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Would Kant really support BLM? The philosopher's legacy is being warped

(Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)


April 26, 2024   5 mins

Poor old Immanuel Kant, scourge of many an undergraduate essay crisis, whose 300th birthday fell this week. Was ever any other major intellectual figure put through so much painful contemporary “rethinking”?

According to the late political theorist Charles W. Mills, Kant’s oeuvre contains the resources to establish a variety of “Black radical Kantianism”. Numerous others have presented him as a proto-feminist, with a recent monograph by US-based philosopher Helga Varden claiming that “despite his austere and even anti-sex, cisist, sexist, and heterosexist reputation, Kant’s writings … yield fertile philosophical ground on which we can explore … abortion, sexual orientation, sexual or gendered identity”.  All of this is quite unexpected for a 18th-century Prussian bachelor of Lutheran upbringing, of the opinion that sex should occur only within Christian marriage, black people were natural slaves, and women unfit to have a vote.

Also surprising, at least initially, is the fascination Kant’s systematic philosophy still exerts over many in academia, despite the famed dullness of his prose. In an unusually striking phrase, he once wrote of “the miserly provision of a step-motherly nature” — and indeed, step-motherly nature doesn’t seem to have been liberally doling out the bantz the day young Immanuel was born. According to one biographer, he was “extremely stern with himself from his early youth”: determined to be economically independent, “because he saw in it a condition for the self-sufficiency of his mind and character”. Throughout his life, he never left his home city of Königsberg; later on, his neighbours there would set their watches by his exactly timed daily constitutional walks.

Valiant attempts of hagiographers to make him seem like a fascinating demimondaine only reinforce the impression of squareness. “He was a very social type who often went to parties and sometimes drank too much,” protested one fellow German author to the Guardian 20 years ago, a little too insistently.  “At times Kant could not find the street where he lived because he was so inebriated.” There were also “amorous interests” in at least two women, it was reported, though no evidence the relationships were consummated.

If not his innate charisma or worldliness then, what explains the lingering attraction of Kant’s elaborate philosophical system to today’s thinkers? For many, it is surely the ingenuity with which he dealt with a number of disquieting sceptical challenges that emerged during the Enlightenment. Over the course of several mature works, Kant built an intricate cathedral of interlocking justifications, providing support for certain traditional assumptions that new scientific discoveries and encroaching atheism would otherwise seem to leave dangling in mid-air.

For instance: answering to David Hume’s worry that humans could neither directly observe nor otherwise prove the existence of fundamental natural laws such as the connection between cause and effect, Kant got rid of the underpinning assumption that the human mind and the natural world were wholly separate. Instead, in a reversal he likened to Copernicus’s revelation that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round, he wove an understanding of such laws into the fabric of sensory experience, so that allegedly it now made no sense to seriously doubt them.

Faced with the creeping fear that there could be no free will in Newton’s mechanistic universe, Kant then leaned upon his own picture of the physical world as a realm of partly mind-constructed appearances, and placed the free, unmoved-yet-moving self safely in a separate realm beyond it. To the increasingly urgent complaint that without God as a foundation, traditional Christian precepts must surely lose their authority, he responded by instead putting free will and autonomous human reason at the heart of objective moral decision-making, conveniently preserving many austerely Protestant-looking practical conclusions as he did so.

In all of this Kant gave the cognitive faculties a crucial role, painting the mind not just as a discoverer but also as a partial inventor of our universe and its fundamental rules — a suggestion flattering to susceptible brainboxes in universities, secretly pining for a superhero role in life befitting of their intellectual talents. And despite the often flatfooted and prosaic presentation, there is also a thrilling intimation of spookiness to the metaphysical picture Kant ultimately offers readers: on the one hand, the world of knowable appearances, and on the other, a supernatural realm of things-in-themselves, whose existence humans cannot apprehend directly but only infer.

But perhaps the aspect of Kant’s thought most attractive to today’s professional academic is that — like many of them — he is an intellectual conservative of sorts. Though he rearranges the metaphysical furniture, sometimes fairly radically, he usually leaves his fellow citizens sitting almost exactly where they were beforehand. The structure of the universe is still predictable; humans continue to have free will; it is still the case that one shouldn’t kill, break promises, or lie. Effectively, Kant often starts with conclusions he wants to preserve and then works backwards.

