The Epistemological and Ethical Functions of Kant’s Binary and Foucault’s Critique of Critique of the Binary

Introduction

In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant famously posits his categorical imperative, asserting that rationality must be respected in itself, for its own sake. Such an imperative, argues Kant, applies universally, that is, its application is independent from all particularities. However, in Kant’s practical works on geography and anthropology, Kant appears to be very concerned with the particular, and moreover, appears to take seriously how these particulars function epistemologically and ethically. For this paper, I explore the logic of the binary in Kant’s work, as well as how this logic functions epistemologically and ethically.

In the first section, I explore how Kant, I suggest, utilizes a conception of A and non-A. Kant associates A with “human” as what Kant considers is its fullest achievement of being; human as fully moral. A is associated with what is known and with the “good.” As such, A serves as the centralizing figure by which to organize, order and classify, human beings. Conversely, non-A is associated with what is lack, the “unknown,” and “evil.” Kant, I suggest, uses this binary to hierarchically order a whole range of values, sub-As, in between A and non-A as well as to define himself as A, as a knowing subject. In the second section, I follow Foucault’s reading of Kant’s works and suggest that Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary offers us a way to conceptualize Kant’s critique of the knowing subject. Kant’s critique of the knowing subject, I suggest, sets up and maintains a coherent structure to Kant’s ordered hierarchy by which knowledge of As and sub-As is epistemologically justified and A’s and sub-A’s actions are ethically prescribed.

My project is intended as a critical examination of the logic, as well as epistemological and ethical functions, of the binary in Kant’s work. I take Kant’s epistemology and ethics to be founded upon a logical binary that in turn categorizes and classifies people into a value hierarchy. I want to be very clear here: I am not endorsing Kantian thought, but am instead critically analyzing it in order to understand how it works; in order to, in turn, be able to conceptualize new ways of thinking as well as avoid falling back into Eurocentric, masculinist, and heteronormative, ways of thinking.

Kant: The Epistemological and Ethical Functions of the Binary in Kant’s Anthropology and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

One can glean Kant’s conceptions of A and non-A from his writings on anthropology and morality. Epistemology and ethics are linked in Kant’s conception of anthropology. Kant states that anthropology, as “knowledge of the world,” aims to know humans as a species “endowed with reason” in order to use such knowledge as a tool for “cultural progress” (7:119). Kant breaks down anthropology into physiological considerations, which address “what nature makes of the human being,” and pragmatic considerations, which address “what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself” (ibid.). Pragmatic anthropology is knowledge about what human beings are doing, as well as what they can and ought to do, in order to advance the human species as a whole toward a moral end.

The question here is: What is Kant’s A? A is a starting point. A centers the epistemological and ethical universe. In discussing how to define the character of the human species, Kant states that in order to define “a character of a certain being’s species,” it is necessary to use “one concept with other species known to us” (7:321). Moreover, the “characteristic property” that is different between species is to be “used as a basis for distinguishing them” (ibid.). He then asks: “But if we are comparing a kind of being that we know (A) with another kind of being that we do not know (non-A), how then can one expect or demand to indicate a character of the former when the middle term of the comparison (tertium comparationis) is missing to us?”

The concept that is known to Kant is rationality. Rationality is Kant’s epistemological and ethical central starting point. The human being is “an animal endowed with the capacity of reason” (7:321). The defining difference between humans and animals is rationality. The human is distinguished, differentiated, by three factors: (1) “his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness,” (2) “his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes),” and (3) “by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under laws)” (7:322). Kant states that “any one of these three levels can by itself alone already distinguish the human being characteristically as opposed to other inhabitants of the earth” (7:322).

A is rationality. More specifically, A is human rationality. But, human rationality takes three forms, in order of least to most significant for Kant: (1) technical, (2) pragmatic, and (3) moral. A is human rationality at its utmost. Therefore, A is human rationality in its moral form. A is the character of the human species as a whole. A centers the epistemological and ethical universe. Kant states, “the first character of the human being is the capacity as a rational being to obtain a character as such for his own person as well as for the society in which nature as placed him” which “presupposes an already favorable natural predisposition and a tendency to the good in him” because “evil is really without character” (7:329). Human character is the capacity to develop oneself and one’s society in the three forms rationality takes with the end of moral perfection. It is, moreover, a predisposition toward “good.” For Kant, A is human rationality in its moral form and A is good. Conversely non-A is a lack of character, and a lack of character is evil.

