Was Kant the First 'Woke' Philosopher?
Kant set us on the path to today’s “woke” ideas by arguing that perceptions are more powerful than reality
Was Immanuel Kant the first “woke” philosopher?
Recently, a column by Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post presented an argument that the 18th-century German philosopher is the ultimate source of critical race theory and the contemporary racial politics that goes along with it. As Thiessen writes,
Critical race theory, [Princeton historian Allen] Guelzo says, is a subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. It was a response to—and rejection of—the principles of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason on which the American republic was founded. Kant believed that “reason was inadequate to give shape to our lives” and so he set about “developing a theory of being critical of reason,” Guelzo says.
But the critique of reason ended up justifying “ways of appealing to some very unreasonable things as explanations—things like race, nationality, class,” he says. Critical theory thus helped spawn totalitarian ideologies in the 20th century such as Marxism and Nazism, which taught that all human relationships are relationships of power between an oppressor class and an oppressed class. For the Marxists, the bourgeoisie were the oppressors. For the Nazis, the Jews were the oppressors. And today, in 21st century America, critical race theory teaches that whites are the oppressors. This is largely correct, but for the most part it is explained poorly, giving a lot of big conclusions without spelling out the basis for them. So, this claim came in for a lot of criticism—naturally from all the people who got their degrees in law and, more recently, epidemiology from Twitter University and who, with surprising speed for such an unwieldy tome, have now read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”
As someone who has in fact read the “Critique of Pure Reason” and who didn’t pretend to do it in the last week (and believe me, I didn’t do it for fun), I can offer a better explanation.
But first, why does it matter? What difference does it make if we can pin this on a long-dead philosopher? It matters because wokism is just one part of a long intellectual shadow cast by Immanuel Kant that still threatens to smother the beneficial intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment.
Dispatches from Plato’s Cave
Kant is certainly the first woke philosopher in one sense: He wrote that it was the radical skepticism of David Hume that “woke me from my dogmatic slumber” and inspired his philosophical inquiries.
But the “dogmatism” he was referring to was his confidence, up to that point, that the things we see around us are actually real, that the evidence obtained by direct observation is valid. His “awakening” consisted of accepting an abstract philosophical argument as more important than observation, of trusting theory over evidence.
That’s a pretty upside-down conception of awakening, but it turns out to be more than just a coincidence of stylistic expression, because this is exactly the sense in which today’s woke consider themselves awakened.
“Don’t believe your lying eyes” has a long intellectual tradition. From the beginning of the first religions, seers and prophets have fancied themselves the purveyors of hidden knowledge, able to see a reality behind reality that told them something different from what the rest of us get from our eyes and ears. At the dawn of Western thought, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato formalized this with his Allegory of the Cave, in which he imagined hapless normies as prisoners in a cave who can see only fleeting shadows cast on the wall, while he, the philosopher, could ascend above them and see the reality behind what we consider reality.
Kant’s supposed awakening was in this tradition, and it has carried forward to the present day. Here’s a small example. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is the current bogeyman (or woman) of the “progressive” left, so she just got the full hidden-knowledge treatment: a series of three whole articles (so far) in The New York Times deconstructing her choices in shoes and outfits to find hidden messages about race, class and gender. To you and me, and no doubt to Sen. Sinema, her choice to wear a sleeveless dress might merely reflect her personal taste. But no, in the Plato’s Cave of woke politics, “race absolutely matters to her style choices” because “a dress is never just a dress. It is always strategy.”
Maybe this is important knowledge hidden from everyone else. Much more likely, it’s invented out of thin air to vilify a politician who didn’t vote the right way.
The Anti-Copernican Revolution
For those susceptible to this craving for esoteric knowledge, Kant provided the ultimate justification. Ironically, it came in the form of what he called his “Copernican revolution.”
Kant was awakened by his confrontation with Hume’s skepticism, particularly Hume’s argument that no valid abstract generalizations can ever be drawn from mere observation (which ironically is exactly what Copernicus had done). Kant claimed to be searching for “a happier solution of the problem,” but ended up essentially reformulating Hume’s skepticism to make it more socially acceptable.