To some extent, this is also the strategy of some of his modern interpreters, beginning with a particular set of now-fashionable political conclusions, then casting about in Kant’s writing for the resources to prop them up (usually, by making extensive use of his emphasis upon the importance of freedom and self-governance). Though in his ethics Kant railed against using another person instrumentally as a “mere means” to your own personal ends, in practice commentators don’t seem to pay much attention to that bit, as they haul him off down the gender clinic or to the BLM march. Superficially, it may look sexily avant-garde to employ the ideas of a thinker as buttoned-up as Kant, in order to underpin arguments for the rights of people to have polyamorous orgies or to cut body parts off at will. In reality, though, these anachronistic uses of his thought would never have escaped the seminar room and made it out into the wider world alive, had society not already rendered it perfectly permissible or even profitable to pursue such endpoints.

“It may look sexily avant-garde to employ the ideas of a thinker as buttoned-up as Kant…”

Of course, there are also differences between Kant and the new crop of academic apologists for contemporary mores. Perhaps the most obvious is that, over the last 300 years, hundreds and thousands of people from many walks of elite life have read and responded to Kant’s works; a trend helped along by the assumption, popular until relatively recently, that a grasp of the central figures in Western philosophy was a requirement upon any decent education. But these days, almost nobody who isn’t already studying or researching philosophy reads academics like Mills and Varden. So who or what are they doing it for, exactly? It would be madly grandiose to think that, in the 21st century, anyone has ever been converted to black radical politics or pansexual people’s rights by reading opaque monographs from academic presses priced at £25 a pop.

A more charitable take, perhaps, is that both Kant and those modern thinkers loosely inspired by him are each using reason to perform a kind of sense check upon certain key presuppositions of their time. They start off with some folk-conclusions that are believed by many, though with no clear idea of why; next, they ask themselves whether there are convincing rational arguments available that might support those conclusions, and so lend them extra weight. In other words: can philosophers, with all their specialist technical skills in argument construction, produce a solid-enough rational scaffolding for some of the important-looking things that people already think?

But if this is the strategy, it is a risky one. The more byzantine the layers of argument offered for the truth of a particular set of presuppositions, the more keenly the suspicion grows that it might have been just as easy — or certainly, no more difficult — to offer neat and ingenious arguments that seemed to show exactly the opposite. Kant’s sprawling system, with its host of interwoven technical assumptions ranging across metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and politics, already invites this worry; by the time commentators start to lean upon that system in order to justify social-justice mantras about abortion or cis privilege, the edifice looks in danger of collapsing.

Or perhaps these present-day commentators assume that the only way to redeem Kant from his intermittent episodes of racism and sexism — to cleanse him of those everyday 18th-century sins — is to demonstrate that, despite appearances, his philosophical system has the potential to generate a progressive position on those very matters about which he was so reactionary. For some academics, this may well be the best explanation: attempting an absolution of sorts for their hero.

Either way, it’s hard not to conclude that in thinking about Kant’s legacy, we are better off going back to the extremely rich source material directly, and trying to see it in its proper historical context — for better or worse. There is no need to mess around with any quasi-religious new adaptions. It is a strange irony that, in the 300 years since Kant was born, those working in universities only seem to have got more puritanical.


Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.
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Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
19 days ago

This was a little esoteric for my wee brain, but I always learn from reading Kathleen Stock. To that end, I was willing to look up “demimondaine,” a delightful word, though I’ll have trouble working it into conversation. Conversely, I’ll decline to investigate Helga Varden’s “cisist,” which Merriam Webster does not recognize, and which I take to mean biased in favor of people who think their bodies are real.
Me and poor old Kant, guilty as charged. But then I was looking for something new to be guilty of (besides ending a sentence with a preposition, a crime I’ve just uncommitted).

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
19 days ago

I believe that “cisist” simply means to do something; it’s what you’re supposed to stop doing when you get a “cease and decisist” letter.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
19 days ago

Whatever it means, it’s a godawful ugly word.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
18 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

I think that is it’s point.

