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


 

By Robert Louden

A book focusing on “Kant, Benjamin, and the images of history they develop” (p. xi) is likely to raise a few eyebrows—especially when the author tries to convince his readers that these two authors offer “deeply complementary” (p. 33) views of history, that they “share an overall sense of meaningful life” (p. 40), and that there exist “overwhelming similarities in both their overall conceptions of philosophy as historical critique and their figurations of how critique might be carried out” (p. 42). For Benjamin, we are told, has a strong “suspicion of claims to progress” (p. 107), and on his view history “displays no tendency toward progress” (p. 138).  Rather, history is primarily a story of “decline” and “disintegration” (p. 151). In place of Enlightenment progressivist views of history Benjamin advocates a “‘mystical conception of history’” (p. 138) that aims at “‘the orgiastic disclosure […] of all the secret sources of tradition’” (p. 105) in order to bring about “‘a historical apocatastasis’” (p. 103)—a restitution, restoration, and reestablishment of an earlier condition. Kant would have to regard much of this as Schwärmerei—enthusiasm, but in Locke’s Enlightenment sense of a dangerous attitude “freed from all reason and check of reflection”; one “rising from the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain” (Locke 1975, IV.xix.7).

Kant, on the other hand, advocates a “universal world history, according to a plan of nature that aims at the perfect civil union of the human species” (IaG, AA 8:29). He believes there exist clear “historical sign[s]” that reveal “a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement” (SF, AA 7:84, 88; cited by Eldridge, p. 55), and he holds that a “victory of the good principle over the evil one” (RGV, AA 6:94; cited by Eldridge, p. 90) can and will be attained when human beings across the planet establish a universal “ethical community” (RGV, AA 6:95; cited by Eldridge, p. 91). Furthermore, Kant claims that “what affords this guarantee [of perpetual peace] is nothing less than the great artist nature” herself (ZeF, AA 8:360). Benjamin would have to regard much of this as the tired musings of a thinker who could unfortunately not break away from “‘the horizon of his times’” (p. 112).

Eldridge tries to link Kant and Benjamin to each other in part by coining the paradoxical term “constructivist realism” (pp. 33–43) and then arguing that “what Kant and Benjamin each offer us at the deepest strata of their writings” (pp. 33–4) are “constructivist-realist images of history” (p. 33). The label “constructivist realism” seems unlikely to catch on (it sounds a bit like materialist dualism or theistic atheism), but in a footnote Eldridge offers the following quasi-definition:

‘Constructivist realism’ indicates that both (1) the full content of relevant moral and political ideals is not given but must be constructed through the use of our rational and reflective powers, and (2) those ideals are also dimly legible within human historical life regarded critically. (p. 196n.50)

Part One of the definition seems clear enough—for Kantians, it is reminiscent of the constructivist reading of Kant’s ethics defended by John Rawls and his many students (cf. p. 199n.28). On this view, moral principles and ideals are not valid because they reflect an independently existing moral reality (cf. pp. 13–15), but rather because “they express the self-conception of practical subjects” (Bagnoli 2017:376). But Part Two leaves a bit of wiggle room. Eldridge is not quite saying that constructivist-realists acknowledge an independently existing moral reality outside of human life, but he is saying that they acknowledge that viable moral and political ideals are to be found within actual human historical experience. 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. The Rawlsian constructivist interpretation of Kant’s ethics still has the upper hand at present, but in recent years several important realist interpretations of Kant’s ethics have also been offered (see e.g. Ameriks 2003, esp. ch. 11; Kain 2004; and Wood 2007). And if we split the difference between these warring camps, applying the label ‘constructivist realism’, at least as far as Kant goes, may not be so crazy after all.

But perhaps the title and subtitle of this book are not really the best indicators of what lies within. In his opening sentence, Eldridge writes:

[T]his is a book about how to think about ourselves and our commitments—how to get a grip on ourselves—in a new way, both in engagement with current circumstances of life and with some critical distance between them. (p. ix)

Eldridge engages critically with Kant’s and Benjamin’s images of history in order to offer readers an independent account of how to think about ourselves and our commitments. And both Kant’s and Benjamin’s philosophies of history come in for some pointed criticism in his engagements with them. Eldridge seeks a middle way, somewhere in between Kant and Benjamin. Unlike Kant, he urges us to explore “alternative, more material and less idealist accounts of subject actualization and moral images of the world” (p. 101). And while he shares both Kant’s (and Benjamin’s) conviction that religious consciousness plays a necessary and important role in articulating moral images of the world, he rejects Kant’s identification of Christianity with moral religion and seeks to establish “more possibilities of convergence among liberal strands of various religions than Kant” (p. 98) is willing to do. More generally, as noted on the back flap of the book cover, Eldridge wants to avoid Kant’s “moralism (standing on sharply specified normative commitments at all costs)”.

