Kant on the Walrus

Over at Crooked Timber (which I quite like, but not as much as I liked the old blogs by its individual contributors), Chris Bertram (the artist formerly known as Junius) has reproduced one of my favourite passages of Kant, from his essay on Perpetual Peace:

It is in itself wonderful that moss can still grow in the cold wastes around the Arctic Ocean; the reindeer can scrape it out from beneath the snow, and can thus serve itself as nourishment or as a draft animal for the Ostiaks or Samoyeds. Similarly, the sandy salt deserts contain the camel, which seems as if it had been created for travelling over them in order that they might not be left unutilised. But evidence of design in nature emerges even more clearly when we realise that the shores of the Arctic Ocean are inhabited not only by fur-bearing animals, but also by seals, walrusses and whales, whose flesh provides food and whose fat provides warmth for the native inhabitants. Nature’s care also arouses admiration, however, by carrying driftwood to these treeless regions without anyone knowing exactly where it comes from. For if they did not have this material, the natives would not be able to construct either boats or weapons, on dwellings in which to live. (Kant: Political Writings, ed. Reiss p.110)

Kant on space aliens is just as good (p.47 of the same edition), as is his tortured explanation about why wig-makers should be allowed to vote, but barbers not (p.78).But what interests me this time around is the significance of the reindeer in all of this: Perpetual Peace was first published in 1795; only a few years later in 1808 Charles Fourier also argued that we could discern clues about God’s plan from a consideration of the cosmic significance of the reindeer: in the famous passage about the giraffe-as-a-hieroglyph-of-truth, he noted that although the reindeer — or the “counter-giraffe” — “provides us with every service imaginable” (unlike the useless giraffe), “you will see that God has excluded it from those social climates, from which truth will also be excluded for as long as Civilisation lasts”. Under socialism (or whatever Fourier was calling it at that stage of his career), the reindeer and the giraffe would make way for the “anti-giraffe… a great and magnificent servant whose qualities will far surpass the good qualities of the reindeer, which so excites our envy and arouses our anger at nature for having deprived us of it”. (p.284 of the Stedman Jones/Patterson ed. of The Theory of the Four Movements).

Were any other major social theorists gripped by the reindeer at this important moment in post-Revolutionary European history? I’d certainly like to know.

0 thoughts on “Kant on the Walrus”

  1. And who can forget, in the same edition, p. 222n:

    “The urge to communicate must have been the original motive for human beings who were still alone to announce their existence to living creatures outside themselves, especially to those which emit sounds which can be imitated and which can subsequently serve as a name. A similar effect of this urge can still be seen in children and thoughtless people who disturb the thinking section of the community by banging, shouting, whistling, singing, and other noisy pastimes (and often even by noisy religious devotions). For I can see no motive for such behaviour other than a desire on the part of those concerned to proclaim their existence to the world at large.”

    This does raise a question: what sound does a reindeer make, and does it sound anything like “reindeer”?

    Thank you for the plug, by the way. The book should be released within days. And the site will soon include a link to The Virtual Stoa… as soon I can find a suitable icon to represent “friends.” Cheers!

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