Kant at the book club

Tonight at the Cumberland county library Great Books club, Kant's short, dense but readable essay Towards Perpetual Peace was on the docket.  I showed up a few minutes after everyone else had arrived, having walked the five blocks in a cool drizzle that hopefully heralds the end of summer here in Fayetteville.  The old members greeted and the moderator greeted me as I came in, happy I was back after having been AWOL since June, traveling up north.  Someone said:  "we were hoping you'd show up," a reflection both of the fact that we were talking about a philosopher this time, and of the cordiality of the group.


All the seats around the table were occupied; there were a few new faces, and for the first time, I was not the youngest member.  At one end, next to the moderator, a thin, young white man whose close copped hair and mannerisms betrayed him as having strayed in from Ft. Bragg (now that I think back, perhaps he resembles me at his age, in the Army, 20 years ago, an array of commonplaces, allusions to an idiosyncratically perused  literature, half-worked out thoughts at my disposal, searching for something, not sure what, not sure where, not sure with whom. . . ) At the other end, two black women, one older, collected, smiling, the other, a social worker younger than me but closer to me in age.  I disentangled a chair from the stack, and she slid her seat over slightly so I could between her and Jacquie (a regular, French, who I later asked for a word I couldn't recall:  tremblement de terre)

I am always very interested whenever our selection is a philosopher to see what the book club makes of him or her. It's a quid pro quo.  They are happy to get my explanations, context, occasional judgments, mentions of connections, since for better or for worse, I'm a philosopher -- or at the least have studied them and teach them.  I don't think they need me much, actually, and I'm paying close attention each time to what they have to say, how they construe the passages, what they respond to, what makes sense to them, resonates with them, what else it calls to their minds.

So far, in the sessions I've been able to attend we have read selections by Simone de Beauvoir (from The Second Sex) and Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish), and the whole of Machiavelli's The Prince.  So, Kant, and this essay in particular, actually fit in quite well.


I like to see what "ordinary people" (i.e., non-academics, or "plain persons" in the non-pejorative sense Alasdair MacIntyre gives that term) will find in philosophers with minimal coaching from me, in part because I think ordinary people and their views are valuable.  I am an Aristotelian and an Augustinian (albeit a strange one, since an Anselmian) in these manners -- as an Aristotelian, I want to start by laying out and weighing common opinions.  I also don't -- as many academics would -- distrust the ordinary working person who has managed to run their life well enough to find him or herself at a library great books club.  As an Augustinian,  (though I'm so bad a model for it as to provide only fuzzy outlines!) I believe that charity and humility (which an academic has to make efforts to exercise towards ordinary people) are not only core moral virtues.  They're also dispositions needed to see things and people rightly.

I also like to hear what plain ordinary people think about these matters, listen to them tease the matters out, debate with or riff off of each other, just out of the same sort of pleasure that leads people to seek out diners, bars, and if you're lucky enough the family dinner table.

So, the discussion started with the question whether Kant's proposal in Perpetual Peace, the very notion of it, the ways he articulates it, the means he advocates to strive for it. . . whether all of this is just idealistic, aspirational, or whether he really thinks and puts it forth as something realizable.  It is "utopian"  or is it "a concrete approach"?   There was genuine debate about this point throughout the evening.  Some took the position that if it couldn't be entirely realized -- and they had reasons why they thought it impossible, ranging from the fact of disagreement about moral standards to the perversity to human nature -- it was unrealizable.  Others pointed out that as Kant sketched the process, it would have to be gradual, and that, as one participant put it:  "if you don't have it in the whole world, it's not a failure for that."  The one group seemingly demanded perfection, and lacking it, were ready to dismiss the whole idea.  The other, more pragmatic, were interested in what they thought was right and workable in Kant's theory, and in how it could be worked towards

Some asked whether the European Union and the United Nations didn't seem to fit the model of Kant's outlined plans.  And, this led to some very interesting discussions which turned on geopolitics, cultures and corresponding states, and ideologies.  I introduced a contrast which they picked up on and used, mentioning that post-Cold War, after the euphoria wore off, and we realized that Fukayama's thesis about the End of History was off-base, there had been a debate among foreign policy analysts whether we were moving fundamentally towards a Kantian, Perpetual Peace type of world order or towards an (dis)order much more like the picture of international relations in Hobbes Leviathan, where nations exist in a "state of nature" in relation to each other, kept from attacking each other not through a rationality of moral suasion but a prudential rationality based on fear of the other's force (yes, of course, I didn't frame it precisely in these philosogeeky terms. . . )

So, in addition to the EU and the UN, the USA, China, and Iran were brought in to the discussion.  We Americans struggle over which paradigm of international order and relations we want to adopt.  Should we go the Kantian route Europhiles advocate? The EU has managed to keep peace in Europe, though it has been remarkably impotent everywhere else, and effectively had its defense subsidized and underwritten by American military force reflective of decidedly less Kantian views.  (I grant that Kant is actually hawkish on dealing with aggressors, anarchic or tyrannical  countries -- those who adopt a Kantian position in this tend to place a perhaps un-Kantian unduly high degree of confidence in moral suasion and effectiveness of international laws and treaties).  The UN, very effective in some respects, has a pretty poor record for actually keeping peace or enforcing its own resolutions.  Both Kantian-aspiring organizations are content to leave considerable enforcement to the more martial USA.

How a country like Iran, or even its rulers, would be dealt with, would be fit into a Kantian "federation of free states" -- that, in the view of the group -- needs considerable explaining.  Would it be wrong to attempt to undermine their decidedly undemocratic and unenlightened government, so as to have a more tractable state to deal with?  Kant's preliminary articles would seem to rule that out, for even if that was not "forcibl[e] interfer[ance] with the constitution and government" of another country (which article 5 prohibits), it would still amount to "instigation of treason in the opposing nation" (which article 6 prohibits).  So, what then?  Containment?  Will that work with an Iran seemingly set on acquiring nuclear weapons?

China, the new and rising superpower, poses a different kind of problem.  Is China more than rhetorically committed to an international order anything like what Kant sets out?  Or is China more Hobbesian  (yes, there is a false dilemma here, I grant, but . . . it's the book club, after all), more committed to power-politics, purely prudential reasoning, and order based on hegemony rather than mutual respect.  Even those who would most like to think the world as moving inevitably towards Kant's vision have a difficulty time seeing present-day China fitting into that plan.  So, the question is more complicated than whether we should put our considerable still-superpower weight behind a Kantian project which stresses the spread of rights, autonomy, freedom, representative governance.  It is whether China will. . .  and what comes of that project when the biggest, toughest, and likely most resilient world power has a very different model of peace and order in mind.

The book club discussion was much richer than this, and ranged much more widely, but now it is time to sign off.  Perhaps more of their observations in another post. . .