So Kant was a racist. What now?


“[T]he male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject” – Aristotle

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men…to be naturally inferior to the whites” –David Hume

“In the hot countries the human being matures earlier in all ways but does not reach the perfection of the temperate zones. Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples” – Immanuel Kant

Uh oh. These guys were brilliant philosophers. They were also racist and misogynistic. How should we handle this? Is it possible to separate those beliefs from the rest of their work? If so, how? There are a few possible options, right? 1) Accept 2) Reject 3) Excuse and excise 4) Admonish and amend. Is it possible to admire individuals who hold reprehensible beliefs? I want to explore this a little bit in response to a recent Aeon piece by philosopher Julian Baggini.

Baggini characterizes the exploration of these questions as presenting a dilemma: “We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left.” Acceptance of the views is not a real option. Outright rejection leads to the undesirable situation Baggini articulates. So the essay argues that we can still admire “great thinkers” with the understanding that they were/are socially conditioned beings. We often accept this kind of reasoning when it comes to justifying our admiration of people who are close to or especially important to us. Sure, Grandpa had some misguided homophobic ideas, but he was just a product of his time. The suffragettes might have been eugenicists, but that we can’t judge the past by the standards of the present.

Baggini suggests that rejecting great thinkers because they held sexist or racist beliefs is a reflection of arrogance. We like to think of ourselves as free, unencumbered intellects who come to our beliefs on purpose, independent from the social environment. As Baggini puts it, “The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves.” This fantasy is what makes it so impossible to believe that individuals who would question the nature of reality so thoroughly would simultaneously fail to see and question their own prejudices. But, “our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.” The failure to acknowledge that this is true for Kant and true for us is deeply arrogant. Baggini doesn’t mention this, but I kept thinking about the kinds status quo prejudices that future generations will be appalled that we failed to interrogate. The way we think about and treat nonhuman animals is an obvious one. While overt sexism and racism may not be the status quo — I’m being ridiculously optimistic here. I know that. Keep reading. – our systems are still set up to favor the few, and white supremacist patriarchy is still the air we breathe. One fear is that excusing the past entails excusing the living. If these illustrious men, the greatest of critical thinkers, can be excused for maintaining the status quo, what about today’s thinkers?

Baggini is optimistic too, in suggesting that our admiration of great thinkers, plus our acknowledgment of the wrongness of some of their beliefs, is a kind of humility.  Baggini suggests that this humility should prompt further questioning regarding whether the thinkers’ prejudices go deeper. In fact, this has been the life work of a great many feminist philosophers and philosophers of race, work that Baggini does not adequately acknowledge in their piece. But it’s hard for me to imagine answering
“no” to the question “does this explicit prejudice reflect some deeper bias?” Baggini seems to imply that most of the philosophers we regard as “great thinkers” would not hold these explicit prejudices should they not have been embedded in their particular social environments; that we can regard the articulation of the prejudices as evidence of socialization and isolate them from their other philosophical insights. In the end, then, all the author can reasonably expect from an acceptance of their conclusion is position (3): Excuse and excise. We are to continue to admire great thinkers, acknowledge their racism and sexism as evidence of social conditioning, excise the most problematic of their statements from the text, and work with the rest.

But we have good models of what we can produce when we REALLY begin from humility and take the work of this further questioning seriously. Philosopher Charles Mills explores the depth of Kant’s racism, and the way his racist views can be understood to infuse his most fundamental conceptual categories (See the essay “Kant’s Untermenschen,” 2005). The pinnacle of Kant’s moral philosophy is the articulation of a universal moral principle that essentially boils down to: treat all persons with respect, not merely as means to an end. Most students of an intro to philosophy or intro to ethics course will be familiar with this principle. Most will not be introduced to the full blown theory of race that Kant articulates, because the instructor has excised that from the text and teaches the principle as if it didn’t exist in Kant’s thinking. But, as Mills convincingly argues, if Kant has in mind a particular limited understanding of who counts as a “person” this is going to seriously impact his moral vision. The very notion of autonomy, so critical to Kant’s moral framework, is bound to an ideal of whiteness. So, Mills argues that racist ideas were not localized and separable in Kant’s work, but central to his thought. If we are to salvage anything here, it cannot be without radical rethinking, rearticulation, and amendment.

That was a lot of discipline-specific reflection, but we can connect this line of thinking to other familiar contentious debates. For example, how do we regard the art of individuals who do morally questionable things or hold beliefs that we condemn? Which of the beliefs are extricable from their aesthetic visions, from the narratives they tell through their art, and which become infused in a such a way that we cannot just accept the work? So many examples to choose from here; Mel Gibson? Woody Allen? How do we watch a “great film” like American Beauty in the wake of #MeToo? And way back in 2016, (doesn’t that feel like ages ago?!) I had multiple conversations in which I argued that white supremacy was inextricable from Trump’s populism. On my view, you cannot understand Trump’s vision of a great America without attending to the way it is racialized, and it is impossible to cleanly separate the racist ideals from the economic platforms, as many “reluctant” Trump supporters attempted to do.


Let me know what you think about these ideas. I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments. And if you have suggestions for topics for future posts, leave a comment below! I have a feeling that 2019 will have lots of fodder for philosophical reflection!

10 thoughts on “So Kant was a racist. What now?

  1. I think about this sometimes. I’m currently reading a biography of Lincoln which tells of some less than superstar ideas of those days. I’m aware that my own “philosophies” have changed over time. When we step back far enough, maybe the status quo does change. So I’d pick admonish and amend, though I think admonish maybe too strong a word. Ideas build on ideas and understandings evolve as we encounter new ideas, people, situations. I hope I can be forgiven unjust or unkind behaviors or values that I hope to eventually move past.


