RICHARD ELDRIDGE | Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject | Oxford University Press 2016


“Historical understanding is conjectural, imaginative, and projective as much as it is archival and systematic.”

Images of History, p. 148

By Alison Ross

At the beginning of Richard Eldridge’s Images of History, he presents the difference between history as a “mere chronicle of the incidental” and “writing […] political and social history” so that “related causes and outcomes” are identified in relation to ideals (p. 3). There is a difficulty in arriving at retrospective certainty about the causes and meanings of one’s actions (p. 1), but the analogy to historical “causes and outcomes” gives this difficulty a distinctive shape, which Eldridge parses as “modern problems of orientation” (p. 17; emphasis added).

An individual may not know from introspective examination whether they responded to someone’s distress from selfless concern, or whether they were polishing their self-conception as a moral paragon. How they characterise their behaviour does not resolve this issue satisfactorily, if one is interested in (Kantian) questions of moral intention.

Similarly, the notion that human action realises ideals through historical institutions is resilient, but does this notion confect or does it describe a connection between historical events and moral outcomes? And are the two options neatly separable in any case? For instance, it would be naive to claim that the mere fact of the inclusion of human rights instruments in legal statutes realises an ideal, but it is true that the characterisation of the inclusion as morally significant contributes to this image.[1] The characterisation has variable applicability once the uses of the vocabulary of rights to advance rationales for wars and occupations, or its origins in the concept of sovereign power, are taken into account.[2] These are alternative characterisations of the political import of the history of these instruments that identifies and assembles relevant information in a different way from the moral perspective that endorses their (putative) universalism. Each perspective can be used to support emancipatory practices; there is no monopoly on moral rectitude.

The two cases raise the following issue: what is the nature of the relation between moral and political ideals and material and historical practices? How and when do ideals and practices cohere? The point is not that moral and political ideals are ultimately based in tenuous moral characterisation, but that such characterisation can play a motivational role in an agent’s commitments to them. Eldridge captures the difficulties involved here in the terminology of ‘orientation’. In his telling, both Kant and Benjamin are alert to the consequences of the problem of orientation, even if, in Kant’s case, the recent narrow reception history of Kant’s moral philosophy is rather distant from Kant’s sensitivity to historical issues, as we shall see.

In Eldridge’s view, the achievement of orientation is one that is realised in historical narrative. One of the distinctive features of modern life at the end of the eighteenth century, is the “increasing development and spread of inter-cultural awareness” (p. 17). The hold of tradition is depleted as awareness of the contingency of institutional forms and rituals becomes inescapable. Among other factors involved in the waning hold of tradition, there is the increasing complexity of social organisation due to the scale of urbanisation, and the novel institutional arrangements it spurs. It is no accident that a set of new problems arrives in political philosophy at this historical moment.[3] In this situation, orientation can be “achieved”, Eldridge writes, “when it is achieved at all […] via the mutual bootstrapping of political and moral ideals with historical narratives” (p. 17). The claim is intriguing, not least because it tends to indicate that it is the characterisation of the relationship between ideals and events, in a manner that is credible, that is crucial. Should we also assume that the work of characterisation is effective if the “bootstrapping” effect is unnoticed?[4]

Despite the claim that historical orientation to an idea is a distinctively modern problem, insofar as narrative is a central issue, aspects of Eldridge’s formulation of this problem loosely recall a classical background. For instance, Aristotle esteemed poetry above history for its capacity to arrange a discrete set of happenings into a story and to engage with the question of what could happen. History deals with particulars, poetry with universals.[5] The speculative strength of poetry is to present the possible ends of a path of action. Poetry thereby offers more comprehensive knowledge of action than history, which can tell us only what did occur. In Eldridge’s proposition of a “moral image of the world”, the perspective of this classical distinction between poetry and history seems to be inverted and, consequently, the very point of the distinction is altered. A moral image does not provide (Aristotelian) speculative insight about a potential end point of character or circumstance; rather, it is a rough compass or guide for our modern situation, in which the desired outcome of the adhesion of ideals to practices and institutions is uncertain. There is, to be sure, a poetic dimension to this analysis: the absence of pertinent rules for categorising historical events and predicting outcomes carves a niche for imaginative practices attentive to the detail of “materials available for inheritance” (p. 149). These practices, however, are not really aesthetic reflections on history per se: rather, a moral image of the world is about understanding history in a way that supports action, or practical life. This is what the phrase “images of history” means. The term ‘orientation’ thus mixes together the subjective experience of circumstances as meaningful, which on Eldridge’s view does involve an imaginative engagement with one’s context, with the moral connection to action (pp. 12–13, 33).[6]

