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


By Richard Eldridge

I am grateful to Critique and its editors for finding such accomplished philosophers and scholars as Robert Louden and Alison Ross to comment on Images of History, and I am grateful to both Louden and Ross for their detailed, accurate, and insightful remarks. Each of them characterises my aims and arguments well, and each of them aptly queries some central claims. I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to their queries and to elaborate some of my lines of thought.

Louden is right on target in seeing that the main aim of my engagement with Kant and Benjamin is “to offer readers an independent account of how to think about ourselves and our commitments”, an account that culminates in the final chapter that turns to Jonathan Lear, Marcia Cavell, Ted Cohen, and Stanley Cavell in order to develop a picture of moral maturity. Moral maturity, it will turn out, centrally involves accepting and acknowledging our status as “amphibious animals” (in a phrase from Hegel’s Aesthetics): beings who are neither sheer victims of history and materiality nor perfect masters of them in the possession of systematic knowledge of the unfolding of a life of right. Instead, as I put it,

reasonable maturity and practical self-unity must involve a kind of lyrical, temporalized sense of modulated alternations between departure and absorption, self-reliance and intimate involvement, apocalypse and akedah, as one manages ever anew to compose oneself and one’s life with others well enough amid the strife of selfhood and love that is human life. (p. 181)

It is no small trick to describe in detail what specific achievements of moral maturity in specific situations might look like. The sentence just cited is filled with (deliberately) unfootnoted allusions to Hölderlin, Wordsworth, and Cavell, and the underlying suggestion—not pursued in Images of History itself in any detail—is that literary (and philosophical, historical, and filmic) works that focus on either genuine but incomplete and unfinished achievements or that show protagonists tragically exercising (blocked or self-stultified) powers of meaning-making might be an important place to look for more specific pictures. I have attended to some more specific pictures of this kind in some of my other work on literature (and philosophy and film). In Images of History, the larger framework point (cited by Louden) is that

history without literature and philosophy is chronicle; literature without history and philosophy is amusement; philosophy without literature and history is empty. (p. 190)

If, however, we bring these disciplines into engagement with each other (without denying their differences), then we might do better in approaching moral maturity than we would otherwise. This is, I think, a conception of human powers of meaning making within historical frameworks and of serious thinking about how to exercise those powers that significantly cuts against regnant professional divisions of labour, and perhaps especially against philosophy with its pursuit of settled ‘isms’.

The “overwhelming similarities in […] [the] conceptions of philosophy” maintained by Kant and Benjamin that I describe and with which Louden begins his remarks is methodological, not substantive. (The substantive visions of the achievement of more meaningful life that Kant and Benjamin hold are of course very different—indeed, all but impossible to reconcile—as I go on to detail.) I label this methodological similarity “constructivist realism”: an all but oxymoronic term, as Louden rightly notes, that I meant partly as a provocation. Louden cites the footnote in which I more or less define this term, and he goes on usefully to describe how, according to this view,

we can’t just construct our ideals out of whole cloth. Rather we need to work with the material given to us. There are thus built-in constraints on how we should go about articulating and choosing ideals.

He contrasts this view with both Rawlsian constructivism and Karl Ameriks’s Kantian realism about moral facts. This is all exactly right, with the minor qualification that the Rawls of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy may be closer to constructivist realism than the Rawls of A Theory of Justice or the Dewey lectures (though these latter texts, too, are complex and in places begin to bring historical considerations to bear somewhat sub rosa on questions of justification). I describe the process of simultaneously and continuously eliciting ideals out of historical experience and bringing ideals to bear in interpreting history (reading history in the light of an evolving moral image of the world) as a process of bootstrapping, as we try to achieve orientation—a sense of movement toward freer and more meaningful life—as we articulate, enact, test, and revise central moral and political commitments. (It is this account of bootstrapping that Alison Ross accurately and usefully describes as finding a way between technical, more or less constructivist, accounts of moral-political thinking and responsiveness to historical challenges).

