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  • Kant and Colonialism ed. by Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi
  • Howard Williams
Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi, editors. Kant and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, Pp. xii + 255. Cloth, $74.00.

Kant’s thinking went through a consistent process of evolution. Even when he returned to the same topic he never precisely covers the same ground in the identical way. Most of what he published is original in this sense. We see his mind at work rather than a mind that is already made up. This leads to a variety of understandings (and misunderstandings) of his oeuvre. The present collection provides evidence of the complexity, diversity and evolving [End Page 340] nature of Kant’s thinking. He tackles the problems of race and colonialism at various stages of his philosophical career. Each stage evinces a slightly different hue to his thinking. Kant can hardly escape the criticism that his thinking is Eurocentric. Indeed there is no sign that Kant would wish to avoid the accusation were it even to occur to him. He thought that it was both inevitable and desirable that the European form of civil society should extend to the rest of the globe. Kant was not to blame for colonialism, but like all Europeans (and those of European descent) he was implicated in its wrongs.

This lively collection seeks to discover to what extent these wrongs can be mitigated and possibly made right, largely from within a Kantian perspective. Through careful analysis of Kant’s writings, the authors seek to demonstrate the extent to which Kant shared the mindset of the ascendant European colonizers and to what extent he is critical of it. Pauline Kleingeld shows that the later Kant (of his 1790s “Doctrine of Right” and “Perpetual Peace”) makes radical criticisms that thoroughly contradict his earlier unguarded remarks on race (perhaps whilst still under the influence of Hume). Kant’s thinking on colonialism was riven by a tension that we find in all his political writings between the aspiration to see all the transactions of the human race being guided by right and his realization that from the “crooked timber” of humanity, little progress might be expected. The human race seems destined only to learn the hard way through its own failures. Lea Ypi explores the problems that arise from this tension in Kant’s understanding of the human species and seeks to show how arguments first developed in the Critique of Judgement (1790) play a key part in the position that Kant later adopts. Peace and right have somehow to emerge (and be helped to emerge by wise politicians) from the woeful, exploitative conduct of the human race. Peter Niesen and Arthur Ripstein offer exemplary close readings of Kant’s 1790s texts on politics and right to show how replete Kant’s legal thinking is with starting-points for profound reflection on the colonial experience. They are also insightful on Kant’s theory of war—a phenomenon that often accompanied the arrival of colonialism. Ripstein is in no doubt that Kant regards colonialism as wrong (despite any advantages that may accrue from the workings of historical dialectic that may see the underdogs eventually becoming masters) on three grounds. The initial colonial conquest is wrong, as is the inferior status to which the subject people is relegated and “the ways in which colonial rule is typically carried out” are also wrong (168). Niesen’s thoughtful essay on restorative justice neatly proves how Kant’s juridical writings can be deployed to provide valuable insights into how the unfair consequences of colonial occupation and exploitation may partially and gradually be diminished. Even if the former colonial powers, under a fully functioning system of international law, provide support in bringing about this end, it is highly unlikely, as Niesen points out, that Kant would believe the “stain of injustice” that had been caused by the original act of occupation would be removed.

Sankar Muthu contributes an excellent chapter rehearsing his notable efforts to defend the Enlightenment from a charge of full complicity with racism; and Anthony Padgen sets the stage for a discussion of the main issues in a balanced account of the legal and moral...


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pp. 340-341
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