1. History and Moral Education in Kant

One of the satisfying aspects of Images of History is the breadth of selection of texts and topics for discussion. Often, these selections take the reader beyond the circles of dominant, but narrow reception histories. The huge industry devoted to the study of the different technical specifications of Kant’s moral philosophy[7] has overlooked how Kant was also interested in the historico-genetic problem of the emergence and formation of the moral capacity. Given its proper weight, the theme of genesis would have an impact on the way technical specifications of moral action in Kant are considered. This topic has been studied by historians of philosophy, as well as feminist scholars.[8] And it has been argued that Kant’s analysis of the genetic question of moral emergence is not incidental to the technical specifications of the Kantian moral theory.[9] Similarly, the organisation of history into a moral pattern of development is a problem that Kant grapples with in some of his essays and major works. The material he uses, and the types of arguments he gives, vary. But one of the distinctive aspects of his writing on this topic is his pessimism. “The human being” is of “such crooked wood” that “nothing entirely straight can be fabricated”, he writes in Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Aim (AA 8:23). In his Conjectural Beginning of Human History he wonders whether the development of female modesty in the clothing of her sex, instilled in men a moral sensibility (cf. AA 8:113). This sensibility was one that he considered women incapable of developing themselves. Clothes cover the female body from casual visual inspection. Somehow this becomes schematised as a pre-moral experience of prohibition on self-seeking interests. It is pre-moral because the prohibition on (male) gratification is external. Leaving to one side the problems this particular example raises, which have been discussed at length elsewhere,[10] we might ask: does this historical ‘origin’ awaken moral feeling, or is it the ‘speculation’ about it that is relevant? In this example, female modesty is linked somehow to the feeling of respect and the delays in sensuous gratification that are formalised as internally imposed rules in the moral attitude.

The interest in the topic of moral genesis and development recurs across the corpus, with moral education constituting one important theme, and natural purposiveness another. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, as well as in the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant gives detailed attention to the significance of moral education. Moral stories provide encouragement for the moral perspective, even in the face of circumstances hostile to moral behaviour. Certain historical exemplars, like those in Agrigentum burned to death in Phalaris’s brass ox could be used as models to inspire bravery in young pupils. Kant acknowledges that it seems as if direct threats and punishments would have more success in coercing good behaviour than the idea of respect for the moral law. He refers to the effective disincentive for the satisfaction of lust if gallows were its consequence.[11] However, he argues that the existence of the moral law, the awareness of how one ought to act, can be elicited from the presentation of situations where a choice is available. His presentation of such situations—such as a ruler’s inducement to provide false testimony under pain of death—are not ‘moral dilemmas’ so much as they are dramatic presentations of the awareness of the moral law. The choice is between a moral and non-moral course of action. In the contrast between the effective and immediately present threat of the gallows for regulating the satisfaction of lust and the less certain outcome of the threat of ‘the same sudden death’ to make a false deposition, Kant dramatically draws attention to the high costs of moral causes. He does so by staging threatening situations whose overwhelming characteristics are themselves the defining contributors to the moral status of the acts that issue from them. It is under the threat of sudden death that his postulate of moral consciousness, the ‘fact’ of freedom as the awareness of a choice, is confirmed.

We might surmise then, that it is not that exemplars are needed for otherwise abstruse or difficult ideas, but that Kant’s conception of the moral law is itself a story that is crafted from various historical and intellectual sources to make his conception of moral action credible.[12] He strategically points to these exemplars as support for the reality of the moral law. But the problem of how to inculcate sensitivity to moral behaviour through respect for the moral law, let alone effectively impart the technical requirements for fulfilling moral duty, is only one side of the issue.

The encouragement of the moral perspective concerns the implicit relation of moral intention to action. One presumably needs to feel that moral action is not futile, otherwise moral action becomes, as in the case of the brass ox, not merely suicidal but pointless. In the mature works of Kant’s moral philosophy, the moral martyr is censured. He thinks it is the intention rather than the outcome of the act that is the relevant moral factor. The difficulty is that it is ultimately difficult to know beyond the stylisation of the moral life, whether the intention behind an action is duty to moral law or self-sacrifice. Although he has tests that investigate an agent’s motives, Kant does not seem to have an adequate answer to this dilemma. Nonetheless, his practical philosophy is directed towards another, related problem: namely, how is it possible to secure the reality of the moral law? The dualism between sensuous life and moral law seems to render the latter vulnerable to scepticism. Perhaps the idea of moral law is nothing more than a speculative fiction. The parade of historical exemplars is relevant in answering this objection.[13] But it is Kant’s moral postulates that establish the reward that should be technically forbidden as a distorting interest in moral action: the postulate of the immortality of the soul provides the afterlife in which the moral life is recognised.[14] It gives the moral law a reality it otherwise lacks and which Kant clearly thinks it needs.

