Immanuel Kant’s Critical Race Theory
Immanuel Kant is in the news today following the discovery that he basically invented critical race theory.
The news was reported in The Washington Post by columnist Marc A. Thiessen:
Critical race theory… is a subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. It was a response to — and rejection of — the principles of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason on which the American republic was founded.
Thiessen gave credit for the discovery to an administrator at
the University of Princeton’s Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, historian Allen Guelzo, linking to a transcript of a discussion published by the American Enterprise Institute, in which Guelzo says:
Critical race theory is a subset of critical theory, which has got long roots in Western philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. Kant lived at the end of a century known as the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, but he feared that experience had shown that reason was inadequate to give shape to our lives. There had to be a way of knowing things that went beyond reason, and for him that meant developing a theory of being critical of reason, hence critical theory. The problem was that critical theory got away…
The full passage is reproduced below:
Kant scholars, upon reading Guelzo’s commentary, all died.
For further information, see this.
Some of this might come back down to the fact that a lot of conservatives and libertarians read (and adore) Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand was extremely, extraordinarily hostile to Kant. For Rand, Kant was the beginning of everything that was wrong with philosophy and civilization in general (and so we must return to Aristotle who got everything right). She completely misunderstands Kant of course, but the damage has been done. The quote sounds very much like something Rand herself would say.Report
Buckley in God and Man at Yale writes, “I am not forgetting that no honest or fruitful course in philosophy can be taught without readings from some of the famous and brilliant skeptical philosophers of the post-Enlightenment. The student must be introduced to Hume, Kant, Russell et al.”
Though I have no idea if there’s a tradition of conservative misreadings of Kant or if each generation has to misread him again on their own.Report
I guess it’s official that we don’t need philosophy education. Why learn or read anything if you can just take wild guesses and still get published in WaPo or hold a directorship at Princeton?Report
This is kind of like that Simpsons episode, where Bart presents a book report in class, and it’s obvious that he didn’t read book and all he says is just based on the cover of the book.Report
Yes. This is spot on.
There was this philosopher named Kant and he, uh, wanted to offer a critique of reason. Pure reason that is. He decided to critique pure reason in, uh, the 1780s and his critique is now brought to us by the good people at Cambridge University Press. In conclusion, on the Guelzo-scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, one being the lowest, and five being average, I give it a one. Any questions? Report
Ah, yes. I think that’s an instance of bullshit, according to Frankfurt’s analysis.Report
Not just Kant scholars, but literally anyone who has ever even glanced at Kant in passing. FFS.Report
Yeah, I died. In fact, I died more and morer [sic] as the paragraph went on.Report
I’m delighted this happened on a Friday and now I can keep reading jokes instead of applying for jobs.Report
Now the Progressive Left and the Radical Right can agree on something: that Kant has to go.Report
Guelzo should stick to the Civil War and related matters.
Some people have apparently been misled by the title of The Critique of Pure Reason and have never bothered to acquaint themselves with even basic info about what Kant actually wrote and thought. I have heard a (now retired) professor, not a philosopher, say something similar to what Guelzo said.
The broader idea that critical race theory is a subset of critical theory, while not as bonkers as the Kant remark, is also questionable, I think, though I might be wrong about that.Report
I think you are correct. There’s a connection thread in the history of ideas but it’s not a subset. The scary thing is that you could put considerable effort into explaining why these claims about Kant are 180 degrees incorrect and fully “bonkers” – an accurate technical term here – but you would find many cold and unreceptive audiences who simply will not care if the claim is false. Truth is not their goal anyway.Report
Yeah maybe, but not even. He says in the longer quote posted here that this tradition of “critical theory” led to Jim Crow. I am very dubious about the depth of his historical knowledge concerning the Civil War.Report
Oops. I skimmed the transcript and died even morerer. 0_oReport
This guy has been saying the same thing for a while now – at least for several months. This is also why I beseech those of you who don’t understand why some of your colleagues in the discipline are more fearful of the “cancel culture” coming from the right than from the left: many of us live in places where it is a reasonable possibility that we will face calls to ban the teaching of Kant in our classes because of his origination of CRT. I am not even slightly joking.Report
I wouldn’t be surprised if there happens to be a campaign trying to ban philosophy in general because it might, oh you know, corrupt the youth. One of the few classes that high school students are exposed to Western philosophy/philosophers (Enlightenment era) is through AP European History class. Tom Richey, a high school AP European History teacher teaches Kant, Hume, Locke, etc. on Youtube. He might be worried as with other high school teachers.
