Historical Understanding and Political Ideals: Kant and Benj
Professor of Philosophy Richard Eldridge takes up the following questions in this talk: 1) How do historical narratives explain events and provide understanding? 2) What is the role of political ideals in the framing of historical narratives? 3) How, for both Kant and Benjamin, does historical narrative play an essential role in furthering the task of (critical) philosophy? 4) What are the specific, opposed conceptions of historical understanding and ideal political life held by Kant and Benjamin?
Tamsin: All right, it is my great pleasure to introduce Richard Eldridge tonight, who, in addition to being a generous colleague, warmly supportive of my own work over my years here, as well as an efficient and effective chair of the department for many of those years, has been an inspiring example to me of a philosopher who embodies what he teaches with impressive integrity.
Many of you may know Rick as a dedicated scholar, teacher, parent, and musician, as a long-standing member of the Swarthmore community, his commitment to the cultivation of excellence in himself and those around him is reflected in his persistent and open-ended questioning of the form that excellence might take in a rapidly changing world, how might we best give full expression toward distinctively human powers of living, and how do various aspects of culture help us to cultivate and develop such expressions of who we are. Rick's dedication to these questions, as well as his impressive and wide-ranging knowledge of everything from aesthetics and the arts to philosophy of language and logic, is apparent to all.
What may be less obvious to us here at Swarthmore is just how active an instigator and participant he is in a larger philosophical community. Much of this community he has formed through his incredibly active role as a visiting professor and scholar at places like the University of University of Freiburg, the University of Erfurt, Stanford University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem just to name a few, as well as the many talks he has given here and abroad, and the countless articles and reviews he has also written.
These many interactions dedicated to fostering reflective appreciation of aspects of culture that enrich human living, cultural resources all too easily overlooked, and the fact-paced technology-obsessed tempo of contemporary life embody an inspirational exemplar of someone who truly lives the kind of life his work seeks to cultivate.
In addition, he's been the editor of four path-breaking collections, including The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, two collections on Stanley Cavell, and another on Philosophy and Poetic Imagination. Since I can give only a few examples from Rick's extensive list of publications, I will just mention five books he has authored on his own.
The first book is On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism, and Self-Understanding; the second is Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism; the third book is The Persistence of Romanticism: Essays in Philosophy and Literature; the fourth, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art; and the fifth and latest book of which he is sole author that I will mention here tonight is Literature, Life, and Modernity, which came out in 2008 with Columbia University Press.
I would like to end my brief introduction by quoting from this last work, a book that I personally found not only beautifully written, but also deeply moving: "To see something, something strange, indecipherable and yet strangely familiar within the ordinary, and then to dwell on this something in reflection, not to explain it, but to follow and play out the sense of strangeness, familiarity, and significance, is to re-animate one's sense of life as a human subject. It is to remind oneself in detail that one is capable of noticing and feeling and of sustaining attention to the strange phenomena of life in turn." I now give you Richard Eldridge, who today will present his talk, Historical Understanding and Political Ideals: Kant and Benjamin.
Richard Eldridge: Thank you very much, Tamsin. That was very kind and generous. I suppose, having heard it now, I find myself gripped by the worry that the adjectives I heard were "dedicated" and "persistent" most often, which don't either imply talented or success. We will see about that, but thank you. That was very generous.
I want also to thank Swarthmore College, and in particular the James A. Michener Fellowship from Swarthmore College, as well as the Freiburg Research Institute for Advanced Studies. Both of them supported this work. Swarthmore made the leave last year possible, and the FRIAS gave me a wonderful environment in which to do this work.
I mention these facts not only out of gratitude, however, but also to signal that the kind of critical philosophy I do is both played out in and addresses material, historical, and cultural situations; though, of course, I hope that it is not simply hostage to them either.
This is a long and peculiar piece of work that I have mostly to read here. There is a handout that's gone around. On the handout, you will find that the beginning, the title of the overall project followed on the beginning by an account of the structure of the book, an introduction, a chapter on conflict, a chapter on Walter Benjamin, and an epilogue. That's followed by the epigraph for the whole book taken from Stanley Cavell that ends with the line, "Is W. C. Fields our only alternative to Humpty Dumpty?"
That question, I think, is both the premise and the conclusion of my work, that is the entire argument has convinced him that, but it's pretty gnomic, so I'll leave that for you to think about.
Today's talk is going to be pretty long. I had to cut about 45 pages down as best I could. It has in it some philosophy of science, some philosophy of action, some political philosophy, some ethics, some analytical philosophy of history, some metaphysics all mixed up together, all in order to show, I hope, why it is that both Kant and Benjamin on history are important for us in helping us to think about the current problems.
What I'm mostly going to do is get to them by describing not in their terms, but in my own the problem that they are addressing and how they address it. I am not primarily doing text interpretation at all. I will get to a little bit of that only at the very end. So much for the preliminaries.