Benjamin, on the other hand, is criticised for placing “too much hope in improvisation and alert responsiveness and too little in longer term courses of discipline, self-control, and adaptation to existing institutions” (pp. 147–8). In the end, Benjamin offers readers a form of social criticism that is “too diffuse, too perceptualist-sensuous-aesthetic, too individualist, too schizophrenic, and not enough concerned with long-term social reproduction and distribution, which must, after all, take place under some forms of more or less settled political institutional life” (p. 177). Or, as the back flap succinctly puts it, he rejects Benjamin’s “waywardness (rejecting all settled commitments)”. I found these criticisms of both Kant and Benjamin convincing, and the middle position Eldridge advocates strikes me as quite sensible.

Another clue that Images of History is much more than a book about Kant and Benjamin can be gleaned by looking at the overall structure of the book. The book as a whole consists of a brief Preface and Acknowledgements, six main chapters, and Notes, Bibliography, and Index sections. Chapter 1 (‘Introduction: Historical Understanding and Human Action’, pp. 1–43) is the second longest chapter in the book. Kant and Benjamin are not even mentioned until page 33, when Eldridge begins his effort to convince readers that both thinkers espouse “deeply complementary, yet also deeply opposed, constructivist-realist images of history” (p. 33). Most of Chapter 1 is devoted to a selective tour of contemporary philosophy of history writing (Anglo-American as well as German), the goal of which is to help articulate the proper role of moral and political ideals in history. No definitive answer is reached, but the tentative results seem to already point in the general direction of the middle way that Eldridge later espouses in the course of his exploration of Kant’s and Benjamin’s philosophies of history. What is needed is not a theory but “an image of history as the embodiment of reasonable, but deeply contested and contestable responsiveness to an ideal of the overcoming of” (p. 33) universal abstract oppositions.

Chapters 2 and 3 are both devoted to Kant. Chapter 2 (‘Kant’s Conjecturalism’) takes its name from Kant’s 1786 essay, Conjectural Beginning of Human History—that same piece that Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently mined to make his case that we need to move beyond the “Kantian fable” that morality can be separated from biology, both in order to “learn to look at the human world also from nonhuman points of view” (Chakrabarty 2016:391) and to forge “the ‘new’ humanities of our times” (2016:394). Although conjecturalism is not usually regarded as the dominant strand of Kant’s philosophy of history (the title of his 1784 essay Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Aim gives a better clue here), this particular focus does enable Eldridge to readily make the case that Kant’s philosophy of history is much more subtle and context-sensitive than is often assumed.

Chapter 3 (‘Cultivating the Ethical Commonwealth: Kant’s Religion and Reason in History’) focuses on Kant’s 1793 book, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Eldridge views Kant’s Religion “as his fullest presentation of a joint, institutional cultivation of free and meaningful life within historical time, in responsiveness to both the demands of morality and the promptings of happiness seeking” (p. 77). I think he is probably right about this (if for no other reason than that Religion is a very long work—over 200 pages in the German Akademie Ausgabe). Nevertheless, I do not think it is prudent to put all of one’s historical stones in the basket of religion. Although Kant does assert in Religion that humans can “only […] hope for a victory of the good principle over the evil one” (RGV, AA 6:94; cited by Eldridge, p. 90) via the establishment of a universal ethical community “in the form of a church” (RGV, AA 6:101; Eldridge, p. 92), his philosophy of history is best read as advocating a multi-pronged approach to institutional reform. In order to achieve the highest good, human beings will need to make fundamental institutional reforms not only in their religious institutions, but also in education, politics, economics, and international law as well.

