In Kant’s Wood

On freedom, competition, and the flowering of our species

By William Eaton

Note: This is the first in a planned series of articles and essays related to conflict—political, economic, social, artistic, internal, . . .


Among the early spring-flowering trees the dogwood, Cornus florida, is unrivaled in beauty. It usually grows 15 to 25 feet in height and is generally wider than tall. With fall comes a brilliant show of scarlet to reddish purple foliage and bright red fruit (drupes) borne in small clusters. The fruit often lasts into December or until it is devoured by birds. The flowering dogwood’s natural habitat is under tall pine trees or on the edge of a deciduous forest. In this microclimate, dogwoods receive filtered sunlight, high humidity, and protection from drying winds. The leaf litter that falls each year benefits the dogwood’s shallow root system. — Adapted from an article on flowering dogwood posted on line by the North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Flowering_Dogwood 2The most famous line of Immanuel Kant’s essay Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View) has been translated as follows: “From such crooked wood as man is made, nothing perfectly straight can be built.”[1] It may be noted that Kant’s line echoes a wonderful line from Ecclesiastes, or from Ecclesiastes in English: “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.”

As regards the human predicament, Ecclesiastes was more pessimistic than Kant, seeing little hope of progress or significant action. “All is vanity.” “What profit do we have from all our labor under the sun?” Kant proposes, rather, that competition brings to both trees and humans a wonderful profit.

Each needs the others, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature, while those that live in isolated freedom put out branches at random and grow stunted, crooked, and twisted.

That is, we need others because they force us to work harder to compete with them, so that “I” survive rather than or better than “you.” Even as you may be losing out, perishing for lack of light or water, you may also be helping me grow straight and tall. Were you not around I would feel more relaxed and dissipate my force in horizontal explorations and grow my flowers in unproductively whimsical manners. And were I not around, you would not, even in death, look so stiff (if not quite tall enough to have survived).

I trust that the information on Cornus florida suggests that the matter may be more complicated than Kant has proposed. “The flowering dogwood’s natural habitat is under tall pine trees . . . The leaf litter that falls each year benefits the dogwood’s shallow root system.” “The fruit . . . is devoured by birds.”

“Each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature”. Kant

The present text will endeavor to imitate not Kant’s conifers, but the flowering dogwood. That is, the piece will grow more wide than tall and benefit from the shade and litter of various philosophers and writers, while not ignoring the virtues of filtered sunlight, i.e., of the wisdom of some of Kant’s observations and such other things as may be learned through an examination of Kant’s wood analogy, or woods analogies, their contradictions included. For example, in Kant’s sentence first quoted above, we are forever crooked. In his second sentence, thanks to the competition that a well-ordered society both encourages and regulates, we can help one another grow straight—realize our potential as human beings. Also enlightening in this regard is the dialogue between Kant’s wood and Rousseau’s state of nature in which we begin straight, and then, thanks to competition and other aspects of human society, we become bent and rotten. (Kant, by the way, was a great admirer of Rousseau; once, for example, praising him as the Newton of ethics.[2])

I have worked on this piece over several months and on two continents, including from within le Palais-Royal in Paris, at a restaurant table from which I could see through the straight, evenly spaced trunks of the trees to a gushing fountain, spreading its water like a fleur-de-lis. All of this is art, or music, but one of the points of this essay is that philosophy is not like that. Philosophers may imagine that they are seated at a table in a well-ordered park, when in fact they are walking through forests of light and shadow, of the crooked and straight clashing and climbing, flowering and rotting (and being devoured by birds). Each time one engages in the practice of philosophy one chooses a path, or, like the present piece, several paths, and while the paths, scenes and trees can never be the same from one time to the next, the forest remains.

evergreen forest 

Iwould take a few paragraphs to note that the wood analogy is not all that is of interest in Kant’s Idea for a Universal History. First and foremost, the essay paved the way for later explorations in the philosophy of history, and particularly for Hegel’s and Marx’s explorations which portrayed human history as having a goal: the full realization of the potential (real or imagined) of human nature. It is hard not to think, also, of the Nazi Die Endlösung (the final solution) in this context. And, with this and the two world wars in mind, it has been hard for me not to be put off by a few passages in Kant’s essay, such as the one, not necessarily false, about how wars have the transcendent purpose of establishing new relations among states or such as the passage about how—

Der Mensch will Eintracht; aber die Natur weiß besser, . . . was für seine Gattung gut ist: . . . Arbeit und Mühseligkeiten . . .

Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord. He wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly; Nature wills that he should be plunged from relaxed, passive contentment into labor and hardship . . .

Some years of my money-earning life were spent working under a man whose self-imposed and lonely mission was to convert whatever remained of his staff’s relaxed contentment into Arbeit und Mühseligkeiten (labor and hardship). It always seemed to me that this man’s effort had less to do with effective management, or with any deep understanding of the human predicament, than with an attempt to live up to—and a kind of dry thrill in living up to—the demands of a strict and unforgiving God. And I could not see that this God had anything universal or natural about Him; He seemed more the product of the pinched vision of the boss’s particular and not very happy subculture. Are we now not awfully close to Kant’s vaunting of duty, his idea that human actions are good only insofar as they are motivated by a desire to act dutifully—obeying not the state or a denominated church, but a rational idea of the good?

Lorax Thneeds 

We have also traveled a bit far afield and left the “Universal History” essay for The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Returning to the essay under consideration, I note that near its conclusion, in its suggestion of a way for us to realize our potential, Kant’s essay may be said to have—in 1784 and while leaving behind the putative advantages of war and discord—laid out the case for the United Nations. From the eighth of the essay’s nine theses:

In the end, war itself will be seen as not only so artificial, in outcome so uncertain for both sides, in after-effects so painful . . . that it will be regarded as a most dubious undertaking. The impact of any revolution on all states on our continent, so closely knit together through commerce, will be so obvious that the other states . . . will prepare the way for a distant international government for which there is no precedent in world history.

Kant’s promoting of such an institution, backed by an ideal constitution, connects to two ideas of freedom. One of these ideas Kant, inspired in part by Rousseau, developed in his great Critiques (of Pure and Practical Reason). As the Kant scholar Robert Johnson has succinctly summarized the matter, for Kant, Freiheit (freedom) “does not consist in being bound by no law, but by laws that are in some sense of one’s own making.” The other idea is that the “free” behaviors of an individual can be noxious to his community and thus ultimately to the individual himself (or herself). “Free” here does not correspond to the Kantian sense of freedom just discussed, but to behaving in headstrong, self-centered ways, unconstrained by Ordnung und Regeln, Regeln und Bestimmungen (order and rules, rules and regulations). Because we human beings are more than willing to pursue our own interests and pleasures at the expense of other humans, Kant writes in his essay, we need “a master, who will . . . force us to obey a will that is universally valid, under which each of us can be free.” Thus the central proposal of the Idea for a Universal History: in an ideal, universal government of our own devising we could find our greatest freedom, with “greatest” here in the sense of giving us the greatest opportunity to realize alle ursprünglichen Anlagen der Menschengattung: all the natural capacities of our species.

For Kant, freedom “does not consist in being bound by no law, but by laws that are in some sense of one’s own making.” Robert Johnson

Kant further argues that the task of coming up with such a master of our own devising is not only essential for our species, but also next to impossible, since the master must be a human being or a group of humans equipped and controlled, by means of a constitution, so that he or the group acts not in a self-interested fashion, but to promote justice and the “freedom” of all. Socrates and his colleagues went down a similar path in The Republic, and so, too, James Madison and the framers of the United States Constitution. See Madison’s writing in the fifty-first of the Federalist Papers, e.g.:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

In his speech at the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution, Madison said: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And the present state of US society offers sad support for Madison’s arguments, as we see a wealthy, aggressive, anti-social few profiting overwhelmingly from the rest of the people’s labor and loyalty, and justice is now an expensive commodity, available to those who can afford the requisite legal teams and the costs of buying an unimpeachable social status and a wall of social connections.

As regards universal government, the United Nations provides a concrete example of the problem Kant was wrestling with. The Charter of the organization features exalted goals, but these serve, inter alia, to disguise the extent to which the organization preserves and promotes the “self-interests” of established government, and, more particularly, of certain governments and their major stakeholders. Thus, for example, the Security Council’s capacity to promote world peace is limited in part because its structure and rules seek to preserve and promote a particular set of international power relations: those leftover at the end of the Second World War. And “non-state actor” is, understandably, a term of opprobrium at such an organization of governments; yet realizing alle ursprünglichen Anlagen der Menschengattung depends in large part on such actors, be they popular uprisings against the encroachments of those in power, or labor unions or individual artists, or the environmental forces that keep crying out, but in an earthly language that state actors and their major stakeholders have difficulty understanding.

crooked forest 3 

Exploring another path, heading closer to Kant’s forest analogy, it may also be well asked what laws of their own devising are tall-and-straight-growing trees obeying? Before arriving, finally, in this thicket, however, let us put two more possibilities in our rucksack. The first will emerge from a modern example of Kant’s vision in somewhat successful action and the second from the most famous concept of Kant’s Universal History essay.

