Professor Swift, in 2005 you wrote a fantastic paper on Immanuel Kant’s critique of his former student J.G. Herder.1 It’s hard to think of an odder couple. I can’t imagine Professor Kant enjoying marking Herder’s papers.

Me neither! I guess something that’s always really fascinated me and that filters through in my argument is the question of student-teacher relations. I’m especially interested in the question of how the work of the student often holds the teacher’s thought in an intimate embrace while rejecting key aspects of it. Think Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, Paul de Man and Gayatri Spivak who also features in my article, and Kant and Herder. All of these were star students who later took umbrage at their teachers’ doctrines.

When some people read Herder, Hamann, Nietzsche, or Shestov critiquing reason in what has been called the “counter-Enlightenment”, it sets off alarm bells as if they were extremists. Is this a testament to Kant’s legacy?

I think so, yes. It’s testament to how normative Kant’s view of reason became, and his sense that it needs to be protected against ‘fanaticism’.2 But I’d also want to temper that claim in two different ways.

First, while people like Nietzsche were very close, even if hostile readers of the morality of Kant’s thinking, the rise of Kant-influenced ideas such as positivism and utilitarianism in the 19th century created a disconnect between Kant’s legacy and what he really had in mind. This is especially the case when we think about what reason is and what it does. Kant’s reason is a much more dynamic and lyrical force than the one of abstract calculation our inherited idea suggests.

That’s certainly the idea I have of Kant. But you see lyricism in his works?

Yes, and part of that lyricism comes from Kant’s efforts to save the Enlightenment by inoculating it with a dose of the kind of lyricism and ‘enthusiasm’3 that he saw emerging in the work of people like Herder and Hamann. For Kant, this kind of thought didn’t know what it was doing. By trying to shake up enlightenment, to make it sensitive to language, culture, and expression as forms of determination, it risked destroying enlightenment altogether.

I think that remains a real risk even now—so I guess I’m sympathetic to Kant’s legacy! At the same time, he recognised that enlightenment needed to become responsive to ideas of history and embodiment—what we now take to be the counter-Enlightenment position.

But the second qualification would relate to what we mean by “counter-Enlightenment”. How did those who opposed Kant’s version of enlightenment in the 1780s impact later thinkers like Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who themselves shaped later critical theory, which sets out its own critique of enlightenment? I’m not sure that that’s a question that we’ve adequately answered yet.  

Okay, so their dispute breaks out in 1785 because Professor Kant writes bad reviews we’re talking 1-star—of Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind.4 Fairly standard academic fare, but it seems personal.

I think it definitely is. Kant was desperate to make a claim that reason is a public, communal act that depends upon its readers as ‘co-workers’, as he writes at one point. Kant wanted to be accessible, yet most people found his writing totally impenetrable. Herder, by contrast, was much easier to read, wilfully popular, and therefore something of a rising academic star in 1785.

But Kant thought that Herder’s argument, and especially its use of poetical analogies, fooled readers into thinking they’d understood something about the cause of nature, which was still mysterious and impenetrable. For Kant, thinking is about collective hard work undertaken to try to advance in our understanding of a universe that is basically paradoxical and hard to explain. Kant, remember, didn’t have the benefit of particle physics. So, for Kant, style plays an important role in calling others into that communal labour. But none of this sounds very sexy!

So, it annoyed Kant that Herder successfully popularised philosophy?

Because Herder seemed to give his readers easy access to complete answers in an enjoyable form, one can only suspect that Kant felt a bit betrayed that someone he’d taught had so wilfully abandoned the meticulousness of his thinking about nature and history. And undoubtedly, Kant was jealous of the success! It’s not the first time that a philosopher or critic like Herder has got hold of some new ideas in science and spun a totalising metaphysics out of them—we still see that today. Kant would urge caution in making sense of science by those not trained in interpreting it.  

Kant rejects Herder’s claim that our true goal in life is our own individual happiness, which is something like an article of faith of modern Western culture. So, is Kant saying that happiness isn’t the point of our existence?