His theory, he modestly proposed, was “like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer [i.e., around the Earth], tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.”
Kant also proposed to make the observer revolve: “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects. ... [L]et us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.”
Here’s how he arrived at the convenient conclusion that “objects must conform to our cognition.” Kant argued that we can never perceive reality directly or know what things are “in themselves.” All we can perceive is things as they appear to us, through our eyes, ears and other senses—but those appearances, he asserted, are shaped and distorted by the nature of our senses. He posited that there are basic abstract “categories” built into our minds that impose themselves on our perception, that make things appear to us in a certain way, regardless of what things really are, independent of us. All our perceptions are shaped by “a priori concepts,” concepts formed not from observation and experience but implanted in our very nature, “to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.”
The advantage of this theory is that it allows us to confidently assert that our perceptions will always match our abstract assumptions, because they cannot do otherwise. The price, however, is that this theory cuts us off from reality, trapping us inside a delusion of our own making. There is no absolute truth, only our “perception” of the truth as shaped by who we are.
It’s a winding road from here to wokeness, but I think you can begin to see where it starts: with the idea that perception is more powerful than reality and that it all depends on your own identity.
In the 20th century, Ayn Rand summed up the contradiction in Kant’s philosophy: the idea that “man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.”
But in her novel “The Fountainhead,” Rand also tells us, by way of her villain Ellsworth Toohey, “Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes.”
What did Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution accomplish?
We can answer that by comparing it to the original Copernican revolution. The Copernican system swept away arcane and needlessly complicated Earth-centered theories in favor of a sun-centered solar system that better fit the evidence and was subsequently refined and validated by astronomical observations and new discoveries in physics. The Copernican revolution set the precedent of making abstract theories subordinate to observation. Kant did the exact opposite, setting up a system in which observation is subordinated to our theories.
This is not a “Copernican revolution,” it’s an Anti-Copernican revolution.
The Base and the Superstructure
The fig leaf on Kant’s radical subjectivism, the thing that makes it seem like an answer to Hume, is his assurance that the mental categories that shape our perception of the world are universal. We may live in a delusion, but at least we all live in the same delusion.
This was not a tenable assumption. People have had different ideas and employed different “categories” across cultures and in different time periods. This led one of Kant’s successors, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (the Germans were the 19th century’s philosophical wrecking crew), to adopt a philosophy of historicism, in which a historical “spirit of the age” or even a “national spirit” shapes how we perceive and think about everything. Among a faction later known as the “Old Hegelians,” this was used to promote the Prussian authoritarian state as the fullest expression of the spirit of the age, which, in Hegel’s words, “has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the State.” In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious where that was headed.
But the key link to contemporary wokeness was forged by a different group of Hegel’s followers, the “Young Hegelians,” which included Karl Marx.
Marx’s key contribution was most clearly stated in terms of the “base” and the “superstructure.” The “base” is the underlying reality of human life, which he conceives of as a brute material struggle for physical dominance and exploitation. Ideas, culture, morality and religion are all an ephemeral “superstructure” that serves only to express and perpetuate this underlying base.
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Notice that this does essentially the same thing as Kant’s awakening. While pretending to penetrate through dogma and propaganda to the underlying reality, it actually enshrines dogma and propaganda. If our entire “intellectual life” is there just to serve underlying power relationships, then no argument about ideas—nothing about history, art, philosophy—is really about facts and reasoning. It’s actually about the hidden reality of the author’s place in the economic power structure—whether he serves the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Every idea is really just an agenda.
In practice, the Marxists even applied this to science. For instance, the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko declared that his crackpot theories on genetics and agriculture were the only true expression of communism. But the scientific facts did not conform to his political agenda, and the results were disastrous.
