This essay on the exploration of Immanuel Kant’s writings on race will be comprised of two sections.
The first section will be a discussion on the definitions of Race Realism (noun – Racialist) and Racial Supremacy (noun – Racist). Both of these terms have been conflated and ‘tarred with the same brush’. For someone to say that they recognise differences between races is now a form of social-suicide – yet there is nothing that is ethically wrong with someone espousing their belief in a difference between races because it does not necessarily follow that they are claiming one races superiority over another. They are merely stating that there is a diversity between races and that one has a trait that they excel more naturally at than another. This is why I believe it is important to begin with somewhat of a brief history of the notion of race, it’s history and how the concept became what it is today as to put Immanuel Kant and his ideas into context. You cannot (properly) discuss Kant’s position in the history of racial studies without first extrapolating on what it is, where the ideas came from, and how we view race in the period this essay is being written.
The second section will be a discussion on Immanuel Kant’s racial views and the influence his work had on the most grievous movement in racial supremacy (to date): National Socialism. The analysis of Kant’s views will be mostly focused on interpretation from his own writing, with as little focus placed on secondary literature as possible.
The problem with writing about something of a historical period is that the writing itself is being done through the judgements of someone existing in a different place in a different time. Whether the writer is conscious of it or not, personal judgements are being made because the writer exists in an entirely different period of time and history; of a different cultural perspective; without a direct understanding or experience of the issue at hand. This is why I am choosing to focus on my own interpretation of his work in regard to his own views. For my analysis on his place in the history of racial studies I will of course use other sources.
There is a single, defining feature between the terms ‘racialist’ and ‘racist’ – supremacy.
A race realist is somebody who believes that there are differences between races, but not that one race is more superior to the other. They follow the field of ‘scientific racism’. Scientific racism has its roots in the history of Anthropology, as put by the controversial Italian philosopher and Traditionalist, Julius Evola (someone who was very much against scientific racism):
‘The term “Anthropology” originally signified the science of man in general, taken in his physical and spiritual completeness … But in the development of Western culture a gradual change of view came about. One was accustomed ever more to consider man, not as a privileged being in creation … understood above all on the basis of his origins and his supernatural essence [but purely as an animal species] Anthropology ended up taking on a new meaning: it was no longer the science of man as such, but of man as a being in nature, to whom it was possible to apply classificatory methods similar to those used in Zoology and Botany: Anthropology became a natural science of man.’ (italics added. Evola 2018, pg. xxiv).
As more of the Earth was gradually discovered and explored, more ‘subjects’ were collected and analysed (Bernasconi 2001). Behaviours of these groups were observed, data was collected, tests were run and skulls were measured. As time went by, and as knowledge on natural sciences grew with the drastic advances in technology, the scientific basis for differences between races was solidified and acknowledged. However, some people took the differences discovered in the various to mean something more than what they area, this is where racial supremacy came into being (as will be discussed in a moment). Where disparities were found and varying aptitudes were discovered, the discoveries were abused to justify the abuse and oppression of other peoples. Slavery was justified, experimental testing was justified and the ‘subhuman’ status was essentially (and in some cases; literally) written into law.
From the ancient Greeks to Immanuel Kant; Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 book ‘The Bell Curve’ and Kevin Macdonald’s Culture of Critique trilogy – race realists believe in the scientific differences between races that comes from the research originating in anthropological studies above – but don’t hold that one is inherently superior to another. They hold that these differences are legitimate; but reject the notion of supremacy or domination. The race realist position is a key component of the ‘Alt-Right’, Identarian, white/black/Asian nationalist movements that are rising throughout the West. Though one does not necessarily have to be a follower of these ideologies to recognise differences between races.
While we are all aware that scientific racism led to justifications of things such as slavery, this is only small part of the history of oppression and racial supremacy. The origins of racial supremacy do not lie in scientific observations. To try and keep this brief I will focus on only on the Hindu caste system, then briefly discuss from Kant up to Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler.
