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You are here: Platypus /“A playground of free expression”: An interview on Kant, Marcuse, and the New Left with Ted Humphrey

“A playground of free expression”: An interview on Kant, Marcuse, and the New Left with Ted Humphrey

Ethan Linehan

Platypus Review 130 | October 2020

Ted Humphrey is President’s Professor, Barrett Professor, Professor of Philosophy and Lincoln Professor of Applied Ethics (all Emeritus) at Arizona State University. At the time of retirement, his primary area of focus was Latin American intellectual history; over the course of 50 years, Humphrey authored numerous books and articles. His early career featured work on problems in classical modern philosophy. His translations of Kant's Enlightenment writings have become standards in the field.

On July 25, 2020, Ethan Linehan interviewed Prof. Humphrey. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Ethan Linehan: In Platypus reading groups we read Kant's essays "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent" (1784) and "An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (1784). When reading these, I was pleased to find your name on the Hackett edition of Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, the edition for which you did translations and wrote a very moving critical introduction. Let us start from the beginning. When and how did you develop an interest in Kant? You spent your college years in California during the rise of the New Left. To what extent were you engaged in the broader activist and intellectual milieu?

Ted Humphrey: I was a very unserious student. I changed majors seven times. My first class at UC Berkeley was a large lecture that had more students than my entire hometown, and I found such a milieu difficult to manage, but I loved Berkeley. Still do. My freshman year I wrote for SLATE, one of the original protest magazines, and was involved with the Free Speech Movement.[1] But I had to leave Berkeley and take a year in community college before enrolling at UC Riverside. I became attracted to philosophy in part because of the persons with whom I studied. I met a nephew of Theodor Adorno's, Peter Fuss, who came to the U.S. during the Holocaust. He was a very warm and caring teacher, fresh from Harvard with his Ph.D. He directed my bachelors' honors thesis. The most senior person on campus was from Princeton, Philip Wheelwright, who had studied with Ernst Cassirer,[2] which put me in line of the Marburg school of Kant interpretation. I studied Kant with Peter and Philip. I also took a few wonderful sociology courses with Robert A. Nisbet before he told me it was time to graduate and leave. I finished all of the work necessary for an MA in philosophy and then left for UC San Diego just as it was starting in the early 60s (I was among the second group of philosophy graduate students). That department was forming a faculty specializing in the history of philosophy.

EL: To return to the aforementioned collection of Kant’s socio-political essays, you dedicated the book to Herbert Marcuse. He directed your dissertation on Kant. What, in the 60s and 70s, did it mean to have been his student?

TH: Clark Kerr, in creating a new research university, oversaw the appointment of arguably the most important group of historians of classical modern philosophy. Richard H. Popkin, the department’s founding chair, brought in wonderful people, including Av Stroll, Jason L. Saunders, Herbert Marcuse and Stanley Moore. To have the latter two teaching courses was spectacular. If you studied with Marcuse, you stood in the line of Heidegger and that tradition of Kant scholarship. In his first year at UCSD, Marcuse conducted a year long, high powered Kant seminar based on the assumption that one had read Kant with some care, that one had read something other than the Critique of Pure Reason, and that one could produce a paper with "original content." Marcuse had clearly read Kant with great care and real insight, but Marcuse was no one's student. Marcuse was a profoundly original thinker in bringing together a number of sources. He never makes covert appeals to authority by saying "Kant argued this." He does not say "Marx argued this." He was not that kind of Marxist. In Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, he does not say "Hegel argued this." Marcuse constructs Hegel, Marx, and Kant. Kant is part of the substance of Marcuse's intellectual orientation, but he speaks for himself.

Marcuse was constantly travelling the world at the invitation of student groups, but he never cancelled a class to do so. He was one of five faculty that taught the freshman humanities class and some graduate seminars, but I do not think he ever taught a Marx seminar. That was Stanley Moore’s domain. I actually wrote two dissertations for Marcuse. The first, on Charles Renouvier's critique of Kant, he read and said, "This meets all of the requirements for the Ph.D., but you didn't learn much from it, did you?" He advised me not to accept the degree based on that dissertation, so I wrote a proper Kant dissertation that grew out of my paper for his Kant seminar. Regarding this second attempt, he made one suggestion for revision, and it went through without those weekly meetings to write one chapter at a time that you see with other doctoral advisors. Marcuse was true to his own inner philosophy. He was kind and humane. When Stanley Moore pinned me down in my dissertation defense, Marcuse stepped in, took up my defense, and then gently brought me back into the conversation. We were never close; he allowed me to have my own projects.

EL: How did your interest in Kant inspire your shift to Latin American intellectual history?