J Bryant
J Bryant
19 days ago

This was a little esoteric for my wee brain.
I know what you mean, but, for me, the essay was an engaging introduction to the philosophy of Kant.
Maybe K. Stock will write an essay about Friedrich Nietzsche. People seem besotted with him nowadays but I can’t figure out why.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Just a quick pointer, but Nietzsche himself acknowledged (or exhorted, as was his way) any ‘followers’ to stop following and to start to think for themselves. This, as with much else in philsophical discourse – as KS points us towards – can be interpreted to demonstrate both a case and its opposite; for, if you follow Nietzsche’s injunction and try ‘thinking for yourself’ you’re still following!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
19 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

He’s not the messiah he’s just a very naughty boy

J Bryant
J Bryant
18 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Ha ha. Good point.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

I think that KS is guilty of being as esoteric here as Kant, even though her suggestions, for they are suggestions not arguments, are easy to follow, at a second read. We are led astray on the first by our own expectations of something other than the obvious from KS. In the end, it is only that a contextual study of Kant will show liberalism today to be more puritanical than conservatism during Kant’s day? That’s Kantian progressivism for you!

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

puritanical 

perhaps more “morally rigid” would be better. Polyamorous orgies don’t sound especially puritanical – not even if they become compulsory.

Jae
Jae
18 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I would say “amorally rigid”. No?

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago

 I was looking for something new to be guilty of

in the good old days it could have been philistinism! 🙂

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
18 days ago

A Demimondaine is a resident of the demi-monde

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
19 days ago

Ultimately it boils down to this: are you an Immanuel Kant, or an Immanuel Kan?

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago

How about an Immanuel Khan?

Kevin Hansen
Kevin Hansen
19 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I struggled with this. I am more of a Carry On Emmanuel level thinker.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

Who is this Kant?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
19 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

My best friend did his PhD on Kantian ethics, and in our circle he is affectionately known as “the Kant”.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
19 days ago

Such exquisite, beautiful writing. Professor Stock has that very rare, exceptional gift of producing prose so captivating, yet dense (because it’s articulating complex *stuff*) that it flatters the reader into feeling that he is following the argument, is master of all this complex stuff … until the essay is concluded. When the understanding vanishes, like water through cupped fingers. That’s not a criticism! Because her essay gave me a glimpse into a hall otherwise locked to my reason.
I did read Hume a long time ago and felt as depressed as Kant at his conclusion, that effect would struggle to infer cause. But when Professor Stock says “Faced with the creeping fear that there could be no free will in Newton’s mechanistic universe, Kant then leaned upon his own picture of the physical world as a realm of partly mind-constructed appearances, and placed the free, unmoved-yet-moving self safely in a separate realm beyond it” … is there a shade of Platonic thinking here? Realm of the pure forms, including the *self* (or only the self?) outside the cave?

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
19 days ago

I would describe myself broadly as a Kantian, both metaphysically and morally. I did my final-year dissertation on his Transcendental Aesthetic, and I am one of the few people to have read the first Critique cover to cover. Before I finished my PhD, my first teaching job was teaching the first Critique (an arduous and terrifying experience!).
I left the academy 18 years ago, fortunately before modern social justice thinking had taken hold and in my day nobody commented on Kant’s reactionary views, nor am I aware of modern attempts to rescue Kant from them. That was simply not the sort of philosophy people did in my day.
When I read Kehinde Andrews’ attack on the Enlightenment, singling out Kant in particular, in The New Age of Empire, I both learnt things about Kant I had never known and found myself utterly unmoved by Andrews’ stinging criticisms, achieved by judging him by 21st-century mores. Nor did I find any need to rescue Kant from his reactionary views. Context is everything here.

Bruni Schling
Bruni Schling
18 days ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Thank you!

Dr E C
Dr E C
18 days ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Exactly right. 20 ish years ago, in British universities at least, it was seen as _unacademic_ to take writers & thinkers out of their historical context. How I miss those (sane) days.

Mr Tyler
Mr Tyler
19 days ago

The Doc needs to check the Kantian defence of Nazism as delivered by the anti-hero of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – roughly, to freely will the will of the Fuhrer as a universal law.

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
19 days ago

Kathleen Stock is always good.