In defending the moral law from sceptical challenges Kant also refers to history. The references he makes are—as his venture into ‘speculative history’ indicates—more complicated than the formulation of the postulates that render moral action consistent. Postulates are a type of theoretical puzzle, which provide formal reassurances for the consistency of (moral) action. By contrast, when it comes to history Kant treats the difficulties involved in a moral image through a theatrical metaphor: the constant litany of brutality and violence in history, which punctuates and undermines any credible sense of (historical) moral progress, tires the audience who would sooner bring down the curtain on the performance and leave the theatre.[15] What is interesting is that Kant does not challenge the veracity of such a dismal picture of human history. His point instead is to propose a strategy to sustain the moral perspective in the face of it: he thinks that the audience needs a sense of moral progress to retain their interest in the historical spectacle. In some respects, Kant’s account of nature as a system of ends in his Critique of Judgement is the complex, theoretical answer to this need. In Kant’s treatment of nature there is an attempt to rehearse reasons for the moral perspective on life through a treatment of the appearance of natural purpose. These reasons find a secondary layer in the distinction between civilisation and (moral) culture, which Kant is one of the first to articulate and defend.[16] Eldridge’s question about orientation in history is thus highly pertinent: it gives an illuminating frame for the systematic aspirations of Kant’s approach to practical philosophy, which is no arid theory of moral action, but an attempt to synthesise technical specifications with historical challenges. Eldridge rightly emphasises the analogical and regulative status of certain theses in Kant. All we see in history is a tangled web of childish vanity; the idea of nature as a system of ends, whose final end is ‘man’s’ moral culture gives structure and orientation to the mess, and on Eldridge’s account, the people in the midst of it. There are glimmers of a resolution of the division between happiness and morality, or sensuous nature and reason in various popular essays.[17] Of course, one should be wary of over-systematising Kant’s position. And Eldridge strikes a fine balance in his discussion of the issues. Deleuze argues that man’s very ‘unsocial sociability’ is the way that nature presides over the establishment of the milieu in which the ends of reason permit historical realisation. He insists on the salient difference between the perspective of individual reason and the vocation of the species to make this point.[18] The position certainly has wider support than the Idea for a Universal History essay. Kant’s connection between physical teleology and theology in the Critique of Judgement may be cited in support of it. What seems crucial, however, is that the appearance of a purpose in nature has an analogical rider attached to it: it is ‘as if’ nature had a moral purpose.[19] Again, it is the characterisation of the terrain that is important for moral orientation, and the training of a way of thinking that connects the appearance of order in nature with a final end to nature is also such a practice of characterisation.

In the context of mentioning some points of contrast between Kant and Benjamin, Eldridge cites Kant’s well-known condemnation of revolution, but he doesn’t mention what to my mind is the most telling aspect of these passages. To be sure, Kant is sharply critical of lawlessness and the chaos of revolution, but when revolutionary activity ends in constitutional reform the spectators of history rightly, he says, bestow their approval on the new order. Perhaps rather than a principled abhorrence of revolution, Kant really dislikes the chaos of unsuccessful rebellions, and in this respect, he uses principles of judgement in history that are excluded by his moral philosophy. For instance, instead of deciding the morality of an action in accordance with its motive in the case of historical events, and more specifically in the case of revolt, Kant judges the act by the outcome:

It is hardly to be doubted that if those uprisings by which Switzerland, the United Netherlands or even Great Britain won its constitution, now considered so fortunate, had failed, those who read the history of them would see in the execution of their now celebrated authors nothing but the deserved punishment of great political criminals. For the outcome usually mingles in our appraisal of the rightful grounds, though the former was uncertain and the latter certain. (TP, AA 8:301; boldface added)

At any rate, the perspective reinforces the selection function involved in historical orientation. In history, it is the selection and organisation of events from the past, rather than the enumeration of everything that happens, that gives shape to an otherwise un-surveyable terrain. Similarly, it is the analogical idea of nature as a system of ends geared towards a final purpose that gives regulative detail to a way of thinking that finds an intention behind nature’s forms that is supportive of our moral vocation. In either case the point here isn’t one of comprehension; rather, it is primarily a point about moral agency. The orientation in question is moral; it has an inherent relation to action. Following Dieter Henrich (1992), the “moral image of the world” is an orientating schema for the selection of paths of action, but the term also describes the sense that these paths hold for agents, as participatory forms.

The undertow of the commitment to a moral image is the awareness of its fallibility. This awareness eats away at the motivation needed for (moral) acts. Eldridge emphasises the difficulty of ever securing the path to the realisation of ideals from unintended consequences:

The potential tyranny and hubris of systematic planners is no more trustworthy in principle than the potential irresponsibility and egoism of casual wastrels. (p. 148)

Directing one’s attention to “specific materials available for inheritance” (p. 149) rather than pursuing general theories or programs seems to offer a solution of sorts. It fills the gap between the need for orientation and the limited prospects of any chosen device of orientation. The position foregrounds how orientation is a practice of individual reflection, which must be one reason that institutional orientation or theories of history do not solve, but partly drive the problem.

