Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 March 2021
The debate in 1792-94 between Wilhelm von Humboldt and Karl von Dalberg focuses on the legitimacy and limits of the state’s promotion of welfare for its subjects. It represents a clash between the Kantian school and advocates of the Leibniz-Wolff philosophy. Dalberg advocates a strongly interventionist state, while Humboldt circumscribes narrowly the scope of rightful political action. Humboldt’s post-Kantian perfectionism aims to maximise freedom and its conditions, rather than to promote happiness, as older perfectionisms had done. Dalberg, in contrast, appeals to Wolff’s defence of enlightened absolutism, viewing the state as the agency for eliminating obstacles to individual and social thriving, or the good life. While illustrating the reception of Kant’s critiques of previous ethical systems, and the persistence of Wolffian themes, the debate is also indicative of the diversity of political positions advocated by Kantians in the aftermath of The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). In conceiving the individual as a spontaneous monad with a unique developmental trajectory, Humboldt shares with Dalberg a revised version of Leibniz. The blending of Leibnizian and Kantian concepts constitutes the central theoretical interest of the political thought of this period.
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