Jacques Derrida: The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II

The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II Book Cover The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II
The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida. First volume translated by Peggy Kamuf. Second volume translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg
University of Chicago Press
2013, 2017
Paperback
312, 304

Reviewed by: Jack Robert Coopey (University of St Andrews)

 

This was necessary at least to the extent that so- called capital punishment puts into play, in the imminence of an irreversible sanction, along with what appears to be held to be unpardonable, the concepts of sovereignty (of the State or the head of State — right of life and death over the citizen), of the right to pardon, etc.[i]

 

The seminars given in (1999-2000) by Derrida on the Death Penalty resemble Foucault’s later work in the College de France lectures in their constant investigation of the consequences and components of the death penalty which through Derrida’s careful unfolding analysis reveals severe political and social implications in his deconstruction. The seminars fall into the same category of post-phenomenological philosophy in investigating the main canonical texts and thinkers of the history of Western philosophy in order to critique the historical present on the concept of death penalty. In addition to this, Derrida implicates the death penalty in questions of sovereignty and the economy, and the ways in which the spilling of the blood of a state’s citizens involves a certain economy of conceptual content as well as concrete, financial implications. It seems that the context of these seminars within Derrida’s thought may have been firstly overshadowed by his immanent death in 2004, in conjunction with his previous text The Gift of Death (1995) which is his other serious consideration of religion and the political. Additionally, it appears that in his supposedly late political phase, that the death penalty in light of globalization of the 1990’s revealed a means by which to understand the neo-liberal, state of exception worldwide. The seminars simultaneously reveal a hidden part of Derrida that has not seen before, but the question whether these analyses of the death penalty are a repetition of various concepts mentioned throughout earlier works in his corpus is a haunting aspect of deconstruction and Derrida himself. The question of life over death involves the who, what and how in a primarily ontic or ontological question of how life itself is governed by the laws of death penalties and criminality. Although it is evident, that alongside a widespread critique of Derrida, is simultaneously his ability to analyse concepts at an intricate, fruitful and insightful ways, however it may seem these seminars merely reproduce Derrida’s methodology and ideas themselves. To put it more clearly, whilst Derrida did not explicitly write about the death penalty other than these two volumes, the questions of sovereignty, economy and cruelty can be seen as synonymous with the slogans of deconstruction such as the trace, difference and the spectre. Derrida in the first volume examines the ‘canonical texts’ and the ‘canonical examples’ involving the death penalty, being Socrates, Jesus, Hallaj, Joan of Arc, Locke, Kant, Hugo and the Bible. Derrida summarises the conceptual significance of these questions:

Three problematic concepts dominated our questioning through the texts and examples we studied: sovereignty, exception, and cruelty. Another guiding question: why have abolitionism or condemnation of the death penalty, in its very principle, (almost) never, to date, found a properly philosophical place in the architectonic of a great philosophical discourse as such? How are we to interpret this highly significant fact?[ii]

Therefore, alike to Derrida’s other work the question of the repressed, hidden and concealed is revealed in the question of the death penalty and punishment in general. Derrida also highlights the phenomenological status of the unforgivable in relation to capital punishment, which not only involves has juridical and political dimensions but also in the ‘stakes of its abolishment’ possessing implications for a theorization of globalization or Derrida’s term mondialisation. In addition, to this question of globalization the ‘history of its visibility’, the ‘public character’ and its ‘representation in the arts of theatre, painting, photography, cinema and literature’ are also key to Derrida’s investigation of the metaphysics of the death penality. In the first session, Derrida begins the question of the death penalty in the form of a ‘judicial decision’ in the form of the Other, which will inevitably tie into the question of sovereignty itself:

It is indeed of an end, but of an end decided, by a verdict, of an end decreed by a judicial decree [arrêtée par un arrêt de justice], it is of a decided end that decidedly we are going to talk endlessly, but of an end decided by the other, which is not necessarily, a priori, the case of every end and every death, assuming at least, as concerns the decision this time, as concerns the essence of the decision, that it is ever decided otherwise than by the other. And assuming that the decision of which we are getting ready to speak, the death penalty, is not the very archetype of decision. Assuming, then, that anyone ever makes a decision that is his or hers, for himself or herself, his or her own proper decision. […] The death penalty, as the sovereign decision of a power, reminds us perhaps, before anything else, that a sovereign decision is always the other’s.[iii]

