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Weekend read – Kant: misogynist & racist

from Asad Zaman and WEA Pedagogy Blog

Reducing politics to rational calculation allows the destruction of entire countries, and killings of
millions, for the sake of political power or corporate profits. Today this “rationality” dominates
the world where corporations are busy destroying the planet for the sake profits.

Introduction: The dark underside of leading lights of the European Enlightenment has been skillfully concealed. Nearly all major enlightenment thinkers held abhorrent views about slavery, race, democracy, women, and equality. Even though their views are public, easily available in major works, there is a conspiracy of silence, and suppression of dissent. Even though there is an abundance of nauseating quotes from major Enlightenment thinkers, these remain hard to find . One of the most striking instances Is Immanuel Kant, one of founding fathers of European Enlightenment and modern Western Philosophy. To a far greater extent than we realize, philosophy provides a foundation for our way of life. Philosophy provides answers to the central questions we all face: Who are we? What is the meaning of life? How can we lead good lives, and build a good society? These answers direct our personal and collective efforts, and have enormous, generally unrecognized influence on our lives. An amusing illustration of the foundational importance of philosophy is furnished by the Wikipedia article “Getting to Philosophy”. This article shows that clicking of the first internal link within any Wikipedia entry eventually ends up with an entry classified as philosophy. All human knowledge is built on philosophical foundations.

Even though philosophy plays a central role in shaping our lives, we are largely unaware of this. Keynes expressed this insight colorfully:  “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. But there is a deeper and darker reason for our ignorance of the profound influence of Western philosophy on the way we lead our lives.

The rise of the West over the past few centuries has been due to unparalleled brutality and savagery against the non-Europeans. The horrors inflicted on native Americans, Africans, Asians put the ancient hordes of Genghis Khan as well as the modern Jewish Holocaust to shame. The details are so traumatic that they have been mostly suppressed and concealed in self-glorifying accounts written by the European colonizers. The British Government destroyed documents detailing horrors of the colonial rule; see “Operation Legacy” in Wikipedia. An important part of this suppression is the concealment of the racist and imperialist view of the leading lights of the Enlightenment. But bringing the racism and misogyny of Enlightenment philosophers to light is not motivated by mud-slinging at dead white philosophers. In fact, this is a just a particular incidence of a much bigger problem: the foundations of modern Western philosophy are built on racism and imperialism. These toxic philosophical ideas continue to dominate modern discourse on politics, economics, environmental and humanitarian goals embodies in the SDG’s.  Jeffrey Sachs’ (2021) speech at the UN illustrates how the critical questions concerning world hunger are bypassed and ignored, making solutions impossible. At a more general level, Henderson (2013) explains how racism is  ‘hidden in plain sight’ within the foundations of modern international relations theory. Exposing how racism and imperialism are concealed within Kant’s philosophy is an illustration of how the same concepts are concealed within the larger body of Western philosophy. This article is meant to serve as an illustration, and as a first step, in a much larger project of replacing Western philosophy with more humane perspectives on our individual and collective lives. For more illustrations of concealed Eurocentrism in the Social Sciences, see Zaman (2009,2021).

The Two Faces of Kant:

Berlin (1996) in “Kant as an unfamiliar source of nationalism” opens with: AT FIRST SIGHT nothing would seem more disparate than the idea of nationality and the sane, rational, liberal internationalism of the great Königsberg philosopher. Of all the influential thinkers of his day, Kant seems the most remote from the rise of nationalism. Many authors write of the universal and cosmopolitan outlook of Kant, supposedly one of the great gifts of the Enlightenment to humanity. For example, Brown (2009) writes as follows: In Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Immanuel Kant defines cosmopolitanism as being “the matrix within which all the original capacities of the human race may develop.”  In the broadest sense, Kant’s cosmopolitanism can be understood as being concerned with the cultivation of a global environment within which everyone can fully develop his or her human capacities. Kant expands on what establishing this matrix entails when he proclaims that, “the greatest problem for the human species, the solution of which nature compels him to seek, is that of attaining a civil society, which can administer justice universally.” The natural interpretation of these writings of Kant is, as Scruton (2001) writes:” … slavery is clearly ruled out … in his political writings, Kant writes as though distinctions of race and class are of no intrinsic political significance, and as though citizenship is and ought to be the aspiration of all mankind.”

However, other writings of Kant create severe difficulties for this standard interpretation. As Bernasconi (2020) writes: It remains something of a mystery how an articulate racism can within a given society co-exist with ideas of “human brotherhood,” as happened during the Enlightenment to an unprecedented degree. Kant did not oppose chattel-slavery and argued for the right of masters to beat slaves to death; see Eze (2003). How is it possible for highest sounding idealistic principles to be combined with the worst possible moral positions? More importantly, does this duplicity continue to this day? Henderson (2013) argues that racism is hidden in plain sight, in modern theory of international relations. The recent US Invasion of Iraq was justified on the basis of high ideals: bringing democracy to the people of Iraq, freeing them from an evil dictator, and saving the world from the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. However, this was all a cover for the worst of intents – destroying the infrastructure of the entire country, killing millions, all for the sake of control of oil resources and corporate profits. Is Kant similarly espousing highest principles for the lowest of motives?

