Oct 2, 2013

Violence Over Kant Interpretation?

The story from Rostov-on-Don last month is the sort of incongruous verging on comedy that, as the saying goes "you just can't make up" -- or at least not easily -- since nobody who has seriously studied the moral theory of Immanuel Kant would think to associate his work and thought with the sort of disagreement that would turn nakedly violent.  And yet, there they were, the headlines.

You've got the straightforward and succinct Reuter's story: Man shot in Russia in Argument over Kant.  The more cheeky Guardian story: Unreasonable critique of Kant leads to man being shot in Russian shop.  Time's wince-worthy pun: “You Kant Say That!” Philosophical Debate Leads to Shooting.  Huffington Post displays the alarmist anti-intellectualism always lurking just below their superficiality: Philosophy Is Dangerous! Immanuel Kant Debate In Russia Leads To Fist Fight, Ends In Gunshot.  We could go on multiplying examples.  I'd rather muse a bit about why this was and remains such an interestingly, even sublimely strange story.

It's a Story that It's a Story

As a philosopher, I've understandably got numerous friends and colleagues who, if not working in the field of philosophy, possess some degree of familiarity, at least at the level of name recognition, with major figures, ideas, works, and theories from its rather checkered history.  If you've taken an Introduction to Philosophy or an Ethics course, you'll at the very least have encountered Kant, perhaps attempting to read his works -- like the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals or the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics -- or perhaps content with more digestible summaries.

So, once this series of events transpired and were reported, the story circulated very quickly through my connections on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, even a bit more surprisingly on LinkedIn.  A number of of wry quips were traded back and forth, plenty of plays on Kant's name.  News and opinion sites came up with their own versions of the story, most of them doing little more than reporting the Reuters information, putting their efforts not into any investigation, but into catchy headlines.  I have to admit that I even got into the act a bit myself, shooting a video discussing the incident, Kant's categorical imperative, and Kant's views on anger, emotion, and passion.

What's particularly striking about this to me is that searches show no real follow-up to the story, whose details were rather sketchy to begin with.  It's as if merely invoking Kant's name in connection to the rather commonplace occurrence of an argument-turned-brawl-turned-shooting elevated this incident to the level of the "newsworthy" -- but provoked almost no interest in getting past the unsatisfying generalities (you can't really call them "details" in any real sense, now can you?) of the narrative.

If they had been arguing over politics (which, actually they might have been), or over religion (again, given Kant's writings, perhaps that was the case), taste in artistic matters (yep . . . getting to be like shooting fish in a barrel now), matter of right and wrong, classifications of ethnic types and their characteristics, civilization and education -- but without Kant's name coming up -- what kind of story would there have been?  Anything that would have risen beyond the merely local?  Not likely.  So, presumably adding Kant's theory, or ideas, or works to the mix generates a case worth writing and reporting about?

What Was The Argument Over?

That's a good question to ask, and one that should have been pressed by the multifarious news and opinion (often one and the same, regrettably) providers who reproduced and added some new spin to the tale.  As far as I can tell nobody has done any follow-up, nor even any initial investigative reporting.  You can fault all of us people out here in the land of social media who shared and reshared the story, sending it viral -- but it's not exactly our job to get those additional, context-providing facts or statements, since we're not claiming to be the fourth estate.  Really, its the reporters who have acted more like casual Facebook users, reposting a linked story, maybe adding a bit of more or less relevant or well-informed commentary.

When it comes down to it, we have no idea just what the two Russian men, standing in line for beer (we know those details!), were arguing about in general.  And we're left with absolutely no clue about how Kant came into their conversation.  Did the argument actually turn on some fine point in Kant interpretation, in which both of these fellows were trained practitioners?  Was it over some fact about Kant -- perhaps the one, getting his philosophy through Monty Python, repeating that "Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable" -- the other, more a stickler for historical fact, taking the opposite side?  Again, the sheer possibilities, once you start playing around with them, become innumerable.

Not only don't we know what sort of Kant-connected matter they were disputing.  We don't even know whether either one of them knew anything about Kant, his thought, his works.  We remain ignorant on the question of which, if any, of Kant's many books they had in mind for a debate.  Did they wax wroth with each other over epistemology?  Over metaphysics?  Over morals?  Over aesthetics?  Over the philosophy of history?  Who knows?

One could, I suppose, respond:  Who cares?  What does it matter what point they locked horns over, so long as it in some way or another bore on Kant?  That would be a very odd sort of response to give, though, would it not?  Doesn't it matter whether it really was or was not a dispute about interpretation of something in Kantian theory?  Does a philosopher's name alone possess some kind of talismanic or totemic influence, transforming everything and anything that bears imprint of its seal into its very substance?  One would think that a bit more differentiating judgement is called for, and that if the story is in some manner about Kant and his thought, that one would want to know just what in Kant's thought could provide a pretext for bitter argument, rage, and violence.