He is. Here you begin to see why Herder seemed more sexy! Kant was a Protestant, after all, who thought that life was about labour and the life of the group rather than of the individual. So, one of the problems with establishing happiness as the purpose of life, for Kant, was that it seemed egotistical to him—as if my job is to establish my own satisfaction, rather than to build a better world for future generations by cooperating with those around me to achieve it. Here, I think we could understand Kant as a kind of forefather of eco-activism, which is all about imagining the consequences of our selfish actions in the future and building a better world for future generations.

At the same time, I think it’s important to stress that Kant isn’t saying that we should somehow aim to be miserable, or that happiness is bad. The fact that we find people who are happy in many different environments across the world suggests, in fact, that humans have a capacity to change their environments in ways that make them more satisfied—or so Kant would claim. And relatedly, he’s also interested in ideas of rational happiness, the kind of contentment that we achieve by setting our own ends and realising them, as opposed to just going along with what we find around us.

Here we get to Kant’s famous quote that sparked its own share of academic quarrels. In attacking Herder’s pæan to happiness, Kant asks why the Tahitians ‘exist at all, and whether it would not have been just as good to have this island populated with happy sheep and cattle as with human beings who are happy merely enjoying themselves?’5 What does this mean?

It’s hard to live with, isn’t it? Kant is explicitly comparing non-European human life to the lives of animals, in order to suggest that both make problematic the idea that there is a purpose to human existence. And this as the colonisation of the Pacific is really getting under way. It’s not in any way forgivable, but it’s also important to look at what Kant says in context. We’ve seen that Kant is concerned with humans building a world for themselves, together, of their own rational design, and so he wrinkles his nose at cultures and environments that, from his European perspective, seem to be about satisfaction with what nature produces and show little desire to change it.

Yet Kant is actually more worried about Europeans who, reading stories about Tahitian life, might be drawn to it themselves. Herder’s work is evidence, for Kant, of a growing hatred of rational life in the culture of the late Enlightenment, a desire to opt out of the civilisational process, which he found evidence of in the lure of Tahiti to the European imagination. Kant basically thought that this kind of opting out was selfish, but also insulting to the dignity of all humans, whether European or Tahitian.

Fascinating. He was upset by Europeans opting out of his ideas, in a sense.

So you could argue that he’s more troubled by the surfer who wants to “get away from it all” on Tahiti than by the Tahitians themselves, because the surfer insists on Tahiti as a space that is outside of “it all”, i.e. human cultural development, and that he wants to keep unspoiled for his own selfish purposes. Of course, Kant’s ideas about the necessity of world-building look different to us, reflecting back on that moment through the intermediating history of genocide and ecocide. And it’s undeniable that Kant imagines life outside of European civilisation as a life closer to the animals, and therefore a life less worth living.

So, what Kant doesn’t like is the claim that we can be happy apart from reason, that our happiness depends on feelings. It’s interesting that Kant doesn’t admire the cow’s happiness. Nietzsche did.6 Schopenhauer too.7

For sure. One qualification I would make is that Kant doesn’t necessarily think that reason and feeling are opposites. Recent critics have shown that Kant actually anticipates, in some ways, our more postmodern sense that reason is about embodiment.8 He thinks that feeling and reason are deeply intertwined, and that we need to look at how each produces the other. But you are absolutely right that the capacity to forget and to not feel resentment, which Nietzsche associates with the cow, is not something you’ll find in Kant. We are absolutely historical beings of time and memory, and imagining the future and how things might otherwise be is a bit of a waste of time for him.

But why does a German professor who never left Königsberg take issue with the happiness of the Tahitian people in particular? Was he influenced by Bougainville, Diderot, or Captain Cook, whose visit to Tahiti he references?9

Absolutely. I think he’s interested in Tahiti because it’s available to him in source texts, and also because it’s attractive. But in passages equivalent to the one you cite above in other works Kant also talks about indigenous peoples from other places remote to Europe.  

