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Dare To Know

Dare To Know

On Immanuel Kant's 300th birthday, has American society had any success in following his bold dictum, Sapere Aude?

John G. Rodden

If seeking an indication of the level of cultural literacy in our fair land in the year 2024, one need look no further than the daily list of “important birthdays” compiled by United Press International. It is indeed a sign of the times that the headline for last year’s UPI list for April 22 ran, “Famous Birthdays for April 22: Jack Nicolson, Amber Heard.” Other notables cited included “singer Glen Campbell,” “rapper Machine Gun Kelly,” and “singer Peter Frampton.” Buried well down the list was another, odd-sounding name, followed by the long-ago date of 1724: German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

This April marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of the most influential philosopher of the modern era in the Western world. The first of his three landmark philosophical “critiques”—The Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—is “the greatest work in the history of Europe,” in the words of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a towering figure in his own right. (It was practically the only positive statement that Schopenhauer, a misanthrope nonpareil, ever made about a fellow philosopher.) Some observers would go even further, believing that the first critique represents the greatest work of philosophy tout court, possessing a range and depth exceeding even Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.

Universally hailed as “the father of the Enlightenment,” Kant, who lived to see the early years of the 19th century, may not be a household name to Americans, yet his influence is everywhere. His philosophical works have shaped not only our ideas about war, peace, politics, religion, morality, art, and human rights, but also our very ways of thinking about and approaching reality—and even our criteria for what it means to be human. 

Whatever our views about the significance of the aforementioned entertainers and newsmakers of the present moment, one is entitled to wonder whether, three centuries from today, those names will be much remembered, let alone their births serve as an occasion for international conferences and commemorative events in no less than a dozen nations on six continents.  

Give Peace a Chance

Throughout the United States this spring and fall, scholars will pursue the practical difficulties of pursuing a lasting international peace—not only in the Middle East and Ukraine, but also in the form of devising strategies to strengthen cooperation in multinational peace organizations.  The utopian prospect of worldwide harmony is a topic that Kant pondered deeply in his groundbreaking essay, “On Perpetual Peace” (1795), where he anticipated multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. Because war between nations is natural, Kant argued, humankind’s only hope for “perpetual peace” is to establish a federation of free states. In that same fertile essay, Kant proposed a doctrine that has transformed international relations in the last two centuries and received broad support as a principle of diplomacy. Of the six “preliminary articles” of his peace program, the fifth is especially notable: “No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State.” 

A mere glance at the international scene of the 21st century—casting our gaze from Afghanistan and Iraq to Ukraine—admittedly reveals, however, that a good deal of the supposed broad international support for the principle has been ritual lip service, since numerous governments—not excepting the United States—have engaged in aggressive campaigns of “regime change.” And that does not even begin to cover the checkered history of nefarious schemes of “covert” interference. 

Without doubt, the character of our public discourse could benefit immensely by revisiting the “Kant against Cant” movement in Europe in the early 20th century. The leader of German social democracy Eduard Bernstein invoked in Evolutionary Socialism (1909) “the spirit of the great philosopher of Königsberg,” Kant’s birthplace, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Kant’s work could fortify minds “against the cant which sought to get a hold on” the language and thought of modern Europe. The world “required a Kant who should judge received opinion and examine it critically with deep acuteness.” Unfortunately, in the next five years, “Kant” could not overcome the political “cant” of Bernstein’s day. The tragic result was the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Déjà vu: In 2024, overwhelmed by political cant, we find ourselves having entered the third year of the biggest war on European soil since the world wars.

Elsewhere in Kant’s oeuvre, the philosopher promotes political ideas that rival those of Montesquieu in historical significance for their impact on democracy and republicanism, such as his doctrine of the “Rechtsstaat:” a state based on the rule of law and devoted to the ideals of justice and liberty. Does Kant’s political philosophy continue to provide guidance to perils unknown in his day of empire and the emergent nation-state, including transnational threats, rogue terrorism, and the dangers posed both by “illiberal” regimes and by weapons of mass destruction to global collective security? Does Kant provide any guidance for the long-debated notion of “global citizenship?” Or to the rapidly changing conditions bearing on the human rights of refugees in a time of massive movements of migrants? 

