philosophy US history

Richard Rorty as a Post-Straussian

By David Kretz

Richard Rorty and Leo Strauss are not often considered together and admirers of one tend to strongly dislike the other.[1] Rorty’s writing, as one Straussian once put it, is “full of those vices we Straussians (if you will permit me) love to hate—relativism, historicism, easygoing atheism, anti-philosophic rhetoric, vapid leftist political opinions, uncritical progressivism, and seemingly a general indifference to virtue.“ Rorty respected Strauss but poured scorn on ‘Straussianism,’ which he saw as an anti-democratic cult. Polemics aside, however, Rorty’s entire project can be profitably put in dialogue with Strauss’ thought and even cast as a response to Strauss’ questions. While differing sharply in their answers, it can be shown that the two thinkers often respond to the same concerns. The groundwork for this mostly implicit dialogue was laid when Rorty and Strauss overlapped at the University of Chicago—the first being a teenage student, the second serving as a professor—from 1949-1952. Strauss’ Walgreen Lectures, on which he based his opus magnum Natural Right and History (1953), fall into that time and Allan Bloom, Strauss’ most influential student, enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1946, like Rorty and just one year older.

As Rorty writes in his autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), his original motivation for going into philosophy had been his hope for an answer to the question of the good life. Specifically, he desired to know how to synthesize the passion for social justice he had inherited from his Trotskyite parents with such idle and apolitical pursuits as his equally strong passion for the wild orchids that grew in the mountains around the town where he had grown up. Strauss thought that, for Western man, there were just two answers to the question for the best life, associated with the names of Jerusalem and Athens respectively: revealed religion and philosophy. Like Strauss, Rorty initially thought these were the two options. He considered Jerusalem in his student days but quickly found that his character and talents predisposed him for Athens. For several years, he became a Platonist in search for the True Answer to the question of how to hold the different things that mattered to him in life in one overarching synoptic vision of the universe and man’s purpose in it. 

When Platonist philosophy didn’t provide the answers, he first turned to Hegel with the hope for a philosophical-historical narrative that would culminate in such a synthesis, and then to Proust, who taught him how to weave everything one encounters into a literary narrative “without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity” (Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, 11). He learned to appreciate the pragmatist Dewey again, the philosophical hero of his parents, whom he had earlier learned to scorn in youthful rebellion under the influence of his Chicago teachers. He became convinced that philosophy could only provide an Answer, a Synthesis by turning itself into a form of religion, a “non-argumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure” (12). Note the emphasis on faith and irrationality here. Strauss, too, sometimes talks as if revealed religion in its purest and sharpest contrast to philosophy takes the form of an existentialist Protestantism that started with Kierkegaard and culminated in the crisis theology of Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann, which he had encountered in Germany in the 1920s.[2] Indeed, neither Strauss nor Rorty have much patience for either Catholic syntheses of fides and ratio, nor are they really interested in less faith-centric and more ritual-oriented forms of religious life.

While they are close in their understanding of religion, Rorty and Strauss part ways in their understanding of philosophy. Athens, for Strauss, stands for a life of endless questioning in pursuit of natural truths. Philosophy is coeval with the discovery of nature as the idea that there is a necessity which limits divine power (hence, it stands in starkest contrast to revealed religion, which turns centrally on the idea of divine omnipotence). This natural order gives point and purpose to the philosophers’ questioning pursuit of it, and yet it poses so many riddles that we will never run out of questions to ask in any human lifetime. Without the existence of an unchanging nature, which includes human nature, philosophical questioning would be a directionless wandering rather than a directed pursuit, yet we never need to worry about the question of what we would do once we had arrived at a perfect comprehension of (human) nature. Rorty vehemently rejects this picture. Invoking nature and its eternal order and truth, for him, is just metaphysics, i.e. theology in disguise. As soon as we think that nature has a preferred description of itself, which is not merely useful but true simpliciter, we turn it into a divine person. Persons speak languages, they have preferred descriptions of themselves in their own preferred language, and they are the only entities to do so. Nature has no preferred description of itself, and does not speak any languages, not even those of mathematics or metaphysics. Both are human creations, like all other languages. While each may be useful at times, neither is true in an absolute sense. To claim that nature is truthfully described in only one idiom is to turn it into an absolute, non-human authority, i.e. a God-surrogate.

Yet for Rorty, too, there is a kind of endless intellectual pursuit, which is similar to the philosophic life according to Strauss at least in so far as it always threatens to turn on its foundations and question its basic presuppositions. Instead of a process of discovery, it is one of creation: the endless proliferation of basic vocabularies—clusters of concepts around which our explanations and justifications revolve. The paradigm for this life is the poet, understood in a broad sense, which for Rorty includes Hegel, Yeats, and even Galileo: all those who ‘make things new’ by finding useful new ways of describing the world. The paradigmatic genre is literature. Literature or, one could say, the Romantics (once they have been weaned off their metaphysics of the deep authentic Self) are a third to Jerusalem and Athens for Rorty. Strauss would, of course, deny that and call it an evasion of the true alternative out of existential despair, a kind of escapism into licentious modern vulgarity. Yet, both natural discovery or poetic creation are conceptions of intellectual life as endless relative to the human lifespan, and both also frame it as a life that constantly questions its own foundations. Neither Rorty nor Strauss, presumably, would appreciate focusing on the parallels here over the differences. Whether philosophy discovers truths or creates them was of great concern to both. It is, however, the second similarity I noted—that philosophy, rightly done, will often undo basic, deeply held convictions—which  leads both Rorty and Strauss to thinking a lot about the relation of philosophy to politics.

For Strauss, the philosophic life is essentially a life for the few. The philosophical initiates know that the laws of the polis are conventional laws but feel themselves beholden only to the one true, natural order. The pursuit of natural truths is a threat to all conventional orders. The masses can never become philosophers. To the contrary, telling the people in the cave that they are cave-dwellers will get the philosophers, who have seen the light outside, killed. They need to treat carefully if they are to avoid Socrates’ fate. Rorty, too, recommends that we each expand our basic vocabularies beyond the terms of the polis and as a society let go of cherished metaphysical convictions. He does not think, however, that public morals or political liberalism depend on metaphysical notions of Truth or the Good any more than they depend on, say, Christian faith. In the short run, the links between philosophy and politics are even more feeble. Philosophers generally just do not have the social influence to really steer things either way, and, since nobody of importance is listening, at least in the liberal democracies of the West, they do not have to fear persecution either. Political elites of either the left or the right will often appropriate philosophical language to their ends and use it as rhetorical ammunition. In fact, like Mark Lilla, this is what he thought had happened to Strauss at the hands of some members of the Bush administration. Yet for the most part, philosophers only influence other philosophers.

However, Rorty does think that some particular philosophers happen to pose a particular kind of threat to the left-liberal, social democratic politics he endorses. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida, he fears, might lead young readers to believe that proper philosophical radicalism is incompatible with social-democratic hopes. His 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity addresses this challenge, associated particularly with the name of Heidegger, whose status as a philosophical giant and petty Nazi was as much a stumbling block to Strauss as it was for an entire generation of German-Jewish philosophy students, who listened to him lecture in Marburg before the Nazis rose to power. Strauss sees in Heidegger a radical historicist and, hence, nihilist. With Heidegger, he thinks the antidote to the evils of modernity lies with the Greeks—though not with the archaic poets and pre-Socratic poet-thinkers, but with classical philosophy, which holds to a natural order against historicist relativism. Rorty, by contrast, argues that invoking the authority of Nature is just another form of invoking divine authority and welcomes Heidegger’s turn away from philosophy and towards poetry.

He does, however, try to persuade his readers that projects of metaphysical search for truth or poetic self-creation, however one conceives of intellectual life, are personal, private projects. The vocabularies of towering philosophical precursors might mean everything to some but they do not have to mean much to most. The vocabulary of social democracy, by contrast, is pretty useless for intellectuals trying to discover metaphysical truths or craft poetic personas, yet it is eminently useful from a public point of view. Young intellectuals who are fascinated by Heidegger (or Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) need not buy into Heidegger’s politics with his philosophy. They can engage with the philosophy in their personal life but adopt a completely different, progressive political vocabulary when they engage in politics. Only the thought that private and public pursuits have to be articulated in a single vocabulary, that social justice and private perfection have to be held in a single synoptic vision, would lead us to think that we have to choose between privately useful authors like “Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov,” on the one hand, and publicly useful ones like “Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas” on the other (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xiv).

Curiously, this means that Strauss can arguably be thought of as someone who anticipated in his practice what Rorty would later counsel in his writing. Strauss shared the anti-modernism of his master Heidegger, yet he did not seek to ally his philosophy to any party to guide the revolutionary overthrow of a decadent democracy. Instead of (conservative) revolution, he chose the quiet life of study, and founded a school. This school occasionally tries to educate political leaders in what they think is virtue, so that these can minimize the worst excesses of modern vice. For the most part, it will tolerate any political regime as long as it allows those who are so gifted and inclined to quietly pursue a philosophic life. Where exactly the emphasis should lie between educating political leaders and philosophical study in the recluse of the school is a matter of fierce debate between Straussians, of course.

Some critics of Rorty on the left have no doubt sensed this possibility when they argued that his distinction between the public and the private is just a different version of the Straussian distinction between esoteric philosophical truth for the few and exoteric political dogma for the many. Rorty lists Sheldon Wolin and Terry Eagleton among these critics in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” and Melvin Rogers has raised similar concerns in the past. Yet, this charge does not stick for two reasons. (The Straussians, by the way, know very well that he is not one of them.) First, Rorty, unlike Strauss, does not think that some people are philosophers by nature and others are not. He does not see a qualitative difference at all between intellectuals on the one hand, for whom self-creation involves coming to terms with philosophical and literary precursors and who write books that narrate their coming to terms, and non-intellectuals on the other, whose life story involves coming to terms with family members and friends and who do not write books about it. Freud, he thinks, has taught us to see every unconscious as equally fascinating and endlessly creative and thus has democratized poetic genius.