Kantian Theory and Violence

What's particularly striking about this case is that, at least as far as Kant's moral theory goes, these Russian brawlers were certainly not acting in consonance with it.  That's really the most we can say about them until we acquire more information.  Some people have wanted to go further and to say that neither of this pair must have known Kant's works very well, let alone his lifestyle, example, and systematic thought -- otherwise they'd have know that their actions clearly contravened their moral duties, which as we all know (at least from Wikipedia or the memories of Philosophy 101?) are encapsulated for Kant within the categorical imperative.

I think that such a judgement is mistaken, going to far by overlooking other possibilities.  In formulating and endorsing the categorical imperative, Kant in no way assumes that simply because a person knows or recognizes it, that they will then invariably follow it.  He is deeply aware of just how many, varied, and strong are the motives of inclination, feeling, passion, interest, desire that can lead us astray in moral matters.  He also knows that the very freedom of our wills includes the possibility of setting aside the categorical imperative -- unreasonably, true, but commonplace.

Another possibility, of course, would be that these two men were arguing about something connected with Kant, and that they knew his works inside and out, but that neither one of them were proponents or great respectors of Kantian philosophy.  Perhaps one was a Marxist and the other a Nietzschean.  Perhaps one was a follower of Sartre and the other of Aristotle.  Possibly they disagreed over just where and how badly Kant got moral philosophy wrong, and by his immense cultural influence in modernity thereby made matters worse.

It also ought to be noted that it is indeed possible for university professors, for well-published scholars -- even for those well-steeped in Kantianism -- to come to blows with each other over academic matters.  It is thankfully rather rare, but outbreaks of violence do occur.  I'd like to mention, on this point, one interesting article that in my view leads readers astray, Slate's Russian Gunfight Just Latest Instance of Kant Driving People Crazy, which asserts:
if you are under the impression that the Rostov incident is an extreme example of Kant’s injurious influence upon humanity, you are mistaken: The Kremlin Kerfuffle is but another chapter in a long, storied history of adverse reactions to the giant-foreheaded Angesicht (“visage”) of the Enlightenment, whose major work, the Critique of Pure Reason, had passionate detractors from the moment of its first edition’s publication in 1781.
While the piece does spin out an entertaining and more or less accurate history of vociferous scholarly reaction against Kant, it seems to ignore the vast gap between argued "violence" and real, actual violence.  Metaphorically popping one's fellow philosopher a jab in an article or book is worlds removed from actually feeding them a knuckle sandwich, is it not?

What Kant Might Have Had To Say.

There's been plenty of talk about how what both men did, and particularly about what the shooter did, would violate Kant's categorical imperative -- again, I devoted a good portion of the discussion in my video precisely to spelling that out.  Some commentators have also made connections to some other themes in Kant's Enlightenment philosophy, which places a premium on being able to dispute and debate ideas publicly without violence, without repression (well. . .  sort of, once you actually read it).  One other connection I thought could be quite interesting to focus upon would be Kant's theory of emotions, and his remarks specifically about anger.

As a side-note, it's high time that I get back to regularly blogging in the series here about various philosophers' and theologians' perspectives on anger -- to the views of Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, John Cassian, Anselm of Canterbury, and even Martin Luther King, it's time I started adding those of other thinkers, not least of which is Kant.  So, I'm not going to elaborate a full-blown Kantian take on anger itself in this post, but defer that to later blog entries.  I will, however, close by reproducing some suggestive passages from Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View which could inform further reflections about this Russian quarrel. 

Emotion is therefore precipitate, that is, it quickly grows into a degree of feeling which makes reflection impossible. . . . What the emotion of anger does not accomplish quickly will not be accomplished at all.  The emotion of anger easily forgets.  . . . Emotion is like an intoxicant which one has to sleep off;  but passion is looked on like an illness having resulted from swallowing poison, or a handicap which requires an inner or outer physician for the soul. . . .

Who is to be feared more, he who grows pale in violent anger, or he who flushes in the same situation?  The first one is to be feared instantly, the second is more to be feared later (because of his vindictiveness).  In the first case the upset person is terrified of himself because he fears being driven to violence which he might later repent.  In the second case terror suddenly changes into the concern that his own awareness of his own ability to defend himself should not become apparent.

Ambitious, thirst for revenge, and so forth, because they are never completely satisfied, are counted, therefore among the passions as illnesses for which there is only a palliative remedy. . . Passions are cancerous stores for pure practical reason, and most of them are incurable because the sick person does not want to be cured and avoids the dominion of the principle by which alone a cure might be effected.
The really relevant question in this incident, for both of the participants would not be whether the heat of their argument, the fist-fight, and the shooting contravene their moral duties -- anyone can figure that out -- but just how badly off with respect to anger, emotion, and passion, each one actually is.  In this we delve, hypothetically alas, to levels of the human person which the reporting did not reach -- about whose existence the reporters, news-repeaters, and opinion-expressers might actually have no suspicion -- but to which Kant thought it prudent to devote considerable thought.

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