Kantian Review Conference 2023: Sovereignty, Nationality & Language – Cardiff University, 1-2 June

The Russia-Ukraine war, Chinese authoritarianism, national populism, and the tightening of border controls in response to the 2015 refugee crisis and COVID-19 are but a few recent trends which have increased the salience of questions concerning the scope, legitimacy, and functions of nation states. The liberal optimism and ‘end of history’ narratives of the post-Cold War era which predicted that heightened globalization would erode national sentiments and usher in a new era of global convergence proved to be profoundly misplaced. Against this background, this conference aims to explore Kantian and Kant-related perspectives on sovereignty, nationality, and language.

It is often noted that Kant’s relation to nationality is ambiguous and seemingly paradoxical. Indeed, there is presently no consensus among Kantian scholars as to what, exactly, Kant’s own stance on sovereignty or nationalism actually was. On the one hand he is viewed as the starting point of a comprehensive political cosmopolitanism, while on the other his idea of self-determination as the highest political and moral good has been claimed to provide the foundational blueprint for the development of nationalist political thought. Much of the confusion in this regard lies in the divergent and equivocal understandings of the identity of ‘self’ in self-determination. Should it be understood in merely statist or voluntarist terms, or does it require a more explicit commitment to criteria of nationality such as language, culture and historical awareness?

This conference presents a timely opportunity to shed light on these matters by focusing on themes including the following. What, if anything, is the role of nationality in the generation of political solidarity and state legitimacy? Given the centrality of the principle of national self-determination in the 19th century transformation of the European map, where the ‘self’ was largely understood in national terms, should Kantian and neo-Kantian theories of self-determination become better attuned to the historical reality by assigning greater weight to the cultural-linguistic element? Relatedly, given that most nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were strongly associated with language and influenced by German idealism, to what extent should the linguistic dimension to the ‘self’ be emphasised in the contemporary context?

The conference will feature the following speakers and topics. David Miller presents ‘Kant, Immigration, and the Nation-State’, which discusses Kant’s likely understanding of immigration within the context of his corresponding emphasis on the integrity and rights to self-determination of legitimate states, and the practical implications of this for European states facing large-scale immigration flows today. Sofie Möller presents ‘Kant and Fichte on moral and political autonomy’, which analyses Kant’s and Fichte’s respective understandings of popular sovereignty as self-determination, focusing on the relation between personal and civil freedom and their normative political implications.

Turning to the relation between religion and politics, Susan Shell, in her paper ‘‘The Poetics and Politics of Theodicy Kant’s Political Theodicy: Sovereignty and the Book of Job”, addresses the theological dimension to Kant’s conception of sovereignty to shed light on the ‘secular vs religion-based’ interpretations commonly attributed to Kant. Reidar Maliks’ paper dealing with “State sovereignty, investor-state dispute settlement courts, and cosmopolitan right” examines the apparent tension between ISDS courts and state sovereignty, arguing for the former’s legitimacy on the grounds of the innate right to freedom, which mandates a right of sovereign states to protect themselves against domination by commercial ventures. In his paper “Constitutionalism: militant, defensive and pre-political grounding”, Ronald Tinnevelt identifies instances of democratic backsliding among liberal democracies and discusses what kind of a theory can successfully outline pre-political conditions necessary to their sustenance.

On the question of language, Andrew Vincent examines the argument of Kant’s contemporary in Koenigsberg, Hamann, against Kant’s attempted ‘purifications’ of reason from the impurities of custom and tradition, experience and induction, and most importantly ordinary language. In a related vein, Helder De Schutter analyses Herder’s and Condillac’s opposing views of language and cognition; Erica Benner discusses Kant and Herder on national and individual self-determination; while Huw Williams and Rhianwen Daniel re-assess Fichte’s cultural nationalism in light of its underlying linguistic assumptions and their contemporary application. In addressing these and related questions, the conference brings together a particularly varied range of perspectives in order to facilitate a critical engagement on the fraught yet crucial relation between sovereignty, nationality and language in liberal democracies today.

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