Modern Engendering: Critical Feminist Readings in Modern Western Philosophy

By Bat-Ami Bar On | Go to book overview

Kant's Immature Imagination

Jane Kneller

Immanuel Kant, like many well-known philosophers before him, looked at the women of his social plane and proceeded without much soul-searching to make generalizations about them that were then supposed to be insights into the very nature of "womanhood". In the Anthropology from a Practical Point of View he makes by now familiar comments about the natural physical weakness and timidity of women, their natural modesty and loquacity, their "precocious shrewdness" in getting their men to treat them gently, and so on. 1 According to Kant, women achieve their natural ends--reproduction of the species and instilling of culture (sociability and decorum)--by reducing men to folly. 2 For him they are creatures of inclination, not understanding, 3 so it is not surprising when he asserts that their physical weakness is accompanied by rational weakness. 4

Although Kant does allow that women are rational beings, 5 it seems that for him they are not fully rational. Kant classes women--and he has in mind the female members of the western European bourgeoisie--with members of both sexes who are not citizens as "unmündig"--unable for whatever reasons to think for themselves and hence not legally fit to speak for themselves. 6 Thus it seems clear that Kant believes female members of his own race and class, along with all members of certain other races and classes, are naturally less inclined to reach rational maturity.

In the 1784 essay "What is Enlightenment?" Kant says that the "far greater part of humanity (including the entire fair sex)" fears maturity due to the fact that their "guardians" have seen to it that they find thinking for themselves too dangerous. 7 This seems to suggest that Kant did not see women as naturally more childlike than men, but rather held that rational immaturity is a result of social conditioning: cowardice and laziness are the reasons the far greater part of humanity remain immature. However, the Anthropology, lectures published fourteen years later, makes it quite clear that

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