The enormous respect and awe for the intellectual accomplishments of Kant leads to discomfort and disgust at even the raising of this question. It is an essential part of our goal to attack the integrity of Kant, the “greatest of the modern philosophers” according to Scruton. Awe and respect for European accomplishments in science is automatically extended to other intellectual arenas without any justification. This prevents raising essential questions, which must be raised to create viable alternatives to the toxic modern Western philosophy. Thus, the ability to raise the question of whether the philosophy of Kant is a revoltingly deceptive excuse for racism and imperialism, and to consider this possibility without emotions, is an essential part of our goal.

The Racism of Kant:

Henderson (2013) write that: The embarrassing fact for the white West (which doubtless explains its concealment) is that their most important moral theorist of the past three hundred years is also the foundational theorist in the modern period of the division between Herrenvolk and Untermenschen, persons and subpersons, upon which Nazi theory would later draw. Modern moral theory and modern racial theory have the same father’. This is the central puzzle we seek to resolve: how can universal and cosmopolitan morals be combined with repulsive and disgusting racist positions?  We need to track down the roots, in order be able to see the persistence of this deception to this day.

Both the deep-seated racism of Kant, and the concealment and suppression of this in standard references about Kant, are easily documented. While numerous articles sing praises of Kant. Scruton writes that: For Kant, the virtuous man is so much the master of his passions as scarcely to be prompted by them, and so far indifferent to power and reputation as to regard their significance as nothing beside that of duty itself. Eze (2003) provides a convenient rebuttal to the hagiographic accounts. Kant classifies humans into four races, classified by skin color:

  1. Whites: White are only race with the full potential to be human. (All others are subhuman – Untermenchen.)
  2. Brown (Hindus, Chinese, Persians, Orientals): do have motivating forces but they have a strong degree of passivity (Gelassenheit) and all look like philosophers. Nevertheless, they incline greatly towards anger and love. They thus can be educated to the highest degree but only in the arts and not in the sciences. They can never achieve the level of abstract concepts. A great Hindustani man is one who has gone far in the art of deception and has much money. The Hindus always stay the way they are, they can never advance, although they began their education much earlier.
  3. Black: the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling’. They are incapable of achieving the level of rationality required of moral agents. Negroes ‘can be educated but only as servants (slaves), that is they allow themselves to be trained’
  4. Copper (Yellow): The race of the American cannot be educated. It has no motivating force, for it lacks affect and passion. They are not in love, thus they are also not afraid. They hardly speak, do not caress each other, care about nothing and are lazy

The mystery of universalism and cosmopolitanism is resolved by noting that Kant’s respect extends only to rational human beings. This is a capability which only whites have, while all other races lack the capability to be rational, and hence do not qualify to be treated as human beings. Accordingly, Kant has no difficulty in allowing for the rights of masters to beat their slaves to death. However, since this would damage property, he recommends beating so as to inflict severe pain without causing death. The greatest moral philosopher of Europe, Kant “advises us to use a split bamboo cane instead of a whip, so that the ‘negro’ will suffer a great deal of pains (because of the ‘negro’s’ thick skin, he would not be racked with sufficient agonies through a whip) but without dying.” To beat “the Negro” efficiently therefore requires “a cane but it has to be a split one, so that the cane will cause wounds large enough that prevent suppuration underneath the ‘negro’s’ thick skin”(see Henderson 2013).

The stench of hypocrisy in the above statements is so strong as to preclude the possibility of reading Kant without a certain amount of disgust. Nonetheless, since this type of duplicity and double meaning persist in modern Eurocentric discourse, we must pinch our noses and examine more closely the source for this kind of double meaning.

Some Statements with Double Meanings

Berlin (1996) writes that “He defends nothing so firmly as the timeless, unchanging rights of the individual, whoever he may be, whatever his time, whatever his place, his society, his personal attributes, provided he is a manthe possessor of reason, and, as such, obliged to respect reason in all other men, as they respect it in him.“ On the generous reading, man includes all mankind, and when we say possessor of reason, we are only excluding children and those with mental disturbances, who must be taken care of in parental capacity. However, this broad and generous interpretation does not conform to the racist philosophies of Kant. Instead , “provided he is a man” is meant to exclude women and non-whites, while possessor of reason excludes all who reason in ways Kant would not approve of. So, what appears to be a universal and cosmopolitan statement is really a misogynist and white supremacist position.