Character is important for Kant because “The character of a living being is that which allows its destiny to be cognized in advance” (ibid.). The character of the human species as a whole is rationality and this rationality finds its perfection in the end of morality. Kant takes it as a principle that “nature wants every creature to reach its destiny through the appropriate development of all predispositions of its nature, so that at least the species if not every individual, fulfills nature’s purpose” (ibid.). Kant states, “with the human being only the species, at best, reaches [its destiny]; so that the human race can work its way up to its destiny only through progress in a series of innumerably many generations” (7:324).

Only the human as rational, and only the species as a whole, can bring about the human species’ destiny and it does so through “the development of good out of evil” by its own activity (7:329). This development “can be expected with moral certainty (sufficient certainty for the duty of working toward this end)” (ibid.). For Kant, the human species’ teleological character serves both epistemological and ethical functions. It is that in which nature’s end is known as well as is that which ethically prescribes how to reach that end. It is also that which gives sufficient certainty, epistemological justification, for how to reach that end. A, as human rationality, is that which is ethically prescriptive as well as epistemologically justificatory.

However, there is another level to Kant’s schema: the character of individuals. The character of each individual being is also that which will allow its destiny to be cognized in advance. The characters of individuals, for Kant, are necessarily linked to the character of their human group, and the character of the human group is necessarily linked to the group’s physical, sexual, racial, and ethnic differences.[1] As Kant’s concern is with the human species as a whole, he finds it necessary to begin with general knowledge of the whole. The general knowledge he is working with is the concept of A. General knowledge as the concept of A, for Kant, serves as the method for ordering local knowledge, i.e. the specificities and differences between human groups (7:120).

Kant states that nature is arranged according to an idea, an end, a destiny, which human beings are meant to fulfill through progress toward that end (8:181-8:182). According to Kant, specificities and differences in human groups are naturally due to each having their own “infinitely different ends” that in turn “develop the fitness to fewer but more essential ends” (italics mine, 8:166).[2] Nature does nothing in vain, for Kant. Human groups’ differences are, for him, what is predestined by nature as what is required for the ultimate end of nature. For example, in the case of the sexual difference between white men and white women, Kant states that, “what nature’s end was in establishing woman kind” could be used to “indicate the principle for characterizing woman – a principle which does not depend on our choice but on a higher purpose for the human race” (7:305-7:306). He continues, woman’s “ends are: (1) the preservation of the species, (2) the cultivation of society and its refinement by womankind” (7:306).

What I want to suggest is that Kant is operating under a conception of A and non-A where everything in between A and non-A becomes hierarchically ordered according to the three forms rationality takes. This is Kant’s great chain of being. A, for Kant, is the perfection of human rationality in moral form. Non-A is the complete lack of human character, a complete lack of rationality. In between there is a gradation of sub-A depending on what extent the group character is (1) technical, (2) pragmatic, (3) moral.[3] The ultimate end of nature is the moral. The technical and pragmatic are different ends that develop the fitness to the fewer but more essential moral end.

No human group has reached absolute A-ness. However, some human groups are more predisposed by nature, according to Kant, to be able to progress toward that end, and as such, these groups embody the potentiality for A. Other human groups are predisposed by nature to be sub-A and reach their fulfillment as pragmatic beings, while other human groups are predisposed to be sub-A technical beings. The less each group displays these forms of rationality, the closer they are defined by Kant as non-A. For Kant, while non-A is an absolute lack to which no sub-A can be, some groups are much closer to this absolute lack than others. As noted above, any one of these three forms of rationality make individuals “human” in the sense that they are rational. However, Kant does not consider all forms of rationality as equal. Only the group that has the potentiality for A is “fully human”; sub-As are more or less “human” and, according to Kant, are predisposed by nature to always be.[4] Moreover, Kant considers progression toward the end of nature as requiring actively developing one’s rationality. Therefore, some groups whom Kant considers as not developing their predisposed rational capacities are placed lower in the hierarchy closer to non-A status.

Now, to be clear, there is a distinction here between the moral and ethical. Kant states that moral philosophy cannot be completely separated from the empirical because it concerns “laws of the human being’s will insofar as it is affected by nature,” “laws in accordance with which everything ought to happen, while still taking into account the conditions under which it very often does not happen” (4:387-4:388). Ethics has an empirical aspect termed “practical anthropology” and a rational aspect termed “morals” (4:388). Morals, under the rational aspect, must be, according to Kant, completely unmixed with empirical particularities; they must be deduced from pure reason based on a “universal concept of a rational being” and must “hold for every rational being” (4:412). However, ethics also has an empirical aspect, practical anthropology. Under this aspect, the “whole of morals” “needs anthropology for its application to human beings” (4:412).