In this sense, Derrida’s analysis will analyse the dynamics by which the sovereign will enact a judicial decree in a sphere or spectacle of visibility. These analyses bear resemblance to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as well as his later work on the shift from pre-modern sovereignty necessitating a form of visibility in order to be enacted to be seen by the sovereign themselves as well as the governed. This shift from a democratic modernity to a neoliberal regime of invisible power and marketization is where Foucault and Derrida meet here. As Derrida remarks: “The state must and wants to see die the condemned one”.[iv] Derrida then shifts like Foucault to analysing Plato’s texts such as the Apology to analyse what shape sovereignty takes, and what form of judicial decree is made against Socrates and the eventual decisionism which results in Socrates’ death. These analyses of the earlier Greek demonstrations of sovereignty will provide an allegory for Derrida’s deconstruction of the United States and their stance on death penalty and the globalized state of exception they declared within Derrida’s time.

The Apology says it explicitly (24b–c): the kategoria, the accusation lodged against Socrates, is to have done the wrong, to have been guilty, to have committed the injustice (adikein) of corrupting the youth and of (or for) having ceased to honor (nomizein) the gods (theous) of the city or the gods honored by the city — and especially of having substituted for them not simply new gods, as the translations often say, but new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina); and daimonia are doubtless often gods, divinities, but also sometimes, as in Homer, inferior gods or revenants, the souls of the dead; and the text does indeed make the distinction between gods and demons: Socrates did not honor the gods (theous) of the city and he introduced new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina).[v]

The next aspect which Derrida analyses is the paradox of the abolition or the maintaining of the death penalty in ‘democratic modernity’ which he refers to as the present political situation globally. Derrida sees this paradox operating between the right to kill in war of a nation state and as a democratic state, and the maintaining of the death penalty which almost acts like a kind of state of exception. The paradox or contradiction between maintaining a supposedly democratic state in Ancient Athens and the United States whilst permitting the murder of foreigns and its own citizens under certain exceptions to the rule is where Derrida reveals this conceptual impasse and insightful paralell to the democratic modernity we inhabit. Perhaps one question Derrida raises here, is how we can better construct a more democratic ‘democracy to come’ in Derrida’s messianism without this exception to the rule, however to what extent democracies can exist without exceptions to rules is perhaps not a possibility.

Even in nation-states that have abolished the death penalty, an abolition of the death penalty that is in no way equivalent to the abolition of the right to kill, for example, in war, well, these several nation- states of democratic modernity that have abolished the death penalty keep a sovereign right over the life of citizens whom they can send to war to kill or be killed in a space that is radically foreign to the space of internal legality, of the civil law where the death penalty may be either maintained or abolished.[vi]

Just like in Foucault, Derrida wishes to understand how the ancient origins of the death penalty in his analysis of Socrates’s trial then grounds and organises the rationality behind the democratic modernity which permits death penalty still in particular nation-states. Derrida’s commentary follows a historical account from the Apology onwards towards the onset of the Enlightenment, most explicit in the work of Kant who for Derrida explicates a rationality of justifying the death penalty as a law of man as opposed to beasts who commit crimes and resorts to a brutal, ‘natural life’.

Here, in a logic that we will continue to find up to Kant and many others, but in Kant par excellence, access to the death penalty is an access to the dignity of human reason, and to the dignity of a man who, unlike beasts, is a subject of the law who raises himself above natural life. That is why, in this logic, in the logos of this syllogos, the death penalty marks the access to what is proper to man and to the dignity of reason or of human logos and nomos. All of this, death included, supposedly testifies to the rationality of laws (logos and nomos) and not to natural or bestial savagery, with the consequence that even if the one condemned to death is deprived of life or of the right to life, he or she has the right to rights and, thus, in a certain way to honor and to a burial place.[vii]

Thus, Derrida argues that in Kant there is a systematic account of how the death penalty in fact is above the natural law of killing, in that in its act of justice and rectifying the law of human beings is in fact, a product of reason. The death penalty is viewed by Kant as a object that is above the natural law, but is a means of restoring the natural law without descending into natural or bestial savagery as a result. As a result of these preliminary analyses, Derrida moves into the core of the death penalty which similarly to Foucault’s lectures realises the theological dimension to how decisions of life and decisions of death are mediated by a onto-theological basis. Derrida even goes as far to say that:

[…] it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history and this horizon of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico- political. An enormous history, the whole history that at the moment we are only touching on or glimpsing. It is not even certain that the concept of history and the concept of horizon resist a deconstruction of the scaffolding of these scaffolds. By scaffolding, I mean the construction, the architecture to be deconstructed, as well as the speculation, the calculation, the market, but also the speculative idealism that provides its supports. History, the concept of history is perhaps linked, in its very possibility, in its scaffolding, to the Abrahamic and above all the Christian history of sovereignty, and thus of the possibility of the death penalty as theologico- political violence. Deconstruction is perhaps always, ultimately, through the deconstruction of carno-phallogocentrism, the deconstruction of this historical scaffolding of the death penalty, of the history of this scaffold or of history as scaffolding of this scaffold. Deconstruction, what is called by that name, is perhaps, perhaps the deconstruction of the death penalty, of the logocentric, logonomocentric scaffolding in which the death penalty is inscribed or prescribed. The concept of theologico- political violence is still confused, obscure, rather undifferentiated (despite the hyphen we see being clearly and undeniably inscribed in the four great examples, in the four great paradigmatic “cases” that I have just so quickly evoked: trial with thematic religious content and execution, putting to death by a state- political agency, law itself, the juridical, beginning with the “judgments” and the code of Exodus, the juridical, then, always assuring the mediation between the theological and the political); this relatively crude but already sufficiently determined concept of the theologico- political, the theologico- juridico- political will demand from us an interminable analysis. […] One would then ask oneself: “What is the theologico- political?” And the answer would take shape thus: the theologico- political is a system, an apparatus of sovereignty in which the death penalty is necessarily inscribed. There is theologico- political wherever there is death penalty.[viii]

It was necessary to quote Derrida at length here given the immense amount of explication he makes in these conceptual movements. Foucault in his analyses in the Will to Know (1971) College de France lecture similarly analyses the history of sovereignty as a moment of theological significance primarily because there is a moment of miraculous exception, in which knowledge is founded and the sovereign is the one who firstly found the knowledge, and then controls the dissemination of this knowledge and its operations. In a concise metaphor, Derrida even draws the parallel of the telos of deconstruction in itself, that it is necessary in its ability to deconstruct the literal scaffolding of the death penalty and its executions themselves. The next point which Derrida gracefully moves onto, is the linkage between what he calls ‘literature and death’ which specifically refers to the works of literature that are produced about and concerning death, but also how literature for Derrida constitutes a direct European ‘contestation of the death penalty’. For Derrida then, the pen and the scaffold are at odds with one another, in that literature or the ‘right’ to literature constitutes a freedom of public assembly that not only is against the barbarism of the death penalty but that literature in this way is against death, and the right to death that any supposed historical sovereign possesses. Derrida explains the dialectic between:

[…] “literature and death,” “literature and the right to death,” or the trail of countless literary or poetic works that put crime and punishment, and that punishment called the death penalty, to work or on stage. […] if the history of the general possibility, of the largest territory of the general conditions of possibility of epic, poetic, or belle-lettristic productions (not of literature in the strict and modern sense) supposes or goes hand in hand with the legitimacy or the legality of the death penalty, well then, on the contrary, the short, strict, and modern history of the institution named literature in Europe over the last three or four centuries is contemporary with and indissociable from a contestation of the death penalty, an abolitionist struggle that, to be sure, is uneven, heterogeneous, discontinuous, but irreversible and tending toward the worldwide as conjoined history, once again, of literature and rights, and of the right to literature.[ix]

Derrida moves onto the onto-theological dimension of the death penalty and its relation to the sovereign, through the concept of the exception. The primary thinker Derrida is referencing here is Carl Schmitt and the state of exception which foregoes the possibility of suspending the rule of law to save the ultimate state of law. This parallel is synonymous with Derrida’s reading of Kant discussed before in which Kant sees the death penalty as a means of sustaining the rationality of human beings by providing death in a rational, ordered logic without returning to natural or bestial savagery.