TH: I left UCSD and went in 1966 to Arizona State University, which was created in 1886 and has the unique status as the only university created by popular vote, or referendum, of the citizenry. I was originally appointed to teach the history of classical modern philosophy, as I had done work on most of Kant’s predecessors and successors. I did that from 1966 through 1983 when I published two books of Kant translation, one of which is not well known but was selected by Choiceas an outstanding academic book for that year. Then I had a 20-year dead period in my writing career while I founded and developed Barrett, the Honors College. In 2000, I was doing another Kant project for Hackett when I made the decision no longer to work on Kant and summarily gave it up, much to the disappointment of my editor. I took a leave of absence and went to Latin America to master Spanish and Portuguese and to put together a library of materials difficult to get in the United States. In a footnote, Kant comments in his pre-Critical essay "On the First Ground of the Distinction of Regions in Space" that in a book published at the behest of the Spanish crown there is a statement that shells from crustaceans in Europe rotate to the right, while the shells from the same crustaceans in the Southern Hemisphere rotate to the left. That led to the insight that became core to his argument for the idealism of space and time. These are instances of "enantiomorphs," entities that must be rotated through one plane higher than the plane in which they actually exist in order to be mapped onto one another. (Right and left hands are a paradigm case.) I wanted to find that book and read that passage as a place to start thinking about the impact the European encounter with the New World had on Enlightenment thinking.

If you studied Latin American culture and history in the early 21st century, you would have learned about military history, food culture, music, etc. You learned that Latin American countries had no middle class and were politically unstable. But you would not learn anything about Latin American intellectual life. No one had taken the trouble to translate their works—and for good reason. Prior to the House Committee on Un-American Activities there were very active relations between Latin American intellectuals and U.S. nationals in the academy. But when the HUAC labeled Latin American intellectuals as "leftists," then by association those U.S. academics who were their friends and colleagues immediately came under suspicion, which is when faculty in public universities began being required to sign "loyalty oaths." I remember sitting in a classroom in 1961 when my philosophy professor, who had refused to sign the loyalty oath, was arrested by the county sheriff for being friends with the prominent Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos. From about 1953 through to about 1987 there was a de facto freeze on communication between Latin American and the U.S. academics and intellectuals. Everyone in the U.S. acknowledged the great Latin American literary tradition; we all learned Spanish through novels. But we did not take Latin America seriously from the point of view of philosophy and political theory. You have five translations into English of every minor German or French thinker but nothing from Latin American pensadores. So, a colleague and I started translating, and doing so occupied my last 15 years of teaching and research.

EL: What does it mean to call Kant a "critical" thinker? How does Kant’s critical corpus and his "system" relate to his more directly socio-political writings?

TH: The Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Judgment lay the foundation. They are a critique precisely in the sense that they attempt to give an account of the powers of intellect and their proper limits. There are those, e.g. Heidegger, who want to say "well, they are an account of the human intellect," whereas Cassirer and the Marburg school want to say "they are an account of the powers of intellect per se, be it human or otherwise." The critical analysis in Kant starts with his confrontation with the antinomies, with the unresolvable dialectic of dogmatic metaphysical claims. Kant found this state of affairs untenable and resolved to deal with it.

EL: Hegel said in The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, "In modern times it was, more than any other, Kant who resuscitated the name of Dialectic, and restored it to its post of honour. He did working out the Antinomies of Reason." In what sense is Kant dialectical?

TH: Dogmatic human reason has been antinomic and dialectical, but it is a dialectic that makes no progress. We have to discover why this is so. In fact, the human intellective capacities are bounded. If one cannot construct a concept, if one cannot give the rules by virtue of which one can actually construct an instance of a concept, then one is bound to get caught in an unresolvable dialectic. Those antinomies of human reason, that dialectic, is one in which people are caught in arguments with concepts that by their very nature cannot be constructed.

This work in the first Critique lays the foundation for everything else, including Kant’s moral and political theory. Kant is very forthright in the "Universal History...," the "Speculative History...," and so on. He is saying, "Look, this is my attempt, given the strengths and weaknesses of the human intellect, to understand what it means to be a human being in the world in history. What is the best job we can do for ourselves?" All of that also invokes the Critique of Judgement, with its analyses of the role of teleology and aesthetic pleasure in the economy of humankind’s apprehension of what there is.

EL:How do the three Critiques relate to each other?

TH: Kant’s is a critical "system." When you have three volumes totaling nearly two thousand pages, it will not all fit together, will it? Well, yes, it will. One can find glitches within the lines of argument but step back and take the three Critiques as a whole and the argument hangs together. Take for example the collection of Kant's political and historical essays with which you began this interview. Their importance is that they invoke the fundamental insights in the Critical works, particularly with respect to the teleology of human existence and the drive for the full exercise of freedom compatible with the maximum degree of harmony among free agents. Kant never actually says this. But what Kant is after is a universe of free individuals, each of whom pursue the fullest flowering of human potential within the bounds of such self-given lawfulness as respects and promotes the dignity of all other free rational beings. Such is the Kingdom of Ends in and for themselves. Such a project is the most challenging of all, but that is Kant’s moral, social, and political goal.