I guess folks who are anti-CRT in the academy didn’t see this unintended consequence happening did they?Report
In my high school European history class we did read Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” (and took his “Sapere aude” as our class motto) and also read Machiavelli and used some vulgar Hegelian thought in trying to understand history as more than a string of dates and names. It was my first experience with philosophy. It would be a shame if such things did get banned, but no more stupid than many other things banned or facing censure lately.Report
This is spot on and so obvious I can’t believe it even needs to be said. I have some personal experience with this. Even six or seven years ago when I worked at the University of Tennessee I know that many of us who worked as lecturers were absolutely terrified of somehow ending up in the sights of some right wing media figure like Carlson, Dreher, or Thiessen and then having some Tea Party type in the state legislature come after us to make his name. It didn’t help that we all knew that most of the TT faculty would throw us under the bus without a second though if that were to happen. I’m not proud to say it but I crept pretty carefully around questions of race and racism in my applied ethics classes when I had that job. And there’s an asymmetry here. It’s much more common to find Republican legislators calling for faculty to get fired or muzzled than Democratic ones and the Democrats who might do that are fringe figures in their party. We should also keep in mind that there’s a huge difference between ending up in the sights of someone whose power comes from being big in say philosophy Twitter and can make people say mean things about you or embarrass you and someone whose power comes from the fact they can literally defund your job if they want to. There are some really nasty people in philosophy and other academic fields who are generally of a hard left bent and really do have a near Stalinist desire to punish those who drift from what they see as proper political positions (or I suspect they just have a general desire to hurt others with this being a convenient way of justifying doing so to themselves and others). But as much as they’d like to do harm those who don’t conform to their political ideology they really don’t have too much power to do so. Conservative legislators, big donors, and TV hosts do have serious power to harm those whose ideas don’t fit with their ideology on the other hand. That structural fact and not the level of personal malice or vice is what makes the right much more of a threat to academic freedom than the left.Report
When I taught in the University System of Georgia, state Rep. Emory Dunahoo went on a witch hunt against anyone teaching about race, gender, oppression, etc. (https://www.ajc.com/education/ga-lawmakers-white-privilege-teaching-inquiry-sparks-anger-support/HCUEVLVXZFGEFOXLYMALH3GG5M/). Our admin’s response was literally to do a CTRL-F search on syllabi for a few key words. They had earlier forced us to submit our syllabi to a centralized syllabus database, so they had no trouble carrying out the search. Admin then delivered the state legislature a list of every course that turned up the search terms. Fortunately for me, I did not use the word “privilege” once in my syllabus, which meant that I was spared. But if admin had searched for “critical,” I would have been in hot water. Laura, I can’t agree with you more.Report
I don’t really understand what the significance is of working out whether we should be more fearful of right-wing or left-wing cancel culture. I’m concerned about both, and I think they feed each other to some extent. (But there’s relatively little to discuss about right-wing cancel culture on a site like DN because pretty much everyone agrees it exists and it’s bad, whereas both the existence and the badness of left-wing cancel culture is disputed here.)Report
Imagine you went to a doctor and she told you she took dandruff and malignant melanomas equally seriously and really didn’t understand the significance of trying to understand why anyone should be more fearful of melanoma than dandruff. I for one would fine a new doctor as soon as possible. For one thing, merely saying that would be a pretty strong indicator that the doctor really didn’t know what she was talking about. But beyond that it would be an even better indicator that she had no idea where she should focus her time, attention, and concern. Or to take an example that’s perhaps closer to the phenomenon in question: Pedestrians are hit and injured by careless bicyclists and cars, but it would be crazy to say that a pedestrian should fear bicyclists and cars equally or even that there’s no good reason to decide which a pedestrian should fear more. Now imagine that some rich bigwig funded a political initiative supposedly focused on pedestrian safety which focused solely on the dangers of bicycles to pedestrians and ignored cars entirely. I think we’d all rightly suspect that he’s using supposed concern for pedestrians as a cover for a hidden agenda that’s more about being against bicycles (or perhaps for cars) than it is about concern for pedestrian safety. So there’s every reason to work out whether the right or the left is a bigger threat to academic freedom. I say the right is cancer and the left dandruff here. I might be wrong but I’d like to see some hard evidence or heck even some anecdotal evidence beyond this “There’s bad people on both sides!” rhetoric. I for one can’t think of a single effort by a Democratic legislature to dictate what colleges can teach or defund a college department or a single person whose career has been as thoroughly ruined by the left as say Salaita’s was by the right. The closest analog to Salaita is Stock and, while I wouldn’t minimize what she’s been through, the fact remains she has a plum position at this UATX whereas Salaita’s driving a bus. If you have examples of the left doing similar damage then please by all means share.
