Kant, Racism and Global Philosophy
by Bharath Vallabha
Nowadays when racism is reflexively brought up as an explanation for social phenomena, I cringe. The person who raises it usually does so excitedly, as if they have penetrated to the heart of the issue. But most of the time I find they are confusing passion for clarity and skipping over all the interesting questions.
Fixating on racism as a master explanation is like focusing on the brain or evolution as the explanation of every dimension of human life. What is the origin of love? The love module in the brain. Belief in God? The god gene. The phenomenon are shoe-horned into the form of explanation one feels must be the only explanation. The trouble is, it doesn’t explain much.
Here is an example I have struggled with for a long time. Kant is one of my favorite philosophers. Anyone who wants to understand what it means to be human in light of modern science – how to reconcile, in Wilfred Sellars’ terms, the “manifest” and the “scientific” images – has to engage with Kant. He made some of the central philosophical moves, which we are still working through.
He also had some clearly false views about the philosophical capacity of non-Europeans. As Bryan Van Norden notes in an Aeon article, Kant “treated race as a scientific category (which it is not), correlated it with the ability for abstract thought, and…arranged them in hierarchical order.” Kant wrote: “the race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself… the Hindus are educable in the highest degree, but only in the arts and not the sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts…the race of Negroes…can be educated, but only to the education of servants…the [indigenous] American people are uneducable.” 
How do we reconcile Kant’s genius in philosophy with how deeply wrong he was about other races?
Racism seems an obvious starting point. But what does it explain? Kant’s quotes clearly endorse racism, the idea that Europeans are better than other races. So pointing to racism doesn’t provide any deeper explanation. It just restates the facts, like saying salt dissolves in water because it is soluble. And saying it while protesting – or filled with moral indignation – doesn’t make it anymore explanatory.
Saying Kant’s racism was a feature of his society doesn’t explain much more. The puzzle remains. After all, he didn’t slavishly follow his society’s views about modern science or politics. He was a trail blazer on those issues. So why wasn’t he a trail blazer regarding racism?
Actually, in an important way, he was. That’s the key to solving the puzzle. Kant wasn’t mindlessly following centuries of racist prejudice. In endorsing a racial hierarchy, in which only Europeans are capable of philosophy and science, he actually was doing something new.
Van Norden himself makes this point. But he misses its significance, when he uncritically accepts Kant’s racism as the final explanation.
Following Peter K Park’s book Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy, Van Norden notes that it was common in 18th century Europe to think philosophy began in Asia or Africa. The idea that philosophy is unique to Europeans was not commonplace 300 years ago. After all, in the Middle Ages European philosophy was mainly Christian, and Christianity arose out of Judaism. And as is well known, the European rediscovery of classical philosophy was enabled by Islamic philosophy. When medieval Europeans looked eastward, they wouldn’t have found obviously inferior races, but rather the vast Islamic and Chinese empires.
So what happened? Why did Kant ignore this evidence of non-European philosophy and endorse his racialized philosophical hierarchy?
Again, the temptation of the racism explanation rears its head. It says: “It’s because of colonialism. Modern Europeans needed a way to justify their taking over the world, and that meant dehumanizing others. Rendering them less than rational. Kant’s history of philosophy was only a justification for the colonial takeover of other lands.”
Of course, there is something to this. It probably didn’t hurt that Kant’s racial hierarchy could so easily fit with a colonizing mindset. But this doesn’t explain Kant’s philosophical motivations for embracing the racial hierarchy. Kant didn’t believe it just so Europeans could take over the world. To accept that would be to have a low opinion of Kant not just as a person but as a thinker; as if Kant’s thinking was simply a façade for the deeper instincts of power.
Once we take this reductive approach, we are left only with subliminal drives to power on everyone’s part, and the ideal of rational discourse disappears. This was part of Kant’s deep insight in his theoretical and moral work: the normative stance we take can’t be reduced to a descriptive stance. No matter how much we better understand the descriptive realm of our instincts, we, as rational and discursive beings, are still faced with the task of thinking as free beings. Seeing Kant as only buffeted about by his instincts for racial power is to mis-characterize Kant’s rationality, as well as our own rationality in engaging with him.
When we resist the reductive explanation that it’s all about power, a much more interesting explanation comes to light.
The modern Europeans’ ability to go to all corners of the globe brought about a gestalt shift. Until that point, even the biggest empires of the past hadn’t taken a perspective on the world as a whole. Enabled by colonialism, European philosophers in the 18th century were faced with a new task: to come up with a framework for a unified history of thought that included peoples from all the continents.
Consider any great philosopher from anywhere in the world prior to the modern period. Be they Chinese, Egyptian or Roman, for them parts of the globe were simply shrouded in darkness, as if they did not exist. As great philosophers they were usually part of great empires, which meant they knew their share of diverse traditions. But still they didn’t think about humanity as a whole. The perspective of the world as the planet, which is so obvious to us now, only first arose during the Western Enlightenment.
My 25 year old self burned with indignation and disappointment at how Kant could be so callous in his dismissal of non-European philosophies. But I would now say to my former self: “Don’t be too harsh on Kant and his contemporaries. They were very wrong about the global history of philosophy, but they were also the very first to take baby steps in that directions. They were the first truly global philosophers. None of the great philosophers before then confronted such a task. If history had been different and global colonialism had started in China, India or the Middle East, then Mencius, Shankara or Avicenna might have made similar errors.”
Dismissing the very idea of non-European philosophy was a way for philosophers like Hume, Kant and Hegel to wrap their mind around the idea of a truly global philosophy; to make it more manageable. When Kant writes, “Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient…Their teacher Confucius teaches…nothing outside a moral doctrine designed for princes,” he was in effect saying that European philosophy is already global philosophy. That whatever he needs to know to develop a comprehensive history of philosophy is available to him from his own contingent tradition.
Calling this “racism” obscures the deeper issue, which is a kind of intellectual juvenility. It is how the world looks to a young child: that his home is the world. The child, entirely dependent on his parents, has a hard time conceiving that his parents are not at the cutting edge of the world. It is only through the struggles of becoming an adult that he embraces the limitations of his upbringing and faces the challenges of developing a broader perspective.
In the famous beginning to his “What is Enlightenment?” Kant wrote:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
Kant affirmed the racialized philosophical hierarchy because on the topic of global philosophy he hadn’t “emerged from his self-imposed immaturity.” He assumed that the history of philosophy he knew was sufficient. When confronted with reports of intellectual traditions from distant continents, Kant imposed onto the data the framework he uncritically believed.
This is entirely compatible with Kant being a philosophical genius. When it comes to the topics of nature and normativity, science and humanity, many of us are still adolescents growing into the paths of maturity explored by Kant. Like a father who is bold and brave on some things, but weak on other things, Kant was a giant of theoretical and moral philosophy, even as he was still a child when it came to global philosophy.
The choice isn’t whether to embrace Kant due to his genius or to ditch him due to his juvenile views on global philosophy. Maturity requires us to learn from Kant where he is ahead of us and to move beyond him where he is behind us.
Seeing Kant’s history of philosophy only through the prism of racism fosters the illusion that protesting the racism is sufficient. As if removing all vestiges of racism within ourselves will make the proper framework for global philosophy obvious. This is just not true. Any more than loving everyone will solve global warming, or finding a cure for cancer means just giving cancer patients more love. At root developing a framework for global philosophy is a deep, challenging intellectual issue, which requires ingenuity to think through the difficult problems.
To move beyond Kant on global philosophy, we can’t get stuck moralizing about racism. That’s the easy part. The harder part is learning about different traditions and confronting the hard challenges of bringing them into dialogue with each other.