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Metamorphosis or Palingenesis? Political Change in Kant

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


This article looks at Kant's attitude to political change by examining closely the contrast he draws between palingenesis and metamorphosis in his doctrine of right (1797). The article attempts to explain why Kant prefers the use of metamorphosis as an analogy and looks closely at his objections to the use of palingenesis. Here Kant's treatment of palingenesis is compared with the use of the term made by the eighteenth-century Genevan biologist Charles Bonnet. It is suggested that Kant's rejection of rebellion and revolution is connected to his advocacy of gradual, organic change as conveyed in the notion of metamorphosis. This notion is explored according to eighteenth-century and present scientific understandings of the term. The conclusion stresses the merits of Kant's approach to political change, and indicates why it might be superior to the conservative and revolutionary alternatives.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2001

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I am very grateful to several anonymous reviewers and the editor of The Review of Politics for their helpful comments on this article.

1. For a discussion of Kant's relationship with the biological sciences see Zammito, J. H., The Genesis of Kant's Critique of Judgment (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), pp. 199213Google Scholar.

2. See Maus, Ingeborg, Zur Auklaerung der Demokratietheorie, Rechts-und demokratietheoretische Ueberkgungen im Anschluss an Kant (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1994), chap. 4Google Scholar, “Begruendungen, Aktionsformen und Ziele des Widerstands.” Also Rosen, Allen D., Kant's Theory of Justice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993)Google Scholar. As Rosen illustrates Kant believed that the leaders of states had to be active in fulfilling their roles: “For Kant, then, the state has three principal functions and obligations: a duty of justice to ensure a condition of maximum lawgoverned freedom; a duty of benevolence to provide for the needs of its subjects; and a teleological responsibility to create the framework within which all forms of human rationality can flourish” (p. 218)Google Scholar. On Kant's developmental view of politics see Kersting, W., “Kant's Concept of the State,” in Essays on Kant's Political Philosophy, ed. Williams, H. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 143–65Google Scholar.

3. References to Kant's, works are made to the Akademieausgabe (Berlin:Prussian Academy Edition, 1902 onwards)Google Scholar, hereafter AA. References to the Critique of Pure Reason are to the first (A) and second editions (B). “Popular enlightenment is the public instruction of the people upon their duties and rights towards the state to which they belong. Since this concerns only natural rights and rights which can be derived from ordinary common sense, their obvious exponents and interpreters among the people will not be officials appointed by the state, but free teachers of right, i.e. the philosophers” (Kant's Political Writings, ed. Reiss, H. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991], p. 186/AA 7:89Google Scholar.

4. For two recent accounts of Kant's ideal of a world community see Hoeffe, O., “Some Kantian Reflections of a World Republic,” Kantian Review 2 (1998): 5171CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kleingeld, P., “Kant's Cosmopolitan Law: World Citizenship for a Global Order,” Kantian Review 2 (1998): pp. 7290CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a full discussion of Kant's international thought see Bohman, J. and Lutz-Bachmann, M. eds. Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant's Cosmopolitan Ideal (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

5. Allgemeines Handwoerterbuch derphilosophischen Wissenschaften nebst ihrer Literatur und Geschichte, vol. 2, second revised edition (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1833), p. 867Google Scholar.

6. Ibid., p. 867.

7. Nisbet, H. B., Goethe and the Scientific Tradition (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1972), p. 9Google Scholar. Nisbet interestingly stresses the influence of Charles Bonnet's inquiries upon Goethe. A recent edition of Goethe's, elegy is Metamorphose der Pflanzen (Stuttgart: Freiesgstl., 1992), p. 78Google Scholar.

8. In “Reviews of Herder's ‘Ideas on the Philosophy of History of Mankind’” Kant refers to the “transformation of maggots or caterpillars into little flying creatures” as a wholly individual and “unusual occurrence in nature” (Kant's Political Writings, p. 208/AA 8:53Google Scholar). Kant, who was very fond of quoting Voltaire, may well have been familiar with Voltaire's entry on Metamorphosis in his Philosophical Dictionary where he writes: “A nearly imperceptible speck becomes a worm, the worm becomes a butterfly. An acorn is transformed into an oak, an egg into a bird. Water becomes cloud and thunder. Wood changes into fire and ashes. In short everything in nature appears to be metamorphosed” (Philosophical Dictionary [London: Penguin, 1971], p. 310)Google Scholar.