The example is how in our present automotive times governments have been able to organize and regulate the private, public, and commercial use of motor vehicles so that qualified drivers over a certain age are able to enjoy the freedom of driving on roads provided by the state (i.e. by the tax dollars of the drivers or of the citizenry as a whole). Of course the system is far from perfect; here in the United States, tens of thousands of people are killed yearly by motor vehicles. The global figure is 1.2 million—yes, 1.2 million—deaths per year. Nonetheless, it is clear that the widespread use of motor vehicles would not be possible absent such a system, which includes infrastructure, regulations, driver’s education, and social mores. In being incorporated into this system as we come of age, we lose some of our freedom (in a non-Kantian sense; our freedom from constraint). We cannot drive at any speed in any direction, and in this regard it could be said that we (or the wealthier) were better off in the age of horses, except that, although the overall freedom of movement may have been greater then, the speed and thus the geographical range of our movements was more limited. It is also the case that we can drive much faster than the speed limit, but only with the danger (and with the pleasure of the danger) of being fined or arrested and losing our driving privileges (to say nothing of the possibility of killing ourselves or others).

Extrapolating, we can say that Kant’s approach champions a wonderful ideal: how a type of good government can increase the capacities enjoyed by all or many people. And, although our example has not focused on this point, such a government could also minimize the differences in the amounts of freedom or capacity-development-potential enjoyed by some individuals as compared to others. It could, for example, use tax policy or pro-labor legislation to ensure that no citizen’s income was more than ten times that of any other adult citizen or that all schools, public and private, had the same amount of funds per pupil. Would such policies change the feeling in the United States from dog eat dog, every person for herself of himself, to something of less heat but greater warmth—a feeling of solidarity, of shared struggle?

Man “expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, for his own part, is inclined to oppose others.” Kant

Such policies would also, however, serve as yet another reminder that freedom from constraint is reduced in a system in which the “freedom” to develop one’s capacities depends on rules, regulations, and socialization processes, however “good” (egalitarian or effective at capacity development) they may be. The mythical cowboy on his horse, more or less alone on a Great Plains, could wander wherever he wished (or wherever there was sufficient food and water), and at a gallop or a saunter. The suburban commuter may daily travel hundreds of miles—a daily distance that could put the cowboy to shame—but the commuter must travel on a prescribed set of roads, at a prescribed set of speeds, and in a complex harmony with other drivers, police, insurance companies, et al. (And in spending an hour or two on urban “expressways”—trying, for example, to get to New York’s JFK airport from the center of the city, but 15 miles away—one may be led to reflect on how much more quickly some distances could be covered in the days before highways and the automobile.)

Kant’s “famous concept” is human Ungeselligkeit (unsociability), or—better—the “ungesellige Geselligkeit des Menschen” (the unsocial sociability of humans). With this phrase Kant is referring to our propensity, or indeed need, to enter into society, bound together with our desires for autonomy and for freedom from constraint, which desires constantly threaten to break up our societies. In 1927 the psychotherapist Alfred Adler noted that we human beings are forced to compensate for our weakness by forming alliances and cooperating, and these activities, far from relieving us of our feelings of deprivation and insecurity, embody them. From Kant’s more optimistic, late eighteenth-century perspective:

Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be yet more human; that is, more in a position to develop his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go his way. Meanwhile he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, for his own part, is inclined to oppose others. This opposition awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness, and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power, and avarice, to achieve a rank among his fellows, whom he can neither endure nor do without. Thus are taken the first true steps from barbarism to culture, which contains all that is of value in human society. Here all man’s talents are gradually developed and his tastes refined; through continual enlightenment the beginning of a foundation is laid for a way of thought which can in time convert man’s coarse, natural disposition for moral discrimination into definite practical principles, and thereby change a society of men driven together by their base instincts into a moral whole.[4] These characteristics of unsociability, which each man can find in his own selfish pretensions, are in themselves quite unattractive and give rise to conflict. But without them all human talents would remain hidden, unborn in an Arcadian shepherd’s life, with all its concord, contentment, and mutual affection.

