‘Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives’ reviewed by Stella Sandford

Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014. 254pp., £40 hb
ISBN 9780199669622

Reviewed by Stella Sandford

About the reviewer

Stella Sandford is Professor in the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston …


For some years now Kant’s theory of race and his racism have been the object of considerable critical scrutiny. Influential essays by philosophers such as Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (1995, on race and racism in Kant’s anthropological works and their relation to his conception of human nature) and Robert Bernasconi (2001, on Kant’s ‘invention’ of the concept of race) have faced those who continue to read and teach Kant with the task of looking honestly at these aspects of Kant’s work and thinking hard about their possible relation to the rest of his philosophy, including his critical and political philosophy. Peter Park’s recent Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon 1780–1830 (2013), argues convincingly that before the 1780s it was generally assumed that the intellectual origins of what we now call ‘Western philosophy’ lay in the Orient. However, the emergence of the modern, disciplinary understanding of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century went hand in hand with attempts to produce new histories for this new conception of philosophy. This involved the systematic exclusion of Asian and African thought, and the new claim that the origin of philosophy was Greek. The conception of philosophy driving these new histories was explicitly Kantian. In the place of what they saw as unorganized and indiscriminate compilations of the lives and opinions of philosophers, the Kantian philosophers Karl Leonard Reinhold, Johann Gottlieb Gerhard Buhle and, especially Wilhelm Tennemann, amongst others, championed a method of a priori construction in historical writing, according to a Kantian, definition of what counted as philosophy. This, coupled with Kant’s biological-philosophical theory of race and his explicit racism, means that anyone who accepts the basic historicity of philosophy must look these unpleasant facts square in the face, and take a position on them and their relation to Kant’s oeuvre. This is the context of Kant and Colonialism. Overall, as other reviewers before me have noted, the book has, despite the editors’ claims to the contrary, an apologist agenda.

Some of the contributions, and notably that of Pauline Kleingeld, claim that in political theory and global justice theory, concentrating on his 1795 essay Toward Perpetual Peace, Kant is widely regarded as a ‘fierce’ or ‘vociferous’ critic of colonialism. Kleingeld, however, argues to the contrary that he was mostly an enthusiastic supporter of colonialism and slavery, only changing his mind in the mid-1790s. (43, 65; see also Ripstein p. 145; Stilz, p. 197; Niesen, p. 188). It is curious, then, that the editors’ Introduction to the volume begins with an attack on what they see as the ‘single-minded scapegoating’ (2) of Kant concerning his relation to colonialism:

Though few Kant scholars have so far engaged systematically with the development of Kant’s views on colonialism, plenty of his critics have recently done so. [Are the categories of ‘Kant scholar’ and ‘critic’ mutually exclusive?] Indeed, when it comes to ‘Kant and colonialism’, the current scholarly status quo is not altogether unlike that of the much longer-running ‘battle’ over ‘Kant and race’. Philosophers of race have for some time now focused on Kant as the central philosophical force behind Enlightenment racism and its enduring legacies. In that debate, Kant is charged with having ‘invented’ the concept of race and with having thereby legitimized philosophical racism (1).

To counter this, Flikschuh and Ypi praise the work of Russell Berman whose appreciation of the ambivalences of German colonial history, ‘appear[s] to be lost on the more stridently moralizing Enlightenment critics.’ (4–5) As an aside, I have not heard a critic described as ‘strident’ since the heyday of anti-feminism in the 1980s. According to Flikschuh and Ypi what is ‘disquieting’ about the single-minded focus on Kant ‘is the resulting occlusion of the systematic nature of philosophical racism: the racisms of Hume, Locke, Hegel and Mill tend not be be appreciated as summing to a tradition of philosophical prejudice’ (2). Further, pointing the finger at the figures of the past can lead us to exonerate the present and ‘often reflect a presumption of one’s present circumstances and intellectual endeavours as beyond reproach’ (10). Continuing the theme in a co-authored contribution by Martin Ajei and Katrin Flikschuh, the claim is made that ‘critiques of imperialism usually proceed from the standpoint of a morally unblemished present’ (222).

These claims beggar belief if they are meant to work as a criticism of, for example, Bernasconi’s work on Kant and race, or as a general characterization of post-colonial critiques of colonialism and imperialism, which have as their very raison d’être the critique of their legacies in the present. Critics of Kant such as Eze, Bernasconi and Park situate their work precisely in the context of the critique of the broader and systematic traditions of racism and exclusion in philosophy and the Western canon more generally; and Bernasconi’s work in critical philosophy of race includes essays on Hegel, Hume and Locke. In all cases the point precisely is the critique of the present via the past. Flikschuh and Ypi and then Ajei and Flikschuh introduce us to the idea that there might be remnants of colonial thinking in the present, as if no one had ever mentioned neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism before. But the nadir comes when Flikschuh and Ypi refer, in their Introduction, to ‘Kant’s early racism’ (17, emphasis added). Born in 1724, publishing from 1749, Kant was making racist comments by at least 1764 in the popular Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime and continued to make them until at least 1792 in his Lectures on Physical Geography. Evidence of a change of heart seems to come, if it comes at all, only in 1795, aged 71 (he died in 1804). Far from a youthful folly, Kant’s racism was a feature of the great majority of his adult life. If, further, recent work has chosen to focus more on Kant than on Hume etc., this is because no other Western philosopher of comparable standing produced a detailed biological-philosophical theory of race like Kant’s, let alone one that was so influential.

