Assistant Professor Lee, you wrote a 2018 book chapter1 in which you argue, in the debate on Kant’s racism, that he never really recanted it and that it is woven into his thought. Before getting to this, when did you first read Kant?

My first experience of reading Kant was as an undergraduate student at Seoul National University. I read parts of his works including his three Critiques in my various coursework, but his essay ‘What is enlightenment?’, which I read in a social philosophy course, left me with the most vivid impressions. Then I had opportunities to study Kant with Dr Jeff Edwards at Stony Brook University in the U.S. and later with Dr Andrea Esser at Marburg University in Germany during my doctoral program. I always had, and still have, a love-hate relationship with Kant.  

Some readers who associate Kant with his moral philosophy may be surprised by this racism debate. When did it start?

Kant is best known for his ethical concepts like the categorical imperative, according to which we should do what could be willed to become universal moral laws and never treat other persons merely as a means but as ends in themselves. But even in earlier research Kant’s thoughts on different races were not a secret. I believe his racist ideas started to receive more public attention and critical illumination through anti-racist social and intellectual movements in our time, such as critical race theory. Although the historian E.H. Carr said this of history in general, the history of philosophy seems to be an unending dialogue between the present and the past.

This interest in Kant’s anthropology and concept of race may be striking in and of itself. I wasn’t taught Kant in this light. The focus in my political science lectures was on his cosmopolitanism and perpetual peace theory.

I, too, was introduced to Kant’s philosophy through his universal moral law in my ethics course and to his cosmopolitan ideas in my political philosophy course. Ironically, I became increasingly interested in his racist remarks while working on my doctoral dissertation on Kantian and Hegelian cosmopolitanism. As I delved deeper into his philosophy of history, I was introduced to his anthropological works, where I encountered these striking and troubling remarks on non-white races. As a non-white woman, I wrestled with these passages and wrote the last chapter of my dissertation on the problem of race in Kant.

You write that ‘Kant develops his theory of race, which is a sign that it is not a regrettable personal prejudice, but the product of extended philosophical reflection.’ Is a consensus forming in that direction, or is this still debated?

I encounter increasingly more critical voices rather than those seriously defending Kant in this regard. Should we take this as a sign of a consensus among scholars? I am not sure. My observation could be due to the AI’s algorithmic suggestions based on my intellectual predilection or political orientation. I believe the debate is still going on. The critical spirit and the willingness to defer seem to be the modus operandi of philosophers.

Some have argued that Kant was, to some extent, ahead of his time in defending the rights of Native Americans and other non-white groups, even as he described them as weak and lazy. What is Kant’s record on this point?

In his Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant proposes the establishment of a league of nations in which different peoples would live peacefully side by side. This is where Kant mentions the somewhat virtuous characters of other races. For one, he acknowledges the military courage of Native Americans being akin to that of the mediæval European knights. Some scholars emphasised these records as an indication that he recanted his ‘earlier’ racist views as they differ from his downright hostile assessments of non-white races in other writings. My article refuted this view for being too charitable. Kant’s notion of cosmopolitan right does not require a strong egalitarian view of the different races, as many defenders would wish it did.

One anecdote you cite as among the egregious cases of Kant’s racism is his review of J.G. Herder’s work in which he asks why Tahitians bother to ‘exist at all’ if they’re just as happy as cattle.2 What is going on in this quote?

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, and in fact Kant’s former student. Both Kant and Herder wrote about the ‘universal history of humanity,’ a genre popular among 18th and 19th century Enlightenment thinkers. Kant’s ‘Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan aim’ (1784) and Herder’s ‘Ideas for the philosophy of the history of humanity’ (1784) were good examples of this genre. These works attempt to discover humanity’s meaning and purpose by examining the course of history. This teleological historiography enabled them to explain past events from the perspective of progress and predict future paths. Kant was invited to review Herder’s work, which he did in 1785.

One notable difference between Kant and Herder was that Herder seemed more reluctant to use the notions of different human races than Kant. Herder envisioned borderless humanitarianism in contrast to Kant’s version of a loose community composed of different nations. Perhaps this difference in their vision could explain their different attitudes toward other races. Also, Herder opposed Kant’s idea that humanity will fully reach its perfection as a species, not as individual human beings. This is noteworthy because Kant maintained that humanity could reach its highest stage by the European white, denying other non-white races this privilege.

