Kant on Robinson

well well… of course Robinson serves all who want him to be twisted this way and that – of its time, of our time…

Immanuel Kant seems to get quite muddled in thinking of animals and instinct alongside Robinson, at least according to Feyerabend’s notes on Kant’s lecture course on Natural Right – we should ask who are these sailors, who probably also killed the Albatross, and who are the savage islanders and what is the name of this Hotentot, left so anonymous, despite ingenuity (at least that is recognised, Kant sees it as native cunning I suppose):

‘The wildest animal is not as frightening as a lawless human being. This is why Robinson Crusoe, after being on his desert island for many years, was frightened when he saw the footprint of a human being so much that he was restless from that moment on and could not sleep at night. – This is also why sailors don’t think twice of shooting a savage to death on an unknown island because they do not know what to expect from him. – One can also consider the death of the Chevalier Marion in New Zealand who lived for a month with the savages in the best of friendship and did no harm to them but subsequently they devoured him along with twenty-two sailors merely because they wanted to eat him. An animal is determined by its instinct, which has rules, but from such a human being I do not know in the least what to expect. Sparrman explains in his Journey to the Cape of Good Hope that the lion does not hunt its prey but sneaks up to it and then when it believes it is close enough springs at once and if it misses its prize steps back as if it wants to see where it went wrong and then sneaks there. Human beings know that and can judge accordingly. Thus once a Hotentot was going home and a lion snuck after him at a distance. Now he knew that he would not be able to get home before evening and that the lion would then suddenly tear him to pieces. He took off his clothing and put them on a stick so that it seemed that he was standing there. But he made himself a hole in a hill and hid there. The lion came slowly closer and sprang and, because the stick immediately gave way, tumbled down the hill with the clothes and stick and then slunk away. However, a lion will hunt its prey when it is very hungry (Feyerabend in Kant 2016: 83)

Earlier, in the Lectures on Anthropology, Kant had elaborated on this scene in a discussion of civil order and malevolence – of the meaning of human ‘desires, jealousy, mistrust, violence, propensity for enmity against those outside the family’ (Kant 2012: 215). It is basically always about the threat of war. He writes:

‘As an animal, the human being is a very pugnacious animal. In the wild, he fears nothing as much as another human being. Thus Robinson [Crusoe] on the island was alarmed when he discovered human footprints. The human being can greatly beware of all animals, if he already once knows their kind and nature, but not of his own kind, for since this is a cunning creature, he thus cannot detect its snares; he can pretend to be friendly, and yet act malevolently, he knows how to dissemble, and disguise himself, and always conceive of new means of becoming dangerous for the other [person]. Everyone already feels in himself, if he were alone for a long time on the island, and thus already believed himself to be safe, that he would become greatly frightened if he would discover a human being, for now he would no longer be quite safe, now he would have an enemy who is more dangerous for him than all wild animals, since he could in fact beware of them, and outwit them, but not the human being, for this one can set traps for him, watch all his actions, and hinder him and be dangerous for him in every aspect. Unless, if they have the same needs, and are in the same predicament, they discover one another, become acquainted with one another, and live sociably; however even then the one cannot quite trust the other, he does not in fact know, if the other is not again plotting against him. Among the animal species, he is probably not to be ranked as a beast of prey, since it does not seem that he would have an immediate appetite for others’ animal blood, for mauling everything and tearing it to pieces; moreover his physical build is not like that of a beast of prey. It thus seems that he would more likely stick with vegetables. Yet with respect to his own species, with respect to other human beings, he is indeed to be regarded as a beast of prey, since he is mistrustful, violent, and hostile toward his own kind, which is no longer as manifest in the civil state, since the human being is there held under constraint, but which still does very much sprout up, and a great deal from the animal state still adheres to us’ (Kant 2012: 214)

Kant, Immanuel. 2012. Lectures on Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 2016. Lectures and Drafts on Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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