How might we best understand the development of settled, modern political life as it is both influenced by and influences political ideals? How might we best think about ourselves and our prospects a fruitful development against the background of what has been done and imagined politically within the framework of this life? How might we understand that background fruitfully in relation to our sense of what is politically [inaudible 07:41] and desirable?
One way to begin to get a grip on these very large questions is to know that human beings within modern, settled political societies have had all of them, that means you, to cope with certain continuing large oppositions that appear in more specific shapes in social settings.
As Hegel describes them, human beings are occupied with and troubled by oppositions that appear as, quoting now from Hegel, "the contrast between the sensuous and the spiritual in man, as the battle of spirit against flesh, of duty for duty's sake, of the cold command against particular interest, warmth of heart, sensuous inclinations and impulses against the individual disposition in general; also as the harsh opposition between inner freedom and the necessity of external nature, further as the contradiction between the dead inherently empty concept, and the full concreteness of life, between theory or subjective thinking, and objective existence and experience".
"These are oppositions," still quoting from Hegel, "which have not been invented at all by the subtlety of reflection or the pedantry of philosophy. In numerous forms, they have always preoccupied and troubled the human consciousness, even if it is modern culture that has first worked them out most sharply and driven them up to the peak of harshest contradiction. Spiritual culture, the modern intellect, produces this opposition in man which makes him an amphibious animal, because he now has to live in two worlds which contradict one another."
More crudely, human subjectivity, in the form of individual thought and feeling, bumps up against the sense of the way things are done and are to be done. [foreign language 09:44]. Can human subjectivity find itself at home in what is done and what is to be done by taking on a meaningful social role? Or is human subjectivity rather doomed and, if so, how far? To be forever confronted by social routines that it finds in some measure cold an alien, mere dead necessities for the moderation and disguise of what ultimately remains for some a form of violence?
Both historical narratives concerned with settled life and philosophical articulations of political ideals for it address and reflect on these fundamental oppositions between subjectivity and the manifold ways things are done and are to be done. History, or at least large-scale social and political history, investigates the lived experience of these oppositions. It tracks which forms of opposition have been felt to be particularly pressing and by whom. What various historical actors have undertaken to do about them using what devices of political or social reorganization, themselves influenced by technological, ideological, and other circumstances, and whether these actors have succeeded or failed in various ways and with what further effects.
We, or at least we denizens of modern, complex societies live within these oppositions and within various complex, overlapping, complementary, and mutually contestatory efforts to address and to resolve them. History writing all at once attempts to, participates in, and undertakes to assess the ongoing course of this historical life within oppositions. It does so by bringing forms of emplotment with discernings of beginnings, middles, and ends to bear on efforts to address these oppositions, where the descriptions of beginnings, middles, and ends involve normative assessments.
The mixture of participation, discernment, and assessment that historical writing achieves helps to explain the well-known persistent ambiguity of the word's history, geschichte, histoire, and their cousins, as they can be used both to refer to what happened and to how it has been narrated. Living within these oppositions, and within our own efforts to recognize their more specific shapes and to address them, we simultaneously note what is going on around us and give it narrative shape as we attempt to get some orientation for where we might fruitfully go next.
There is, despite the existence also of sheer happenstances and the pervasive facts of materiality, to some extent, an internal connection for us as historical animals between what is experienced and how it is narratively understood. As Reinhart Koselleck usefully puts it, "The form of an historical narration," he writes, "is not only a matter of an art of presentation or narration, but also one that is imputed to or derived from the actual history." How we tell the story then is at least in some measure a function of how we live the story, and vice-versa.
One might be tempted to deny this and to hold instead, after all, that we creatively make up all the stories that matter, that there is no story that we live. We might think of subjectivity as somehow freely creative and wholly internalized in facing off against the materiality that is simply other to it. Our powers to organize events narratively and to assess them normatively are, to some extent, free of materiality, in being driven in part by creative imagination.
One might be tempted, therefore, to assert some strong form of a fact value, outer/inner or material/spiritual distinction. In the end, however, these distinctions, in their strong forms, will not hold as we experience our plights and possibilities of subjectivity within a situation of oppositions that are themselves simultaneously material and spiritual.
As Dieter Henrich, a contemporary German philosopher, observes, "One could argue that the very notion of a practical philosophy precludes any occupation with cosmological and metaphysical problems. Yet this stance conflicts with the fact that the agent and the intelligent person are one and the same subject. We certainly cannot claim that the world of objects and the world seen from the moral viewpoint are totally separate. For moral action has as its domain the very situations and circumstances we regard as part of the physical world.