Similarly consider “Sapere Aude” – dare to think – the signature of the Enlightenment. On the generous meaning, all of us are inevitably bound by our historic, cultural, and geographic contexts into narrow and parochial ways of thinking. The challenge is to rise above this limitation and learn to think in ways that transcend these boundaries. However, a narrow interpretation conforms more closely to Kant’s intentions, as revealed by his other writings. In the narrow interpretation, Kant has launched a Copernican revolution, creating ways of thinking not available to any of the past philosophers. As a result, he has solved all possible problems of metaphysics, once and for all. Now he is inviting the rest of us to follow him out of the darkness. Those who can learn to think like him will learn to be free, while all others will remain slaves to their past, and hence not worthy of respect as human beings. This pompous arrogance is in conformity with the character sketch of Kant provided by his biographer, Kuehn (2001).

The standards of rationality will be defined by Kant. He will also judge those who have and those who do not have, the potential to achieve these standards. Applying his transcendental logic, Kant finds that ‘this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid’. The black race has no potential to achieve rationality, but does have the capability to be trained as servants, provided that they are whipped properly, in a way to inflict pain without causing death. It is hardly possible that the deaths of millions of Congolese by extraordinary cruelty at the hands of the Belgians have no relationship to these sentiments of the greatest European philosopher; see Hochschild (1999) for more details.

Defending Kant

The central importance of Kant to modern Western philosophy is almost universally acknowledged. Choosing a random snippet, a blurb from Gardner (2001), “The Critique of Pure Reason is the cornerstone of Kant’s philosophical system and one of the greatest works in the history of Western philosophy. A proper understanding of the major philosophical developments of the last two hundred years – from Hegel to Wittgenstein to Heidegger – presupposes a knowledge of the Critique of Pure Reason.” Given his importance, particularly as a moral philosopher, many have risen to his defense against accusations of racism and white supremacism. We list and answer some of these defenses.

Dead White Philosophers: Kant has been dead and buried for centuries. Why speak ill of the dead? If he had some ill-considered opinions, shared in common with the vast majority of European intellectuals, we should be polite and ignore them. His personal failings should not be allowed to cast shadows on his magnificent philosophical achievements.

Rebuttal: According to this line of defense, Kant was personally racist and white supremacist, but his philosophy was universal and cosmopolitan. This position is hardly plausible; philosophies reflect personal views. Kant did not have a split personality like that of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The alternative synthesis of the apparent conflict is that Kant showed the way to combine profession of universal and cosmopolitan views with racism and imperialism. His successful strategy for doing so underpins the current “hidden in plain sight” racism and imperialism of modern politics. This position makes it essential to understand and uncover Kant’s strategy, as background for doing the same for current affairs. Some specific defenses and rebuttals follow.

Insignificant Part of Corpus? Kant’s racist views are peripheral and isolated; they can be separated from his central philosophical concerns: To the contrary, Eze (1995) argues that race and anthropology were the central occupations of Kant as a philosopher. He writes that: “It was Kant, in fact, who introduced anthropology as a branch of study to the German universities when he first started his lectures in the winter semester of 1772-3.4 He was also the first to introduce the study of geography, which he considered inseparable from anthropology, to Konigsberg University, beginning from the summer semester of 1756.5 Throughout his career at the university, Kant offered 72 courses in “Anthropology” and/or “Physical Geography,” more than in logic (54 times), metaphysics (49 times), moral philosophy (28), and theoretical physics {20 times).6 Although the volume Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View was the last book edited by Kant and was published toward the end of his life, the material actually chronologically predates the Critiques. Further, it is known that material from Kant’s courses in “Anthropology” and “Physical Geography” found their way into his lectures in ethics and metaphysics.

The Critique of Pure Reason: Surely this “one of the greatest works in history of Western philosophy” can be saved from the taint of racism? Scruton (2001) writes that “The depth and complexity of Kant’s philosophy are such that it is only after complete immersion that the importance of its questions, and the imaginative power of its answers, can be understood. Kant hoped to draw the limits of the human understanding; he found himself compelled to transcend them.”.  Is this book really worthy of the respect which is accorded to it in the Western Canon? Did Kant really transcend the limits of human understanding, as he himself thought, and Scruton affirms? There is every reason to dispute these high-flying claims for Kant and his reasoning. Kant wrote in such a complex and convoluted manner that his scribbles serve as a Rorschach test for philosophers. There is no agreement on anything Kant said; after a lifetime of work, everyone offers his own understanding of Kant.  Sophisticated and coherent interpretations of Kant are a testimony to the intelligence of the interpreters, and not Kant. Exaggerated respect for Kant prohibits the reductio-ad-absurdum of his dramatically flawed philosophies.