9. The Contest of the Faculties (New York: Abaris Books, 1979), p. 99/AA 7:55Google Scholar: “The idea of a moral metamorphosis (but only through supernatural influence) of the human being may well have been going on in believers' heads for a long time; but only in more recent times has it been clearly enunciated and given rise to a division of sects between the followers of Spener and Franck (Pietists) and the Moravian Brethren of Zinzendorf (Moravians) on the doctrine of conversion.” From what follows it seems that Kant associates the idea of metamorphosis with “radical change” (p. 99/AA p. 55)Google Scholar“improvement” and “becoming a new person”, (p. 100/AA p. 56) (Rebirth without death)Google Scholar.

10. Kant's Political Writings, p. 208/AA 8:53Google Scholar.

11. Tata, J. R., Metamorphosis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); p. 3Google Scholar.

12. Allgemeines Handwoerterbuch, 3:142Google Scholar.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Gregor, M. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991), pp.147–48; AA, pp. 339–40 (hereafter MM)Google Scholar.

16. Ibid., 148/AA 6:340.

17. Ibid.

18. A recent commentator who has used the term palingenesis in a political metaphorical sense is the political scientist Roger Griffin. In The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993)Google Scholar, he uses the term in a strikingly similar sense to Kant. Griffin uses the term to define fascism and also by implication to rule out as unacceptable certain forms of political change. As Griffin, sees it, “fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (p. 27)Google Scholar. Griffin, points out how unusual is the use of the term palingenesis nowadays “even in the spheres of theology and biology” and suggests it may even be obsolete in modern English (p. 33)Google Scholar. Nevertheless he finds it useful, as have a number of commentators on fascism, as a means of describing the kind of political upheaval and transformation fascists generally have in mind (p. 33)Google Scholar. Griffin employs palingenesis “as a generic term for the vision of a radically new beginning which follows a period of destruction or perceived dissolution.” Fascists quite often saw themselves as fighting against national decadence and saw themselves as countering this through an attempted regeneration of the nation. Griffin does not see this preoccupation with regeneration and a return to a lost past as confined to fascist political doctrine. As he sees it, “the most obvious well-head of palingenetic myth in the wider sense is religion. The resurrection of Jesus Christ places one such myth at the very centre of a whole faith.” As he further remarks, “notions of metaphorical (to believers, metaphysical) death and rebirth pervade the symbolism of baptism, communion, and Easter celebrations, while generations of Christian mystics have elaborated intricate verbal, pictorial and ritual mythologies to invoke the reality of spiritual rebirth on a higher plane of being after dying to the world of flesh” (p. 33).

The connection that Griffin makes between palingenesis and the mythology of Christianity is extremely interesting from the standpoint of the interpretation of Kant's philosophy. Kant is well known for his objection to the literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Christ's life and death. In Kant's Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason Alone we are told the true significance of the account of Jesus Christ's life lies in the moral dimension. The rational person takes the biblical story as a symbolic indication of how we might truly become virtuous and not as an empirical guide as to how the world is. Kant is extremely skeptical about all organized religion and does not recommend that one should become a member of any Christian sect. Kant is also very wary of the mystical side of religion. He believes we would be mistaken to rely on theoretical ideas which inevitably take us beyond the bounds of ordinary experience. Possibly this may underlie his strong antipathy to the transfer of religious imagery concerning resurrection, rebirth and transformation into the political realm. He may have seen the notion of metamorphosis as having a much more secular and unemotional ring to it than the notion of palingenesis.

19. Another recent commentator who has looked closely at Kant's use of the term is Shell, S., The Embodiment of Reason (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), pp. 195, 240, and 420Google Scholar.

20. Bonnet's, CharlesLa Palingénésie philosophique, ou idees sur le' étatfutur des êtres vivans, 2vols. (Geneva: Chez Caude Philibert et Bathelmi Chirol, 1769)Google Scholar.