“[H]is fellows, whom he can neither endure nor do without”—I have much appreciated the sophistication of such observations of Kant’s. In speaking to a psychotherapy patient, Adam Phillips once noted a similar oddity—this “sense we can have that other people are the ones who spoil the things we can’t actually do without them.”

At the time I began work on this essay, I was also reading Le Mariage de Loti, Pierre Loti’s Romantic view (first published in 1880) of life in nineteenth-century Tahiti.

In Oceania, work is something unknown. The forests by themselves produce all that is needed to feed the carefree people. Breadfruit and wild bananas grow for everyone and leave no one unsatisfied. For the Tahitians year follows year in the midst of a perfect idleness, a never-ending dream, and these great children have not the least idea that in our beautiful Europe so many poor people exhaust themselves, striving to earn their daily bread.

Loti himself sets these idyllic moments off against reports of sadness and melancholy, in the quiet and isolation of these far-off islands and with the population slowly succumbing to European diseases and domination, the beautiful girls naïvely embracing a life of prostitution. And thus we could return to Kant’s observations with yet greater assurance that, in the long run, the potential of our species will not be realized by those of us who (like Loti’s Tahitians) give up fishing because the climate is not conducive to working and because they can live on fruit and thereby have more time for napping, bathing, and love making. Or, say, we could take a twenty-first-century Pascalian view, from which Loti’s novel would help us yet better understand the noise and commerce of Western life, its Arbeit und Mühseligkeiten and its United Nations included. All this, a Pascalian can observe, may have less to do with our realizing our potential, than with finding ways of diverting ourselves, of blocking out the sadness, of avoiding having to appreciate and accept the human predicament.


Dancing Trees, Unknown Location. Björn OlssonWe are now more than ready to return to the wood and the trees. Let me quote again, and at greater length, from Kant’s forest analogy:

It is just the same [for we humans as it is] with trees in a forest: each needs the others, since each in seeking to take the air and sunlight from others must strive upward, and thereby each realizes a beautiful, straight stature, while those that live in isolated freedom put out branches at random and grow stunted, crooked, and twisted. All culture, art which adorns mankind, and the finest social order are fruits of unsociableness, which forces itself to discipline itself and so, by a contrived art, to develop the natural seeds to perfection.[5]

With help from all the spade work we have done heretofore, let us explicate or extricate this. Were each of us to develop on our own, we would indeed end up with crooked branches (like an apple tree?), and this because we would enjoy some kind of—unimaginable for those living in complex societies?—constraint-less freedom.[6] Interestingly, one way of looking at the resulting problem is that such freedom would leave us goal-less. On any given day we might grow in any direction or several or not grow at all, and without there being any notable consequences beyond our twistedness. We might find the results agreeable or not as we wished. Imagine the proverbial ten chimpanzees being set to the task, not of reproducing Shakespeare, but of playing roulette, and with this one qualification: no matter what number they placed their chips on, that number won. A bit like Loti’s Tahitians, the chimps would be offered low-hanging fruits or expectationless caresses. Some of the chimps might end up demoralized, with nothing demanded of them and it making no difference how they played the game. Some might additionally, passively, reason that since the 17, say, always won, they should keep playing that number. Others might follow a more “twisted” path, reasoning that since all numbers appeared to be winners, why take the trouble of being consistent, or why not enjoy the pleasures of throwing one’s chips on the board helter-skelter? (Cf. Montaigne’s description of himself as un “ennemi juré d’obligation, d’assiduité, de constance”: a sworn enemy of obligation, constancy, and perseverance. A fitting position for someone who had seen the ball land squarely on his number—for an heir to rich and productive estates which he was able to leave to the management of his wife and and other capable people.)

Kant’s idea of how we humans grow straight and tall, however, has little to do with my chimpanzee analogy, nor with Montaigne. For Kant (a short man, by the way), straightness and tallness are most certainly the goal, and they are hardly easy to achieve, and any success will owe nothing to chance. Straightness and tallness are forced on us or on the trees by competition (e.g. for sunlight). Being naturally vainglorious, avaricious, and power-hungry—ungesellig (unsociable)—our fellow humans or trees would take all the sunlight they could command for themselves, elbowing the rest of us aside, stunting our growth or leaving us to starve to death or reducing us to begging or prostitution. These are not uncommon outcomes in human societies, and we could say that for human beings they can be horrible, but Kant’s proposition is that there is also something invaluable, even wonderful, here. None of us would grow straight, nor would we be able to enjoy our wonderful artistic and intellectual productions, were we, our artists and philosophers included, not subject to this competition—were we not forced, in order to survive, to grow as straight and tall as possible.