The enlightened moral agent needs a moral view meeting two requirements; first, that it relate the various worldviews in some way that prevents their multiplicity from resulting in sheer anarchy or confusion; second, that it survive being exposed to competitors. The moral view must remain reasonable and immune to the charge of arbitrariness and irrationality. If the beliefs that are inseparable from the viewpoint of the moral agent are consistent and linked together into a single network, one can call them a moral image of the world."
Hence, we need a moral image of the world, me going on now from Henrich, or at least some sense of orientation that promotes the stability of our projects and relationships by casting them as meaningful for us and for others. Hence, we are, as agents, inextricably bound up with surrounding environments as the domains of our actions, but exactly how and where is a moral image of the world to be found or cobbled together? How is it to win allegiance beyond the bounds of circumstantial, sectarian affinity group?
If there is nothing that commands general allegiance, then exploitation by the powerful, free-riding, and the general privatization of satisfactions loom on the horizon. Even if it is true ... I'm skipping over a bit here. I've argued that, in the past, this is true, that some claims to know objective human interest in detail in the past and to administer culture on the basis of this knowledge have often been the heavy-handed, tyrannizing stuff of philosophers and priests as the servants of the materially powerful. It is not clear that anything but gathering chaos and massive exploitation will result from a general repudiation of the existence of all objective interests.
As Anthony J. Cascardi observes, the experience of modernity is characterized by what he calls the "belief that there are no intelligible essences, no preordained qualities, and no auratic presences in the world". The disappearance of such qualities yields a vision of the world as potentially open to transformation from within, but also raises fears that the world may be governed by no authoritative perspective for controlling point of view.
Happily, it is at least plausible to suppose that there may be a middle way between dogmatic appeals to sources of value that are independent of human life, such as the platonic good, on the one hand, and taking human life to be nothing but a matter of unconstrained competition for purely subjective satisfactions, on the other. As Henrich remarks, "Moral actions in particular, as well as their intentions, cannot be regarded as automatic responses to needs or to an environment."
Human beings do deliberate. They resolved indeterminate drives into formulated, specific wants and desires. They rank these wants and desires in terms of their importance and the specifically choose to act on the basis of some rather than others. They attempt, most important, to integrate the satisfactions of various wants and desires with one another within a coherent overall life plan.
As they thus deliberate, they are sometimes moved by longer term considerations of what may make sense in more than immediate and subjectively material ways. To be sure, the ideals of meaningful life that thus move human agents are far from uniform. They typically come into conflict with each other. As Max Weber argued, "The highest ideals which move us most forcefully are always formed in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to others as ours are to us."
However disparate they may be, these ideals that surface within deliberation and that form part of the structure of human action are themselves available as objects of reflection. Via reflection on these ideals, we might hope to become more aware of what we have always already been doing, and so more explicitly self-conscious and more reasonably confident both about what we might now be aiming at and about what we might best aim at in relation to others.
Just this form of reflection characterizes the emergence of modern historical self-consciousness since at least roughly the 18th Century. Instead of taking ideals either only from putatively absolute sources prior to us, or from our subjective wants and desires as they surface prior to deliberation, human beings have come increasingly to be aware of themselves as living within developing contested historical narratives of the articulation and modification of longer term ideal serving projects and relationships.
As Stefan Deines, Stephan Jaeger, and Ansgar Nunning characterize this development, they write, "Historically considered, a massive transformation in the relations between the human subject and history is evident in the second half of the 18th Century. Prior to the 18th Century, a foundation for the human subject outside of history was taken for granted. For example, in philosophical, metaphysical, ethical, or anthropological systems of reference."
History performed only a mediating function in relation to the norms, values, and paradigms of these external transhistorical systems. The acting subject was likewise oriented by this third term external to history, the self-grounding of a subject, as, for example, Descartes paradigmatically carried it out for modern philosophy, was thinkable only outside of history through a divine authority.
By the end of the 18th Century, after Gibbon, Burke, Rousseau, and Kant, and with the increasing development and spread of intercultural awareness, things are different. To a significant extent, orientation is achieved, when it is achieved at all, and bracketing reversions to modern fundamentalisms that are themselves more willed as a reaction against fears of chaos than they are immediately lived, and bracketing likewise action that is immediately driven by wants and desires that are mistakenly taken for granted as given.
Orientation is achieved via the mutual bootstrapping of political and moral ideals with historical narratives. This mutual bootstrapping is accomplished as already suggested via the use of political and moral ideals in constructing historical narratives and by the use of historical narratives to test the availability and significance of political and moral ideals.
The construction of historical understanding must significantly draw on research, or forschung, into what has actually been done by human beings, or has otherwise taken place in relation to them. Beyond the piecemeal, chronicle-like establishment of mere occurrences of unrelated actions and events, historical understanding must relate what has been done by a subject A at T at P to what has been done by A´ at T´ at P´. A first action will be presented as causally influencing the occurrence of further actions, fruitfully, banally, tragically, comically, and so on, as may be.