For Kant, the moral is rational and absolute. But, the moral is only one part of the ethical. The other part of the ethical is practical anthropology, and this is particular. The group character determines whether one can be moral. According to Kant, if one’s group character is such that the ends that nature has predestined it for are merely technical, then one cannot ever be moral. But, one can be ethical if one fulfills their technical group character as predestined by nature. Moreover, according to Kant’s schema, the ends of nature give one epistemological justification for the ordering of the hierarchy. For Kant, one need not examine further than the human group’s character for epistemological justification for the group’s sub-A status.

Foucault and Kant: Critique of Critique and the Binary

In this section I explore how the binary in Kant’s schema functions in relation to his four questions of philosophy: What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope? What is “man”?[5] All four of these questions are bound up in the binary and its subsequent proliferation, ordering, and classification of a gradation of sub-As. My examination will follow from Amy Allen’s reading of Foucault’s reading of Kant. Allen argues against the idea that Foucault “has two Kants,” one that he is highly critical of in The Order of Things, and another that he is a proponent of in Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology and the lecture “What is Critique.”[6] Allen argues that Foucault’s reading of Kant is consistent across texts in that at its core Foucault’s project aims to critique the knowing subject.[7] Foucault conceives of Kant as critiquing the knowing subject, but not going far enough in his critique. Foucault, thus, offers a “critique of critique,” that is, an “interrogation of the conditions of possibility of subjectivity itself.”[8]

What can I know? This is an epistemological question of who the knowing subject is as well as the knowing subject’s ability to know the limits of knowledge. Foucault credits Kant with initiating this critique by posing the question in relation to enlightenment as: “do you know up to what point you can know?”[9] In Foucault’s modern episteme, where a single “corporeal gaze” relentlessly orders and classifies objects of knowledge into a coherent totalized structure of knowledge, “man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject of knowledge.”[10] Foucault states, “for anthropology, it is a question of knowing if, on the level of man, a knowledge of finitude can exist, a knowledge sufficiently liberated and grounded so as to be able to think that finitude in it-self – that is, as a form of positivity.”

Anthropology, for Foucault, is faced with the a priori limits of the knowing subject’s knowledge.[11] Anthropology both solidifies humans into objects of knowledge even as it is concomitantly the knowledge of the knowledge of humans.[12] Anthropology, as knowledge of the knowledge of humans, is capable of interrogating the limitations of the knowing subject.[13] Foucault continues, “The internal structure of Anthropology and the question which secretly animates the book in fact take the same form as critical enquiry itself: it, too, presumes to know the possibilities and the limitations of knowledge; from a position of exteriority, it mimicks, in the gestures of empiricity the movement of critical philosophy; furthermore, what it takes as given seems to be able to function as an a priori.”[14]

If we follow Foucault’s reading, I suggest that this would mean that Kant critiques the knowing subject by questioning who he is as a knower. In Kant’s schema, A is the knowing subject, and Kant is an A. He wants to know the defining characteristic of a knower; the defining characteristic of A. He begins from a known concept that he takes both to be indicative of a knower and universally shared among all human groups, rationality. He then systematically orders and categorizes human groups according to differences in characteristic properties, the three forms of rationality. Kant is trying to know himself as a knower, and in order to do so he defines himself in opposition to others. Foucault states, “From one end of experience to the other, finitude answers itself; it is the identity and the difference of the positivities, and of their foundation, within the figure of the same.”[15]

Confronted with limitations to knowledge, Kant seeks an origin of the same in order to then define differences. All humans are rational, but the differences between himself as A, the ultimate other as non-A, and others as sub-As define who he is as a knowing subject. “Modern reflection,” continues Foucault, “moves towards a certain thought of the Same – in which Difference is the same thing as Identity.”[16] Kant, the knower, becomes A, defined in opposition to the non-knower, non-A, and the proliferation of more or less knowers, sub-As, where all are reduced to the same defining concept, rationality.

