A conversation with Stella Sandford
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Anthony Morgan: Many argue that Kant is the most influential philosopher of the modern era, and one of the most influential of all time. Please can you say a few words about the scope of his philosophical legacy?
Sandford: As influence is difficult to quantify, perhaps we can address this question by asking what is meant by the appellation ‘post-Kantian philosophy’, which we now often see used in the UK at least. This can refer to the tradition of German idealist philosophy, often associated with Romanticism, which developed in the wake of Kant – notably with Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. Post-Kantian philosophy in this sense basically accepted that two aspects of Kant’s philosophy had to be reckoned with, one way or another: the methodological foregrounding of the knowing or experiencing subject and the nature and meaning of this subject’s freedom – particularly its relation to the infinite or the unconditioned. Kant grants this subject the speculative thought of the infinite but no knowledge of it – no representation in sensible intuition. This includes the speculative thought of the I’s own infinitude (the unrestricted compass of the faculty of reason; the possibility of the existence of the immortal soul) but, again, no possibility of knowledge of ourselves as we are in ourselves, only as we appear to ourselves. This gave rise to a series of problems which for many in this post-Kantian tradition could only be addressed with a radical transformation in the mode of philosophising, often privileging aesthetic experience (as represented by the experience of art). Post-Kantian philosophy in this specific sense could be said to extend into the twentieth-century, particularly with Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the work of Walter Benjamin.
But the phrase ‘post-Kantian philosophy’ is also used more widely, as we use the phrases ‘post-Darwinian’ or ‘post-Freudian’. That is, it is used to signal a kind of irreversible transformation of thought, a sea-change in philosophy. This means different things to different people. In one version of the history of Anglo-American analytical philosophy it means the consolidation of Hume’s critique of metaphysics with a positive shift to the primacy of epistemology and the authority of the model of the natural sciences. In so-called ‘continental’ philosophy it means the definitive critique of the absolute distinction between the subject and the object, and the necessity, from now on, to think the one through the other. For many, Kant effectively introduced the idea of ‘subjectivity’ into philosophy and hence into Western thought. ‘Subjectivity’ in this sense does not mean individual particularity (that which gets in the way of or is opposed to objectivity) but the universal features of the human subject as such. Although the word ‘subject’, in Latin and forms derived from it, is found in philosophy long before Kant, the concept of subjectivity in this sense is specifically modern. For Kant, the subject itself is responsible for the objectivity of knowledge. Arguably, late-twentieth- and twenty-first- century feminist standpoint theorists, for example, are still worrying away at that conundrum.
So in this sense, Kant is inescapable?
Yes, I think that’s true. Even where contemporary philosophers pit themselves against him, it is often the Kantian paradigm with which they have to contend. But, ironically, this may turn out to have less than we think to do with the oeuvre of that historical figure called Immanuel Kant, and more to do with the history of the reproduction of the discipline of philosophy as we know it today. This account of the influence of Kant is really the account of the reception of one of his works – the Critique of Pure Reason. In his own day, Kant’s lectures on anthropology and physical geography were significantly more influential than his critical philosophy; now knowledge of Kant’s critical philosophy is often seen as basic training in the discipline. With this in mind, Jacques Derrida wrote in 1990 on what he called the ‘super-canonization’ of Kant in the history of philosophy. Study of Kant, he said, is the shibboleth for philosophical legitimacy. Granted, Derrida was writing from France, where study of the history of philosophy is valued more highly than it is in the UK; but the point stands.
I THINK THAT PHILOSOPHY HAS TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK TO THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PRESENT IF IT IS NOT TO WITHER AWAY AS AN ARCHAIC OR POINTLESSLY ABSTRACT PRACTICE.
I was hoping you could say a bit more about what you feel are the key issues in the history of the reception of Kant’s work?