EL: When I teach The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals to my freshman students, I emphasize a passage in which Kant says there is "ultimately only one and the same reason which has to be distinguished in its application," and of the tasks of reason Kant says "the first is theoretical; the second practical, rational knowledge."

TH: Right. Explaining the scope and powers of pure theoretical reason is a necessary condition for Kant to account for practical reason.

EL: To what extent are the categories of cognition reflections of practice and activity, i.e. how we engage with the world? To what extent is practical reason a social category? Does Kant have a component of human sociability that can change historically (perhaps from his readings of Hume and Rousseau)?

TH: Several passages in The Groundwork are key to your question. Kant writes that everything in nature acts in accordance with laws. Only a rational being has the power to act in accordance with its conception of the law. That is a truly fraught passage. It asserts that a rational being can actually give an account of what can and cannot serve as a law. Kant sets us the task to discern the criteria for lawfulness. He himself never really addresses the issue but leaves us wishing that he would have done some follow up work to tell us what he thoughtthe criteria were, though at the beginning of the Groundwork he does provide some clues. It follows the passage asserting that and why the only absolute good is the "good will." Anything else we are tempted to call good is merely instrumentally so. How do we create that good will? He then provides four examples of decisions individuals make from which we can extract some criteria for lawfulness. Then, later, in an absolutely striking passage he writes that the will always stands as at a crossroads, caught between its material incentive and its moral motive, where the moral motive will always accord with the concept of lawfulness itself. That is the instantiation of good will.

EL: Kant gives the general principle of the moral law, but he does not give a blueprint for action in every specific instance. Morality is complex. Freedom itself must be free.

TH: Think about that wonderful concept, unsocial sociability, in the "Idea for a Universal History." One can see in that work Kant yearning for a (more) perfect human condition. He argues that social good can emerge from our conflicts. We must and ought to be willing to acknowledge and respect the dignity of others, to listen to others, to work things out. Kant is Aristotelian here in the sense that he believes that man is the product of the agora, a product of social existence. Man is the inheritor and creator of culture. There is this absolutely wonderful footnote in the "Speculative Beginning of Human History" where Kant discusses "the conflict between mankind's striving in regard to his moral vocation, on the one hand, and the unswerving observation of the laws for his raw and animal state that are laid down in his nature, on the other." He concludes this long footnote with an old man's cry from the heart. In effect, he writes, "You know, at just the point where we individual persons gain enough wisdom to make a contribution to the social good, we die, and someone has to pick up the torch and travel that entire route just to make a bit more progress."

EL: To what extent does Kant’s critical philosophy offer the possibility of changing our practices?

TH: In the essay "The Old Saw: That May Be True…", Kant addresses the issues surrounding the theory/practice debate that became so important to 19th century French and German thought. His approach derives from his insistence that mere intuition is chaotic and requires conceptualization and that mere intellection is empty unless constructible in the domain of intuition, where theory is to be equated with mere intellection and intuition with practice. For Kant, both are necessary constituents of knowledge properly so called, and so the task becomes to refine theory until it actually captures practice, or can be put into practice, and to bring practice into line with theory so that practice can be transmitted or taught. The relationship between the two is reciprocal and essentially dialectical.

EL: Regarding unsocial sociability, there are analogous ideas in thinkers like Rousseau and Adam Smith. Through our pursuit of our own self-interest, we create a community that provides for all competing interests. Through interdependence, we become independent. This idea is in the air, and Kant articulates well the ethos of the era.

TH: I think you are correct, but Kant is so bloody abstract that it is often difficult to connect him to his contemporaries and predecessors.

EL: In your introduction to Kant’s essays, you highlight a central theme for Kant’s work that is today often overlooked: "the nature of history and the prospect of historical development". What role does history play in Kant? In what ways does he prefigure a later thinker like Hegel, who said that history is only meaningful to the extent that it is about unfolding freedom?

TH: On the one hand, Kant, as I have indicated, would agree entirely with that expression of Hegel’s view, but by the time of the late 1780s, Kant was tired. He does address the unfolding of history in the Enlightenment essays, but not systematically. Regarding freedom’s unfolding, he must work within very narrow bounds, and this gets to the distinction between public and private reason. His position as professor was always under threat by the Crown.  On the one hand, Kant had to maintain a hierarchical political theory. Laws are strictly to be obeyed. On the other hand, he trod a narrow path articulating what we might call a doctrine of "civil obedience." Freedom of thought is a necessary condition of human social existence and development. This comes out in "What is Enlightenment?" but even more forcefully in The Conflict of the Faculties, an essay concerning the responsibilities of the four faculties of the university: the medical, the legal, the theological, and the undergraduate. He argues that theology, medicine, and law are bodies of knowledge important to the state qua state. As a consequence, the state has a right to exercise control over those faculties. By contrast, undergraduate education is for persons as persons, enabling them to develop their humanity. As a consequence, the undergraduate faculty and curriculum must be free to explore ideas in any direction. It is important for undergraduate education to be a locus of competing views. The argument is rather Millian though restricted to the university. Nonetheless the undergraduate faculty and the education it provides is intended as a playground for free expression of ideas.