Are the straightest and tallest in any given forest the best? Not, say, if one likes or depends on edible fruit.

In the United States of recent times this would be called a neo-conservative position, and it may lead some to recall Social Darwinism as well. The survival or flourishing of the fittest is not only a good deal for those who may happen to find themselves most fit for surviving or flourishing in the circumstances in which they find themselves; the system works for most everyone. The exception is those disabled, challenged, defective, victimized many or few who lack the genes, motivation, or faith in straight-growing that are essential for success. Of course they are not going to find it easy to survive, but the remaining many or few, by being forced to be as fit as they can possibly be, may indeed end up being as fit as they could possibly be.

That’s the theory in any case. And Kant’s forest analogy may help us begin to perceive the weaknesses of the analogy and of the neo-conservative position. Different species and genetic make-ups of trees grow straighter and taller (and in different soils, different climates, and lights). But are the straightest and tallest in any given forest the best? Not, say, if one likes or depends on edible fruit. And would you prefer a forest of firs straight and tall, which you could fell to build homes and railroad ties, or the woods along a stream or around a clearing, where you might find hardwoods for building, apples for apples, and dogwoods for their drupes and spring blossoms?

And by applying mulch around all or some of the trees (or by judicious pruning?) could we promote an increase in the sizes of a wide range of trees and increase, too, the fruitfulness and beauty of the whole forest—and this much more impressively than if we simply left the trees (or humans) alone to elbow aside others or to themselves be elbowed aside? (And where is The Lorax, who speaks for the trees?)

This is also the place for asking if my idea of a complex environment, different types of trees growing in harmony, is in fact the fantasy of someone who has spent vastly more time in New York’s carefully tended Central Park than he has in any forest? And we can also ask if we—or some of us, yet not others—prefer our gardens carefully designed and tended in the French classical manner, the manner of le Palais-Royal—offering different flowers in different seasons, and many signs of constraint but none of dying or decay? Or do we prefer the wilder English gardens, or simulations of luxuriant wildness such as in the landscaping of Manhattan’s High Line “aerial greenway”? Or—best of all?—a walk in autumn woods, climbing over fallen logs and circumventing patches of mud and stagnant pools? Or do we like (and dislike?) all of these things and at different times, depending upon our mood and circumstances (the state of the economy included?)?

Gauguin Les seins aux fleurs rouges 

Any answers notwithstanding, I will now turn to another aspect of Kant’s analogy. As I worked on this essay, I recalled reading that Kant had but one picture on the walls of his home: a portrait of Rousseau which was hung over his writing desk. This memory was connected to a sense that a Rousseauian version of the forest analogy would be quite different. For Rousseau the “natural seeds” (e.g. of human beings) do not need to develop to perfection; they are perfection. The conditions under which these seeds are forced to grow—human society with all its unsociableness certainly included—corrupt the innocent young saplings. Kant proposed that from such crooked wood as a man is made, assuming that he is not helped to grow straight either by a just master or by competition, nothing perfectly straight can be built. A Rousseauian version would be: The straight wood that humans might be we will never be because, being social animals, we are forced to live in society, and society is inevitably corrupting.

And now we (with Rousseau’s help) are far from any neo-conservative or laissez-faire approach to government. A young child in some ideal, never-existing state of nature (or in a state free from regulations, taxes, subsidies, public education) may be perfect and pure, if also quickly eaten by wolves. She has in any case no choice but to be raised in society—so as not to be eaten and because she is a member of a species that learned, eons previously, to stick more or less together, and this at least in part in order to survive. And so, while surviving, a young child is also quickly corrupted by social customs and ways, forms of government included, often to such an extent that she soon becomes herself part of the corrupting force. (And all this while little aware of how her habits, thoughts, and feelings continue to be shaped by social forces.)

