Latour on Kant: When did the Modern Constitution Begin?

Here is my own (somewhat perfunctory) translation of a recent article published by Bruno Latour on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its function vis-à-vis the Modern constitution. The article appeared in German (translated from Latour’s original French) in Die Zeit last week under the general title Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen verstandes zu bedienen (‘Have the Courage to Make use of your Own Understanding’). The original French can be found here; the published German article here.

As Latour has stated many times and at various points in his corpus, Kant functions as a seminal, even founding, protagonist in the history of the Modernization Front to which we are still in thrall today—although, as the article makes clear, its hegemony over us may be coming to an end in the era of the Anthropocene. Latour has engaged with Kant at many points in his work: for further reading (or just to begin somewhere) I might suggest chapter 1 of Pandora’s Hope (1999).

Celebrating the anniversary of the birth of a great philosopher is always a nice thing to do. And yet I can’t help but regret that we didn’t celebrate with appropriate funereal pomp the year 2004, as a way of marking the interment of Kantian philosophy after two centuries of over-extended hegemony over us. In fact, the over-long reign of Kantian philosophy over the European mind might be compared to the over-long reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph over the conglomerate of subjects gathered together under Kakania, the Imperial Royal—at least in its portrayal by Robert Musil.[1] That empire was on the one hand solid and powerful enough to give the impression of possessing an architectonic order that was immutable and definitive; but on the other hand it was not supple enough to prevent its own break-up in the end.

The genius of Kant was to have discovered a way of incorporating in one single system the entirety of the various innovations of European thought that had accumulated over the previous two centuries, whilst at the same time definitively precluding any possibility of exhuming the very postulates that had superintended those innovations in the first place. Over the decades that followed, the full extent of this calamity was revealed. In particular, the separation (which once in place became impossible to critique) between the kingdom of necessity and the kingdom of freedom. Morality, objectivity and art would henceforth plough their furrows separately. All the energies of Kant’s successors would be spent finding a way-out of this trap that had been so fiendishly sprung.

What an extraordinary situation! The Kantian Critical Project was the very thing that made critique of the European project itself impossible. Kant was the one who rendered irreversible the bifurcation of nature between a knowing subject and a known object, between laws and facts—and all this right at the very moment where Europeans were about to be thrown headlong into industrial, ecological and political revolutions of various sorts and therefore were most in need of getting back to those aprioris. From that moment on, the definition of Enlightenment provided by Kant served only to obscure the various important questions that were posed by the worldwide expansion of Europe, one after the other.

And yet, two centuries later, by the grace of God, it might be that the violence exerted by climate change will be the thing that will cause us to recapture lost time, to revive critique and to take up once again the question that was rudely interrupted by the Enlightenment! 

Our pious memorial to this great philosophy should be to wish for it the only fate that is appropriate: that it should rest in peace. Requesciat in pace.


[1] Latour has made reference to Musil’s novel in a couple of recent articles, such as this one, p.61—I think he must have read it recently. For some background on the nomenclature of Kakania you might like to refer to this dictionary-type article or this episode of the wonderful Entitled Opinions podcast.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s