EL: In our reading group we track the self-conscious thought of emergent bourgeois society in the 18th century, beginning with Rousseau and continuing in his followers Kant and Hegel. Hegel wrote: "The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau." While it was Hume that awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, it was Rousseau whom Kant credited for demonstrating why philosophy really mattered.[3] The radicalism of bourgeois thought conscious of itself was an essential assumption of Marxism, which sought to carry forward the historical project of freedom. Kant suggested that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the "mid-point" of freedom, then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s "glittering misery." This later tracked well with the Marxist slogan "socialism or barbarism." What remains of this 18th century legacy for the struggle to emancipate society today?

TH: Kant distinguishes between two kinds of value: worth and dignity. Entities whose value is only worth are utterly commensurable. Free rational beings have dignity and are incommensurable. Their value is different in kind from things with mere worth. The bottom line of a capitalist society is that the only value that exists is worth. Our worth is a function of our ability to fit into a machine of production. We are utterly and completely commensurable and disposable. What I have seen in my 50 years as a university professor is the increasing buy-in of individuals to the idea that the value of an education is in the profession it allows you to practice. Education is mere training for work. That is a huge change from just fifty years ago. The number of students at the end of my career who were prepared to say to me "I want to become an educated human being" diminished drastically. I myself always wanted to become an educated human being; I thought the rest would take care of itself. I am saddened by this decline. It is a reductive materialist victory.

EL: Immanuel "the Old Jacobin" Kant and the rest in his radical milieu thought that life was for the living, that we should benefit from our involvement in the world. Today it feels like we are living at the expense of ourselves. We devoted ourselves to a cause that uses us as mere means. Does Kant give us tools to think about this?

TH: We ought not to think only about the dignity of others but our own as well. We must take our own dignity seriously. We cannot give proper regard to others without giving it to ourselves. But when we talk about the Kingdom of Ends, we are talking at the highest level of abstraction. That is a domain in which free rationality develops its potential to the highest extent possible compatible with the dignity, that is, the free rationality of others. One must wonder how to make that concrete. I think we make it concrete by modeling the behavior. In the classroom I always took very seriously that I was modeling a certain kind of behavior. Not the behavior of a professor or dean, but the behavior befitting personhood, a term I regard as having moral content.

EL: In 1843, Marx wrote to his friend Ruge that "the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. It will then become plain that our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past. Lastly, it will become plain that mankind will not begin any new work but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work." Marx had in mind the desiderata of the Kants, the Hegels, the Smiths. They were not incorrect; rather the world had changed around them. Their project for a free society of rational beings working in cooperation came into crisis. Marx saw himself as continuing the old project under changed conditions. What in that old bourgeois sensibility still tasks us?

TH: I would take it back a step. There is a strange sentence in On the Parts of Animals where Aristotle writes "and man begets man." Aristotle asserts that man can only be human in the agora, only in community and society. We are talking about bringing history forward. In doing so, one has a sense of passing a torch and conveying a project. The most striking and obvious thing in Kant is the teleological drive he sees in human history. I do not know how one could set that aside. Without that thought, what possibly could be the reason for living? | P

The Platypus Review looks forward to publishing a follow-up interview with Prof. Humphrey on radical Latin American thought.

[1] “SLATE,” Wikipedia, accessed September 19, 2020, <>. “SLATE, a pioneer organization of the New Left and precursor of the Free Speech Movement and formative counterculture era, was a campus political party at the University of California, Berkeley from 1958 to 1966.”

[2] Thus, I studied with two individuals who came at Kant from the two quite different dominant traditions of twentieth century Kant interpretation that confronted one another in the persons of Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger in 1929 at Davos, Switzerland.

[3] See Immanuel Kant, Remarks in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime [1764–65]: "I am a scientist by inclination. I know the thirst for knowledge and the deep satisfaction of every advance of knowledge. There was a time when I believed all this knowledge could be the honor of mankind, and I despised all those who were bereft of such knowledge. Rousseau has corrected me. I learned to honor man, and I would consider myself less worthy than the average worker if I did not believe that all this [philosophy] could contribute to what really matters—the restoration of the rights of mankind."

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