Mendelssohn and Kant on Human Progress: a Neo-Stoic Debate

In Luigi Filieri & Sophie Møller (eds.), Kant on Freedom and Nature: Essays in Honor of Paul Guyer. Routledge (2024)
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The chapter replies to Paul Guyer’s (2020) account of the debate between Mendelssohn and Kant about whether humankind makes continual moral progress. Mendelssohn maintained that progress can only be the remit of individuals, and that humankind only “continually fluctuates within fixed limits”. Kant dubs Mendelssohn’s position “abderitism” and explicitly rejects it. But Guyer contends that Kant’s own theory of freedom commits him, malgré lui, to abderitism. Guyer’s risky interpretive position is not supported by examination of the relevant texts in their intellectual context. I first identify the historical origins of the term abderitism, which here signifies the independence of individual progress from social conditions. By contrast, Kant argues that individual progress cannot be independent of the progress of the species, acting as a corporate agent. This arresting position, I argue, must be understood in light of the Stoic ethical-teleological presuppositions generally accepted in eighteenth-century German discussion of human progress.

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Melissa M Merritt
University of New South Wales


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