Racial supremacy has its origins not within science – or colonialism – but religion. Take the Indian caste system for example (Evola 1995), and appropriate example given the discussion will obviously be moving onto the National Socialism ideology which has its roots in the ‘Aryan Myth’. The Hindu caste system (Varna system) is comprised of four castes: Brahmins (High Caste), Kshatriyas (Warrior Caste), Vaishyas (working class equivalent) and finally the Shudra (literally called the ‘Untouchables’). Some may argue that the Indian caste system is purely a ‘social construct’, but if this is so, why would there be such an issue with the notion of breeding between castes for fear of tainting pure blood (Evola 1995)? There is no other way to describe an aversion of this kind, within Hinduism, Judaism and so-on than a concern for the ‘damaging’ of racial lineage. Whether it is biological or spiritual racism – or racialism – it is nonetheless clearly rooted in a racial belief.
It is from the Hindu-Aryan myth that Alfred Rosenberg helped shape a new racial supremacist ideology. Beginning with Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological discovery of the ruins of Troy (Clarke 1998) in which he uncovered numerous items bearing the notorious symbol, the Swastika, racial supremacist found grounds to grow again as an even more destructive force than it had been in the past.
“The extraordinary publicity surrounding Schliemann’s finds at Troy guaranteed a wide European audience for his speculations about an ancient Aryan symbol bridging the mythological and religious traditions of East and West … Thanks to Schliemann’s extensive scholarly contacts … the swastika was swiftly launched as the Aryan symbol in the European mind. Michael Zmigrodzki … addressed major international congresses of anthropologists and archaeologists on the subject of the Aryan swastika [it was] attended by Schliemann [and] his anti-Semitic collaborator Emile Burnouf, and Professor Ludvig Müller of Copenhagen, who claimed that the swastika was the emblem of the supreme Aryan god.” (Italics added. Clarke 1998, p. 24)
This discovery incited a frenzy research into the connection of Europe, Hinduism and the Swastika. It led to reignition of research into scientific racism, a rejuvenation of the works of many philosophers and anthropologists including Kant, Blumenbach, Count Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the latter being a major influence on Alfred Rosenberg (Evola 2018). It is of this origin which gave rise to the most virulent and destructive form of racial supremacy, and the attempted eradication of whole races (and other groups also). Kant’s racial philosophy was one of many that gave legitimacy to this catastrophe.
Part 2 – Kant’s on Race
Chronology of texts referred to.
- 1 – Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764).
- 2 – Of the Different Races of Human Beings (1775).
- 3 – On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy (1788)
1 – The Night is Sublime, the Day is Beautiful
(All references from Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant unless stated otherwise).
The strongest evidence in Observations of Immanuel Kant’s racial supremacy lies within his description of the African ‘Negroe’:
“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous [despite their being freed] not a single one has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality, while among the whites there are always those who rise from the lowest rabble and through extraordinary gifts earn respect in the world.” (italics added. p. 59)
This statement is perfect for illustrating the difference between Race Realism and Racial Supremacy. A racialist would not say something as polemical and derogatory to what Kant refers to as ‘Negroes’ (nor would they use that term). Kant makes a clear comparison here between Whites and Negroes regarding their ability to adjust to different environments and attain certain levels of success. He clearly makes the claim that Negroes are devoid of any “praiseworthy quality” (ibid) or rise above the lower levels of society.
2 – Human Beings Belong to One Family
In ‘On the Different Races’, Kant puts forward his theory of the origins of different racial categories. The essay was published twice: First in 1775, then a revised edition in 1777 (with the removal of the original preface stating that the essay was more for “useful entertainment than laborious business” (p. 84). He outlines his theory of the human race originating from a single species. He believes this must be so due to Buffon’s Rule: An animal can only breed (successfully) with others of its kind. As human beings can create different offspring with other races we must “all belong to a single phylum, from which … they originated.” (p. 85).
It is within this essay that we can find a link between Kant and Nazi Germany.
Oswald Spengler may have rejected the Nazi party, but they nonetheless took ideas co-opted his work against his will, most notable the phrase ‘Blood and Soil” (Ascher 1937, p. 8). For Spengler, just as for Kant, it is the environment that creates race. Much can be seen in Spengler’s writing (Spengler 1991, p. 230-267) that echo’s section three’s “Of the immediate causes”:
“The grounds of a determinate unfolding which are lying in the nature of an organic body (plant or animal) are called germs … In birds of the same kind which yet are supposed to live in different climates there lies germs for the unfolding of a new layer of feathers if they live in a cold climate” (p. 89).
