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Immanuel Kant, "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View" (1784)

In this influential contribution to the liberal philosophy of history and to German historicism, Kant proposes that the historical process, if it is to become meaningful to rational human beings, must be conceptualized or theorized in a way that allows it to be grasped as the emergence of self-government in a world of peacefully coexisting nations. The essay, which prefigures some of the central ideas in "Perpetual Peace" (his important and lengthy essay of 1795), holds that there are empirical grounds for viewing history in this light. Moreover, according to Kant, it is morally desirable to act to bring about the conditions the essay envisions.

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Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Immanuel Kant

Whatever concept one may hold, from a metaphysical point of view, concerning the freedom of the will, certainly its appearances, which are human actions, like every other natural event are determined by universal laws. However obscure their causes, history, which is concerned with narrating these appearances, permits us to hope that 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 that 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. Since the free will of man has obvious influence upon marriages, births, and deaths, they seem to be subject to no rule by which the number of them could be reckoned in advance. Yet the annual tables of them in the major countries prove that they occur according to laws as stable as [those of] the unstable weather, which we likewise cannot determine in advance, but which, in the large, maintain the growth of plants, the flow of rivers, and other natural events in an unbroken uniform course. Individuals and even whole peoples think little about 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 unknown goal; all work toward furthering it, even if they would set little store by it if they did know it.

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