What is an exception? More than once, last year, we insisted on the character of absolute exception that pardon must maintain, a pardon worthy of the name, a pardon that is always unforeseeable and irreducible to statement as well as to contract, to determinative judgment, to the law, therefore, a pardon always outside the law, always heterogeneous to order, to norm, to rule, or to calculation, to the rule of calculation, to economic as well as juridical calculation. Every pardon worthy of that name, if there ever is any, must be exceptional, should be exceptional, that is in short the law of the pardon: it must be lawless and exceptional, above the laws or outside the laws. The question then remains: what is an exception? Can one pose this question? Is there an essence of exception, an adequate concept of this supposed essence? One may have one’s doubts, and yet we commonly use this word, as if it had an assured semantic unity. We regularly act as if we know what an exception is or, likewise, what an exception is not, as if we had a valid criterion with which to identify an exception or the exceptionality of an exception, the rule, in short, of the exception, the rule for discerning between the exceptional <and> the non- exceptional — which seems, however, absurd or a contradiction in terms. And yet, people commonly speak of the exception, the exception to the rule, the exception that confirms the rule; there is even a law or laws of exception, exceptional tribunals, and so forth.[x]

For Derrida, the exception represents a form of messianic moment that is invisible and unpredictable. The law as well as the exception following Benjamin and the onto-theological view of the founding of sovereignty and violence are a momentality which is heterogeneous to itself and unforeseeable. Derrida deconstructs using questions about the essence of an exception and to what extent there is an exception of exceptionality, if there is a rule to the exception, how can we then distinguish between the exception and a non-exception? Derrida argues that the common intuition is that the exception is an exception to the rule, so it appears with the Schmittian dynamic of the state of exception, and furthermore developed in Agamben’s homo sacer, that the state of exception is itself a contradiction, which in its essence actually permits its existentiality, insomuch as a momentality is only a momentality distinguished from eternity as a diffraction within eternity itself and not without. Similarly, this paradox of the exception also resembles the contradiction of our democratic modernity and the impenitence of the death penalty within it, and to what extent can we work to undo these types of logic, as no exception to the rule, Derrida merely gestures but remains silent. As a bridge from the exception, Derrida then wishes to push into a Wittgensteinian sphere of the problem of the inexpressibility of pain as a form of leap of faith, such that suffering from cruelty is also a form of exception itself.

Our two questions then became: what is cruelty? And what is the exception? Does one have the right to ask the question, what is? with respect to them? With respect to them, which is to say, for us, with respect to that which links them here indissociably, irreversibly, namely, what we call the death penalty, the question, itself enigmatic, of the death penalty. To think the tie between cruelty and exception, one would have to set out from this exceptionally cruel thing that is the death penalty. Before even letting ourselves be pursued by this question, by the machinic and armed apparatus of these questions that descend on us even before we have asked them (What is and what does cruelty mean? What is and what does exception mean?), allow me on this date to mark precisely, and without convention, in what way they are questions of the millennium and questions of the century, questions of the historic passage at which we have arrived. […] But also because we are at a unique moment in this history, at a moment when, often while basing itself on an equivocal thinking of cruelty (the reference, on the one hand, to red blood and, on the other hand, to the radical malice of evil for evil’s sake, of the “making suffer just to make suffer,” which are two very distinct semantic features of what is called cruelty) […].[xi]

Thus, the death penalty is the exception to the utmost of cruelties in Derrida’s argument. Like Foucault’s shift from the ancient conceptions of the death penalty, Derrida also wishes to emphasize the relevance of these metaphysical debates on the present of communication technologies and the present struggles of abolition. This movement from the Ancients to our technologized present is already at work in Heidegger and through Foucault’s later work, in the ways that technologies are sustaining catastrophic logics of exception.

We are going to continue today — but differently, changing our references and rhythm a little — with what we began to elaborate last time by interweaving the two motifs or the two logics of cruelty on the one hand and sovereign exception on the other, all the while analyzing the current situation in the ongoing struggle for abolition, with the role of new media (Internet, etc.) and the strategy of texts on human rights, the right to life, and on the theological origins of the concepts of modern politics, notably of sovereignty (with reference to Schmitt). The history of law and the history of so- called communications technologies, the joint history of the juridical or judicial machine and of the informative or informational machine were and remain, then, the irreducible element of our questioning.[xii]

Derrida then links these questions of the exception, cruelty and the death penalty to how technologies inform and disseminate these modes of sovereignty. Additionally, Derrida argues for the abolition of the death penalty in analysing the economy of the death penalty, particularly in regards to the economics behind the penal system in the United states. In Volume II he elaborates and goes over previously established material but extends his analysis to the question of pain and concludes on the concept of blood in order to draw conclusions on his analysis of the death penalty to allegorize an abolitionism against seeing the red sight of blood.

