Reportage: Die Staatsbibliothek Unter den Linden kurz vor der Sanierung und dem Umbau des GebŠudes im Bild: Zwei Erstausgaben von Kant von 1788 ©Kitty Kleist-Heinrich/TSP

The reason why “great people only shimmer in the distance and that a prince loses a lot in front of his valet is because nobody is great.” Immanuel Kant once put it so modestly. In his new booklet “Philosophy of Races. The case of Immanuel Kant”. For Kant, size would be a phenomenon of distance.

Or, thought the other way around: Great would be philosophy, not man. Kant has a permanent place on the list of the most important philosophers, in the university curricula, even in the philosophical lessons in schools. “Sapere aude” stands on the pedestal that posterity built for him, and not without reason: Have the courage to use your own mind – the motto of the Enlightenment, which is in the schoolbook even if the rest is left out.

The valet’s perspective has also been common for a long time. Hardly any biography – since the first depictions from the year of death – can do without her. We also know something curious about Kant: that he hardly ever left Königsberg. That he didn’t play bad billiards at all – and thus improved his finances as a student. But also that he could describe Tower Bridge in more detail than some Londoners, even though he was never there. Or that he dismissed his servant with the beautiful name of Lampe when he was old.

Portraits of Kant, such as Manfred Geier’s much-praised major biography, have allowed the man behind the legend to emerge. Now Geier has other plans. He is interested in the less bright side of Kant – or the one that Kant describes as all too bright: “Humanity is in its greatest perfection in the race of the white.” This sentence also comes from Kant, who not only epistemology and practical philosophy operated, but also dealt with racial theory.

It doesn’t stop there. According to Kant, women do have brains, but of the beautiful kind. The latter is less suitable for thinking: “Tarduous learning or embarrassing brooding, if a woman should get it right, wipe out the advantages that are peculiar to her sex.” Kant’s reaction to Lessing’s drama “Nathan the Wise” is also known he didn’t like it because he couldn’t “suffer” “any hero from this people”, namely the Jewish one.

These are not new finds. Some of these and other such quotations can already be found in the “Kant-Lexikon”, a standard work from 1930. But research has recently dealt in more detail with Kant’s contribution to the “race theory”: “Kant – A racist?” asked a six-part Series of events of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. This was discussed extensively and controversially in the press. Geier’s essay begins with these debates.

“You could go crazy” – this is how the essay begins, which aims less to deepen the research than to cool down and sort the discourse. The opinions and demands in the room differ widely: “Because there are contradictory positions that are to be taken, but block a clear decision.” The overstretched passive voice may have been left over from the author’s deep sigh in view of the situation of the discourse.

With his essay, Geier undertakes a review and historical classification of Kant’s theses on race theory: he reconstructs what biologists and zoologists of the 18th century had to contribute to “race”, what sources they rely on, what methods they use. He traces the texts in which Kant takes a position. Geier argues neither smugly nor polemically, but refreshingly sober.

This becomes even clearer if you put Peter Trawnys almost at the same time and also with Matthes

It is important to him that Kant’s “philosophy of reason” knew no races. He does not downplay the sensitive passages when he emphasizes that “in most of his writings Kant does not express himself in a racist manner”.

And yet a faint question mark remains when Geier concludes that the problematic descriptions are not “philosophical definitions of essence” but “contemporary judgments of experience”.

Why shouldn’t Kant be asked to meet the demands of a philosophy that wants to get rid of the shallow zeitgeist and mere opinions so energetically, especially when it comes to tricky questions? To have been a child of his time: Kant would have regarded that as trivial, at least not as a compliment.