Posts Tagged ‘Kant’

I’ve recently reread the segment from The Brothers Karamazov on Ivan’s rebellion. This time I was struck by the reasons Ivan gives for his rebellion, reasons that help identify the anxieties I have had of late in settling between two competing conceptions of justice: Rawlsian liberalism and postmodern socialism (I have in mind Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy).

First it must be said that the philosophical distance between these two perspectives if often exaggerated. Both take as their starting points the irreducible plurality of separate worldviews and conceptions of the good life, denying that any of these conceptions is privileged over the other. Both place the “right” prior to and independent of the “good,” situating their most primordial moral commitments around the inviolable respect owed to various subject positions (Kant on the one hand, Lyotard on the other). Both then seek to articulate a political vocabulary which promises freedom, but does so without recourse to any privileged conception of the good life (Rawls’s “overlapping consensus” and Laclau and Mouffe’s “empty signifier”). Leftists cannot claim that Rawls is too particularist, since for him the subject of justice is the basic structure of society. They also cannot claim that he is too inegalitarian, since the difference principle minimizes the amount of inequality in stages in accordance with the availability of goods, similar to Marx’s transition from socialism to communism in The Critique of the Gotha Program. Both ultimately espouse a democratically controlled socialist economy.

There is also an overlap in their intellectual indebtedness. Though Rawls demonstrates in his later work serious concern for problems of ideology, and of material inequality throughout, his allegiance is ultimately to the narrative of liberalism. For Laclau and Mouffe, what is often overlooked, is that their qualified allegiance to the Marxist tradition (“post-Marxist”) contrasts with, not a qualified endorsement of liberalism, but an exaggerated one:

“It is not liberalism as such which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfill his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever. But if this dimension of liberty is constitutive of every democratic and emancipatory project, it should not lead us, in reaction to certain ‘holistic’ excesses, to return purely and simply to the defense of ‘bourgeois’ individualism. What is involved is the production of another individual, an individual who is no longer constructed out of the matrix of possessive individualism. The idea of ‘natural’ rights prior to society – and, indeed, the whole of the false dichotomy individual/society – should be abandoned, and replaced by another manner of posing the problem of rights.”

“The task of the Left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology, but on the contrary, to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy.”

All this suggests a deep affinity between the two approaches. Wherein lies the difference? The most fundamental difference seems to be this: Rawls advocates a neutral political vocabulary, divorced from conceptions of the good life, and built solely on the necessary conditions of social cooperation over time. Laclau and Mouffe refuse this neutral vocabulary, and claim that political discourse must remain irreducibly antagonistic, making its claims not from neutral vocabulary, but from the irreducible conflict of conceptions of the good life. The hegemonic front and the empty signifier it seems are a way of allowing these comprehensive claims to be articulated from the Left without privileging one subject position or antagonism over another. In short, where Rawls is a deontologist through and through, Laclau and Mouffe seem to be claiming that, though in the way we treat people the right is prior to the good, the way we articulate political demands must always come from the good. While Rawls is Kantian, Laclau and Mouffe derive our moral commitments from Kant, and our prescriptive politics from Aristotle. This seems to me to be the fundamental difference. (If this is too hokey for you, I would be comfortable provisionally saying that Rawls is Kantian through and through, and Laclau and Mouffe are Aristotelian through and through).

The question, then, is why? Why refuse claims to a neutral vocabulary? Laclau and Mouffe (and Zizek for that matter) appeal to Lacanian insights to demonstrate that liberal forms of articulation are helplessly subsumed by the ideological buttressing of the political imaginary, and end up supporting the very ideological framework they sought to critique. These critiques seem to be applicable only to early British liberalism, neo-Liberalism, and libertarianism. But the worrisome ideological domestication by the Symbolic framework cannot be operated upon Rawls’s demands without producing substantive results, since, because Rawls’s subject is not individual pieces of legislation but the basic structure itself, the Symbolic structure cannot claim to have ‘satisfied’ Rawls’s demands until the basic structure itself is radically revolutionized.

