One of the things my good and wise friend Andrew taught me was the destructive influence of Kantian critical philosophy on societies where it gains a large following. Let me qualify the following criticism of Kant by noting that he is a fearsome intellectual opponent. While I hold Nietzsche to be the wisest of the modern philosophers because he more honestly and more perspicaciously understood the logical force of modernity’s self-destructive tendencies, I think that Kant is the Enlightenment’s greatest defender. No proponent of modern philosophy gave stronger or more insightful arguments than the professor from Königsberg. I find Kant difficult and at times frustrating, but his work remains, literally, awesome. Kant has immensely contributed to philosophy. Nonetheless, with fear and trembling, I dare to question Kant’s ideas not only as inadequate but also as corrosive.
My chief annoyance with Kant’s system concerns his epistemology. Though Kant excels Hume by far, he still renounces the mind’s ability to transcend what he sees as the limitations of reason. Kant magnificently proves the shortcomings of Hume’s skepticism, but he lays an intellectual trap for Western thought in proposing his limitations on reason. Kant’s antinomies claim to show that human reason cannot resolve certain metaphysical problems, at least without resorting to metaphysical distinctions that render the world unintelligible in itself. Hence, human reason cannot be trusted as an accurate guide once one passes a certain threshold of metaphysical questioning. While Kant’s arguments superficially appear as an admission of intellectual modesty, they are bold claims that state that Kant’s reasoning exhausts the capability of human reason to tackle these conundrums. When I find that my reasoning on a particular issue is inconclusive, my default conclusion is that I do not know enough about the issue or that my reasoning is inadequate. In short, I conclude that I am ignorant and that I have not thought long or well enough. With the antinomies, by contrast, Kant purports to show that all that can be done has been done in his speculative reasoning.
All partisans of subjectivity after Kant employ similar—though inferior—arguments in touting the (selective) ignorance of man. What strikes me as insupportable about such a position is that it claims a transcendent knowledge of the limitations of human reason while simultaneously holding that such knowledge is an impermissible result of the transcendent temptation. In other words, to consider the limitations of reason is necessarily to transcend such limits. Kant argues that his system achieves the first but denies—for his philosophy and for any other—the second. Kantians presuppose a divine perspective in order to chastise ambitious reasoning, though such a divine perspective is contradictorily audacious.
I suspect that the other problems in Kant’s philosophy result from this epistemological issue. For Kant holds that we cannot know things in themselves. We cannot reason from noumenal knowledge. We are largely stuck inside the boundaries of our phenomenological experience. Thus, we cannot know the nature of things through reason; we can only know reason through reason. As such, Kant’s philosophical approaches to ethics, politics, and aesthetics are ingenious but inadequate attempts to treat justly their intended objects. For they must avoid the natural, and ignoring nature is a disastrous approach to constructing systems that must answer to nature. Denatured political theory, if enacted, necessarily becomes ruinous politics.
Therefore, I accuse Kantian philosophy not only of failing to portray the world accurately but also of having a deleterious effect on society, You may wonder how this applies to the contemporary world. Well, consider my letter to Lawrence Auster in response to his post, “You’ve got to be carefully taught—to commit racial suicide.” If you are not familiar with Auster’s View from the Right web site, he is chiefly interested in the cultural and ethnic survival of the West. He argues that the Leftist drift of modern society has effectively emasculated Western society through multiculturalism, universalism, and the undermining of traditional social values and behavior. I share many of his concerns and views, though I suspect that I have more toleration of and appreciation for the wayward ways against which he rails. Auster’s post shows his reaction to the movie, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Auster believes that the Left, through popular culture, instills in people an unnatural love for and trust of the alien. That popular culture does this is undeniable. I disagree with Auster, though, that the current myth makers do so due to a subversive racial agenda. Instead, I think that they simply reflect post-Kantian cultural values:
I wonder if the tendency in the West to promote unnatural reactions is largely due to Kant’s influence. For Kant, natural inclination and self-interest pollute rational endeavors, from morality to aesthetics. For example, we are unable to know if a woman who saves her baby in a fire has done a moral deed; for she necessarily acts through interest. To know whether her action is moral, she must work against her natural inclination. Hence, to be truly rational, we need to transcend inclination and self-interest. Acting against one’s natural impulses for the sake of some abstract principle is one of the highest, noblest actions available to man, for a Kantian.
I do not wish to insult Kant; he was a brilliant and profound thinker. Yet, I suspect that his followers in the West have adopted this position as a form of “noblesse oblige.” I know that you do not think highly of Sailer’s status theory, but I believe that he is onto something in the Western psyche. When the culture no longer holds up as an ideal the ascetic form of greatness (saintliness) or the heroic form of greatness (classical virtue in the magnanimous gentleman), it must find another model for the best life. The post-Kantian version is the life of enlightened man, where people bask in their own high-minded self-righteousness, defined and determined as that which goes against their natural interests. Multiculturalism, anti-racism, and religious relativism can be seen as species of this so-called enlightenment. It is an evolution, of sorts, of Christian charity, though mixed with a peculiar form of group-self-hatred coupled with individual-self-adulation. I believe that the social aspect of this sort of rejection of natural inclination is what Sailer analyzes in his status theory.
Your Grinch example belongs to this world view. To be enlightened, you must question and reject your natural inclinations. The Who girl who loves the Grinch is just such an enlightened being; she looks past the external and past the standards of the world to see the beauty inside the Grinch. Nietzsche considers Kant a bastardization of Christianity. The American cultural Left, with its insistence on valuing each person and making room at the table for everyone, is an heir, of sorts, to the Gospel. Good intentions, though, will not protect you from the evil for which your inclinations serve as warnings and defense. The Left only got the last part of the message in, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Auster replied that something much simpler is at work—our contemporarily prized value of non-discrimination. I responded so:
You suggest that a commitment to non-discrimination is at work. That is certainly true, with non-discrimination being an unwillingness to prefer one’s own to the other. Yet, it is not strong enough, I think, to explain the Left or our Kantian culture. Non-discrimination is a state of neutrality, while the enlightened man of the Left celebrates the other as other, pursues the other’s interests to the detriment of himself, and consciously works against his own natural inclination.
I believe that Nietzsche is correct to see modern morality as a decaying remnant of Christianity, as I have written elsewhere on this site and most recently in “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World.” The moral Left—[spasm of coughs and throat clearings]—consists of a Christianity robbed of all understanding of the world. Kant gives such folks intellectual respectability—and he is so much more dangerous for it. Again to invoke Nietzsche, to be dangerous is not the same as to be false. However, I believe several features of Kantian philosophy to be harmful because they are false—that is, they are destructive because they misunderstand the world and therefore misadvise human beings as to their beliefs and conduct.