Secondly, while Strauss believes that the philosophic life is higher than the merely political life, Rorty insists on the priority of democracy over philosophy. While he thinks it silly to exorcize thinkers and writers who have nothing useful to contribute to the furthering of progressive political goals, as they can still be useful for projects of private self-creation, Rorty encourages everyone, and especially every intellectual, to not just dedicate their time to projects of private self-creation but to also work towards the realization of social-democratic hopes for ever increasing social solidarity and justice. The greatest happiness of the greatest number was infinitely more important to him than that a few gifted people could live the life of Socrates, even when his own inclinations and talents lay that way. The fact that he believed his political convictions to be the contingent outcome of a long chain of historical accidents, with no metaphysical arguments to back them up in a non-circular way that would convince even a Nazi, did not mean that he did not stand for his convictions unflinchingly.

[1] I’d like to thank Hannes Kerber, Antoine Pageau St.-Hilaire, and Anne Schult for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this, though they should be in no way held accountable for anything I here propose.

[2] Cf. Leo Strauss, “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation” in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Cambridge UP 2006.

Title image: Leo Strauss (left) and Richard Rorty (right). Source: Wikipedia (Strauss), Youtube channel ‘Philosophy Overdose’ (Rorty).

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis.

philosophy political theory

On Liberal Disharmony: Judith N. Shklar and the “Ideology of Agreement”

By Hannes Bajohr

How political are the humanities, and how political should they be? The two main answers to these questions remain those put forward by Max Weber and Karl Marx. Weber’s ideal of a “value-free” sociology calls for “opinions on issues of practical politics, and the academic analysis of political institutions and party policies” (20) to be treated strictly separately. Marx, on the other hand, demands, as a higher form of objectivity, the political identification with that “world-historical” class from whose point of view alone bourgeois ideology can be recognized as what it is, the “illusion of the epoch.” (57) If, for Weber, Marx would be a poor scholar, Marx would call Weber’s notion of value freedom ideologically distorted.

These two main lines of argument have remained largely unaltered. While the “normal science” of most of today’s humanities claims value-freedom at least pragmatically and implicitly, no matter how constructivist it may appear, contemporary social criticism from Agamben to Žižek sees all assertions to neutrality already as ideology in action. Only those who adhere to the hegemonic ideology can claim to be non-ideological. In most cases, this ideological non-ideology is rather vaguely diagnosed as some form of “liberalism.”

Accusations of this kind are to be expected in a post-Marxist context. It is more surprising when they come from liberals. Few have addressed liberalism’s blindness to its own status as ideology more incandescently than the political philosopher Judith N. Shklar (1928–1992). Instead of categorical declarations of neutrality or the standard technique of “ideological unmasking” (48, 78–86), which exposes ideology and disposes of it at the same time, Shklar’s concern is the fundamental recognition of one’s own ideological ties in the humanities and social sciences. Only such reflexivity, she believes, can show how the ineluctable intellectual pluralism, the multitude of simultaneously existing convictions in modern secular societies, can be borne in practice. Shklar’s liberal perspective retains a keen sense of the dangers of non-reflective ideologies that seek to deny or overcome this pluralism, preaching harmony rather than acknowledging differences, and, while appearing to be engaged in conflict resolution, actually prepare the ground for repression and exclusion.

Liberalism as Ideology

At the beginning of her career, Shklar approached ideologies as a harbinger of their demise. In her first work, After Utopia (1957), she analyzed what remained of the “age of ideologies,” the nineteenth century, in the age of their implementation, the twentieth. Very little, in her estimation: Ideologies no longer offer any explanations nor inspire “the urge to construct grand designs for the political future of mankind.” This also means that “the last vestiges of Utopian faith required for such an enterprise have vanished.” (vii) That she later disavowed this judgement reflects a refinement of her approach to ideology.

If one takes “ideology” to mean something more basic than the grand intellectual systems of political theory as Hobbes, Rousseau or Marx had established them, then ideology is never overcome; rather, it possesses a necessary epistemic and pragmatic function. Towards the end of her life, in the fall of 1989, when Shklar co-taught an introduction to political ideologies at Harvard with the political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, this was her basic lesson. In her first lecture, she defined ideology as “an action-directed system of beliefs about society designed to explain it, alter it, or at least to combat other points of view. … What it does is to define issues, identify enemies and draw up plans for action. Its function is to offer maps for understanding and acting in politics.”[1]

The emphasis on ideology’s epistemic function brings Shklar close to contemporary ideology theorists like Michael Freeden, who sees ideologies primarily as matrices through which to interpret one’s own social and political world. But Shklar also emphasizes that ideology possesses the positive outlook for the future she denied it in the debate on the “End of Ideology” (Daniel Bell) in the 1950s: It can indeed point toward “ways to change and to a better future” (“The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989], HUGFP 118, Box 5). This is precisely what Shklar would try to do in the 1980s and 1990s with her conception of a liberalism of fear.

Between the two texts, the resigned After Utopia and the more activist ideology lecture, came what may be Shklar’s most important book: Legalism (1964). Only here does Shklar pursue her self-identification as a liberal more actively, acknowledge the epistemic necessity of ideology, and finally lament her peers’ insensitivity to their own political and moral assumptions. Her book tackles this forgetfulness of ideology in discussing the dispute between the legal positivism of H. L. A. Hart and the natural law doctrine of Lon L. Fuller. Where Hart treated law as a “neutral social entity” rather than the result of political struggles and moral stances, Fuller argued that an inherent morality could be derived from analyzingpositive law. Both, according to Legalism, are forms of “a refined political ideology, the expression of a preference.” (34)

Shklar’s reproach of the liberal Hart brings her surprisingly close to Marx’s critique of ideology, in that she presents his liberalism as an ideological wolf in the sheep’s clothing of value-freedom. The difference, of course, is that her criticism is not only aimed at but delivered from a liberal standpoint, as she believes that her political cause as well as her discipline are better served by stating “the ideological contribution that the author is about to make to the debate.”  Legalism therefore begins with the declaration of a political creed. It advocates, writes Shklar, “a defense of social diversity, inspired by that barebones liberalism which, having abandoned the theory of progress and every specific scheme of economics, is committed only to the belief that tolerance is a primary virtue and that a diversity of opinions and habits is not only to be endured but to be cherished and encouraged. The assumption throughout is that social diversity is the prevailing condition of modern nation-states and that it ought to be promoted.” (5)

One may wonder at such a passage, so rare are ideological self-positionings still today in academic political theory – especially, those that openly call themselves so. For Shklar, however, there is no reason “to feel that the expression of personal preferences is an undesirable flaw.” To think so means to believe that ignoring personal and shared experiences amounts to being objective. To Shklar, ideology is “merely a matter of emotional reactions, both negative and positive, to direct social experiences and to the views of others.” Understood this way, “ideology is as inevitable as it is necessary in giving any thinking person a sense of direction.” (4)

Such a reflexive concept of ideology has consequences for the self-understanding of political theory and the history of ideas: if, as a scholar, one is always part of a society saturated with ideologies, one must on the one hand recognize them, but also be able to make them the object of analysis, since these “maps for understanding” are not given to us blindly. The analysis of one’s own structures of orientation abuts the goal of political theory, which is “to articulate and examine the half-expressed political views that the various groups in any given society at any time come to hold.” (4–5) Analyzing others’ ideology with an eye on one’s own is therefore Shklar’s main methodological rule – which brings her closer again to Weber, who ultimately expected nothing less from science than to help the individual “render an account of the ultimate meaning of his own actions.” (26)

In addition to descriptive analysis, Shklar’s reflexive approach also aims at the normative evaluation of ideology. For if one is always already involved in ideology, it can no longer be a matter of uncovering the truth “behind” it, but rather of analyzing its function in a social system and its political consequences. And that raises the question: Which ideology leads to acceptable, which to unacceptable results? By making such assessments, however, political theory itself produces maps for understanding and makes epistemic orders. For Shklar, the analysis of ideology is therefore always tied to the production of ideology.

Ideologies of Agreement

The fact that one cannot escape from the circle of ideology does not mean, however, that all ideologies are equal. Shklar, although a skeptic, is by no means a relativist. There are, she writes in 1966, “vast qualitative difference between the sloganlike utterances that act as cohesives for mass parties and the reflections of the great political theorists of the past and the work of the best contemporary social scientists.” That is why political theory should be concerned with establishing “standards for qualitative discrimination.” (18)

Shklar’s own production of ideology did not result in establishing such standards until the 1980s, in the “liberalism of fear” inseparably linked to her name. It does not assume a highest good but a highest evil: “That evil is cruelty and the fear it inspires, and the very fear of fear itself.” (11) Already in Legalism, Shklar reflected on one of the central means to avoid this summum malum. Just as apparent neutrality in the humanities produces reductive analyses, the disavowal of conflict can have repressive consequences. For this reason, Shklar, with all her polemical acuity, targeted those ideologies that seek to deny or eliminate pluralism. In Legalism, she called them “ideologies of agreement” (88–110).

In practice, such ideologies exclude and repress; as theories, they are simply incapable of facing the contradictions of knowledge production in the humanities. All attempts to either reduce them to the natural sciences or encompass them within a grand theory have failed. For Shklar this ultimately means “facing up to intellectual pluralism,” accepting its necessity and considering its irreducible diversity as a good. This radical intellectual heterogeneity corresponds, in Shklar’s interpretation, to the social differentiation of secular societies. Political plurality is a fact worth protecting, but that entails accepting “conflict among ‘us’ as both ineluctable and tolerable, and entirely necessary for any degree of freedom.” (227) The task of Shklar’s liberalism is therefore to give social conflict a form that allows it to exist without fear and cruelty – but not to eliminate this conflict at any price.

In Legalism, she analyzes how natural law theorists try to render eternal norms plausible by simply denying the plurality that contradicts them, frequently with reference to a source of “agreement,” such as “nature” or an unspoken common “consensus.” Yet nature, Shklar objects, often only affirms the given and pathologizes what differs from it, while consensus ignores those not explicitly included in it. For her, the main problem is the question of who constitutes the standard of consensus: Is it the “man on the Clapham bus” (89–92) or even a version of the gesundes Volksempfinden? Not to mention the methodological problem that divining any community’s reigning standards is a particularly dubious form of science. “In any case,” Shklar asks, “what on earth is so impressive about agreement and unity?” As a sole political goal, she considers it extremely dangerous, because in the end “in any society where moral diversity exists, agreement-as-an-end-in-itself can only be achieved by totalitarian methods.” (100)

For this reason, Shklar rejects not only overtly illiberal politics but also an overly harmonistic liberalism. This brings her close to contemporary agonistic philosophers, such as Chantal Mouffe or Jacques Rancière, although she is just as vehemently opposed to the fetishization of “community” as she is to Carl Schmitt’s definition of enmity as the essence of the political or to Hannah Arendt’s heroic understanding of politics. Shklar is interested neither in consensus nor in the agon as an end in itself, but sees conflict simply as a condition for freedom – because it means the absence of a homogenizing instance, which often tacitly presupposes the acceptance of a consensus.

