“Was Kant a Racist?” with Addendum on South Sea Islanders (29 Pages) 01 May 2017 – Rejection of Slavery, Colonialism, the Inhumane Treatment of Animals, and Wanton Destruction of the Environment

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Was Kant a Racist? Can Critical Idealism Contribute to Combating Racism? With an Addendum: On South Sea Islanders in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Douglas R McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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„On Anthropology“

Kant labels his reflections on “Race” as “anthropology”. One of the greatest barriers to entry into Kant’s work is what I have come to call “metaphor interference” (anachronistic reading). The reader assumes that what we currently take a metaphor to mean is exactly what Kant meant by the term. One can create a long list of such terms that contribute to great misunderstanding: autonomy, freedom, synthesis, reason, pure, metaphysics, self-legislating, etc., and among these metaphors are “anthropology” and “pragmatic”.

In Reflections on Moral Philosophy, Kant calls empirical knowledge “pragmatic” (AA XIX: 284) and contrasts it with practical reason. Kant speaks of the “pragmatic” as concerned with “teaching cleverness” (Lehre der Klugheit) and rules of cleverness” (Klugheitsregeln) (AA XIX: 104), which are the direct result of “arbitrariness”/liberty (freie Willkühr), not “free will”/autonomous freedom (Wille) (AA XIX: 171). Free will (Wille) is the capacity (Anlage) of autonomous, creativity “above” the blind causality of nature. Succinctly, “pragmatic” cleverness constitutes imperatives that lead to “welfare” (Wohlfahrt). Such pragmatic imperatives apply to “what everyone wants, not what s/he should do”. (AA XIX: 104) In the Groundwork (AA IV 414 ff.), Kant distinguished between two types of hypothetical imperatives (technical and pragmatic), which in turn are to be distinguished from the categorical imperatives of practical reason.

Attention to terminology is important when one reads the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. The “Preface” to the Anthropology spells out what he is doing in the text. The term “pragmatic” means concern with the fulfilment of personal interest, and his use of the term here is intentional to make clear that “anthropology” is not “practical reason”. His account of humanity from a pragmatic point of view is “historical” in a “broader” sense than either theoretical or practical reason (Logic AA IX: r41) and “phenomenological” in the sense of “descriptive”, not “normative”!

He acknowledges from the beginning that he is dependent upon the reports of others, that is, he is not giving his personal account of peoples, but he defends his project by insisting that “anthropology” presupposes an “understanding of humanity”. Without philosophy, “anthropology” is “nothing but fragmentary tapping in the dark without scientific understanding” (AA VII: 120). In other words: The reader must bring the insights of theoretical and practical reason as well as the reflecting judgment of aesthetics to his Anthropology – not read them out of the text. As a descriptive project, then, it should not be read as a set of moral conclusions about its subject matter. This is precisely confirmed by the far flung “negative” reports about all peoples, to which you refer, and it is important to point out that he is by no means partial to “Germans” (see for example, VII: 317-319). The Anthropology is a describing the “cleverness” that communities employ to pursue what they take to be their welfare and what the characteristic “wants” of a community are, not what the community morally should do. The latter comes not from anthropology’s pragmatic point of view but practical reason.

Revision Notes

Forward “On Anthropology” added 26 April 2020

Revised 10 April 2018 with the addition of documentation of Kant’s explicit rejection of slavery as well as rejection of colonialism, the inhumane treatment of animals, and call for the protection of the environment (page 12 and two first footnotes).

Revised 20 January 2017 with the addition of a quote (page 17 below) from the Metaphysics of Morals (AA VI, 467-468):  The statement here by Kant constitutes an explicit rejection not only of racism, ageism, sexism, power or weakness, status and prestige (e.g., aristocracy) as criteria for judging others, but it is also an implicit rejection of homophobia, nationalism, populism, and any other criteria for judging others, which are all based on merely empirical criteria of “theoretical reason” to the entire neglect of the capacities and moral significance of “practical reason.”  Thanks to Birgit Recki who cited the second of the two paragraphs of this “Remark” from the MM for a very different but equally laudable purpose in her Ästhetik der Sitten. Die Affinität von ästhetischem Gefühl und praktischer Vernunft bei Kant (Frankfurt a.M.:  Vittorio Klostermann, 2001):  255, n. 43.


Was Kant a Racist?
Can Critical Idealism Contribute to Combating Racism?

With an Addendum:  On South Sea Islanders in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Overview: In which Kant’s comments on race are discussed in light of his philosophy of history, critiques of theoretical and practical reason, and his biological reflections on “evolution.” Humanity is seen as the “ultimate end” of nature. Although this sounds anthropocentric and suggests the justification of the indiscriminate exploitation of nature, it is manifest not by means of a culture of “skill”, but by a culture that promotes the individual’s assumption of moral responsibility for her/his decisions and actions.