Is Kant an irredeemable racist?

by Andrew Packman

On Carter’s reading, the social order that arose from Kant’s philosophy was racist because Kant’s philosophy was racist. But does Carter get Kant right?

In fairness to Kant, his stated hope was that by overcoming the prejudices and myopia of our local cultural upbringing, a cosmopolitan social order based on respect and dignity for every person regardless of race might come into being. In his critical works, distinctions among particular races and religions are, to my knowledge, largely absent. Rather than pitting one race against the other, Kant seems much more interested to highlight reason as a truly universal, human capacity and to present rational self-legislation as humanity’s best hope of gaining some critical distance from our culturally transmitted prejudices.

And presumably, by Kant’s own lights, white supremacy itself would be just such a prejudice that could not withstand the searing critique of reason.

This is not to excuse Kant’s abhorrent personal views on race, and neither is it to say that he was not a Christian supercessionist. On both points, Carter’s argument is convincing. But it is to say that many contemporary interpreters of Kant would not recognize him in Carter’s interpretation. In particular, they would question Carter’s decision to use Kant’s pre-critical and unpublished material as the hermeneutic key for interpreting the rest of his corpus. And here, I think, they would have a point.

With that said, we should take very seriously Carter’s contention that the social order that emerged from Kant’s thought was one that blindly asserted European cultural norms to be universal. This is certainly true in practice, even if not in theory. And, in turn, we should worry about the way such a social order denigrates particular cultures as deficient, irrational, and immoral.

In other words, while Carter’s reading of Kant might be overstated, his insights continue to edify by raising our suspicions of any theology that detaches Jesus from his cultural and religious roots or that suggests that our redemption is to be found in the total overcoming of our particular, culturally inflected identities.

Return to Andrew’s main post The Heresy of Whiteness

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