In an earlier post I briefly touched on the issue of anti-Semitism among German philosophers. My basic position is that the anti-Semitism, while it was real, was not embodied in their philosophies. Such a claim requires elaboration and defense, of course. But that's how many philosophers, myself included, view the matter. Scholars from disciplines outside of philosophy are sometimes tempted to see things differently.
I alluded in that earlier post to a notorious passage from Fichte, but I didn't quote it. There's no free-standing translation of the book in question, but his remarks about Jews (a few paragraphs long) are translated and discussed in various places. Besides chapter 8 of Paul Lawrence Rose's Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner, I'd also recommend chapter 5 of Anthony J. La Vopa's Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
In this post I want to quote a passage from Kant, who is a much more significant thinker than Fichte (as even Fichte scholars would acknowledge), and thus an anti-Semitic observation from him is worth more attention. The remark comes from Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a manual for a lecture course that Kant gave for nearly thirty years. It was first published as a book in 1798. The passage appears in §46, which is entitled "On Mental Deficiencies in the Cognitive Power" ["Von den Gemüthsschwächen im Erkenntnißvermögen"]:
The Palestinians living among us have, for the most part, earned a not unfounded reputation for being cheaters, because of their spirit of usury since their exile. Certainly, it seems strange to conceive of a nation of cheaters; but it is just as odd to think of a nation of merchants, the great majority of whom, bound by an ancient superstition that is recognized by the State they live in, seek no civil dignity and try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another. The situation could not be otherwise, given a whole nation of merchants, as non-productive members of society (for example, the Jews in Poland). So their constitution, which is sanctioned by ancient precepts and even by the people among whom they live (since we have certain sacred writings in common with them), cannot consistently be abolished even though the supreme principle of their morality in trading with us is "Let the buyer beware." I shall not engage in the futile undertaking of lecturing to these people, in terms of morality, about cheating and honesty. Instead, I shall present my conjectures about the origin of this peculiar constitution (the constitution, namely, of a nation of merchants). [Quoted in Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, tr. Mary J. Gregor (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), p. 77.]
Kant then offers his conjectures about the origin of the Jews as a nation of merchants Palestine, as he puts it, was well-situated for the caravan trade, and so on.
What to say? Well, first, I have to admit to some uncertainty as to how the word Verfassung, which Gregor has translated as "constitution," is to be to understood. Frequently, the German term has a political connotation: that is, a Verfassung can be a constitution, a political document of some sort. But that doesn't seem to be the proper way to understand the term as it is used in this passage. (I'm open, though, to suggestions as to how to read the word in a political sense.)
Instead, Kant seems to mean something like "state of mind" or "mental condition," both of which can plausibly translate Verfassung and make more sense in the context of the overall discussion, which, as the section title indicates, is devoted to the question of mental deficiencies. In the case of the Jews, Kant is attributing to them the mental deficiency of being habitually dishonest. (Don't forget, by the way, his "for the most part" qualifier, which seems to apply to the number of Jews who are cheaters. That is, Kant doesn't seem to be saying that all Jews are dishonest.) I'd say that he's referring to what he takes to be their mental constitution, which, in the context under discussion, amounts to the grievous moral failing of dishonesty, especially in commerce. (I skimmed through the entire text of Kant's Anthropology, but I didn't find any other places where he used the word Verfassung that might help us here. I admit, though, that I could have missed something. I'm blogging here, after all, not writing a scholarly paper.)
Furthermore, he seems to postulate the perpetual existence of this deficiency as long as Jews (1) remain a nation of merchants who (2) reside in non-Jewish countries, (3) make up for their lack of civil dignity (i.e., their second-class citizenship) through dishonest business practices, and (4) abide by ancient religious precepts that sanction their behavior. (Kant doesn't seem to say that their precepts are the cause of the dishonesty that he attributes to the majority of them.) That's why he says that their constitution or however else we might translate Verfassung cannot consistently be abolished.
I don't know why Kant wrote this particular remark. No one does, as far as I know. I spend little time condemning the failings, moral or otherwise, of people who are long dead. Such an activity I consider a form of self-righteousness. Kant's remark speaks for itself, and nowadays we know what it says. Let's leave it at that.
The important intellectual consideration is whether or not the remark which expresses an attitude towards Jews that Kant held at some point in his life somehow informs his philosophical writings. Since Kant gave his anthropology course many times, we don't know when he penned this remark, nor whether he repeated it every time he gave the course, and thus we don't know for sure whether or not he believed it until the end of his life. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Kant wholeheartedly believed, throughout his entire life, that the Jews were a nation of cheaters. Does it matter for understanding his philosophy?
Kant's moral philosophy is clearly meant to be universal in scope and application. Therefore, it assigns the same duties and rights to all human beings. Furthermore, according to Kant, the failings of others do not excuse us from our obligations towards them, however sorely they might test our patience. (Two wrongs don't make a right, as the saying goes.) Kant says that he refuses to lecture the Jews about their failings, because he thinks that to do so would be futile. But he does not say that their alleged failings excuse us from our obligations towards them.
Since the observation in the quoted passage is an empirical falsehood, it isn't a consequence of Kant's philosophical views, which are never to be mistaken for empirical generalizations of any sort. That is, what Kant says about the Jews can't be a product of his philosophy. A general condemnation of dishonesty applied to Jews and non-Jews alike is to be expected from his moral philosophy, but the sweeping generalization about Jews isn't a philosophical view. It's just an empirical falsehood that expresses a prejudice.
There's nothing in this passage that should prompt any reflection about the nature of Kant's philosophy. For some reason, which no one has been able to fathom, Kant subscribed to one of the ancient stereotypes of the Jewish people. From a personal point of view, clearly, it's lamentable; from a philosophical point of view, however, it's irrelevant.