A Critique of the Critiques: Admirer and supporter Gardner (2001) writes that “Virtually every sentence of the Critique presents difficulties.”  Similarly, Scruton (2001) writes that “here is no accepted interpretation of(Kant)…. there is no agreement whatsoever as to the strength, or even as to the content, of his arguments.” Every clear articulation of what Kant said always attracts critics who say that the interpretation misses what Kant was saying. As a result, many commentators have drawn the obvious conclusion. From Feynman’s dictum that “if you can’t  explain it, you don’t understand it”, we can conclude that confusion about Kant is due to the confusion of Kant’s original work.  Another way to assess the value of Kant is to place his work in its historical context. The Enlightenment Philosophers were uniformly impressed by the scientific achievements of Newton, and concerned to reconcile the determinist universe suggest by Newton’s Laws with the free will required for moral responsibility. One of the “revolutionary” elements of Kant’s solution was the idea that space and time were categories imposed by our minds onto external reality. The non-Euclidean nature of time-space that emerges from relativity shows that Kant was wrong about this. Similarly, Hume’s problem of how to distinguish between correlation and causation continues to puzzle modern philosophers, even though Kant supposedly resolved this problem. Writing about “Hume and Kant on Causality”, Di Pieris (2018) says that Kant’s discussion of causality is central to his philosophy as a whole. Yet, “ever since Kant offered his response to Hume the topic has been subject to intense controversy. There is no consensus, of course, over whether Kant’s response succeeds, but there is no more consensus about what this response is supposed to be. There has been sharp disagreement concerning Kant’s conception of causality.” In simpler words, if Kant made a contribution to philosophy, no one today knows what that contribution is. Given an enormously complex corpus where every sentence is ambiguous, any author is free to read whatever they like in his writings, which accounts for the supposed depth of Kant.

The Influence of Kant’s Racism and Rationalism

Isaiah Berlin () writes that “Immanuel Kant stands for … calm, rational thought. Kant detested emotionalism, disordered enthusiasm, what he called Schwärmerei; it is indeed this kind of sentimental rhetoric, as it seemed to him, that in his view marred the outpourings of his contemporary and fellow philosopher Herder.” This privileging of reason over emotion is central to the moral failure we see today. Eugenicists argues that we can improve the human stock by culling the deficient races and individuals. Economists and political scientists argue that it is rational to betray promises if self-interest is serving by doing so.. As Bauman (2000) explains, the Nazi Holocaust is an outcome of the cold rational calculations demanded by modernity. When compassion is despised as sentimental rhetoric, the Holocaust is a natural result. This is not an aberrant or exceptional event. As many authors have shown, the past century has been full of mass murders dictated by strategic rational considerations; see, for example, Glover (2012) and Halberstam(2002).

Can Kant’s racism be isolated and separated from his other philosophy? All philosophers agree that Kant was a system builder – all components of his thought fit into a coherent whole. Sandford (2018) has explained how his classification of human races is a central illustration of application of one his philosophical methodologies. As Bernasconi 2020 cogently argues, Kant is the father of scientific racism. At his time, a scientific puzzle was being debated by contemporaries. While color and other physical characteristics differentiated races, the fact that all races could interbreed, and produce fertile offspring, was clear evidence that there was no scientific basis for distinguishing between races. Furthermore, the widely believed Biblical account of common descent from Adam and Eve also argued for the brotherhood of man. Kant thought up, purely from his mind, a theory which differentiated races, while allowing for common descent. It was a complex and convoluted theory, which he upheld against empirical evidence and criticism from different sources. Although the theory is completely absurd on the basis of later biological discoveries, his prestige as a philosopher led to widespread acceptance (without understanding) that there was a scientific basis for distinguishing races, and assigning them different types of characters and characteristics. Kant also believed that whites were the only fully human race, and all other races were degenerate forms, which would eventually die out. The consequences of these toxic philosophies have been traced by Henderson (2013). He has shown how the racism and imperialism of the Enlightenment philosophers has been built into the foundations of modern theories of International Relations, which govern political policies today. The following two paragraphs are quoted directly from Henderson:

Their early works were firmly situated in the prominent social Darwinist evolutionary theses of the day which assumed a hierarchy of races dominated by white Europeans and their major diasporic offshoots in the Americas, Australia and South Africa, with nonwhites occupying subordinate positions and none lower than blacks. A white supremacist evolutionary teleology informed the domestic and international policies of major Western states and rationalized their policies of white racial domination epitomized in slavery, imperial conquest, colonization and genocide. In this conception, whites were assumed to be favoured by God and biologically distinct from nonwhites. Uniquely among the races, whites were assumed to possess civilization while nonwhites were assumed to occupy a lower stage of development characterized as either barbarism or savagery. Further, it was assumed that in order to climb the evolutionary ladder to achieve civilization and its attendant culture, nonwhites would have to be tutored by whites who would— often magnanimously—assume this ‘white man’s burden’ so that the lesser races might rise above their barbarism and savagery. The lesser races were assumed to be not only biologically inferior to whites, but in a state of almost perpetual conflict; therefore, the ‘civilizing mission’ of those who would take up the ‘white man’s burden’ could be imposed by force. This orientation not only rationalized enslavement, imperial conquest, colonization and genocide but also provided an intellectual rationale to justify these pursuits. To the extent that the racial hierarchy guided the international politics of the predominately white states in their interaction with other polities, the IR of the time was more accurately ‘interracial relations’ (Du Bois 1915; Lauren 1988)

