Most times when I hear someone on a tear about the dangers of “political correctness” I roll my eyes and move on. So many such complaints involve ire at being held to standards of basic human decency, say, or having to share resources, opportunities, or public spaces. But there are many exceptions, when the so-called “PC” impulse to broaden inclusivity and soften offense produces monsters of condescending paternalism. Take the above omnibus edition of “Kant’s Critiques” printed by Wilder Publications in 2008. The publisher, with either kind but painfully obtuse motives, or with an eye toward pre-empting some kind of legal blowback, has seen fit to include a disclaimer at the bottom of the title page:
This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.
Where to begin? First, we must point out Wilder Publications' strange certainty that a hypothetical Kant of today would express his ideas in tolerant and liberal language. The supposition has the effect of patronizing the dead philosopher and of absolving him of any responsibility for his blind spots and prejudices, assuming that he meant well but was simply a blinkered and unfortunate “product” of his time.
But who’s to say that Kant didn’t damn well mean his comments that offend our sensibilities today, and wouldn’t still mean them now were he somehow resurrected and forced to update his major works? Moreover, why assume that all current readers of Kant do not share his more repugnant views? Secondly, who is this edition for? Philosopher Brian Leiter, who brought this to our attention, humorously titles it “Kant’s 3 Critiques—rated PG-13.” One would hope that any young person precocious enough to read Kant would have the ability to recognize historical context and to approach critically statements that sound unethical, bigoted, or scientifically dated to her modern ears. One would hope parents buying Kant for their kids could do the same without chiding from publishers.
None of this is to say that there aren’t substantive reasons to examine and critique the prejudicial assumptions and biases of classical philosophers. A great many recent scholars have done exactly that. In her Philosophy of Science and Race, for example, Naomi Zack observes that “according to contemporary standards, both [Hume and Kant] were virulent white supremacists.” Yet she also analyzes the problems with applying “contemporary standards” to their systems of thought, which were not necessarily racist in the sense we mean so much as “racialist,” dependent on an “ontology of human races, which underlay Hume and Kant’s value judgments about what they thought were racial differences” (an ontology, it's worth noting, that produced systemic and institutional racism). Zack respects the vast gulf that separates our judgments from those of the past while still holding the philosophers accountable for contradictions and inconsistencies in their thought that are clearly the products of willful ignorance, chauvinism, and unexamined bias. An informed historical approach allows us to see how books are not simply “products of their time” but are situated in networks of knowledge and ideology that shaped their authors’ assumptions and continue to shape our own—ideologies that persist into the present and cannot and should not be papered over or easily explained away with skittish warning labels and didactic lectures about how much things have changed. In a great many ways of course, they have. And in some significant others, they simply haven't. To pretend otherwise for the sake of the children is disingenuous and does a grave disservice to both author and reader.
via Leiter Reports