As Arthur Danto argues, it is a necessary condition for a historical narrative that it must, "A, report the events which actually happened and, B, report them in the order of their occurrence, or make this order manifest, and, C, explain what happened." Absent fulfillment of this necessary condition, one will have only a chronicle or a list of events.
This condition is further unnecessary, not sufficient, for adequate historical narration or, more precisely, what it is relevantly to explain an action historically must be further specified. Just what sort of explanation is in view when we are explaining events, or at least the significant actions of human agents within several political societies historically?
A first step in answering this question is to see that invents must be assigned significance by way of an action description. As Danto puts it, "To ask for the significance of an event in the historical sense of the term is to ask a question which can only be answered in the context of a story. The identical event will have different significance in accordance with the story in which it is located or, in other words, in accordance with what different sets of later events it may be connected. Stories constitute the natural context in which events acquire historical significance."
To see, going on with myself now, the significance of stories in relation to action descriptions in particular, consider this example. A story is told of a Chinese man passing through the foreign legations' compound in Peking. Seeing two of the European staff playing an energetic game of tennis, he stopped to watch. Bemused, he turned to a player and said, "If it is, for some obscure reason, necessary to hit this little ball back and forth thus, would it not be possible to get the servants to do it?"
As this example makes clear, action descriptions make sense of what someone is doing, quite frequently against the background of specific practice and involving a number of physical events taking place across a stretch of time, nor is this point limited to recherche cases involving alien or exotic cultures.
Consider the kinds of -ing verb forms, dubbed by Danto project verbs, that we normally used to answer the question, "What is so and so doing?" For example, planting roses. As Danto notes, formulations of the form is "'is R-ing' will generally cover a whole range of different pieces of behavior B1 to Bn, where the range marked out by a predicate like 'is R-ing' is almost certain to be very flexible."
Project verbs of the form "is R-ing" organize a series of discontinuous physical events under a normal result-related description, where the events thus organized may be open and non-homogeneous. That is as long as there is a normal result-related activity going on, all sorts of variations and interruptions may be possible, and the activity still be correctly described as "is R-ing".
For example, planting roses may include such things as digging the hole, loosening the surrounding soil, embedding the plant, filling back over the roots, and watering the embedded seedling. It may further include such things as wiping one's brow, reaching for a different shovel, taking a break to smoke a cigarette, or asking a neighbor for advice.
Moreover, the thing can be done in new ways. One might scoop with one's hands or push with a bulldozer or use a high-pressure hose, instead of poking about with a shovel. Surely, there are at least 50 ways to leave your lover or to run a firm.
Matters grow more complex, but display a similar logic, when longer term projects and activities involving multiple agents, extended periods of time, complex circumstances, and overlappings with other projects are in view. For example, organizing a conference, raising a child, stopping an oil leak, or making a revolution.
Generally speaking, the more long term, complex, and significant the activity in question is, the more the relevant project verb will involve reference to a moral or political ideal, but it's introduced to characterize the activity as having a larger aim in view to. Thus, we say such things as A is organizing a conference on terrorism not only in order to address a discreet problem or to advance his career, but also in order to promote international security, or B is working on changes in the tax code in order to promote a more just society, or C is closing down the local factory and outsourcing production abroad in order to cut costs and to increase efficiency and profit.
It is possible to have a lower level descriptions of projects and activities that make little or no reference to ideals and have relatively straightforward instantiations. For example, D is eating candied violets. There is every reason to accept that there can be significant histories of lower level human projects and activities than making a revolution or working for social justice. Generally speaking, the more complex, long term, and significant the activity, the more reference to ideals will figure in the complexes of higher level project verbs That are used to describe the goings on.
In addition, human beings within settled societies both grow up under and lead adult lives in relation to various social and political institutions, including tax agencies, police departments, deed registries, civil courts, armies, and public schools among others. They will have attitudes, explicit and implicit, toward these institutions, attitudes bound up with their senses, but their lives are or are not going well in relation to that.
Human beings often act not only as countable biological individuals, but also as occupants of political, economic, and social roles. They will have further attitudes toward the fruitfulness of occupying them. Their attitudes toward their surrounding institutions and their roles within them can come dramatically into play in motivating actions at crucial moments of political possibility, as we began to see again this week. They figure in any case in the day-to-day texture of ongoing social life in them.
Both when we have complex projects and activities in view and when we ask why things have been done or have happened in relation to human agency, we link together project verb structured accounts of particular doings in order to form a story that explains the many things that are going on, some of them as consequences of others. Causal verbs such as instigated, influenced, gave rise to, motivated, undermined, inhibited, enabled and so on link together descriptions of activities under project verbs to form explanatory accounts.