There are different ways of looking at this, but the most obvious is the difference between, on the one hand, the epistemological reception in neo-Kantianism, privileging the Critique of Pure Reason above all else; and, on the other hand, the more ‘metaphysical’, Romantic reception, privileging the Critique of the Power of Judgement – the so-called Third Critique – and particularly the critique of aesthetic judgement. In the very difficult First Introduction to the Third Critique, Kant presents the work as an attempt to solve the otherwise apparently insuperable problem of the separation between the sensible, rule-governed world of spatio-temporal objects, within which human beings are just one more natural object, and the ‘supersensible’ world in which human freedom is thinkable. Although the apparent contradiction between determinism and freedom is dealt with in the famous resolution of the Third Antinomy of Pure Reason in the Critique of Pure Reason, we are still left with the problem of what Kant calls the ‘incalculable gulf’ between the two worlds. We can’t even begin to think how the world of freedom can have an influence on the world of nature, because that would seem to violate the strict laws of nature. But if morality is to have any reality or meaning at all then the world of freedom should have an influence on nature – which just means that we ought to be able to bring about in the real world the moral ends imposed by the moral law. For Kant the problem is also how to reconcile the faculties of reason and understanding, or the harmony between them, when their legislative powers seem to apply only to divergent domains.
Kant’s solution to the problem rests on his justification of the application of the ‘principle of purposiveness’ to the domain of nature. This was introduced in the Critique of Pure Reason as a subjective principle of pure reason. In the Third Critique it becomes a principle belonging to the ‘reflecting’ power of judgement. According to this principle, nature is – it must be – judged as purposive for the faculty of human judgement. In short, this means that all of nature must be judged, ultimately, as belonging to one system of ends which harmonizes with the moral system of ends that is unique to human being.
Although the principle of purposiveness unifies the two parts of the Third Critique, commentators have tended to treat the two parts of the Critique of the Power of Judgement separately. The first part, the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, is where we find Kant’s famous discussion of the beautiful and the sublime, and it is fair to say that this is the one of the most important texts – if not the most important text – in Western philosophical aesthetics. In the second part, the Critique of Teleological Judgement, we find Kant’s lengthiest discussion of the special ontology of living beings – the idea that living beings (and especially the generation of living beings) cannot be understood in mechanical terms, and must be thought as natural ends, as internally purposive. In the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Kant assigns a much more important role to the faculty of imagination, compared to the role it was allowed in the Critique of Pure Reason. In judgements of beauty the feeling of pleasure in the beautiful is the feeling of the ‘free play’ of the subject’s faculties, which in this instance are not restricted by a determinate concept. Kant also says that in judgements of taste the faculty of imagination in particular is not restricted by the faculty of understanding, as it arguably is in the discussion of cognition in the Critique of Pure Reason.
And it is this aspect of Kant’s work that is emphasized more in the continental tradition.
Yes, it is this intimate link between aesthetics (in the sense of judgements of taste) and subjectivity that accounts for the relative privileging of the Third Critique in the continental tradition. Many people would say that subjectivity is the main theme of modern continental philosophy, and that it is in the experience of nature as beautiful and the experience of art that we can learn most about subjectivity or self-consciousness.
There is a danger of caricature here, but more generally it could be said that the most important difference in the contemporary reception of Kant in the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions boils down to this: the analytic approach to Kant seeks to extract and evaluate discrete philosophical arguments, testing them against each other for consistency and against the standards required of philosophical argument today, while the continental approach tends to be more historical, is more interested in the philosophical genealogy of Kant’s concepts and in his relation to his philosophical predecessors and contemporaries. Whereas the analytic approach might attempt to apply Kantian concepts to contemporary problems (one often sees article titles which include the phrase ‘A Kantian approach to …’), the continental approach is that of transformative interpretation and constructive, dialectical synthesis. Perhaps the difference could also be stated in this way: an emphasis on analysis – picking apart – and application in the analytic tradition; an emphasis on interpretation – and often strong or violent interpretation – in the continental.
ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES OF THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON IS THAT IT ASKS US TO RETHINK WHAT WE MEAN BY 'OBJECTIVITY'.
It seems that numerous histories of Kant and his legacy are currently circulating. One makes the strong claim that philosophers in the continental tradition not only bit the Kantian bullet much more firmly than those in the analytic tradition, but that in many ways the whole continental tradition only makes sense when seen in light of its adherence to some variety of transcendental reasoning, even as its aim, scope and structure is constantly mutated and reinvented. Would you say that this is a fair picture?
I think that is a fair picture of the part that Kant has played in continental philosophy, so long as we remember to stress that this has been a constant, critical grappling with Kant. Very few post-Kantian thinkers in the continental tradition would think of themselves as Kantians, so it is not a matter of any adherence to Kantian principles. But, as I said before, Kant’s Copernican turn, the idea of transcendental critique and the whole recasting the problem of the subject-object (or subjectivity-objectivity) distinction did set the scene for much of what follows.
