I. Kant, even

I. Kant, even

The grinning mug on the right of the YouTube Fox News screen above is Allen C. Guelzo, a historian of the Civil War and biographer of Abraham Lincoln. Guelzo is also a purveyor of a bizarre theory that Immanuel Kant was the progenitor of critical theory, critical race theory, Marxism, Jim Crow, and “every dictatorship in-between”:

But critical race theory may also be the most irresponsible way to think about race in America, and I think that’s really because critical race theory is a subset of critical theory, which has got long roots in Western philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. Kant lived at the end of a century known as the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, but he feared that experience had shown that reason was inadequate to give shape to our lives. There had to be a way of knowing things that went beyond reason, and for him that meant developing a theory of being critical of reason, hence critical theory. The problem was that critical theory got away. It instead justified ways of appealing to some very unreasonable things as explanations — things like race, nationality, class — and they gave us Karl Marx and Jim Crow and every dictatorship in between, that’s especially true about race.

As far as I can tell, Guelzo has not published anything on that specific theme. There is the Fox News interview from May of last year, an interview on the American Enterprise Institute podcast, “What the Hell is Going On?” with Marc Thiessen and Danielle Pletka in June, and Thiessen’s column in the Washington Post from November. On March 24, Keisha Russell plagiarized Thiessen’s column in her testimony on behalf of the First Liberty Institute at the Senate confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson.
At universities, plagiarism is defined as intellectual dishonesty. There are other forms of intellectual dishonesty, such as fabricating or adulterating data from experiments or fabricating sources or attributing to authorities things they never said. After that, there is an enormous gray area of just plain sloppy scholarship that nevertheless gets vindicated by being published or delivered in a lecture or interview.

Although he is a university professor who has published several books, Guelzo’s claims about Kant and critical race theory are not scholarly. They were not explicitly represented as scholarship. There is, however, an insinuation of scholarship that flows from their packaging. The commentator is presented as a scholar and is backed by a wall of books. His thoughts are presented in mellifluous, modulated tones, as if he is giving a lecture. He talks about a philosopher from the eighteenth century that only an academic would talk about.

But one must ask, is a Civil War historian necessarily any more of an authority on Kant and critical race theory than a Green Bay Packers quarterback is on vaccination? Because Guelzo has not published his idea that critical race theory is a “subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s,” it would be prudent to examine his published work to see if there are any clues. There are clues but they are not entirely consistent.

In Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas (2009), Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004). and Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012), Guelzo mentions Kant as a forerunner of romanticism, which Guelzo evaluates negatively but also associates with such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edmund Burke, Evangelical Christianity, Abolitionists, Southern secessionists and so on.

Guelzo’s scorn for romanticism is linked to his admiration for what he describes as Lincoln’s “politics of prudence,” which he identifies as an Enlightenment principle that guided the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In a YouTube interview from February 2021, Guelzo attributed romanticism to Edmund Burke and cited pro-slavery Senator, cabinet secretary and Vice President John Calhoun as a follower of Burke.

Paradoxically, in an 2016 essay, “Dissenter for the Absolute: Commending Josiah Royce as America’s philosopher,” Guelzo wrote glowingly of Josiah Royce’s thoroughly Kantian education. In his celebration of Royce, Guelzo offers only the slightest hint of a break by Royce from some aspects of Kant:

[Royce] …did not want Absolute pragmatism to lapse into the usual caricature of idealism, which made ideas into nothing more than objects of idle contemplation; ideas always contain, at their core, an intention to act. And he separated his notion of the Absolute from Scottish realism, Romantic mysticism, and even some aspects of Kant.

Perhaps Guelzo’s ambivalence toward Kant in that article reflects the fact his antagonism in the earlier books was second-hand. One of Guelzo’s sources is Isaiah Berlin. In Berlin’s lectures on romanticism from 1952 and 1965, he cited Kant as the reluctant “father “of romanticism and excoriated romantics as “enemies of human liberty” ultimately linking romanticism to Marxism and fascism.

Guelzo appears to have taken Berlin’s word for it. Other commentators have not been so indulgent of Berlin’s ideas about romanticism. Curiously enough, Berlin concluded his 1965 lectures, published as The Roots of Romanticism, with an encomium to the “unintended” effects of romanticism that undermines everything that he had previously said about the supposed evils of romanticism:

The result of romanticism, then, is liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life; some degree of increased rational self-understanding. This was very far from the intentions of the romantics. But at the same time — and to this extent the romantic doctrine is true — they are the persons who most strongly emphasised the unpredictability of all human activities. They were hoist with their own petard. Aiming at one thing, they produced, fortunately for us all, almost the exact opposite.

This concluding paragraph is a remarkable document. Somehow, we are told, romanticism had all sorts of unintended bad effects that reveal some deep, underlying anti-Reason, anti-Enlightenment, anti-freedom essence that the “result of romanticism” ironically confounded. The argument is so inconsistent that to even try to summarize it falls into incoherence: we have the “enemies of freedom” to thank for all those things that are essential to freedom. I suppose that is why Berlin called them enemies of freedom? Of course, by the same logic, romanticism was an unintended effect of the Enlightenment, which was an unintended effect of the Protestant Reformation, ad infinitum. By those lights, it’s enemies of freedom all the way down.

