In what year did Kant define philosophy?

Kant and racism

Marianna songs published on 9 min

Immanuel Kant is considered the most important philosopher of the German-speaking Enlightenment. Some even consider him the greatest thinker of all. Some time ago there were allegations that Kant was said to have been a racist. Is that correct?

In a good three years, on April 22, 2024, the time has come: Immanuel Kant will be celebrating his 300th birthday. The federal government and numerous cultural institutions have been busy preparing for the festive year for a long time. In 2016, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences held a conference to officially start the phase of anticipation. There are probably already various designs for the “300-year-old Kant” stamp. Not to mention all the Kant books that people are busy writing about right now. And if we're really unlucky with the pandemic, museum shops are guaranteed to have respiratory masks with the likeness of the Königsberger on offer in 2024.

In the ranking of the philosophers, Kant occupies first place in this country (closely followed by Hegel, whose jubilee year has just passed). Even those who have never opened one of the “Three Criticisms” associate at least one of the following terms with the name of the author: Enlightenment, autonomy, categorical imperative, human dignity, world peace, universalism. While Kant's days and years passed with curious uniformity (sex, women's or men's stories, world travel, addictions and excesses are in vain in his biography), he lastingly revolutionized epistemology and the theory of correct action. As an “omnipotent” (nickname given to him by the Jewish-Prussian enlightener Moses Mendelssohn), he destroyed traditional dogmas and claims to authority. Only his belief in man's inner freedom was unshakable. Obvious traces of his thinking can be found today in the Basic Law as well as in the Charter of the United Nations.

Recently, however, Kant's popular image as an over-philosopher has suffered severely. The reason for this are some passages from his works that were publicly discussed last summer in the course of the post-colonial reappraisal of history and the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the feature sections. “Was Kant a racist?” Was the crucial question of the lively debate. No, said some: what Kant once said about black people and Native Americans sounds questionable to scandalous today. Incidentally, this has been problematized in the professional world for a long time. Nevertheless, Kant's “race theory” is at best a sideline to his thinking, his “real” philosophy remains unaffected. One cannot simply measure Kant by today's standards. So, back to business. And for heaven's sake leave the Kant monuments standing.

Others, on the other hand, believed that Kant deserved the title of racist even taking historical distance into account. His remarks on the subject of "race" could by no means be dismissed as an ugly appendix of his work. The interesting question then becomes: To what extent can one still differentiate between the “racist” Kant and the “philosopher” Kant? For some, this works fine. For others, not only is Kant in the dock here, but also what he exemplifies: universalism. Under this catchphrase, so the accusation, equality has long been preached “for all”, but in truth it is about securing the privileges of some chosen ones. We'll come back to that later. First of all, what did Kant say, where and when, on the subject of “race”?

Just a miss from the early years?

A sentence from “Physical Geography” achieved pertinent fame: “In its greatest perfection, mankind is in the race of whites. The yellow Indians have less talent. The negroes are far lower, and the lowest is a section of the American peoples. ”If by a racist one understands someone who devalues ​​people on the basis of their appearance, then the person who wrote this sentence clearly fulfills the criterion. But was it really from Kant? It cannot be assumed here with absolute certainty. The "Physical Geography" is a lecture transcript that was published in 1802 and was compiled on the basis of Kant's lost manuscripts. At this point in time, the aged Kant had long since stopped publishing works that he had written himself. However, you will also find what you are looking for in writings in which Kant's authorship is considered certain, especially in the “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime”. In it, the 40-year-old devotes himself to the aesthetic sensibilities of his European neighbors and distant countries. He is quite fond of Persians and Dutch. Some can write such beautiful poems, others are "busy and orderly". Others are all the less able to meet his own requirements. "The negroes of Africa have no feeling about nature that goes beyond the ridiculous." In addition, blacks are "very vain and so talkative that they have to be chased apart with a beating." That sounds clear. But, one could object here, the writing dates from 1764 and thus falls into Kant's “pre-critical” creative phase. At that time he was still an insignificant provincial philosopher without a permanent position, who dutifully adhered to the rationalism that his idol Gottfried W. Leibniz had propagated. If Kant had got stuck in this phase, then not a single monument would have been built for him by posterity that could now be shaken.

Kant's awakening from dogmatic-rationalistic slumber took place sometime after 1770, largely triggered by reading the works of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who, by the way, was recently publicly accused of racism. Between 1781 and 1790 Kant not only published his major critical works, he also continued to deal with the subject of “race”. In November 1785, the Berlin monthly magazine, at that time the Prussian intellectual magazine par excellence, published the article: “Determination of the concept of a human race”. Kant differentiates here four races according to skin color (elsewhere he comes to five). All human beings, according to his thesis, descended from a common original race. He considers the fact that members of different races can reproduce with one another without any problems as proof.