At this point, Shklar’s own liberalism turns into an activist position that also affects contemporary political issues. When, for example, Shklar writes that liberalism and democracy often, but not necessarily, go together (19) – that, in other words, liberal democracy is not a tautology – one is reminded of contemporary “illiberal democracies.” After all, democracy, as Carl Schmitt argued, can very much be an ideology of unity if it considers its demos as strictly homogeneous, even identical to an ethnos. Shklar thus did not forget to include democracy in her lectures as that ideology that conceives of “the unity of a people as its essence.”[2]

Accordingly, Shklar does not think much of the invocation of national identity as a guarantee of unity. “Why do we need an ‘identity’ as a people?” she asks in Legalism (101). The desire for such monolithic and anti-pluralistic attributions appears in ideas of the European Right such as Leitkultur or its theoretical justification, ethno-différencialisme. For Shklar, national identity is an “ideology of agreement” that is touted as a remedy for problems that it, even if it existed, could not solve.Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle, as François Jullien has put it. For Shklar, the call for a culture that is binding for all – and not just for the institutional containment of conflicts that makes possible quite different cultural and group-specific expressions – would be tantamount to admitting that one “cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity, and the risks of freedom.” (5) But it is precisely pluralism itself – “polyarchy” as the spreading of power onto different groups – which in Shklar’s liberalism of fear is an important shield against oppression. (10, 13) For Shklar, pluralism means both, positively, the precondition of any freedom, and, negatively, the distribution of power among as many centers as possible to prevent abuse of power.

The ideological uniqueness of liberalism as Shklar presents it, then, is its ability to tolerate a multitude of competing ideologies, and at the same time to be the only ideology that escapes the myth of unity. In a sense, it thus confirms the hegemonic accusation of the critics of liberalism, because it only wants to concede this plurality under the condition of liberalism, which is always careful not to let conflict become a source of cruelty and fear. Shklar would very likely agree with the Left’s reproach that behind the neutrality of liberalism hides“a fighting creed.” (62)But only because she wants to give up the illusion of value-freedom, not the awareness, and defense, of one’s own creed.

For Shklar, the humanities simply are political; ideologies “insensibly come to condition one’s interests, one’s methods of study, one’s con­ceptual devices, and even one’s vocabulary.” Instead of ignoring this fact, she calls for intellectual honesty. For if we bid farewell to considering ideology “a gross form of irrationality, we would be less anxious to repress it and our self-awareness would be correspondingly greater.”

[1] Judith N. Shklar, “The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989]. Papers of Judith N. Shklar, Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 118, Box 5. I am grateful to Michael Shklar for the kind permission to quote from Shklar’s papers.

[2] Judith N. Shklar, “The Challenge of Democracy”, winter term 1989, Shklar Papers, Box 5.

Hannes Bajohr is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Arts, Media, and Philosophy at the University of Basel. He is also the translator of Judith N. Shklar’s works into German, most recently her writings on Hannah Arendt.

This text appeared first in German as “Harmonie und Widerspruch: Judith Shklar gegen die ‘Ideologie der Einigkeit’,” in Distanzierung und Engagement: Wie politisch sind die Geisteswissenschaften?, edited by Hendrikje Schauer and Marcel Lepper (Stuttgart: Works & Nights, 2018), 75-85. It was translated by the author.

Image: Photograph of Judith Shklar, March 1972. Courtesy of Reuters.

Critical theory German history Intellectual history Interview philosophy religious history Theory

Gnosticism in Postwar German Philosophy: An Interview with Willem Styfhals

Willem Styfhals is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium, and the author of the new book No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy (Cornell, 2019; see Amazon and JSTOR). Bridging philosophy of religion and intellectual history, this work tells the unexpected story of how certain ancient heretical religious ideas became the subject of heated debates that animated postwar German thought. Earlier versions of two chapters were published in the Journal of the History of Ideas as “Evil in History: Karl Löwith and Jacob Taubes on Modern Eschatology” (2015) and “Modernity as Theodicy: Odo Marquard Reads Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age” (2019). Styfhals is also co-editor, with Stéphane Symons, of Genealogies of the Secular: The Making of Modern German Thought (SUNY, 2019). Contributing Editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed him about his new book.

Jonathon Catlin: The title of your book comes from the writings of the eccentric Austrian-Jewish philosopher of religion Jacob Taubes, who trained as a rabbi. He once characterized his own apocalyptic and nihilistic attitude, in a reflection on the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt: “Let it all go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.” You argue that this phrase indicates both Taubes’s modern atheistic materialism and his religious attachment to another world to come. How do these seemingly exclusive commitments come together in his thought?

Willem Styfhals: Taubes included this quote in English in a text he wrote in German. I like to think of it as a kind of catchphrase he introduced for his own thought. It also captures what interested me in German debates on Gnosticism: a surprising interaction between religious heresy and secular modernity. If you read the quote from a religious perspective, you end up with a Gnostic worldview that completely rejects any immanent meaning of this world in favor of a world to come. This Gnostic world is an evil one from which God has withdrawn, hence there is no reason whatsoever to spiritually invest in it. If you read the same quote from a modern, atheistic point of view, you end up with nihilism. This world is devoid of meaning, devoid of the divine and does not deserve our spiritual investment. Now, Taubes’s point is—and this is precisely what fascinated me—that there is ultimately no real difference between the religious attitude of the Gnostic and the attitude of the modern nihilist. Modernity and modern nihilism, for Taubes, are nothing but the continuation of certain marginalized and heretical religious ideas. This not only implies that modernity secularizes certain theological contents, as thinkers like Schmitt had already claimed, but also that some age-old religious ideas, in particular heretical ones, are more nihilistic and more “modern” than we would initially expect.

Willem Styfhals, No Spiritual Investment in the World
Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy
. Cornell University Press, 2019.

JC: Your book traces the important role of Gnostic ideas in twentieth-century German thinkers including Taubes, Eric Voegelin, Hans Blumenberg, Hans Jonas, Odo Marquard, and Gershom Scholem. In this milieu you assign Taubes a “mediating role” for his efforts to try “to bring their different positions together into a unified debate,” though he often failed in this task. In what ways were these thinkers in conversation—reading, correspondence, conferences?

WS: My book is a history of a debate that never took place—an admittedly problematic but philosophically interesting Auseinandersetzung [confrontation and engagement]. The topic of Gnosticism was omnipresent in German thinking about political theology and secularization, but it was never “debated” in the strict sense of the word. Probably the topic was too vague, haphazard, and idiosyncratic to be discussed in clear theoretical terms. Gnosticism was more of a topos that many thinkers incidentally turned to than a genuine historical or philosophical concept. There was only one figure who wanted to turn the issue into a real academic discussion, namely Jacob Taubes himself. The others never really framed their references to Gnosticism as a systematic intervention in a debate about the Gnostic nature of modernity. That being said, most thinkers I discuss did know each other personally; they read each other’s work and corresponded. Taubes knew all the others rather well, although he quickly made Blumenberg and Scholem into his enemies. Blumenberg also corresponded with Jonas, Scholem and Marquard. The correspondence between Blumenberg and Taubes was published a few years ago and was an extremely important source for the book. The publications of the correspondences between Taubes and Scholem, and between Jonas and Blumenberg, are still in the pipeline. Nonetheless, these thinkers did not extensively discuss the topic of Gnosticism in these letters in the way I tried to oppose or compare their positions in my book. The book brings together certain thinkers and positions in a way that Taubes would have liked to in real life but ultimately failed to realize.

JC: Bridging the religious-secular divide between these thinkers, you write, “the Gnostic-apocalyptic lack of spiritual investment in the world survives in the attitude of the modern nihilist.” This was the view of Hans Jonas, the leading scholar of Gnosticism, whose intellectual trajectory exemplifies the historical pattern established in your book: Pre-war and interwar fascination with Gnostic ideas as solutions to the crisis of modernity—as seen in Jonas’s 1934 dissertation—transformed, after the war, into seeing Gnosticism as illegitimate, “a dangerous herald of modern nihilism.” (Taubes is the exception to this pattern.) First of all, is this critique fair? Was Gnosticism discredited by its secularized legacy? Secondly, this also brings in Blumenberg’s twin critique of the secularization thesis found in Jonas and Löwith, and of Gnosticism itself, and his alternative and “legitimating” genealogy of modernity and progress through a different course than secularized Christian eschatology: “The modern intervention in nature was merely an attempt to make life possible and bearable in a world that is indifferent to human aspirations.” Blumenberg, I would say, emerges as the victor of your story. By legitimating secular modernity, he overcame both Gnosticism and the Gnosticism debates. How did Taubes bring these two debates together, holding onto Gnostic “ontological pessimism” in light of Blumenberg’s critique of the secularization thesis?

WS: Jonas’s critique of Gnosticism and its legacy in modernity—as well as Voegelin’s and Marquard’s—is probably fair, but it is also quite bland and overly conservative. Their positions certainly did not convince me philosophically. Gnosticism seems to represent, for these thinkers, everything that is wrong with modernity. Gnosticism thus becomes a pejorative category with little to no conceptual content. This probably explains why I presented Blumenberg as the victor of the debate—if unwittingly so, I must admit. I tried to present a relatively neutral history, a rational reconstruction of an intellectual debate, but it inevitably becomes clear whose side I am on. Compared to Jonas, Voegelin, Marquard and Taubes, Blumenberg’s position is philosophically much subtler and historically much more nuanced. Blumenberg presents a thorough criticism of all these thinkers who recognized a return of Gnosticism in modern times and famously claimed that modernity itself is “the overcoming of Gnosticism.” I believe no serious defense of modernity’s Gnostic origins is still possible after Blumenberg’s critique. The German debate about modernity and Gnosticism is philosophically and historically fascinating, but I would find it ridiculous to try to connect modern or contemporary phenomena today to specific Gnostics tenets. This is why I was no longer interested in studying Gnosticism after I finished this book, while I do still work on Hans Blumenberg’s thought quite a bit.

Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätaniker Geist, vol. I. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964.

JC: You describe the Holocaust as a turning point for thinking about Gnosticism. Indeed, Taubes, Scholem, Jonas, and Blumenberg were all German Jews whose lives and thought were marked by the historical experience of persecution or exile. For Taubes, you write, “the Holocaust itself could appear as the apocalyptic catastrophe par excellence, and even as the ultimate motivation for his Gnostic refusal to invest spiritually in the world as it is.” For Jonas, on the other hand, “after Auschwitz, Gnosticism could hardly be an object of fascination,” for, as you cite Anson Rabinbach’s apt phrase, the Holocaust was “the nonredemptive apocalypse.” One could also say that the Holocaust delegitimized the modern world, and Blumenberg even wrote that “Hitler had no world.” Hannah Arendt, for example, tried to counter the modern problem of “worldlessness” and “world alienation” with her notions of “worldliness” and “love of the world.” What factors made the Holocaust and the problem of theodicy an explicit (Voegelin and Jonas) or implicit (Taubes and Scholem) rupture in their thinking about Gnosticism?

WS: I certainly would not go as far as claiming that these thinkers were discussing the Holocaust in disguise. But the war and the Holocaust certainly changed the terms of the discussion. The catastrophic and pessimistic worldview of Gnosticism basically lost its attraction after the war. The radical evil of the Holocaust showed what an evil or nihilistic Gnostic world from which God had withdrawn could look like. While Jewish thinkers like Scholem and Jonas could still be fascinated by Gnosticism before the war, this was no longer possible after it. Many interwar Jewish thinkers were attracted to radical religious ideas such as messianism, apocalypticism, or indeed Gnosticism. Their interest in these movements usually involved the redemptive potential of catastrophe. The meaningless, evil world of Gnosticism and the apocalyptic dimension of messianism contained potential for salvation within a negative moment. Recognizing the depravity of the world and the catastrophe that it announces already opens a redemptive world to come. This is what Rabinbach argues with regard to Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, characterizing their early thinking with the notion of a “redemptive apocalypse.” However, the war, and the Holocaust in particular, showed that there is nothing redemptive about catastrophe, the apocalypse, and the world’s depravity. The Holocaust is an apocalypse that does not redeem, as Rabinbach notes. Consequently, the initial attraction of Gnosticism and its apocalyptic tenets fades after the war. Moreover, the catastrophic and pessimistic worldview of Gnosticism is now radically dismissed by thinkers like Jonas, Voegelin, Marquard and Blumenberg. Voegelin even held Gnosticism responsible for the rise of totalitarian politics. Taubes is a strange exception to this. He still sticks to a Gnostic worldview, as if the Holocaust simply testified once again to the Gnostic contention that the world is radically evil and does not deserve our spiritual investment.

JC: You conclude that “the concept of Gnosticism was increasingly metaphorized” (to use Blumenberg’s phrase) in postwar German debates, becoming “a pseudoconcept, or indeed a philosophical metaphor for a range of contemporary political and philosophical issues.” In particular, you argue that Gnosticism became “not a metaphor for the evils of the war, but for the philosophical problems that it left in its wake.” On the other hand, you invoke Peter Gordon’s anti-contextualist approach to intellectual history, claiming that these debates were also about ideas in their own right. What role did Gnosticism play as an indirect, metaphorical means through which to undertake Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, working through the Nazi past?

WS: As I said, the thinkers I discuss in the book were not discussing the Holocaust in disguise. The main body of the book treats the Gnosticism debates as theoretical discussions in their own right, without reference to the Holocaust or the political context of postwar Germany. In that sense, my approach is anti-contextualist. I try to come to terms with the philosophical and intellectual stakes of these debates and read them as contributing to theoretical discussions on political theology and secularization theory. My book contends that there are very legitimate philosophical issues implied even in the idiosyncratic and outdated concepts used by Taubes, Blumenberg, Scholem, etc. Each chapter of the book discusses one such issue. However, in the conclusion, I do propose reading some of these issues against the background of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. I certainly do not want to suggest here that the debates about Gnosticism should be reduced to the historical context of postwar Germany or that they can only be understood as responses to the Holocaust. Nonetheless, some of the philosophical issues at stake in the Gnosticism debates have important parallels with other intellectual debates going around the same time that do refer explicitly to the Holocaust. To give just two examples: the discussion of God’s withdrawal from the world in post-Holocaust theology and Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the problem of evil. In this regard, I propose in the conclusion that Gnosticism functioned as a metaphor for precisely those philosophical issues (divine absence, the problem of evil, etc.) that other thinkers were tackling directly in relation to the war.

JC: I want to focus in on a central term in your book, apocalypse,which is often used to mean a world-ending cataclysm (like katechon) but simply comes from the Greek for “revelation.” Both Taubes and Schmitt were apocalyptic thinkers, but Taubes was in favor of a kind of apocalypse while Schmitt wanted to hold apocalypse at bay. Today, such political-theological rhetoric is less systematically applied to the “slow disaster” of climate change. You quote Jonas’s The Imperative of Responsibility saying already in 1979, “we live in an apocalyptic situation, that is, under the threat of a universal catastrophe if we let things take their present course.” Jonas’s critique of technology, nihilism, and moral blindness extended not only to the catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but also the domination of nature and ecological devastation that fueled modern Western progress more generally. Depending on who you ask today, climate change is alternately a condition (we can learn to live with), a crisis (we can solve), a catastrophe (that will destroy our current society), an apocalypse (that will destroy all possible human worlds). To give one example, David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (2019) has been criticized for being overly apocalyptic and fatalistic. On the other hand, some on the Left such as Naomi Klein and Dipesh Chakrabarty see climate change as an opportunity to transform capitalism in a Benjaminian “moment of danger.” Certain apocalyptic responses to climate change have been dismissed as “bourgeois eschatology” or empty virtue signaling in end times. In what sense is climate change a genuinely apocalyptic issue?

WS: It’s interesting to see how you connect the issues I discuss in my book to climate change and environmental catastrophe. Bruno Latour actually does the same thing in his recent book Facing Gaia (2017), where he develops a political theology of the environmental apocalypse. Curiously, he extensively discusses Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism in this context (see Chapter 6 of his book). Latour’s analysis is fascinating (and a bit weird), but I tend to agree with him. Just like Latour, I think climate change should be approached as an apocalyptic issue. Apocalypticism does not lead to fatalism, as he points out. The history of Gnosticism and apocalypticism teaches us that the end of time typically does not paralyze. As I argue in Chapter 4 of my book, the end of time usually incites agency in this world—albeit violent, destructive, and antinomian action in the case of Gnosticism. Apocalyptic images and stories typically trigger us to do something here and now. Therefore, the true apocalyptic does not believe that the world is doomed but rather makes tangible the future consequences of our present predicament. While I’m very interested in these issues, I’m not entirely convinced that Gnosticism is the right way to approach them. I’m fascinated by Latour’s chapter on Gnosticism, and I clearly see the influence of Gnosticism on Hans Jonas’s environmental philosophy, but I’m reluctant to revive the concept of Gnosticism once again, this time to make sense of the Anthropocene. Other political-theological concepts, like the concept of the apocalypse that you mention, seem more applicable.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity, 2017.

JC: In the acknowledgements to your book, you reflect that writing a dissertation on Gnosticism at Belgium’s KU Leuven—an institution famous for the study of the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger—makes you something of a “modern heretic.” But you reflect that you “liked this status” and that it’s “probably what attracted [you], like Jacob Taubes, to the topic of Gnosticism in the first place.” What makes you feel like a modern-day heretic? Has Gnosticism found a place in philosophical scholarship, or is it still a marginal topic?

WS: The reason I felt like a kind of heretic is that I read philosophers few people at the Institute of Philosophy in Leuven had ever heard of. Much more than intellectual historians, historians of philosophy keep on returning to the “big thinkers” and the “big questions.” In Leuven, these big names are Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger. Some of my colleagues vaguely know Blumenberg and Jonas’s work, but no one had ever read anything by Taubes, Voegelin, Marquard, or even Scholem. In a way, I enjoyed this status as an outsider. Now, with regard to the topic of Gnosticism itself, it is definitely a marginal one, and it should remain that way. Strangely enough, my book is meant to close the debate on Gnosticism and modernity rather than reopen it. Too much has been written about the “Gnostic” features of modernity. Many scholars of Gnosticism, myself included, are annoyed by the ever-returning idea that Gnosticism allegedly survived in modern times. For historians of religion today, it is not even clear what Gnosticism is, let alone what it would mean for it to return in modernity. In this sense, I would certainly never consider myself to be a modern heretic or Gnostic. On the contrary, my history of the German Gnosticism debates is meant to show that it’s absurd to maintain a historical connection between Gnosticism and modern times. Hence I try to suggest that something else must have been at stake for these thinkers besides the dubious idea of the Gnostic legacy of our times, even if they didn’t always realize this themselves. My book tries to uncover precisely what is at stake there by pointing to the philosophical implications of these debates.

JC: What’s your next project?

WS: The project I’m currently developing focuses on a category that you referred to earlier, namely the apocalypse. I want to develop a philosophical reflection on the notion of end of time, or what I would call a philosophical eschatology. What interests me are not so much apocalyptic visions of the end of time themselves but rather the reasons why the apocalypse is so existentially attractive and intellectually compelling to some people. This is a question that is obviously also relevant today in the context of the Anthropocene and climate change. Once more, we seem to expect that our world will soon come to an end. So, although I won’t continue using the category of Gnosticism, I will always remain fascinated by certain radical religious ideas. In a way, my new project tries to come to terms with my own fascination with heretical and apocalyptic ideas. I am not religious and I certainly don’t believe that the end of time is near, but I must admit that I understand the appeal of this idea. In this sense, the notion of the apocalypse fits my own personal and perhaps idiosyncratic fascination with religious extremes.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Intellectual history Interview philosophy political theory Theory

“We’ll Need More Than Rawlsianism Can Offer”: Katrina Forrester on John Rawls and Anglo-American Political Philosophy after 1945

Katrina Forrester is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of twentieth-century social and political thought and its implications for political theory. Forrester’s first book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2019) is a history of how political philosophy was transformed by postwar liberalism, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and the rise of liberal egalitarianism. She is currently working on a new book project on Feminism and the Transformation of Work, and a related set of essays on feminism and the state. 

