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.
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