Fortune Cookie

by Micah on September 12, 2003

I got one tonight that read: “Be careful! Straight trees often have crooked roots.” Not exactly what Kant had in mind. But I’m keeping an eye my fellow CT’ers . . .

{ 1 comment }


Chris Brooke 09.13.03 at 2:57 pm

I’m not sure I agree…

Isaiah Berlin was chiefly responsible (before this blog came along) for keeping in circulation the phrase about nothing straight being made out of the crooked timber of humanity, and repeatedly used it in his writings as a way of providing rhetorical support for his anti-utopian liberal pluralist views. And, no doubt, he always found it helpful to suggest to his readers that he had Kant on his side.

But as Perry Anderson pointed out in his review of Isaiah Berlin’s book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, (and as Christopher Hitchens reminded us more recently in his posthumous hatchet-job on Berlin’s reputation), the argument Kant makes in his essay on “The Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”, for which he coined the phrase, points in a completely different direction.

Kant does say that out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made. But in the original context, the point he’s making is one about the inability of any individual to be acceptable as a sovereign for the whole human race. And the space aliens footnote (yes — we always come back to the space aliens footnote!) Kant drives the point home: space aliens might be individually perfectible creatures, but we are not; humans can only perfect themselves collectively, as a species.

And the rest of the essay sketches out the various natural processes at work which will help to bring into being an “internally and externally perfected poltiical constitution”, one “within which all natural capacities of mankind can be developed completely”, and within which the inclinations of human beings will at last tend to contribute to a harmonious society. And he uses tree metaphors again to illustrate his point: “In the same way, trees in a forest, by seeking to deprive each other of air and sunlight, compel each other to find these by upward growth, so that they grow beautiful and straight…” The crooked timber becomes straight at last…

So if we return to the tree metaphor in Micah’s forture cookie, and recast it only a bit, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Kant’s argument is about how the straight tree (the just civil order, or the collectively perfect humanity it makes possible) nevetheless still has crooked roots (in the individually imperfect humans whom it joins together). And from time to time, I imagine we should be careful to remember that this is the case, even in a Kantian utopia…

In any case, the fortune cookie is certainly a better guide to Kant’s political thought than Isaiah Berlin ever was.

(Full references to all texts referred to available on request).

Comments on this entry are closed.