It is noticeable that twentieth-century continental philosophy is enormously popular and influential in many of the disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and even in other places where you might not expect it – for example in business and management schools and in the theoretical reflections that accompany practice disciplines, such as nursing studies. Analytical philosophy has nothing like a comparable influence in any of these or other disciplines. Because of the hostility to continental philosophy that still characterises most mainstream philosophy departments in the UK most study of continental philosophy takes place outside of philosophy departments.
I’m delighted to see the incredible scope of the influence of continental philosophy in UK intellectual life. But what tends to get lost in this carnival of continental philosophy is precisely its grounding in and critical, transformative reaction to the problems formulated by Kant. Although no one in philosophy has the right to legislate how people in other disciplines will use Foucault, for example, it does seem to me that one’s appreciation of Foucault is very much enhanced with a solid understanding of Kant behind it. This is why studying continental philosophy in a philosophy department is different to studying it in other disciplinary contexts – basically, you will be forced to read Kant.
For Kant, our cognitive architecture has not evolved in such a way as to accurately represent reality as it is in itself. Why does he have such faith that it has evolved in such a way as to accurately represent things as they appear to us? And even if we do manage to retain some element of objectivity through his empirical realism, is this not still a rather deflated notion of objectivity?
I think Kant’s position is that our cognitive apparatus could not have evolved in such a way as to represent things as they are in themselves – this is a logical impossibility for Kant. The representation of things as they are in themselves means the representation of things as they are independently of our human representations of them. So long as we remain human we represent things to ourselves via our human cognitive and perceptual apparatuses. Presumably, other animals, other worldly beings, may have different cognitive apparatuses and may represent things to themselves in different ways, but all finite worldly beings will have to have such an apparatus and represent things to themselves with it. Things could only be otherwise for God. This also means that things appear to us as they appear to us – I don’t think that there is an epistemological problem about the veracity of appearances qua appearances for Kant.
As for the problem that things as they are in themselves might be quite heterogeneous to our representations of them – I suppose that that remains a possibility. But for Kant so long as we have secured the objectivity of appearances – which he thinks he has – this isn’t really something we need to worry about. It is like saying: I wish I could know things, not as a human, but as they are completely outside of any human perspective. Why would I, as a human, want that? Why would I, as a human, think that that would be possible? It is as if I wished that I could speak without using any specific language.
For Kant the objectivity of knowledge is secured by the a priori contribution to it of the faculties of sensibility (with space and time) and the understanding (with the pure concepts or the categories). As this means that objectivity is secured via subjectivity, it might look to some like a rather deflated notion of objectivity. But perhaps it only looks like that if we begin with an over-inflated sense of objectivity. This over-inflated sense of objectivity demands that there be absolutely no contribution from the knowing subject, or presumes that any contribution from the subject can only be a distorting one. Doesn’t this position want to separate knowledge from the human completely? I think that Kant would think that this is (as he remarks in another context) a science for gods. One of the greatest challenges of the Critique of Pure Reason is that it asks us to rethink what we mean by ‘objectivity’.
This returns us to the idea of subjectivity itself, as well. ‘Subjectivity’ no longer means the variable or even fickle contribution of the particular individual that messes up the possibility of objective knowledge. It refers to the universal, hence shared, structures of subjectivity. So it is not just objectivity that Kant forces us to rethink.
There is a clear sense in which Kant curtailed philosophy’s metaphysical scope and ambitions, retrenching human knowledge to the confined sphere of mere appearances, thus forfeiting the realist ambition of directly referring to, or even grasping, reality in itself. What can philosophy’s metaphysical ambitions be in light of Kant and his legacy of transcendental idealism?
I think what was said about objectivity could equally be said of ‘reality’. Kant’s position (as you know) is that appearances just are ‘reality’ for us. He distinguishes between metaphysical and empirical realism. A metaphysical realist is effectively committed to the aim of knowing reality as it is in itself, independently of any subjective contribution to knowledge. For Kant it is metaphysical realism – not transcendental idealism – that inevitably leads to scepticism and relativism because we will never know reality as it is independently of our way of knowing reality.
Kant, lecturing to Russian officers
Appearances are real, they are not illusory – the distinction between appearance and illusion is very important for Kant and it is only the metaphysical realist who is forced to conflate them. Transcendental idealism (the doctrine of the transcendental ideality, i.e. mind-dependence, of space and time and of the origin of the pure concepts in the understanding itself) is equated with empirical realism because, together with the empirical contribution to knowledge via sensibility, the a priori contribution of the subject gives us real and objective knowledge of the world. This is very far from any kind of relativism or scepticism on Kant’s part.
