J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
2016
216

Reviewed by: Robert Seymour (University of Essex)

 

Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.

Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.

By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).

Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.

Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.

However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.

An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.

Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.

A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.

The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.

The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.

It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]

Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.

One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.

In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]

While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.

One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.

The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.

Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).

Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.

Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.


[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).

[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.

[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 51.

[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.

[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.

[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.

Suzi Adams (Ed.): Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion, Rowman & Littfield International, 2017

Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary Book Cover Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary
Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
2017
Paperback £24.95
208

Geoffrey Bennington: Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth

Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth Book Cover Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth
Geoffrey Bennington
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $35.00
260

Reviewed by: Jack Robert Coopey (Durham University)

What appears at the frontier of Geoffrey Bennington’s works is an apparent insight and clarity of expression that is able to manifest itself despite the complexities in which its ideas and conceptions are embedded. And Bennington’s newest book Kant on the Frontier, Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth is no exemption to this rule, as a scholar who continues to prove vital in the fallout of Derrida and the debris of pessimism that follows his work. Any given reader of Bennington would perhaps encounter his work at a differing frontier, the present frontier in which I encountered his work was his biography/autobiography of Derrida, in which alike to the photo of himself and Derrida, seems that Bennington himself albeit pushing the frontier onwards from Derrida’ demarcation, alike to Hegel’s Owl of Minerva cannot outstep the shadow of his friend, companion and predecessor. That is not to say that, his ability to uncover the marginal, the foreclosed, and the frontier in this latest publication is not by any margin less than a feat of remarkable scholarship on Kant and the shameable hidden aspects of his thought at the frontier so to speak of given Kant readership. For that in itself is a formidable task judged by its own merit.

The central argument of the text concerns the ‘slogan’ “the end is the end”,[i] in which Bennington will examine various parts of Kant’s corpus in order to demonstrate a thinking-through of Derrida’s statement of la différance infinie est finie or the infinite difference is finite. The primary focus will be the teleological schema that haunts Kant’s corpus and examine the ways in which supposedly infinite differences or metaphysical distinctions between history and politics primarily, are indeed finite in the analogies Kant draws between the two frontiers of thought in his philosophy. The second consequence of Bennington’s formidable reading of Kant’s teleology is that the book does not present an “Idea in the Kantian sense”,[ii] such that the epigram of the end is the end cannot promise ideas but only diremption, in that can provide a new way of understanding of how we read philosophical works, but does not present new ideas for new philosophical works. Bennington’s text concerns itself with the form of reading of these works, not necessarily with the content. Another remarkable ability of Bennington is to seamlessly weave in thinkers and ideas into apparent disruptive readings, so he proposes a reading of Frege as an interstice to elaborate that “the concept of ‘concept is teleological”[iii].

The second core argument of Bennington’s text is that philosophy itself represses readings such it wants to only deal with the supposed ‘ideas’ of philosophy which are somehow divorced by the act of reading and even by the question of reading itself. Perhaps in one way or another this is the mode by which philosophy can operate only with the ideas of philosophy itself, ideas are only produced through a repression of reading, and a theory of reading cannot reproduce ideas. Additionally Bennington claims that philosophy’s best theory of reading is hermeneutics and fulfilled in deconstruction, however this claim being anything less than contentious will be the mark in which we will judge his deconstruction of Kant in, through and beyond the concept of the frontier. The final point in the preface before we enter into the body of the text, Bennington sets up an apparent disruptive analogy between the political implications of an interrupted teleology and the implications of reading philosophical works, and Kant’s ‘point of heterogeniety’ is what justifies a deconstructive reading of a Kantian critique in order to do away with the historicist reading of moral and political issues which Bennington sees as predominant in humanities discipline. Bennington then addresses the neglected nature of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement, insomuch as Bennington claims that “Darwinism provided an answer to the at least apparent natural purposiveness that Kant is trying to understand”.[iv] Bennington’s main claim in investigating this aspect of Kant is to emphasize that teleological thought is not as easily abandoned in regards to nature and mechanism as once imagined. Bennington argues that even extreme forms of Neo-Darwinism with severe forms of evolutionism are bound up with teleologism. and through their own internal logic defeat themselves. One example Bennington describes is how Kant’s prescription of a natural law that gives birth to the human animal which then in turn is able to escape the natural ends of the former law. Bennington surmises this contradictory nature of teleological schema succinctly.