2. Revolutionary Attention and Action in Benjamin

“[W]hat might be of use […] will have to be tested directly in the cultivation of close attention to specific materials available for inheritance—fugitive, erotic, and improvisatory or systematic, institutional, and disciplinary, as may be—without the guidance of any established, systematic general theory of the course of history.” —Images of History, p. 149

The second part of Eldridge’s book consists in two chapters devoted to Walter Benjamin. In the quality of its analysis of this most difficult of writers, the book belongs to a select group of recent works that successfully engages the philosophical difficulties raised by Benjamin’s writing.[20] Within Benjamin’s sprawling corpus, Eldridge addresses in one chapter Benjamin’s early complicated essay ‘Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin’, as well as the magnificent essay ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’, and in the other chapter, he focuses on One-Way Street. The book gives due attention to the complicated notion of “the apocatastatic rescue of phenomena from “a tradition that is catastrophe” (p. 148) and mentions in passing some of the important themes in The Arcades Project and ‘Critique of Violence’. The thesis that Benjamin and Kant both grapple with the problem of orientation is interesting not least because put in this comparative context, it foregrounds specific aspects of their writing and keeps these in critical perspective. Eldridge makes an insightful distinction between the orientation to rules (Kant) and the orientation to objects (Benjamin) (cf. pp. 42 and 114), and he frames these two approaches primarily in terms of the meaning making and sense conferring activities of individuals (cf. p. 108).

One of his starting points is that the shared concern with orientation in history is consistent across the two thinkers, despite obvious points of contrast, such as Benjamin’s fascination with revolution and Kant’s famous censure of it (cf. p. 35). The background use of religious traditions in these writers is also relevant context for their treatment of orientation, as well as the differences between their approaches. This point of contrast is not systematically explored by Eldridge. This is because it is more of a sub-theme than a focus of the book. Eldridge’s treatment of Kant discusses in detail the late 1793 text, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. As he notes, the text is significant because of the alliance it builds between Protestant Christianity and morality. The position needs to be seen, as I have argued above, as a strategic attempt to find external support outside of moral ‘theory’ for the deontic specifications Kant gives to morality. In this respect, Eldridge cites passages in which Kant criticises the tendency to prophecy in Judaism (pp. 94–5),[21] which, in Kant’s terms, render it a “revealed” rather than a “natural” religion (cf. RGV, AA 6:125–34). In Kant’s construction, Christianity encourages the internal moral voice rather than the dependence on doctrine as the guide for action. As Eldridge notes, it may be objected that Kant’s paean overlooks how the religious perspective of Christianity need not be compatible with heightened ethical responsibility (p. 98): the perspective has also provided an alibi for actions that license everything from religious crusades to territorial dispossession and conquest. The view of Christianity as if it were an ethical guide is nonetheless entirely consistent with the strategic problem of identifying moral postulates. It is interesting that in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone Kant refers critically to some of the messianic aspects of Judaism, such as the idea of the ‘straight gate’ through which the Messiah enters, which has prominence in Benjamin’s late writing on history and its scholarly reception.[22]

In Benjamin scholarship, there has always been a tradition of interpretation focused on the Kabbalistic elements in his writing. More particularly, the advocacy of his close friend Gershom Scholem has built a well-established theological frame of reception that exists alongside the materialist and Frankfurt School appropriations of the corpus. Eldridge sensibly side-steps these reception debates. He focuses instead on how the experience of significance, which is the key for understanding orientation in Benjamin, is built up through mnemonic devices and practices. And he refers to those parts of the Benjamin-Scholem exchange relevant to this topic (p. 108). To my mind, the crucial Benjaminian topic of experience and its mnemonic basis and status in history may be usefully treated through the theme of ‘attention’.

The various contexts Eldridge explores across the book regarding the dynamics of orientation—whether they are moral, religious, rule generating, object-centred, etc.—each provide different accounts of attention. Indeed, the theme of ‘attention’ is one of the salient points of connection between Kant and Benjamin, and it is arguably the guiding thread in the analysis Eldridge develops of their positions on history. At its core, ‘attention’ designates the process involved in the selection of salient material for reflective inspection. It is the basis for the participatory relation to material that builds moral images of orientation. It is interesting to consider this point in relation to the topic of freedom. The use of the theme of attention recalls Kant’s influential description of the reflective dimensions of the aesthetic attitude when it is used, for instance, to describe the quality of free play that characterises the interaction of the cognitive faculties. In Kant, aesthetic pleasure is free in multiple senses: it is not caused by an ‘object’, it arises instead on the occasion of the reflection on form that is disentangled from the constraints of pragmatic and venal interests. The very significance of the beautiful in nature is that it seems to provide “independent” confirmation of our moral vocation (KU, §42,  AA 5:300). Singular natural beauties are suitable forms for such confirmation because they do not appear to be working for this or any other end (KU, §33, AA 5:284–6). Thus the wild tulip in nature provides a material presentation of the idea of morality. It does so because its form conveys organisation without apparent function, what Kant terms purposiveness without purpose. The flower is formally analogous to the idea of moral freedom. According to this idea of freedom our specific ends are not determined but our capacity to determine them is. Aesthetic judgement establishes this harmony between beauty and the moral vocation subjectively and this is why the relation between the singular, material form and the idea of freedom is qualified in Kant as analogical. What is relevant here is that the ordered form of the flower elicits this quite particular chain of reflection.

