Philosophy Weekend: Why Immanuel Kant is Controversial in 2013

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We don't get many philosophy-related sound bites in our public news cycle, so the story of a guy who got shot in an argument over Immanuel Kant that rippled through the likes of The Guardian, ABC News and Time last week was a notable event. It's revealing, though, that these news outlets only played the story for laughs.

A person got shot over Immanuel Kant? What a joke. It's as if a fight broke out over gang signs at a Beethoven festival -- as if somebody got offended by the nudity in a Rubens painting. Could the ideology of an 18th century Prussian philosopher really matter to anyone today?

These news outlets missed their story. In fact, Kant has been newly controversial in certain circles, and it's a disappointing sign that our mass media is so out of touch with common thought that these major outlets find the idea of arguing over Kant so quaint.

I was knocked out about two years ago when I first heard Immanuel Kant's name invoked during a spirited debate on a conservative talk radio show that I was idly spying on (though I'm a proud liberal, I occasionally enjoy listening to folks like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on my car radio to help me track what the opposition is up to). I don't remember whose radio show I was listening to, but it was probably Rush, and there was a woman on the phone describing her conservative principles. Out of nowhere, she said something that nearly made me swerve into another lane. "I can't stand that relativism stuff, that Immanuel Kant stuff," she declared.

(Swerve). What? Immanuel Kant is being discussed on Rush Limbaugh?

Indeed, I gradually discovered, the great philosopher's name has been brought back into currency in ideological conservative circles. Some of this, I realized, is due to Ayn Rand's steadily growing influence. Ayn Rand attacked Kant directly and often in her books and articles about philosophy, referring to him as "the man who closed the door of philosophy to reason". Modern conservatism's direct critique of Kant is not necessarily based on an acceptance of Rand's Objectivism, but it does seem likely that the trend to consider Immanuel Kant's philosophy controversial (or even, in Ayn Rand's point of view, toxic) began with Rand's writings.

I have no idea whether or not the Kantian shooting described in the news blurbs quoted above had anything to do with American conservatism or Randian Objectivism -- but I do think that our news establishment should try to be more tuned in with what people on the street are saying about philosophers like Immanual Kant than the goofy articles above ("You Kant Say That", groans Time magazine) indicate they currently are. If people on the street and on talk radio want to debate the value of Immanuel Kant's influence on the progress of human thought, why shouldn't we take that challenge seriously, and have that debate?

Well, I'm game. I'm not particularly a Kantian -- I'm much more of a Wittgenstenian, or a Jamesian -- but I certainly reject the idea that Kant is a toxic influence in any way. He was a major figure -- one of the all-time greats of western thought, and I think an in-depth discussion about his influence could be rewarding in many ways.

So, I'm going to spend the next few days catching up on the works of the great bard of Konigsberg -- I studied him a lot in college, but could use a refresher -- and I'll plan to spend next weekend's blog post on a thorough summary of Kantian philosophy's position in the world in 2013.

Stay tuned, and feel free to browse through the Critique of Pure Reason yourself if you get a chance. Let's debate this guy's ideas and see what we can figure out. We should be able to do this without anybody getting shot.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: A Statue of Immanuel Kant. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Jonathan Franzen Channels Karl Kraus.
8 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Why Immanuel Kant is Controversial in 2013"

by Baroque on

It's pretty hilarious that that woman you heard on the radio associated Kant with "that relativism stuff," since his work was geared towards establishing morality as universal, categorical, objective, non-relative...

by Levi Asher on

Hi Baroque -- yeah, I found the idea of Kant as a relativist startling at first -- but let's take a step back from our preconceptions and give this (increasingly popular) idea about Kant its due.

Kant is often described as the philosopher who resolved the standoff between the continental rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) and the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). His philosophy found a synthesis between the idealistic pure reason of the rationalists and the skeptical relativism of the empiricists. To those of us who understand Kant in this way, he cannot be described as a relativist because he represented a turning away from the more extreme relativism of Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

However, the fact that Kant was less of a relativist than the British empiricists does not mean he was not a relativist at all. If you consider that Ayn Rand's objectivism represents a modern return to pure rationalism (a la Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), you can see that Kant's synthesis of rationalism and empiricism (that is, between anti-relativism and relativism) is a step towards relativism.

But then, one may ask, why should conservatives single out Kant as a relativist when other philosophers such as Hume were more extreme relativists? This too makes some sense when you consider that Kant's reputation among academic philosophers is greater than that of, say, David Hume. Because Kant is so notable for his "compromise" between rationalism and relativism, he can be seen by rationalists as a standard-bearer for relativism. It all depends on where you view him from.

Just to be clear: of course, I don't agree with the Randian/conservative critique of Kant. However, I do believe this critique has enough validity and sense to be taken seriously by those who disagree. The idea deserves to be taken seriously enough to be seriously refuted.

by TKG on

I know little about philosophy. The only thing I know about Immanuel Kant is that he was a real pissant.

Yet, I know what reason, rationality and empiricism are, so when I read something like this:

"His philosophy found a synthesis between the idealistic pure reason of the rationalists and the skeptical relativism of the empiricists."

I realize there must be jargon because rationalism and empiricism are not dichotomous and in fact empiricism is a tool of rationalism.

So what are you talking about?

I really believe there are times when words and language serve to disclarify and confuse more than clarify.

by Levi Asher on

Hi TKG -- happy to clarify. I am talking about the progression of European (also called "Western") philosophy as it's been taught in college philosophy departments for years. The progression in its most basic and familiar form goes like this:

First, there were the Continental Rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz. They believed that religious belief could be proved through the application of reason alone -- thus, they are called Rationalists.

Then, there were the British Empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, Hume. They argued that we know about truth only by inference through experience -- that is, through empirical evidence. Since empirical evidence can only indicate or suggest truths but cannot prove truths, these philosophers argued that religious belief can never be proven through the application of reason alone.

Immanuel Kant is considered the culminating philosopher in this progression, as he studied both arguments and produced a model of knowledge that showed how reason and experience work together to produce belief.

This is a simplistic explanation (I plan to write about this more in depth next weekend) but I hope this clears up my use of the terms "rationalism" and "empiricism". As used in the familiar progression of modern European philosophy, the terms "empiricism" and "rationalism" are meant to connote opposing schools of thought.

by Michael.Norris on

cogito ergo sum - rationalism
show me the money - empiricism

by Bill_Ectric on

I think it's good that these philosophers are being discussed in the media. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does say that Kant "synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism," so I think Levi is on the right track.

by Jeff the Nondeo... on

Kant's view of duty is profound and can show us the way to ending the insanity of industrial civilization.

by pivotrooky on

Well, you're absolutely right. If man accepted Kant's view of duty there would certainly be no more industrial civilization. There wouldn't be any sort of civilization. If anybody wants to know why Ayn Rand was so against Kant, read Explaining Postmodernism, by Stephen Hicks.

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