As Danto notes in characterizing these causal verbs, "Each of these terms," that is the kinds of verbs I've just mentioned, "to be true of an event E-1, logically requires the occurrence of an event temporarily later than E-1, and sentences making use of such terms in the obvious way will then be narrative sentences that describe what went on in and through a connected series of activities.
Crucially, because the occurrence of the later event is logically required, but is not discernible via the techniques of physical measurement at the time of the initiating event E-1, establishing that a sentence involving a causal verb is true will require waiting to see what happens.
As Danto famously notes, the true sentence "The 30 Years War began in 1618" could not be known to be true until 1648. Yet soldiers in 1622 were fighting in the 30 Years War. That is what they were doing, or at least one of the things that they were importantly doing. Historical explanation is, therefore, essentially retrospective, not predictive.
Some projects and activities, along with the intentions, beliefs, and desires and so on that inform them, are among the historical causes then of other projects and activities, where the kind of causality in question is that which is captured in a relevant, illuminating INUS condition without necessarily a reference to any law. That's technical jargon in philosophy that I explained in a part I skipped over; that is there's an analysis of the notion of a cause due to the philosopher John Mackie that he calls an INUS, condition or cause is an insufficient, non-redundant member of a set of unnecessary but sufficient conditions.
I will not go into that any further unless you wished me to give examples or talk about it later, but the important idea is that it's perfectly normal and natural to use the word "cause" to describe the relations between historical events of instigating, completing, enabling, and so forth without any law formulation in view at all. We just don't need when doing history; laws like the laws of physics, say.
What makes a historical narrative of how the undertakings and the outcomes of some projects and activities causally influence others explanatory is just that the narrative helps us to see what is going on continuously within these thus interrelated doings. As Michael Scriven usefully puts it, "Both events and actions can sometimes be explained," he writes, "merely by being described in the correct way regardless of deduction from laws." It's a wonderful example. This was written in 1962. You have to hear 1962 in this.
For example, if you reach for a cigarette and, in doing so, knock over an ink bottle which then spills onto the floor, you are in an excellent position to explain to your wife how that stain appeared on the carpet. That is why the carpet is stained, if you cannot clean it off fast enough. You knocked the ink bottle over. This is the explanation of the state of affairs in question. There is no nonsense about it being in doubt because you cannot quote the laws that are involved, Newton's and all the others.
We typically ask for or seek an explanation, especially with regard to human actions. When we are unclear about what is going on or about what has happened. We understand something ... A man was shot and killed, or a secret was betrayed to a foreign power ... but we want to know what complex of larger projects and activities lends sense to what happened as part of the ensembles of doings of reasonable agents.
As Scriven puts it, a common case is that when someone greatly puzzled asks, "What on earth is this?" or, "What's going on here?" and is told, for example, that it is an initiation ceremonial on which he has stumbled. Here, understanding is roughly the perception of relationships and, hence, may be conveyed by any process which locates the puzzling phenomenon in a system of relations. A description may enable us to supply a whole framework which we had already understood, but of whose relevance we had been unaware of.
We deduce nothing. Our understanding comes because we see the phenomenon for what it is and are in a position to make other inferences from this realization. The task then for the understanding of action in general was to see what agents are up to; that is what results or ends they have in view as they are qua agents, sensitive to considerations of reasonableness and involved in ensembles of projects and activities, the execution of which is subject to normative assessment. I left out a whole bit on the relevance of reasonableness to some things being in action. We can talk about that later, if you like.
For longer term, historically significant actions involving projects and activities that are causally linked and involve multiple agents with complex attitudes towards institutions and roles, the task then is likewise to see what multiple agents are broadly up to, what results or ends they had in view, in relation to what sorts of reasons that involve reference to broad political and ethical ideals, and with what sorts of normatively assessable outcomes.
Exactly what the relevant political and ethical ideals are, how specific long term activities in pursuit of them are responsive to considerations of reasonableness, and how the outcomes are properly normatively assessed, all this is far from transparent in immediate happenstances, nor will it always or often help simply to ask individual agents what they're up to, or to consult whatever records of their beliefs, desires, and aims they may happen to have left.
Consulting such records is always relevant, but it is often not by itself decisive, since commitments to ideals as ends may be largely taken on from a social environment in ways that are habitual, implicit, and unrecorded. Beyond relying on various forms of direct testimony then, we must undertake at least sometimes to see the reasonable, ideal-related pattern in what is going on or has gone on.
Are there then fundamental continuing problems of human life that are addressed by a long term, multiple agent complex projects, or is it rather the case that appeal to shared habits and practices of sense-making is overwhelmed by the sheer particularity of various quite divergent problems and practices at hand in distinct historical situations?
Here, Jorn Rusen poignantly argues that the anticipatory experience of death on the part of a finite, temporally conscious and self-conscious being figures ineliminably in the construction of historical narratives as sense-determining factors of orientation. Here I'm going to read the long quotation you have on the right-hand side of your handout.
