Kant on the Vocation and Formation of the Human Being

  • Ansgar Lyssy


One central debate in the German Enlightenment concerned the “Bestimmung” or vocation of humankind, involving authors such as Spalding, Abbt, Mendelssohn, and Schiller, continued by authors such as Fichte and Reinhold. While originally developed as a theological concept, the idea of a vocation was easily adapted in other contexts, such as philosophy of nature (Blumenbach, Mendelssohn) or philosophy of art (Schiller). It also had a remarkably strong impact on Kant’s philosophy that is not yet entirely understood. Kant is one of the very few modern thinkers who explicitly writes about the origins of humankind, as well as the way we can conceive the passage of humanity through time, and finally about our conception of the distant future of humankind. It seems clear that the concept of vocation connects the (conjectural) beginning of humankind to its (ideal) future. In this paper, I will elaborate this aspect, focusing primarily on both the origins and future of humankind and the way they are connected by this specific conception of a vocation. I argue that Kant picks up on the Enlightenment debate on the vocation of the human being and combines it not only with core ideas of the philosophy of pedagogy of his time, but it is also inspired by the philosophy of history, as he develops his perspective on the formation and cultivation also in his critical engagement with Herder’s philosophy (see, e.g., Review of Herder’s Ideas, AA 8:56). The germs for humankind’s future have already been implanted in the very beginning of its existence, yet only freedom and self-determination can work on removing their internal and external limitations to achieve the fulfillment of this vocation. So the vocation is not an external ‘calling’, but rather an internal striving towards self-fulfillment. This striving, however, should not only be conceived on the individual level, but needs to be related to an ideal of society, in which the relevant human actions are both facilitated and enticed. The vocation of humankind as a collective thus relates to the achievement of individual freedom in a just society. In this sense, it can be made clear that Kant’s concept of humankind’s vocation is not only a yet underrated core concept in Kant’s moral philosophy and his pedagogical ideas, but serves as a nexus to connect them both to his philosophy of history.


Human Beings Moral Vocation Conjectural Beginning Self-modifiable Form Pragmatic Anthropology 
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Authors and Affiliations

  • Ansgar Lyssy
    • 1
  1. 1.Ludwig-Maximilians-UniversitätMünchenGermany

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