Georg Forster's Critique of Pure Reason

When Kant published the article “Determination of the Concept of a Human Race” in the Berlin Monthly in 1785, by no means all readers reacted with approval. The then 32-year-old Georg Forster, the famous ethnologist, travel writer, revolutionary and probably the most traveled German of the 18th century, voiced particularly vehement criticism. In 1786 Forster published his Kant replica in the Teutscher Merkur. Not a good hair was left with the text of the philosopher. Even Kant's claim that all races share the descent from a common ancestral race (monogenesis): Forster suspected that this was based on theologically traditional ideas and opposed the thesis of at least two origins (polygenesis). What particularly appealed to the young Kant critic, however, was the arrogance with which Kant, who (almost) never got out of sleepy Königsberg, lectured on people from other continents. According to the accusation, Kant had dared to venture “out of his sphere” with his text and mixed up with things of which he understood nothing. In addition, Forster was offended that Kant had claimed that one could not imagine the "skin color of the South Sea islanders" - and that after Forster had described such a thing in his most recent work on the basis of his field research. In his race theory, Kant only dealt selectively with current discovery reports; here, too, he primarily spoke as a transcendental philosopher who wanted to understand how our cognitive apparatus structured and systematized the reality with which he was dealing. Forster cannot do anything with this approach. He defends the meaning of intuition, experience and experience against Kant's “figuring out of the mind”. There is a lot of polemics and vanity in this debate. Nevertheless, it is an example of an early method controversy between the empiricist and the theorist.


You can tell that the text was written before Charles Darwin discovered the laws of evolution and Gregor Mendel discovered the rules of inheritance. What is also noticeable, especially in comparison with earlier texts: If you disregard the frequent use of the N-word and other terms that have become uncommon today, there are no explicitly derogatory vocabulary in the text. Kant speaks almost exclusively descriptively about the physiological differences between people. This time no “racial hierarchy” is established. Nor does he deny cognitive or moral abilities to non-whites. The text is unmistakably caught up in the classification mania of the Enlightenment. The newly discovered reason freed from theology is applied to everything and everyone. It is true that Kant can be accused of revealing himself as a Eurocentrist in this text, for example when he addresses his readers as “we whites” (most likely he had no non-white readers at all. The only black intellectual who was in Prussia was the philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo from Ghana, who was enslaved as a child and who was no longer alive then).

Also, the hypotheses and findings expressed by Kant are almost entirely wrong as things stand today. However, the text is not "racist" in the narrower sense. We know today that the concept of race is scientifically untenable and that the crimes of colonialism and National Socialism were committed based on this concept. But we cannot assume this knowledge in someone who was born 300 years ago. Kant would probably have been spared the racism debate, at least it would have been much milder if he had left it with this text from 1785. See, if one could have objected in Kant's favor, at the time when Kant had his great epistemological and moral-philosophical flashes of inspiration, he also recognized that it was wrong to degrade other people because of the color of their skin.

In the middle of self-contradiction

Unfortunately, Kant did not stop at this text. Three years later he “made improvements”. In “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy” (1788) he not only emphasized the epistemological necessity of the concept of race, but again set up a racist scale of values. This time it was the Native Americans who - "incapable of all culture" - were placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.

It is undoubtedly justified to call Kant a racist. Not just because he has evidently, over the decades, made derogatory comments about people of a different skin color. But mainly because he was Immanuel Kant. Because he should actually have known better. Absurdly enough, those of his writings, which were published almost at the same time as his last-mentioned racial articles, testify to this. In his main moral-philosophical essay, the “Critique of Practical Reason”, and in the “Basis for the Metaphysics of Morals” published three years earlier, he sets out principles that are clearly smarter than his own resentment. Because the categorical imperative also applies to non-whites. This is not a well-meaning retrospective reading, but follows directly from Kant's wording: "Act in such a way that you use humanity both in your person and in the person of everyone else at the same time as an end, never just as a means." And even if you need yourself Elsewhere, Kant has gone too far with horrific racist statements, he does not go so far as to deny black, “yellow” or “red” the status of a person or of being human. Strictly speaking, there is no more or less human dignity that could be yours. At least not if one follows the moral-philosophical writings. However, in his race texts Kant scratches dangerously close to denying non-whites the “gift of reason”, which is essential for his definition of being human. And without reason, nobody has the ability to be autonomous. Then moral universalism would no longer apply so universally after all.

This remains an obvious self-contradiction for Kant. The philosopher Pauline Kleingeld therefore called him an "inconsistent universalist". A few years ago, the Dutch Kant expert wrote an article that received much attention in the professional world ("Kant’s Seconds Thoughts on Race", 2007), in which she showed, among other things, that from around 1790 Kants gave up evaluating by skin color. The term “race” continued to appear, but there was no longer any moral or intellectual ladder. We can only speculate about where this change of attitude in Kant came from. Yet he was not entirely free from resentment. For example, anti-Semitic statements can be found in Kant, who was privately close friends with Jewish philosophers, also in the 1790s. However, the late Kant turned decisively against colonialism and slavery (which he still seemed to consider legitimate in the 1780s). In 1795 he formulated his vision of global citizenship and wrote incredible sentences like these for his time: That it has now come to the point among "the peoples of the earth" that "the violation of the law is felt by everyone in one place on earth".

If we are in a position today to criticize Kant's racist utterances, it is not least because Kant provided us with the tools to do so with his universalistic moral and legal philosophy. And just because Kant sometimes fell behind his own ideals, these ideals are by no means invalid. The Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) does not get wrong, just because Pythagoras occasionally miscalculates. The same applies to dealing with Kant's writings as was the case before any debate on racism. When reading them, one should use one's mind. Kant's monument can stand still, not as a saint, but as a signpost. Because signposts are not at the destination themselves, they only show the direction. •

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