- Should We Take Kant Literally? On Alleged Racism in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime
Kant’s annotation, inObservationson the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, of a story about a black carpenter is by now notorious, and so I should like to study the anecdote in its context, stylistically within the text and culturally within contemporary ideas.1 The passage runs as follows:
Of course, Father Labat reports that a Negro carpenter, whom he reproached for haughty treatment toward his wives, answered: “You whites are indeed fools, for first you make great concessions to your wives, and afterward you complain when they drive you mad.” And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid(Ak 2: 254–55).2
In Kant and Cosmopolitanism Pauline Kleingeld claims that in exegesis the onus of proof is on anyone who wishes to put forward a nonliteral reading rather than a literal reading: “the burden of proof here is on those who defend a non-literal reading” (p. 98n13). Her claim is made in the wake of Béatrice Longuenesse querying whether another remark by Kant should be taken nonliterally: that Europe would probably eventually legislate for all other parts of the world, a remark made in his “Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan perspective” (Ak 8: 29).3 Kleingeld’s claim about literalism underpins a major thesis that Kant “radically changed his view” about race (Kleingeld, pp. 116–17). [End Page 542] She thinks that in early work he was racist, but that this changes in his later writings. In support, she cites the early Observations of 1764, saying: “One of the most notorious examples is his remark . . . that the fact that a Negro carpenter was black from head to toe clearly proved that what he said was stupid” (Kleingeld, p. 96).
My contention is that the punchline in the anecdote related by Kant implies: “if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.” Manfred Kühn comments in passing on the Observations: “To be sure, there is irony in some of these passages.” Susan Shell also sees irony, suggesting, “Kant’s argument, in that essay, is beset by a too-often-neglected irony: the words of an African whom Kant notoriously cites not only belie the ‘cowardice’ that Kant attributes to all Africans, but threaten to expose the tenuousness, in Kant’s own mind, of a claim crucial to his thesis as a whole—namely, that European women deserve the reverence that is paid to them.” Shell also suggests that with a celibate priest telling and in turn being told how to relate to women, Kant introduces further irony.4 However, Robert Bernasconi perceives a racist reading, and he refers us to discussion by Ronald Judy, which I should now like to take up.5
An essential characteristic of parody is that it does parallel style and content. The punchline following “but in short” is a comedic response to Hume, whose views, as Judy points out, Kant paraphrased.6 For Judy, in the “assessment of the Negroes of Africa Kant gives us almost a verbatim resume of Hume’s argument that ‘Negroes [are] naturally inferior to the Whites’” (Judy, p. 312n12). Kant introduces Hume’s challenge with: “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.” Judy equates this with having no feeling. Kant’s introduction to his paraphrase is reminiscent of earlier remarks about the Dutch, in which, concerning the experience of the beautiful and sublime, he says: “Holland can be regarded as the land where this finer taste is fairly unnoticeable” (Ak 2: 243), and “The Dutchman . . . has little feeling for what in a finer understanding is beautiful or sublime” (Ak 2: 248). Kant’s paraphrase continues: “Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them...