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English review - Sustaining the tension in Kant’s philosophy

Immanuel Kant remains one of the most influential philosophers of all time. The core idea of his philosophy was that the dignity of the human being is inalienable. Humans should never be used merely as a means to an end. This idea remains influential in western culture and politics, for example in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in historical emancipation movements that have used this idea to fight for the liberation of the oppressed. But how do these ideas match with the racist en sexist elements in his work? How does this influence his moral theory? And what does it imply for the application of his deontology today? Philosopher Pauline Kleingeld reflected on these questions in her lecture for Radboud Reflects and Radboud Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office. After her talk she engaged in a conversation with legal philosopher Thomas Mertens and philosopher Wouter Veldman.

Kant’s racism and sexism

Although Kant has been a major influence on progressive movements and political thought, he held ideas that seem very problematic from a contemporary perspective. For example, Kant was in favour of colonialism. In fact he defended the idea of a racial hierarchy among human beings. In his lectures on anthropology he claimed that Native Americans were intrinsically not able to develop themselves politically and that Africans were unsuitable for tasks that involve reason. On the other hand, whites were supposedly “capable and talented”. Precisely the idea of this racial hierarchy lead to his defence of colonialism. Not only did he defend racist ideas, he was also a sexist. When Kant spoke about humans in general he implicitly meant men. For him, women were the Other, the not-universal. He postulated that women were naturally scared and oriented towards beauty instead of morality. Furthermore, he never criticised the subordinate position of women and claimed that men naturally rule over women.


So how do we deal with the ambivalent position of Kant? On the one hand he defended the idea of universalism and that we should never use others as mere means to an end and on the other hand he defended sexist and racist ideas. According to the philosopher Pauline Kleingeld there are in contemporary philosophical debate two different currents that have their own way of dealing with this problem.

On the one hand there are those that claim Kant is a consistent thinker of inequality. They claim Kant stated that people are fundamentally unequal, thus his sexism and racism are in complete harmony with his actual philosophy. According to this position his “universalist” moral principles are actually only applicable to white men. Hence, Kant was not a true universalist.

On the other hand there are those that postulate that Kant was an inconsistent thinker of equality. Kant was a universalist and viewed every person as being equal and therefore his racist and sexist notions clash with his actual philosophy. The advocates of this position often claim that we should primarily be interested in the fruitful and interesting aspects of Kant and that his statements on race and sex are not interesting or fruitful and that therefore they should be bracketed. The main argument for this position is the fact that Kant formulated his moral principles in a gender-neutral language, proving his truly universalist approach to morality.

The fundamental tension of Kant’s philosophy

Precisely this last point is something Pauline Kleingeld is doubting. According to her, people do not pay enough attention to the problematic status of gender-neutral language in historical texts. As an example for proving this point she refers to the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789. This declaration was formulated in an universalist language, it refers to humans having certain rights. However in actual practice this supposedly universalist formulation did not apply to women and non-whites. Kleingeld’s point is that we should be suspicious of gender-neutral language in texts from the past. Often when the language of these texts is universalist and/or gender-neutral, such as when it refers to the “human being”, what is actually meant is white men. We should assume that gender-neutral, universalist language is not applicable to women and non-whites unless otherwise stated.

However, contrary to the scholars that perceive Kant as a consistent thinker of inequality, Kleingeld also thinks that there are certain aspects of Kant’s philosophy that are not inherently linked to racism and sexism. There is a fundamental tension between his universalist principles and the application of these principles. The two currents in contemporary scholarship pick one side of this tension in Kant’s philosophy and emphasize that particular reading. Kleingeld argues we should sustain this tension and critically think for ourselves, thus critiquing the two dominant currents in contemporary Kant scholarship.


But if we sustain the tension, what should we do with it? Or, differently formulated, what should we do with worthwhile philosophers that have problematic ideas? After her lecture, Pauline Kleingeld participated in a discussion with Thomas Mertens about this specific point. She argued that we should acknowledge that Kant’s philosophy is not finished but is “work in progress” and thus not yet completed. We should not take him as the authority on this question, but think for ourselves. We should embrace Kant’s universalism, but radicalize it in a way that he was not able to do himself.

Mertens argued as a translator of Kant that we should not remove the problematic aspects of his philosophy from his texts or leave them untranslated. In that sense he agrees with Kleingeld that we should sustain the tension. Mertens emphasizes that we should not forget that Kant lived in a deeply racist and sexist world that we cannot fully access from our contemporary political context. Furthermore, he also stated that Kant was implicitly critical towards his own strict division between for example men and women, making interpreting Kant even more complicated and tedious.

All in all, both speakers defended the philosophy of the Enlightenment that they conceive of being fundamentally opposed to racism and sexism. However, the speakers argued this Enlightenment is not given but is rather a project that needs work and thinking in order to progress.

By: Milan Reith, Research master philosophy 2021