In particular, I was referring to Kant’s essay “An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?”, which forms one part of the late (post-Critical) book The Conflict of the Faculties. I think that this essay deserves a contemporary rethinking and “updating” — in much the same spirit in which Foucault rethought and “updated” Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”.
Foucault rejects the way that, in the hands of Habermas and others, Kant’s Enlightenment principles have become the basis for what Foucault “like[s] to call the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment.” Foucault says that it is ridiculous to demand “that one has to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Enlightenment.” For “the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and complex historical processes,” rather than a permanent set of values to be identified with “rationality” or “humanism” tout court. Indeed, for Foucault it is precisely in refusing this for-or-against “blackmail” that one can most truly remain faithful to the Kantian task of a continued “historico-critical investigation” of our own assumptions and presuppositions, including precisely and especially the ones that seem to us to be most self-evidently “rational” and “humanistic.”
With regard to “An Old Question Raised Again,” similarly, we might do well to rethink Kant’s interrogation of the possibility of “progress,” precisely because we now find ourselves in a world where nobody can believe any longer in “progress” in the sense that Kant meant it. Lyotard wrote in the 1980s that nobody could believe in “grand narratives” (like the Enlightenment and Marxist one of progressive human emancipation) any longer; Francis Fukuyama wrote in the 1990s that the perpetuity of neoliberal capitalism was the only “end of history” that we could ever hope to attain. Today, in 2008, we are if anything even more cynical, as years of booms and busts in the market — with the biggest bust of all currently looming over us — have all the more firmly established capital accumulation, with its concomitant technological improvements, as the only form of “progress” that we can at all believe in.
But it is precisely in this context that Kant’s essay speaks to us with a new relevance. “An Old Question Raised Again” makes the point that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to maintain the proposition that the human race is progressing — by which Kant means morally progressing, to a state of emancipation instead of slavery, mutual respect (treating all human beings as means, rather than just as ends) instead of subordination and hierarchy, and cosmopolitan peace instead of strife and war. (In other words, Kant is implicitly referring to the three watchwords of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — though we might well want to replace the last one with “cosmopolitanism,” to avoid the gendered connotations of “fraternity”).
There is no empirical way to assert that humanity is progressing in these terms, rather than regressing or merely remaining at the same point. (It is worth maintaining this Kantian point against all those fatuous attempts to claim that the USA is benevolently improving the lot of the rest of the world, or somehow standing up for “freedom” and “democracy,” when in fact it is exporting the imperious demands of neoliberal capital, whether by outright war or by other forms of influence or coercion, to other parts of the world).
However — and this is the real crux of Kant’s argument — although there is no empirical evidence in favor of the proposition that “progress” has taken place, there is a reason, or an empirical ground, for us to believe in progress, to hope for it, and even to work for it — rejecting the cynicism that tells us that any such hope or belief is deluded or “utopian” (this latter word is most often used pejoratively, in the form of the claim that any attempt to make human life better, such as all the efforts of the Left in the 19th and 20th centuries, inevitably has “unintended consequences” that end up making things worse).
This ground is the occurrence of certain events — for Kant, the French Revolution — whose sheer occurrence, in itself, however badly these events miscarried subsequently,
“demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once… a moral character of humanity, at least in its predisposition, a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress in so far as its capacity is sufficient for the present.”
Humanity hasn’t actually gotten any better, but its active ability to imagine and project betterment, on a social and cosmopolitan scale, is itself evidence that a “predisposition” to betterment does in fact exist...
The two key terms here are universality and disinterestedness. Kant is not merely praising enthusiasm and fervor. He is almost oppressively aware that enthusiasm and fervor guarantee nothing, and that they have propelled many of the worst happenings and the worst movements in human history — something that is all the more evident today, after the horrors of the twentieth century. Nothing that is narrowly drawn, chauvanistic, nationalistic, etc., can stand as evidence for a predisposition towards betterment.
But beyond that: Kant is not saying that the French Revolution in itself is the evidence of a human predisposition to betterment. He is saying, rather, that the “universal yet disinterested sympathy” that “spectators” from afar felt for the French Revolution is such evidence. Our “moral predisposition” for betterment is revealed in the way that “all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves” feel a “sympathy,” or “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm,” for the distant revolutionary events of which they are the witnesses. Such sympathy-from-afar can be “dangerous,” Kant warns us; but it is genuine evidence for the potentiality or “predisposition” toward improvement of the human condition — at least to the extent that it is “universal” (rather than being partial, chauvinistic, or favoring one “nation” or “race” against another — as fascist enthusiasm always is), and that it is “disinterested” (not motivated by any expectation of personal gain; an aesthetic concern rather than a merely self-aggrandizing one).
(I think that, for example, Foucault’s enthusiasm from afar for the Iranian revolution can be regarded in the same way as Kant’s enthusiasm from afar for the French revolution; in both cases, the bad outcomes of these revolutions does not disqualify the reasons for which Kant and Foucault found themseves in sympathy with them; and this is why such events, and such expressions of sympathy, must be radically distinguished from the enthusiasm for fascism that consumed so many early-20th-century artists and intellectuals).
I suppose that, genealogically, all this is Kant’s secular-Enlightenment updating of the old Christian virtue of hope. But it locates what is hoped for in this life, this world, rather than in an afterlife, or in some sort of post-apocalyptic recovery (in this way, it is actually more secular, and less mystical and religious, than, say, Walter Benjamin’s messianism; and although it refers, or defers, to an as-yet-unaccomplished future, it is more materially and empirically grounded than, say, Derrida’s “democracy to come.” Benjamin and Derrida must both be honored as true descendants of Kant, yet arguably they have both diminished him). The human predisposition towards betterment already exists in the here and now, even if its fulfillment does not.