Katrina Forrester, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Anne Schult/Jonas Knatz:  In the very first sentence of your book, you state that “political philosophy in the English-speaking world today is largely concerned with a set of liberal ideas about justice, equality, and the obligations of individual citizens in capitalist welfare states” (ix). In essence, you attribute this state of debate to the continuing influence of John Rawls’ ideas about justice as fairness—despite the fact that at the very moment Rawls published his major work, A Theory of Justice, the capitalist welfare state he seemed to advocate for entered a deep crisis. How do you explain this seeming paradox and the enduring attractiveness of Rawls’ philosophical framework to evaluate contemporary politics?

Katrina Forrester: Let me start with the paradox. There are two stories that often get told about liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century. There’s a philosophical success story: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice transformed how political philosophy was done and a species of political philosophy called liberal egalitarianism came to dominance. That’s one story my book tries to tell, about the origins of A Theory of Justice, its triumphant reception, consolidation, and canonization into what became known simply as “Rawls’s theory”. I set this against another broader story about liberalism: that the 1970s was a time of crisis when social liberalism gave way to neoliberalism. But instead of seeing the rise of a liberal egalitarian political philosophy amid the decline of the welfare state as an ironic or even tragic story, I give a different account – I call it a ghost story. What I try to show is that Rawls’s theory endures and takes hold precisely because it provides a vision of a just society that goes beyond the postwar welfare settlement at the very moment that settlement is coming apart. It provides the grounds for a new liberal consensus, a new philosophical order, at a time of political disorder when the postwar liberal consensus is being challenged (first by the left, and gradually and more successfully by the right).

So that means that the attractiveness of Rawls’s theory is, in part, explained by the seeming paradox. It is also, in part, explained by two more prosaic points: First, Rawls’s own institutional and sociological influence as a teacher and academic at Harvard, and the influence of his students and colleagues; Second, the nature of his theory and its conceptual power (it’s important not to understate that power or A Theory of Justice’s philosophical beauty). Rawls’s theory also had a variety of other characteristics that contributed to its enduring appeal: its ideological force, that enabled its near-hegemonic dominance, and its peculiar flexibility and capaciousness. The flexibility is vital. I also argue in the book that the periodization of postwar thought into welfare-statist and neoliberal is too simple. Rawls was never a straightforward defender of capitalist welfare states (as all Rawlsians and liberal egalitarians know well), but it turns out that as a young man he was far more sympathetic to anti-statist forms of liberalism that we have realized. Yet the theory he built allowed for a variety of political settlements, up to and including a liberal socialism. So it was that flexibility that meant that aspects of the theory could be taken up across the political spectrum. It enabled its continued relevance.

In the Shadow of Justice (2019), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: In 2014, Raymond Geuss described the 1950s and 1960s as a particularly lively and interesting period in political philosophy that saw the publication of books by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, a revival of Antonio Gramsci, and the broad circulation and discussion of very influential texts by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre or Guy Debord on the left and Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott or Karl Popper on the right. Against this background, according to Geuss, the publication of Rawls’ main work thus “seemed like an irrelevance.” Yet, as you point out in your book, a predominant narrative in the historiography of political thought portrays the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice as a rebirth of political philosophy after a long postwar hiatus. How did Rawls attain such a hegemonic position, and in what aspects was his Theory of Justice a product of these larger postwar debates?

KF: Geuss’s description of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps best understood as a rebuttal of the “rebirth of political philosophy” story. According to that narrative, after the Second World War, it became impossible to think about justice and utopia. Political philosophy was widely seen as “dead”. Then Rawls’s theory revived political philosophy from its slumbers by giving political philosophy new normative foundations. Now, there’s plenty wrong with this story. But while it’s obviously untenable to see political theory, generally construed, as “dead” in the postwar years (for the reasons Geuss explains), it is nonetheless possible to make the case that the death-and-revival story isn’t all wrong. It’s just that it only holds true if it’s taken to be a much narrower and more tightly delineated story (even then, there’s plenty to contest). A revised version of the story goes something like this: within certain fields of the human sciences in the mid-century US, thanks to the prevailing liberal anti-totalitarianism, a slippery slope to authoritarianism was seen behind every progressive reform. Analytical philosophers weren’t very interested in building “normative” institutional theories, and certainly no one was doing it quite at the same scale as Rawls would. From that perspective, Rawls’s contribution was extremely significant. If the history of postwar political philosophy is told in terms of what goes on within US philosophy departments, Rawls’s impact was huge.

From left to right: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara. Cuba, 1960. Wikicommons.

But that doesn’t mean Rawls came out of nowhere. He was a far closer reader of a wide range of postwar scholarship than is often assumed: he engaged closely with economics and social science, with sociology, political science, psychology, and law, and he was no stranger to the so-called “continental” tradition. To that end, I describe A Theory of Justice as a kind of “encyclopedia” of the postwar social sciences. It is very much a recognizable product of that mid-century moment. And yet, Rawls himself contributed to the idea that it was somehow apart from it, by reinforcing the narrative of the death-and-revival of political philosophy: in lectures to students, year on year, when he contemplated the question of whether postwar political theory was dead or declining, he suggested that the concept of justice would be necessary to its revival. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Rawls helped consolidate the narrative according to which theories of distributive justice like his signaled the revival of political philosophy. As political philosophy was remade in Rawls’s wake with a novel conceptual vocabulary, the thinkers that Geuss describes as central were consequently removed from the canon of political philosophy. They were re-described as being engaged in a different endeavor: social theory, critical theory, political theory, and so on. Rawls and the subsequent generation of Anglophone analytical philosophers oversaw a redefinition of what counts as political philosophy.

AS/JK: By historicizing Rawls’ theory, your methodology bears resemblance to what the literary critic Barbara Johnson termed ‘critique’, a deconstructivist approach that was later adopted by historians such as Joan W. Scott. That is to say, your book appears less as an engagement with Rawls’ theoretical system in the form of an “examination of its flaws and imperfections” in order to improve it, but instead as an “analysis that focuses on the grounds of the system’s possibility,” to “show that these things have their history.”[1] Do you see your work as following in this tradition, or would you describe your methodology otherwise?

KF: That’s an interesting connection, but I’ve never thought of my work explicitly in relation to Scott or Johnson. Certainly, I’m interested in looking to the political work that ideas do, their political effects, their histories and the historical circumstances that made them possible. I suspect I’m quite in keeping with many who were trained in the Cambridge School of the history of political thought when I say that I don’t spend much time worrying about method: I have contextualist and historicist inclinations, to which I’m reasonably faithful. But in this book and elsewhere my central commitment is to writing the history of the present – I want to find ways to think the present historically, to understand political theory in political terms, and to identify the politics of political philosophy, which can only really be done historically. To do that, we might use all manner of tools, and not all of them are compatible – genealogical, Marxist, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, as well the workaday practices of historical explanation. So yes, critique is a central part of how I conceive of my work, but I would want to define that quite broadly.

AS/JK: You attribute parts of Rawls’ influence to his success in transforming the vocabulary of Anglo-American political philosophy. An essential cornerstone of his language, as you detail throughout the book, was the metaphor of society as a game. Analogies with games were ubiquitous in postwar academia, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games to John von Neumann’s writings in game theory, but Rawls took particular inspiration from Chicago School economist Frank Knight’s notion of the ‘good game.’ How did the metaphor of the ‘good game’ encapsulate John Rawls’ understanding of a just society, and how did he negotiate the rise of neoliberal economic policies that emerged from the very same metaphor in the 1970s?

KF: In the early 1950s, Rawls wrote that society could best be understood as a game, rather than as an organism or a mechanism. He aimed to describe how a just society could be set up so that it was self-regulating. The government acted as umpire that tried not to intervene in the game. He drew from Knight to describe society as a game of multiple players with their own interests, whose starting positions had to be equal enough that they had a stake in the game and wanted to play. The game had to be regulated so the effects of winning were contained, and so no one player could accumulate too many goods from winning. It was important to Rawls that players in the game of society have a degree of equality, but that should be achieved without too much active state intervention and redistribution. Now, Rawls didn’t ever fully drop the game metaphor – it features in A Theory of Justice, though it’s not well developed there. He did overlay it with other accounts of society (as a system of social practices, and his vision of the basic structure of society). But I argue that the game metaphor gives us a crucial insight into Rawls’s youthful dream of limited government.

The game metaphor was also used by neoliberals, as you rightly say, and by public choice theorists like James Buchanan, who recognized Rawls as a fellow “student” of Knight’s account of games. But, to my knowledge, Rawls didn’t write anything about how his theory related to the neoliberals who used the game metaphor. Unlike some later egalitarians, he doesn’t explicitly engage with neoliberal ideas. And yet, Rawls was briefly a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, until 1971 when he allowed his membership to lapse. He also dialogued with Buchanan and other contract theorists. They didn’t agree on social issues – Rawls’s racial liberalism runs deep. But it was in the nature of that liberalism that he didn’t reject links with those for whom it didn’t. That engagement doesn’t make Rawls a neoliberal, but it certainly complicates narratives about Rawls being a socialist of some kind. Rawls’s theory allows for liberal socialism – and certainly many political philosophers have argued that it might require it – but Rawls himself was not a socialist.

AS/JK: Yet, Rawls’ work has often been received as a defense of the welfare state, to the point that William A. Edmundson called him a “reticent socialist.” By situating A Theory of Justice in the intellectual milieu of the postwar period, you emphasize that it was influenced by the then-prevalent Anglo-American critique of the totalitarian state. What was Rawls’ understanding of the state, and how does his understanding differ from the minimalist state advocated by contemporaries, such as Robert Nozick?

