In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immanuel Kant: Political and Legal Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Context
  • Anthologies
  • Innate Right and “Honeste Vive”
  • The Right of Nations and Cosmopolitan Right
  • The Juridical Status of Lying
  • Racism, Sexism, and Discrimination
  • Colonialism
  • Human Rights

Philosophy Immanuel Kant: Political and Legal Philosophy
Alice Pinheiro Walla
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0441


Kant is an influential figure for contemporary political philosophy. Although this influence was long due to an application of Kant’s ethical theory to political questions, Kant’s political writings, and, more recently, his legal philosophy have been rediscovered thanks to exegetical work refuting superficial interpretations and traditional clichés of Kant’s theory. Additionally, new applications of Kant’s legal-political philosophy show its continuing relevance to contemporary political problems. Kant’s legal and political thought are deeply interconnected. There are two reasons for this. First, the normative priority of Right (Recht) over politics. Politics must conform to Right (Recht) and not the other way around (8: 429). Politics should be thus regarded as “ausübende Rechtslehre”: as applied Doctrine of Right. Kant thinks that if this normative relation is upheld, politics will not conflict with morality (8: 370). Second, the way Kant attempts to mediate between pure reason and empirical reality, between a “metaphysics of Right” and imperfect political societies. Because we must also realize the requirements of reason, Kant is careful to ensure that what reason commands is at least not ruled out or made impossible by natural mechanisms, human nature, and the historical development of particular political communities. The world and human affairs must be such as to enable ideals of reason to guide us in changing the world and our lives. Kant’s views on politics are known mainly from the so called “shorter political writings”: “On the Common Saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice” (1793), Toward Perpetual Peace (1793), and The Conflict of the Faculties (1798). But Kant’s political views are not confined to these, and they are also scattered in other works, such as in his writings on anthropology, history, teleology, and aesthetics. The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant’s revolutionary work on the nature and limits of knowledge, is also relevant, although there are discussions whether it is possible to engage with Kant’s legal-political thought without embracing his transcendental idealism, which some regard as contentious. Unfortunately, Kant’s legal theory has not received the same attention as his political philosophy. This has been changing in the last twenty years with the publication of seminal scholarly work on Kant’s legal thought. Kant’s legal philosophy and his mature views on political philosophy are developed in the Doctrine of Right, the first part of the later work titled The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). This work has long been dismissed as the work of a senile mind, an attitude expressed early on by Fichte and Schopenhauer. Some now regard the Doctrine of Right as one of the greatest philosophical works in legal philosophy.

Primary Sources

The “Academy edition” (Kants gesammelte Schriften, edited under the Königliche Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902–]) is the standard edition of Kant’s works. It is standard practice to cite Kant’s works by indicating the volume followed by page number(s) in the Academy edition. Published works relevant for Kant’s legal-political thought are “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective” (“Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerliche Absicht,” 1784); “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” 1784); “Conjectural Beginning of Human History” (“Mutmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte,” 1786); “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but It Is of No Use in Practice” (“Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis,” 1793); Toward Perpetual Peace (Zum Ewigen Frieden, 1795); “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy” (“Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen,” 1797). All these can be found in Volume 8 of the Academy edition. The Metaphysics of Morals (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 1797) is a mature work containing Kant’s legal philosophy and regarded by some scholars as the final version of Kant’s practical philosophy (see Wood 2002, cited under the Relation between Right and Ethics). It includes a preface; a general “Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals”; and two main parts, “The Metaphysical Principles of the Doctrine of Right,” also known as the Doctrine of Right; and “The Metaphysical Principles of the Doctrine of Virtue,” known as the Doctrine of Virtue. These two parts correspond to the legal and ethical domains, respectively. The relation between Right (Recht, also translated as “Law,” although none of these English terms properly reflects the meaning of the German Recht) and Virtue (Tugend) as well as the question whether Kant’s mature views depart from or can be reconciled with his earlier moral foundational writings have stimulated much debate in Kant scholarship. Ludwig 1988 (cited under General Overviews) and Kant 2009 cited under Primary Sources: German) argue that the alleged obscurity of the Doctrine of Right should be attributed to editorial mistakes, and they have contributed to reviving interest in this later work by proposing a rearrangement of the order of specific paragraphs in the Doctrine of Right. The Conflict of the Faculties (Der Streit der Fakultäten) was published in Volume 7 of the Academy edition. Also relevant are parts of the Critique of the Power of Judgment (Academy edition Vol. 5) and the Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason (Academy edition Vol. 6), as well as the unpublished “preparatory works” (Vorarbeiten), such as the preparatory works for Toward Perpetual Peace and for the Doctrine of Right, both in Volume 23 of the Academy edition. The student notes from Kant’s lectures on natural law (Naturrecht Feyerabend), included in Academy Volume 27, provide an insight into the development of Kant’s juridical thought. The standard English translation of Kant’s legal and political philosophy is Kant 1996a (cited under Primary Sources: English Translations). Kant 2006 (cited under Primary Sources: English Translations) is a more recent translation of Kant’s political writings, with selections from The Metaphysics of Morals and The Conflict of the Faculties. The following subsections collect the volumes of the standard German and English Translations editions of Kant’s works that contain those writings most relevant to his legal-political thought as well as some more recently revised editions and translations.

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