There are many interpretations of Kant’s metaphor. Is it racism as some argue,10 a travelogue trope, a way for him to deflate Herder’s noble savage myth by arguing that Tahitian happiness is impossible, or all of the above?

First off, I think it absolutely is racism, no doubt. Kant is just a typical middle class European in assuming that life outside of what counts, for him, as civilisation, is closer to animal life. Remember too, though, that Kant is writing at the very moment of ethnography’s birth. Later on, people like Claude Lévi-Strauss will come along to teach Europeans about how culture has many meanings beyond Europe’s arrogant assumption to have a trademark on it. Yet I think it’s also important not to stop there—wherever there is racism, it helps with the anti-racist struggle to try to understand where it comes from.

And Kant is one of those racists who is trying to be benevolent, as I’ve indicated above. There’s a sense in which he’s arguing that it’s Herder who’s the real racist by making of Tahiti a kind of refuge for the agitated European imagination. A bit like Edward Said has argued about European imaginings of Asia in Orientalism,11 Herder’s idealisation of a life untouched by reason could be racism in disguise. For me, it seems incontrovertible that, on his own terms, Kant thinks that Herder’s argument denies a true human vocation to Tahitians. In thinking this, he is clearly not much different than the missionary come to save souls. But I think that Kant’s critique of Herder also tells us something more interesting about his argument that is easy to miss. Lots of critics have written about how Kant is, as it were, unconsciously drawing up a blueprint for colonial domination in phrases like the one you quote above. So, the idea would be that philosophy doesn’t realise how up to its neck in geopolitics it is. It has a blind spot; its idea of itself is that it is just about ideas and it doesn’t notice that it has a real effect in the world. I’d suggest, first, that that is unfair to Kant, and that he’s always thinking about the importance of philosophy to the real world—he doesn’t live in an ivory tower of abstraction.

But maybe even more interestingly, he knows he’s being provocative in comparing Tahitians to animals. This is a riposte to Herder’s idealisation of the noble savage idea which, if you read it through patiently, shows that idea to contain its own heavy dose of racism.

At the very least, this calls into question the arrogance of the critic who thinks they know more about Kant’s text than he does. None of which excuses the casual, unthinking racism though. At the end to your 2005 piece, you point to a literary quality to these symbols and analogies of Kant’s, including that of the happy Tahitians.12 That may be news to anyone who has attempted to read any of his three Critiques.

No doubt! But actually, the Critiques don’t necessarily deserve their forbidding reputation. I think it was the philosopher Jacques Derrida who said that the problem with the Critique of Pure Reason is that no one reads it backwards! If you just read the first half, all you have is really complex, taxing analytical and dialectical philosophy. And most people give up after 200 pages of that. But in the second part, especially Kant’s ‘Architectonic of Pure Reason’, it becomes strange and beautiful, filled with amazing, hallucinatory metaphors of houses in wastelands, living statues, and so on. Again, Kant was  desperate to make his work translate into the popular imagination but struggled to achieve that without compromising on the integrity of his ideas. But the efforts he makes to do so are much more interesting than people generally realise.

Is it possible that no one is as happy as the tropes about smiling Tahitians, Nepalese, and ni-Van people suggest? And that, if the self-help books by happiness gurus that are sold by the million aren’t helping, Kant was right?

That would make for a sad world! There’s a lot to be unhappy about today: war, the condition of refugees in our world, environmental collapse, economic inequality, racism, the psychological consequences of the pandemic. But I guess I remain a Kantian in my belief that we are at our happiest when we work together for the common good. And by “common” I mean truly common, involving not just every human being, but every sentient, living being on the planet.

Kant’s text in some ways marks the moment when modern Western humanity entered on its suicidal course of colonisation, genocide, and environmental devastation—which is to say, when it finally had the tools it needed to maximise the devastation it had always practiced. But I also think that humans are stunning beings of consciousness, empathy, sociability and that Kant also modelled many of these ideas. We can serve each other as much as we harm each other. Let’s hope that happiness can flourish through the former impulse winning out.