Let us pause here to note that the semi-Rousseauian vision of the Tahitis and Tahitians of the world is that they existed for millennia in an ideal, childlike state, free from predators, including from the temptation to prey on one another, until The Fall: the arrival of Europeans. In this vein, Loti remarks on more than one occasion that Tahiti is one of the rare countries in which one can sleep outdoors, exposed to the elements, without fear of predators (or, say, without getting too cold). From one perspective, the fact that one cannot do this in Europe is what has made us “Westerners” taller and stronger (in limited senses of those two words) than the Tahitians and others, and thus has led to our global hegemony. From another perspective, Loti’s peaceful Tahiti is itself a European fantasy. As a powerful man may dream of powerlessness or wish to act this out (for example, in sex play), so Loti and many another Westerner, arriving on their invading ships, wished to find peacefulness and to play at it, to include during sensual interludes with the locals.

We do not spend much time teaching our children to throw and dodge. Nonetheless, much of their experience may eventually come to this: throwing and dodging.

I have also read, in Nature, that our species’ survival may have less to do with our competitiveness or, say, the size of our brains or our ability to band together, than simply on the high rotational velocity our shoulder muscles are able to achieve.

Some primates, including chimpanzees, throw objects occasionally, but only humans regularly throw projectiles with high speed and accuracy. Darwin noted that the unique throwing abilities of humans, which were made possible when bipedalism emancipated the arms, . . . [O]ur throwing capabilities largely result from several derived anatomical features that enable elastic energy storage and release at the shoulder.[7]

This might lead to a further conclusion: a few (species or individuals within species) succeed not because circumstances force them to, but because, from birth, they enjoy advantages over others.

In harmony with the contradictions of Kant’s essay, the present text continues to present opposed possibilities. Thus, on the one hand, let us observe how parents, teachers, and other adults are wont to say that education, socialization included, is for children’s “own good.” And in so saying they (or we) skip over what may be most essential in all the teaching: gaining protection (e.g. in the form of professional degrees) from wolves, human and otherwise, and being trained in how to make successful use of one’s own aggressive instincts. Our children are at some pains to learn how to find the rotational velocities and the projectiles—be these marketing strategies, computer algorithms, land ownership, laws, capital, particular symbols of social status—appropriate to our moment in history. As modern parents we do not spend much time teaching our children to throw and dodge literally speaking. Nonetheless, more of their education than we may wish to admit may come to this: throwing and dodging. And insofar as our hypothetical young child is able to absorb and make use of this education, she may become more striker than struck, more consumer than consumed.

Alternatively, Rousseau and Kant hold out hope for the possibility of a society that—grâce à some kind of contrat social, in the Rousseauian view, or some kind of Verfassung (constitution) in the Kantian view—could regulate the freedom, security, and indeed innocence of each and every child and adult so as to promote the maximum freedom, security, and innocence for all. So that, notwithstanding our self-interests and aggressiveness—or, better, by harnessing such things—each of us can be as free, secure, and uncorrupted as possible, and notwithstanding our aggressiveness, mutual dependence, and frustration (and rage) at our clawless (and often clueless) vulnerability, at our having to depend on and even help others, and at all this coming in the end to naught but death for each and every one of us.

As the French poet François de Malherbe wrote (in “Consolation”): The poor man in his hut, with thatch for cover, is subject to death’s laws; nor can the guards at the gates of the Louvre protect our kings from them.

Le pauvre en sa cabane où le chaume le couvre

Est sujet à ses lois,

Et la garde qui veille aux barrières du Louvre,

N’en défend pas nos Rois.

Crooked Forest Poland 1 

Arrived, finally, in the thicket of Kant’s woods analogies, let us focus on the tension or contradictions. Is Kant’s view, ultimately Rousseauian, natural forces would not only let us, but indeed force us to, grow straight, were it not for the confusion (the darkness?) of the forest in which we, as social animals, live and grow? Or was Kant in his Idea for a Universal History rejecting Rousseau for some variation on the doctrine of original sin and the slim or slimmer hopes thus offered? It is not possible for trees to work together to redesign the forest in which they grow—to prune themselves, as it were—and it would seem almost as difficult for the fundamentally crooked to conspire to bring straightness to their own lives. But might we still hope that, were such wonders possible, were our prayers answered, we and our offspring might grow straight and tall, enjoying a no longer corrupted will, thanks to the perfecting forces of a now ideal society?

