Rationality as

Pragmatic Worldly Prudence:

Kant’s Anthropology

and the Modern Social Sciences

DFG Project, May 2021 – April 2024

Goethe University Frankfurt, Institute of Philosophy

Chair of Modern Philosophy (Prof. Dr. Marcus Willaschek)

Interview with Professor Peter Baumann

TeamSocialRationality: Could you describe the impact of Kant’s philosophy on your research?

Peter Baumann: Kant has pretty much influenced everyone after him, and in many different ways as well as on many different topics. In addition, the influence is often not that direct and not that obvious. This holds true no matter how much of a defender of Kant’s doctrines one is. So, it is very hard to give a short answer with full generality. Anyway, I’ll try. I am one of those who, as analytic philosophers, value conceptual analysis of important concepts and argument highly; Kant is, in contrast to much 19th century philosophy, a main historical precursor of analytic philosophy. As far as specific topics in my own research are concerned, I am almost always also looking at Kant, when I’m dealing with issues in moral philosophy. His ideas are complex and substantial enough to still invite (or even demand) further development. This also holds true, of course, for his theoretical philosophy. I think that Kant’s ideas of the self (“apperception”) are one example. It would also be great to take the topic of limits of knowledge up more than it seems to happen currently (and the topic of human limitations more generally). I’ve also been interested in Kant’s political philosophy for quite some time and a bit more recently in his pragmatic anthropology. Finally, reading Kant always has quite an impact on one’s thinking.


TeamSocialRationality: Do you consider Kant’s anthropology a necessary part of his critical philosophy or would you characterize it as a separate project?

Peter Baumann: It seems to me that they are separate projects. There are, of course, connections and overlaps but if one tried to figure out what Kant’s critical philosophy entails for his anthropology (or vice versa) then one would not find that much. So, I don’t think that his anthropology is a necessary part of his critical philosophy. Even during the critical period, Kant still had a philosophical life outside of the Critiques. 


TeamSocialRationality: In your view, how do Kant’s anthropology and his political philosophy relate to one another?

Peter Baumann: In my view they are very closely related. His anthropology is an essentially social view of human nature and his political philosophy contains important anthropological assumptions. I see Kant’s political philosophy and his anthropology as parts of one unitary theory. The two cannot be disentangled.


TeamSocialRationality: In what way does the ‘pragmatic’ element in Kant’s anthropology depend on his idea of practical reason?

Peter Baumann: According to Kant, practical reason gives us insight into the moral law and motivates us to act from duty. This most important aspect of Kant’s idea of practical reason does not play a big role at all in Kant’s anthropology. Much closer to the latter is another aspect of Kant’s conception of practical reason: practical reason as the ability to choose appropriate means for given ends. How then are practical reason and pragmatic anthropology related to each other? One has to keep in mind here that there are quite different uses of the term “pragmatic” in Kant’s works. Even if one just focuses on his pragmatic anthropology, one finds that Kant uses the term in different though related ways. Most relevant here is, I think, Kant’s “pragmatic” interest in means-ends reasoning as applied to the question of what, as Kant puts it, “a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself” (AA VII: 119). Insofar as the pragmatic anthropology is useful for life it constitutes “Lebensklugheit”, a kind of prudence with respect to the question how to get through life. Kant clearly anticipates insights of the emerging social sciences when he emphasizes the social aspect of his pragmatic anthropology: What one makes of oneself cannot be separated from how one interacts with others. Kant’s pragmatic anthropology is in this sense also a social anthropology. This kind of “sociological” awareness is not present in his critique of practical reason. Putting all this together I would say that the pragmatic aspect of Kant’s anthropology is a specific application and further development of the more abstract ideas of practical (instrumental) reason one finds, for instance, in the Groundwork or in the second Critique. What is new, interesting and important in Kant’s pragmatic anthropology goes well beyond these works.


TeamSocialRationality: How does Kant’s anthropology, with ‘world citizen’ as its specific goal, relate to his idea of enlightenment?

Peter Baumann: Enlightenment, understood as the exit from one’s “self-incurred minority”, is a precondition for being in charge of one’s own life (freely making of oneself what one can and should make of oneself: see above) and in this sense for being “at home” in the world as a world citizen. Even though Kant does not make the connection with enlightenment explicit in his pragmatic anthropology, it is there implicitly. The relation is reciprocal: One cannot be enlightened without being a citizen of the world in the sense of Kant’s pragmatic anthropology. I should emphasize here that this is my own, somewhat “reconstructive” take on how these ideas, as presented in different writings by Kant, relate to each other.


TeamSocialRationality: From the perspective of the debates in contemporary sciences, how relevant do you consider Kant’s cosmopolitanism to be?

Peter Baumann: Kant’s cosmopolitanism has both descriptive and normative aspects. I am not sure about the relevance of Kant’s empirical assumptions about human nature for, say, current social sciences. The normative aspects and the underlying moral universalism, however, are not just very relevant for current debates on global ethics, global justice, etc. but as far as contemporary sciences are concerned, they are certainly a major inspiration for relevant research in different disciplines. One can think here, for instance, of Political Science, and International Relations. To be sure, these are empirical social sciences but as such they have a normative background, too. One should also mention International Law in this context as well as Political Theory. As far as current topics like, e.g., migration, are concerned, the relevance of Kant’s ideas about cosmopolitanism is obvious.


TeamSocialRationality: Do you think that Kant’s anthropological, empirically oriented ideas are also relevant to contemporary social and political practices?

Peter Baumann: Yes, and in many different ways. For instance, the combination of realism (“out of such crooked wood as the human being is made, nothing entirely straight can be fabricated”) and optimism concerning the possibility of moral progress – Kant’s “informed hope” – is an important challenge to easier and more straightforward forms of pessimism which tempt many of us in current difficult times.

Peter Baumann is a Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore College (USA). His main research interests are in epistemology, theories of rationality, 18th century philosophy (Kant and Reid) as well as contemporary Analytic Philosophy. His publications include: Die Autonomie der Person (Paderborn: mentis, 2000); Epistemic Contextualism. A Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016); “Brains in Vats? Don’t Bother!” (Episteme 16, 2019, 186199); “Enlightenment as Perfection, Perfection as Enlightenment? Kant on Thinking for Oneself and Perfecting Oneself” (Journal of Philosophy of Education 56, 2022, 281289); “Kant y el yo” (Felipe Castañeda, Vicente Durán & Luis Eduardo Hoyos (eds.), Immanuel Kant: vigencia de la filosofía crítica. Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores, 2007, 7989).

© Alexey Salikov, Thomas Sturm, Alexey Zhavoronkov 2022-2024