The fact that these are among the questions that are being raised by thinkers and policymakers in 2024 is impressive testimony of Kant’s startling longevity. No other modern philosopher—with the notable exception a century later of Friedrich Nietzsche (who mocked the “pedantic” system-building Kant as “the Chinaman of Königsberg”)—has bequeathed a heritage so vast and yet so burningly contemporary. In the spirit of Kant’s own work, the scholars and intellectuals participating in symposia devoted to Kant this year will take up the current implications of his bold summons—“Sapere Aude!” (often translated as Dare to Think, or Dare to Know)—issued in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), which served as the clarion call and foundational document of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.  

The Unenlightened Kant?

In the last decade, a divisive and even incendiary political topic toward which Kant exhibited a large blind spot has emerged as a fierce topic of philosophical debate: racial and ethnic equality. Since 2022, as a result of Black Lives Matter protests at the University of Warwick, extensive discussion of Kant’s alleged racism has been included as part of philosophy department courses on his work throughout the United Kingdom. Students read his statements about race—a topic not even on the radar of Kant scholars until the 21st century. Attention is now being drawn to the blind spot that Kant apparently had on the topic of race—and the apparent contradiction between his theories of universal human rights and his personal opinions, which seemed to promote White racial superiority. 

The stakes are high. Kant is also widely taught in British secondary schools. Syllabus changes may ultimately lead to a thoroughgoing revaluation—and potential devaluation—of Kant’s legacy in the United States, Germany, and worldwide. Kant was a pioneer of a scientific concept of race. As it turns out, he voiced a good deal of “cant” (by present-day standards) in his own right. He wrote an essay in which he proposed a hierarchy of races, with Asians, Negroes, and Native Americans (“Indians”) at the bottom and White Europeans at the top. 

In several of his essays Kant makes some racist remarks and seems to endorse pro-slavery texts. For instance, he wrote that Black people “have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous,” and that Native Americans “are incapable of any culture.” Likewise, in his Anthropology, a series of lectures in 1778, Kant writes that “the Jews” constitute “a nation of cheaters,” dismissing them as “a group that has followed not the path of transcendental freedom but that of enslavement to the material world.”

It should be noted, however, that virtually all of Kant’s racist and antisemitic statements were made before he wrote his major works on morality and ethics, The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797). That is to say, Kant seems to have changed his views on race and ethnicity during the last fifteen years of his life, though he nowhere formally repudiates his earlier philosophical treatises or personal opinions. 

Is “racism” part of the core of Kant’s philosophy? Are his major philosophical works and principles inextricably linked to the denial of equal rights based on race? Was the “father of the Enlightenment” in effect an unenlightened thinker? 

Kant’s defenders, both in Germany and North America, insist that strong doubt should be cast on any affirmative answers to those questions. They point out that not a single prominent racist admirer (including Schopenhauer, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Otto Weininger, and even Adolf Hitler, who spent time reading Kant in a Bavarian prison in 1924) ever drew on Kant’s authority or even cited a single passage from his work or correspondence in support of their racialist doctrines. This would certainly imply that they considered his work free of such features; they are indeed restricted to Kant’s personal correspondence and a few essays in his early and mid-career work. Not a line of his major published works of the 1780s and 1790s exhibits any stance on race or human rights objectionable by contemporary standards. 

Kant's most severe critics note, however, that a handful of racist and antisemitic comments nevertheless appear in correspondence from his last decade. Nor can we simply give him a free pass on the grounds that all this occurred decades before Darwinian evolution, modern genetics, and related discoveries. After all, other Enlightenment philosophers of stature—such as Voltaire and Rousseau—were decidedly “enlightened” and egalitarian on the topic of race. Moreover, while many of Kant’s contemporaries voiced random comments comparably (or even more) disparaging, no other philosopher constructed a full-fledged theory of racial hierarchy, as the Black philosopher Charles W. Mills, a staunch critic of Kant’s, maintains. Kant is considered to have invented our modern concept of race and to have founded what has become the modern discipline of anthropology—achievements that are stained by the inegalitarian, hierarchal design of his early work. 

None of these questions was raised even as recently as the bicentennial commemorations of Kant’s death in 2004, let alone during earlier commemorative years, when he was almost universally celebrated, with nary a negative word about either his philosophy or his personal life. 

It seems likely that the 21st century “critique of pure Kant” will arrive at a new consensus about the Sage of Königsberg well before his next major commemorative occasion, the 250th anniversary of his death in 2054.

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. He has written four books on German history, among them The Walls That Remain: Eastern and Western Germans Since Reunification (Routledge).

Image: A weather vane against the evening sky. (Unsplash: Nicole Wilcox)

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