Categorical Nonsense?

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

The Categorical Imperative, perhaps more clearly defined as “an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself,” was articulated and developed by that gloomy looking chap to the left, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. He is considered by many to be the primary philosopher of the 18th century.

Whether you’ve heard of him or not is irrelevant for you’ve no doubt been influenced by his thinking in matters of morality, politics and theology. As one article states, “the work of Kant has drastically influenced Western thought. His contemporaries paid much attention to his thought, especially in the later part of his life. While much of the attention came from critics, he also positively influenced many late Eighteenth Century philosophers, such as Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and Novalis. The philosophical movement referred to as German Idealism originated from the practical and theoretical writings of Kant. Nowadays, many people revere Kant, usually considering him one of the greatest philosophers to date.”

And lest you think his impact is diminishing, consider the latest critically acclaimed book by Susan Neiman titled Moral Clarity, in which no small amount of Kantian philosophy gets a modern spin. As one reviewer noted, Neiman unashamedly declares that Kant “deserve[s] to be cherished as what she calls [an] “enlightenment hero . . .””

By today’s standards, however, Kant, the intellectual giant and molder of universally influential ideologies, could easily be written off as a white supremacist, male chauvinist pig.

Consider the following regarding the “fair sex” from his essay Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:

Nothing of ought, nothing of must, nothing of due. All orders and all surly compulsions are to women insupportable. They do something but because they are pleased so to do, and the art consists but in making that which is good pleasing to them. I hardly believe that the fair sex are capable of principles, and in this I hope I do not offend, for these are rare with men. Instead of which, however, Providence hath implanted in their breasts humane and benevolent sentiments, a fine feeling for becomingness, and a complaisant soul. Let not sacrifices and magnanimous self-compulsion be required.

Or this incendiary statement from the same essay:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling, which rises above the trifling. Mr. (David) Hume challenges every body, to produce a single example where a Negro has shown talents, and maintains, That among a hundred thousand Blacks, who are transported from their native home, though many of them are emancipated, not a single one of them has ever been found that has performed any thing great, either in the arts or sciences, or shown any other commendable property, though among the Whites there are constantly some, who raise themselves up from among the populace, and acquire consideration in the world by distinguished talents. So essential is the difference between these two races of men, and it appears to be equally great with regard to the mental capacities, as with regard to colour.

Philosopher Charles W. Mills, in his book titled The Racial Contract, claims that while Kant is “widely regarded as the most important moral theorist of the modern period, in a sense the father of moral theory, and – through the work of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas – increasingly central to modern political philosophy as well, [Kant] is also the father of the modern concept of race.” Are Kant’s thoughts merely Alzheimer’s induced nonsense? Perhaps just some casual, parenthetical, back-burner rambling? Mills thinks not: “[Kant’s comment] only seems casual, unembedded in a larger theory, because white academic philosophy as an institution has had no interest in researching, pursuing the implications of, and making known to the world this dimension of Kant’s work . . . [I]n complete opposition to the image of his work that has come down to us and is standardly taught in introductory ethics courses, full personhood for Kant is actually dependent on race.”

And yet it is in an introductory ethics class that I’m learning this stuff. My professor is taking us beyond the standard interpretations of many revered texts and challenging us to consider classic notions of ethics and morality in light of modern feminist and multicultural paradigms. We are encouraged to consider, using a familiar metaphor, whether the babies that are the esteemed philosophical pillars of thought should be thrown out with the bath water.

He seems to think so.

At what point are we forced to abandon the concepts of some great thinker? Is there room for charity if only a small fraction of what someone says is considered inflammatory? Do such comments negate an entire body of work?

This is different from the Michael Richards, Don Imus and Isaiah Washington debacles. With the possible exception of Imus, all those guys are far from influential in regards to moral and ethical philosophy, and I have no difficulty in choosing never again to be entertained by their likes.

But Immanuel Kant? I’m a philosophy major for chrissakes! How does one grant Kant a charitable reading in light of such comments? Should we have to?

I’m beginning to wonder . . . and looking forward to your comments.

13 thoughts on “Categorical Nonsense?

  1. I love and appreciate Kramer wile I denounce Richard’s club behavior. I admire and respect Martin Luther’s devotion to higher exegesis but denounce his anti-semitical writings. I love myself but deplore the horrible things I do (For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.–Rom. 8:15).

    I’ll take the good with the bad, for in this life, they are inseparable, and this is a far better option than obsessing on the bad. I’ll agree at some point a line has to be drawn, but in light of the dysfunctional understanding of racial issues in the 1700’s, I will focus on Kant’s enlightened contributions to scholasticism.

  2. “dysfunctional understanding”

    You said a mouthful there, Nate. And this is a point we are discussing in class. At what point do you say, “That was then. And of course they thought that way. Everyone did.” But then one wonders . . . or did they?

    You raise an interesting point about MLK. I know “I have a dream . . . ” but the other stuff . . . is it pushed aside in favor of all the other? Apparently?

    More to chew on . . .

