Crisis of Faith


T304434AHaving read Kant’s political writings for some time now, and having often compared his political advice (no resistance, reforms from above only) to his philosophical advice (revolution and undermining critique), I am slowly coming to an uncomfortable conclusion that was somewhat pressed upon me this week while I reread sections of “The Doctrine of Right” and The Conflict of Faculties – Kant was a  conservative and naive citizen of Prussa whose use of the imagery of “revolution” vis-a-vis his own philosophical discoveries (and multiple autobiographical events such as famous “dogmatic slumber” incident or a discover of Rousseau) did not propel him to leave his provincial shell of a “teacher of the people” and see radical political implications of his own discoveries. How Heine could possibly compare Kant to Robespierre is beyond me. How can we change our society for the better? According to Kant, we cannot do much – we hope and pray that the state “reforms itself from time to time” but ultimately we can only hope for a miracle, “a kind of new creation (supernatural influence)” [7:92] – What sort of reactionary flaming pile of shit is this? And coming for Kant? I better go read some Marx (or maybe Fichte) to get me away from this idiocy…

18 thoughts on “Crisis of Faith

  1. If you read the young Marx you’ll find him wallowing in the impotent pseudo-radical verbiage of the Young Hegelians, who were trying to cash out the revolutionary potential of Hegel that was buried under his statism, which in turn was an attempt to concretize Kant’s philosophical radicalism.

    Then you get to The German Ideology, which trashes all of that in short (and then, much longer) order. The Preface:

    Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

    These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. The first volume of the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany. It is its aim to debunk and discredit the philosophic struggle with the shadows of reality, which appeals to the dreamy and muddled German nation.

    Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistic brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

    I really love that thing about not drowning if only you can free yourself of the idea of gravity. Anyway, the 11th thesis on Feuerbach is even pithier: philosophers have described the world in various ways; the point is to change it. Pace crazy old Althusser and his momentous discovery, the political relevance of philosophy (such as it was) ended at that moment.

    • I suppose my frustration comes not so much from Kant’s conservative politics, if he wanted to be all king-loving Bürger, it’s fine – I’m frustrated with the language of radical change and revolution, the same language Kantian scholars love to bring up, and no actual political advice, and I mean it – what sort of advice is it to “hope for the better”? Especially coming for a working class son of a cobbler who had to work his ass off to get a teaching job?

  2. And yet again and again Kant has been proved right. Nowadays the eleventh thesis is invoked only by the kind of people who think all their thinking and writing amounts to something other than “philosophy.”

      • I mean that in the end, it’s a matter of the state reforming itself (or not)–our actual contribution to the process, even in “democratic” countries, is minimal. I read “hoping for the best” (admittedly, minus the supernatural element) not as some sort of positive vision of political praxis but as a kind of stoicism in the face of politics, which seems to be the most reasonable position to take in that regard.

      • Outside of Germany, that kind of conservatism was in its way a pretty courageous stance, given all the Offentlichkeit activist thinking that was in fashion at the time.

  3. True enough, Greg; I think and write for entertainment and have no illusion that any of it is of political significance, except in the gross sense that it’s all made possible by my professional shilling for the bourgeois order.

    • I suppose I don’t anymore, therefore the “crisis of faith” – it seems that for someone like Kant, who was defending autonomy as a most fundamental right of humans (and not, say, happiness or perfection like previous philosopher), with his Rousseau influenced autonomy as self-legislation and similar such talk would be at least producing some close to Fichte’s early essay on freedom of speech and of French revolution…

  4. Greg, I think I would gladly take Kant’s political stoicism if he was not so annoyingly “revolutionary” in his self-descriptions when it comes to his philosophical achievements. I think if you read enough of introductions to Kant and enough of his own auto-biographical statements (as many noticed, he tells too many stories about his own philosophical development that are too inconsistent to be completely true, if Kant was a blogger, he would probably be as annoying as Harman in constantly informing everyone of his intellectual journey and stuff), you’d think the man was a brave innovator and courageous in-your-face political activist in that he would attempt to implement some of his Enlightenment ideas in practice, not just constantly talk about it (in print and off the record with friends). As I noted above, take the idea that freedom and autonomy are what makes us human and that “rights of man” are the most important thing to guarantee in any political arrangement.

    Political stoicism a la “let’s hope for the best” is admirable, I think, but in Kant this hope for the best is supplemented with a clear “because the best will inevitably come” with all the talk of Providence and God. On the other hand, if humans are indeed autonomous and if “original contract” is indeed about restricting one’s freedom to an extend of allowing all to enjoy their freedom and such, “enlightened absolutism” is not the best option. It reminds me of Father Gapon’s proclamation to Nicholas II – I’m sure you’ve read it at some point, I’d say take a look at it again – knowing the subsequent history, I’d say, Gapon’s naivete was dangerous.