When I declare, if I come to you and say, without declaiming, “I’m in pain [je souffre],” “I am suffering [je souffre]” in my soul or in my body, in particular when I murmur “I am suffering” in my psyche, without so- called physical distress, assuming this is possible, a purely psychical distress, well then, what is it I am saying to you in the same breath? Do you understand me? What do you understand? You hear what I am saying, of course, but do you understand me? Do you understand the meaning of these words “I am suffering”? Perhaps, then, I should clarify and sharpen the meaning of my question and change my vocabulary a little in order to make you understand where I’m going, in order to entrust you with my strategy when I declare without declaiming that “I am suffering.” It is certainly not in order to awaken your compassion, this you have surely understood, but, as a teacher, to lead you, pedagogically, to the question that I want you to hear [entendre]. If I tell you or if I think “I am suffering” in my soul and cruelly so, then it is because I have what is called peine [pain, penalty]. There it is, there’s the word: it has been let loose, and it remains loose. Je peine [I’m at pains] and j’ai de la peine [I’m in pain]; je suis peine [I’m pained]. What peine are we talking about? What does peine mean? This peine [pain, penalty], does it come from me or from the other, ultimately? What is its cause? And who is its cause? Does it ever come only from me, this so- called peine? Does it always come from the other, and from the outside? Or are things more convoluted, and precisely painful (penibles, peinlich), because of this? I pass from one language to another in order to problematize, in order to draw your attention to the semantic problem that opens up between the painful [pénible] of the peine and the penal [pénal] of the peine, between the painful of the pain and the painful of the penalty.[xiii]

In conclusion, we can read the two volumes as a death penalty for Derrida as assigned by Derrida himself. The two volumes should be understood within the context of Derrida’s later political phase as an investigation into the history of the death of penalty to critique the contemporary discourses of death penalty in the United States and worldwide. Furthermore, Derrida uses the concept of the death penalty in order to explore the state of exception, cruelty and sovereignty that the United States also has subsumed over the globalized world since its ascension to a superpower post World War Two. The impossibility of the Other to understand the pain of another is another way of Derrida attempting to voice the pain and injustice of the death penalty. The relation between the concept and blood is for Derrida in understanding how the blood of the death penalty can be conceived in order to advocate its abolitionism. Derrida in this sense, hopes to never see the red of blood return, only to disappear, but regrettably Derrida disappeared only three years after the last seminar only to return as a spectre of thought to haunt the history of philosophy, hopefully eternally, ever to return as a name that changed thought or how thinking thinks.

How to conceive, how to conceive of it, the relation between the concept and blood? How to conceive of blood? Can blood be conceived? And how might a concept bleed, how might it, this concept, lead to an effusion [epanchement] of blood? Whether it comes to concepts or blood, we are thus a long way from being done with the impermeable [l’etanche]. We are a long way, a very long way, from being done — will we ever be done? — staunching the flow [d’etancher]. No doubt you remember that this word, impermeable [etanche], the impermeable [l’etanche], retained us briefly in passing last time. What does staunching [étancher] mean? We were present at the scene of the hemorrhaging, if not the hemophilia, of the wound and the bleeding to be staunched, of the effusion of blood to be staunched (by draining, suturing, ligaturing, stricturing, closing the wound, binding). The scenography of hemography, the hemoscenography, seemed to us to demand a certain privilege, a certain prerogative, even if water and tears could also be seen figuring among the liquidities to be staunched. Among the liquid bodies produced or secreted by the body itself — water, tears, blood, to which one would have to add milk or sperm — we felt called upon by the death penalty to see red, to see the red of blood return or disappear.[xiv]


[i]               Derrida Jacques (trans. Peggy Kamuf) (eds.) (Geoffrey Bennington, Marc Crepon, Thomas Dutoit), The Death Penalty, Volume I, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2014), p. xiv.