Either way we are faced with a structure of end- setting that interrupts the process leading up to it and demands analysis of its internal interruptions and impossibilities, the more radically so now that it seems likely to many that that end- setting interruptive of natural processes (a currently fashionable name for which is the Anthropocene) really might be tending toward the End.[v]

The next section after the Preface moves from an apparently modest, marginal investigation of Kant’s teleology to a bigger more daring exposition by Bennington in the succeeding part of the book which is entitled ‘Preliminary.’ Bennington proclaims that: “If the point here were to do metaphysics (again), my claim, which would then be extraordinarily immodest, would be that “frontier” is nothing less than the primary philosophical concept and the origin of all others”.[vi] Somewhat repudiating Derrida’s project and simultaneously pushing on his deconstructive method, this third aspect of Bennington’s argument will be the ultimate in determining whether he succeeds in fails in convincing his readers of the primacy of the concept of the frontier both within philosophy and its theories of readings of philosophical works. The key distinction Bennington wishes to construct is that whilst an understanding of the concept of the concept is an impossibility without the concept of the frontier, each concept insomuch as it is a concept requires a frontier in order to delimit itself from others. However, he furthermore suggests that the concept of the frontier by this very definition cannot be defined itself. Now, whether as Bennington claims that “all philosophical concepts rest on a nonconceptual (nonphilosophical) ground that philosophy is incapable of thinking”,[vii] and secondly that if there are no philosophical concepts apropos, then we would need a concept of the frontier to delineate which concepts we were analysing, but as put to us prior to this claim, the concept of the frontier does not exist. In conclusion, the concept of the frontier is thus, a kind of interrupted teleological, a concept of concepts which itself cannot be identified but is teleological in its nature to describe concepts. Now, it remains to be seen whether this apparent parry and dance of conceptual meandering is a truly reasonable, philosophical or conceptual discovery and Bennington’s promised investigation of Kant will prove or disprove this. The concept of the frontier Bennington will use to evaluate whether philosophy itself from the outside from an origin or point of conceptualization is a possibility, and secondly whether philosophy itself is purely just history of philosophy rather than philosophy autonomously. Perhaps given these series of contentious claims that Bennington has set himself up for a fall in reducing philosophy and history to a singular concept which is primarily not at the heart of Derrida nor his kin, deconstruction. Furthermore, any reduction to a singular concept to answer all multiplicities is a beckoning problem to any philosopher. The frontier, which Bennington then posits as almost synonymous with Being[viii] is perhaps also allergic to Adorno’s critique of Heidegger’s reduction of the history of metaphysics as the history of being as self-defeating, insomuch as utilizing the concept of the frontier to reduce philosophy to the concept of the frontier is merely a sort of intellectual posturing, or in Hegel’s terms, a bad infinity. In one sense, the demarcation of Being could be said to be a type of frontier, in so much as you in a strictly phenomenological sense, with the name of Being and its metaphysical and conceptual baggage begin to build walls, delimitations, boundaries and frontiers. However, we should permit Bennington at least the courtesy of hearing his voice speak till its last breath in order to begin investigating the extent to which his sudden discovery of a new concept at the heart of all things perhaps should be listened to after all. Additionally to these high orders Bennington has placed on himself within the concept of the frontier, he claims that it “is literally everywhere”,[ix] he notes the concepts of différend and différance as an evident allusion to his predecessors Lyotard and Derrida however distinguishing his own coinage. Bennington even goes further to argue that the word itself as well as the concept of the frontier is simultaneously both its reference and referent at the same time. He elaborates in a more general sense that metaphysics itself is no longer possible in the traditional sense, such that any practice of metaphysics so called only refers to the objects and things themselves, but that teleological practice is no longer possible because of its disruptive nature. In a sudden turn of tradition and ideas, Bennington then moves to a ‘polemical’ reading of Gottlob Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik in order to begin demonstrating the profundity of his concept of the frontier. He quotes Frege in that “[t]he concept must have a sharp boundary [der Begriff muss Scharf begrenzt sein]”,[x] which is interesting linguistically primarily because of the usage of grenzen or boundaries, frontiers, borders which Frege uses in which Bennington is evidently, immediately interested in for his own conceptual production. The use of Frege only crosses a few pages bolstering its polemical nature, however Bennington reverts back to his spectre of Derrida revealing more clarity on the nature of the frontier.