The topic of freedom receives a more critical treatment in Benjamin than it does in Kant. In One-Way Street,Benjamin is alert to the historical circumstances which prevent anything other than monetary appreciation of value. In Eldridge’s discussion of this piece, he highlights Benjamin’s diagnosis of the pathology of misplaced attention that characterises life in Germany during the period of hyperinflation. Seemingly, only the monetary value of clothing and food is registered (p. 171). The attitude contrasts with the creative engagement with old and discarded commodities described in the essay on surrealism as the basis for the revolutionary attitude.[23] There are many other contexts in Benjamin in which attention is the relevant descriptor for the focus of his analysis, not least his essays on mimesis and similitude from the mid-1930’s. The attitude he describes is one that is integrative and participatory, and its counter-term is the existential state of alienation. Pathological forms of attention belong on the side of alienation; they are exiled from participatory, creative activity whether this is evoked in the child at play or the ancients’ attitude to the stars.[24] For his part, Eldridge emphasises the dissolution at the core of subjective experience in Benjamin; the intensity of moments of experience dissolves the figure that seeks orientation entirely. It seems to me that the vocabulary of meaning and not the terminology of (Kantian) freedom is the rightful descriptive pairing for this type of intense experience. 

The discussion in these chapters on Benjamin is interesting and insightful, and the comparative perspective brings clarity to a notoriously difficult writer. Eldridge’s focus on the attention Benjamin gives to objects rather than rules needs to be integrated with many important themes in the corpus, including Benjamin’s emphasis on language. On this point, I was unsure about Eldridge’s presentation of “writing” in the ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ essay as Benjamin’s proposed way out of the daemonic ambiguity of mythic nature. The point is important for Eldridge’s general characterisation of Benjamin as dealing with attention to objects as a practice of orientation and freedom. 

In a body of work brimming with challenging pieces, the essay on Goethe’s novel has a claim to be one of Benjamin’s most difficult. It is also one of his most significant. Without a doubt, this essay sets out the frame for the major approaches to different topics throughout Benjamin’s career. The polemic in the essay against the bourgeois aesthetic attitude to life uses Goethe as a case study. The “error” of giving life the “form” of a literary “type” (i.e. “heroising”) rises from “the abyss of thoughtless linguistic confusion” (SW 1:323/GS I,I:160).[*] It is a “paradoxical image” that takes shape “in an extremely murky perception” (SW 1:324/GS I,I:160). Benjamin writes further:

This [heroising] position achieves two things for [Goethe]: it eliminates every moral concept from the horizon, and, at the same time, by attributing to the hero-as-creator the form which goes to him as victor, it achieves the level of blasphemous profundity. (SW 1:324/GS I,I:160)

Against the treatment of Goethe as “hero-creator”, Benjamin insists that “human life cannot be considered on the analogy of a work of art” (SW 1:325/GS I,I:162). Hence he condemns Goethe’s self-mythicisation and the works by the Goethe-cult. He singles out Gundolf’s Goethe for criticism, stating that this book “has the monstrous shape of an ‘esoteric doctrine’”:

Words swing themselves, like chattering monkeys, from branch to branch, from bombast to bombast, in order not to have to touch the ground which betrays the fact that they cannot stand: that is, the ground of logos, where they ought to stand and give an account of themselves. But they avoid this ground with so much show because in the face of every sort of mythic thinking [. . .] the question of truth comes to naught in it. (SW 1:326–7/GS I,I:163; boldface added)

The ground of logos is truth, which Benjamin understands theologically, and it is opposed to Gundolf’s esoteric doctrine, and chatter more broadly, which typify myth. 