If Laclau and Mouffe’s critiques cannot be made from within the Liberal logic, perhaps they come from outside. Though they share a desire to fully respect different comprehensive doctrines, it seems that Rawls and Laclau and Mouffe have fundamentally and irreducibly different conceptions of what this respect entails. Here I think it is valuable to consult another critic of Rawls’s who advocates for an Aristotelean political vocabulary, one in which our political demands are voiced from within our conceptions of the good, Michael Sandel. In his famous “Justice” course, Sandel claims

“If we are going to think about our disagreements about morality and religion as bound up with our disagreements about justice, how are we every going to find our way to a society that accords respect to fellow citizens with whom we disagree? It depends, I think, on which conception of respect one accepts. On the liberal conception, to respect our fellow citizens moral and religious convictions, is, so to speak, to ignore them for political purposes; to rise above, to abstract from or to set aside, those moral and religious convictions; to leave them undisturbed, to carry on our political debate without reference to them.

But that isn’t the only way, or perhaps even the most plausible way, of understanding the mutual respect on which democratic life depends. There is a different conception of respect, according to which we respect our fellow citizens not by ignoring but by engaging them. By attending to them. Sometimes by challenging and contesting them. Sometimes by listening to and learning from them. Now there is no guarantee that a politics of moral and religious attention and engagement will lead in any given case to agreement. There is no guarantee it will lead even to appreciation for the moral and religious convictions of others. It is always possible, after all, that learning more about a moral or religious doctrine will lead us to like it less. But the respect of deliberation and engagement seems to me a more adequate and a suitable ideal for a pluralist society. And to the extent that our moral and religious disagreements reflect some ultimate plurality of human goods, a politics of moral engagement will better enable us, so it seems to me, to appreciate the distinctive goods our different lives express.”

It is obvious that Rawls holds the former and Laclau and Mouffe hold the latter conception of respect. But note that this is not a counterargument to liberal respect, it is an appeal to a more profound and psychologically satisfying alternative. I think the important implicit conclusion here is this: Sandel, and I think Laclau and Mouffe, do not deny that Rawls’ method will work, they do not deny that in a Rawlsian society those who suffered under laissez-faire capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia and racism will live flourishing and fulfilling lives. They do not deny that we would live in harmony. What they deny is that such a procedural framework is fit to bring psychological justice to their suffering, to bare witness to the cries of the oppressed, to look the leper in the eye and embrace him. It is not a logical condemnation, it is an aesthetic one, and I mean that in the profoundest sense of the term.

Here is where I think Dostoevsky is so valuable. Is not the “harmony” Ivan refuses analogous to the liberal harmony that Laclau, Mouffe, and Sandel refuse?

“Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“It is not Liberalism that I don’t accept” Laclau and Mouffe might say, “only I most respectfully return Rawls the ticket.” His type of harmony cannot affirm our pain. Indeed, it cannot truly recognize pain at all, only lack and debt. When women tell their versions of stories in the face of millennia of patriarchy, when the tears of the descendents of African American slaves mourn for the nameless forgotten millions, when the children of the world go to bed without fear of hunger, or death, or rape, when justice burns forth like a tidal wave of protean fire, it cannot, it will not, be because a procedural government framework has evened out the scales of advantage and disadvantage, has calculated adjustments in basic goods to amend for past errors. Why? Because the suffering could not bare it. I could not bare it.

“Boy: What am I to tell Mr. Godot, Sir?

Vladimir: Tell him…(he hesitates)…tell him you saw me and that…(he hesitates)…that you saw me. (Pause. Vladimir advances, the boy recoils. Vladimir halts, the Boy halts. With sudden violence.) You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”


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“What is the postmodern? …It is undoubtedly part of the modern” — Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

Postmodern epistemology is Nietzsche’s. Postmodern ethics is Nietzsche plus Kant. Postmodern ethics is a universality that refuses universality. In that sense, postmodern ethics is both necessary and impossible. Postmodern ethics is the internal rupture of the Modern. It is its essence; it is its excess. It is sublime; it is domestic. It is atheological; it is messianic.

“Can one conceive an atheological heritage of the messianic?” –Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx.

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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.

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