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How Sexy Was Kant?

The hypersexualization of culture spreads all the way to reviews of meditations on the mind.
Kant 2

In his review of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, Tim Wu explains Crawford’s critique of Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the concept of freedom, which Crawford believes to have had enormous (and enormously negative) social consequences. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, Wu writes,

I sometimes wonder if Crawford’s beef with Kant is personal: for all the dangers of driving a motorcycle, my guess is that he would prefer going down in flames to living like the philosopher, whose life appears to have been among the most boring in recorded history. What else can you say about a man who opined on freedom yet is widely believed to have never had sexual intercourse?

Wu helpfully adds to that last sentence two—not one, two—links to Google Books searches for “kant + never + had + sex.”

When people talk about the hypersexualization of our culture, they’re usually referring to, for example, the advertising industry’s attempts to get even children to present themselves as sexual, and sexually desirable, beings. And this is true enough, important enough, lamentable enough. But comments like the one Wu makes here are even more telling, in a way, because they reveal the ways an obsession with sexuality gets disseminated throughout our whole public discourse. What does Kant’s sexual experience, or lack thereof, have to do with Crawford’s argument? What does it have to do with Kant’s own arguments about freedom or his arguments about anything else whatsoever? Would philosophers need to rewrite their interpretations of Kant’s thought if researchers discovered a liaison with a saucy little chambermaid?

Attempting to parse Wu’s line of thought, I can only come up with this: “Matt Crawford likes to do things, and Kant is famous for not doing many things, and the main thing that he didn’t do is have sex.” And not having sex is, we may infer, the ne plus ultra of boringly not-doing-things. (I mean, just think of poor celibate Joan of Arc—her life had to have been totally boring. So, so boring.) Later in the review Wu comments that Crawford’s “rather manly and physical ideas of living tend to suggest that someone like Stephen Hawking, bound in his wheelchair, has led a meaningless life.” But hasn’t Wu just made a very similar suggestion about Kant, only based on a different “physical idea of living”?

I’m old enough to remember when the main thing that people talked about Kant not doing was travel—when people thought that it was Kant’s reluctance to leave Königsberg that was his chief oddity. And since elsewhere in the review Wu describes Crawford’s love of motocycles and dislike of automobiles that insulate us from direct encounters with the world, a reference to Kant’s preference for just staying home might seem appropriate… but no. It’s sex. It’s always sex. See Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”:

Hannah: Sex and literature. Literature and sex. Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.

Bernard: Ah well, yes. Men all over.

Hannah: No doubt. Einstein—relativity and sex. Chippendale—sex and furniture. Galileo—“Did the earth move?” What the hell is it with you people?

Hannah’s point, of course, is that it’s not “men all over”—it’s Bernard. But who isn’t Bernard these days?

UPDATE: Tim Wu responded very graciously on Twitter to this post, and explained that he referred to Kant’s unsex-life, or sex-unlife, in order to suggest that Kant’s understanding of freedom may have been overly abstract. I’m going to risk ungraciousness in reply by saying that the association of sexual experience with personal freedom is a (perhaps the) founding axiom of our current sexual ideology, but one that’s pretty hard to sustain if we are honest about our lives. I wrote about this some years ago in relation to Anne Carson and Sappho.

And one more point. In “Sext,” the third poem of the great sequence “Horae Canonicae,” Auden speaks with reverence of those who have managed to take the “prodigious step” of ignoring the power of “the appetitive goddesses” to focus their attention on what fascinates them.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city.

Maybe those people — and maybe Kant was one of them — know something about freedom ungraspable by those enslaved to the appetitive goddesses.


Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.