"The basic experience, grunderfahrung, of natural time as a repeated, unintended alteration of man and world, which essentially affects, touches, [inaudible 39:13] the human course of life, manifest itself most clearly in the experience of death. Narration is then the manner in which, beyond the experience of natural time, sense is formed with a view to an intentionally drafted time of human self-retrieval by means of active intervention in the experienced alterations of man and world." It's a lovely phrase, but not transparent. We'll come back to that.
"Narrative transforms natural time into human time on the level of the orientation of actions. One could also say narration is a mode by means of which, through linguistic actions, nature heals the wounds she has inflicted. History is a structure of meaning for human beings in that they relate their experiences of temporal changes in their world and in themselves to their need for self-reassurance or identity stabilization throughout these changes. In this way, they appropriate these experiences and orient their actions and sufferings within time, as moves within time that is now intentionally organized."
To what extent, if at all, are such claims credible? More sharply, what is meant by such large phrases as "time of human self-retrieval", "human time", "self-reassurance", and "identity stabilization"? Can we reasonably believe that it is possible to take a stance on one's world, invest it with sense, achieve orientation, appropriate one's experience, and achieve confidence about what one is up to, all by means of historical narration?
What is needed in order to hold together a sense of human beings as deliberative agents, reflectively responsive to abstract oppositions, on the one hand, and a sense of the immense local variability of the particular forms of these oppositions, on the other, is an image if history as the embodiment of reasonable, but deeply contested and contestable responsiveness to an ideal of the overcoming of these abstract oppositions.
An image of history is not a theory. It does not support either prediction of historical events or efforts at expert management of historical processes based on a grasp of laws of history, nor is its content fixed behind our backs by some trans-human presiding agency. Instead, yet an image of history must be elicited out of historical experience, and its functions are to enable retrospective intelligibility and further, future, open, imaginative efforts to resolve oppositions and to move toward the embodiment of human freedom.
An image of history, generated imaginatively from within an experience of history, elaborates at an abstract level forms of reflective attention to and narration and assessment of historical experience. Hence, structuring a field for subsequent political imagination.
Deeply complementary, yet also deeply opposed, constructivist images of history, generated imaginatively from within historical experience, yet functioning, too, as moral images of the world that might obscurely inform historical progress, but do not legislate it, are what Kant and Benjamin ... At last, we come to them ... each offer us at the deepest strata of their writings.
They produce, Kant and Benjamin, moreover, specific textual war forms that model for us possibilities of our attention to historical experience and of attention to political projects, each form of attention bootstrapping the other. They write about history, one might say, in open anticipation of freedom as the reconciliation of oppositions.
Yet while they are deeply in agreement with one another in their constructivist procedures for the historical generation of moral images of the world, Kant and Benjamin are quite evidently opposed to one another in certain specific claims about historical experience in relation to political ideals.
Kant notoriously rejects a right to revolution against unjust authorities, arguing that a people suffering under injustice is entitled only to make public complaints and arguments in the hopes of reforming existing political institutions from within. "They may," he writes in the [Reshlera 44:10], "oppose injustice by complaints, beschwerden, gravamina, but not by resistance."
Moral self-criticism on the part of both authorities and political subjects, not revolutionary action, is the primary vehicle of human self-improvement. This moral self-criticism must be both disciplined by principle and respectful of existing civil institutions.
In contrast, Benjamin urges revolution. He undertakes to uncover both the motivation for it and the proper content of its political ideals in the distorted dream images of public life that are manifest in the architectural forms and social practices of 19th Century Paris.
By decoding the latent content of these manifest-content dream images, a contemporary public might be helped to see and feel both what it is always already wanted without quite knowing it and what is now possible for it. The decoding will require not discipline and deference, so much as attention to ziemlich gut fugitive attachments, veiled eroticism. Appropriate political action will be revolutionary, anarchic, and ecstatically celebratory.
As Benjamin describes his own way of thinking in a famous letter to Gerhard Scholem, he writes, "To proceed in the most important things always radically, never consistently, that would be my disposition if I were ever one day to join the Communist Party, something which I, in turn, let depend on a final impulse of accident."
Here impulse, accident, and felt responsiveness to the particular displace discipline and attachment to institutions as the primary vehicles of historical progress. Benjamin's scorn for the social democrats and their careful attempts to design new institutions in accordance with the putatively more objective understanding of the laws of history, his scorn for them knows no bounds.
Opposition in the historical vehicles of development toward freedom is matched, apparently, by opposition in substantive political ideals. Kant favors political proceduralism or the institution of fair civil procedures overseen by institutions for the resolution of disagreements, thus replacing violence and revenge with justice. The contemporary liberal tradition, including both John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas, takes a similar stance.
