Enlightenment Enigma – is Kant’s Anthropology parochial?

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.


Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973

  1. onesis said:

    You seem to be saying, Angela, that the skirmishes over Kant’s parochialism should not detract us from the main issue, which is that the thinking from within is substantially different from an observational perspective. And that is Kant’s triumph, that we cannot be nailed down observationally. Therefore when Kant himself makes observations, and they turn out to be parochial, it is not a detraction from his basic philosophy.

    So if thinking from within is the place from which we must start as philosophers, the question is whether reading someone, or listening to them speak, is merely observational. No doubt there are observational readers. Some people are adept at picking out faults in punctuation, spelling and grammar. They use software to pick up on any hints of theft of someone else’s work. Deeper still, observational readers pick out patterns of style, and even pick up on psychological traits.

    But observational reading, detecting patterns, is not what Kant is directing us towards. He is directing us towards a source of agency, of creativity, of thinking towards an end that is not given in the observational domain. It is up to us to choose an end to pursue.

    The triumph of freedom in Kant’s individualism, however, fails to acknowledge that thinking from within can also be a communal activity. This is why, as you mention, those “primitives” that colonial history relegated to the eugenics trash can, may yet provide a window on the enlightenment that Kant hoped would benefit all of humanity.

  2. D. Harvey, Cosmopolitanism, pp. 20-1:

    This historical neglect of the Geography does not accord with Kant’s own assessment He went out of his way to gain an exemption from university regulations in order to teach geography in place of cosmology. He taught geography forty-nine times, compared to the fifty-four occasions when he taught logic and metaphysics, and the forty-six and twenty-eight times he taught ethics and anthropology, respectively. He explicitly argued that geography and anthropology defined the “conditions of possibility” of all knowledge. He considered these knowledges a necessary preparation – a “propaedeutic” as he termed it – for everything else.7 While, therefore, both anthropology and geography were in a “pre-critical” or “pre-scientific” state, their foundational role required that they be paid close attention. How else can we interpret the fact that he taught geography and anthropology so persistently alongside his metaphysics and ethics? Though he signally failed in his mission, he plainly thought it important to bring anthropology and geography into a more critical and scientific condition. The question is: why did he think so?

    The attention Kant pays to both geography and anthropology then makes more sense. If theology and cosmology could no longer provide adequate answers to the question “what is man?” (hence Kant’s determination to eliminate cosmology from the curriculum and replace it with geography), then something more scientific was needed. Where was that “science of man” to come from, if not from anthropology and geography? The distinction between geography and anthropology rested, in Kant’s view, on a difference between the “outer knowledge” given by observation of “man’s” place in nature and the “inner knowledge” of subjectivities (which sometimes comes close to psychology in practice).

    • onesis said:

      This connects to my previous comment: “The triumph of freedom in Kant’s individualism, however, fails to acknowledge that thinking from within can also be a communal activity.” Following this through, the question becomes: what sort of geographical anthropology can encompass “thinking from within” with “a communal activity”? My claim is that the two are connected via the notion of an occupational community, where the term “occupation” involves taking hold of what is being given to do (and this derives from embodiment and “labour” as in Arendt’s conception of that) and then thinking into that activity as a political engagement, in the full apprehension of the necessity for taking initiative. The “thinking into” the occupation in question indeed is the initiative. The ontological requirements for this are (a) freedom and (b) engagements with others, in (c) specific locations at (d) specific times.

      This is the heartland of our mutual philosophical endeavours.

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