Also, I find talk of “cancel culture” by anyone trained in analytic philosophy, or honestly anyone with a college degree, just embarrassingly sloppy on so many levels. For one thing, as far as I can tell it just amounts to “Man, kids these days!” And the thing is there isn’t much real evidence that any of the groups who are blamed for “cancel culture” really do hold the attitudes it’s claimed they do. There’s that one Pew poll where millennials are more open to restrictions on offensive speech by the government than other groups (though still overwhelmingly opposed mind you!) that every right winger sites. But a Gallup poll that asked a similar question about restricting speech in colleges found millennials were actually more pro free speech in this context than other age groups. More importantly a lot of very different phenomena get blurred together. There’s a huge difference between arguing that a talk should be canceled and trying to get someone fired. And there’s a huge difference between both of those and say holding someone accountable for harassment. But I see all these treated as the same thing in these discussions. As someone whose self-censored out of fear of consequences I am worried about threats to academic freedom, and I do think academic freedom is threatened. Though I’m a lot more worried about adjuncts or lecturers who can’t teach as they feel they ought than I am about Peter Singer not getting a perch to pontificate about the value of different lives or Boghossian not being able to commit academic fraud with impunity. (For the record I do support allowing Singer to speak but I’m afraid I have to draw a line at giving people a carte blanche to falsify data or commit other forms of academic fraud). However, I believe that the threat to academic freedom is a complex phenomenon with multiple causes. If given some a bit more hard data I might even concede that “Kids these days!” is part of it. But I’d wager that adjunctification, the fragmentation of media, and the asymmetrical radicalization of our political parties have much more to do with it than those darn kids.
Anyway, I’ll stop threadjacking. But yeah what Guelzo said isn’t just wrong but embarrassingly stupid. I honestly can’t think of anything besides that old “Billy Madison” clip that’s at all an adequate response.Report
I find the threat of nuclear war much more concerning than right-wing *or* left-wing cancel culture; does that mean I should ignore both, and be suspicious of anyone who cares about or campaigns for academic freedom when they could be trying to alleviate the risks of great-power conflict?Report
I have two questions:
1) If nuclear war is more threatening (to academic freedom), then how much of your effort, time, and energy should be devoted towards addressing and critiquing it? And why?
2) If you were to distribute your commitments toward addressing threats to academic freedom, how would you arrange your commitments towards each threat/risk? What would it look like? And why?
Anybody may answer these questions. I’m very curious how people would go about dealing with this issue from a pragmatic/strategic perspective.Report
I suppose a nuclear war would reduce academic freedom, but that wasn’t actually the downside I had in mind…Report
Anyway since I’m pretty sure your response here will just be to rephrase your original claim with more snark and no actual evidence or argument I’ll quit wasting my time after this. But I will point out that this just ignores much of my point. There’s very little to no evidence that anything that deserves the name “cancel culture” exists. Pretty much by definition “culture” is a set of attitudes that some group of people actually holds, but on the whole our best methods for seeing whether or not the people who are supposed to hold the attitudes that characterize “cancel culture” (the darn kids, well educated white people) do actually hold them show that they don’t. (See here for yet another poll to that shows just this: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/11/young-people-college-grads-wokeness/620674/) So don’t dignify a fear of cancel culture with a comparison to nuclear war. Unless and until I’m given good evidence there is such a thing as “cancel culture” I’m going to put fearing cancel culture on the same level as fearing miasma or hexes. It’s not just silly but counterproductive since you’d have us waste our time and effort firing cannon balls through the air to clear the miasma or buying new and better magic charms rather than getting the level of poop in the drinking water down, killing the mosquitos, or rotating our crops.Report
I think he’s arguing that what you’re saying commits you to an untenable assymetry: when the issue right- vs. left-wing threats to academic freedom, it is suspicious to care more about the lesser threat (i.e. left-wing threat); but when the issue is threats to academic freedom vs. nuclear threats to the world, it’s *not* suspicious to care more about the lesser threat (i.e. the threats to academic freedom).