Substantively, of course, the moral-political ideals or the pictures of freer and more meaningful life (and of movement toward it) that Kant and Benjamin put forward are strikingly different, or, in Louden’s dramatic understatement, they “seem to point in somewhat different directions”. Each vision is attractive in some ways and off-putting in others. Kant’s defences of standing principle, self-discipline, and settled institutional life attractively present our shared but individually distributed rational nature as a source of moral reformation, while also sometimes verging on moralism and a narrow identification of moral progress with (increasingly self-secularising) Christianity. Benjamin’s sense of the significance of the unpredictable object of erotic investment and absorption attractively resists talk of grand, smoothly unfolding courses of progress and promotes alertness and improvisation, while also risking waywardness, self-dissipation, and even terror. There is no way to combine these two stances consistently under a univocal theory of history and human life.

Hence one might well wonder what, if anything, we have to learn from juxtaposing these two sharply disparate substantive visions. The answer I propose—if it is an answer—is the cultivation of the skill of balancing the attractions of these two visions within an ongoing practice of (Kantian) responsibility and (Benjaminian) responsiveness. Or, to return to the picture of moral maturity and to a line of Jonathan Lear’s that I cite in developing that picture, “the unity [of self and practical commitment] that is genuinely available to us […] is marked by disruption and division […] [and] partially consists in certain forms of disruption” (Lear 2011:43; cited by me on p. 181). As one goes on in situ, there are, as Louden observes “no guarantees”. And it goes without saying, for Kant, for Benjamin, and in fact, that movement toward moral maturity requires not only a background of religious practice and reform, but also “reforms […] in education, politics, economics, and international law as well”—reforms the importance and possibility of which Louden has done so much to call to our attention in relation to Kant’s thinking (see Louden 2002 and 2011).

Ross aptly captures my sense of a “shared concern with orientation in history” on the parts of Kant and Benjamin, “despite obvious points of contrast”. More sharply, each is concerned with how we might attend actively to our historical inheritances and circumstances in order to “organis[e] and sustain[…] grounds of motivation around ideals”. History is not only a slaughter bench (though it is that), and ideals are empty if not effectively pursuable in situ. But how, then, might we attend to history and go on within it well, without either world- and materiality-denying hubris in standing on abstract ideals or despair in the face of material forces and relations of domination? Both Kant and Benjamin explicitly take this question seriously as central to the critical task of philosophy as such, despite their different responses to it.

Showing how Kant takes it seriously involves uncovering his account of what Ross rightly calls Kant’s interest “in the historico-genetic problem of the emergence and formation of the moral capacity”, an interest that (she rightly notes) has been traced by John Zammito and Susan Shell, among others. In addition to looking at Kant’s explicit writings about history, I mention the feminist scholar Stella Sandford’s (2013) valuable work on Kant on the epigenesis of reason (as an active power) in the First Critique, as well as important work on Kant on history and the emergence of reason by Eckart Förster, Paul Guyer, Dieter Henrich, G. Felicitas Munzel, Onora O’Neill, Allen Wood, and Yirmiyahu Yovel.

Ross herself points to Kant’s tantalising but obscure suggestion in his Conjectural Beginning of Human History that the development of modest clothing on the part of women might have played a role in instilling a moral sensibility in men. She then wonders whether Kant means this seriously as a genetic account of the development of conscience or whether it is merely speculative. Whatever the answer to this question, I broadly accept the point, emphasised by Bernard Williams, that we need “a conception of the ethical that understandably relates to us and our actions the demands, needs, claims, desires, and, generally, the lives of other people” (Williams 1985:12). In particular, we should accept the temporal and conceptual priority of experiences of shame—a sense of finding oneself intimately under the disapproving gaze of another—over guilt in the development of conscience. The issue then is whether an objective and impersonal sense of guilt—an understanding of and commitment to the moral law—can develop out of such experiences of shame and whether it might do so normally and naturally within the increasingly widespread circumstances of commercial and technological modernity.[1]

Whatever the answer to this question, however, that development, if it were to take place, would require an active, independent ‘dawning’ of a sense of respect for the moral law and for persons as such, including a sense of duties to oneself as well as to others. In the Religion, Kant describes this dawning as “a revolution in the disposition of the human being [eine Revolution in der Gesinnung im Menschen]” (RVG, AA 6:47). “The human being must make or have made himself into whatever he is or should become in a moral sense, good or evil” (RVG, AA 6:44). History is not going to make us a gift of free and meaningful life; ongoing, strenuous effort on our parts will be required if moral progress is to take place, especially in relation to a historical record of largely overwhelming domination and vanity.