  3. ok so am I allowed to feel amazingly stooopid that this post made me slightly woozy?

  4. i need to take a philosophy class. you’re so scholarly in this. the negroes of africa passage was a hard one for me to stomach.

  5. Lissa,

    I imagine so, and I hope I made it clear that Kant’s views are not my own.

    If that bothered you, consider this from a lecture titled “Physical Geographies”:

    “The Negroes are born white apart from their genitals and a ring around the navel, which are black. During the first months of life the black color spreads out from these parts over the whole body.”

    Scary . . .

  6. okay, I’m laughing at Flutter, for feeling woozy!

    I don’t know man…he might be a philosophical genius/pioneer, but those anachronistic remarks about women and black people kind of negate any wisdom he might have imparted to me. I’m glad you’re the one taking this class! I reckon I’m just going to have to limp along under my own philosophical steam…I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…!

  7. Interesting comments everyone. I hope you’ve gotten over your wooziness, flutter.

    We discussed this post pretty much the entire class today, and it was very interesting. Nietzsche once considered how someone with a particularly damning flaw of character could be a good parent, for all our traits get mixed together in the stew that is our personality and the influence of each one is felt across the board. And simply removing the flaw does little to correct the situation. This is all according to my professor. His point? Throwing out something just because we don’t like it doesn’t make the whole all that much better. Sure, throw out Kant’s sexism and racism. But even then, what’s left is probably beyond repair.

    I’m not sure I completely agree, but it is interesting food for thought. And isn’t that what philosophy is all about? I love this stuff . . .

    Sorry if I bored y’all with my rambling . . . you know I love ya.

  8. Note to self . . .

    Nate was referring to Martin Luther the reformer, NOT MLK!


  9. michael.offworld June 11, 2008 — 8:24 am

    “Sure, throw out Kant’s sexism and racism. But even then, what’s left is probably beyond repair.”

    I dunno. I don’t think we should judge interesting thought A based on unrelated (?), racist/sexist thought B. We are all capable of meta-thinking: A is good, B is un-good. I can choose to work with the good. I can also decide for myself.

    Or, a thought is not good or bad, it’s just a thought. What you do/say/write yourself matters more.

    I would love to study philosophy at this stage in my life. What a riot!


  10. Greetings fellow blogger, and Kant critic. I found your blog via Ivan’s and just wanted to echo my good friend’s sentiments on this issue.

    It’s hard for me to understand how Kant, (who seemed rather stringent in his moral deliberations), could say such narrow minded things about minorities and women. But despite my disgust and disappointment, I must agree w/ Ivan that we should focus more on Kant’s “enlightened contributions”. Although MLK Jr. was brought into the discussion accidentally, he would be another good example of focusing on the good rather than the bad. I deeply admire Dr. King for his courageous struggle against injustice and his powerful witness for non-violent revolution, but I mourn his marital infidelity.

  11. @ Michael: Yes, you should take up philosophy. It’s never too late.

    @Rob: Thanks for stopping by. The one possible difference I can think of between MLK and Kant is that MLK (I’m assuming) didn’t write about marital fidelity. Perhaps he preached on the topic early in his ministry but steered clear of the topic once he got caught up in it. That of course doesn’t excuse the possibility of holding conflicting views, but if he no longer held people to the standards he espoused regarding marriage, then he would not necessarily be speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Whereas Kant clearly meant for his teachings on duty and personhood to apply beyond merely himself. If he believed that people of color or women were somehow lower on the scale and below his attributions, then some would say he clearly was being prejudiced and his views should be abandoned.

    I hope that makes sense. I lost my thinking cap somewhere this morning and must find it soon . . .

  12. Oh gee, I don’t know about all of this. My “complaisant soul” and my incapability of principles is getting in the way of me understanding all of this. 😉

    Seriously, in some ways, he was reflecting the mindset of his time, even if he was considered to be a great thinker. Even great thinkers are influenced. Look at Rene Decartes experiment with dogs, to show that they have no feeling. Anyone who witnessed the dog being ceremoniously autopsied while alive could not seriously have believed that the dog’s reactions were due to a dislike of being restrained. Years later, we know better. But at the time? He had a full audience that hung on his every word.

    Peace – D

  13. Some final thoughts . . .

    Consider Newton. He studied alchemy. We now know that alchemy is bunk, for chemistry has exposed the faulty methodologies behind it. Do we consider Newton somehow flawed intellectually and reject everything else he’s done? Hardly. According to Scott Kimbrough (see my post titled “Faking It” for more from Kimbrough) the problem isn’t psychological but methodological; Newton’s problem was “blameless ignorance of future science.”

    Could the same be said of Kant?

    Kimbrough concludes: “their theories [guys like Newton or Kant] may be proven over time to be bullshit, but they cannot be accused of self-deception or any other serious intellectual fault. The term “bullshit” remains perjorative, but the opporbrium rests with the theory, not the people who propound it.”

    Thanks for the interesting discussion everyone . . .

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