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Kant, Race, And Liberal Democracy (Ryne Beddard)

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The “vision of modernity as the social process of Enlightenment,” writes J. Kameron Carter, “is both a racial vision and a particular kind of theological vision.” He adds: “indeed, Enlightenment as [Immanuel] Kant envisions it is the mutual encoding of the racial and the theological so as to yield the cosmopolitical.”(5)

This interweaving of Kant’s cosmopolitical vision, theology, and the modern construction of race, I argue, coalesces in the modern construct of the human, or, to borrow a phrase from Sylvia Wynter, a genre of the human – a particular way of thinking and becoming human proper to the modern liberal democratic state.

The production of the modern human can be understood, at least in part, by turning to Kant’s essay Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, in which he posits, as the a priori condition of a just state, the rational and autonomous member of the commonwealth: the human being. The only legitimate state, then, is one founded upon what we could call enlightenment humanism, of which Kant is the thinker par excellence.

This task cannot be achieved by consideration of the actions of individuals or groups within a particular context which, as Kant recognizes, are often “made up of folly and childish vanity.” Instead, the task of the philosopher is “to attempt to discover a purpose in nature behind all this senseless course of human events.”(42)

In short, Kant presents a naturalized solution to the problem of theodicy. Centuries before Kant, the author of Genesis had Joseph declare to his brothers that the evil they intended when they sold him into slavery was actually a part of God’s larger plan for the salvation of God’s people. In Kant’s essay this same logic can be found, however the rationality comes, not from God, but nature. It is worth mentioning, however, that if you were to replace every mention of ‘nature’ with ‘God’ the essay would read almost exactly the same.

Thus, in the same way that the economy of salvation required agents made in the image of God to internalize and share the good news to the ends of the earth, Kant posits subjects made in the image of a rational cosmos that are, likewise, the conditions for universal salvation. “Kant,” as Carl Raschke observes in Force of God, “assumed that such a rational global order was inevitable – historically inevitable.”(103)

Kant makes this argument by way of a series of nine propositions. The first two posit the dual nature of the natural telos that drives this history: that of individuals and cultures, and that of the species as a whole. In the first instance, Kant writes, “All the natural capacities are destined sooner or later to be developed completely and in conformity with their end,” which is to say that not only will a particular individual or society inevitably fulfill its particular telos, but that telos is already a pre-determined given, predicated on an essential capacity. In the second instance, Kant writes,

In man [sic] (as the only rational creature on earth), those natural capacities which are directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed only in the species, but not in the individual. Reason, in a creature, is a faculty which enables that creature to extend far beyond the limits of natural instinct the rules and intentions it follows in using its various powers, and the range of its projects is unbounded.(42)

This unbinding of human potential is the objective of nature itself, and, as Kant writes,

[This objective] can be fulfilled only in a society which has not only the greatest freedom, and therefore a continual antagonism among its members, but also the most precise specification and preservation of the limits of this freedom in order that it can co-exist with the freedom of others. (45)

Thus, Kant, like Plato before him in the Timaeus, offers a theological – albeit secularized – account of the very social structure he wishes to justify: the liberal, democratic state. Whereas, for Plato, the heavens are presented as a cosmological Athens, refined to perfection, in order to justify the political structure of the city by virtue of its semblance to the ideal; for Kant, the humanistic liberal, democratic state is projected onto the rational telos of nature, once again refined to perfection, in order to justify it by way of its realization of this inherent capacity.

Kant is interested in the liberation of human reason for the purpose of the political, where the laws of practical reason amount to the voice of God. This liberation requires what we could call the liberal freedoms of individuals (as opposed, originally, to the conservative restrictions of the Church and the Monarch).

This freedom is what allows for the slow, progressive cultivation of rationality that Kant believes will ultimately amount to the salvation of humanity and the earth along with it. Thus, we can say that, with Kant, sovereignty is de-centralized and interiorized to the human/subject/citizen of the liberal state.