Benjamin favors self-conscious political responsiveness and intimacy in the joint carrying out of a revolutionary project. The contemporary tradition of radical political criticism in the name of enhanced grounded meaningfulness, including Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben, moves in this direction.
In fact, however, here comes the political philosophy part, there are good reasons to take seriously both thick responsiveness to felt experience and and liberal proceduralism. As Raymond Geuss argues against proceduralist liberalism, "Discipline and good order," he writes, "may be excellences of a human society. Spontaneity, non-coerciveness, and tolerance may also be excellences. It may, however, be no more than a pious wish, an infantile fantasy, or an ideological delusion to think that all of these properties could even in principle be maximally instantiated in the same society at the same time."
Human beings may have little clear idea what they want, and they may well prefer attention to the somewhat inchoate particularities of their experience to the existence of abstract fair procedures that may seem to take no account of just who they are. As Geuss puts it, "It is a mistake," he writes, "to ignore or blank out history, sociology," and I emphasize his phrase, "and the particularities that constitute the substance of any recognizable form of human life."
Some thought of this kind is a staple of important claims to recognition on the part of those who have not been able to identify with the normal procedures of stable political orders as they have existed. Without a politics of the cultivation of the attentive recognition of the thick doings, sufferings, and achievements of different particular agents, procedural institutional politics is likely to collapse into factionalism, in involving a failure to see different agents as leading human life differently, but jointly. That's my own greatest worry about contemporary American life.
But then we are also scarcely likely to do well politically if we simply drop the thought, as Rawls puts it, that "justice is the first virtue of social institutions". If we try to do without fair procedures, neutral with respect to substantive conceptions of the good that are held by individuals, and seek to rely instead on nothing more than open mutual responsiveness without settled institutional frameworks of good enough cooperation, then mutual ignorance, self-seeking, chaos, and violence are at least as likely to arise as any form of significant political reciprocity.
What is needed politically then, instead of one-sided emphasis on either thick social communication or impartial procedures of justice, are the courage, attentiveness, and resoluteness to accept our historical indigence and to see that we are in need of both fair procedures and attentive understanding of particular experiences.
More important, despite their substantive disagreements about some aspects of fruitful political practice, both Kant and Benjamin, drawing on their forms of constructivism, appreciate the need for and develop just such forms of courage, attentiveness, and resoluteness. Rather than standing only on political ideals abstractly conceived, they each conceive of philosophy or the pursuit of human self-understanding as a form of historically developed critique that must be responsive to both the need for institutions and the importance of particular experience for a sense of identity.
Kant accepts that human beings do and we'll differ in their substantive conceptions of the good, and he urges moves towards substantive reciprocity, that is toward a moral culture of mutual attention and engagement, above and beyond the installation of the institutions of liberal political society.
Benjamin accepts the importance of political organization, however sketchy his anticipations of it may be. He urges the conscious construction of a new society rather than either a return to any ruder state of nature or a leap into life beyond the political.
For both Kant and Benjamin then, both the construction of political institutions and improvisatory political and moral imagination matter, and the relevant construction and imagination are to be informed by historical understanding in relation to political ideals.
As Kant describes his own conception of philosophy as historical critique in the Transcendental Doctrine of Method in the Critique of Pure Reason. He writes there, "It is first possible for us to glimpse the idea," he means especially the idea of freedom, "in a clearer light and to outline a whole architectonically, in accordance with the ends of reason, only after we have long collected the relevant cognitions rhapsodically like building materials and worked through them technically with only a hint from an idea lying hidden within us."
That is as we come to terms critically with history, seeking orientation in the articulation of political ideals, we can neither begin from intuitions or first principles that remained fixed nor fail to draw on a conception of freedom that we already possess only inchoately. Likewise, there could scarcely be a better description of Benjamin's working procedure than collecting the relevant cognitions rhapsodically and working them through technically with only a hint from an idea.
As Benjamin himself puts it, "Resolute refusal of the concept of timeless truth is in order. Nevertheless, truth is not, as Marxism would have it, a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike. This is so true that the eternal, in any case, is far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea."
Though he criticizes here the thought that truth is to be found in an idea, Benjamin evidently here construes idea in a subjective psychological sense, as in just having an idea. The nucleus of time hidden within the knower and the known, in fact, strongly resembles an idea in a Kantian sense, as something that obscurely underlines and informs knowing activity in both the knower and in the other who is to be understood.
Human beings, according to Kant, are always already undertaking to live freely, in Kant's rich sense of freedom, without, however, quite knowing fully how to do this. Since, however, for Benjamin as in Kant, the idea of freedom lies at least partially hidden, it must be brought into articulated presence by critical work on historical materials at hand, so as to make evident how it is experienced in distorted form within the knower and the known alike, or, as Benjamin adds, "One of Keller's epigrams reads, 'The truth will not run away from us.'" He goes on, "Here, the concept of truth is formulated from which these presentations turn away."
