Kant’s Universalism in Historical Context: Repoliticising the Foundations of a Seminal Political Philosophy
Permanent link to Research Commons versionhttps://hdl.handle.net/10289/16452
In the contemporary global political milieu, Immanuel Kant's universalist political philosophy has assumed a prominent role, eliciting substantial discourse and scrutiny due to its enduring significance in shaping the fundamental principles that underpin the present-day international order. Kant's philosophy is celebrated for its commitment to universality and its pioneering articulation of political ideals aimed at establishing the foundational principles requisite for the construction of a peaceful, sustainable, and self-regulating global order, grounded upon universally applicable moral precepts. While an array of scholarly works has meticulously explored Kant's groundbreaking contributions and intellectual influence, a discernible gap exists in comprehending how his philosophical framework intersects with the multifaceted social and material backdrop of his era. This thesis embarks on a critical exploration of Kant's universalism, employing a novel approach grounded in the social history of political theory, firmly rooted in historical materialism. Diverging from abstract interpretations of political theory, this method seeks to historically recontextualise Kant's ideas within their original social, political, and class contexts. To illuminate Kant's universalism from this perspective, a pivotal question must be addressed: What kind of political project does Kant’s universalism propose in terms of the political polarisations between absolutism, feudalism, and liberalism in the Prussian context? This research endeavours to reevaluate Kant's universalist political philosophy by examining its connection to the protracted crisis of German feudalism, its influence on social and political thought, and its entanglement with the power struggles between absolutist-paternalists, traditional feudalists, and liberal reformists vying for control over social property relations in the Prussian Ständestaat. Within this context, Kant's philosophy also intersects with the reform project of the rising educated professional classes, known as the Bildungsbürgertum, whose growing influence shaped the trajectory of social property relations and the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) in the Prussian state-building period. A distinctive contribution of this thesis is that it highlights the unique class character of the Prussian Bildungsbürgertum, distinct from the British and French bourgeoisie traditionally analysed in Marxist perspectives. Notably, the thesis contends that this state-dependent educated professional class had a particular affinity for Kantian universalism, making it, for a time, the prevailing ideology of the Prussian Bildungsbürgertum. By adopting this historical materialist perspective of the social history of political theory, this thesis aims to shed light on the intricate relationships between Kant's universalist political thought and the historically specific conditions of 18th-century Prussia, ultimately elucidating the nuanced limitations imposed by his class context on his philosophical contributions.
The University of Waikato
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