The juxtaposition of Kant's name with "feminism" seems almost designed to invite scorn and indignation. As we will soon see, throughout his career Kant made a variety of noxious and distasteful comments about women. As we will also see, Kant has been regarded, with Descartes, as the philosopher chiefly responsible for providing modern Western philosophy with a picture of reason that has been employed in a variety of ways oppressive to women. Yet the reader of Kant's works in practical philosophy, specifically the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, could very well harbor a considerably different expectation, namely, that Kant's views of women — qua rational agents — should be able to provide the grounding for a liberatory project. After all, the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative — "Act so that you treat humanity [Menschheit], whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end [Zweck] and never as a means only"l — appears, prima facie, to yield precisely that grounding. One might expect still further support for such a project from Kant's extensive and detailed discussion of human freedom. Kant's readers, then, are faced with the hermeneutical task of either 1) reconciling these seemingly inconsistent claims, 2) trying to eliminate that material that is indefensible, while retaining that which remains of philosophical interest, or 3) rejecting the entire Kantian approach as irredeemably sexist and oppressive. In what follows, I seek to address the issues raised by this conflict between Kant's sexist remarks and the "official" picture of human agency one finds in his work. As might be expected, most of the attention of Kant's feminist critics has been concentrated on his practical philosophy, as well as other remarks of his found in the lectures and less systematic works. I will focus, instead, on a text that plays a surprisingly small role in these discussions, the Critique of Pure Reason, particularly its account of the subject, its cognitive capacities, and its theoretical limitations.
In so doing, it will be shown that some — although certainly not all — of the feminist critique of Kant can be deflected. This raises, in turn, two general historiographical questions that frequently arise: is it ever possible to detach, or otherwise eliminate, the "problematic" — if not simply reprehensible — claims made by a philosopher whose insights we otherwise hope to retain and utilize? And if it is, how can it be done? Although I return briefly to these difficult questions in concluding this discussion, I am more interested here in pursuing a philosophical point. For on the interpretation of the subject given here, and the consequences of this interpretation, we can see that there may be good reasons to regard this Kantian (or perhaps, more appropriately, "neo-Kantian") account as not resulting in the kind of sexism conveyed by Kant's own remarks. Indeed, it may have the surprising result of grounding, in a remarkably robust way, a progressive liberatory project many feminists have seen Kant as actively preventing. It is not my intention, here, to show what such a Kantian feminism would look like; rather I only want to argue that the results of Kant's critical philosophy, including the essential contribution to that philosophy made by the First Critique, are too valuable for feminism to be dismissed without considerably more careful attention than it has often received.
Copyright © 1999, Walter de Gruyter
Walter de Gruyter
Mosser, Kurt, "Kant and Feminism" (1999). Philosophy Faculty Publications. 21.