Keynote Addresses

Eva piirimäe (university of tartu)

"Human Rights, Imperialism and Peace among Nations: Herder’s Debate with Kant"

Abstract: In a series of writings, James Tully has outlined a dichotomous account of what he calls two distinctive traditions of human rights. The first is represented in Kant’s thinking and views human rights as ‘self-evident truths’. Thus understood, human rights presuppose the existence of a universal set of coercively imposed legal, political and economic institutions. The other traditon emerges in  full-blown form in Mahatma Gandhi’s thought, yet some of its distinctive elements can already be found in the Quakers, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others.  At its heart is the idea that human duties precede and enable human rights, while the latter are democratic ‘proposals made by and to free and equal persons and peoples’. For Tully, these traditions also translate into two very different visions of relationships between peoples: while the Kantian tradition potentially allows for a coercive imposition of these rights and their appropriate settings upon other peoples, the democratic tradition provides a solid defence against all forms of imperialism. 

Tully’s account has been criticised for its caricatured picture of Kant. While agreeing with much of this critique, I would like to substantiate some of Tully’s fundamental lines of argument about the two traditions of human rights by bringing in a figure whom Tully does not mention in this context– Johann Gottfried Herder. I will argue that the critique of the Kantian tradition by Tully parallels that of Herder of Kant.  Particularly in the 1780s, Herder argued that the Kantian approach as outlined in his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784) legitimises existing European ‘state-machines’ and their imperial and colonial policies in and beyond Europe. In subsequent years, Kant developed his theory into straightforwardly republican and anti-imperialist directions. Nevertheless, Herder feared that it harboured a potential for encouraging republican imperialism. Furthermore, Herder also criticised Kant’s understanding of enlightenment via history, in particular the way in which he emphasised political education over a broader humanist one. Herder’s own  view shared key elements of Tully’s democratic tradition of human rights. While avoiding the term ‘human rights’, Herder embraced the fundamental moral ideal of protecting individuals and peoples. For Herder, duties and rights were inseparable, while he also proposed a vision of a pacific union of self-governing, but culturally and commercially integrated peoples in Europe. 

This interpretation of Herder sharply diverges from the received view of him as a romantic nationalist. In the final section of the paper, I will consider some of the reasons for the emergence and persistence of the views of Kant as an imperialist and Herder as a nationalist. Outlining some of the reception history of these two figures, I argue that in both cases, we can identify arguments with a ‘slippery slope’ which by political actors in a non-ideal world can be interpreted so as to legitimise imperialism (Kant) or exlusive nationalism (Herder). Yet this should not make us neglect their original visions; furthermore, despite their differences it might make sense to ask about the possible ways in which elements from both traditions could be combined. 


Biographical note: Eva Piirimäe is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. Piirimäe received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 2006. In autumn 2016, she was visiting scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University; in spring 2017, she was Visiting Associate Professor in European Studies at Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. She has recently co-edited (with Alexander Schmidt) a History of European Ideas special issue Sociability in Enlightenment Thought (2015), and has published widely on eighteenth-century political thought and intellectual history. Her articles have appeared in History of European Ideas, History of Political Thought, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Intellectual History Review, Acta Philosophica Fennica and elsewhere. She has also recently contributed a chapter to Commerce and Peace in the Enlightenment, edited by Béla Kapossy, Isaac Nakhimovsky and Richard Whatmore (Cambridge CUP, 2017). She is currently co-editing (with Liina Lukas and Johannes Schmidt) a joint volume entitled Herder on Sympathy and Empathy: Theory, Practice and Reception and is completing a book entitled Patriotism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism in Johann Gottfried Herder’s Thought. Piirimäe has led two Estonian Science Foundation research projects. Piirimäe’s main research focus lies in early modern theories of patriotism, nationality, cosmopolitanism and international peace. In recent years, her research interests have come to include contemporary theories of humanitarian intervention, national self-determination and secession.

Laszlo Kontler (Central European University)

"Inventing ‘humanity’: early-modern perspectives"

Abstract: This talk addresses a crucial chapter in the development of the modern concept of humanity (mankind , humanité, Menschheit) in European culture. It is not an empirical study based on primary research, rather an attempt to sketch an analytical framework for approaching and understanding a broad array of specific historical topics and phenomena within the parameters of an encompassing theme. The methodological assumption at its heart is trivial: ‘humanity’ is not an intrinsic notion, but a contextually defined cultural product shaped by processes of philosophical, historical, social-anthropological and political self-reflection, and of encounter with ‘others’ in modern times, which all raised important and disturbing questions about the differentiae specifica of the human kind. In tackling some of these questions and the significant answers to them during the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, I shall focus on contemporary versions of three important intellectual frameworks that determined the consideration of the diversity versus unity, and diversity within unity, of mankind.  These are, first, the temporalization of human difference: the notion that such difference is largely a matter of patterns in the development of human faculties and relations both among men and between them and their environment across (virtual) time. Second, the historicization of nature: the study of nature on the basis of the collection and ordering of data about phenomena as they actually exist in space as well as in time. Third, the naturalization of man: the study of man without the ascription of a special status to him, with the approach of the naturalists, as coequal from the methodological point of view with any other product of the Creation.


Biographical note: László Kontler is Professor of History at Central European University in Budapest. He formerly taught at Eötvös University (Budapest), the University of Debrecen and Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), and held research fellowships in London, Oxford, Wolfenbüttel, Edinburgh, Göttingen and Florence. His work ranges across the history of political and historical thought, translation and reception in the history of ideas, and the production and exchange of knowledge, in the early modern period, mainly the Enlightenment. His articles have been published, among others, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Modern Intellectual History, Intellectual History Review, Contributions to the History of Concepts, History of European Ideas; his English language books include A History of Hungary (1999/2002) and Translations, Histories, Enlightenments. William Robertson in Germany, 1760–1795 (2014); he co-edited, with Antonella Romano, Silvia Sebastiani and Borbála Zsuzsanna Török, Negotiating Knowledge in Early-Modern Empires. A Decentered View (2014); and with Mark Somos, Trust and Happiness in the History of European Political Thought (2017). Kontler is one of the editors of the European Review of History / Revue d’histoire européenne and Europäische Geschichte Online / European History Online, and president of the European Society for the History of Political Thought.