The wood and forest passages appear in the middle of Kant’s text (a German fairy tale of dark woods and with the happy end always beyond reach). Further along, a reader may discover that the whole text is not meant to be an analysis, prediction, or proposal so much as a kind of fantasy or “mere idea,” a focus imaginarius. This Latin term, and the notion that philosophical examinations may involve such useful but unreachable goals, appears in the Critique of Pure Reason and not, or not quite, in the Universal History. In the latter work Kant presents his exploration of the possibility of a perfect constitution, of human beings learning to master themselves and their instincts, as a way, above all, of resisting pessimism, of clinging to hope—of clinging to the hope that Nature or God has a plan, a good plan, for our species. In the ninth, concluding thesis he writes:

If, further, one concentrates on the civic constitutions and their laws . . . a guiding thread will be revealed. It can serve not only for clarifying the confused play of things human, and not only for the art of prophesying later political changes . . . , but for giving a consoling view of the future (which could not be reasonably hoped for without the presupposition of a natural plan) . . . . [The underscoring is mine.]

Such a justification of Nature—or, better, of Providence—is no unimportant reason for choosing a standpoint toward world history. For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation in the realm of brute nature and of recommending that we contemplate it, if . . . we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it and hoping for that only in another world?

This is an interesting and not uncommon approach to philosophy, in which the psychology of the philosopher, his or her faith included, becomes the basis for an analysis or argument that is couched in the rhetoric of rationality and that by and large avoids making reference to the matters of faith or to the author’s psychology. And this notwithstanding the fact that faith and emotions may be the most solid foundation for what are otherwise hollow claims.


This piece is titled “In Kant’s Wood,” and I would like to leave us there, or here, in this forest of Kant’s and ours. I believe it has been seen that these woods are a tangled and dark and dappled place. And thus tempting and satisfying and frightening to explore.


William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his Montaigbakhtinian essays, will be published by Serving House in July 2015. A version of the present essay was presented at the Michigan Academy’s 2015 conference. Nancy Derr is thanked for her skillful editing of the Zeteo version.


Afterword (a personal note)

Drafting this text in France, I must note that long ago in Paris I studied Kant with Jean-François Lyotard, a philosopher best known for his writing on postmodernism, in particular for La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), first published in 1979. As I recall, before turning to Lucretius’s clinamen (the unpredictable swerves or inclinations of atoms), we spent several classes (in 1982-83) on just one or two paragraphs of one of Kant’s Critiques. Thus I was introduced to the French method of explication de texte, which has but faint equivalents in the principal approaches to philosophical study pursued in the United States. For this introduction, among other things, I owe a great debt to Professor Lyotard.


Dancing Trees, Unknown Location. Björn OlssonImage Credits, with a Few Notes

Homepage image, which is also at right, is by a Swedish photographer, Björn Olsson.

Evergreens from blogpost.

Paul Gauguin, Les Seins aux fleurs rouges, 1899. Alternative titles: Deux Tahitiennes, Two Tahitian Women, and Deux Tahitiennes aux fleurs de mangue, Two Tahitian Women With Mango Flowers. The original is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The crooked-trunk trees are in the Crooked Forest in Poland. A Web post, The Mystery of the Crooked Forest, states:

Sometime in the early 1930s, someone planted about 400 trees near the town of Greifenhagen in what was then Germany. Something stunted the growth of the trees and caused them to grow horizontally—all facing due north—for some period of time. Somehow, around 1940, the trees curved back towards the sky and started growing back up. The sometime, someone, something and somehow of those facts are all unknown. The growth of the trees could simply be the coincidental result of natural factors such as soil type, tree infestations, erosion, snow falls, and/or the availability of light. Another theory holds that the trees were purposely grown to be curved, perhaps by a boat maker or a carpenter. The curvature of the trees certainly bears a resemblance to the hull of a small boat. Regardless, the trees were planted in politically contested territory that saw a great deal of fighting towards the start and end of World War II. After the war’s conclusion in 1945, new international borders were drawn and the Crooked Forest ended up 3 kilometers inside Poland. (The town of Greifenhagen was officially given its Polish name, Gryfino). Whoever planted the trees either perished in the war or felt unable to return to their land that was now in a new country.

The factory that makes Thneeds from Truffula trees appears in Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (Random House, 1971). The text accompanying this illustration:

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering . . . selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.

Below: Espaliered apple tunnel from Highgrove House, the family home of the Prince of Wales (Charles) and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) near Tetbury in Gloucestershire; photo from a blog, “Ivy Clad.”


apple espalier tunnelEndnotes

[1] “Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.” By and large I have relied on the English translation prepared by the Kant scholar Lewis White Beck, which appeared in Kant: On History (Pearson, 1963). I have also consulted Luc Ferry’s French translation, Idée d’une histoire universelle au point de vue cosmopolite (Gallimard, 1985) and the English translation by David L. Colclasure that appeared in Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, edited by Pauline Kleingeld (Yale University Press, 2006). Finally, in a few places I have revised portions of the existing translations or prepared my own glosses of Kant’s phrases. Both the Beck and Colclasure translations have been available on the Web.