I think he concedes the point about the lesser of the threats to academicfreedom, but in his view, we need not be suspicious of those who care more about the lesser threat in each case.
Although he doesn’t directly address your point (concerning why it might be important to work out whether we should be more fearful of right- or left-wing cancel culture), I think he does more than rephrase with snark.Report
I think I did engage with your post, which mostly argues that left-wing threats to academic freedom are much less serious and prevalent than right-wing threats. Your reply seems to be arguing for something stronger, viz. that there isn’t any such thing as a left-wing threat to academic freedom (which in this context is what I mean by ‘left-wing cancel culture’). I don’t think that’s true but in any case it’s quite different from the original line of your previous response.
As for ‘dignify[ing] cancel culture with a comparison to nuclear war’: you miss the point (though Jen does not). I chose the example because I assumed it would be obvious to everyone that cancel culture (left-wing or right wing) is ridiculously minor relative to nuclear war. But I have essentially no influence on the causal factors that determine whether we have a nuclear war, and some (to be sure small) influence on the causes of academic-freedom threats, so it’s worth my time doing something about the latter even if it’s much less important than the former. And internal to that, there’s basically nothing I can do about right-wing cancel culture beyond condemning it and signing petitions and open letters*, whereas left-wing cancel culture is regularly contested in philosophy conversations, so that discussing it has some potential to move the needle.
To rephrase in terms of your own example: if I complain to my hairstylist that the product she has recommended is causing me dandruff, and she responds that I shouldn’t be worrying about dandruff because malignant melanomas are much more serious, I think I have grounds to complain even though in a technical sense she’s right.Report
Yet in the same terms of this analogy, in response to me saying, “aha, this is why I am so worried about melanoma”, you said, “I don’t get the importance of worrying about whether dandruff or melanoma is more threatening”. Okay, but I do.Report
I think it’s a bit more complex than you portray. The progressive (rather than left-wing – I find the progressive very much not left-wing) political culture is the ruling culture at many, many universities in US – by which I mean – it is pretty much the political stance adopted by administrations (in sync with many large corporations, like facebook or google or professional bodies) and exercised by them to surprisingly large extent (from exerting high pressure on hiring the candidates with just the right racial profile to financially supporting diversity projects and so on). This is not nothing – it’s palpable everywhere (for example, at my university we had several searches cancelled from above because the candidate chosen through the process turned out to be white – this I think does count as interfering with one’s employment/ability to sustain oneself; and so on). Many legislations are fully democratic and exercise similar power – for example, in California, state funds cannot be to travel to about 18 states now (so if you have a conference in FLorida or Texas, you cannot use research money the university gave you to travel there) based on the discriminatory laws in those states. And so on. So – is it less harmful than the “right wing” side of things? I have no idea, but the people who tell me it’s not are invariably progressive and invariably quite militant about it – they tell me about the right-wing embrace of violence while expressing, with casual tone, that they wish all those “you pick your category” (I heard TERFs and Trump supporters) would die. On the other hand, at most top universities, the right wing politics is a very minor player (unlike in society at large), so its effects pertain, more often, to things outside of academy. There, of course, the damage is considerable – but they are offered a lot of ammunition from the progressives or whatever. The Kant and CRT article might be ridiculous to us but it is precisely what it wants to be. And the fact that it is so heavily discussed – like here – that’s what it wants (the first lesson in mass media – attention counts, it matters little if negative or positive,as long as it’s big). By ridiculing it, we are giving it more credence in the eyes of those who are prone to take it seriously simply because they already find us untrustworthy. It’s of course absurd (I expect Critical Thinking classes will soon be on the chopping block since they are classes that are “critical of thinking” suspecting it to be too dangerous/unreliable) but absurdity has never stopped ideas from becoming policies.Report
How common is this sort of thing? If it’s not uncommon, I hope people are having conversations with students and advisees about what to expect, beyond gesturing at a prima facie good placement record, or hand waving at demographically cloaked placement rates for specific professors.Report
Hard to tell, I should think, given it’s probably illegal and so people aren’t going to admit to it.Report
How did you know the cancellation was based on race and not some other factors?Report
I should have replied to this:
“ I for one can’t think of … a single person whose career has been as thoroughly ruined by the left as say Salaita’s was by the right.”
