In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kant's Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Kant’s Philosophical Project
  • Historical Context
  • Reference Works and Collections of Works in Context
  • Journals, Professional Societies, Proceedings
  • General Anthologies

Political Science Kant's Political Thought
Elisabeth Ellis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0138


Immanuel Kant (b. 1724–d. 1804) is best known for the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 2d edition 1787), which revolutionized theoretical philosophy and laid the foundations of the modern research enterprise. Although the basis for Kant’s contributions in political philosophy may be found in this first Critique (see O’Neill 1989, cited under Kant’s Philosophical Project), the works most relevant to political philosophical questions are the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) and a series of shorter essays on various political topics that Kant published between 1784 and his death in 1804. Also important to understanding Kant’s political philosophy are his works on ethics, on History, on religion, on education, on anthropology, and on the scientific method. Contrary to a popular misconception of him as a detached philosopher concerned only with abstractions, Kant was deeply engaged in the concrete politics of his day. He criticized traditional social hierarchies, religious dogmatism, political authoritarianism, and educational conservatism, while championing Freedom in its many modes. Kant has been rightly criticized for inconsistently applying his theory of human dignity (barring, for example, women from active citizenship). Despite such shortcomings, the legacies of Kant’s political theory are so pervasive that it is hard to imagine the present without them. Kantian conceptions of human rights, Cosmopolitanism, republicanism (what we would call democratic accountability), international federalism, rule of law, the public sphere, and justice underlie early-21st-century institutions from the local to the global level. More than two hundred years after his death, however, Kant’s Enlightenment ideals represent widely held aspirations that are only very incompletely realized in practice.

General Overviews

Although there are many available introductions to Kant’s political thought, current students will want to choose relatively recent works that reflect early-21st-century consensus views about the status of Kant’s political philosophy. For a number of reasons, Kant’s political thought was neglected by scholars until fairly recently. The text of Kant’s most important political work, the Doctrine of Right (the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals) was corrupted by a printing error (see Kant 1996, translator’s note: 355–356); Kant’s late texts were sometimes wrongly associated with senility; perhaps most importantly, philosophers until recently tended to read Kant’s ethical classics and extrapolate a political theory from them, rather than working out the complete view from Kant’s scattered political works and essays. These newer works make none of those mistakes: they emphasize different aspects of Kant’s political philosophy, but they all provide reliable introductions to the main ideas to be found therein. Students most interested in legal philosophy will want to begin with Ripstein 2009, or Höffe 2006, while a focus on the history of political thought will incline the reader toward Ellis 2005, Flikschuh 2000, and Kersting 1992. Wood 1996 is ideal for ethicists interested in broadening the scope of their reading in Kant’s practical canon from the moral classics to the political works.

  • Ellis, Elisabeth. Kant’s Politics: Provisional Theory for an Uncertain World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    A comprehensive reading of Kant’s political works from the early work on Enlightenment through the late Conflict of the Faculties, focusing on Kant’s dynamic account of the relationship between our ideals and imperfect political reality.

  • Flikschuh, Katrin. Kant and Modern Political Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487187

    An excellent close reading and analysis of the Doctrine of Right (Rechtslehre), the central text in Kant’s political philosophical oeuvre. Contains an important chapter on property rights (pp. 113–143), as well as a convincing argument that current “Kantian” liberalism diverges significantly from its Kantian roots.

  • Höffe, Otfried. Kant’s Cosmopolitan Theory of Law and Peace. Translated by Alexandra Newton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    An important reconstruction of Kant’s political thought, centered on Kant’s foundational accomplishment as the philosopher of peace.

  • Kersting, Wolfgang. “Politics, Freedom, and Order: Kant’s Political Philosophy.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Edited by Paul Guyer, 342–366. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521365872

    A succinct introduction to Kant’s political philosophy, focused on Kant’s central theme of moral Freedom. Nicely contrasts Kant’s views with those of other members of the political theory canon.

  • Ripstein, Arthur. Force and Freedom: Kant’s Legal and Political Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674054516

    Important account of Kant’s legal and political philosophy from the Doctrine of Right, plus a powerful argument for its continuing appeal. Sharply focused on vindicating Kant’s concept of freedom as independence from another person’s choice.

  • Wood, Allen W. “General Introduction.” In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, xiii–xxxiii. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    A short, reliable introduction to the best single-volume edition of Kant’s practical works.

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