As Jacques Derrida has taught us, the foundation of an institution, its very institution, the institution of the institution, including the institution of a science, and even of a science of logic, cannot be understood by that institution, can only be violent with respect to that institution. What I am trying to show here is that the frontier is the enduring (uncrossable) trace of that violent institution of the institution in general, and that this violence marks all concepts with the trace of a constitutive nonconceptuality.[xi]

Bennington goes on to claim that Frege by committing to the distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung lends itself to a failure of his own frontier of the concept of concepts. If as Derrida suggests, the relation between the poetical and the philosophical is what forces to philosophy to think,[xii] similar to the conclusion of Heidegger insomuch as new poetry is needed to reinvigorate thinking once more, perhaps Bennington’s fascination with the frontier is aligned to this goal also. Transitioning to the sphere of political philosophy, Bennington openly admits that the frontier does not amount to much,[xiii] however he claims that such concepts as the State are defined, delimited and demarcated by a frontier which the singular object is posited and then analysed as a fact of the world. This last part of an auxilliary argument in the Prolegomena section of the text is one in which Bennington claims that the frontier is in fact a ‘primary problem of political philosophy’ and that it “cannot be resolved dialectically”,[xiv] because of its ‘absolute exteriority’ but perhaps we shall see that it is in fact Bennington’s concept of the frontier that will never be crossed. Now, we shall return to the main bodies of the text itself after the long and precise previous sections named Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena in turn. The central focus from Aristotle to Kant will be the concept of the state of nature, and what each philosopher in turns coins as a natural community which then gives rise to a community seemingly outside and beyond that natural law basis. However, Bennington puts forth that natural frontiers would only be shores, rivers, mountains,[xv] and then the frontier of the State would rise later on the basis of these previous forms of frontiers, but the play Bennington is enforcing is thus to question these apparent frontiers in Aristotle and Kant. The linkage between the demarcation of the frontier and violence is furthermore explored in conjunction with the concept of the polis, speech, zoon politikon and the state of nature in Aristotle and Kant.[xvi] However, the key point for Bennington is that violence is first needed for the separation of the natural law from the State, or from the natural community to the polis, and then within this context of violence[xvii] the drawing of a frontier is a further representative act of violence, and contracts further violence in the form of jealousy, mockery, revenge, threat, warfare.[xviii]

For the problem that is tormenting these texts of Aristotle as much as those of Kant depends on the very structure (or the nature) of the frontier itself: If we cross the frontier between nature and right by nature, by necessity and natural force, we remain short of the frontier, on the side of nature, while claiming to cross it. If, however, we cross the frontier out of duty, we do not really cross it, because we were already on the other side, in right, just when we were supposed not to be there yet. The frontier between nature and right, then, does not really exist, even if there is this frontier. The nonlinear dynamics of these relations between nature and its others—physis and nomos, necessity and obligation, violence and peace, the always- already but yet never accomplished crossing of the frontier that separates these opposing terms—is precisely what we are here calling “nature,” some paradoxical consequences of which we are just beginning to see.[xix]