The discussion of mythic nature as a totality in Goethe and the way Benjamin describes the expressionless as the shattering into pieces of the semblance of ‘totality’ are explained by Eldridge this way: “In the face of mythic powers that ensure defeat, something can be done: witness can be borne” (p. 130). The ‘bearing of witness’ in Goethe’s revolt against mythic powers occurs in “a course of writing”, he argues (p. 130). However, it is just Goethe’s raising “himself up against [mythic powers] or [appointing] himself against them” as if he were a god, that Benjamin criticises under the category of the myth of the “hero-creator”. Eldridge writes:

What is presented in and shows itself in a course of writing, then, is not only a beginning, middle, and (tragic) end that characterize plot, but also the effort at attention on the part of a reflective subject, the author (as a model of the reader’s attentions), likewise caught amid the strife of life. Hence, insofar as it is honest in avoiding empty decorativeness, cliché, sentimentality, and slackness, a course of writing can succeed in remembering and bearing witness through the most scrupulous exactness of attention. (p. 130)

There is a definite shift across Benjamin’s corpus from an early view of sensuous forms as forces of captivation and existential enslavement to a later view that gives sensuous forms the status of sites of revolutionary motivation. In the earlier perspective, the bourgeois idea of ‘free choice’ is excoriated because the freedom from tradition doesn’t lead these characters to an emancipated life, but to one of guilt and anxiety. Freedom is associated with the unmooring from tradition that results in the ascription to nature of daemonic power. In his discussion of Goethe’s novel, Benjamin presents aesthetic choices as groundless ways of organising sensuous forms. The removal of the tombstones of the ancestors from the graveyard for the purposes of creating an aesthetically pleasing path to the church, which occurs at the beginning of the novel, is seen by Benjamin as a culpable disregard of tradition. Bourgeois ‘freedom’ is understood as a life determined by the damaging chaos that such merely aesthetic choices unleash. Similarly, it is true that language in general and writing in particular are esteemed by Benjamin in this essay. But he makes a threefold distinction between bourgeois chatter, Goethe’s obfuscation of his fear of daemonic forces and the truth of the word, or logos. Logos is arrayed against chatter and obfuscation and it has a theological basis:

What is proper to the truly divine is the logos. The divine does not ground life without truth, nor does it ground the rite without theology [Dem wahrhaft Göttlichen eignet nämlich der Logos, es begründet das Leben nicht ohne die Wahrheit, den Ritus nichte ohne die Theologie]. (SW 1:326/GS I,I:163) 

If there is a point of orientation for Benjamin throughout his corpus it is theology. The transcendent reference of theology to materiality is crucial. It places moral action above freedom and aligns it with logos and truth. The clarity of moral decision expressed in articulate words stands on the “ground of the logos” (SW 1:326–7/GS I,I:163). Logos, or the word, is contrasted in its clarity and finality with the ‘bourgeois’ use of language as a social ‘art’ of civil mediation. Benjamin contrasts the fateful ambiguities in Goethe’s novel that fester in unspoken feelings between Eduard and Ottilie, and Charlotte and the Captain, with the speech of the young lovers in his novella who seek their families’ approval for the union. The role of the novella is not to bear witness to “the play of strife in nature” but to shatter the false accommodation of mythic forces in bourgeois life. This accommodation occurs when nature is inserted into myth and ascribed daemonic powers. For Benjamin, this is the basis of his polemic against the Goethe cult. Hence the characters of this novella are praised by Benjamin because they act without any regard for nature’s forces when they dive into the dangerous current. The “strife of life” that Eldridge refers to has its basis in a type of life that empowers nature, its antidote in Benjamin is decision rather than free choice, or reflection.

3. Revolutionary Ideals

Eldridge’s book tackles a problem that is immediately recognisable and important: the difficulty of organising and sustaining grounds of motivation around ideals. There are different ways into this difficulty in Kant’s writing on history; and they tend to go against the grain of the recent reception of Kant. Similarly, in Eldridge’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s work the focus on orientation yields new insights about his thinking, and they do so in a way that foregrounds its philosophical complexity. I have focused here on two aspects of the problem Eldridge treats: the role of moral characterisation of history and nature (Kant) and attention (Kant and Benjamin) as devices of selection and organisation of material serviceable for ideals. There are other aspects worth considering, which I haven’t covered, including the distinction between the significance an individual may find in ideals and the capacity of such perception to captivate others. This distinction follows directly from the importance of subjective moral reflection, which translates otherwise unmarked materials “available for the inheritance” into sites of potential significance, but doesn’t necessarily explain its potential anchors in collective experience. These problems and many others have a compelling presentation in Eldridge’s lucid study.

Does Eldridge’s description of the problem of orientation constitute one way that ideals adhere to contingent historical conditions? Does writing philosophy have the same putative effect of moral characterisation as writing a history that organises events in relation to ideals? Kant saw his ‘Enlightenment’ essay under this double perspective: it was a description of an historical process, but also an intervention that encouraged this process to take a certain direction.[25] Aspects of Eldridge’s characterisation of orientation suggest that we may now be at the point where inter-cultural awareness and institutional complexity has intensified to such a degree that any such well-intentioned intervention, however modestly it is cast, must seem, on honest reflection, likely to be ineffective. This may not be Eldridge’s position, but I occasionally wondered whether it was the unstated corollary of his analysis.