21. In the first twelve volumes of the Academy edition of Kant's writings the term is used seven times: 2:256; 3:450; 6:340; 8:9: 365; 10:161; 10:161. The final reference is made in a letter from Hamann to Kant. Kant uses the term almost synonymously with “rebirth” as, for instance, in the first reference from Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime: “The monastic vows made out of a great portion of useful men numerous companies of diligent idlers, whose brooding way of life fitted them for hatching out a thousand scholarly grotesqueries, which went thence out into the larger world and spread their kind. Finally, after the human genius has happily raised itself anew from an almost complete destruction by a kind of palingenesis in our own days we see the sound taste of the beautiful and noble blossoming forth both in the arts and sciences and in respect to morals.” The fifth reference in Kant's, Physical Geography (9:365)Google Scholar speaks significantly and, in a similar vein, of the “fable of the palingenesis of plants.”

22. A 683/B 711.

23. Cf. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770, trans, and ed. Walford, David and Meerbote, Ralf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; and Cassirer, E., Kant's Life and Thought, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 7982Google Scholar.

24. MM 131/AA 6:320.

25. In a curious postscript to his book The Nature of Fascism Griffin remarks that “the horrific consequences of fascism” can be ascribed to “its mythic core of a palingenetic vision, a vision which encourages, not a creative interaction and healthy integration with the external world, but a total and perverse identification with only a narrow part of it” (p. 236)Google Scholar. This might imply that Griffin entirely rejects the notion of a political resurrection and that it was the pursuit of such a wholly fresh start that led to the disasters of fascism. But this is not so. In a wholly un-Kantian turn he goes on to argue, “perhaps there is still time for the course of history to be changed by the force of a healthy palingenetic movement, a supra-national movement of ecological humanism working from below and above which centres its hopes, not on ′one people, one empire, one leader ‘but on ′one humanity, one life, one world’” (p. 236). Griffinhere demonstrates strikingly the continuing appeal of a form of political change which Kant wholly rejects.

26. Roger, J., The Life Sciences in Eighteenth Century French Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 498Google Scholar.

27. Nordenskiold, Erik, The History of Biology, trans. Eyre, L. B. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), p. 244Google Scholar.

28. Ibid., p. 244.

29. Ibid., p. 245.

30. Ibid., p. 244.

31. Roger, , Life Sciences in Eighteenth Century, p. 499Google Scholar.

32. According to Savioz, Raymond, La Philosophie de Charles Bonnet de Geneve, (Paris: Libraire Philosophique J. Vrin, 1948)Google Scholar, the publication of the translation of Bonnet's book on palingenesis “exercised a great influence” in Germany (p. 341)Google Scholar. For the published Correspondence between Lavater and Mendelssohn, and Mendelssohn and Bonnet see Mendelssohn, M., Gesammelte Schriften, vol 33 (Brockhaus: Leipzig, 1843), pp. 37127Google Scholar.

33. Kant corresponded with both Lavater and Mendelssohn in the 1770s when the controversy was at its height. Kant's detailed philosophical correspondence with Mendelssohn began in 1766 in Letters 38 and 39 (AA X, pp.67–73) and his more reticent correspondence with Lavater in 1774 in Letters 81 and 81a (AA X, pp.148–50). It is highly likely therefore that Kant would have been aware of what was at issue between the two.

34. Zammito, J. H., Genesis of Kant's Critique of Judgment, p. 36Google Scholar.

35. Nordenskiold, , History of Biology, p. 245Google Scholar.

36. For Bonnet “there is no true generation in nature; but we improperly call generation the beginning of a development that makes visible to us what we previously had not been able to perceive” (Roger, , Life Sciences in Eighteenth Century, p. 501Google Scholar).

37. Nordenskiold, , History of Biology, p. 245Google Scholar.

38. Ibid., p. 246.

39. “For him the created universe was not immutable. Perhaps it had undergone great revolutions, and the account of Genesis might well be describing to us, not the creation of the world, but the last of those revolutions” (Roger, , Life Sciences in Eighteenth Century French Thought, p. 507Google Scholar).