That is I take it Benjamin is saying that the truth can run away from us, if we fail actively and critically to engage with it, bringing our political ideal of human freedom into play, but this ideal must, in turn, engage with the historical materials. It cannot be articulated in a way that will be fruitful, that is that will engage with and resonate with the motivations of existing human beings, if it is presented apodictically as an abstract formula.
The historical material must be engaged with, as he writes, "The unconscious of the collective and the trace it has left in a thousand configurations of life must be attentively deciphered," or to return to Kant's formulation, the building materials must be worked through technically, with only a hint from an idea lying within us.
Neither the moment of immersion in the materials nor the moment of active contribution from the critically interpreting subject may be leapt over. The absolute cannot be shot out of a cannon.
Hence, Kant and Benjamin share an overall sense of meaningful life, including independence blended with reciprocity and satisfaction, as to be achieved within nature, through the human formation of culture, both political and aesthetic. Yet they also share a sense of the indigence of the human in the face of this task, as human beings remain locked in antagonisms of both opposed needs and rivalry for mastery, as far as any direct empirical evidence from history shows.
Kant, looking on the results of the historical exercises of pure reason, finds "edifices, to be sure, but only in ruins". Human beings have failed to grasp their situation and their possibilities and powers of meaning-making, but have instead contented themselves with violence and its rationalization according to dogmatic theories. Benjamin's angel looking back on history sees "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet".
While a telos of redeemed humanity retains its force for both Kant and Benjamin, there is no path toward it that is either evident or unbroken, and there is no superintending providence that guarantees any progress. God is thought of as a bare possibility of redemption rather than as any superintending or intervening agent.
Productive developments will require transformation resulting from a redirection of reason and of our powers of meaning-making, in what Kant calls a revolution in the disposition consoles a revolution in the disposition, [foreign language 57:45], of the human being being and what Benjamin conceives of as political revolution.
Grasping and acting on our hitherto blocked powers of meaning-making is figure by both Kant and Benjamin as a Copernican turn, involving looking to our own flawed doings and the powers that underlie them, with a view to their radical reorientation rather than either to any external authority or to any simply given historical facts.
We might do better, as Kant puts it, if we followed Copernicus, who made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest. Benjamin writes that, "The Copernican revolution in historical perception is as follows. Formerly, it was thought that a fixed point had been found in what has been, [inaudible 58:37], and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal, the flash of an awakened consciousness. Politics attains primacy over history."
In both cases, what is to be grasped and put into effect of work is the priority of the practical; that is our practically significant self-understanding and powers over any theorizing about standing, simple material givens. Similarly, both Kant and Benjamin use images of awakening to characterize figuratively the sort of turn in our practical powers that is required.
Kant warns against "the slumber of an imagined conviction, such as a merely one-sided illusion produces". Skepticism effectively awakes us from such a slumber, but then must itself be overcome through an effectively delimited use of reason in the practice of critique. "Long practice", Kant writes, will be required before we're able effectively to determine just what we are able to know and how.
Benjamin, drawing on the opening scene of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, writes that, "Just as Proust begins the story of his life with an awakening, so must every presentation of history begin with awakening. In fact, it should treat of nothing else."
Finally, really I'm almost done, both Kant and Benjamin stage their own writings as imaginative, conjectural engagements with the materials of history, introduced in order to promote awakening and modeled on the structure of a fairy tale, in which we, the readers, are placed in a position of emerging, self-conscious maturity insofar as we respond to what has taken place.
Once upon a time, "Es war einmal," Kant tells us, "metaphysics was called the queen of all the sciences. Now is the time for an incipient transformation and enlightenment, [foreign language 01:00:51], of the currently prevailing chaos." An early working title for Benjamin's Arcades project was Pariser Passagen: Eine dialektische Feerie. By casting, that is a dialectical fairy tale, our eyes, guided by the text, on what goes on in this fairyland, we are able to come into our epistemic and political maturity.
Despite, however, these overwhelming similarities in both their overall conceptions of philosophy as historical critique and their figurations of how critique might be carried out, there remain striking differences between Kant and Benjamin, most notably Kant's commitment to the individual-driven moral reform of existing political institutions and cultural practices against Benjamin's interest in collective revolution, and Kant's commitment to laws of practical reason against Benjamin's attentions to what is fugitive and half-dreamt in experience.
If, according to both Kant and Benjamin, political ideals and historical understanding are to bootstrap one another in the interest of our moving toward epistemic and political maturity and toward more meaningful life, there are at the very least significant divergences between them about exactly how bootstrapping historical critique might best be carried out. How might we, as the amphibious animals we are, best develop and pursue historically a moral image of the world? It is time to look more closely and systematically at the details.