The methodological orientations that often privilege abstract theorizing over historical analyses, which allows IR theorists to whitewash the historical content of global affairs, especially ‘the violence, genocide, and theft that marked the encounter between the rest and the West in the post-Columbian era’. Ignoring the role of racism facilitates this whitewash. He adds that ‘abstraction, usually presented as the desire of the discipline to engage in theory-building rather than in descriptive or historical analysis, is a screen that simultaneously rationalizes and elides the details of these encounters. By encouraging students to display their virtuosity in abstraction the discipline brackets questions of theft of land, violence, and slavery—the three processes that have historically underlain the unequal global order we now find ourselves in

Concluding Remarks.

Kant’s philosophies are doubly deadly because they have an appearance of universalism and cosmopolitanism, while concealing a toxic misogynism and racism. This has been a common characteristic of Enlightenment philosophies. Rationalism has been developed as a counter to “sentimentalism” – the fellow-feeling which prevents us from genocide and mass murder. Reducing politics to rational calculation allows the destruction of entire countries, and killings of millions, for the sake of political power or corporate profits. Today this “rationality” dominates the world where corporations are busy destroying the planet for the sake profits. The future of humanity depends on re-integration of the heart and soul as cognitive faculties, and overcoming the division between the moral and the material that was created by Kant and the Enlightenment philosophers. Some initial thoughts on how this could be done are given in Zaman (2021).

References: Most articles cited below, and some others as well, can be accessed from http://bit.ly/AZrace – New google site sometime requires to be viewed in INCOGNITO window of Chrome.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Isaiah Berlin. “Kant as an unfamiliar source of nationalism.” The sense of reality (1996): 232-248

Robert Bernasconi. “Who invented the concept of race?.” Theories of race and racism. Routledge, 2020. 83-103.

Garrett Wallace Brown “Kant’s Cosmopolitanism.” Grounding Cosmopolitanism: From Kant to the Idea of a Cosmopolitan Constitution, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2009, pp. 31–54. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r1x04.6. Accessed 22 Aug. 2021.

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze. “The Color of Reason: The Idea of” Race” in Kant’s Anthropology.” The Bucknell Review 38.2 (1995): 200.

Gardner, Sebastian. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Kant and the Critique of pure reason. Routledge, 2003.

Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A moral history of the twentieth century. Yale University Press, 2012.

Halberstam, David. The best and the brightest. Modern Library, 2002.

Errol A Henderson (2013) “Hidden in plain sight: racism in international relations theory,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26:1, 71-92

Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/kant-moral/&gt;.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

Mahomedy, Abdulkader Cassim. “Sources of dualism in modern rationalist thought: Implications for Islamic economics 1.” Methodology of Islamic Economics. Routledge, 2019. 277-314.

Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A biography. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

De Pierris, Graciela and Michael Friedman, “Kant and Hume on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/kant-hume-causality/&gt;.

Jeffrey Sachs: speech at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZ1xc491mnU

Stella Sandford “Kant, race, and natural history.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 44.9 (2018): 950-977.

Roger ScrutonKant: A very short introduction. Vol. 50. OUP Oxford, 2001.

Smith, Christopher UM. “Kant and Darwin.” Journal of Social and Biological Structures 14.1 (1991): 35-50.

Asad Zaman. “The Origins of Western Social Sciences.” Journal of Islamic Economics, Banking and Finance 5.2 (2009): 9-22.

Asad Zaman “The Puzzle of Western Social Science.” Academia Letters, article 459 (2021)

Asad Zaman “Reclaiming our Lives and Our Planet”, draft, submitted to International Journal for Plurallism in Economic Education..2021; see: http://bit.ly/HelSUS

  1. Econoclast
    September 10, 2021 at 6:15 pm

    Whoa, Asad will be taking some flack for this burst of truth.
    Two core elements in “toxic Western philosophy” are property and rugged individualism. To paraphrase that eminent Western philosopher, Margaret Thatcher, “there is no social, just individuals.”
    And weekend read? How about month-long read? With all the links to trace, that is how long it will take this slow reader.
    Useful and highly relevant piece, thanks Asad.

