3. Cosmopolitanism and nationalism

A great deal of historical philosophy in the eighteenth century can be described as cosmopolitan: history was written from the perspective that all men are equal and uniform citizens of the world. From this perspective, statements about human history could be expressed in general terms that did not discriminate between time and place, because what went for one man in general lines went for all.

A philosophical underpinning of cosmopolitan history could be found in the works of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The German Enlightenment philosopher conceived the universe as determined by mechanical causal relations that work towards the establishment of a moral law, which was composed by the use of the free and rational human mind.[1] In his essay Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784), Kant argued that history seemed random and chaotic to the individual, but from the perspective of the human race as a whole appeared as a steady progression of the evolution of the free human will. This line of thinking, in which one rule steered all of history, had grown stronger in the course of the eighteenth century. It had made Voltaire, another self-proclaimed cosmopolitan philosopher, to shift his interest, as Daniel Woolf says it, from writing the history of men towards the history of man.[2] Cosmopolitan histories were grounded in the idea that historical development was determined by one certain principle or fundamental rule to which all natural and human events in the universe adhered. To study this principle was to study the universe and everything in it.

Cosmopolitan history was still universal history, so in this respect little seemed to have changed in relation to previous centuries. But other than the universal character of histories from earlier times, the label of cosmopolitanism was one that contemporary scholars explicitly identified themselves with. This cosmopolitan identity became explicit because a contrasting stance formed in response to it. Cosmopolitanism was rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, which stressed the common rational capabilities of men. Its antithesis was formed in the German lands, where the literary Sturm und Drang movement was based on the appreciation of human passions and emotions. Whereas Enlightenment rationalism led to an idea of a uniform humanity, its counter-movement stressed cultural particularity. One of the philosophers that was instrumental in developing this line of thinking was Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who argued that there existed radical differences in human thoughts and beliefs between cultures and historical periods. This German philosophy also had higher esteem of the study of detail, because it was believed that in detail the essential expression of a certain time or culture was found. Kant and Voltaire, who only saw relevancy in an exploration of the bigger historical pattern, had yet discarded such a small-scale investigation as pointless. In the German lands, there thus formed a philosophy that emphasized the importance of the particular over the general, and appreciated the small over the big.

In his younger years, Herder had been a student of Kant. Yet by identifying with the Sturm und Drang he had gone in the opposite direction of his former teacher, with whom by the end of the eighteenth century he was engaged in several polemics about historical philosophy. Of these two German philosophers, the younger stood for the main direction of German philosophy in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. In the German lands, Enlightenment rationalism stood on its last legs. Lewis White Beck describes Kant as “the last of the Jacobins in Germany”.[3] In the eighteenth century, the engine of history had shifted from the notion of ‘providence’ to ‘progress’. Next, in nineteenth century German historiography, the main principle of historical philosophy became ‘national character’ or zeitgeist.[4]

German philosophy after Kant was dominated by idealism, which argued for the primacy of the subjective idea in the conception of objective reality. One of the main philosophers of this period was G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who opposed Enlightenment rationalism for its anti-historical tendencies. Kant’s conception of the rationally conceived moral law was considered a timeless construct that unjustly neglected the variation of the human mind throughout history. Hegel stressed that because everything existed in time, ideas and doctrines could only be understood by a study of its history.[5] Because nothing that sprung from the mind could be known independent from its historical context, all philosophy became philosophy of history.

Hegel believed that societies formed a unique whole, which he called the “spirit of a nation”, of which the parts were inseparable from each other. One of the inseparable parts of this whole was philosophy. Therefore, the ideas of the scholar could not transcend the national spirit to which he belonged. The historian could merely make his nation conscious of its underlying values and characteristics.[6] All knowledge became reducible to its historical context. The idea of cumulative knowledge, or the notion of progress that was based on this formula, could no longer be upheld. Because ethics were also confined to a particular national spirit, there neither was room for universal moral standards. Nor was it deemed possible to identify with a ‘nationless’ cosmopolitanism. Nationalism was perpetuated as a historical state of being.

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[1] Lewis White Beck, editor’s introduction by: Immanuel Kant, On History (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1963).

[2] Woolf, A Global History of History, 304.

[3] Beck (ed.) in: Kant, On History, xii.

[4] Woolf, A Global History of History, 335.

[5] Frederick C. Beiser, ‘Hegel’s historicism’, in: Id. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (1993; repr., Cambridge University Press, 1999), 270-300.

[6] Beiser, ‘Hegel’s historicism’, 274.