The Enlightenment of Enlightenment – Prof. Dr. Thomas Khurana about the new Center for Post-Kantian Philosophy

On August 23, 2022, the website „News from the UP“ published an interview with Prof. Dr. Thomas Khurana about the new CPKP. We reproduce the interview conducted by Dr. Jana Scholz here.


In times of ecological crisis we need a politics of nature, says Thomas Khurana, Professor of Philosophical Anthropology and Philosophy of Mind at the University of Potsdam. What this might look like is one of the questions being discussed at the new Center for Post-Kantian Philosophy (CPKP) at the Faculty of Philosophy. The Center was established in the winter semester 2021/2022 on the initiative of Thomas Khurana and aims to provide a new space for critical engagement with the post-Kantian tradition. The professorships of political theory, ethics and aesthetics, and theoretical philosophy are also involved. In the interview, Khurana talks about the traces of the philosopher Immanuel Kant in the present and the critical engagement with the legacy of the Enlightenment.

How did the idea to establish the Center for Post-Kantian Philosophy at the University of Potsdam come about?

The field of post-Kantian philosophy has become increasingly important in recent years. There is a real wave of interesting new work here that turns to post-Kantian thought in a broader and more open way and gives new impulses to contemporary philosophy. This work is leaving behind problematic dividing lines between analytic and continental traditions, uniting historical and systematic perspectives, and also starting to include non-European discussions. In Potsdam, we find a number of professorships that are active in this field and attract international visiting scholars from this area every year. With the new center, they now have a common place for exchange.

What constitutes post-Kantian philosophy? How strongly is it connected to Immanuel Kant as a formative figure of the Enlightenment, to what extent does it detach itself from Kantian thought?

I think one can really only understand the post-Kantian tradition by going back to Kant. This is not true in the sense that this tradition, which is diverse in itself, would agree with Kant on everything or would remain fully committed to his fundamental ideas. Rather, there is no way around Kant here, because the critical features of this tradition against Kant can only be understood against the background of the “revolution in the mode of thinking” (Revolution der Denkungsart) that Kant initiated. One element that has a lasting influence on those who want to go beyond Kant is the motif of a self-criticism of reason. This idea points even beyond the idea of enlightenment, if by enlightenment one means that reason shall enlighten an unreasonable state of affairs. What Kant demands is an enlightenment of reason with regard to itself, an enlightenment that can therefore also turn critically against reason itself and therefore opens up the project of an enlightenment of enlightenment. The dispute within the post-Kantian tradition relates to the question of what this requires: Does a fundamental self-critique of reason require above all a completion of the Kantian revolution, or does this self-critique lead us to the point where a counter-movement against the turn initiated by Kant becomes necessary?

The CPKP aims to “develop the insights and limits of post-Kantian thought with a view to the pressing epistemic, social, political, and ecological questions of our present.” What questions are these, and what answers can philosophy provide?

To identify these questions is an ongoing task for us. Three complexes are of particular interest to me personally at the moment: In epistemic terms, it seems elementary to me to reexamine the relationship between truth and justice in view of the current structural change of the public sphere. Philosophy in recent years has produced new approaches under the title of “epistemic injustice” that examine how discrimination, exclusion, and domination are produced epistemically. I think they help us to fundamentally rethink the relationship between truth and justice. A second complex is the question of the extent to which contemporary figures of freedom are fundamentally based on oppression and unfreedom. This is a question that concerns the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition quite directly, as there is currently increased discussion of the extent to which this tradition has conceived of freedom in such a way that its bringing forth requires forms of oppression of ourselves and oppression of others. The suspicion is that the freedom that the post-Kantian tradition has thought is in a certain sense colonial.

The third complex is our understanding of the relationship between spirit and nature, which is being fundamentally challenged in the current ecological crisis. At the moment, we are organizing a conference on the thesis that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. Philosophy, of course, has no special authority here in terms of the empirical facts that speak in favor or against that thesis; nor does it have any prerogative in answering the practical political question of how we can handle the situation in the face of these dramatic and long-lasting changes. But philosophy can help us understand how fundamentally the current transformations challenge our self-understanding and our way of life. The starting point for our conference is the assumption that we need to fundamentally rethink the relationship between nature, spirit, and society, and that we need an entirely new paradigm of politics: a politics of nature that is in tension with modern thinking about the political.

What might such a politics look like?

I hope that the conference will help us get clearer about an answer. An important starting point for the reflection on what a politics of nature could be is first of all the insight that the dominant paradigms of the political are reaching their limits at the current crises. This is true not only in the much-discussed sense that we are still responding to global dynamics predominantly with the inadequate means of nation-state politics. It is also true in the deeper sense that we are dealing with processes in the relevant ecological dynamics that do not fit into our previous grid. Our understanding of the political is profoundly shaped by a fundamental opposition of society and nature, of a realm of freedom and a realm of external necessity. That is, we like to base our discussions on a contrast between what can be the subject of political decision and negotiation, on the one hand, and external conditions that escape our grasp, on the other. It is a reflex of critical thinking to always distrust the alleged force of simple facts (“the state cannot spend the money faster than the citizens are able to generate it”), uninfluenceable framework conditions (“these are the laws of the market”) and rhetorics of “no alternative” (“this measure has no alternative”). One tries to show that the constraints, framework conditions and lack of alternatives are humanly constructed, wants to identify those responsible for them and break through the pretense of their unchangability.

Such a critique comes to nothing when applied to the natural dynamics we are currently dealing with: The fact that we are dealing with man-made dynamics does not mean that we can simply turn them off. We have triggered processes that will haunt us for centuries or millennia and that can neither be easily controlled nor reversed by offers of negotiation. In the current pandemic, we have seen nicely what kind of problems we run into when we behave as if we could negotiate with a virus. So we have to readjust to nature as a realm of politically influenced and politically effective processes and agents that we have to include in our political processes as active political forces without being able to treat them as political actors of the classical type.

Every year the Center host international research fellows in Potsdam: Currently, among many others, Prof. Anton Ford from the University of Chicago is a Senior Fellow and Dr. Eric-John Russell is a Postdoctoral Fellow. What exactly does the exchange between the fellows look like and what do you expect from it?

The fellows who come to us work on individual research projects in the field of post-Kantian philosophy. The Center gives them the opportunity to exchange ideas with the Potsdam members and the other fellows. They can plan joint workshops and conferences to deepen specific questions. In this way, we aim first of all to create a rich and productive environment for the individual projects themselves, allowing the fellows to develop these projects in the best possible way. At the same time, we also aim to broaden the perspectives of everyone involved – both our own as well as the perspectives of the fellows. We therefore aim for a great diversity of topics, working methods, and backgrounds at the Center, in order to also create opportunities for incongruent perspectives and productive disturbances.