KF: For a long time, discussions of the state in the mid-twentieth century tended to flatten quite distinctive visions of the state into “welfare state theory.” But there were then many ways of thinking about the state that in practice might have amounted to a defense of something like a welfare state, but at the level of theory included very different arguments about what the state was, and how the state did, and should, function. Theories of planning, welfare, socialism, pluralism, Keynesian stabilization: all these had different implicit or explicit accounts of the state. My book tries to situate Rawls’s account of the state alongside these. It’s crucial to see his theory as in dialogue with these mid-century and wartime theories, not as a product of the Great Society. Recent work on early neoliberal theory has done a lot to dispel the idea that neoliberalism was a purely anti-statist theory. But in the mid-century US, there was a distinctive strand of sceptical liberalism that was critical of the New Deal planning state (and later invoked anti-totalitarianism and metaphors of anti-statism), and I argue that Rawls’s early work was surprisingly indebted to that anti-interventionist liberalism. Rawls always wanted something distinctive from the welfare state. When he first formulated his account of a “property-owning democracy” in the early 1950s, it was as part of a minimalist liberal theory in which the functions of government were highly limited. He ruled out any political control of the economy. So, then, what he wanted amounted to less than a welfare state. But Rawls changed his mind about how much state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice. As he developed his account of property-owning democracy, he conceived of it as requiring more than the welfare state – a distinctive form of democratic political regime. That’s where the connection to liberal socialism comes in – Rawls saw his theory of justice as permitting a liberal socialist settlement (though he preferred property-owning democracy).

That said, there is something of a puzzle about how Rawls understood the state. Unlike Weberians or Marxists (or indeed Cambridge School historians of political thought), liberal political philosophers since Rawls have not been so interested in the state. That’s in part down to how Rawls explained, or didn’t explain, the state. Rawls’s theory was deeply institutional, but he was never very explicit about what the state was. As a young man hostile to corporate and state personality theories, he came close to what’s sometimes called an eliminativist theory of the state – he defined it as “the collection of men” and laws. When he later discussed society as a system of practices, there’s little sense that the state is a particularly distinctive, autonomous or semi-autonomous, agent. It’s not a corporate person, nor is it a field of interests. Sometimes Rawls’s state seems to be well-suited to the public/private nature of the American mid-century administrative state, a system of interests and institutions that is neither public or private – but he never theorized it explicitly in this way either. What’s clear in his early writings is that government should have a limited reach: the game should be set up so it can be self-regulating with minimal government intervention. The scope of state action is circumscribed, even if its nature is underdeveloped. Now, in his mature writings, in A Theory of Justice and beyond, Rawls abandons that minimalist view. But that formative anxiety about the overreaching state is not unconnected to the absence of theoretical attention he gives to the state. He ends up focusing on the juridical and legislative institutions, whereas the administrative state is always envisaged in the negative, as something to be constrained. Yet by the time Rawls publishes A Theory of Justice, it’s clear that the institutions of his just society require a well-functioning state, with significant state capacity – including capacity to intervene in the economy in a variety of ways to secure a just distribution of goods. Something like the postwar American state is always assumed but never interrogated.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Basic Books

How does this compare to Nozick? Well, Nozick takes Rawls’s mature theory to require a great deal of state intervention. And, when compared to Nozick’s theory, rather than to the mid-century planning states, it certainly does. Even if we take the early Rawls, at his most minimalist, he and Nozick have starkly different visions of society. Nozick’s is a remarkably pure form of libertarianism. There is no metaphor of the game. In fact, Nozick’s minimalist state is quite different from the neoliberal state of those who think of society as a game, or from the state as responsible for setting the rules or the road. Nozick objects to theorists of “games of fair division.” He’s concerned with property rights, not state rules.

AS/JK: In the later 1970s, Rawls’ theory was reshaped and expanded by others to apply on a global level. In the book, you focus specifically on Rawlsian solutions to the political problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation—issues that Rawls himself had fairly little to say about in an official capacity, but that a new generation of philosophers like Charles Beitz thought solvable by means of Rawls’ philosophical framework. How did the adaptation of the Rawlsian notion of justice intersect with humanitarianism in the Global South and the rise of neocolonial development politics?

KF: The crucial point of intersection is in the 1970s, when political philosophers look in earnest to international politics. When liberal moral philosophers turned earlier to theorize the Vietnam War, it was mostly in terms of just war theory and the moral responsibility of leaders. Then in the 1970s, they take the institutional framework of Rawlsianism and look to international politics through the lens of distribution. There are various objections to Rawls’s decision to limit his theory to the national level, but it’s Charles Beitz that really extends Rawls’s theory internationally in detail. His is the first of many attempts to expand the scope of justice and to stretch Rawls’s theory to cover the world. The 1973 proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) are key here as a spur to action. There’s also a contemporaneous move among those engaged with the new philosophy of public affairs to theorize other problems of international ethics, particularly foreign aid and food policy via appeal to varieties of utilitarianism or neo-Kantianism. It’s out of that, really, that you get a new humanitarianism within philosophy, one that’s fairly policy focused in its approach. By contrast with this, the extension of justice theory internationally is pretty radical. It’s born of sympathy with the redistributive demands coming out of the Global South (or at least with those demands as they are mediated by Northern liberals and socialists, and as they pass through the UN). A lot of their radicalism is diffused, though, as political philosophers take up the demands. As Brian Barry put it, in an extremely honest, straightforward, rendering of the egalitarian project, the aim for philosophers was to “domesticate” the arguments of the NIEO. That is, the point was to domesticate these demands by squeezing them into the vocabulary of liberal egalitarianism and justice theory. Barry is wonderfully explicit about this. For Barry, the NIEO demands are best understood as claims of justice, whereas the humanitarian debates about famine and food policy are merely claims of humanity.  But other philosophers cut the distinction differently and don’t disaggregate humanity and justice. Over time, conceptions of justice are used to explicate humanitarian activism too: food policy, human rights policies, the NIEO demands, all these get rendered in the vocabulary of justice theory. Here again we see the flexibility of liberal egalitarianism.

Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago, Chile, April 1972, which would eventually issue the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order in 1974.

AS/JK: Around the same time, analytical Marxists, such as G.A. Cohen and John Roemer, began to engage with Rawls’ theory. As you argue in your book, these Marxist attacks “were taken up [and] their hard edges were softened” (207), and the criticism of the “No-Bullshit Marxists” was simply incorporated in the larger paradigm of liberal egalitarianism. You conclude that these debates “ultimately gave way not to socialist theories of democratic control but to liberal theories of deliberative democracy and public reason.” (ibid.) Why was analytical Marxism so powerless in challenging Rawlsianism, and how was the latter transformed by these encounters, if at all?

KF: Analytical Marxism starts off as something quite far away from Rawls and liberal egalitarianism, and many members of the original ‘No Bullshit Marxism’ group never have much to do with egalitarian political philosophy. But when, at the end of the 1970s, political philosophers after Rawls are becoming preoccupied with deep questions about equality, key analytical Marxists – Cohen and Roemer in particular – become very engaged with these debates. This is a moment when a number of philosophers get very interested in socialism, and in ‘rethinking’ it in the face of the rising New Right. As the 1980s rolled on, rethinking socialism often means abandoning it. But there were also plenty of new socialist visions, from analytical Marxism to market or democratic socialism. Few of them last long. What happens to some of the analytical Marxists as they encounter liberal egalitarianism is that they render Marxism a theory of distribution. They become proponents of the distributive paradigm. In this sense, Marxism gets domesticated (to redeploy that word). There are forays into theories of socialism, democratic control, and workplace democracy, but they don’t last. By the 1990s, debates about deliberative democracy and public reason take over. Marxism becomes distributional, democratic theory becomes deliberative. There’s an end of history effect.

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: By the late 1980s, the law-like character of Rawls’s conceptualization of a just society was challenged by two other philosophical strands, communitarianism as developed by Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel and a new form of anti-totalitarian liberalism as put forward by Judith Shklar or Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet, you argue that these critics of Rawls offered little political alternatives and instead “provided mirror images of liberal political philosophy” (242). What led to their failure as true political-philosophical contenders?

KF: When I describe the story of liberal egalitarianism as a kind of ghost story, it’s Rawls’s theory that haunts political philosophy. But there’s really another ghost, too, that I characterize as “postwar liberalism” – the liberal vision of society that is born of the postwar settlement, which encompasses a range of liberal political assumptions and theories (of which Rawls’s is but one). In a basic sense, many liberal and communitarian responses to Rawls didn’t move beyond postwar liberalism. So they didn’t provide significant political alternatives. But I also argue that in important respects, a number of the communitarian and liberal responses to Rawls retraced his steps conceptually speaking too. They ended up mirroring ideas they wanted to dispute, they went back to ideas that Rawls had left out or left behind. This was not, of course, true of all alternatives – and I have tried not to overstate the centrality of Rawlsianism and the critics who took it as referent. Yet, for example, the communitarian critics of Rawls looked to Wittgenstein and the social self. I show in the book that this is actually where Rawls began. Similarly, those like Judith Shklar who advocated a liberalism of fear went back to Rawls’s early anti-totalitarianism but updated it for a new phase of the Cold War. Many of Rawlsianism’s twentieth-century alternatives couldn’t escape it. They ended up operating in the shadow of justice theory. 

AS/JK: At the end of your book, you argue that “we tend to underestimate the political distance traveled between that world of political consensus and our own” (278). Similarly, in a recent article for the Boston Review, you suggest that Rawls’ framework may have outlived its purpose as “some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots.” How can political philosophy escape the shadow of justice?