What one may hope, then is a question posed to a limited knowing subject. In his limitations as a knowing subject, Kant resorts to the use of teleological principles. Nature, for Kant, does nothing in vain and progresses toward an end goal. The end goal nature progresses toward is the full realization of the moral. Everything in nature, for Kant, is purposely designed as a means or an intermediate end to this ultimate end. What may be hoped for is what one may be reasonably justified in hoping for. Epistemological justification is not separate from teleological principles. One may not have direct access to know via experience what may be hoped for, but one nonetheless is reasonably justified in hoping for it because it fits into an overall coherent conceptual structure. Kant’s use of teleological principles in conjunction with his conception of the binary gives him an overall structure. His overall structure is the framework of general knowledge by which each newly acquired piece of information can be plugged in and made to fit, to cohere, with the overall structure, producing, reproducing, and maintaining the structure.

The other three questions are subsumed in the question of what “man” is. Epistemologically, Kant fails to critique the knowing subject in the sense that he fails to critique his place in the schema. I take it as revealing that Kant mentions David Hume’s claim that nations have no particular characteristic if each individual strives toward developing their own unique character (7:311). Kant’s retort is that the individual predilection to develop one’s own unique character is “precisely the general character of the people to which he himself belongs” (ibid.). Then later, in describing the German character, Kant states, “there is a certain mania for method that allows him to classify other citizens punctiliously […] according to degrees of superiority and order of rank,” to “lay out a ladder between the one who is to rule down to the one who is to be ruled, each rung of which is marked with the degree of reputation proper to it” (7:319). What I find so revelatory is that Kant appears to be asserting that the predilection to hierarchically order and classify, i.e. his entire project in establishing his schema of A, non-A, and sub-As, is the general character of the people to which he belongs.

Philosophy, following Kant, Foucault states, “did not manage to free itself from subjectivity as the fundamental thesis and starting point of enquiry,” and instead “locked itself into subjectivity by conceiving of it as thickened, essentialized, enclosed in the impassable structure ‘menschliches Wesen,’ in which that extenuated truth which is the truth of truth keeps vigil and gathers itself.”[17] In order to answer the question, “What is ‘man’?” Kant establishes himself as the knowing subject imposing order and classification onto others as objects of his teleological gaze. Humans are reduced to objects to be ordered and classified according to the teleological end that coheres with the overall structure of Kant’s gaze. While defining himself against otherness, he nonetheless starts from the position of the knowing subject.

This hierarchical structure both epistemologically defines who humans are as well as ethically prescribes what humans ought to do. The ethical question of what one, the “I” of the knowing subject, ought to do implies another question, namely: Who is the “I”? The ethical stands in direct relation to a conception of who that “I” is. What one is to do is dependent upon who one is. As Foucault states, “it is for the empirical individual who is man, the phenomenon – perhaps even less, the appearance – of an order that now belongs to things themselves and to their interior law.”[18] For Kant, human groups take on an essentialized hierarchical order, an order that is contained within the identity of each human group itself. This identity both epistemologically and ethically defines them.

The centralizing force of this structure is the knowing subject. Foucault continues, “In the middle of them all, compressed within the circle they form, man is designated – more, required – by them” because “man” is “a source of order for the totality they form.”[19] Kant, as the A, is the center, the starting point, from which all order and classification emanates. He is the knowing subject that serves as the principle of coherence to the entire structure. Within this structure, Kant epistemologically and ethically justifies himself as the knowing subject imposing order and classification on humans in order to progress toward the teleological end he utilizes to hold this entire structure together. At the same time, his structure epistemologically and ethically justifies the status of sub-As.

Conclusion

Kant’s hierarchical ordering of human groups along a gradation of sub-A status based on the binary of A and non-A serves both epistemological and ethical functions for him. A is taken as the epistemological and ethical starting point, the center of the epistemological and ethical universe. It is from the position of A, that all sub-As are conceptualized as objects of knowledge and all sub-As’ actions are ethically prescribed. Sub-As are known and sub-As’ actions are ethical only in relation to A; only insofar as sub-As fit into A’s self-referential schema. Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary offers us a way to conceptualize Kant’s critique of the knowing subject. Kant’s critique of the knowing subject, I suggest, sets up and maintains a coherent structure to Kant’s ordered hierarchy. Foucault, despite his critique of critique, actively reproduces the very structure that he is critiquing.