Ross interestingly suggests that “Kant’s conception of the moral law [and our possibilities of responsiveness to it] is itself a story that is crafted from various historical and intellectual sources to make his conception of moral action credible”. I am not sure about this formulation by official Kantian lights. (It depends on what is meant by “make credible”.) The various examples Kant gives of apparent action from mere respect for the moral law and in the face of counterincentives—the dutiful shopkeeper, the giver of honest testimony despite the threat of the gallows, and all the rest—are not intended by Kant to have justificatory force. Instead, consciousness of the moral law is (somewhat perplexingly) “a fact of reason” insofar as “one cannot reason it out from antecedent data of reason” or from “empirical fact” (KpV, AA 5:31). That is Kant’s official view, and the examples are intended only to make palpable what we ought and might do, not to provide any grounds for obligation.

By contrast, my own view is closer to Ross’s suggestion. In On Moral Personhood (Eldridge 1989), I argued that Kant’s putative a priori derivations in the Foundations (i) of the formula of the moral law from the mere concept of a moral law, and (ii) of our being positively free or capable of autonomy from our being negatively free or possessing the power of choice are unsound. Kant’s appeal in the Critique of Practical Reason to consciousness of the moral law as a fact of reason is tantalising but obscure, and it offers no account of conditions of human development (individual-moral or cultural) under which acknowledgement of it might be either aided or hindered. (It is, evidently enough, not always and everywhere acknowledged by everyone.)

As a result, I suggested that both Kant’s examples and the richer examples of moral development provided by some major literary works might aid in acknowledgement of the moral law and that, contrary to his official a priorism, Kant himself might best be regarded as invitationally eliciting an articulation of a not-yet-common moral consciousness out of a rich but imperfect and broken tradition of moral reflection. These suggestions decrease the distance between justifying the claim that we are bound by the moral law and making it palpable, and they give more weight to both historical understanding and literary understanding within moral thinking than is normal within moral philosophy as a discrete field. They amount to defending the substance of Kantian moral philosophy by more or less Hegelian methods that focus on the continuing, more explicit, more articulate, and more stable actualisation of powers of reasoning within history, albeit without Hegel’s full-blooded teleology of reason. In Images of History, I try to show how the materials for this kind of reasoning are present within Kant’s own understanding of history (as both real world processes and systematic reflection on them).

This picture—both of Kant’s understanding of history and of how historical understanding might figure in moral reflection—fills in, I hope, what Ross has in mind in suggesting both that I “attempt to synthesise [constructivist] technical specifications [that focus on the need for ongoing active acknowledgement of the moral law] with historical challenges” and that Kantian moral views might amount to a “story” that might be made “credible” by being “crafted from various historical and intellectual sources”.

More broadly, Ross wonders whether “the notion that human action realises ideals through historical institutions […] confect[s] […] or describe[s]” what goes on or might go on in history.  “Are the two options neatly separable in any case?”, she asks. The answer to this last question, by my lights, is “No”. As Ross goes on aptly to characterise my view, a moral image of the world is both “an orientating schema” for future action and for ways of life not yet achieved, hence something in part abstract and ideal, and also a description of things human beings recognisably but fitfully and partially try to live up to within historical life. To embrace this view of the roles of ideals in historical understanding and of historical understanding in philosophy is to accept a picture of philosophy as a practice of ongoing critique and not, even potentially, a body of completed theory, at least for the kinds of questions about moral and political value with which I am concerned.

Ross wonders whether this way of putting things amounts to inverting Aristotle’s view about the relation between poetry and philosophy. The simple thing to say about this is that Aristotle, in taking history to be nothing but a recording of particulars, is thinking of what we would now call chronicle, not of plotted history that reveals causal relations among events (Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon causing the fall of the Roman Republic, and all that). In genuinely insightful history writing, as in literature, plot—the form of organisation of the material, or what Aristotle calls the soul (psyche, formal cause) of the work—is crucial, and, as in literature, apt plots are both partly discovered and partly invented. Literature leaves more scope for invention, but remains governed by broad success-criteria of plausibility and coherence. History is comparatively more strongly bound by archival materials, but must be informed by ideal forms of emplotment and by a sense of causal relations that are discernibly instanced elsewhere, if it is to be more than chronicle. (The sentence from Images of History that Ross nicely chooses as her epigraph describes the interplay between imaginative idealisation and scrupulous archival research that is necessary for genuine historical understanding.)

