I read John D.Caputo years ago, in the late '70s, in connection with work I was doing on Heidegger. I read a couple of his early Heidegger articles and a couple of his books. One of them, The Mystical Element in Heidegger's Thought, is in my library. Caputo seemed worth reading at the time. But he appears to have gone off the deep end. This from a New York Times Opinionator interview entitled "Looking White in the Face":
John D. Caputo: “White” is of the utmost relevance to philosophy, and postmodern theory helps us to see why. I was once criticized for using the expression “true north.” It reflected my Nordo-centrism, my critic said, and my insensitivity to people who live in the Southern Hemisphere. Of course, no such thing had ever crossed my mind, but that points to the problem. We tend to say “we” and to assume who “we” are, which once simply meant “we white male Euro-Christians.”
Postmodern theory tries to interrupt that expression at every stop, to put every word in scare quotes, to put our own presuppositions into question, to make us worry about the murderousness of “we,” and so to get in the habit of asking, “we, who?” I think that what modern philosophers call “pure” reason — the Cartesian ego cogito and Kant’s transcendental consciousness — is a white male Euro-Christian construction.
White is not “neutral.” “Pure” reason is lily white, as if white is not a color or is closest to the purity of the sun, and everything else is “colored.” Purification is a name for terror and deportation, and “white” is a thick, dense, potent cultural signifier that is closely linked to rationalism and colonialism. What is not white is not rational. So white is philosophically relevant and needs to be philosophically critiqued — it affects what we mean by “reason” — and “we” white philosophers cannot ignore it.
This is truly depressing stuff. It illustrates the rarefied, pseudo-intellectual stupidity to which leftist intellectuals routinely succumb, and the level to which humanities departments in our universities have sunk. We speak of 'true North' in distinction from 'magnetic North,' which is what a compass needle points to. The difference in location between the two is called declination and must be taken into account for accurate navigation. The phrase 'true North' has nothing to do with Nordo-centrism or insensitivity to those who live in the Southern Hemisphere. It is just a physical fact that compass needles track magnetic North, and that magnetic North is not the same as true North.
I feel as if I should apologize for pointing out something so obvious, but in the lunatic precincts of the postmodern, the obvious gets no respect. Does Caputo perhaps imagine that the Earth and its magnetic properties are social constructs? I hope not. One wonders what is going on in his head. Perhaps he is afraid of hurting the feelings of people who live in the Southern Hemisphere by his use of 'true North.' But for them to take offense at that phrase would be like a black person taking offense at 'black hole,' which, mirabile dictu, has actually happened. The phrase is from cosmology. Roughly, a black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing can escape including no form of electromagnetic radiation such as light. Black holes have nothing to do with people of African-American descent or with black whores: 'hos' in black street idiom. And this is the case even when 'black hole' is used metaphorically to refer to, say, a windowless office.
It is the same with 'true North.' If used literally, it does not mean that the North is 'true' and the South 'false' or any such nonsense. And the same goes for the phrase used metaphorically.
People with basic common sense know that there is such a thing as taking inappropriate offense and that one should not cater to the whims of the absurdly sensitive. In this connection I remind you of the case of the poor schlep who lost his job because of his use of the perfectly innocuous English word 'niggardly,' which, of course, has nothing to do with 'nigger.' By the way, I just mentioned the word 'nigger'; I did not use it. I said something about the word; I did not apply it to anyone. (Is your typical Continental philosopher aware of the use-mention distinction?)
The purveyors of POMO need to be reminded that thinking is not association of ideas: if you associate 'niggardly' with 'nigger,' that is your problem and no basis for an argument to the conclusion that a user of 'niggardly' is a racist.
Should we question our presuppositions? Of course. That is essential to the philosophical enterprise. But one ought to do this without absurd exaggerations ("the murderousness of 'we' ") and double standards. I say we ought to question our presuppositions. Who am I referring to with my use of 'we'? To those of us who aspire to be reasonable and to seek the truth. I am afraid I don't see the "murderousness" of that. And I don't see how a white person is barred from referring to rational truth-seekers by his use of 'we' just because he or she is a white person.
