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  • Kant’s Aesthetic CategoriesRace in the Critique of Judgment
  • John Hoffmann (bio)

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No major philosopher is more closely tied to the fabrication of human races than Immanuel Kant, and given his status as a champion of universal human dignity, Kant’s racial essentialism has puzzled his defenders and inspired critics to question the authenticity of Kant’s moral commitments.1 This divergence in Kant’s philosophy between essential anthropological categories and universalist practical philosophy has in turn acted as a proxy for a broader problem in the history of ideas: how to explain the contradiction between the egalitarian aspirations of the Enlightenment project, where equal moral and political standing was imputed to each individual, and theories that naturalized the interests of one group over others and justified practices of subjugation that had been inherited from preexisting distributions of power. Whether or not Kant qualifies as the “inventor” of the concept of a human race, as Robert Bernasconi has controversially alleged, the effects of Kant’s intervention in the discourse on human difference are still being felt, most recently in Irene Tucker’s attempt to leverage Kantian anthropology against poststructuralist theories of race.2

What has been left out of the debate on Kant’s place in eighteenth-century race theory are the fundamental differences he ascribes to human appearances in “On the Ideal of Beauty,” §17 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).3 To understand Kant’s stance on race following the critical turn, the watershed marked by the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, this essay will situate Kant’s racialized ideal of beauty with respect to his anthropology. It is important to note that Kant’s thoughts about race during the critical period were fluid.4 Pauline Kleingeld has shown that sometime in the early 1790s, Kant executed a substantial reevaluation of his views on both race and colonialism, bringing those views into alignment with his cosmopolitanism and shedding the odious attitudes he had long held regarding the “intellectual and agential characteristics” of nonwhite races, along with his commitment to a racial hierarchy.5 By the end of the 1790s, Kant had settled on what Kleingeld deems a “purely physiological concept” of race, a concept shorn of moral determinants and confirmed by explicit public condemnations of both slavery and colonial exploitation.6

But if Kant jettisoned his views on the inferiority of nonwhite races in light of universalist moral considerations, that is in part because he discovered a more powerful apparatus for expressing essential differences between races in §17 of the “Analytic of the Beautiful.” This essay argues that the aesthetic framework of §17, specifically the role played by the “shape” (Gestalt) of human appearance, serves as a more potent vehicle for Kant’s essentialist theory of race, as well as for aspects of his racism, than the biological criteria that govern his anthropological definition of race. I begin by laying out how race functions in Kant’s aesthetics through the concept of the “normal idea,” which Kant asserts is a standard that authorizes the aesthetic judgment of individuals as belonging to a “species,” as well as a physiological measure that defines the shape of the ideal of beauty. After resolving an ambiguity between Kant’s aesthetic philosophy and his anthropology regarding the meaning of the all-important term “species,” I describe the influence of Kant’s teleological natural philosophy on his theory of the ideal of beauty as it pertains to the purposiveness of racial appearance. Finally, I claim [End Page 55] that the racialized aesthetics from §17 underlies Kant’s last published statement on race from Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (APPV), which means that Kant’s final position on the question of racial difference treats race as an aesthetic, not “purely physiological,” concept.

The representativeness of Kant’s thought for the Enlightenment program as a whole has not been restricted to the tension between his moral and natural philosophy; his philosophy of art has also been called to account for general problems of the period. For Simon Gikandi, who has illustrated the entwinement of race and aesthetics in the eighteenth century by tracing...