To say it otherwise, Kant imagines a politics, “whereby ‘the people’ marks out its identity,” as Carter writes, “by articulating itself no longer within the consciousness of and as an appendage to the will of the sovereign king but in binary relationship to some other people that it is not.”(80)

This is the basic structure of Carl Schmitt’s observation that the sovereign body is produced by way of an exception, which in this instance is an exclusion from the body itself.  While Kant would likely reject Schmitt’s assessment of the sovereign and exception, in what follows, I will demonstrate that it is nonetheless operative in his thinking.

Following his methodology that the philosopher’s work is to uncover the hidden meaning – the latent telos – of the natural world, Kant takes up the question of differences in human skin pigmentation. In an essay which comes to be known as “Of the Different Human Races,” Kant seeks to go beyond merely describing these differences and to consider how these differences participate in the teleological perfection of the human.

While the concept of “race” seems to have first appeared in the work of the French physician François Bernier in 1684, the normalization of the concept – and with it modern racism – can be, in large part, credited to Kant’s influence. This is not to say, of course, the prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was not violence, bigotry, and discrimination between groups of people; it is to say, however, that the differences between these groups were not rooted in a biological essentialism.

In “Of the Different Human Races,” Kant makes the (empirical and objective, according to him) observation that there are four basic races: the white race, the Negro race, the Hun race, and the Hindu or Hindustani race.

With that said, Kant immediately proceeds to reduce these four races to two even more primary categories: the white race and the Negro race. “The reason for assuming Negroes and whites are the base races,” adds Kant, “is self-evident.”(12) “In the end then,” writes Carter, “all racial distinctions exist on a continuum between two base races of Negroes and whites.”(84)

Still, according to Kant, because all humans can breed across races they constitute a distinct species which must have originated in a singular lineage. This distinct species was equipped, by the rational telos of nature, with numerous potential natural predispositions or “seeds,” so that they will be able to spread out amongst the world and survive under different conditions.

However, as Carter observes that after a considerable period of time, certain seeds “become deeply rooted and [stifle] the other seeds.” The result is that a race emerges. Given the deep rootedness of certain seeds and the stifling of others in the formation of a given race, once a race actually forms, that race will “[resist] further transformation, because the character of the race has become predominate in the reproductive powers.”(86-7)

Interestingly, as Carter points out, “Of the Different Human Races” first appeared as an advertisement for one of Kant’s classes at the University of Königsberg in 1775. In this version one finds the following:

If we ask with which of the present races the first human stock might well have had the greatest similarity, we will presumably – although without any prejudice because of the presumptuously greater perfection of its color when compared with that of the others – pronounce favor on whites. For human beings, whose offspring should be acclimated in all climatic zones, would be most adept for this if they were originally fitted for the temperate climate, because this climate lies within the middle of the most extreme boundaries of the conditions within which human beings should be advised to live. And this is also the region where we – from the most ancient time to the present – find the races of whites.(87)

In between the 1775 version and the published 1777 version, there are a couple of small, but not insignificant, changes. Kant adds that “the greatest riches of earth’s creation” can be found in this “middle” region. He also subtly changes his description of the inhabitants of this region: they are no longer the “races of whites,” but “white, indeed, brunette inhabitants.”(19-20)

Carter notes that, “the term ‘race,’ which Kant consistently applied to the Negroes, Huns, and Hindustanies to explain their origins, has for whites now dropped out.”(88) Whereas non-whites are “mired in [the] particularity” of their race which resists continued transformation, “whiteness is both ‘now and not yet. It is a present reality, and yet it is also still moving toward and awaiting its perfection.’”(89) Carter goes on to write the following:

Here we see the work performed by the “self-evident” claim Kant makes earlier in the essay that “Negroes and whites are the base races.” If the white race exemplifies humanity on its way to perfection, the black race embodies the departure and failure to attain this perfection. In the Negro race, white flesh observes a race so mired in its particularity as never to be able to speak with universal force and, therefore, as never positioned to be an analogy or index of the universal.(90)

Here one can see, as I said I would demonstrate, the basic structure of Schmitt’s sovereign exclusion. Blackness is so deeply rooted in the particular that it cannot ever hope to rise to the level of the universal, and therefore, participate in the unfolding, progressive process that Kant imagines driving history forward – a process which is still the normative assumption, whether explicit or implicit, of the modern, liberal, secular discourse.

