In my limited reading of Kant I feel somewhat stumped by his apparently reductive individualism.

Kant is extremely sensitive to social issues on many matters, and he was writing at a time when Smith, Mandeville, Rousseau, and many others had identified "society" as more than the sum of its parts. After Kant, Herder, Hegel, at al., would, of course, reintroduce social mediation and a form of historical "reason" that is not simply instantiated in individuals.

Yet in such concepts as the categorical imperative or the kingdom of ends, Kant appears to leap between the "individual" subject and "universal" subjectivity with nothing in between.The "ends" of individuals, society, and species seem more or less continuous and unified, and "reason" appears the same for the individual, society, and humanity. Insofar as it is governed by reason, society is just the sum of its parts.

I understand that Kant is often accused of excessive "universalism," but it now strikes me as somehow an unwarranted leap or uncharacteristic lacuna within Kant's own system, and I suspect that I'm simply missing big chunks. Where does Kant deal most explicitly with "society" and what sort of ontological status does it assume in his work? Does he ever differentiate any sort of collective faculty of will or judgment?

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    A lot of whether Kant goes beyond the individual self hinges on the interpretation of Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 1:41
  • The works linked to his social contract theory, namely Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784) and Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795) may provide some fleshing out of what society as a particular community of finite rational beings means for him.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 12:21
  • @PhilipKlöcking. Yes, I should give his essays another look. He does not neglect the "social" dimension. But as I recall, my sense was that these works didn't seem very integrated into his transcendental philosophy. Perhaps that's just the way Kant is and I shouldn't feel surprised by it. Much as I admire Kant, I guess I am beginning to see why the criticism from Herder and others does make sense. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:10

1 Answer 1


Kant deals with these kinds of social relations primarily in the Critique of Judgment. If you look at sections 39 and 40 entitled "Of the Communicability of a Sensation," for example, you will see there he introduces the notion of the sensus communis, which is the basis of universal communicability. The is the relational power which makes all human cultural communication and interpretation possible. This grounds the community of persons, according to Kant, and serves as a required condition for the kingdom of ends imperative. I interpret this to mean that we feel each other through an equal or mutual relatedness prior to establishing rational or cognitive connectedness (i.e. social contracts). It is also how we feel, Kant states at the end of section 83, a "hidden aptitude within us for higher purposes."

He then picks this theme up and develops it in the sections 82 and 83 on the methodology of teleological judgments when he discusses the difference between "technique and skill" and "culture. The latter is concerned with the culture of our moral powers to facilitate social communication, for the sake fulfilling our ultimate purposes beyond the order of nature. For us to establish a "collective self" we need to cultivate the self-discipline and skill to develop both are inclinations and interpretations, which are vital to the maintenance and growth of cultures. Kant refers to this as the cosmopolitan whole that gives humans a "predisposition for community." Community means a community of nations or states, for Kant, in the sense of international relations. A political and cultural order that mirrors the natural order. It is only when all the nations and peoples of the earth put their talents and skills together that culture may thrive! I suggest the following passage as a beginning point for what you may find interesting in Kant's lively thoughts on this very interesting topic that you raise:

Without such a whole--and given how the very possibility of such a scheme is hindered by people's ambition, lust for power, and greed [dangers to social cohesion], especially on the part of those in authority--there will inevitably be war (in which some states dissolve and split up into smaller ones, while other states unite with smaller ones and try to form a larger whole). Though war is an unintentional human endeavor (incited by our unbridled passions), yet it is also a deeply hidden and perhaps intentional endeavor of the supreme wisdom, if not to establish, then at least to prepare the way for lawfulness along with the freedom of states and thereby for a unified system of them with a moral basis.

  • Thank you for these astute, precise recommendations. I will take a look. I still am not sure to what extent this fits rationally into his overall program. Without good evidence, I sense some basic conflict that is, indeed, at the heart of much later Kant criticism. But Kant is so capacious it is very hard for me to connect the dots. Anyway, excellent response. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 1:55
  • No doubt and very important, nice question. The critical philosophy is vastly connected and worked out over years of false starts and speculation. It is unfortunate how eager many readers of Kant's work are to dismiss this labor and thinking process. They naively believe that he nailed it or had a breakthrough in 1781 or something--it's a very static and abstract interpretation of this intense process. Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 17:36

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