Kant's Theory of Progress

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Abstract
My topic is Kant’s theory of historical progress. My approach is primarily textual and contextual. I analyse in some detail Kant’s three most important essays on the topic: ‘Idea for a Universal History’, the third part of ‘Theory and Practice’ and the second part of The Conflict of the Faculties. I devote particular attention to the Kant-Herder debate about progress, but also discuss Rousseau, Mendelssohn, Hegel and others. In presenting, on Kant’s behalf, a strong case for his theory of progress, I address the main objections which have been put to it. These are: (i) historical teleology is incoherent (history can’t have a goal because there is no intentional actor functioning at the historical level); (ii) historical teleology undermines morality (if things are getting better anyway, why do I have to try to make them better?); (iii) progress involves ‘chronological unfairness’ (if things are getting better, doesn’t this mean that earlier generations get a raw deal?); (iv) progress consigns the species to ‘spurious infinity’ (isn’t endless improvement endlessly unsatisfactory?); (v) progress amounts to pernicious homogenization (doesn’t the elimination of traditional practices and values impoverish our world?); (vi) the idea of progress is just ‘secularized’ religion (and should be rejected accordingly). In relation to (vi), I consider the Löwith-Blumenberg debate, and draw some general conclusions about the issue of ‘secularization’. In relating these to Kant, I argue for the following position: (a) his theory of progress is more than merely secularized religion; (b) to the extent that it can be described in terms of the secularization thesis, this reflects his ‘critical’ endeavour to rationalize Christianity; (c) in any case, the idea of progress by no means exhausts the rational potential of religion, and so should not be seen as intended to replace the latter.
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Archival date: 2016-09-13
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2010-07-26

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