The infamous passage ‘why do they [the happy inhabitants of Tahiti] exist at all?’ comes from this context. Kant’s rhetorical question assumes the Tahitians are awakened from their idleness by the visitors from more civilised nations, through whom they could achieve a higher stage and also play a role in the overall history of humanity. This passage is often viewed as his justification for colonial expeditions and enslavement, although Kant criticised the harsh treatments of enslaved people elsewhere.

Is there anything in Kant’s philosophy of history or anthropology that predisposed him particularly badly towards the Tahitians, or that placed them on a lower rung of an imagined ladder of civilisation in his eyes?

Many European authors of the 18th century depended on travellers and explorers such as James Cook (1728-1779) or Sydney Parkinson (1745-1771) in their understanding of peoples living in distant places. Herder, who quotes extensively from ethnographic descriptions of these travelogues, also expressed a wish for a collection of portrayals and more faithful paintings of different people. So, whether in Kant’s negative judgment toward ‘backward people’ or in Rousseau’s notion of ‘noble savage’ in the other direction, the philosophers had to work with limited information as a window to vastly diverse ways of life.

If I have to point out something that might have predisposed Kant badly toward the Tahitians, I think it originates in his fundamental anti-hedonism. For Kant, the goal of human life is not to idle in a happy state but to strive for perfection through labour, to be worthy of happiness. From this point of view, Tahitians living in their ‘tranquil indolence’ are comparable to ‘sheep and cattle’ peacefully grazing in nature’s abundance as they have not achieved, nor were actively working toward, a civilised state.

The claim that Kant’s comments on race do not invalidate his philosophy, you argue, is evidence of ‘colour-blindness’ in philosophy. With interest in race apparently growing worldwide, do you still see this as the case today?

I did not intend to go so far as to claim that his racism invalidates his philosophy in its entirety. That would be too radical a claim for me. Although I am sympathetic to such a view, my claim is much more modest. I contend we must present and teach these edifying thinkers in all their complexities and tensions without idolising them by concealing their weaknesses or offering apologies. As a comparison, one may denounce Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics for the reason that he was a Nazi member at one point. Although true, I do not want his Nazism to serve as an excuse not to study Heidegger. Instead, it behoves us to work harder to understand where and how his thinking allowed him to agree with and work for such a totalitarian regime.

When I think of Kant’s racist remarks, I am reminded of what he said about his concept of ‘inner freedom’ or freedom of thought, which he defined as ‘the freedom from the chains of concepts and ways of thinking that are habitual and confirmed by general opinion; - a freedom that is not at all common, so that even those who confess loyalty only to philosophy have only rarely been able to work themselves all the way up to it.’3 I am afraid that Kant, a marvellous and magisterial thinker though he is, was not entirely freed from the chains of habitual concepts and general ways of thinking despite his own warnings and precaution.

If scholars come to agree that Kant’s works were in fact irremediably racist, what do you think that will mean for how, or whether, his works are taught?

It would be hard to predict if scholars could ever agree if Kant was an irremediable racist and, even if he were, how deeply his racism affected various branches of his philosophy. However, the ways in which Kant’s works are taught need significant changes. In introducing his proposal for everlasting peace, we also need active discussions on his troubling ideas. One way to bring about such change is to expand canons so that students can be exposed to diverse authors from marginalised and oppressed groups. And this requires conscious efforts to excavate these groups’ writings and uncover their thoughts.

For example, juxtaposing Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (c. 1757-c. 1791) with Kant could be an illuminating way to situate Kant’s own prejudices. Cugoano, also known as John Stuart, was a native of the West African British colony of the Gold Coast. He was enslaved and shipped to the West Indies, and later worked as an abolitionist after being freed in Britain. His Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery,4 published around the same time as Kant’s anthropological works, serves as proof of the talent of non-white races, which Kant denied.5 Cugoano powerfully argues that ‘the Africans, though not so learned, are just as wise as the Europeans; and when the matter is left to human wisdom, they are both to err.’ Criticising those who justified slavery based on revelation or reason, he writes that such pretences and excuses to deem any particular set of men inferior are ‘the grossest perversion of reason, as well as an inconsistent and diabolical use of the sacred writings.’

Which parts of Kant’s project do you think will outlive his prejudices?

I jokingly recall that one of my college professors would not encourage students to dwell on Kant’s anthropological pieces because they are not Kant’s ‘essential’ works. But who gets to decide what is essential and inessential to us? Kant’s ethical concepts provide us with formidable antitheses to the sweeping consequentialist ideas in Western philosophy. Because of this significant contribution and the symbolic place Kant has, I believe readers or scholars have often neglected or downplayed his racist remarks.