    If political stoicism means sitting at home and hoping for the best while the state perpetrates injustice and increases oppression, then I’m afraid I’m not really that excited about it. If there’s nothing we as citizens can do to change the present political situation (for better or worse), then how do we explain all the changes that did take place in the twentieth century in the US? Take civil rights movement – I seriously doubt US would “correct itself” as Kant would say based on the realization that it is better for it to include minorities. Even if political activism is useless, as stoic position might suggest, if we can ever know what is and is not making a difference (a subtle point I will give to Kant), affirming it as such would kill any political activism and therefore would eliminate all pressure that citizens can put on those in power. So instead of stoic position you get apathy and everyone-for-themselves state…

  5. M.E.: “it seems that for someone like Kant, who was defending autonomy as a most fundamental right of humans…”

    Kvond: it is interesting that you see autonomy as an essential core that Kant did not adequately pick up. What do you make of his repeated appeal to the “tribunal” metaphor? Does this not essentially produce a reference (and a relationship) to REAL tribunals? Something quite apart from core autonomy?

    • I don’t think I see autonomy “as an essential core that Kant didn’t adequately pick up” – I think he did quite well on autonomy, I’m just not sure why that discussion of autonomy as self-legislation or as only obey the law that of can see as given to oneself did not adequately translate into a more radical political advice. I think the tribunal metaphor primarily addresses the need to establish the right of reason to produce knowledge, an issue of quid juris – in that sense, it didn’t quite translate into an adequate political stance since in “The Doctrine of Right” Kant forbids the subjects to investigate the legitimacy of any already established authority (General Remark A, between paragraphs 49 and 50).

  6. M.E., let’s see if I can retrace our steps.

    You said: “I’m frustrated with the language of radical change and revolution…no actual political advice”

    I asked: “What is the radical political potential you see in Kant?”

    You said: “it seems that for someone like Kant, who was defending autonomy as a most fundamental right of humans…would be at least producing some close to Fichte’s early essay on freedom of speech and of French revolution…”

    I said: “it is interesting that you see autonomy as an essential core that Kant did not adequately pick up.” [thinking that I was restating your disappointment]

    You said: “I don’t think I see autonomy “as an essential core that Kant didn’t adequately pick up” – I think he did quite well on autonomy…”

    That’s the train of thought I was following.

    So when you say,

    “I’m just not sure why that discussion of autonomy as self-legislation or as only obey the law that of can see as given to oneself did not adequately translate into a more radical political advice.”

    How do you yourself imagine that Kant should have reasoned himself to Fichte?

    And when you state on the metaphor of a tribunal, I can’t quite follow you,

    “I think the tribunal metaphor primarily addresses the need to establish the right of reason to produce knowledge, an issue of quid juris – in that sense, it didn’t quite translate into an adequate political stance since in “The Doctrine of Right” Kant forbids the subjects to investigate the legitimacy of any already established authority (General Remark A, between paragraphs 49 and 50).”

    You are saying that existing tribunals (real political ones) are not to be challenge, but that Kant’s use of the metaphor of tribunals is a coincidence of his political stance? Are you saying that there is a disconnect, a chasm, between Kant’s thoughts about existing tribunals and the tribunals of reason?

  7. Mikhail,

    If indeed you are having a crisis of faith in terms of Kant, perhaps I can persuade you to visit the Church of Spinoza?

    Not only did he leave a commerical family, and take up a trade he taught himself, he also turned down a professorship, argued for radical freedom and democracy, pursuing much more forcefully the consequences of an “autonomy of reason” in both the intellectual and political realms.

    In fact, I see in him a studied and biographical rejection of the very means of Capitalist wealth, the slavery of others:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/08/27/spinoza-doubt-the-sephardim-and-the-slave-trade/

    If you convert, I promise you a place in eternity…

    • Thanks, Kevin – it’s nice to know that I can always fall back on Spinoza. I don’t think that my “crisis” is philosopher-specific though, it’s more of a recurring “does philosophy matter?” sort of mood, i.e. I’m sure Kant thought himself plenty revolutionary and so on, even when we defended a somewhat reactionary position of no resistance to the sovereign to a point of never even asking a question of legitimacy. I think part of my frustration is that Kant scholarship is basically a huge industry of producing more and more commentary and yet there’s very little critical engagement with Kant vis-a-vis spanking the master once in a while for this or that – you either get dismissive types like Bryant/Harman syndicate (“Kant lacked imagination and was an idiot”) or Allison/Guyer syndicate (“we know everything about Kant and can smooth out any problem”) – I’m looking for read some stuff that isn’t so pigeonholed and I see plenty in a recent French tradition of reading of Kant, so maybe I will get back to you on the Spinoza invite once I’m done with that…

  8. M.E.: ” I don’t think that my “crisis” is philosopher-specific though, it’s more of a recurring “does philosophy matter?”

    Kvond: I really like Negri’s echo of Hegel….

    “When one says “philosophy”, one means that critical activity which allows one to grasp one’s time and orient oneself within it, creating a common destiny and witnessing the world for that purpose.”

    Opening lines, “The Italian Difference”

    When seen in this way your disappointment with Kant’s poltical advice really seems to cut into the heart of what philosophy is. If we accept Negri’s view, not only must the nitty-gritty of essential assumptions be what concerns us, but also the “destiny” we are willfully shaping, creating, acknowledging, by virtue of philosophizing.

    If we are to disagree with Kant I do think it is fair to turn to the common destiny that he thought he was bringing. Clearly there is something to Kant that speaks to you in a powerful way. Is there a way to refashion the “witnessing the world” such that the very best of Kant is kept for you, or should we begin with different cloth?

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