The topic of revolution may be used to sharpen this point. The topic is prominent in the book; it marks some important differences between the main figures under discussion, and it highlights the specifically historical dilemma of modern politics, crystallised in Kant’s complicated attitude to revolutions. One of the pressing difficulties raised in revolutionary periods regards suitable mechanics of transition. What path does one take from arbitrary despotism to the rule of institutions? Does a false step doom the transition? Is there a lag, as Rousseau thought, between the moulding function that the new institutions play for developing “the people’s” political capacity and the existence of the people’s “general will”? Rousseau’s use of the figure of the divine lawmaker and the civic religion at the end of his Social Contract[26] is not a very convincing resolution to this problem, since it tends to undermine the central argument of the work. Eldridge’s impressive analysis shows why this fascination with mechanisms of transition is problematic. He directs our attention away from the chimera of the ideal institutional setting and back towards what can be cultivated and sustained in practices of attention. In the process, he provides detailed and convincing analyses of the topic of orientation in Kant and Benjamin. These analyses more than reward close attention in their own right, but they also provide a novel perspective on the inevitable chasm between the structure and effects of large institutions and the register of engaged experience. Above all, the study is commendable for its application of themes and topics in aesthetics to philosophical problems of a far broader, or non-aesthetic, compass.

Invited: 27 July 2017; received: 17 March 2018.


[*] The standard German edition of Walter Benjamin’s respective works are given for each reference to their corpus, in addition to the source of the cited English translations. The standard English translation for Benjamin’s writings is Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4 vols, ed. M. P. Bullock et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1996–2003). These volumes are cited here under the abbreviation SW followed by the specific volume and page numbers. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols, ed. R. Tiedemann & H. Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1972–91), is abbreviated as GS.

[1] This would be one way to understand the ‘moral’ interpretation of human rights, which reaches conclusions about universal human rights that are foreign to those reached in intellectual history. Recent work by Samuel Moyn (2010, 2018), for instance, places the category historically and thus within the strategic and instrumental context that highlights its political history. My point here is that Kant’s historic-genetic approach to morality locates him closer to this approach than to the pursuit of technical moral theory, which may well be largely irrelevant to moral behaviour.

[2] There is a point to be made here too about the seemingly unaware parochialism of many of these approaches. See Roberts (2017).

[3] See also Benjamin’s analysis of the ebbing of the tide of tradition in both his ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (SW 1:297–361) and ‘The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (SW 3:143–67) essays, which accentuate some of the consequences of modern individualism.

[4] Eldridge writes: “How we tell the story is necessarily at least in some measure a function of how we live the story and vice versa” (p. 12).

[5] Aristotle, Poetics, 1451a38–1451b10.

[6] The problem of orientation is connected to Kant’s important essay What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? and Dieter Henrich’s coinage of Kant’s system as geared around the problem of “the moral image of the world” in Henrich’s essay of the same name (Henrich 1992).

[7] Eldridge cites Christine Korsgaard (2009) to make this point (p. 206).

[8] See Zammito (1992) and Meld Shell (2009).

[9] See David-Ménard (2000). I analyse the irresolvable difficulties introduced to Kant’s moral philosophy by his recourse to historical exemplars of moral action in Ross (2009).

[10] See Sarah Kofman’s (1997) very fine analysis of this point regarding the instrumental role of women in inculcating a moral capacity she is deemed incapable of exercising herself.

[11] In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant writes: “Suppose someone asserts of his lustful inclination that, when the desired object and the opportunity are present, it is quite irresistible to him; ask him whether, if a gallows were erected in front of the house where he finds this opportunity and he would be hanged on it immediately after gratifying his lust, he would not then control his inclination. One need not conjecture very long what he would reply. But ask him whether, if his prince demanded, on pain of the same immediate execution, that he give false testimony against an honorable man whom the prince would like to destroy under a plausible pretext, he would consider it possible to overcome his love of life, however great it may be. He would perhaps not venture to assert whether he would do it or not, but he must admit without hesitation that it would be possible for him. He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he is aware that he ought to do it and cognizes freedom within him, which, without the moral law, would have remained unknown to him” (KpV, AA, 5:30).

[12] I argue this point in detail in Ross (2011).

[13] See the methodology section of the Critique of Practical Reason (KpV, AA, 5:156).

[14] For Kant’s articulation of the role of the postulates in morality, see KpV, AA, 5:122–39. See also his specification of the moral action in respect to motive and reality in KpV, AA, 5:156–7.