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, mom. I do think that the status quo changes. We have to believe that we can change it. I think that part of the important work of philosophy is to interrogate the status quo and articulate carefully what needs changing and why, and to envision new alternatives. You’re right that ideas build on ideas, so when we articulate new ideas, we need to take care that we aren’t reproducing unjust ones in less visible ways. That’s why the excise option isn’t really satisfactory in the end. The part about humility is important for the reason that you identify at the end of your comment. We are entrenched in unjust systems and don’t always fully comprehend how they impact our beliefs. The research on implicit bias, for example, demonstrates this in powerful ways. We can explicitly reject beliefs that nevertheless infuse our behavior because we are socially conditioned beings. I want to get better, and I believe that being good is something we practice and can exercise like other skills. I chose “admonish” in part for its alliterative appeal. But though it may seem harsh, I do think that people whose ideas have been canonized need some admonishment to push back against the reverence. Maybe you and I don’t need to be harshly admonished, but we do need to be called out when we contribute to the reproduction of racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic ideas.


  2. I am worried that history repeats itself and that holding up “greatness” while ignoring the bad parts lets us miss an opportunity for progress. I think about Al Frankin’s resignation after #metoo allegations… a coworker had asked me if I really thought he should resign because what he had done wasn’t nearly as bad as what other (unremoseful) politicians had done and, unlike other politicians, Frankin has worked for woman’s rights while in office. I answered that many people have the same ideas as Frankin and it would be better if we held our representatives to a higher standard. In the case of Kant- are there others from the same time period who had similar ideas and weren’t jerks that we could highlight in philosophy classes instead of him? In science history, discoveries of white men are emphasized more than others (in part because there are more white men in science than others but also partly because the contributions of minorities were ignored). There are current efforts to acknowledge historical contributions from minorities both to be a better representation of the history but also to change the face of science and make sure that in the future we welcome minorities and encourage greatness in STEM regardless of whether greatness comes from a white male or not. Kind of unrelated-I would love to know your thoughts on the recent NYT article about the racism of Watson (the man who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data to decipher the structure of DNA) and the scientific community’s current response to him.


    1. The Franken example is a good one, Melissa. I’m curious what you mean here by “higher standard.” Higher in what way and relative to whom? Do you think it applies just to elected representatives? Or should others in leadership positions likewise be subject to higher standards?

      As in science, there is a big push to “rediscover” the philosophical voices of enlightenment era women, for example, for the same kinds of reasons that you mention. This is really important work. Philosophy remains a woefully white male discipline. I like your strategy of looking for alternative voices who were articulating similar ideas. In part because of the way history of philosophy cohered as a narrative, Kant is one of those figures who cannot be ignored. The dialogical nature of knowledge production is such that many subsequent thinkers were inspired by and responding directly to him. As, to some extent, he was responding to the works of British empiricists like Hume.

      I will look up the NYT piece on Watson and perhaps write a follow up post. My interest in this particular subject stems specifically from questions I had to grapple with regarding how to teach Hume and Kant in my ethics classes. Also I did a lot of research on American agrarianism for my dissertation work and had to deal with the shadow of Jefferson. I would like to talk a little more about that as well, should readers be interested. So, more to come!


  3. I always think of this analogically to the well-known psychological maxim that you have to forgive and love your parents, no matter how rotten they were. (Mine were not, but some people have real complaints.) It’s not that they necessarily deserve to be forgiven, or that they did much to merit your love; it’s that you need to do it in order to be healthy yourself. If you can’t do it, it’s you who suffers.

    The same is true for our philosophical heritage, our political heritage, our cultural heritage, and so on. However serious the complains, and they are in many cases quite serious, this is where we came from. There are parts of what they did that are fundamental to who we are. If we cannot find a way to forgive them and be grateful for the parts we build on, it is we ourselves who suffer. Gratitude for the good done, and forgiveness for the harm, is the path of mental health. Build on the good and be grateful for it, whatever it was; you didn’t earn it, after all. Whatever good they gave you, however big or small, it was a gift. Do better, if you are able; but we might not be able, for reasons we’re just as blind to as they were blind. We may need forgiveness too.

    That’s what I think. Others may do what they want, but it seems right to me.


    1. I like the sentiment here, Brad. Acknowledgement of and gratitude for our intellectual forebears certainly does have value for some of the reasons you mention. But when you look at something like “scientific racism” to which Kant was a significant contributor, I find it really difficult to get to a place of forgiveness. I do not want anything to do with it, let alone for it to be a part of “who I am,” though, as a white American, it undoubtedly it. Certainly I will need forgiveness, too. I have work to do.


  4. I agree with Baggini, that looking down our noses at historical figures for the views that were commonplace in their time is the height of arrogance. A lot of it stems, I think, from people today believing that, had THEY been born in that time, they would have been the exception. They don’t want to even conceive the idea that if they grew up in the 1700’s they would look upon slavery as just another business. So it’s kind of a “thou doth protest too much” situation. Humans evolve, our conception of society changes. Up until just about 50 years ago, conquer or be conquered was the law of the land for international relations. Republics and democracies took centuries and millenia to develop simply because society didn’t know better than kings and emperors.

    So yeah, we should absolutely be able to keep the good from history’s great figures and leave aside the bad. Doing otherwise would be to tear up even the very fabric of our modern societies.


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