Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Feminist Critique of Kant? Langton on Maria von Herbert (I)

A few years ago I glimpsed Rae Langton’s “Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant” in some ethics reader, but did not have time to read it then. Today I encountered a link to an online version of the paper. Here I want to throw out some of my initial responses. Mainly: while I agree with much of what Langton says, I wonder if she is not conflating the critique of Kant the man, one who failed to recognize women as equal partners in dialogue, with a critique of Kant the philosopher who demanded the treatment of all persons as ends. Certainly there is a deep tension here, but I am not convinced it is a threat to Kantian moral philosophy, as opposed to a (justified) criticism of Kant’s application of that philosophy. Second, in building her critique, Langton more or less canonizes Herbert as a saint, based entirely on Herbert’s word. Third, Langton seems to want from Kant something he never claimed to offer nor should have been expected to, something akin to existential psychoanalysis.

To save space, I’ll refrain from summarizing too much. I would certainly advise those interested in Kant’s ethics to read Langton’s paper (and I certainly would advise against taking my word on all this: I can only address so much here, and my reading is no doubt biased). Basically: Maria von Herbert wrote to Kant, whom she has read, studied, and deeply admired, asking for help. She had chosen to confess a lie to someone she loved, and this person had turned cold to her. She asked Kant why she should go on living. Instead of addressing this last point, Kant went into the moral importance of not lying, suggesting that the truth now told, the one Herbert loves will either return to her with greater respect or, if not, well: you can’t always get what you want, and such is the way of the world. Herbert wrote back, a year later, saying that indeed the man had offered her, after a period of coldness, his intimate friendship. But she no longer cared: she had turned cold to worldly pleasures. She lived now only for the moral law, but she found the moral law too easy—she could do everything it demanded, but she had no pleasure to live for. And again she inquired why such a life should be worth living.
Kant inquired with a mutual friend, and was told that Herbert “has capsized on the reef of romantic love”. She told her lover about a previous lover, and things did not go well. Kant’s response: instead of writing Herbert again (as far as we know), he passed on the correspondence to another female friend with a note that this should remind her to guard against “the wanderings of a sublimated fantasy.”
Langton is certainly right: Kant seems to base his final (to our knowledge) judgment not on Herbert’s second letter, but instead on the friend’s evaluation of Herbert as having suffered a romantic misfortunate. Langton interprets the friend’s letter as providing an evaluation of Herbert in the traditional terms of “feminine hysteria”, but this strikes me as wrong. It is rather Kant who refers to “the lady’s curious mental derangement.” The friend says nothing of this sort: he simply gives the background for Herbert’s letters. If Kant, in turn, takes the background as fully undermining Herbert’s own thoughts, this is an error. But Langton simply makes the reverse error: she seems to think that the romantic circumstances behind the letters should not even serve as explanatory material. This is clearly wrong. I myself have certainly written—under the influence of romantic disappointment—certain things that I firmly believed at the time were true and justified independently of my particular mental state. Obviously such judgments are mistaken. We need not resort to interpreting Herbert’s letters as signifying “feminine hysteria”; being driven to despair and apathy by a failure of a relationship is hardly unique to women, as the novelists of Kant’s time well knew. To be clear: I am not defending Kant’s “derangement” account; and I am fairly certain that this analysis itself was likely prompted by Kant’s awareness that his correspondent was a woman. Nor do I deny that there were extremely interesting points in Herbert’s letters—particularly concerning the apparent dependence of moral worth on the desires it battles—that Kant fails to take seriously. My point is merely that the other extreme—one on which Herbert’s mental state is to be evaluated independently of the situation that gave rise to it—is also untenable.
Thus I agree with many of Langton’s points: Kant certainly fails to address some of the pressing issues in Herbert’s letters. He does not deal with suicide; and he reduces the problem to a simple moral dilemma of whether honesty is morally required, and dishonesty morally reprehensible; a dilemma which, given the content of Herbert’s letter, is neither here nor there. And I agree with Langton that Kant absurdly and improperly ceases to treat Herbert as a person (in the moral sense), reprehensibly passing on her personal correspondence to a third party as a cautionary tale, a case study of a woman led astray by her imagination. All this I grant. But having set this up, let me address the other part, the part where I disagree with Langton, in my next post.

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