  2. Dave Raithel
    September 11, 2021 at 2:55 am

    Uh, so like, Kant did follow the Categorical Imperative? I am shocked.

  3. September 11, 2021 at 7:26 am

    It is easy to criticise people for having views that were common in their times. They were human after all, just like we are. Their greatness lies in what they contributed to our knowledge, not the views they held. A ‘categorical imperative’ is not a moral system, only that morals should be universal. So, if slavery is wrong, it is always wrong, in every circumstance. Only, Kant did not think slavery is wrong because slavery was widely accepted in his time, not because he was an evil person.

    • Econoclast
      September 11, 2021 at 6:42 pm

      I think the following could be said for any of these “enlightenment” philosophers:

      “It could be argued that holding Hume to the standard of a later age would be unfair. We should acknowledge, instead, that Hume could not criticise racism and slavery without upsetting social conventions.

      “But this argument is absurd. Hume was a genius by the standards of the 18th century. He was not deferential to convention. In fact, he was the antonym of convention. He was sufficiently wealthy in 1766 not to assist in this scheme. And he was aware of the widespread denunciation of slavery by his contemporaries, including in books by his friends and correspondents. Anyone with Hume’s intelligence would recognise the enormity of slavery. But Hume sought to benefit from it.”

      — Dr. Felix Waldmann, 2016 Hume Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh

      • September 12, 2021 at 4:13 pm

        There are people that could or should have known better. Nevertheless, their contribution to our knowledge does not depend such issues.

  4. September 11, 2021 at 10:15 am

    I think that much of what Asad says in this post is far too one-dimensional for my taste. Discussing philosophy and philosophers — just as pretty much anything — has to take place in a contextualized place and time. Simpliciter judging people that lived more than 200 years ago from the standpoint of present days (scientific) knowledge is nothing but anachronistic. That Kant and most people in his time held views that expressed ‘misogyny’, or were discriminatory, or even ‘racist’, is not the question. Contrary to Asad’s rather conspirational view, I would maintain that all serious Kant scholars know that. And so what? Aristotle, Hume, Locke, Berkley and all the rest of the well-known philosophers before the 19th century were — more or less — ‘misogynist’ and ‘racist’. The genius Einstein showed that the earlier genius Newton was wrong on gravity. Is that an argument for why we shouldn’t read Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica? I don’t think so. To me, that would be an extremely unscientific attitude. What would be much more interesting would be to situate and try to analyze and understand why and in which historical, social, and cultural context these views were anchored. Inspired by Kant’s philosophy people all over the world has now for more than a century forcefully criticised misogyny, discrimination, slavery, injustice and racism where ever these abominable views show their ugly faces around the world.

  5. Ikonoclast
    September 11, 2021 at 10:51 am

    It is best to start with assent to argument where one one agrees with it. There is much to agree with in Asad’s argument. Perhaps it even extends to a final complete rejection of Kant’s philosophy. I cannot say for certain. I have read about Kant’s philosophy but I have not read Kant, in translation or in original.

    Taking the quoted thinkers as accurate, albeit with few quotes directly from Kant, the case looks very bad for Kant. The racism (and the misogyny) look to be there. Neither can the white West deny its cruel and exploitative history. I am white and Western. The more I learn of my entire Western culture history, the worse matters look. The whole extended history of European imperial and colonial history looks as bad as human history could conceivably get.

    It reaches the point where one realizes, “WE are the bad guys”. However, the corollary of “We are the bad guys” is not necessarily “Everyone else, plural, are the good guys”. That needs to be said, even though I am not arguing that Asad is arguing that. One cannot exonerate Genghis Khan and his horde(s), for example, or say the West is any worse.The West “simply” had more instrumental power to do worse than Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan and his hordes killed 40 million people according to “superbfacts”. More than 40 million indigenous people were killed in the Americas as a comparison.

    Western Christian philosophy is a tangled web from at least Neoplatonism onward, not to mention its later access to Aristotle. For a start, Kant is a Christian philosopher. Does this mean that much that we charge to Kant must also be charged to Christian Philosophy? And insofar as we charge it to Christian philosophy must we also charge it to at least aspects of Christian theology? In turn, in looking for moral precepts will we be thinking of Old Testament Law, New Testament Gospel, some other religion or else of something atheistic that follows Voltaire and the Freethinkers perhaps? Soon it gets down to what religion, sect or philosophy one adheres to. Although the Golden Rule appears to be universally applicable. [1]

    Dave Raithel quipped, “So Kant did follow the Categorical Imperative? I am shocked.” It’s a very good point. Let he who is not deontological (in ethics) throw the first stone at a deontologist. In that stone throwing activity, I might consider myself qualified, by bias if not by any better access to truth. I am a consequentialist, not a deontologist. And as a consequentialist I cannot ignore the empirical results of the Western philosophical, religious, scientifc, humanist and expansionist enterprises. The results are terrible as I prefigured above. All our advances (so-called) are certainly annulled morally and materially, if in rapid succession, historically and geologically speaking, we exploit the world and its peoples (imperialism and colonialism) and then destroy it (ecocide and climate change).