After this, metaphysical realism doesn’t have a monopoly on the idea of reality. It is important that we are able to think about what might be called regional ontologies of reality. Physical objects are real, but so are events, so are social structures. Of course this means that we have to think about the reality of different kinds of things in different ways – that is what I meant by ‘regional ontologies’. For example, one of the most important discussions in contemporary philosophy and other disciplines concerns the ‘reality’ of race. Race is not ‘real’ in the sense that races are biological kinds, but ‘race’ is ‘real’ to the extent that people are racialized into groups called ‘races’ that have a social reality. The social reality of ‘race’ is easily mistaken for a metaphysical reality; in fact racism generally relies on this kind of mistake. Although I don’t think that pre-Kantian metaphysics has survived or can survive, of course people still do practice what they call ‘metaphysics’. Whatever metaphysical ambitions people may have these days, the meaning of ‘metaphysics’ will be different. It is worth recalling P.F Strawson’s distinction between ‘descriptive’ and ‘revisionary’ metaphysics. Strawson salvaged a descriptive metaphysical project from Kant, seeing him as attempting to describe the shared conceptual scheme that human beings just do have. Strawson had no truck with revisionary metaphysics, but if we accept that there is any historicity to our ‘conceptual scheme’ the revisionary project is back on the agenda. Post-Kantian revisionary metaphysics would have to be critical first, revealing the social and historical embeddedness of our conceptual presumptions, before attempting to think in alternative ways.
Kant’s work can often seem extremely abstract (in addition to frighteningly complex!), and it is easy for members of the general public (even those with philosophical leanings) to wonder why, for example, the question of conditions of possibility for knowledge of objects is of any significance to them. Can you say anything about how these esoteric-sounding philosophical issues may trickle down such that they become relevant to life outside of academic philosophy?
It is true that the Critique of Pure Reason, for example, is difficult to read. But is also true that there is much pleasure and satisfaction to be had from the achievement of having read it and understood some of it. And the basic epistemological problem can, I think, quite easily be distilled in a form that children can understand – in fact I’ve seen that done in a children’s magazine (Aquila) for 8–12-year olds. But I’m glad that you ask this question because I think that philosophy has to be able to speak to the social and political present if it is not to wither away as an archaic or pointlessly abstract practice. Of course we have to do the leg work, studying and becoming knowledgeable about the discipline before we can come at it all guns blazing, but if we can’t get philosophy out of the classroom and into the way we think about everyday issues of great importance then it may as well die. For philosophy to be relevant philosophers also have to know something about what is being said in other relevant disciplines too, or know something about what is happening in the arenas in which they would intervene. It is not clear what use philosophical aesthetics is, for example, if it has no relation to contemporary art and if it knows nothing about contemporary art theory. It would be merely arrogant if philosophers of language thought that they had nothing to learn from Translation Studies, or if people thinking about unconscious bias thought that a discipline founded on the concept of the unconscious – psychoanalysis – was not worth investigating.
I think we have to bear all this in mind when we want to know how Kant’s difficult ideas have trickled down or may trickle down into public consciousness and into everyday life. I see Michel Foucault – bête noire of many a mainstream scholarly historian or philosopher – as a great example. Foucault learned about the transcendental from Kant. He saw, beyond Kant, that there were historical conditions of possibility for what counted as knowledge or as legitimate statements in various institutional discourses, notably psychiatry. He thought that the status of these conditions was such that they deserved the title of the historical a priori (which would be, for Kant, a contradiction in terms). Translated into everyday terms this historical transcendentalisation of epistemological norms explains to us why they stick so hard and fast but it also allows for the possibility that, by critically interrogating them, we might begin to think and thus live differently. Perhaps some historical transcendentals are illusions, in Kant’s sense – illusions that we mistake for necessities of thinking. Wouldn’t it be relevant to our everyday lives if we could identify those?
I also think, however, that we can never know in advance how our becoming acquainted with a philosophical work will affect us. Often, it is not that particular doctrines rationally compel our assent and then inform our behaviour or understanding of things, according to a kind of Benthamite determinism. In her autobiography, when she reflects on being asked about the relationship between her philosophy and the everyday world, Simone de Beauvoir said that it was not a matter of bringing together two separate things, but that she had learned to see the world through philosophical eyes. Kant can teach us this, too. We don’t have to exactly agree with Kant that space and time are transcendentally ideal to have been provoked by his philosophy into a critical, reflective relation to the world which is immensely enriching, granted it is not always easy or comfortable.
