Kant’s Geographies

Immanuel Kant, Karl Friedrich Hagemann, 1801

by Stuart Elden

Kant: Natural Science,
edited by Eric Watkins, translated by Lewis White Beck, Jeffrey B. Edwards, Olaf Reinhardt, Martin Schönfeld, and Eric Watkins,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 822 pp.

This important collection of Kant’s writings on natural science is part of the excellent Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation. It contains three book-length studies and a variety of shorter texts, and the books are Kant’s first publication Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces from 1746-49, which looks at mechanics and especially Leibniz’s contributions to this field; the Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens from 1755; and the Physical Geography from 1802. The shorter pieces include reflections on the age of the earth, on its rotation, on fire and fireballs, earthquakes, winds, the influence of the moon on the weather, on motion and rest, and the volcanoes on the moon.

The organisation of the volume is straight-forwardly chronological, with a General Introduction and briefer introductions to each selection. While the translations are the work of many hands, the overall editor has, working with the general principles of the Cambridge Edition, ensured broad consistency between them. While several of the shorter selections and the Universal Natural History have been translated before, only one piece (the Latin dissertation on fire) was not retranslated for this edition. Parts of the Physical Geography have been available before, but the bulk appears for the first time. There are some suggestions for further reading in relation to each selection, though these are rather limited and could have easily been made more comprehensive. There are generous editorial notes, a glossary and linguistic footnotes, though Watkins notes that he and his translators “have not attempted to provide an exhaustive critical apparatus” (p. x). The ‘General Introduction’ notes that important pieces by Kant on related topics appear in other volumes of the Cambridge edition, such as the Physical Monadology  (1756), the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786) and the Opus Postumum (p. xiii). Nonetheless the Natural Science volume unquestionably becomes the most comprehensive, up-to-date and authoritative collection of Kant’s writings on this topic available in English.

Kant lectured on a variety of topics through his career, including logic, metaphysics and ethics, but also on topics that were not strictly philosophical including anthropology, education and geography. Geography was one of his most popular—the most reliable figures suggest lectures on this topic were given forty-nine times from 1756-1796. The Anthropology lectures were an offshoot of this material; initially geography alone, then in later years geography in the summer semester and anthropology in the winter. Kant himself, late in life, used his anthropology lecture notes to compile a book entitled Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. While the Physical Geography here also derives from a book published in Kant’s lifetime, there are textual issues to which I will return below. Many of the other texts in the Natural Science relate to the Geography, including advertisements for the courses and linked inquiries.

Kant felt that geography, and natural science more generally, was crucial for his students to know about. He was one of the first to lecture on geography as an explicit topic, before it was common to have professors of the subject. He had to get special dispensation to use his own materials as the basis for the course, rather than a pre-existing textbook, as he claimed nothing suitable was available (see p. 408). He nonetheless read widely and referenced a range of studies in his lectures, including the accounts of a range of his illustrious predecessors. including Leibniz, Buffon, Descartes, Newton and Wolff. The lectures were some of his most attended, and the frequency with which he gave them seems to indicate the importance he placed on them. Initially they were intended to provide a scientific basis to the various reports and travel writings Kant was reading. However as Holly Wilson has shown in her excellent study Kant’s Pragmatic Anthropology, Kant moved to thinking that the anthropology and geography lectures, taken together, would enable his students to become ‘citizens of the world’. Their studies on these topics would enable them to live better lives, and would provide the foundation on which the more abstract work of ethics, metaphysics and logic could be based. They provide the empirical grounding for the more theoretical work. Kant was also concerned with events happening in his lifetime, as the three texts here concerning the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 illustrate. And in his lectures, there is certainly a rich vein of detail. Kant may not have travelled much, but Königsberg, the city where he lived, was a port and he came into contact with a range of different people, many of whom provided him with material he used in his lectures. Manfred Kuehn’s recent biography is very helpful on this aspect of Kant’s working practice. Kant was sometimes too gullible in believing what he heard, and this helps explain some of the more outlandish, fanciful or at times downright offensive suggestions in the texts provided here.

In his 1757 announcement of his lectures Kant distinguishes between mathematical geography, political geography and physical geography. Mathematical geography “envisages the Earth as an approximately spherical heavenly body, void of creatures, whose size and shape, and the circles projected upon it, must be considered”. Political geography “teaches us about the peoples, the community that people have with one another through their [various] form[s] of government, activity and mutual interest, religion, customs, etc.”; whereas physical geography “merely considers the natural characteristics of the globe and what is on it: the seas, dry land, mountains, rivers, the atmosphere, human beings, animals, plants, and minerals” (p. 388; see 451-3). While the Physical Geography certainly makes good on that claim, it does not simply confine itself to this remit. The first part of the text is closest to what we would today describe as physical geography, looking at a range of physical processes concerning earth and water. Kant discusses oceans; land and islands as examples of the earth and its terrain; earthquakes, volcanoes and electricity; springs and wells; rivers and water, wind currents; climate, the atmosphere and temperature; transformations of the earth and the sea. The second part concerns the three realms of nature: fauna, flora, and minerals. These sections are often partial and regularly misleading, with the discussion of mermaids being only the most ridiculed. The final part of the book is a regional geography of the continents and their parts.

