Reviewed by
Feminist Interpretations of Immanuel Kant. Edited by Robin May Schott. University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 1997.

Robin Schott’s recent anthology, Feminist Interpretations of Immanuel Kant (1997), brings together successfully analytic and continental feminist appropriations and critiques of Immanuel Kant. Only six of the sixteen articles are reprints. The book includes many new voices who engage productively with the thought of established Kantian scholars, such as Barbara Herman and Onora O’Neill. The section headings are mapped along the Kantian division [End Page 169] of philosophy into rationality, ethics and aesthetics, and politics; Schott has also included a section on theories of nature and human nature, which contains an article on ecofeminism and two articles on psychoanalytical Auseinandersetzungen (critical engagement) with Kant.

What makes this anthology so lively, so enriching, is Schott’s charge, to which a majority of the articles seem to respond, to understand that one cannot simply step outside of the Enlightenment project and attempt to submit Kant’s philosophy to abstract negation, as some postmodern theorists advocate; rather, feminist philosophers have to “live the practical contradictions” (Schott 1997, 333) by using the language they have inherited from this tradition to envision a feminist, nonoppressive, nonviolent encounter with others and with the environment. Such a proposal can be more life-affirming than it seems: Marcia Baron points out quite shrewdly that Kant’s philosophy has more progressive, egalitarian elements than Hume or Aristotle—both of whom are committed to uphold the status quo. Kant, on the other hand, “provides resources for social change” (Schott 1997, 148); Herta Nagl-Docekal echoes such a view in her critical discussion of care ethics.

The issue of bracketing comes up over and over again in the study of Western thought; for example, can we dismiss mere anthropological musings or political side steps to save a Kant, a Hegel, a Heidegger from himself? In this collection the question almost gains quantitative import: How much do we need to take out of the Kantian opus to save his moral epistemology for feminist encounters? I merely wish to raise a caveat, that perhaps one ought to take seriously the arrogance of Heidegger’s dictum “He who thinks greatly, must err greatly,” with which he justified his Nazi past after 1945.

Several contributors use the strategy of ideology critique rather than bracketing. In her discussion of the sensus communis of Kant’s The Critique of Judgment (1964), Kim Hall highlights the sexist and racist implications of this judgment of taste. Hannelore Schröder points to the glaring contradictions in Kant’s political discussion of the marriage or “sexual” contract, which shows his patriarchal and bourgeois bias. Annette Baier finds Kantian insistence on individualism unhelpful in theorizing about collective or shared responsibility. Sarah Kofman uses psychoanalytic tools to expose Kant’s neurotic fear of women, and she notes that in marriage, “[i]n this economy of respect, there are . . . no benefits without loss, and these are not of the same nature for the two sexes” (Schott 1997, 360). Finally, Cornelia Klinger critiques how Jean-François Lyotard extends the Kantian logic of normative dualism with respect to discussions of the sublime and beautiful.

Other contributors argue for a critical revisioning of moral agency (Jean Rumsey), of autonomy (Jane Kneller), of sensibility (Marcia Moen), and of a psychoanalytical employment of the categorical imperative (Monique David Ménard).

Two contributors urge that feminist scholarship can benefit greatly from a [End Page 170] novel look into Kant’s work. Adrian Piper suggests that the notion of personhood developed in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1965) gives important epistemic and ethical strategies for understanding xenophobia and “correcting” for it. Holly Wilson rejects the standard feminist position that Kant advocates normative dualism and argues instead that ecofeminists ought to look at Kant’s sensible discussion of nature and the role of women from his pre-critical writings, such as Universal Natural History and the Theory of the Heavens, to his post-critical work Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

What remains somewhat undertheorized is the problem of selfhood. Most contributors seem to leave intact Kant’s notion of the stable, unified, coherent subject who can make rational decisions on her own, following rules and acting according to duty. I miss a critical discussion of how a disciplinary “care of the self” can be resisted and how Kantian agency can aid our understanding of social practices of resistance and cooperation (see Cutrofello 1994). Adrian Piper perhaps anticipates this concern yet sidesteps the issue by suggesting that her account might just work within a western, culturally specific context. Sally Sedgwick raises important criticisms of the moral self’s autonomous agency and asceticism from a care ethics perspective, yet she does not dwell on the problematical account of a unified subject position. Schott’s call for favoring heteronomous discourse practice over the Kantian primacy of the autonomous moral self does not alleviate the concern about how the self does not just mimetically reproduce its own commands in a monological fashion. Taking seriously the intersubjectively posited self, as many feminists in this collection do, still requires a radical recasting of the modern theory of the self and agency. To put it differently, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s query about whether the subaltern subject can indeed speak (and be heard) is evaded, I think, by a move to expand unproblematically the Enlightenment project.

Overall, this collection is an excellent contribution to the “Re-Reading the Canon” series, edited by Nancy Tuana. Schott’s introduction is superb: she situates the overlapping feminist themes discussed by the contributors; furthermore, she promises that the collection “does not seek to decide the case for or against Kant” (1997, 16). A wide range of topics are addressed with respect to most of Kant’s work, and it ought to be of interest to feminist scholars who seek a critical encounter with Kantian epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. I would recommend this book for upper-level seminars on Kant and on feminist philosophy.

Mechthild Nagel

Mechthild Nagel teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She publishes on aesthetics and poststructuralist theories and is author of Masking the Abject in Philosophical Discourse: Play from Homer to Hegel and co-editor of Race, Class and Community Identity, both forthcoming with Humanity Books. (mechthild.nagel@mankato.msus.edu)

Footnotes

* Permission to reprint a book review from this selection may be obtained only from the author.

References

Cutrofello, Andrew. 1994. Discipline and critique: Kant, poststructuralism, and the problem of resistance. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1964. The critique of judgment. Trans. James Creed Meredith. 1928. Reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
———. 1965. Critique of pure reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s.
———. 1978. Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view. Trans. Victor Lyle Dowdell. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
———. 1981. Universal natural history and theory of the heavens. Trans. Stanley L. Jaki. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.