[15] See Kant’s essay On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, but Is of No Use in Practice: “If it is a sight worthy of a divinity to see a virtuous man struggling with adversity and temptations to evil and yet holding out against them, it is a sight most unworthy, I shall not say of a divinity but even of the most common but well-disposed human being to see the human race from period to period taking steps upward toward virtue and soon after falling back just as deeply into vice and misery. To watch this tragedy for a while might be moving and instructive, but the curtain must eventually fall. For in the long run it turns into a farce; and even if the actors do not tire of it, because they are fools, the spectator does, when one or another act gives him sufficient grounds for gathering that the never-ending piece is forever the same” (TP, AA 8:308). See also Idea for a Universal History9th Thesis, AA, 8:29–31.

[16] According to Kant, the very capacity for judgements of the sublime, which have a negative relation to sensible form, requires moral culture. The latter is able to cultivate aesthetic experience so that it is attuned to the experience of sublime feeling. It differs from the mere conventions associated with ‘civilisation’. See Kant, Critique of Judgment, §29 and on moral culture §83 (AA, 5:265–6, 430 respectively). For a discussion of the civilisation/culture distinction in the eighteenth century see Markus (1993) and Braudel (1980), Pt III, ‘The History of Civilizations,’ pp. 177–217. For a critique of Kant’s doctrine of taste as the assertion of the culture of the educated over the civilising practices of the court, see Bourdieu (1984).

[17] For treatments of this perspective in relation to the political and historical themes of Kant’s writing, see Hassner (1987) and Yovel (1980). Eldridge often cites Yovel, e.g. on pp. 51–3.

[18] See Kant, Idea for a Universal History (AA 8:20–2) and Deleuze (1984:75).

[19] See Critique of Judgement, §68 (‘Critique of Teleological Judgement’), §42 and §59 (‘Critique of Aesthetic Judgement’) and the Introduction.

[20] See for instance Friedlander (2012).

[21] Eldridge writes: “Even if it contains ‘the occasional causes’ and ‘provided the physical occasion’ for the appearance of Christianity, Judaism nonetheless remains for Kant an essentially political, statutory, theocratic, tribal, superstitious, patriarchal form of social organization, which is ‘not a religion at all’, albeit that it also contains additional moral precepts which, however, are not ‘an integral part of the legislation of Judaism’” (pp. 94–5).

[22] In the ‘Theses on the Concept of History’, Thesis B, Benjamin writes: “We know that the Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future: the Torah and the prayers instructed them in remembrance. This disenchanted the future, which holds sway over all those who turn to soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future became homogeneous, empty time. For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter” (SW 4:397/GS I:704).

[23] Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (SW 2:207–21, 209–10/GS II:297).

[24] Benjamin, ‘Doctrine of the Similar’ (SW 2:694–8, esp. 694–5/GS II:204–5).

[25] Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (AA 8:33–42).

[26] Book 4, ch. 8 (Rousseau 1997:142–51).


Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of Pure Taste, trans. R. Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Braudel, F. (1980), On History, trans. S. Matthews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

David-Ménard, M. (2000), ‘Kant’s “An Essay on the Maladies of the Mind” and “Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime”’, Hypatia 15(4): 82–98.

Deleuze, G. (1984), Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, trans. H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Friedlander, E. (2012), Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait (Boston: Harvard University Press).

Hassner, P. (1987), ‘Immanuel Kant’, in L. Strauss & J. Cropsey (eds), History of Political Philosophy, third edition (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press), pp. 581–622.

Henrich, D. (1992), ‘The Moral Image of the World’, in Henrich, Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World, ed. E. Förster, trans. D. Pacini et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press), pp. 3–29.

Kofman, S. (1997), ‘The Economy of Respect: Kant and Respect for Women’, trans. N. Fisher, in R. May Schott (ed.), Feminist Readings of Immanuel Kant (University Park: The State University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 355–73.

Korsgaard, C. (2009), Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Markus, G. (1993), ‘Culture: The Making and the Make-Up of a Concept (An Essay in Historical Semantics)’, Dialectical Anthropology 18: 3–29.

Moyn, S. (2010), The Last Utopia (Boston: Harvard University Press).

——— (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Boston: Harvard University Press).

Roberts, A. (2017), Is International Law International? (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Ross, A. (2009), ‘What is the Force of Moral Law in Kant’s Practical Philosophy?’, Parallax 15(2): 27–40.

——— (2011), ‘Moral Metaphorics, or Kant after Blumenberg: Towards an Analysis of the Aesthetic Settings of Morality’, Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology 104(1): 40–58.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1997), ‘The Social Contract’, in Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. V. Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 142–51.

Shell, S. Meld (2009), Kant and the Limits of Autonomy (Boston: Harvard University Press).

Yovel, Y. (1980), Kant and the Philosophy of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Zammito, J. (1992), The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

© Alison F. Ross, 2018.

Alison Ross is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Monash University. Most recently, she is the author of Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin: A Conceptual Analysis (New York: Routledge, 2018).