Check out my paper in the latest issue of Prometheus at Johns Hopkins. I wrote it at about this time last year, and my writing style has improved since, but I still stand behind the substance.


The importance of Kantian epistemology in the development of contemporary continental philosophy is well established in the received narrative of the history of Western Philosophy. Kant’s “Copernican revolution in philosophy” demonstrated for the first time that our experience of the world was always importantly only our experience of the world, as we bring certain preconditions of intelligible and meaningful experience to all of our encounters with the world. Seeing our experience  of the world as mediated in this way, Kant leveled any ambitions to know anything about “the world in itself”. We may be sure the external world exists, and that it plays a significant causal role in stimulating our experience, but any interaction with the world is ultimately the human take on the matter. From this it is just a one or two step maneuver, perhaps through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to the perspectivist epistmologies of postmodern plurality (Nietzsche, after all, acknowledges his debt to Kant’s critical epistemology in The Birth of Tragedy). On the socio-political side, the Marxist tradition dominant in Continental philosophy was just another two-step maneuver from Kant. First Hegel took Kant’s fixed, rigid, and unidimensional categories of experience  and gave them historical maleability and fluidity in his Geist, and Marx gave Hegel’s Geist material character in his “dialectical materialist” reading of “ideology.” All this is well known.

What strikes me is how little Kant’s moral philosophy is emphasized as equally instrumental in this development. Just as the “Copernican revolution” in epistemology informs the perspectival epistemology dominant in Continental philosophy, deontology, it seems to me is the pivotal moment that informs existential anxiety (and all it’s analogue forms, “the death of God,” in Nietzsche, “the death of the Father,” in psychoanalysis, and so on).

In the teleological ethical framework that preceded Kant’s, a life dedicated to morality was a completely fulfilling and satisfying life. For the medievals, an ethical life was a life dedicated to the service of God, meant to bring the material world closer to God’s design and to make oneself suitable for entry into the Kingdom on Heaven. Even in the comparatively secular Athenian  worldview, teleology allowed the ethical life to be part of the greater natural design, a life-long practice of virtue, excellence, and self-perfection that was in itself the end of life. A good life could could defined in its totality as a moral life.

But in deontology justice takes on an ultimately prefatory function. Kant’s central innovation in his moral thought is to shift the locus of moral authority away from heteronomous validation by some state of affairs we find desireable, thus judging as ethical any activity which brings about that state of affiars. Instead for Kant, the locus of moral validation is ultimately the end-in-itself formulation of the categorical imperative (not, I believe, the good will, as Kant presents it). The moral injunction, Kant claims, does not call upon us to create a more proper and excellent world, it tells us “there are certain ways one ought never to treat other people, regardless of the world it creates.” Understood from this perspective, morality is essentially all about getting out of people’s way. My actions are morally commendable if they create a situation that allows for the maximal free expression of other moral agent’s life projects. Morality is not about eudaimonia, it is about taking others ends as trumps on my inclinations.

And with this prefatory shift goes any hope for a fulfilling life of justice. If justice is understood as “creating the conditions for…” then a life of justice starts to look like a whole lot of preparation and not a whole lot of meaning. An ethical life becomes passive, an attempt not to violate certain inviolable boundaries–the ends-in-themselves. An ethical life is about following rules.  An ethical life becomes analogous to, say, a student who follows all of the rules of student conduct so as not to interfere with others education, but never takes on academic virtues herself. Morality is setting up for a fair game, but without concern for how well that game is played.