    1. “The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in most religions and cultures. It can be considered an ethic of reciprocity in some religions, although different religions treat it differently.

    The maxim may appear as a positive or negative injunction governing conduct:

    Treat others as you would like others to treat you (positive or directive form).

    Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated (negative form).

    What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathetic or responsive form).

    The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BCE), according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies the concept appearing prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and “the rest of the world’s major religions”. 143 leaders of the world’s major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic”. – Wikipedia.

  6. September 11, 2021 at 11:03 am

    Former American President Bush has been shown saying something to the effect that, “it is hard to think straight when you are angry”. Asad has good reason to be angry, so I don’t accept he is thinking straight. For example, he lists four things he supposes Kant to have said which appear to come from Eze and he has certainly not given specific reference in Kant. In what follows, I am agreeing with nivtric. Asad is being anachronistic.

    I accept that Kant’s views have been followed because he was an authority, but nationalism appears to be an imaginative extension of family and “catholic” internationalism a step too far for national leaders. Asad needs to consider how the Enlightenment followed the Reformation, and that began within a few years of Machiavelli’s book “The Prince”, which encouraged the leaders to be devious. Western philosophy split into rationalist and empirical camps with Descartes’ distinction between body and spirit feeling its way towards modern recognition of personality differences, Locke showing them by emphasising education and Hume basing his Machiavellian democratic morality on feelings of sympathy: not emphasising this being the feelings of the leaders. Seeing coloured people as lacking in spirit rather than not yet educated, Kant was nevertheless antipathetic to Hume and proposed an axiom of duty as the alternative to Hume’s unreliable sympathy. Meaning not that he was covertly against coloured people, only that he hadn’t thought through the need to educate his own as well as their spirit.

    Asad needs to remember how as recently as the 1890’s the eugenicist Galton was still trying to judge intelligence from bumps on the skull, and it was not until 1904 that G K Chesterton (in an obscure book about the artist G F Watts) argued from there being different senses/types of language to there being different parts of the brain processing them; thus underpinning Jung’s psychological theory of there being different types of “normal” behaviour, and the Christian teaching about complementary abilities (1 Cor 12). I strongly recommend Asad to read and reflect on Chesterton’s book, and get his own personality assessed with a Myers-Briggs test.

  7. September 11, 2021 at 2:51 pm

    It’s hard to frame a response to this post because of its consistent over generalizations, lack of context and reliance on one side of the argument. This is compounded by a lack of specificity to texts or individual writings, or a consideration of how positions evolved over time. Perhaps we could begin by not reifying the Enlightenment, Europe, or any other cultural zone.

    I disagree with the frame of racism, misogyny and imperialism are foundational to Enlightenment philosophy in general, or to Kant specifically, and that consequently, we must reject Enlightenment philosophy in favor of something else. What that something else is never really specified, though the something else seems to implicitly gravitate back to some kinds of Enlightenment principles. I agree that European Imperialism was morally wrong and is at the root of structural inequalities in the world today. I disagree, that in the context of world history in totality, that European Imperialism is the only or the most evil. I know just enough about Kant to suspect that any serious or accomplished Kant scholar would regard me as a dilettante.

    I may be over promising but in my book that is currently in process “Evolutionary Social Theory” I trace the roots of Evolutionary Theory back to the Enlightenment and I attempt to address the problem of multiple Enlightenment theorists holding views that today I hope we all find abhorrent, while at the same time, acknowledging their valid contributions to the origins of evolutionary social theory. In my view, the racism, Eurocentrism, sexism, etc. are inconsistent with the underlying approach of the Enlightenment. We need to reject the former, and embrace the latter. There is a further point that needs to be stressed and explored more: The Renaissance and Enlightenment have Islamic roots, or at least roots in recognized scholars who lived in the various Caliphates and their offsprings, and these ideas also have extensive parallels in other societies and contexts. Whether Smith borrowed directly from Ibn Khaldun is not clear to me, but there are some very strong parallels in their writings, save for Khaldun’s ultimate reliance on theism. The parallels between “Western” ideas and Indian ideas has long been documented by Amartya Sen. Though Weber suffered from misunderstanding and reliance on ethno centric sources, he too documents parallels between European and other societies.

    Given the ways in which the various Caliphates and their offshoots preserved and incorporated the Classical Philosophy of the Ancient Mediterranean, I would be surprised if there is not extensive incorporation of Aristotlean and Platonic ideas in Islamic thought.

