We don’t get many philosophy-related sound bites in our public news cycle, so the story of a guy who got shot in an argument over Immanuel Kant that rippled through the likes of The Guardian, ABC News and Time last week was a notable event. It’s revealing, though, that these news outlets only played the story for laughs.
A person got shot over Immanuel Kant? What a joke. It’s as if a fight broke out over gang signs at a Beethoven festival — as if somebody got offended by the nudity in a Rubens painting. Could the ideology of an 18th century Prussian philosopher really matter to anyone today?
These news outlets missed their story. In fact, Kant has been newly controversial in certain circles, and it’s a disappointing sign that our mass media is so out of touch with common thought that these major outlets find the idea of arguing over Kant so quaint.
I was knocked out about two years ago when I first heard Immanuel Kant’s name invoked during a spirited debate on a conservative talk radio show that I was idly spying on (though I’m a proud liberal, I occasionally enjoy listening to folks like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on my car radio to help me track what the opposition is up to). I don’t remember whose radio show I was listening to, but it was probably Rush, and there was a woman on the phone describing her conservative principles. Out of nowhere, she said something that nearly made me swerve into another lane. “I can’t stand that relativism stuff, that Immanuel Kant stuff,” she declared.
(Swerve). What? Immanuel Kant is being discussed on Rush Limbaugh?
Indeed, I gradually discovered, the great philosopher’s name has been brought back into currency in ideological conservative circles. Some of this, I realized, is due to Ayn Rand’s steadily growing influence. Ayn Rand attacked Kant directly and often in her books and articles about philosophy, referring to him as “the man who closed the door of philosophy to reason”. Modern conservatism’s direct critique of Kant is not necessarily based on an acceptance of Rand’s Objectivism, but it does seem likely that the trend to consider Immanuel Kant’s philosophy controversial (or even, in Ayn Rand’s point of view, toxic) began with Rand’s writings.
I have no idea whether or not the Kantian shooting described in the news blurbs quoted above had anything to do with American conservatism or Randian Objectivism — but I do think that our news establishment should try to be more tuned in with what people on the street are saying about philosophers like Immanual Kant than the goofy articles above (“You Kant Say That”, groans Time magazine) indicate they currently are. If people on the street and on talk radio want to debate the value of Immanuel Kant’s influence on the progress of human thought, why shouldn’t we take that challenge seriously, and have that debate?
Well, I’m game. I’m not particularly a Kantian — I’m much more of a Wittgenstenian, or a Jamesian — but I certainly reject the idea that Kant is a toxic influence in any way. He was a major figure — one of the all-time greats of western thought, and I think an in-depth discussion about his influence could be rewarding in many ways.
So, I’m going to spend the next few days catching up on the works of the great bard of Konigsberg — I studied him a lot in college, but could use a refresher — and I’ll plan to spend next weekend’s blog post on a thorough summary of Kantian philosophy’s position in the world in 2013.
Stay tuned, and feel free to browse through the Critique of Pure Reason yourself if you get a chance. Let’s debate this guy’s ideas and see what we can figure out. We should be able to do this without anybody getting shot.