Now to our title question. Is pure reason a white male Euro-Christian construction? This is just nonsense and is really beneath refutation. But given the sorry state of things, refutation is needed. Caputo is alluding to Kant's 1781 (2nd ed. 1787) Critique of Pure Reason. And Caputo must know that for Kant 'pure' means: free of empirical elements (CPR B 3) and that pure reason is the faculty that "contains the principles whereby we know anything absolutely a priori." (CPR A 11 B 24) This has nothing to do with racial purity.
Caputo is here instantiating the role of Continental mush-head: he is not thinking but engaging in argument by association, which is not argument at all, any more than another Continental favorite, argument by incantation, is argument at all.
But it is worse than this because Caputo is engaged in a sort of philosophical smear job. Here we have a great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who is undertaking to evaluate the cognitive 'reach' of pure reason. His project is to assess the capacity of reason unaided by sensory input to secure knowledge in special metaphysics (metaphysica specialis) whose main objects are God, the soul, and the world as a whole. Corresponding to these objects are the highest concerns of humanity: God, freedom, and immortality.
And what does Caputo do? He conflates the purity that Kant speaks of with racial purity and then goes on to associate, scurrilously and irresponsibly, pure reason with "terror and deportation" and "colonialism." This of course is right out of the cultural Marxist's playbook.
For a leftist, anything a reasonable person says is 'code' for something else. The leftist cannot take anything at face value as meaning what it obviously means. He is out to debunk and deconstruct and unmask. As cultural Marxists, they are out to cut through 'false consciousness' and 'bourgeois ideology.' Theirs is the hermeneutics of suspicion. So 'pure reason' cannot mean what Kant says it means; it has to mean something else: it is a "cultural signifier" for terror and deportation and what all else. Or if I speak of truth and of seeking truth, then my use of 'truth' really signifies power and white privilege and what all else.
And when I refute the POMO nonsense and show that it is self-contradictory, that too cannot be taken at face-value as meaning what it manifestly means and showing what it manifestly shows; it has to be 'deconstructed' as masking some sort of power play or re-affirmation of 'white privilege.'
Is Caputo trying to convince us of certain truths? Then he presupposes truth, in which case truth cannot be a social construct. It is not that there are no social constructs; the point is that not everything can be. Truth, for example. Who constructs it? White males collectively? But if this is so, then that is the case beyond all constructions, in which case truth cannot be a white male construction or a construction by any person or persons. Truth is absolute by its very nature.
Could reason be a social construct? When Caputo tries to convince us of something he appeals to our reason to convince us of what he takes to be reasonable and true. He gives arguments and adduces various considerations. He makes assertions that purport to be true. (And, of course, in purporting to be true, they purport to be objectively and absolutely true, which is to say: not merely true for me or for us or for this social class or that historical epoch.) But how can Caputo, who is a white male who enjoys all sorts of perquisites and privileges, appeal to reason if reason is a white male Euro-Christian construct?
Of course, it may be that Caputo has no intention of appealing to reason. It could be that his POMO verbiage is nothing but obfuscatory rhetoric that masks a bid for power for him and his ilk. I prefer not to believe this, if possible; I met the man once and he seemed like a decent human being.
Is Caputo appealing to a 'true reason' that is not a white male Euro-Christian construct? But he can't do this by his own constructivist, relativist principles. For then he would have to put a different construct in its place, say reason as a black female Afro-Islamic construct. But then he won't be able to convince us or himself of anything rationally. For that different construct would just be another contingent, unbinding framework. If there is a 'true reason,' then it cannot be any sort of contingent human construct vriable across races andf sexes, regions and religions.
The problem, very simply, is that if reason is culturally or racially or in any way relative, then there is no such thing as reason. Reason is like truth in this respect. Truth is absolute by its very nature; talk of relative truth is nonsense. Similarly, reason is normative and impartially adjudicative by its very nature. Talk of reason as reflective of class interests or racial biases is nonsense. So either there is no reason or it is not a social construct. And if it is not a social construct, then of course it is not a white male Euro-Christian construct.