Kant uses this example to argue that much like the birds, adjustment to climate, from the original singular human of which all existing races developed from, over generations the human beings in each particular area evolved/adapted biologically to fit their surroundings. But he also believes that these changes are now permanent, and so people of different races can never fully adapt to a new environment.
While some may find these ideas ludicrous, some of his observations are actually quite reasonable, even logical, and it would be understandable in that period of time to take them as gospel:
“Displaced into the arctic region, human beings had gradually to develop a smaller build, because with a smaller build when the power of the heart remains the same, the circulation of the blood takes place in a shorter time; consequently, the pulse becomes quicker and the blood warmer … [t]he disproportion between the full body height and the short legs of northern peoples is itself very suited to their climate, since these parts of the body suffer more danger from the cold due to their distance from the heart.” (p. 91).
“No part of the face, even if the latter might seem disproportionate to us, can be altered in the depiction while preserving the others, without it being noticeable to the eye of the expert, even though he has not seen the original” (p. 202).
Use of Teleological Principles Is Immanuel Kant’s response to the criticisms of Johann Reinhold Forster who argued against much of Kant’s previous work, particularly his belief in all races stemming from a single species (monogeneticism) and proposed his own theory of each race coming from multiple original sources (polygeneticism) – arguing “particularly on the special status of the Negro” (p. 192-3).
It is in this essay that Immanuel Kant gives an in-depth account of his theory of the effects of the environment on the physiological structure of each individual race. The quotation above is selected as to highlight his ideas on what was referred to in laws throughout the world illegalising the mixing of races as ‘miscegenation’.
Conclusion – What is to be Done?
We can safely say that Immanuel Kant did indeed have racial prejudices, but to what extent his work influenced racial supremacy, or even legitimized racial supremacy? Can we even place some of the blame on Kant for the subsequent events inspired by his writings on ‘negroes’? I see no moral justification for laying the blame on someone/thing who pre-dated an event unless they explicitly claimed a desire for an action to be carried out, and the person/s that carried it out explicitly state that it lead to their engaging in that action.
I part with an entry from The Guardian Archives on Alfred Rosenberg’s testimony in Nuremburg. In it he lists the influence of four famous figures, would you being willing to do away with all their literature over who they happened to influence?
No matter the remarks of an individual, it does not mean that we must tar their entire career with the ‘evil brush’. Elvis Presley committed immoral acts, Charlie Chaplin married a child, but to do away with all the amazing work that they made for us to enjoy is senseless. We need to go beyond good and evil.
“With the entry of Alfred Rosenberg into the witness-box this evening, the Nuremberg Court became the reluctant audience for an outpouring of philosophical thought that sounded altogether meaningless after the terrible evidence about the slaughter of millions at Auschwitz […] Several times had the prisoner expounded […] on the influence upon him of Goethe and Charles Dickens, Kant and Schopenhauer. Lord Justice Lawrence pointed out that the Tribunal would prefer him to talk about his own philosophy. The question was not whether he had tried to reconstruct Germany but whether National Socialism had been used for international offences.” (Guardian Archive 2009)
Ascher, M 1937, ‘A Comparison of Education and National Ideals in Germany and the United States’, The School Review, Vol. 45, No. 5, pp. 368-380.
Bernasconi, R 2001, ’Who Invented the Concept of Race’, in R Bernasconi’s (ed), Race, Blackwell Publishers.
Clarke, N 1998, Hitler’s Priestess, New York University Press ,US
Evola, J 2018, The Myth of the Blood, Arktos Media, UK. (Il mito del sangue – 1944)
Evola, J 1995, Revolt Against the Modern World, Inner Traditions, UK.
Spengler, O 1991, The Decline of the West, Oxford University Press, USA.
Zoller, G & Louden, R (eds) 2007, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant – Anthropology, History and Education, Cambridge University Press, UK.
Archive 2009, From the Archive: Rosenberg gives evidence at Nuremberg, Guardian, 16th April, Viewed 28/10/2018. < https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/apr/16/nuremburg-alfred-rosenberg-archives >