So far, we have explored the extent to which Kant remains rooted in Rousseauian schemas. For both Rousseau and Kant, there is a higher-level principle which imposes itself on all and in that sense forecloses the possibility of politics. This is reflective of Kant’s will to totalizing system, or, in another vocabulary, his enthusiasm[1]. However, two years after writing up the rigid relationship between theory and practice that we have surveyed thus far, Kant used an altogether different approach: that of irony, which opens an entirely new register not only from the point of view of his own philosophy, but for depoliticization critique as a whole.

The first appendix to Kant’s Zum Ewigen Frieden concerns our master problem, one that has the propensity to both feel like antique puzzle and a pressing concern of the present: the supposed tension between morality and politics. Surprisingly enough, the force of Kant’s foray into this subject is the ambivalent fashion in which the appendix, and in fact the whole essay, is constructed. This does not only concern its textual contents. Kant makes clear that the title references a Dutch inn where ‘Perpetual Peace’ is painted above the image of a graveyard. It is unclear, says Kant, whether this concerns the people in general, who never seem to tire of wars, or only the philosophers who dream sweet dreams of peace[2]. This sets the tone for the rest of the essay: Kant plays with the ambiguity of death being the only perpetual peace available to man, and attempts of philosophers to establish such peace leading directly to graveyards.
In this way, Kant ties in not only Saint-Pierre’s original title (Paix Perpétuelle), but also takes Rousseau’s criticism of the possible costs of such ambitious endeavours head-on before he even develops his argument. And this is not even the final or clearest reference: Kant is invoking Leibniz, who had commented on Saint-Pierre’s proposal by sarcastically remarking that he knew of a graveyard with Ewige Friede written at the entry gate. Leibniz proposes an alternative scheme to Saint-Pierre’s: if every sovereign is required to deposit an enormous amount of money to be forfeited in case of war, peace will be guaranteed for all eternity. Leibniz’s intended point is that this is as feasible as Saint-Pierre’s proposal[3].

There were roughly two kinds of dismissive responses to Saint-Pierre: rejecting it based on arguments that expose the oeverall scheme as utopian, which we have seen in Rousseau, and treating it with irony and sarcasm. Another example of the latter is found in Voltaire, who responds to an imagined encounter with a badly-made portrait of Saint Pierre as follows:

Fortunately we only see a dumb portrait/ Of the abbot in this room./ Because, if we had had the original/ We would certainly have heard something foolish. (cited in Stråth 2015, 265)

Kant’s project in Zum Ewigen Frieden can be seen as a rejoinder to both kinds of dismissals. Foremostly, pace Rousseau, it is possible to govern in accordance with reason and morality. His solution is a Volkenbund, not a unified world state, as it had been in earlier writings: this change disappointed his admirer Habermas, because Kant had in the latter’s view wrongly held on to national sovereignty[4] – which is of course an interesting point of contrast given Habermas’ sympathies for the EU. What is more, Kant uses the ironic style of Leibniz and Voltaire to make his point. In order to continue the ironists’ game, Kant deviates from his usual analytic style that is characterized by a “marvelous dryness [glaenzende Trokkenheit]”[5]. The change in writing style is connected to a fundamentally different philosophical attitude, which enables Kant to describe the relationship between politics and morality in a non-reductive way[6].

Kant presents us with two approaches to this problem: the way of the self-stated ‘practical man’, whom Kant calls the political moralist, and the way of the moral politician. These two ‘roles’ are differentiated by the approach to politics they favor[7]. According to the political moralist, politics is a matter of prudential statesmanship (Staatsklugheit), that is to say a technical problem (problema technicum) that mostly requires knowledge of natural mechanisms[8]. From this perspective, Kant’s ideal of peace is without substance [sachleer] since it is completely impracticable: for one, empirically existing mankind will never be able to constrain itself to its demanding terms[9]. On the contrary, for the moral politician politics is a matter of wisdom of state (Staatsweisheit), that is to say a moral problem (problema morale)[10]. Since, as we have already seen, the categorical imperative is supposed to unconditionally direct our empirical drives rather than the other way around, it is hardly surprising that Kant prefers the way of the moral politician to that of the political moralist.

But Kant goes even further, claiming that he cannot even imagine a political moralist. The rather playful distinction between the two options that Kant himself introduces, taken together with the claim that one of the two is not even conceivable, is a good example of the rhetorical posturing that is present throughout the work[11].

At many points in Kant’s corpus, he insists on the distinction between the causal determinism of the (‘merely’) empirical world and the domain of freedom and morality. In moral-political terms this means: either we force “a morality [ein Moral, as opposed to die Moral]” into the straightjacket of already established political goals, or we make those same goals subservient to morality.

According to Kant, political moralism entails a reduction of politics to technical-prudent statesmanship, which for him entails the denial that morality exists at all[12]. If we follow Kant’s conceptualization, the political moralist is mirrored in the moral politician. Does this suggest that, according to Kant and those who like him argue for moral politics, politics as such does not exist either, at least as something that is somehow separate from the moral domain? For Kant, the problem with the political moralist and his technical-prudent statesmanship is that it operates from the assumption that only empirical factors are available. If politics is the manipulation of causal mechanisms, and ideals are dismissed in advance as lacking substance, the way the world really works will impress itself on politics and force the latter’s hand completely, leaving no room for deviation from what is given.

This is of course a species of foundationalism. If starting out from the moral politician were to yield the same results, but in reverse, with the categorical nature of moral obligation completely determining the course of politics, we would be operating in the very same way. It would be a foundationalism that is not rooted in what is given, but in the moral givens or procedures that dominate the realm of empirical politics, thereby eliminating what could be regarded as specifically political. As we will see in the next post, this is not at all Kant’s position. Rather than allowing morality to fixate politics, he formulates the first modern depoliticization critique.

[1] De Mul 1999, 10; 22-23

[2] Kant 2010b, 3

[3] Stråth 2015, 265

[4] Habermas 1997, 116-117

[5] @ ref Schopenhauer

[6] On the ontology of irony, compare De Mul 1999, @

[7] Kant 2010b, 37

[8] ibid, 44

[9] ibid, 38

[10] ibid, 44

[11] The rhetorical nature of the claim that Kant cannot conceive of the political moralist becomes especially clear from his summation of the deceptive politics that he sees as the major trouble of his age. See Kant 2010b, 41-42

[12] Kant 2010b, 35


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