Kant, “our” prophet?

By Ezio Di Nucci

The other day, after an ethics class at the medical school, a student wanted to know why they had to study Kant. I am used to scepticism about the place of philosophy within the medical curriculum; and I am sympathetic to calls for a more diverse reading list, but this turned out to be a more original kind of challenge to teaching medical students Kant’s categorical imperative: the student referred to Kant as “your prophet”.

Such an interesting objection! First of all, because the student, himself named after a “real” prophet (yes, the one starting with m), appeared to be using the claim that Kant was a prophet as an objection to studying his work, which seems a valid anticlerical argument to me – and all the more meaningful if coming from a Muslim student, I dare say:

P1: If K is p, then we should not be studying K.
P2: K is p.
C: We should not be studying K.

I take P1 to be true – with maybe just the caveat that this might not apply to any university subject (as in, religion probably doesn’t belong inside university campuses, but history certainly does); so, as long as P1’s scope is restricted to, say, philosophy or medicine, then P1 is true. Even obviously so, I would say; therefore, all that’s left to establish – in order to assess the argument’s soundness – is P2, whether K is indeed p.

Before we look at P2, though, there is the question of Kant being “ours”. Who is “ours” referring to? Philosophers? White people born around the corner from the Vatican? Full disclosure: as a kid, I used to play basketball literally around the corner from the Vatican (in fact, our Fortitudo gym was carved into their bloody walls); the Catholic Church, it turns out, is topographically much more accessible than politically.

Who does Kant belong to, from the point of view of a Danish medical student named after a real prophet? More importantly, who does Kant belong to, full stop? And can the concept of ‘belonging’ even apply to philosophers? If it were a schoolyard brawl, I’d sure want Kant on my team, perverted and all. It’s pretty obvious who the man himself would want to belong to, team universal – but that don’t settle it, clearly.

More plausibly, we cannot analyse the “yours” half of the claim away from its “prophet” better half, because being a prophet will inevitably relativize you (I do hope this is a roundabout enough sort of blasphemy, because brave I am not) – and, crucially, Kant would have endorsed that much. So valid but unsound, then?

I can hear my more empirically-minded colleagues already, worrying that this analysis is helplessly a-historical and… did I mention I’m roman? But an historical analysis that would reduce Kant’s place to its Christian heritage could be true and philosophically uninteresting at the same time – even though you wouldn’t be far off, if you thought the man was out to over-rationalize the bible. So a prophet, after all? Valid+sound?

Not so fast. Our little story could also be more optimistically interpreted as evidence of “progress”, along the lines of: “let’s stick to science and medicine as common ground and leave philosophy and religion finally behind us” (notice, importantly, the sequential order of this equation, where philosophy is science and religion medicine – as in, little brother; which is what Catholics still think of Jews if not Muslims… literally backwards).

That kind of Enlighted compromise is surely simplistic but would be good enough for me – do you know how many newspapers there were after the revolution, in Paris alone? 72, talk to me about fricking history! It took Napoleon less than a decade, btw, to reduce that number to four.

P2 is philosophy’s death, just another superstition (even though, we would suddenly have actual rights, imagine that)… but if philosophy stands in the way of medicine universalizing our tiny rock, we will die happy, having done our bit. Before getting a positivistic hard-on, though, do recall the modern name of the great city of Königsberg: perpetual peace, like la Grande Armée, never made it across the Berezina. Oh, right: the answer is consent.

Author: Ezio Di Nucci
Affiliation: University of Copenhagen
Competing interests: None declared


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