[2] From notes attached to Kant’s own copy of his Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, 1764):

Newton was the first to see order and regularity bound up with great simplicity, where before him disorder and badly matched manifoldness were to be met with, whereas since then comets travel in geometric course. Rousseau was the first to discover under the manifoldness of the available shapes of mankind man’s deeply hidden nature and the concealed law according to which providence through its observation is justified.

I am by inclination an inquirer. I feel in its entirety a thirst for knowledge and a yearning restlessness to increase it, but also satisfaction in each forward step. There was a time when I thought that this alone could constitute the honor of mankind, and I despised the people, who know nothing. Rousseau set me right. This blind prejudice vanished. I learned to honor human beings, and I would be more useless than the common worker if I did not believe that this view could give worth to all others to establish the rights of mankind.

Text here as quoted in a passage on “Kant and Rousseau” in The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation, and Community, by Susan Meld Shell (The University of Chicago Press, 1966), 81.

[3] Robert Johnson, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessible via

[4] Kant’s phrase here—“eine pathologisch-abgedrungene Zusammenstimmung zu einer Gesellschaft endlich in ein moralisches Ganze verwandeln kann”—has challenged a range of translators. David Colclasure offers: “to ultimately transform an agreement to society that initially had been pathologically coerced into a moral whole.” (His italics.) A footnote adds, “The term ‘pathological’ [pathologisch] here means ‘determined by impulses from the senses.’” Similarly, Luc Ferry’s French translation uses the word pathologiquement and adds a footnote which connects this word both to the senses and to selfish tendencies. Lewis Beck’s translation, which I have used as my foundation, avoids any references to the pathological, writing instead of “natural feelings” (for which I have substituted “base instincts”). I have also encountered the phrase “pathologically enforced union” in an article by Pheng Cheah in Law and the Stranger, edited by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas and Martha Merrill Umphrey (Stanford University Press, 2010), and “an agreement determined by feeling” in Robert B. Louden, Kant’s Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (Oxford University Press, 2000); italics are Louden’s.

[5] A colleague points out another imperfection in Kant’s analogy: The growth strategies of the pine tree and the dogwood are (or so we think) “merely concerned with survival. Whether this makes them more or less perfect (or whether this makes them more or less perfect in our eyes) is merely coincidental.”

[6] Of making much of trees there is no end. Another colleague recollected weeks spent on an estate in Kent, England, an estate that was situated in the midst of apple orchards. The grounds

had expanses of lawn, ponds, and topiary hedges. The orchards occupied much land beyond the estate. In the evening we would wander among the trees, picking fruit as we wished. But I noted that few of the old free-growing apple trees remained. Most were cultivated to a shorter, wider sameness that facilitated picking.

This is to say, among other things, that the exploration of the present essay is but a beginning. The farther we go, the farther we can see and the more we realize that the view is inexhaustible. As Bakhtin (or his translators) put it: “The world of culture and literature is essentially as boundless as the universe. We are speaking not about its geographical breadth (this is limited), but about its semantic depths, which are as bottomless as the depths of matter.” [M.M. Bakhtin, “From Notes Made in 1970-71” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, translated by Vern W. McGee (University of Texas Press, 1986), 140.]

[7] Neil T. Roach, Madhusudhan Venkadesan, Michael J. Rainbow and Daniel E. Lieberman, “Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo,Nature 498 (27 June 2013): 483-86.


Click for the pdf

In Kant’s Wood: On freedom, competition, and the flowering of our species


  1. Ed Mooney

    I love this quote you forward from Bakhtin: “The world of culture and literature is essentially as boundless as the universe. We are speaking not about its geographical breadth (this is limited), but about its semantic depths, which are as bottomless as the depths of matter.” This suggests a sauntering philosophy taking note of the varied and not always transparent terrain. It means that both Kant and Newton (devoted to nailing down simplicity and knowledge) will never make contact with the world of “culture and literature.” Rousseau and Thoreau and a number of ancient philosophers saw the art of sauntering to be wedded to the art of philosophy — exposing this, not that feature of the landscape. They sought life in its boundless complexity rather than the false simplicities and putative conclusiveness of knowledge. You are a sauntering philosopher, William, and a good one !


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