In this collection, only Kleingeld considers Kant’s theory of race to be relevant to his view of the rights or wrongs of colonialism. However, in an essay from 2007 Kleingeld controversially attempted to exonerate Kant after all, by arguing that Kant had second thoughts about race in the mid-1790s, moving away from the commitment to a racial hierarchy that unsurprisingly assumed the superiority of the white ‘race’ and cast black Africans, in particular, as effectively subhuman. Here she argues that his support for colonialism was based on his hierarchical racial theory, and that the late move against colonialism was an effect of, or at least dependent on, the second thoughts on race. The other contributors isolate aspects of Kant’s political philosophy from the theory of race, and also, in order to assess them, from any of his remarks about groups of peoples that might have seemed to exclude them from his universalism. Most of the essays try to map out the logic of a variety of Kant’s arguments insofar as they might be said to provide grounds for either a colonial or an anti-colonial position. Anthony Pagden, for example, assesses whether Kant’s concept of cosmopolitan right might be used as ‘a ground for opposing any form of colonial regime’ by making the foundation of colonial regimes illegitimate, but finds it in conflict with Kant’s commitment to the preservation of states at all costs. He suggests that whatever the idea of cosmopolitan right may imply about the illegitimate foundations of colonial regimes, it does not include a justification of anti-colonial independence struggles.

In another essay, Sankar Muthu tries to make of Kant a philosopher of resistance, arguing that he saw resistance as ‘a means of achieving “equal worth”, as a way of “not allowing anyone superiority over oneself”’ (72). Although nowhere in Kant’s writings is this idea applied either to subjugated races, peoples, classes or indeed women – quite the contrary – Muthu sees it as legitimizing resistance to colonizers and other adventurers. Arthur Ripstein aims to ‘articulate Kant’s systematic philosophical grounds for opposing colonialism’ (147–51), arguing that Kant’s conception of just war casts all colonial conquest as illegitimate and that (contra Pagden) his conception of the rights of nations means that colonies always remain illegitimate, depriving colonized peoples of the rights of governing themselves (160). In a similar vein, Peter Niesen sees Kant’s conception of international law as offering opportunities to argue for restorative justice.

Readers looking for explanatory expositions of these aspects of Kant’s political philosophy won’t be disappointed. Readers looking for Kantian arguments against colonialism will also find examples. On the whole, contributors assume that the bones of Kant’s arguments can be salvaged for anti-colonial thought, shorn of any relation to the less palatable claims that litter Kant’s writings. None are interested in the possible influence of his racist anthropology on actual colonial and imperial practice, or on the various justifications for these and their accompanying racist ideologies. None consider (though Ajei and Flikschuh mention) the effect of his belief that certain peoples were incapable of self-perfection or self-governance, beliefs which would have excluded various colonaized peoples from the universal rights defended in his political philosophy, and indeed justified colonialism.

Some readers might also wonder why we should look to Kant for anti-colonial arguments in the twenty-first century, given that we find much more powerful and informed arguments in writings from colonized peoples, especially those forged in the midst of decolonization struggles. Do we really need arguments from Kant’s philosophy to suggest that significant remnants of colonial thinking ‘still characterize much of the West’s ongoing engagement with Africa’ (17)? Or, to put it another way, who today needs Kant to suggest that to them? Ajei and Flikschuh’s contribution to the volume perhaps gives us the answer to this question. There is, they claim, ‘little explicit sense of historical burden among Western global theorists as descendants of former colonizers … Western thinkers have generally put the colonial experience behind them as settled business’ (229). Specifically, they refer to the ‘politically disengaged philosophical reign of logical positivism on the 1950s and 1960s’, John Rawls and ‘current global justice debates’. They then suggest ways in which Kant’s notion of a communicative cosmopolitan right might help to diagnose the problem of colonial mentality as work in ‘current global justice debates.’ (244) One may be inclined to agree that a certain kind of academic philosophy and liberal political philosophy tends to be blind to its own ideological commitments. But one may also think that one reason for this is its penchant for just that kind of philosophizing that characterizes this volume – an emphasis on the logic of an argument deemed to be politically neutral and thus transhistorically applicable. As these criticisms do not apply to the critical philosophers of race attacked at the start of the volume, it is difficult to see why the editors should have chosen to begin in that way. The effect, whether they like it or not, is a whitewashing of Kant and certain trends in political philosophy when the latter, at least in part, seems to have been what they had intended to critique.

1 July 2016


  • Robert Bernasconi Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race Race Robert Bernasconi, ed., Blackwell, Malden MA & Oxford UK, 2001
  • Emmanuel Eze The Color of Reason: The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology Anthropology and the German Enlightenment: perspectives on Humanity Katherine M. Faull, ed., Bucknell University Press, Lewisberg, 1995.
  • Peter Park Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon 1780-1830 SUNY Press, Albany NY, 2013.

One comment

  1. “None consider (though Ajei and Flikschuh mention) the effect of his belief that certain peoples were incapable of self-perfection or self-governance, beliefs which would have excluded various colonaized peoples from the universal rights defended in his political philosophy, and indeed justified colonialism”.

    I’m pretty sure we can read the final few paragraphs of the Rechtslehre as explicitly refuting such a justification of colonialism: he suggests, for example, that ‘if these people are shepherds or hunters (like the Hottentots, the Tungusi or most of the American Indian nations) who depend for their sustenance on great open regions, this settlement may not take place by force, but only by contract, and indeed by a contract that does not take advantage of ignorance of those inhabitants with respect to ceding their lands. This is true despite the fact there are sufficiently specious reasons to justify the use of force….. ((6:353)

    And later ‘all these supposedly good intentions cannot wash away the stain of injustice [regarding colonial enterprises]’ (Ibid.)

    It’s a open, but different question as to whether Kant defended ‘universal rights’ in his political philosophy however, though he did defend the universal application of Right.

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