The role of rationality in Kant vs. Hegel’s conception of teleology

by b socha

Kant’s essay “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose” appears in his Political Writings, published by Cambridge in its blue-book political philosophy series. The short piece animates many of the abstract, pure concepts explored in Kan’ts second critique, The Critique of Practical Reason. 

The short essay’s focus is on the progress of history and the role that history plays in developing rational consciousness. Kant begins by saying the history is the process that gives accounts to phenomena, no matter how deeply concealed their causes may be. The project of history and of understanding man in history, then, is one that takes the individual rational being and explores man on a large scale to see the direction or deep cause in the world. 

When Kant uses the individual rational subject, he is not merely multiplying this or that particular rational man by however-many-millions in a state or culture. He makes this clear when he draws the analogy between Man and Mankind to weather and the overall climate. However, soon after, the concept of natural teleology is posited in a proposition that remains unfolded and actually compresses the distinction between man and mankind that Kant lays out.

…All the natural capacities of a create are destined sooner or later to be developed completely an din conformity with their end…

and in explanation of the natural movement to fulfill our capacities, Kant states that without a natural teleology, we are left aimless. We (mankind) are left aimless without this natural order because it is the only framework that provides a necessary relationship between man’s rationality and mankind becoming increasingly more rational.

In man (as the only rational creature on earth), those natural capacities which are directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed only in a species, but not the individual.

Rationality is taken as the endpoint in Kant’s teleology, which is why he must rely on a natural system of self-determination. Relying on a system of nature amounts to an admission that there is no active role for rationality to realize itself. 

Enlightenment is passed from one generation to the next, he argues. Knowledge and rationality are only necessary if they are natural in this sense, and the culmination of rational thinking in the world is tantamount to an accumulation of formal structures of logic developing in mankind to its highest point.

This apex is also occluded from our vision, each rational finite being as well as rational man, the species. Hegel’s teleology is helpful in illuminating Kant’s after the fact, since it can be seen as a corrective agent. 

For Hegel, there is a definitive endpoint in mankind’s use of reason, which is the self-conscious reflection between the self and the object that overcomes an imagined difference between the two. Movement of mankind’s self-consciousness is the movement and agent of progress in history toward this end. Hence, natural teleology is not a necessary proposition for him as it is for Kant (whose dubious reliance is reluctant, at best). The end-goal of self-conscious of the absolute is necessarily a social action, since man can only become self-conscious through seeing another. Whereas in Kant, the universality of “mankind” can only serve as a postulate following from a reductive principle of reason that assumes rationality is purely possible.