The contradictory conclusion to Berlin’s 1965 lectures was no anomaly. Berlin was a virtuoso of the ironic non-sequitur. Listening to his lectures gives the sense of a comedy routine. Isaiah Berlin was an entertainer; the exaggeratedly ironic formulations were part of his shtick. His lecture on Kant is a case in point:

Kant hated romanticism. He detested every form of extravagance, fantasy, what he called Schwärmerei, any form of exaggeration, mysticism, vagueness, confusion. Nevertheless, he is justly regarded as one of the fathers of romanticism — in which there is a certain irony. …

Kant was an admirer of the sciences. He had a precise and extremely lucid mind: he wrote obscurely but seldom imprecisely. He was a distinguished scientist himself (he was a cosmologist); he believed in scientific principles perhaps more deeply than in any others; he regarded it as his life’s task to explain the foundations of scientific logic and scientific method. He disliked everything that was rhapsodical or confused in any respect. He liked logic and he liked rigour. … But if he is in any respect the father of romanticism, it is not as a critic of the sciences, nor of course as a scientist himself, but specifically in his moral philosophy. 

Kant was virtually intoxicated by the idea of human freedom. So, let’s be clear: Kant, the father of romanticism hated romanticism. He loved reason, which romanticism hated. He was intoxicated by the idea of human freedom and that spawned romanticism, the enemy of freedom. Isn’t that brilliant? Who else could pack so many blatantly contradictory claims into two paragraphs and make it all sound oh so terribly clever?

Evidently, Professor Guelzo was not nimble-minded enough to realize that Isaiah Berlin was having us on. Maybe Berlin believed what he was saying at the moment. Maybe he didn’t. But there is certainly nothing rationalistic and enlightening about Berlin’s erudite stream of exaggeration, confusion, contradiction, wit, and irony. I’m not the first to call it a muddle.

In his introduction to Berlin’s Political ideas in the romantic age, Joshua Cherniss discretely noted the author’s inconsistencies:

…nor does Berlin ever exactly repeat himself, even when he is ostensibly recapitulating discussions that have appeared elsewhere, which means that one needs to read all his discussions of a topic to be sure that one has squeezed out every drop of what he (not always consistently) has to say about it. 

With regard to who was the “father of romanticism,” what Berlin had to say “contained multitudes,” to borrow Walt Whitman’s euphemism for self-contradiction. In his 1965 lectures, Berlin said Kant was “justly regarded as one of the fathers of romanticism.” Seven years later, it was “Kant’s unfaithful disciple Fichte” who was “the true father of romanticism.” Berlin repeated the attribution to Fichte of fatherhood in 1975 and 1983.

Meanwhile, Berlin appears at times to present himself as somewhat of a disciple of Kant. The original dictation of “Two Concepts of Liberty” concludes with the following affirmation of Kant:The need to calculate and weigh and compromise, and adjust and test and experiment, and make mistakes and never reach certain answers or guarantees for rational action, must irritate those who seek for clear and final solutions, and yearn for unity and symmetry, and all-embracing answers. Nevertheless it seems to me the inescapable task of those who, with Kant, believe that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”The liberty that they seek to realise, and the world as they conceive it, seems to me, in comparison with that of the absolutists, more rational, more humane and more nearly realisable, because they alone are  compatible with what most human beings have found the facts to be.Kant’s phrase about crooked timber was Berlin’s favorite and it became the title for a collection of his essays published in 1990. He used the phrase in two of his essays in that volume, “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West.” In the former essay, Berlin stated:

No more rigorous moralist than Immanuel Kant has ever lived, but even he said, in a moment of illumination, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity. We can only do what we can: but that we must do, against difficulties.

The final irony of Guelzo’s objection to Kant, critical theory and critical race theory is that it is utterly, profoundly unreasonable. Even in his scholarly work, Guelzo makes the inexcusable first-year undergraduate error of assuming (because it is convenient to his hypothesis) that a brief passage from a 1952 lecture by a famous philosopher is the last word — or even Berlin’s last word — on the relationship between Kant, the Enlightenment, romanticism, and irrationalism. 

In his subsequent political pronouncements, Guelzo compounds his display of incomprehension with leaps of illogic such as “[t]he problem was that critical theory got away.” Critical theory “got away”? Was this like a bank robbery with a “get-away” car waiting outside? Was critical theory some wild beast that escaped from the zoo? 

“There had to be a way of knowing things that went beyond reason,” Guelzo explained Kant’s thinking, “and for him that meant developing a theory of being critical of reason, hence critical theory.” There is an example of word play by someone who knows nothing of the substance or context of the words he is playing with. Whatever its merits or faults, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason did not contain the seed that, according to one account by Berlin, spawned romanticism. That honour went to his moral philosophy. 

As for the “hence” that generated “critical theory” from “a theory being critical of reason,” they do both contain the words “critical” and “theory.” So what? As I have discussed here, Thorstein Veblen pioneered the use of the word “obsolescence” in sociology and economics. In 1928, J. George Frederick coined the term “progressive obsolescence” to refer to a strategy of accelerating the turnover of consumer goods. Is progressive obsolescence, then, a “subset” of Veblen’s critique of conspicuous consumption? If so, that would have to be demonstrated and not deduced from the use of the same words.

In his role as Heritage Foundation “Visiting Scholar,” Guelzo doesn’t have to demonstrate anything. He doesn’t need to show you any stinking badges. All he needs to do is go on Fox News or an American Enterprise Institute podcast and make assertions that can then be repeated ad nauseum by conservative columnists and commentators until they blend seamlessly into the propaganda wallpaper that the right-wing audience can assimilate as expert-verified reality.