A Moral Image of the World

By Susan ShellApril 8, 2017

A Moral Image of the World

Images of History by Richard Eldridge

A PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCE is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire.

— Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, 2005


We are living in a time of unprecedented weakness and demoralization in the humanities; the sheer number of humanities majors is plunging, and whole academic departments threaten to disappear. Richard Eldridge’s Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject should be of interest to anyone hoping to grasp why, while also offering a pathway out of the predicament in which liberal education currently finds itself. His intention is less to elucidate Immanuel Kant’s and Walter Benjamin’s notoriously difficult alternative conceptions of history for their own sake than to use them to help settle current disputes within the academic humanities and beyond. These disputes have compromised the humanities’s traditional role in educating thoughtful citizens.

Eldridge seeks a sweet spot between the sterile positivism of “analytic philosophy of history” in the style of Donald Davidson and J. L. Mackie, on the one hand, and an anarchic postmodern relativism that reduces history to a series of arbitrary and incommensurable narratives, in the style of Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben, on the other. His aim is to present, in the words of the German philosopher Dieter Henrich, a “moral image of the world,” one that can meet the twin demands of moral sanity and contemporary skepticism as to the possibility of any ultimate or eternal moral truth.

“Once upon a time,” as the author puts it, “a presiding moral image of the world” with commanding authority for all rational agents was assumed to be given through “the very nature of being as such.” Traditionally, in other words, it was assumed that moral norms were objectively true and could be rationally known as such. “For us moderns,” on the other hand, groundings of such images “in the affordances of ultimate being” — groundings of the sort offered by Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas — are, in the author’s words, “scarcely credible.” In short: We moderns, on the author’s account, no longer think that objective moral knowledge of this kind is possible. Due in part to modern advances in scientific technology, we are now “too aware of widely divergent possibilities of life and action that may be experienced as meaningful” to take seriously any such affordances. The “images of history” to which the title refers are a bifocal rendering of that sought for a frame of reference, in a milieu in which traditional sources of authority have vanished, whether it be owing to modern advances in technology or to our greater awareness of the “divergent possibilities of life and action that may be experienced as meaningful” — i.e., the much-touted claims of “diversity” against a stultifying and oppressive universalism. By comparing Kant’s and Benjamin’s respective ways of imagining history, Eldridge hopes to move beyond either, toward a more comprehensive orienting frame that is both stabilizing and dynamic, rigorous and open to contingency.

Like Stanley Cavell, who applied the tools of ordinary language philosophy under the guidance of John Austin to such unconventional subjects as Emerson, Heidegger, Freud, and American film, Eldridge brings the tools of analytic philosophy to bear on the complementary insights of Kant and Benjamin. His aim is to help promote a critical “awakening” from the “infantile” and “dream-like” state to which our public culture currently confines us. As he puts it:

[B]oth Kant and Benjamin stage their own writings as imaginative, conjectural engagements with the materials of history, introduced in order to promote awakening and modeled on the structure of a fairy tale, in which we, the readers, are placed in a position of emerging, self-conscious maturity, insofar as we respond to what has taken place.

Eldridge’s favored word for the mutually enforcing movement back and forth between ideas and history that he attributes to both Kant and Benjamin is “bootstrapping”:

[A]ccording to both Kant and Benjamin, political ideals and historical understanding are to bootstrap one another, in the interest of our moving toward epistemic and political maturity and toward more meaningful life.

To be sure, despite this shared theme of critical enlightenment, the images of history produced by Kant and Benjamin also significantly diverge for Eldridge, and not only in their disparate assessments of violent revolution, which Kant famously deplores and Benjamin (ambiguously) approves. Indeed, it may not be altogether misleading to suggest that Kant and Benjamin represent to Eldridge what performative and passionate utterance are for Cavell: namely, opposing and yet complementary exemplars of what the latter calls “participation in the order of law,” on the one hand, and “an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire,” on the other — i.e., the superego and the id.