Chapters 4 and 5 both focus on Benjamin. In Chapter 4 (‘Benjamin’s Modernism’) Eldridge argues—against many other interpreters of Benjamin but in agreement with Andrew Bowie—that underneath the many twists and turns of Benjamin’s writing career one finds “hidden continuities” (p. 208n.22), continuities that track back to his early “encounters specifically with Kant, Hölderlin, and Goethe” (p. 107) and which remain “relatively constant throughout his work” (p. 107). Benjamin in fact first planned to write his Ph.D. thesis on “the concept of the ‘eternal task’ in Kant” (p. 108) (viz. the perfection of humanity, conceived as an eternal task), and he was influenced by Neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen’s lectures on this topic in Berlin in 1917. But the topic he eventually settled on—The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (p. 136)—would take him rather far from the Sage of Königsberg.

Chapter 5 (‘Modernist-Materialist Criticism and Human Possibility: Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Traces of Free Life’) explores Benjamin’s later works, including the famous Arcades Project. Eldridge’s reference in this chapter to Adorno’s well-known description of Benjamin’s philosophy as “no less a source of terror than a promise of happiness” (p. 153)—in part because “the subject evaporates” (p. 153)—puts additional pressure on his claim that “Kant and Benjamin share an overall sense of meaningful life” (p. 40).

Finally, in Chapter 6 (‘Self-Unity and History’), Eldridge takes his earlier-arrived-at pictures of practical self-unity in Kant and Benjamin and tries to develop them further in order to better fit the specific challenges of contemporary social life. But these two pictures still seem to point in somewhat different directions. For Kant, attentiveness to the emergent possibilities of freedom

takes the form of acknowledgment of the normative requirements of the moral law wedded to discernment of specific contextual possibilities of rational freedom, as we may shape ourselves progressively to come closer to being citizens of an ethical commonwealth. (p. 180)

For Benjamin, on the other hand, this attentiveness

takes the form of vigilant alertness to possibilities of modernist epiphany and action against the grains of policy and settled institutional life. Readiness to be on the move and to respond to the affordances of a striking moment cut against complacency; eros […] can legitimately assert its claims no matter what forms of settled life are in place. (pp. 180–1)

And as one moves further into Chapter 6, Kant and Benjamin recede into the background and are replaced by a contemporary chorus of authors (Jonathan Lear, Marcia Cavell, Ted Cohen, and above all, Stanley Cavell). The main message that Eldridge seems to glean from them is that we need to avoid “the temptation, wish, or fantasy to find an absolute ground of assurance in linguistic performance and of the achievement of practical unity and reasonable self-presentation under an intelligible role” (p. 188). In other words, there are no guarantees.

Although I remain sceptical of the claim that there exist “overwhelming similarities” (p. 42) in Kant’s and Benjamin’s philosophies of histories, there is much in Images of History that I do admire. Eldridge is an original philosopher, but also a careful scholar. His readings of Kant, Benjamin and many other topics are always informed by wide reading in the relevant secondary literature. And while Eldridge’s own leanings toward Romanticism, aestheticism, and the “stylistic difficulty” of Stanley Cavell’s prose (see Genzlinger 2018) occasionally put an additional strain on those of us who prefer the clearer light of the Aufklärung, I certainly do endorse his Kant-inspired maxim that “history without literature and philosophy is chronicle; literature without history and philosophy is amusement; philosophy without literature and history is empty” (p. 190; cf. A51/B76). 

Invited: 28 July 2017; received: 9 July 2018.

References:

Ameriks, K. (2003), Interpreting Kant’s Critiques (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Bagnoli, C. (2017), ‘Kant in Metaethics: the Paradox of Autonomy, Solved by Publicity’, in M. Altman (ed.), The Palgrave Kant Handbook (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 355–77.

Chakrabarty, D. (2016), ‘Humanities in the Anthropocene: The Crisis of an Enduring Kantian Fable’, New Literary History 47: 377–97.

Genzlinger, N. (2018), ‘Stanley Cavell, Prominent Harvard Philosopher, Dies at 91’, New York Times, June 20, 2018 (nytimes.com, accessed on July 7, 2018).

Kain, P. (2004), ‘Self-Legislation in Kant’s Moral Philosophy’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 86: 257–306.

Locke, J. (1975), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Wood, A. (2007), Kantian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

© Robert B. Louden, 2018.


Robert Louden is Distinguished Professor and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, USA. His publications include Kant’s Human Being (Oxford UP, 2011), The world we want (Oxford UP, 2007), Kant’s Impure Ethics (Oxford UP, 2000) and Morality and moral theory (Oxford UP, 1992). A former president of the North American Kant Society, Louden is also co-editor and translator of two volumes in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant.

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