In a longer paper, I would further pursue the epistemological and ethical functions of Kant’s binary, as well as Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary, through Sylvia Wynter’s perspective. Due to space limitations, I will conclude by offering the suggestion that my reading of Kant is compatible with Wynter’s perspective. Wynter, while utilizing Foucault’s work, offers us a further critique of critique. She argues that intellectuals of the modern episteme “continue to articulate, in however radically oppositional a manner, the rules of the social order and its sanctioned theories.”[20] It is no less true today than it was in the classical episteme that “subjects […] normatively [know] Self, Other, as well as their social, physical, and organic worlds, in the adaptively true terms needed for the production and reproduction not only of their then supernaturally legitimated genre of being human, but as well for that of the hierarchical social structures in whose intersubjective field that genre of the human could have alone realized itself.[21] Wynter states, “we continue to know our present order of social reality, and rigorously so, in the adaptive ‘truth-for’ terms needed to conserve our present descriptive statement.”[22]

My suggestion, aligned with Wynter’s perspective, is that Kant’s use of teleological principles, the knowing subject, and the binary are all conservation truths. They are taken as truth because they conserve, produce, and reproduce the coherent structure. Moreover, Foucault, may be radically challenging this structure by challenging the knowing subject. However, as a critique of critique, Foucault is still operating within the same structure, and thus, is adaptively reproducing the structure. Foucault’s critique of the knowing subject is a critique founded in and of the knowing subject as a European, white, man.

 

Works Cited by Immanuel Kant

Kant, Immanuel, “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View,” in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Kant, Immanuel, “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Kant, Immanuel, “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy,” in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[1] In this regard, see Kant’s ordering of human groups in both Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Both works are found in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Kant’s claim that the character of the human group, in the case of race, is necessarily linked to physical differences is because he claims that the human group’s character is a product of the geographic natural conditions of their lineage. See also Kant’s Physical Geography in Natural Science: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Eric Watkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] The full quote is: “The variety among human beings of the same race is in all likelihood just as purposively supplied in the original phylum in order to ground and subsequently develop the greatest degree of manifoldness for the sake of infinitely different ends, as is the difference of the races, in order to ground and subsequently develop the fitness to fewer but ore essential ends” (8:166).

[3] Cf. Charles W. Mills, “Kant’s Untermenschen,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 169-193. Mills argues that, in Kant’s work, race is a defining characteristic that creates a group of sub-persons. The argument I offer here is in this vein but differs in that I incorporate the three forms of rationality in order to attempt to account for the gradational aspect of Kant’s hierarchical ordering of sub-As.

[4] In this regard, see Robert B. Louden, Kant’s Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 100-105. Louden disagrees with this claim, arguing that Kant’s teleological development applies to the entirety of all human groups because Kant is a monogenesist and states that the human race as a whole has a tendency toward moral improvement. However, Louden contradicts himself. In discussing how Kant offers a geographical account of natural predispositions, Louden states: “Once such predispositions are developed, they apparently cannot be altered, and a predisposition that was suitable for (e.g.) a warm, southern climate will be unsuitable for a cold, northern one” (p. 100).

I agree with Louden that Kant does claim this. However, these natural predispositions, according to Kant, are what make up the character of the separate human groups. If these predispositions are unable to change, then how are they supposed to develop toward moral improvement? Louden is reading Kant’s statement that “the human race (in its entirety) is continually improving” as a claim that all individuals, of all human groups, are able to continually improve.

The claim that the human species as a whole is progressing toward the moral end is the claim, for Kant, that (1) despite some human groups never being able to achieve the moral end, taken as a whole the human species will progress toward that end, and (2) each individual human group can progress toward the limited end that it is predisposed for, and thus, be useful to the whole human species in reaching the species’ ultimate end. The problem is in the ambiguity of Kant’s use of the word “human.” A human is anyone who is rational in any of the three forms of rationality. But, the most fully human is the person who is rational in all three forms.

[5] Cf. Amy Allen, “Foucault and Enlightenment: A Critical Reappraisal,” in Constellations, vol. 10 no. 2 (2003), pp. 191-92.

[6] Allen, p. 183; Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth (New York City: Semiotext(e), 1997), pp. 47-48.

[7] Allen, p. 189.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Foucault, “What is Critique?” p. 49.

[10] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York City: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 312.

[11] Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008), p. 117.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 117-18.

[15] Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 315.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, p. 123.

[18] Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 313.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument,” in The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 3 (2003), p. 271.

[21] Ibid., p. 269.

[22] Ibid., p. 270.

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