when the Valdai Club holds a special session as part of the International Kant Congress. The session will be titled “Reason and Progress? History of Civilisations Turned to the Future”. Second, I would highly recommend picking up any of Kant’s books and reading through them. It is possible that you will find them engaging. Kant writes in an intelligent, logical, and very convincing manner.

And last but not least, Nietzsche refers to Kant as “Chinese” because he sees a similarity between Kant’s rational and imperative logic and China’s various philosophical schools, as well as its desire for order. If Nietzsche in the 19th century thought about community, albeit critically, with a smile (Andrey Bely’s phantasmagoric novel “Petersburg” is a work that explores this theme), then we have every reason to reflect on this.

Splendid Diversity
Andrey Bystritskiy
Any polycentric system entailing the coexistence of various forces (states, corporations, religious associations, trade unions and so on) is fraught with additional conflicts. But it is precisely the latter circumstance, coupled with global problems of social development, that is pushing countries to accelerate the search for cooperation and the establishment of better regulation mechanisms, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy.
Message from the Chairman