One might object, of course, that in creating the conditions for that fair game, Kant does nothing to prevent the players from then playing virtuously, and simply not applauding virtuous performance as “ethical,” but by some other name. A meaningful Kantian life is then fulfilled after this prefatory justice. I do not think this is the case. As Zizek reminds us “What is problematic in Kantian ethics is not formalism as such, but rather the fact that, prior to Kant’s assertion of the autonomous formal moral Law, he has to reject every other foundation of ethics as ‘pathological’, relating to some contingent, ultimately empirical notion of the Good.” (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 224). Not only are all non-moral endeavors reduced to pathological inclinations–all of which are essentially comparable in value–but then any social practice or institution that seeks to amplify the domain of the meaningful life even when in concert with the moral Law is forbidden. In Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, as implied in the title, Kant forbids the church or community from playing any (now-‘pathological’) role other than the enhancement of adherence to the moral Law. Religion and community have thus been subsumed under the prefatory function of the moral Law. In fact Kant goes even further in the “Doctrine of Virtue” of The Metaphysics of Morals. Though the “ends of virtue” seem initially to offer us escape from this prefatory trap, they are ultimately not morally commendable inclinations, but are merely the inverted, positive formulations of the ever prefatory, ever restrictive, ever negative nature of the moral Law. The ends of virtue then function to compete with and stifle my inclinations, so that we “strive with all [our] might that the thought of duty for its own sake is the sufficient incentive of every action conforming to duty.” The Doctrine of Virtue is then a doctrine, as Kant says, “in praise of moral apathy,” which adds to the deontological levelling of inclinations by calling for their complete abolition. Kant’s ethics, then, affects a kind of psychic suicide. The meaningful life looks something life this: we prepare, we prepare, we prepare, then we tickle our inclinations…and even then we feel sort of bad about it.

I am happy.
So am I.
So am I.
We are happy.
We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
Wait for Godot.”

As I’ve said, I think this deontological shift was instrumental in the development of the emphasis on existential anxiety in philosophy only a century later. Only in a philosophical framework in which the moral life is an entirely prefatory and ultimately unsatisfying one can the true meaninglessness of life be a credible philosophically salient concern, as prior to Kant it would have been dismissed simply as a stubborn refusal to see the ethical meaning that saturates the cosmos and is written in our telos. Kant gave us a framework where meaninglessness may actually be a very fair and informed way to describe our situation. It also helps that Kant levelled the diversity of non-Moral human projects to essentially equivalent pathologies. With this attitude one is not far from the uncanny experience Heidegger describes in which the network of socially meaningful projects simply looses salience, and one has the uncanny feeling that one is in the world but not of it.

Of course, I am not down on deontology, as I am not down on existential anxiety. I think the deontological shift was a progressive move in the philosophical narrative (though I disagree with a lot of what Kant has to say about moral motivation). Existential anxiety, we cannot forget, is precisely the moment of the call of conscience, the call of authenticity:

“Uncanniness reveals itself authentically in the basic state-of-mind of anxiety; and, as the most elemental way in which thrown Dasein is disclosed, it puts Dasein’s Being-in-the-world face to face with the “nothing” of the world; in the face of this “nothing” Dasein is anxious with anxiety about its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?”    –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 321.

…What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience? It seems to me that Kant was integral in introducing this moment of awakening to philosophy–an awakening to the ethics of authenticity. Kant’s was the first movement in a long “destruction of the history of [moral] philosophy” (Heidegger). Deontology is essentially correct: all of the positive content of morality is ultimately restrictive and prefatory, it cannot give you a formula for a meaningful life. A meaningful life is something you have to author yourself, in the face of the absurdity, in the face of the meaninglesness, in the face of the nothingness. A meaningful life is not a moral project, it is an artistic project

“Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” –Friedrich Nietzsche.