This broad picture of historical (and literary) understanding and its relation to philosophy as critique is generally shared by Kant and Benjamin, I argue, but there are, as everyone sees, striking differences between the substantive narratives of history and apt responsiveness to it that they each construct. Ross usefully notes that for Benjamin orientation “is built up through mnemonic devices and practices” that centrally involve recovery of, and responsiveness to, a singular object or event: the flashing up of significance in a Jetztzeit that constellates striking past experience with present possibility, generally in the absence of any plot for the development of institutional life. Benjamin’s attitude, as Ross aptly puts it, “is integrative and participatory” in being informed by a sense of the priority of the object over any abstract, distantiated planning and over any possibilities of heroism that rest on forming and carrying out plans in detail. But is Benjamin opposed to all possibilities of heroism? Ross points to “the transcendent reference of theology to materiality” in Benjamin’s Goethe essay. The divine logos is to manifest itself in things, on this reading, to which, at best, a writer or an agent in general might respond.[2]

There is something crucially right about this. Benjamin’s sense of the priority of the object and of the importance of divine action (in appearing in things) is very strong. But I am not entirely sure that the only thing left for writers or agents to do is simply to decide to respond to it. Benjamin describes the achievement of “the expressionless” (das Ausdrücklose) in writing, which “completes the work by shattering it into a thing of shards, into a fragment of the true world, into the torso of a symbol” (SW 1:340/GW 1:180–1). Here, arrival at the expressionless on the part of the writer paradoxically involves an achievement of passivity in giving oneself over to the material, in which mythic powers that inevitably undo all humanly plotted progress manifest themselves. But this is, in Benjamin’s reading as I see it, still a formal achievement that Goethe managed in his writing, wherein he “revolted against [these mythic powers]” (SW 1:326/GW 1:164–5). Benjamin similarly praises Hölderlin’s ‘Timidity’—a revised version of his ‘The Poet’s Courage’—for the poet’s avoidance of the too-ready symbolism that marred the earlier poem and his acceptance instead of his inability to assume any stance exterior to life processes, hence his giving himself over to being caught within a stream of life and to being bereft of absolute certainties.

In both cases, however, as I see it, Goethe and Benjamin do something formally in their writing—achieve passivity and acknowledge the permanent absence of mastery of life forces—that bears witness to fundamental conditions of human life. These are desperately difficult topics—both in Benjamin’s writing and in fact—in that they touch on what it would be for a writer or for anyone somehow to respond in literary form, without hubris, to both the standing force of mythic, achievement-undoing powers and of divine presences in things. For Benjamin, the answer cannot have anything to do with planning, intention, message-mongering, or symbolism, and it must involve a paradoxical achievement of passivity and a sense of the priority of the object. But the answer is not quite either that there is nothing to be done or that there is nothing but a punctual, unformed decision to be made.

Received: 18 August 2018.


[1] I develop a story of the emergence of Kantian conscience along these lines in Eldridge (2015).

[2] Ross focuses on this important but hitherto mostly neglected theological dimension of Benjamin’s thinking in her important Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image (Ross 2014).


Benjamin, W. (2002), ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’, in W. Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, ed. H. Eiland & M. Jennings, trans. E. Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 297–361; and Gesammelte Schriften, ed. R. Tiedemann & H. Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1981), Vol. 1, pp. 123–201.

Eldridge, R. (1989), On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism, and Self-Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

——— (2015), ‘Acknowledging the Moral Law’, in B. Himmelmann & R. Louden (eds), Why Be Moral? (Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter), pp. 199–216.

Lear, J. (2011), A Case For Irony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Louden, R. (2002), Kant’s Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

——— (2011), Kant’s Human Being: Essays on His Theory of Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Ross, A. (2014), Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image (London: Routledge).

Sandford, S. (2013), ‘Spontaneous Generation: The Fantasy of the Birth of Concepts in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason’, in Radical Philosophy 179 (May/June): 15–26.

Williams, B. (1985), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana Press).

© Richard Eldridge, 2018.

Richard Eldridge is Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore College, USA. He has published widely on aesthetics, German Idealism, Romanticism, Wittgenstein, and moral philosophy. He is the Series Editor of the Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature. His Werner Herzog—Philosopher and Filmmaker is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in December, 2018.