This is not the standard view of either author, as Eldridge readily admits,

partly as a result of imperatives that have shaped and divided distinct academic disciplines. Philosophers reading Kant are inclined to focus on the systematic character of his thinking and his concern for abstract [universal] principles, moral and epistemic, [while l]iterary scholars reading Benjamin are inclined to focus on his materialist-perceptualist cultural criticism and his frequent scorn for ideals.

The author’s own readings, by way of contrast, stress the two thinkers’ shared embeddedness in a larger view “of philosophy as critical thought that is historically situated and responsive to historical developments,” with the aim of working out new “possibilities of commitment” that are respectful of both their own historical contingency and our ongoing need for “stabilizing” standards of practical behavior.

A critic might accuse Eldridge of wanting to have it both ways: to embrace the historicism and moral relativism that prevail at today’s academic “high tables” (where alternative views are “scarcely credible”) without being willing to give up on the possibility of authoritative moral norms. It would be fairer and more accurate to say that he perfectly expresses the dilemma that mainstream humanities disciplines — and hence liberal education as it is now generally understood and practiced — currently confront. Eldridge’s effort to work his way out of that dilemma through imaginative appropriation of Kant and Benjamin is revealing of both emancipatory opportunities harbored within that framework and of their peculiar limitations.

How, then, do the author’s respective readings of Kant and Benjamin hold up?

Like other recent scholars, Eldridge emphasizes Kant’s historical and other “minor” writings at the expense of more familiar canonical texts, such as his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The result is a Kant stripped of the moral certitudes usually associated with such doctrines as the categorical imperative (understood as a “fact of reason”) and the accompanying claim that “ought implies can.” In its place is a Kant for whom our historical situatedness, and a related state of practical ambivalence and uncertainty, are central. In Eldridge’s words:

Certain obvious, conspicuous cases of failures of respect for persons, typically involving rights violations, are more or less clear in more or less all circumstances, and are hence to be avoided as objectively impermissible, without this fact settling what counts in general as respect for persons.

Such difficulties are “even more pressing,” as the author puts it, “when what is in view are the overall shapes over time of individual and shared social life,” i.e., our engagement with “the historical world.” The answer, for Eldridge’s Kant, lies in “orienting” signs within that world — indications of progress that are neither dogmatic figures of prognostication nor arbitrary fictions, but that provide relief from the “crippling second thoughts” to which our practical ambivalences otherwise give rise. Kant’s moral touchstone, on such a view, is less the unwavering demands of the moral law than an “amphibious” search for individual and collective significance or “meaning.” The highest good lies not in an otherworldly “kingdom of ends,” but in an altogether this-worldly “rationally endorsable cultural existence, in which the exercise of our powers of meaning-making themselves makes sense and our powers display themselves as achieving what they are for.”

But what are these powers for? Here Eldridge’s Kant turns squishy. More important than “material satisfactions alone,” Eldridge says, is “to become ‘worthy of well-being through the conduct of [one’s] life’ — whatever the terms of this worth may turn out to be” [emphasis added]. His equivocal addition here to Kant’s own words could not be more telling, for it exposes the fundamental moral uncertainty at the heart of Eldridge’s project, which cannot find a firmer or more concrete touchstone than the Rawlsian appeal to what is “reasonably endorsable,” understood as a kind of “reciprocal meaning-making” — in contrast to Kant’s own categorical assertion of unconditional value of obedience to the moral law.

To be sure, Eldridge identifies and searchingly investigates a genuine problem in Kant: namely, how to combine “a priori knowledge of the moral law” with the “empirical knowledge of empirical circumstances and tendencies of human development” necessary for effective action. Eldridge’s own answer is that while our “grasp of the moral law” does not change, “our understanding of what counts as the appropriate expression of respect for persons” alters over time. It therefore needs to be fleshed out by an ongoing collective exploration of

what will count […] among us, stably, as the expression of respect for persons and as a contribution to the cultivation of free and meaningful, mutually rationally endorsable life within particular circumstances.

We may evidently hope that, given time and our shared need for meaning, those explorations “will become both more successful and more convergent”; but no further grounds for entertaining such a hope are provided.