“…the saturnalia of a mind that has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without yielding, but also without hope — and is now all of a sudden attacked by hope, by hope for health, by the intoxication of recovery….nothing but an amusement after long privation and powerlessness, the jubilation of returning strength, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of reopened seas, of goals that are permitted and believed in again.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The coming of a new decade seems trivial in comparison to the last comparable benchmark—the coming of the new millennium. But still I think my own generation is experiencing the coming decade with the same anticipation evoked by that benchmark ten years ago. For people my age—those born between 1985 and 1990, give or take a few years—a promise was broken in the interim. We were raised in a decade when time stood still: the 1990s. We were the first generation born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it seemed the dust was settling on “The End of History.” History, ideology, big ideas, and revolution—both of politics and consciousness—were things of the past. As the dust settled, and the naïve delusions of our romantic forebearers gave way to pragmatic procedural liberalism, politics, and even community, were perceived, by both the salient voices of the Left and the Right I think, as a procedural form of traffic engineering. You tickle your inclinations and I’ll tickle mine; as long as we don’t bother each other when we pass the time. We were all content with simple bourgeois American plastic pleasures as we waited for Godot. This was Life after History for those of us who came of political sentience in the 1990s. “Nothing to be done.”

And then came the new Millennium. Where we expected stasis, there was movement. Where we expected prosperity, there was loss. Where we expected contentment, there was pain. The inauguration of the decade saw the inauguration of an illegitimate President. Dreams of American isolation were shattered on September 11, 2001; we realized we were still part of the political flesh of the earth. London, Madrid. A record budget surplus became a deficit. The gap between rich and poor widened. Two wars were waged by the United States under lies and deceit. Abu Ghraib. An American city was lost. The 12/26 Tsunami. Global warming. The worst financial crisis since the great depression. Tehran.

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?

I do not mean here to make any novel political claims; the historical account I’ve given of the past twenty years is nothing more than that of a sophomoric twenty-something Leftist. I mean here to be writing a piece of autobiography, a coming of age story. What seems so unique about my age group is that we were born into stasis and came into movement, sometimes we even craved it. Is that not unique? Perhaps not. It feels unique at least.

But onward we trudge, with a new, and doubtless more realistic understanding of what the future holds. The world hasn’t stopped. The world could never stop. Justice calls us from our sleep. There is work to be done. There is pain to be had. There are promises to make. There will always be.

“Prior: We can’t just stop.  We’re not rocks–progress, migration, motion is…modernity.  It’s animate, it’s what living things do.  We desire.  Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for.  Even if we go faster than we should.  We can’t wait.  And wait for what? God.., He isn’t coming back. And even if he did…If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again…if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see…how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard.  That’s my only contribution to all this Theology.  Sue the bastard for walking out.  How dare He.

Europa: This is the Tome of Immobility, of respite, of cessation. Drink of its bitter water once, Prophet, and never thirst again.

Prior: I can’t. I still want my blessing.  Even sick. I want to be alive.

Angel:  You only think you do. Life is a habit with you. You have not seen what is to come: We have. What will the grim unfolding of these latter days bring? That you or any being should wish to endure them? Death more plenteous than all Heaven has tears to mourn it. The slow dissolving of the Great Design, The spiraling apart of the Work of Eternity, The World and its beautiful particle logic all collapsed.  All dead, forever, in starless, moonlorn onyx night. We are failing, failing. The Earth and the Angels. Look up, look up, it is Not-to-Be Time. Oh who asks of the Orders blessing with Apocalypse descending? Who demands more Life? When Death like a Protector blinds our eyes, shielding from tender nerve more horror than can be borne. Let any Being on whom Fortune smiles creep away to Death before that last dreadful daybreak when all your ravaging returns to you with the rising, scorching, unrelenting Sun: when morning blisters crimson and bears all life away, a tidal wave of Protean Fire that curls around the planet and bares the Earth clean as bone.


Prior:  But still. Still
Bless me anyway.
I want more life.  I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but…you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live.  Death usually has to take life away.  I don’t know if that’s just the animal.  I don’t know if it’s not braver to die.  But I recognize the habit.  The addiction to being alive.  We live past hope.  If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do.  It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but…Bless me anyway.  I want more life.”

–Tony Kushner, Angels in America.

Consider this my New Year’s Resolution: a belated prayer against stasis in the new Millennium. A will to Life. And remember, “a laughing apocalypse is an apocalypse without God. Without master, this universe has rhythm; without Other, it is dance and music; without God, it has style.”