At-least-arguable counter-examples (other than Kathleen Stock, whom you acknowledge): Bo Winegard, Noah Carl, Stephen Hsu, Colin Wright.
There are plenty of other examples of people whose careers were seriously harmed by the right, of course: Tommy Curry, Ward Churchill, Nathan Jun. It’s not a competition.Report
This is a bit of an understatement in Jun’s case. The right legit *destroyed* the man’s life, yet his case has been and continues to be completely ignored. If this *were* a competition he’d probably win, arguably for that reason alone. Imagine having something like that to you only to discover that no one gives a shit (except, perhaps, a handful of former students, as I am of Jun’s).Report
I intended ‘seriously harmed’ as ‘seriously harmed or worse’, but perhaps should have made that explicit.
I don’t think it’s quite correct that Jun’s case is being ‘completely ignored’ or that no-one cares about it (you are, after all, responding to a thread in which he is being explicitly called out as an example of people harmed by right-wing speech intolerance). He’s been mentioned in both of the last two DN threads about academic freedom (both by me in the first instance, as it happens); his case was sympathetically described in September on DN by Justin, with overwhelmingly positive response from commentators; Brian Leiter has had multiple highly supportive posts; the open letter protesting his treatment has hundreds of signatures including 100-odd philosophers and was publicized both on DN and on Leiter’s blog. There hasn’t been nearly as much *discussion* about his case as about others, but I think that’s just because there’s not much controversy: almost everyone agrees Jun was treated outrageously, whereas there’s lots of dispute as to whether (say) Kathleen Stock was.Report
I suppose what I meant is that his case hasn’t received much attention outside of philosophical circles–for example, among other (more or less high-profile) academics, civil libertarians, journalists, etc. The “Justice for Nathan Jun” campaign has been trying to generate interest among journalists for months without success–including those who write for pretty obvious outlets like the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. Unless I missed it there hasn’t been a single story in a major publication, whereas there have been several about Stock and Boghossian.Report
Oh, I see – that makes sense, and yes, I think that’s right. It looks as if the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed both had brief pieces on Jun in Summer/Fall 2020, but I don’t see anything since then, and it doesn’t seem to have made the mainstream news. Thanks for clarifying.Report
I wasn’t trying to work out “whether we should be more fearful of” one than the other – how did you infer this from my comment? I often hear colleagues suggest that the threat of cancel culture comes primarily from the left; they don’t understand why I see it differently. I directed my comment specifically at such persons, so they might know this is why some of us already have learned to be concerned about attacks on education from the right. I am asking that this experience not be disregarded, that’s all.Report
I take back my snide remarks about UATX. Princeton University is obviously not interested in pursuing the truth.Report
Concepts without citations are empty; citations without concepts are blind.Report
Of course, all of this is just a circus side-show to the genuinely important question of how antiracism is taught in American schools.Report
Here is Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Kant’s use of the word “Critique” in his titles. See Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Pg. 31.Report
“Critical race theory… is a subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. It was a response to — and rejection of — the principles of the Enlightenment…”
I guess that’s why the subtitle to Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” was “just some old bullshit, that’s what.” Right?Report
Please tell me this is an April’s Fool joke….Report
Another thing to keep in mind (if it makes any difference at this point) is that it wasn’t Kant who introduced the idea, or terminology of ‘critique’, into philosophy. The first uses of the term in philosophy may have been with Boureau-Desland’s Histoire critique de la philosophie (1737), and Johan Jacob Brucker’s much better known (at the time) Historia critica philosophiae (1742-44). Kant refers to Brucker’s work in his own Critique. But the work of both of these thinkers has fallen into obscurity, and so the term (whatever its meaning) has become associated with Kant.Report
“Kant scholars, upon reading Guelzo’s commentary, all died.” Hahahaha incredibleReport
….aaaand it just came up in the Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings!
“Re: Judge Jackson confirmation hearing. I’ve heard these wild claims before (“Kant rejected the Enlightenment” is bonkers), but the language she used here seemed very familiar. Then I remembered: it’s from that infamously terrible WaPo article from last November! 😕”