Although we have focused on Kant's transcendental philosophy, I was wondering if there were other aspects of Kant's legacy you were interested in discussing?
Well, in Kant studies these days there is a big, horrible elephant in the room – his theory of race and his racism. That Kant often made vile racist comments is undeniable. (He was also quite exceptionally sexist and never seemed to tire of saying perfectly stupid things about women, too.) People will say that he was a man of his time (of course he was; we are all people of our time) but in fact he was racist even by the standards of his day. In Kant’s lectures on anthropology and physical geography, especially, – lectures which were very popular and which were intended for the cultivation of the young men in his audience – he returned over and over to the topic of the natural history of the human races and the differences between the races.
He was a monogenesist; that is, he believed that all the different human races belonged to one human species and were descended from one creation. In order to explain how it was, then, that humans had come to be divided into four or five distinct ‘races’, which he believed were now fixed, he developed a theory of biological development. He suggested that the original human race had contained within it various different germs or seeds and natural dispositions that did or did not develop in response to the environment and the climate as humans spread across the earth. The supreme principle in this theory is the principle of the purposiveness of nature. Nothing in nature is not purposive. The germs were placed in the original human race in order that the human might be fitted for whatever environment they found themselves in. Kant thought that the races had developed unevenly, that there was a racial hierarchy with – unsurprisingly – white Europeans at the top. The germs in the original human stock were internally purposive – there in order that the human being might populate the whole earth and develop all the capacities that a human being could develop. But in the context of the system of nature within which the races belong, a system that is ultimately a system of ends, Kant also speaks of the races as purposive in another sense – notably, suggesting that the black race is a slave race.
Kant did not ever either directly defend or explicitly argue against the institution of slavery. And of course all of this is absolutely incompatible with his cosmopolitan universalism and his ethics, which has led people to criticise Kant’s claims about race and his racism with arguments from his own philosophy. More broadly, however, there can be no historical or programmatic separation between the Kant’s theory of race and the critical philosophy, and indeed parts of the former are the direct and obvious initial development of the latter, especially concerning the role of teleological judgment. But it is still very difficult to say what the implications of the theory of race – if any – are for the critical philosophy. That is something that we need to keep thinking about, in my view.
WE DON'T HAVE TO EXACTLY AGREE WITH KANT THAT SPACE AND TIME ARE TRANSCENDENTALLY IDEAL TO HAVE BEEN PROVOKED BY HIS PHILOSOPHY INTO A CRITICAL, REFLECTIVE RELATION TO THE WORLD WHICH IS IMMENSELY ENRICHING, GRANTED IT IS NOT ALWAYS EASY OR COMFORTABLE.
Kant is generally presented as a setter of limits to philosophy inquiry. But what (if any) do you feel are the limits of what can be placed, and performed, under the category of ‘philosophy’?
It depends whether we think that ‘philosophy’ is the name for a specific academic discipline practiced in the Universities and other dedicated disciplinary sites or whether we think it is – or should be – a broader practice of analysis, critique and construction. On the one hand, there is a disciplinary specificity to philosophy. I think that this disciplinary specificity has to do with the relation to the history of philosophy and with the practice of abstract thinking. The discipline is internally plural, but to study for a BA in Philosophy is still a specific undertaking that is different to studying for a BA in Literary Studies or BSc in Mathematics, for example. I don’t think that just anything can be called ‘philosophy’, even if there is a popular usage of the term that does just this. But philosophy cannot maintain itself in a disciplinary silo. Disciplines are relatively recent historical inventions, and philosophy for most of its long history did not separate itself off from other areas of enquiry. Philosophy – continental philosophy, at least – has burst the banks of the discipline and seeped into many others, as we have discussed. It may very well not be the discipline of philosophy, narrowly conceived, that gets to say what can be placed, and performed, under the title of ‘philosophy’ in the future.
Stella Sandford is Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, the leading centre for research in continental philosophy in the UK. She has published books on Beauvoir, Levinas, and Plato, and her work focuses on the intersection of philosophy with sex, gender, race, and ethnicity.
This interview was originally published in The Kantian Catastophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Anthony Morgan, published by Bigg Books in 2017, and available for purchase here.