AC Harper
AC Harper
19 days ago

In some sense one hand washes the other. Kant tried to explain the society he lived in by rational thought. Others, generations later, try to apply his rational thought to the society they live in.
Few properly investigate the generational gap. It’s usually simplified into a list of technological changes or political developments ‘since then’. But ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ People really had a different set of attitudes, they lived different lives.
So my question is – if Kant was magically or technologically reborn in the present would he still hold the same philosophy or would it be modified by the new circumstances he found himself in?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
19 days ago

Kant has been reclaimed by the Left as supporting the French revolution and therefore being an anti-Enlightenment philosopher who would get on with Foucault.
But he would have hated the woke progressives today. His philosophy connected Christian ethics with the aesthetic and rational structures of human thought, and did so by cutting away the edicts of the Bible or any Cartesian metaphysical manoeuvres.
In contrast, the Left today simply go along with the principles of this or church of Satan- Anton LaVey’s church in San Francisco, to give you one. They are also theistic but take their metaphysics to be justified by radical Islam.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
18 days ago

Am I the only person who _hates_ those interspersed giant-font article quotes that keep interrupting the flow of these articles?

jim peden
jim peden
18 days ago

Well, hate is a strong word but I do go along with your sentiment. These interruptions are maybe even more egregious when the article concerns a difficult subject.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
18 days ago

Especially since when you are reading the article, you have generally just read them.
Presumably the intention is to attract eyeballs. But a single one at the top might work better.

Norm Creek
Norm Creek
17 days ago

Yes, but not as much as I hate the advertising that has just started to appear throughout the articles. Always disappointing when you also pay a subscription.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
18 days ago

 we are better off going back to the extremely rich source material directly, and trying to see it in its proper historical context — for better or worse. There is no need to mess around with any quasi-religious new adaptions.
Good luck with that. The foundation of the social justice warrior is to judge every person and event of the past and indict the person and event for failing to live by 2024 standards. For every period of enlightenment, there is a corresponding dark age. People can make their own determination as to which we are currently in.

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago

An amusing piece, but it gives no hint of why Kant might be considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of all time.

Also, aren’t these more recent thinkers simply making reference to Kant because he is considered to be one of the big guns in philosophy? Previously they did the same with Heidegger – in spite of his nazi associations.

And could this be because their ideas simply don’t stand up on their own – so they need a big prop!

Dr E C
Dr E C
18 days ago

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of using Kant’s thought against him, modern-day progressive academics did some thinking of their own?

0 0
0 0
17 days ago

Kant established the test of universalisability in all domains of philosophical critique. To point out that can be used to interrogate his own background underlines the power of this achievement as well as the limitations of his predilections.

Those who’d lay claim to Kant’s heritage today would do well to remember that. Exposing the specious universality of. Eurocentric presuppositions is a Kantian thing to do. Identity politics of any kind is something else.

Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
16 days ago

Took me straight back to epistemology sophomore year at Fordham. Thank you Dr Stock. Always a pleasure. The phrase Categorical Imperative has popped in my head though the meaning is now musty.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
16 days ago

I’m a fan of Sen. Iselin, and he says make it Real Simple.
So, for me, Kant means that we cannot know things-in-themselves but only appearances.
So all our knowledge is theorizing about appearances. I say that Kant points directly to Einstein, do not pass go.
But then Schopenhauer said that things-in-themselves is wrong. It’s probably just thing-in-itself.
Think about it. If we can’t know things-in-themselves then we cannot know if we are talking about things or thing.
And Popper said that a scientific theory — a narrative about things-in-themselves — is good until “falsified.”
E.g., Newtonian mechanics is good until falsified by relativity and quantum mechanics.
That’s all folks!

C Ross
C Ross
12 days ago

Well, Kant is the best of a bad modern bunch and provides an extraordinarily elegant attempt to save the enlightenment and the extraordinary inelegant mechanical philosophy of the early moderns. There is much for the kids to learn from him (especially his clever representation of Cicero’s scepticism and Stoicism in ethics and his attempt to produce a secularised Christianity). However, if time is short and initiative lacking, it would be best they go round Kant and his neo-Hellenism, back to Aristotle, the various Platonisms and the presocratics.Much healthier, deeper, saner, wiser, all round.