    That said, while Kant’s famous essay “What is Enlightenment” is a nice, pithy statement on the epistemology of the Enlightenment, Kant is not the only, or in my view, the quintessential bearer of the Enlightenment. Since I am partial to Thomas Reid, I wind up in the anti-Kant camp. But the underlying idea of the Enlightenment as “autonomy”, or better yet, emergence from self imposed minority, coupled with a commitment to public discourse based on reason, is a pretty good start. I don’t agree with many of Kant’s positions, but that doesn’t make him evil.

    Let’s also recognize that there were some very different strains and tendencies within Enlightenment thought which were critical of European societies. Though the Scottish Enlightenment put as much emphasis on custom, habit and experience as they did on reason, they recognized the heritage of violence in European history as well as the destructiveness of the mercantile and colonial system. We have examples such as Johnathan Millar who categorically rejected slavery, as did Smith. I would add-no Millar, no Smith, no Marx. Then there is the radical strain exhibited in people such as Condorcet.

    It is out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment that we can build critique today. But let’s recognize that the Enlightenment is not one tradition and it is not a dead tradition. It’s an evolving tradition.

    Finally, I have to object to the simplistic, and in my view, inaccurate equation of the purely formal rationality of capitalist production and the general use of rationality as a tool with which to understand and critique the social order.

    Though this response is probably already too long, I finally want to note that what is either explicit or implicit in those who advance these critiques of the Enlightenment is an embrace of Counter Enlightenment trends and epistemologies, who are if anything, more racist, sexist, imperialist, militarist, etc. than the Enlightenment by far.

  8. Ikonoclast
    September 12, 2021 at 3:28 am

    I do wonder if radical critics of some “Great Men” are willing to carry their critiques through to more “Great Men” of history other than white men and to men other than philosophers. Theologians, prophets, artists and politicians come to mind. I also wonder if the radical critics are willing to carry critiques of slavery, misogyny, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, expansionism, militarism and fundamentalism [1], of any type, through to cultures other than white culture.

    This is the obverse of the coin I mentioned above: “WE (white people) are the bad guys (of the last 550 years of history at least)”. However, the corollary of “We are the bad guys” is not necessarily “Everyone else, plural, are the good guys”. There are enough examples in history of victims going on to becoming oppressors in their own turn. This is one of the tragedies of cruel histories. Past or present victim-hood alone is not full evidence of innocence or of assured continued innocence.

    We are all the the bad guys. All adult humans are the bad guys by acts of commission and omission. I leave the children out of it. Children mis-taught by bad adults become bad adults. None of us as adults reaches the moral standards necessary to create a moral, equitable and sustainable world. We have been weighed in the balance, of objective reality alone, and found wanting. Why is inequality everywhere? Cruelty everywhere? And why are we destroying Mother Earth? We, all of us, are not good enough.

    The only hope is evolution. Humankind is not static, nor an absolute. Humankind is a becoming, a process. Perhaps we can evolve, literally evolve, into a better species. Perhaps we cannot. Most likely, given what we have done, we will be extinct or back in a state of complete barbarism within a hundred years.

    Humans have continued to evolve throughout civilizational history. The change from hunter-gathers to denizens of cities, or civilization, has accelerated human evolution. Our bodies and brains are different. Not better. Different. Or more precisely, not better in any absolute sense but better relative to the needs of living in civilization. We have evolved new abilities from (unplanned) selection of mutations and lost old abilities. An example is the ability to digest milk being extended past infancy in many “varieties” or “variants” of humans, to use better terms than race. Humans show variation, hence we are variants in biological terms. There are evidences of genetically endowed different resistances to disease both before and after civilizational changes.

    Hence, the hope that we might yet evolve to become more “civilizationally eusocail” should not be regarded as totally unrealistic or forlorn. I hope it is still possible because the way we are now is clearly not good enough on the empirical evidence. We are currently headed for self-inflicted extinction. That certainly is indicative of a nature too maladapted for living in a global supercolony with the instrumental power to destroy the Holocene.

    Note 1: Admitting that scientific humanism as instrumental production scientism can also manifest as a fundamentalism.

    • September 12, 2021 at 4:24 pm

      “Most likely, given what we have done, we will be extinct or back in a state of complete barbarism within a hundred years.”

      A barbarian is simply a foreigner: the Enlightenment crew were barbarians in respect of the previous civilisation, not to say (what is rightly feared here) savages. The UNESCO leader Edwin Muir had a word to say about this in a poem called “The Complaint of the Dying Peasantry”:

      Our old songs as lost,
      Our sons are newspapermen
      At the singers’ cost.
      There were no papers when

      Sir Patrick Spens put out to sea
      In all the country cottages
      With music and ceremony
      For five centuries. …

      The singing and the harping fled
      Into the silent library;
      But we are with Helen dead
      And with Sir Patrick lost at sea.”

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