In the end, Eldridge’s appeal to what comes to count “among us, stably, as the expression of respect for persons” seems even vaguer and more naïvely hopeful than the more orthodox Kantian framework from which he seeks to free us. Without “vehicles of joint moralization,” as he puts it:

[I]nsistence on the authority of the moral law and rigor in holding oneself to it will count, in the end, as forms of narcissism and disguised aggression […] all too likely to block more open and improvisatory responsiveness to complex moral situations.

But “count” among whom? An aging circle of intellectuals for whom Freud’s authority continues to hold sway? And does “joint moralization” amount to anything more than “counting” for something in a somewhat larger, but equally contingent, social group? In the end, Eldridge’s admirable effort to overcome the limitations of Kantian formalism threatens to dissolve into a conventionalism that seems particularly unsuited to our dramatically shifting present. It is thus perhaps understandable that he should seek help from Walter Benjamin, whose own idiosyncratic appropriations of Kant have found a ready audience among a younger crop of scholars and intellectuals.

Eldridge’s sympathetic account of Benjamin has a number of virtues that should recommend it to a more general readership. First, its lucidity. Eldridge summarizes this notoriously demanding author in terms that are clear and attractive — albeit at times only by rubbing away some intentional rough edges — making his discussion a useful point of entry for the interested first-time reader. Second, he sets Kant and Benjamin in constructive mutual Auseinandersetzung (confrontation), skillfully bringing out the many ways in which Kant remained a foil throughout Benjamin’s own wide-ranging explorations.

One of those rough edges is Benjamin’s puzzling stance toward political violence, which is “pure,” on his account, only when “divine” and “expiatory” — as distinguished from the impure, “dominating” violence, consciously intended and carried out by human actors, in which laws and the human institutions that support them are inevitably inextricably entangled. At the same time, Benjamin’s well-known flirtation with Marxism and related calls for (violent) revolution put in question any apparent quietism on his part.

Eldridge interprets such rough edges as aspects of a quest for what he calls a “free life of meaning”:

Consistently, Benjamin sought to blend receptivity with activity, history with politics, and knowledge with action, all in the service of an abrupt emergence of more meaningful life against the grain of institutional habit.

That combination gives rise, in turn, to an image of historical “apocatastasis,” or “restitution,” in complementary opposition to Kant’s own “images of [historical] progress.” Together, Eldridge urges, these alternative “images of history” allow for the construction of a “moral image of the world” in which the modern subject, otherwise adrift, can find moorings that are “good enough” to allow it to go on.

By ending his final chapter on Benjamin with the words of Wittgenstein, Eldridge gives the clearest possible indication of his own intellectual provenance — a philosophic school that has never quite recovered from the Wittgensteinian dictum that what is most important must remain unspoken, and that continues to regard deviations from the current historicist wisdom as “fundamentalisms,” as Eldridge calls them, calling for therapy rather than rational refutation.

To conclude, Eldridge’s is both a brilliant scholarly study in its own right and a beacon of hope for those seeking to find their way anew in the mired field of the contemporary humanities. To be sure, Images of History also suffers from some of the same rational self-doubt — the same “crippling” ambivalences in the face of uncertainty — that it is intended to relieve. Indeed, until the academic humanities are willing once again to challenge the current historicist wisdom, it seems unlikely that they will be able to resist trends toward the rebarbarization of “utterance” that feed on that so-called wisdom — trends that are neither “apocatastatic” nor “progressive,” but nihilistic. This challenge to the current wisdom is not one that Eldridge is willing to make. Still, anyone seeking a lucid and revealing introduction to the work of Benjamin, or a compact précis of the difficulties posed by Kant’s incipient philosophy of history, could not do better than to read Eldridge’s incisive and enlightening book.


Susan Shell is professor and chairman of the Political Science department at Boston College.

LARB Contributor

Susan Shell is the author of Kant and the Limits of Autonomy (Harvard University Press, 2009), The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation and Community (University of Chicago Press, 1996), and The Rights of Reason: A Study of KantPhilosophy and Politics (University of Toronto Press, 1980). She has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Bradley Foundation, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.


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