July 16, 2007


Welcome to Immanuel Kant Week at Goat Rope. All posts this week will relate somehow to the Prussian philosopher who lived between 1724 and 1804 (and will include snarky comments about current events). If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

Kant is probably best known for his works on the theory of knowledge and morality, but he had some fascinating things to say about other stuff too. This week, El Cabrero is particularly interested in his philosophy of history as outlined in the amazingly readable (for him) essay, Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose.

When you look back at the history of humanity and look out at current events, things can seem pretty bleak, especially if things keep rolling along their merry way. But Kant, child (and father) of the Enlightenment that he was, thought something else--and something better--was possible:

if we attend to the play of freedom of the human will in the large, we may be able to discern a regular movement in it, and what seems complex and chaotic in the single individual may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steady and progressive though slow evolution of its original endowment.

It's a lot harder to believe in historical progress in the 21st century than it was in the 18th, but Kant wasn't as naive as he seems. The basic idea behind the essay seems to be that nature or God or the Tao has so endowed the human race that our very nastiness will, over time, compel us to get our act together.

Individuals, and even whole peoples think little on this. Each, according to his own inclination, follows his own purpose, often in opposition to others; yet each individual and people, as if following some guiding thread, go toward a natural but to each of them an unknown goal; all work toward furthering it, even if they would set little store by it if they did know it.

Here's how his argument starts. While human lives considered individually are pretty short, the life of the human race is pretty long. At least it wasn't over at the time of this writing. The talents and gains made by individuals and groups accrue over time to humanity itself.

Nature has further constructed us in such a way that we are not perfectly adapted to the world but have to work at it:

Man...was not to be guided by instinct, not nurtured and instructed with ready-made knowledge; rather he should bring forth everything out of his own resources. Securing his food, shelter, safety and defense (for which Nature gave him neither the horns of the bull, nor the claws of the lion, nor the fangs of the dog, but hands only), all amusement which can make life pleasant, insight and intelligence, finally even goodness of heart--all this should be wholly his own work...it seems not to have concerned Nature that he should live well, but only that he should work himself upward so as to make himself, through his own actions, worthy of life and of well-being.

Next time: nastiness as the road to niceness...

COAL MINE SAFETY. J. Davitt McAteer, currently of Wheeling Jesuit University and former head of the federal mine safety agency MSHA as well as special advisor to Governor Manchin in the wake of the 2006 mine disasters in West Virginia, gave a speech this weekend at a gathering of the American Friends Service Committee in Charleston. Here's the transcript of the coverage by West Virginia Public Radio.

ANTHROPOLOGISTS ON THE MARCH. El Cabrero is still reeling from the fact that anthropology has become a practical college major. Now the military is a major customer. Here's the latest.

ARREST THAT SQUIRREL! No, I did not make this one up:

Bushy-tailed squirrels may look innocuous, but according to a report coming out of Iran, over a dozen of the furry critters were detained near the country's border on suspicion of espionage. That's right, the rodents are alleged to have have been rigged with high-tech spying equipment (or so say the news reports picking up on this story):...

I've noticed recently that squirrel activity has spiked at Goat Rope Farm. Hmmmm...


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