In this lengthy quote, it is clear what Bennington is advocating, attempting to highlight the apparent tensions and contradictions between the natural and beyond in Aristotle and Kant. However, to what extent does this supposed contradiction actually mean in regards to how Aristotle conceived of the difference between the natural community and the polis? And the same to what extent did Kant really think and construct a difference between a state of nature and state of law? Bennington explains that politics will continue eternally attempting to solve the problems of sovereignty, legislation, the forms of government, suffrage, and private property.[xx] In the case of Ancient Greece, the singular Greek polis once established out of the relations of husband to wife, master to slave and individual to city polis, will soon come to realize that their ‘circle’ is surrounded by other circles, and so the frontiers are forever expanded outwards from nature to law, to nature again, and further onwards to law. By setting up the tensions in Aristotle leading to Kant, Bennington wishes to set up the paradoxes of the “cosmopolitan situation of perpetual peace”,[xxi] which the circles of the polis which Aristotle describes build into Kant’s internationalist state of many nation-states interacting in a wider circle altogether. However Bennington wishes to highlight how the perpetual peace in Kant is none other than death, such that the only real solution to peace between international states is only when all of “Kant’s frontiers and distinctions are threatened in the very tracing of their line, and that the definition of critique itself will not survive unscathed”.[xxii] Bennington by deconstructing Kant’s theory of perpetual peace he then moves onto the much favoured other element of Kant which is known and marked out in philosophy, Kant’s critical moment or his mode of critique. Bennington lays more suspicion on Kant in his theory of critique in that alike to the temporal, teleological interruptive nature of perpetual peace, Kant’s critique suffers from the same temporal lapse. Bennington elucidates that:

in Kant the critical moment to the doctrinal moment (and indeed everyone does prefer that) but that, as the doctrinal moment only ever arrives as the death of the critical moment, it never truly arrives, which would leave us forever in the good critical tension? But then we would no longer really understand what critique means, as the concept of critique in Kant draws its content from its teleological determination with regard to doctrine. No critique without doctrine. Without doctrine, no critical step.[xxiii]

As outlined in his Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena the interruptive nature of teleology itself even enters into Bennington’s text in the form of a section called Interlude: The Guiding Thread (on Philosophical Reading) in which he will interject the basis of his own reading just performed in the previous section. He again refers to his polemic to philosophy in that it represses theories of reading primarily because of its primary mode of understanding its ideas of reading through hermeneutics, and that philosophy prefers to merely discuss ideas of thought rather than the philosophical readings. The problem of how to read philosophy, a philosopher, a philosophical text, a philosophical proposition, a philosophical concept is problematized by Bennington.[xxiv]

Interestingly enough, Bennington refers to Pascal and his “reader who goes too fast or too slowly, often in an uncomprehending disarray that does not stop me reading, but which puts me undeniably ill at ease”,[xxv] and coincidently one wonders whether Bennington’s text on the frontier is not reading in this way, but written in this very manner. He is therefore right in his offering of Hegel that the form of the text constructs the principle, thread and backbone of the ideas supposedly embedded within and outside the text in order to define its frontier to borrow Bennington’s concept, one believes that Derrida called it a parergon. Bennington continues, “Which is why, reading Hegel, one becomes a Hegelian (the text here is in principle already the institution of its own reading, already its own quasi- tautological saturating interpretation)”.[xxvi] Then one wonders, what is the institution of Bennington’s reading? The usage of prefaces, interludes and interjections demonstrate the frontier itself at work, in that when one reads a philosophical text one hopes to begin at the beginning perhaps at the first critique of Kant, then moves onto later texts in the next chapters divided by frontiers of titles, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, gaps in between the words one reads here, then back out into the ideas of critique, perpetual peace, Kant and into philosophy itself. Perhaps as Bennington himself suggests that one cannot do without the history of philosophy nor read the new,[xxvii] then his reading of Aristotle and Kant are both a classical reading and a new reading seemingly melded together in an undeniably fascinating combination proving the plasticity of philosophical reading whether it focuses on the ideas and represses theories of reading, or bases itself on a theory of reading and neglects the ideas, but one wonders whether both possibilities, or potentialities are in fact possible or an actuality? Bennington concludes on Kant by outlining that the frontier “can be said to be nature, violence, warfare, radical evil, contingency, but also providence, critique, or peace”.[xxviii] However, it is the same here as well as Adorno’s critique of Husserl in his book Metacritique in that phenomenology promises to be dealing with the essence of things by pervading all forms of metaphysical constraints and systems. However, just as Adorno thought that by using the term Being as the sole reduction of Western philosophy did not in fact lead to an overturning of Western metaphysics but a facile self-evidency, that in fact by designating the word Being as a concept in fact, leads to its own meaninglessness and loss of any conceptuality. Additionally, what in fact are Bennington’s contents of his own frontier? Again, as his Preface demonstrated perhaps he can evade such a question in that the frontier itself is not a concept or an idea by itself, but one wonders what is bracketed out of Bennington’s text. The part of the argument in his investigation of Kant is attempting to frame the question of politics in Kant,Bennington’s point can be summarized in that Kant never directly or explicitly addresses the question of politics, it is located in the interstices of the frontier between the “Architectonic of the first Critique, nor in the preface to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, nor in the introduction to the third Critique”.[xxix] Bennington puts this point in a form of dialogue, in that politics in Kant’s complete series of his system, never addresses the question of politics and yet his system concerns politics.

