Kant on Revolution as a Sign of Moral Progress

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This paper addresses a central aspect of Kant’s theory of moral progress and its links to both political violence and pedagogy. Kant claims in the Conflict of the Faculties that the reaction to the French Revolution demonstrates that the ‘human race has always progressed and will further progress toward the better’. It thus constitutes a ‘historical sign’, justifying belief in moral development. This paper argues for three points. First, I contend that these claims have been widely misunderstood: in particular, most commentators are guilty of projecting Hegelian arguments onto Kant. Second, I advance a new reading of Kant’s account of the ‘historical sign’ focusing on the epistemic status of the spectator and the role of ‘enthusiasm’. One consequence is that the case for progress is fundamentally different from that in Kant’s other writings. Third, I show how these results inform Kant’s stance on education and the possibility of what he calls ‘popular enlightenment’. Ironically, the details of Kant’s argument may seem to support pessimism rather than any celebration of human progress: the appeal to education is crucial in making that final leap.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 6 Sept 2021


  • Kant
  • Progress
  • French Revolution
  • Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804


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