“Kant’s ultimate concern,” writes Carter, “is with the success of the universalist project of modernity, the project of whiteness as the advance of cultured civilization (which is the advance toward the perfect race of humans).”(95) Moreover, “rendering race invisible in all of this, Kant calls this not the work of whiteness but the task of the species as such.”(89)

Blackness, then, becomes a figure of what Giorgio Agamben refers to as “homo sacer,” the archaic Roman legal figure who is excluded (Schmitt’s exception) from the realm of the polis – that is, the realm of humanity, proper – and against whom the polis defines itself.

While it falls outside the scope of this essay, Carter also connects the development of modern racialized discourse to the figure of the Jew as the alien within white, (secular) Christian Europe. In line with this reading he suggests that “Agamben grasps that the quintessential homo sacer figure of modernity is the Jew”(120).  In contrast, Alexander G. Weheliye argues that Agamben’s insistence on treating European history as quintessential blinds him to the force of the plantation and the colony as biopolitical regimes that, without downplaying its horror, in no way need to be subordinated to the concentration camps in Europe.

This is to say that the inherent inability of non-whiteness, and blackness in particular, to rise from the muck of particularity to the celestial realm of the universal serves as the unconscious secular theological exclusion that produces the modern, liberal democratic state – and the rational autonomous members of the commonwealth.

Ryne Beddard is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of Denver.  He is the author of “Lycantheopolitical: The Sovereign and the Werewolf, or Christ and Sirius Black”, Resonance (May 2016).

One Comment

  1. A very interesting essay. Kant would have, indeed, disappointed by the neuroscience and biology research of today with respect to the intellectual capacities of mankind, which Kant reserves specifically for the ‘white race’ as the universal embodiment and driver of progress, liberation, and the ultimate culmination of the ideal human society. What I found most interesting is how he has secularized the political vision of men both subtly and controversially.

    As you have written, “thus, we can say that, with Kant, sovereignty is de-centralized and interiorized to the human/subject/citizen of the liberal state,” such a statement has profound implications for adherents of religions who are persuaded that political sovereignty belongs to God while men are conferred by Divine Providence to be God’s vicegerents in the implementation of divine commandments.

    Plato and Kant both lived in a time wherein slavery was a matter seldom contested among the intellectuals. It is both historically understandable that they perceived inferiority of others as a mirror of the social ills whereby to rectify for the better. Though it doesn’t justify their implicit justification of it, but it does give insight into how both Plato and Kant envisioned an ideal world where justice, liberty, and law and order can be established – that is a shared moral lens with which all humans could come to cultivate reason.

    The conflict between the religious and the secular political outlook, if understood in the light of the dichotomy that ‘sovereignty belongs to men as opposed to God or a divine source’, raises deeper questions about the compatibility of secular and theocratic polities. In saying this, Plato and Kant may have shared the line of thought in terms of human liberty founded upon the faculty of human reason, they differ in the realization of such an ideal in one fundamental way. That is Plato wanted to produce a philosophy that transformed humanity to achieve the order observed in the heavens implying a divine element, while Kant had a more secular approach.

    Once again, the sad part, in spite of its cultural and historical context, was that Kant mismeasured Man greatly through his racism. Whether we agree or not, Kant’s proposition of the white race bring freedom, liberty, reason, and law and order is taking place but not by way of progress. On the contrary, it is being institutionalized by military force materializing an imperialistic agenda of global proportions. Such a line of thinking has allowed US and Europe to be blinded to their oppression of the people of the world all over.

    In conclusion, Kant’s own political vision has the potential to lead to imperialism, or may even justify it, regardless of the sound intentions behind it. Against his own call for the universality of reason, he defeats his own argument by upholding the ‘white race’ or a particular ‘white people’ of a specific region of the world as the vanguards to bring about that vision.

    A spotless essay, nonetheless. I enjoyed the read. Looking forward to reading more on such topics.

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