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
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. 199–213Google Scholar.
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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.
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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.
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15. Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Gregor, M. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991), pp.147–48; AA, pp. 339–40 (hereafter MM)Google Scholar.
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.
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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).
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).
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42. Critique of Pure Reason, A668/B696.
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