KF: Well, first I want to be clear that the hold of the Rawlsian or liberal egalitarian framework has loosened over the past decade or so. And there is a lot of fascinating work being done within the tradition historicized in my book: as political philosophers try to face the future of work, technology, climate politics, financialization, privatization, and so on, plenty of its resources are relevant. So I don’t think “escaping the shadow” means abandoning those resources entirely. It means recognizing the limits of the Rawlsian framework, liberal egalitarianism and the analytical approach associated with the philosophy of public affairs – seeing what those approaches can’t do. One way to do so is to historicize and defamiliarize the vocabulary and architecture of that way of doing political philosophy. Another is to use ideas and arguments from other traditions. So, for instance, as part of my new research, I’ve been reading a lot of Marxist and socialist feminism, in part because I see that tradition as a rich resource for thinking about the future of work – richer than Rawlsianism. But there’s no one approach or single tradition of social and political theory that provides all the solutions, nor is there a single alternative to the limits of the paradigm. I’m a historian of political thought and a political theorist, not a philosopher, and I don’t want to tell another discipline what it should do with itself – that’s not my aim. Yet it’s nonetheless clear to me that if we are serious about finding a political philosophy, or a political theory, that can deal with the dilemmas of our own age, then we’ll need more than Rawlsianism can offer. We’ll need new theories of the state, work, climate. Some of those will be built from the resources of egalitarianism, others will be drawn from the many other traditions of social and political theory that we could mine. Constructing these is a collective endeavor, and many philosophers and theorists of various political and methodological stripes are already engaged in that endeavor, and recognize the challenge. I’m optimistic.

[1]. Barbara Johnson, translator’s introduction to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): xv.

art history history of science Intellectual history philosophy

French Symbolism and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

On the face of it, art historian Andrei Pop, in his latest book, A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century (Zone Books, 2019), sets out to achieve something rather concrete—a reevaluation of the French symbolist movement in art—and yet the reader soon becomes aware that much more is at stake, as Pop weaves together art history with an account of early analytic philosophy to raise questions about the very nature of truth and human ways of meaning-making in artistic and scientific practice, which are further explored in this interview with David Kretz.

A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century begins by characterizing a type of mid-19th-century reductionism about the self and the mental that finds expression, for example, in Ernst Mach’s psychologistic philosophy and impressionist painting, which, roughly speaking, presents the viewer with sensations of color pigments rather than with objects. You then establish a surprising parallel between two counter-reactions to this Zeitgeist: symbolist art and early analytic philosophy, especially Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Can you sketch the parallel in their responses for us?

The predominance of positivism and various forms of mechanistic philosophy and science, including physiological psychology, was no ideological conspiracy but a result of real progress: the invention of analytic chemistry, the refinement of celestial mechanics, and the rapid strides in comparative anatomy, microbiology, and the rest, crowned as we still think by Darwinian evolutionary theory. To say nothing of practical gains from pasteurization to electricity. This materialist front faltered a little when confronting the mind and subjectivity, but here too advances were legion: from the study of the eye and physiologic color to the psychology of counting and their manifold applications, from calculators to color printing, early motion pictures, and, yes, realist and impressionist painting. These art practices, of course, were not always understood as reductive, but insofar as they were—as they answered to the decree of “paint only what you see”—they fit the positivist lockstep.

Only they also produced weirdness: what an impressionist ‘saw’, made up as it was of blocky saturated brushstrokes, differed markedly from what anyone else saw, live or through a camera. So the act of translating vision to canvas produced an effect different in kind. At the same time, positivism was of little help in the foundations of arithmetic, or physics, where explaining natural law mechanistically and psychologically (a tendency called “psychologism” on the model of scientism—taking psychology beyond its field of application) led to theories of numbers as consensual hallucinations, or meaningless counters in a game. This self-undermining nature of positivism—its search for verification leading always to unstable mental states that could deceive the verifier—naturally led to revolt among ambitious scientists from Boltzmann to Cantor. The revolts tended to assert the reality of things unseen and strictly unseeable: whether infinite sets (Bolzano) or irrational numbers (Weierstrass) or both of these (Dedekind, Cantor, Frege). This is a reformed Platonism, because it doesn’t point us to the perfect Bed in the sky, but to what is necessary for there to be anything at all—the laws of arithmetic describe any possible universe. They certainly underlie the mathematical natural science on which positivism relied while undermining it.

It is perhaps surprising then that the scientific revolt against equating truth with the perceptible or verifiable, which issued in mathematical logic and philosophy of language that you call “early analytic philosophy”, also made room for domains inaccessible to it, what it called the subjective realm, which stretched from color perception and proprioception to poetic nuance to aesthetic judgment. If we identify the later tradition with the elimination of subjectivity and a nearly algorithmic commitment to the application of logic to philosophical problems, we may, ironically, regard Frege and the young Russell and Wittgenstein as backward Romantics, because they sought to delimit objective sense and laws from realms of radical subjectivity that separate each mind from each other: the very notion of private language, which the older Wittgenstein violently rejected. The philosophical point of this book is to show that the objective requires the subjective as a foil if it is to play the scientific role late nineteenth-century philosophers assigned to it, not to mention to become accessible through our perceptual apparatus in new kinds of mathematical and logical symbolism. As for the symbolist artists, they frankly acknowledged that the mind contributes as much as the hand in reproducing reality, so that continuous color and contour, which impressionism and the opticians had rejected as found nowhere in nature, reappear as signs of our subjective activity as perceivers as much as our logical activity organizing percepts into objects. The category of the image serves as a useful beacon, joining theoretical speculation to plastic art: it is structured sense itself, distinct from and mediating between the concrete things embodying it and whatever else, concrete or abstract, they stand for or refer to. But once one has noticed the affinity between the artistic and philosophical project, there is no reason to leave out photographers, realist painters, or romantic poets like Poe, when one finds them engaged in a project of exploring the interface between the logically objective, or public world, and the private, subjective worlds which Heraclitus already said we each possess.

Édouard Manet, Illustration for Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1875

You agree with historians of science like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison that there is an artistic aspect to scientific practices of observation and documentation, for example, but want to also claim the inverse: that artworks are, in a sense, truth-apt and logical. Truth in art, moreover, on your view lies not so much in its power to disclose a world (Heidegger, Gadamer). Rather your concept of truth in art seems to follow along representationalist lines: Frege and the early Wittgenstein. Could you tell us more about your understanding of truth—in art, in science? Are they the same? Is truth in art the same as meaningfulness?

The opposition between disclosive and representationalist accounts of truth requires some scrutiny. I take it by the latter you have in mind the view that sentences or images build up models of reality, which we compare with their referent and judge to be true in case the representation corresponds to reality. Frege in fact denied that such a view is generally applicable to pictures—as he pointed out, we would only call a picture of Cologne Cathedral “true” in this sense if we appended the sentence “the cathedral looks like this”, so that what we are really judging true is the sentence. But then he went further and pointed out that the correspondence theory doesn’t explain truth in language either! For if you ask just what makes this sentence correspond to reality, and I provide an answer, you can still ask whether the answer is true, which on the correspondence theory would lead to asking for another object of correspondence (not of the sentence, but of the sentence asserting the truth of the sentence), and thus a vicious regress. So correspondence will not explain truth in general: but it certainly plays a role in much everyday language and imagery, from ID cards to IOUs.

So it won’t do to dismiss representation altogether and insist on elevated uses of “world-disclosing” language and images: it matters whether I owe you or you owe me a sum of money, just as it should matter to the disclosing of a peasant world whether, say, a pair of boots painted by Van Gogh belonged (are painted as belonging) to a peasant woman or not. What matters still has to do with the language or the image: these are logically articulated, which needn’t mean reducible to language. What it does mean is: properly interpreted, it is responsive to true or false propositions about it. This is how a picture differs from the object which is its bearer, as it differs from a stone or a leaf, which are neither meaningful nor potentially true or false, though we can say meaningful, true or false things about them. As for the worry that pictures allow for multiple plausible interpretations, that doesn’t differentiate them from language qualitatively, only quantitatively. A picture might seem awfully ambiguous about, say, the intentions of the person it portrays, but it is merely compatible with several different ones. In turn, a sentence describing a face, as Lessing noticed, is endlessly more ambiguous than even a crude visual image of that face. Logically articulated, then, in every domain, means something like this: the object would mean different things if it were structured otherwise.

Likewise, context matters: language abounds in indexical expressions whose full significance (as opposed to linguistic meaning) depends on who is speaking and listening, and the sense of images may depend on assumptions about who is looking, what goes on beyond the frame of the picture, and so on. This is why I like to say that a historian may not be a Platonist, but a Platonist must be a historian: you never reach mind-independent meaning from a historical artifact unless you account for specific human conventions and acts. As for truth, that is once again a further step: it is not objects as such, but the thoughts they provoke, which are true or false. The only guaranteed truths are the tautologies held in such suspicion by Wittgenstein—which are perfectly respectable logical truths, true solely due to their structure (the same goes for contradictions, which are necessarily false). As for other thoughts, their truth and falsity depends not so much on correspondence to fact (which, inconveniently, tends to ape the representational content of the thought), but on what they really mean. Again artifact and world, structure and context interlock, while remaining very much distinct.

And that is why images, and not just texts or scientific sentences, may be logically articulate: it’s because they are interesting, eventful. The Nelson Goodman line, according to which pictures are just analog color gradients with no structure, is as implausible as Heidegger’s speculations on peasant shoes, which he claims are accessible only in looking at a Van Gogh painting, but which in fact can only be had by reading Heidegger. In order for this kind of art theory to reestablish contact with ordinary acts of looking, and with communication between lookers, and their other intellectual activities (including science), logical structure has to be recognized wherever it is found. It is naturally rather unevenly distributed among meaningful artifacts (perspectival pictures may be dreadful at tense, but they are far better than sentences at describing spaces, and both are terrible at clarifying inferences). We also have to recognize and respect the incommunicable aspect of each subject’s experience, which we can sense rather than verify and which I suspect is what drives the world-disclosing philosophers to their premature attempts at disclosure.

Is there anything that would make an artwork logically inarticulate? Would you rule out the possibility of interesting, eventful nonsense?

I rule out “nonsense” understood as “no sense”, a degree zero of sense: the nonsense poems of Lear, Carroll, dada, medieval monks, etc. are in fact full of tidbits of sense, arranged less than sentence-wise (or even word-wise at times). So the “may be” above applies to the degree of coherence a particular artwork aspires to. A monochrome may well occupy a monistic logical space akin to David Chalmers’ fantastic “consciousness of a thermostat”. If so it is quite dull, perhaps inarticulate by our usual standards, but never unintelligible or senseless in a pure way. Poésie concrète, doodles, automatic writing are telic activities too, with a minimal sense that is requisite to being an interesting representation. Of course, a fossil or a blank wall may be interesting, but not as representation: only as a natural object about which questions may be asked.