40. Nordenskiold, , History of Biology, p. 246Google Scholar.

41. Critique of Pure Reason, A668/B696. See Roger, , The Life Sciences in Eighteenth Century, “Bonnet had read Leibniz's Theodicy in 1748 which had been “one of the most important moments in his intellectual life.’” p. 498Google Scholar.

42. Critique of Pure Reason, A668/B696.

43. “The publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason presented Bonnet in his later years, with a challenge to the ‘psychological principles’ with which he had worked all his life, regarding the way in which we come to knowledge of the exterior world through sensations (experience) as well as the way in which we have access to a direct apperception of our soul, of its unity or simplicity, through the sentiment intime.” “Certainly Kant reversed the direction Bonnet had moved in for the latter's efforts to establish a ‘science of the soul’ had meant, from the start, binding psychology more directly to physiology.” And at the end of 1788, Bonnet was moved to write several précis and commentaries on that work (CPR) and to conclude that Kant's strange doctrines tend to reverse all received opinion in rational psychology, “and even to annihilate all metaphysics. He ceaselessly shook the sources of all our knowledge, sentiment intime and experience” (Anderson, Lorin, Charles Bonnet and the order of the known [Dordrecht/Boston: D.Riedel, 1982], p. 28)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44. Savioz, , La Philosophie de Charles Bonnet de Geneve, p. 153Google Scholar.

45. “Reviews of Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of History of Mankind,” Kant's Political Writings, p. 208/AA 8:53Google Scholar.

46. Ibid. Arthur Lovejoy regards the essay on Herder's Ideas as evidence of Kant's antagonism toward evolutionary theory (Lovejoy, A., “Kant and Evolution,” in Forerunners of Darwin, ed. Glass, Bentley [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959], pp. 189–90)Google Scholar. Kant clearly repudiates in the essay the outlook of Bonnet and Herder which attempts to trace all species back to the one original germ, but Kant does not reject altogether the possibility of the “continuous gradation of natural creatures” (“Reviews of Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of History of Mankind,” 208/AA 8:53Google Scholar). What Kant wants most of all to distance himself from is the metaphysics of Bonnet and Herder who try to find in the continuity of species evidence for the immortality of the individual human being.

47. Cavallar, Georg, Kant and the theory and practice of International Right (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), p. 65Google Scholar.

48. MM 148/AA 6:341.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. For a full discussion of the concept of character in Kant's philosophy see Munzel, G. Felicitas, Kant's Conception of Moral Character (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999)Google Scholar. For a discussion of our hierarchy of aptitudes see, in particular, pp.111Google Scholar.

52. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), p. 202; AA, 7:292Google Scholar.

53. Ibid., p. 247; AA, 7:329. (The term revolution does not occur in the English translation, although it appears in the original.)

54. Cf. McLellan, D., Marx before Marxism (London: Penguin, 1972), pp.193–94Google Scholar.

55. Davies, Norman, God's Playground: A History of Poland, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 40Google Scholar.

56. Ibid.

57. Liebich, A., ed., Selected Writings of August Cieszkowski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1979), pp. 22, 55nGoogle Scholar.

58. MM 132/AA 6:320.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid., 131/AA 6,320

61. Kant draws a distinction between the “form of sovereignty” of a state and its “form of government.” The form of government can only be of two kinds: despotic or republican, whereas the form of sovereignty can be of three kinds: autocratic, aristocratic and democratic. In the republican form of government laws have to be made by the united will of the people and carried out by an executive that is separate from the law making body and subject to its laws. Kant's Political Writings, p.100–102/ AA 8:352–53Google Scholar.

62. MM 133/ AA 6:322.

63. Ibid., 148 VI, 340

64. Cf. G. F. Munzel's views on the role of the idea of grafting in Kant's educational theory. Kant's Conception of Moral Character, pp. 335–45Google Scholar

65. As Korsgaard, C. puts it: “This interpretation of history is offered, not as something knowable, and not as a reason for moral quiescence, but as a way those morally committed to peace can envisage nature's cooperation with their efforts” (Creating the Kingdom of Ends [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1996], p. 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

66. MM 148/ AA 6:341.