Just before the section on animals there is a discussion of humans, including geographical and racial differences. There is more detail in the regional geography part. This is where some of Kant’s most unpleasant views are aired. To take one example, he declares that the nation of the Caribes, who are “mostly distributed in Antilles, and inhabit St Vincent and Dominique” share the following characteristics:

They do not like to be called cannibals and cannot comprehend how one can prefer gold to glass. They never eat salt, are sluggish, and cannot withstand violence or hardship, have stubborn whims, and an uncommonly great pride. They are never converted to the Christian religion. Their revenge knows no limits; Providence is unknown to them. Their Cacique has to excel in war, running and swimming. They make little use of the spear but [use] arrows with hollow points poisoned with the juice of manchineel tree, and clubs” (pp. 678-9).

Some related claims can be found in the Universal Natural History book also included in this volume. Robert Bernasconi has discussed Kant’s theorisation of race in some detail, and suggests we cannot simply see Kant as a product of his time, because he went out of his way to think race as a category, as a scientific concept. Kant sees humans as part of physical geography not just because they are one of the features of the earth’s surface, but because they impact on the earth through their actions—cutting down trees, draining swamps, damming rivers and the like (pp. 560-1).

In the opening sections of the lectures, Kant discusses the remit of geography and its relation to other areas of knowledge. Kant sees geography as the basis for history as all events take place somewhere (pp. 450-1), and that geography works alongside history in terms of the perception of things within space and time. As Kant suggests “history and geography extend our knowledge in relation to time and space. History concerns the events that have taken place one after another in time. Geography concerns phenomena that occur simultaneously in space” (pp. 448-9). As Watkins notes, Kant’s understanding of natural science is not as restrictive as sometimes suggested, but it is sufficiently circumscribed to mean some of the texts in this volume are not, for him, actually appropriate to its title (see p. xvii-iii). Kant’s means of structuring geographical knowledge therefore transcends some of the more egregious scientific errors and the obsolescence of some of his claims.

The Cambridge Edition is now almost complete, and will include fifteen volumes—the Lectures on Anthropology appeared shortly after this one, and Lectures and Drafts on Political Philosophy is due in 2014. It is an amazing achievement, offering a comprehensive edition of Kant’s work. All the works published in Kant’s lifetime are included, along with a sample of unpublished writings including the Opus Postumum, correspondence, notes and teaching materials. There are volumes of lectures on ethics, metaphysics, logic and anthropology—sampling from the much more comprehensive editions in German. A reader of a volume can use the marginal volume and page numbers to find any passage in the German Kant’s gesammelte Schriften. The reverse is not, however, the case: the division of the German edition does not directly map onto the English. Given that the standard mode of referencing Kant is to use the abbreviation KGS and the volume and page numbers, as it is in the notes and introductions of these volumes, a concordance would a valuable tool to make it more usable. The Cambridge Edition itself does not even have volume numbers, which makes referencing to it unnecessarily cumbersome.

With the Physical Geography it does feel something of a missed opportunity. The edition translated here is the one put together by Friedrich Theodor Rink in the last years of Kant’s life. It was rushed into print to compete with a text unauthorised by Kant, compiled by Gottfried Vollmer and published between 1801-1805 in four volumes of seven parts. Rink’s edition thus appeared to have Kant’s support, and was included in the Gesammelte Schriften. But for over a century serious doubts have been raised about the Rink edition. The Rink text comprises the introduction from lectures in 1774 or 1775, while the body of the text dates from 1759. Given that Kant continued lecturing on this topic for a further 35 years, and continually updated his material in the light of his reading and new discoveries, we are provided here with a text that is terribly out of date. Rink was a very active editor, amending and deleting passages to a considerable degree, and supplementing Kant with his own ideas and reading. And in 1759 Kant was still lecturing on anthropology within the geography lectures, so some of the material here is not geography in the way the later Kant understood it. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason dates from 1781, and so we are reading Kant’s thoughts on geography from his so-called pre-critical period; not the work he produced on this topic later in his life.

Erich Adickes was crucial in the painstaking philological work that was required to make sense of the range of texts and lecture transcripts in his 1911 Untersuchungen zu Kants physischer Geographie, and proposed to the Gesammelte Schriften editors an alternative text, which was apparently rejected on grounds of cost and feasibility. For much of the twentieth century nothing much more was done. However over the past couple of decades Werner Stark has been doing crucial work in first discovering, then transcribing and compiling online, and finally editing into print, the different extant versions of Kant’s geography lectures. The product of all this labour can be found in Volume 26.1 and the forthcoming Volume 26.2 of the Gesammelte Schriften. The material there shows how Kant’s views changed on a range of topics related to natural science. In terms of the questions of space and time the lecture transcripts show how Kant’s views changed between the 1750s, the 1770s and the 1790s, and how his investigations of empirical concerns relate to the development of his critical philosophy. The version here makes use of some of Adickes’s work in the notes and for variant readings, but only references Stark in a few places. Hopefully the Cambridge Edition will produce an additional Lectures on Geography volume to give English readers a sample of the material now available in German: it would be a fitting compliment to the material already translated, including this excellent volume.

About the Author:

Stuart Elden is a Professor of Political Geography at Durham University. His interests range across history, politics, philosophy and geography and he has written books on Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre. His most recent book is Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and The Birth of Territory is forthcoming with University of Chicago Press in 2013. With Eduardo Mendieta he edited a collection of essays entitled Reading Kant’s Geography with SUNY Press in 2011. He runs a blog entitled Progressive Geographies.