So to the question “Where is politics?” we reply (because Kant does not reply): On the frontier, or, rather, in the frontier, in the transitional spaces, between the great divisions of the system. As politics in Kant’s descriptions depends on a remainder of violent nature inscribed along frontiers, a remainder that cosmopolitanism does not absorb, politics will be inscribed […].[xxx]

However, Bennington does in fact identify where the frontier of Kant actually resides. He locates it in the Kantian mode of judgement, in which Kant is able to unite several disparate spheres, modes and spaces of thought within his grand architectonic system. It would seem then, that whilst Bennington at the beginning of his book and his analysis of Kant, the frontier did not seem apparent but more or less structured Kant’s reasoning in his system. Now it is revealed that Kant’s frontier is in fact, the faculty of judgement which can unite his thought.

We still do not know what a frontier is, or even what its nature is, except to be of nature. And we could even say that just that is the frontier: not knowing. We trace frontiers in order to know, but we will know nothing of the frontier itself. Kant is less interested in knowledge per se, pace the neo- Kantians, than in its frontier, where knowledge fails. If there were in Kant a faculty of the frontier, it would clearly be the faculty of judgment. The success of the operation might be disputed, but the aim of the third Critique seems clear enough: that of throwing a bridge over the abyss that has opened between the world of experience and the world of freedom, between speculative and practical reason. The abyss is, it would seem, again what we are here calling the frontier, in a peculiarly exacerbated or exasperated form. But judgment would be the faculty allowing it to be crossed, or at least allowing the two sides to be joined. Judgment would then be reason itself being rational, the pure faculty of relations that are both singular and analogous.[xxxi]

After concluding on the frontier of Kant as the faculty of judgement, Bennington deliberately jumps to Hegel’s critique of Kant into trying to “sublate contingency into necessity, without simply erasing the place of the contingency thus sublated”.[xxxii] Bennington’s sudden interruptive teleological of Hegel into his commentary on Kant is again representative of his concept of the frontier, demonstrating another frontier of Kant, be it in this case, a version of Kant as a part of Hegel’s critique of Kant himself. Bennington seems to make Hegel’s frontier the sublation of Kant’s frontier which may prove hugely problematic. Hegel’s supposed sublation is problematized by Bennington in that the end will never come, in terms of history or art such that the end is already implicit in the beginning.[xxxiii] Bennington summarizes the study of Kant in terms of two doctrines, firstly the doctrine of critique in which critique is lost in its employment, such that in its immanence it loses its immanent ability in a loss of temporality.