Marx’s view is dressed up as “materialism,” but the actual result is the same as with Kant: “objects must conform to our cognition.” Marxism is famously unfalsifiable, because any fact or argument against it can be dismissed as mere propaganda, as “bourgeois logic” and “false consciousness” used to prop up a capitalist society.
Now we’re getting closer to modern wokeness. If every idea is an agenda, then we’re almost at the point where every dress is “a strategy.”
Race, Class and Gender
Borrowing from Kant, who called his big treatises “critiques,” Marx called his philosophy a “critical” approach. This is not “critical” in the general way we think of when we talk about critical thinking. It’s not about logical analysis or fact-checking. The critical approach is specifically about looking behind every idea to the agenda and power relationships of the person who advocates it. It is the argumentum ad hominem as a system.
That is the root of today’s critical race theory, and of critical studies or critical social justice in general: Marx’s focus on class has been expanded to the usual trinity of race, class and gender. As Helen Pluckrose explains,
It has some of its intellectual ancestry in Marxist thought and the concept of “critical consciousness,” that is, becoming aware of oppressive power systems—hence the connection with the term “woke,” which uses the African-American Vernacular English word to describe being able to see systems of oppression that are invisible to most people. But Critical Social Justice derives more from postmodern concepts of knowledge, power, and discourses.
CSJ holds that knowledge is not objective but is culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems. ... Knowledge is thus tied to identity and one’s perceived position in society in relation to power—often referred to as “positionality.” ...
Any skepticism of these interpretations is assumed to be an attempt to preserve one’s own privilege if one is of a group perceived to be privileged, or, if one is not a member of a privileged group, it is seen as evidence of one having internalized the oppressive power system. This is, of course, completely unfalsifiable and therefore makes it impossible for any disagreement to be seen as legitimate. This is what people are reacting to when they react against wokeness and critical race theory. They object to being arrayed along an artificial matrix of oppressors and victims, and they get really mad when they are not even allowed to question these theories without being vilified.
And yes, this can ultimately be traced back to Kant.
Our Dogmatic Slumber
To be sure, Kant didn’t back this particular implementation of his ideas, and as an (apparent) racist of the old school, I doubt he would have approved the form they have taken.
But Kant was always working on a higher level. My favorite Kant title is “The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God.” He wouldn’t bother with anything so mundane as actually trying to prove God exists. Instead, he set the terms and methods that would shape how anyone else could make such an argument.
That’s the key to Kant’s long shadow over the field of philosophy. His most influential works were the “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” and the “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” This guy was not messing around. He wanted to lay the groundwork for all future theories.
Unfortunately, he largely succeeded, and you can see his influence everywhere. Remember the “Laurel versus Yanny” puzzle from a few years ago? Some interpreted it as evidence that “the world that we perceive” is “a hallucination.” “Everyone’s brain makes a little world out of sensory input, and everyone’s world is just a little bit different.” That’s the influence of Kant.
You can hear it even from defenders of liberalism and critics of the woke orthodoxy. In his excellent book “The Constitution of Knowledge,” subtitled “A Defense of Truth,” Jonathan Rauch still feels the need to channel Kant: “The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses.”
That’s why Kant’s legacy is so dangerous—and critical race theory is just a small part of it. The philosophical inquiries and scientific and political innovations of the Enlightenment have produced a vast edifice of knowledge that has vastly improved human life. While posing as an advocate and defender of the Enlightenment, as an enemy of dogma, Kant nevertheless struck at the very roots of Enlightenment thought, undercutting the very idea of objective truth.
This all goes back to Kant’s upside-down idea of what is means to be awakened.
If you treat ordinary facts and direct observation of the world as if they are dogmas from which we need awakening while you treat esoteric theories as the means of that awakening, you create a system that in fact puts dogma over reality. Hence the fanaticism, the peremptory excommunications, the quasi-religious fervor of the woke crusade.
The answer is to reclaim the animating idea of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that all our abstractions should answer to the universal test of facts and observation. Then we will be ready to awaken from the dogmatic slumber of wokeness.