How does your understanding of these larger metaphysical and epistemological issues inflect your own methodology as a historian? What do you think art historians should learn from philosophy—and philosophers from (art) historians?

I more than once heard a celebrated philosopher say that his only method is to never say anything that is obviously false. One could do worse! The use of external “theory” in art history once had a dogmatic cast—the writer “knows” that Marxism or Lacanian psychoanalysis or structural linguistics is right, and rearranges art, or rather the extant writings on it, in accordance with this certainty. The old (“classical”) Germanophone art historians by contrast had some philosophical training (generally neo-Kantian), which they did not flaunt, instead inventing terms like Kunstwollen (‘art-willing’), Pathosformel (‘pathos formula’) or symbolische Form (this one due to a philosopher, Ernst Cassirer) to do their philosophizing, still in a broad generalizing vein, but generally asserting a continuity or change over time in how concrete objects embodied these more abstract patterns or schemata. I hope I have learned some lessons from both traditions: to think on our feet when the form of artifacts is meaningful and to look outside them when artifacts reach into the world. Still, art historians must learn not just philosophical theories, but some habits of mind philosophers take for granted (notably analytic philosophers, whom too few of us read, but above all the great philosophical minds, wherever those occur): not to adopt any position because they think it’s right or will elicit admiration without understanding it, but to think for themselves, accepting only what on their best efforts they regard as the truth. This, of course, need not involve certainty, but includes possibilities and hypotheses and the most plausible conclusions.

Can philosophers in turn learn anything from art historians? Well, besides learning what not to do (in the bad case), most art history, and certainly art history at its best, abounds in careful and explicit observation of meaningful artifacts, from all known human cultures and epochs: I think it does so in a way that if properly taken up could challenge the philosophy of mind, of language (which really should be a branch of a larger philosophy of meaning), and of logic and science. Art history isn’t just interesting to aestheticians. Questions ranging from the compositionality of semantics to the nature of things can be elucidated, if not definitively answered, by closer attention to art and artifacts. Not that this will involve taking anything art historians say at face value, but most of what philosophers think about the limits of thought, discursive language and the expressible, would benefit from an acquaintance with a wider range of meaning-making tools. Knowing symbolic logic helps, but so do comics or sculpture or opera! I am just as bad, I have no clue what to make of key signatures and chord changes in music, which can be instruments of thought, as much as any syllogism or perspectival projection. The key to wisdom, I’d agree with Socrates, is knowing that we don’t know. That is something art historians and philosophers have in common with each other—and with everyone else.

Andrei Pop is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. Previously, he has taught eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art history and aesthetics at the Universities of Basel and Vienna

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis

Critical theory German history Intellectual history Kant Marxism philosophy political theory Theory

On a Kantian Antinomy in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

By Contributing Writer Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire

In an interview with Günther Gaus in 1964, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) recalls that she had started to read Immanuel Kant at the age of 14.[1] Evidently, this long and intense intellectual acquaintance with Kant played an important role in her understanding of political judgment, the articulation of which is best expressed in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1970. The scholarship on Arendt’s political reinterpretation and appropriation of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is prolific, and I do not wish to add anything to it here.

What I wish to suggest – and hopefully to show, although briefly, in some persuasive fashion – is that we find a Kantian inspiration beneath the question of political judgment in Hannah Arendt’s political thought. Beneath, for political judgment presupposes a sphere of politics where political speech and action can take place. This is by no means odd, since judging pertains to human beings insofar as they are acting beings (LM in LKPP 3). But action, Arendt thinks, does not stand on its own. In fact, action is “ontologically rooted” in the human condition of natality (The Human Condition 247). This means that there is an ontological priority of natality over acting and judging. Natality is Hannah Arendt’s very own (and perhaps most distinctive) concept. Yet, while it is plain that she did not invent it ex nihilo, attempts to pin down the intellectual inspiration(s) behind it remain most of the time tentative and, I think, unconvincing in important respects.

The unexplored possible explanation that I wish to bring forth here is that Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom and its antinomic opposition to nature is what is at play in Arendt’s natality. I propose here to introduce this idea very briefly by: I) showing some limits to common interpretations of the intellectual source(s) of the notion of natality; II) showing the striking resemblance between Arendt’s understanding of natality and Kant’s definition of freedom.


The first explanation of Arendt’s conception of natality that comes to mind is that it represents a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is often suggested, assumed, and only sometimes argued for that Arendt’s natality is a response to Heidegger’s emphasis on Dasein’s mortality and being-towards-death. It would be mauvaise foi to deny that there is some truth to this interpretation. Yet it is by no means a fully accurate and sufficient explanation. The main disadvantage of this commonly held view is that it presents natality and mortality as if they were mere opposites, and this is neither how Heidegger thinks nor what Arendt means. Arendt, for instance, speaks of human existence (or human life in its “non-biological sense”) as the “span of time between birth and death” (HC 173), which is fairly similar to and reminds us of Heidegger’s characterization of the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein as a “stretching” (Erstreckung) between birth and death (SZ §72, 373). Arendt does not deny the importance of death: she acknowledges explicitly in The Human Condition that death represents the phenomenon according to which one must think if one wants to think metaphysically, and birth the primordial phenomenon if one wants to think politically (HC 9). Accordingly, one could argue that Arendt is taking up Heidegger’s conceptual framework and reversing it, so as to think politically. But this would only be true if her understanding of birth and natality is the same as or very similar to Heidegger’s, which is not the case. Heidegger’s couple-notions of birth and death designate in the conceptual apparatus of Being and Time two poles of Dasein’s temporal-historical existence: whereas death clearly maps on the pole of our “futurality” (Zukünftigkeit) and the projective aspect of our being (Entworfenheit), birth represents our inherited past and factitial thrownness (Geworfenheit). To say that we are historical because we are stretching between birth and death therefore means that we are thrown projects. As we shall see, Arendt’s definition by no means allow to understand her version of natality as human inherited thrownness – on the contrary, one may even say that, in a way, it is closer to Heidegger’s “projectiveness.” More could and should be said on this, but not here.

The second and more textually based interpretation is that the inspiration is Christian. Arendt does in fact refer to the birth of Christ (“a child has been born unto us”) as an illustration of the miraculous character of birth (HC 247). However, it is quite clear that Christ’s birth represents for her only an exemplification of the phenomenon of birth: natality is what makes Christ’s miraculous birth possible, and not the other way around (Arendt’s thought is emphatically not Christian in this sense). When Arendt does draw on the life and ways of Jesus Christ in The Human Condition, it is to advocate the importance of forgiveness as an indispensable remedy for the calumnious irreversibility of action (238-243). But in this respect, Christ’s teaching becomes relevant downstream from action and therefore does not explain natality. Scholars have argued that the genuine influence is Augustine (especially Vecchiarelli Scott & Chelius Stark 1995, Young-Bruehl 2004 [1982] and Kiess 2016). In fact, Arendt’s own later revisions of her doctoral dissertation (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, revised between 1958 and 1965) suggest that natality was implicit in her analysis of Augustine’s theology of Creation and nova creatura (see Chelius Stark 1995, 132-133, 146, 154ff.). I do not mean to discredit Arendt’s self-interpretation or to deny the strong continuity of Arendt’s work and thought, but I would like to underscore two facts. First, Augustine’s Creation is divine and not human action, and the nova creatura refers to the second birth of conversion and baptism, not to birth per se. Its innovative miraculous character is entirely dependent on the miraculous life, death and resurrection of Christ. Second, before studying Augustine, Arendt enthusiastically read another thinker whose emphasis on the unprecedented and the innovative in human action is not grounded in Christology: Kant. In other words, whereas one can hardly deny that ‘natality’ has a Christian appearance and Christian echoes, it may very well be that this Christian outlook was substantially filled in with Kantian insights.


As I said, I think that Arendt’s natality is conceptually closer to Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom than to any other possible influential sources. There is probably no better way to show this than to look at both definitions. Hannah Arendt understands action as the actuality or activity (ἐνέργεια in Aristotle’s sense) of the condition of natality, which in turn is a capacity, a δύναμις (cf. HC 178, 200, 206). Natality, she says, is the capacity of “beginning something new on our own initiative”. She adds: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before” (177). So natality is the capacity to act, to initiate something new from one’s own initiative, and this is just what freedom is. Let us now look at Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom in the first Critique: “the capacity to begin by oneself a state [of affairs] (das Vermögen einen Zustand von selbst anzufangen), the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause that determines it according to a law of nature” (A 533/B 561). As far as I know, the striking similarity has only been noticed once, and not explained.[2]

The only component that seems to escape the strong parallel is Kant’s insistence on the fact that an act of freedom should not depend upon any further natural causality (for otherwise, freedom would be in fact a mere expression of physical necessity). Yet this absence is only apparent, for Arendt in fact does conceptualize a rather strong contrast between nature and freedom: whereas action is the expression of freedom, labor is the expression of the mere natural necessities of biological life (ζωή). In order for action to be truly such, Arendt thinks, it should not condescend to busy itself with anything that pertains to the productive activities of human beings. Against Marx, she thinks that work is not an expression of freedom and could never be, for labor just is enslavement to necessity (83-84). Further signs of the Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature could be seen, for instance, in her conceptual appreciation of the American and French revolutions in On Revolution. In both works, Arendt’s extremely restrictive acceptation of what counts as political rests upon the view that an activity that follows in a way or another the course of natural necessities cannot at the same time be an expression of genuine freedom, a response to our condition of natality. Arendt’s political conceptuality cannot be fully grasped if one does not get the tripartite division that she introduces within the vita activa. But this division, in turn, may not be fully intelligible if one does not see its deep Kantian resonances.

[1] Interview of October 28, 1964 (available online).

[2] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt: le retour du politique en philosophie, Paris: Cerf, 309. The strangest thing is that the similarity is noted in the penultimate sentence of her book. Very unfortunately, the author passed away prior to the publication of her manuscript, so we cannot hope for further light on this parallel from her. 

Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire is a Ph.D. student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Ancient philosophy,  German philosophy, and political philosophy. He works specifically on appropriations of Greek philosophy in German and Continental philosophy.  His work has been published in various journals, including Polis,  Interpretation, Dialogue,  Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique, Philosophiques, Politique et Sociétés, and the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.