But what our halt around Kant will have taught us is that there are only halts and in them a certain spirit of critique that begins to be lost as soon as it becomes critique (i.e., once it is carried out in anticipation of a doctrine to come). This critical position of critique, this crisis of critique, obliges it to have quite different relations to the tradition than those entertained by Kant himself. So we have not tried to read Kant in a Kantian way (as will have been noticed), while nonetheless claiming to read Kant. Reading him, we clearly take a step outside what philosophers call “philosophy,” because philosophy in that sense is the refusal, in principle, of reading.[xxxiv]

Bennington concludes in his Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction that we must read philosophical works in a literary way to push the frontiers of our understandings and the frontiers of that thinker’s thought.[xxxv] As mentioned prior to in earlier sections, Bennington uses Derrida’s polemic of literature that it forces philosophy to think, and that the boundaries between philosophy and literature are in fact literary frontiers, such that they are mediated by philosophies of reading, not just the ideas and systems of thought of philosophy. In conclusion, one gets the formidable impression from Bennington’s latest text on the frontier, that it serves as a frontier itself as opposed to a content-filled space in between project, and that as one reads this text one should expect the next texts to come as further boundaries to Bennington’s post-deconstructive, Derridean work.

Does this mean that “analogy” is the proper name of what we are trying to articulate here? Certainly not, because there can be no propriety of analogy. The ana-logos always remains to one side of the logos, bordering or lining it without letting itself be comprehended by it, or letting itself be comprehended solely as its Grenze, which immediately relaunches the whole machinery. Reason, exposed by Kant according to a certain ana-logics of logic, speaks itself and loses itself not in the empty space beyond the frontier but at the frontier itself as pure analogy. But one senses that analogy can never be pure, as it is purely a placing in relation. Like the frontier as such, analogy as such is nothing, and so there is analogy only in a dispersion of uncontrollable, in(de)terminable singularities, always in the now of the event of the frontier. Analogy is only ever analogical, relaunches itself indefinitely as the unlimited limit of thought or as the pure relation of thought and language. The frontier, as Aristotle knew, is infinite, interminable, a term without term. Kant never finishes tracing it, putting a term to it, limiting himself to bounds, bound to limits. This is his cross, his passion, that gives rise to a reading that I cannot say is either literary or philosophical, that really starts I know not where, and finds its end I know not how.[xxxvi]


[i]               Bennington Geoffrey, Preface to the English Edition in Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics and the Ends of the Earth, Fordham University Press, (New York, 2017), p. ix.

[ii]              Ibid.

[iii]             Ibid.

[iv]             Ibid., p. x.

[v]              Ibid.

[vi]             Ibid., Preliminary p. xiii.

[vii]            Ibid.

[viii]           Ibid., p. xiv.

[ix]             Ibid., p. xv.

[x]              Ibid., Prolegomena p. xix.

[xi]             Ibid., p. xxv.

[xii]            Ibid., p. xxvi.

[xiii]           Ibid., p. xxviii.

[xiv]          Ibid.

[xv]           Ibid., The End of Nature, p. 2.

[xvi]          Ibid., p. 3.

[xvii]         Ibid.

[xviii]        Ibid.

[xix]          Ibid., p. 27..

[xx]           Ibid., The Return of Nature p. 28

[xxi]          Ibid., p. 62.

[xxii]         Ibid.

[xxiii]        Ibid., p. 84.

[xxiv]        Ibid., Interlude: The Guiding Thread (On Philosophical Reading) p. 85.

[xxv]         Ibid.

[xxvi]        Ibid., p. 92

[xxvii]       Ibid., p. 99.

[xxviii]      Ibid., p. 107.

[xxix]        Ibid., 4. Radical Nature, p. 109.

[xxx]         Ibid.

[xxxi]        Ibid., 5. The Abyss of Judgement, p. 144.

[xxxii]       Ibid., Finis p. 199.

[xxxiii]      Ibid., p. 203.

[xxxiv]      Ibid.

[xxxv]       Ibid., Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction (Grenze and Schranke), p. 205.

[xxxvi]      Ibid., p. 223.