[ii]              Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

[iii]             Ibid., First Session, December 8, 1999, p.1.

[iv]             Ibid., p.2.

[v]              Ibid., p.5.

[vi]             Ibid.

[vii]            Ibid., p. 8.

[viii]           Ibid., p. 23.

[ix]             Ibid., First Session, December 8th, 1999, p. 30.

[x]              Ibid., Second Session, December 15th, 1999, p. 69.

[xi]             Ibid., Third Session, January 12th, 2000, p. 69.

[xii]            Ibid., Fourth Session, January 19th, 2000, Right to Life, Right to Death, p. 69.

[xiii]           Ibid., Volume II, Second Session, December 13th, 2000, p. 29.

[xiv]          Ibid., Volume II, Ninth Session, March 21st, 2001, p. 214.

Dan Zahavi (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology, Oxford University Press, 2018

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Dan Zahavi (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2018
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Marta Jorba, Dermot Moran (Eds.): Conscious Thinking and Cognitive Phenomenology, Routledge, 2018

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Marta Jorba, Dermot Moran (Eds.)
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This book was originally published as a special issue of Philosophical Explorations.

Jean-Luc Marion: On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism, University of Chicago Press, 2018

On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism Book Cover On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism
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Béatrice Longuenesse: I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Kant Again

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Béatrice Longuenesse
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £30.00
288

Reviewed by: Çağlan Çınar Dilek (Central European University)

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again by Beatrice Longuenesse presents a comprehensive study on different understandings of the notion of ’I’ through focusing particularly on how ‘I’ is used by Kant in ‘I think’ and comparing it with its usage by Descartes, Wittgenstein, and Sartre. This book presents the provocative claim that Freud is a good candidate for being a descendant of Kant by naturalizing his view of ‘I’. The book consists of three parts. Firstly, the author starts with a comparative analysis of ‘consciousness as a subject’ in Kant, ‘usage of I’ in Wittgenstein and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ in Sartre. Then she moves back to Kant’s understanding of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and in ‘I ought to’ through his criticism of rationalist ideas on the nature of ‘I’ as a substance, as simple, and as a person. Lastly she presents how Freud’s notions of ‘ego’ and ‘superego’ have similarities to Kant’s ‘I think’ and ‘I ought’ and how Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental philosophy.

Longuenesse does not intend to give an historical study but rather aims to present a strong Kantian picture of ‘I’ that is most loyal to him and also strongest in today’s discussions, as the topic fits nicely into the contemporary discussions in philosophy of mind and language. The choice of historical figures in this sense works towards a better understanding of the intended strong Kantian position. In this direction, Descartes’ argument against skepticism for the existence of ‘self’ provides also a foundational starting point for the peculiarity of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ – that we necessarily experience ourselves as a simple substance and as a person with diachronical unity, but we cannot infer these qualities of the ‘I’ as an object as conceived by rationalists. While Wittgenstein’s distinction between ‘use of I as subject’ and ‘use of I as object’ has framed discussions in philosophy of language on self-ascription and the referent of ‘I’, phenomenological ideas like ‘pre-reflective consciousness’ have made a great influence in the philosophy of mind and consciousness in last decades, reviving a move towards One-Level Accounts of Consciousness in contrast to Higher-Order Representational Theories of Consciousness. And Freud’s notions help us to understand Kant’s ‘I’ in his theoretical and practical philosophy in an embedded and embodied context.

In the first part (Chapters 2 and 3), Longuenesse starts by treating self-consciousness as a first-person usage of ‘I’. In this direction, she introduces Wittgenstein’s distinction between two uses of ‘I’: ‘the use as an object’ and ‘the use as subject’. The author then compares this distinction by Wittgenstein with Kant’s distinction between ‘consciousness of oneself as subject’ and ‘consciousness of oneself as object.’ For Wittgenstein, the ‘use of I as object’ is exemplified in cases where you utter sentences like “my arm is broken,” “I have grown six inches,” while the ‘use of I as subject’ is exemplified as you say “I see so and so,” “I think it will rain,” and “I have toothache”. The distinguishing feature of the ‘use of I as a subject’ is that there is no possibility of error, while there is one in the ‘use of I as object’. Shoemaker describes this by saying ‘the use of I as subject’ is “immune to error through misidentification relative to first-person pronoun” and Longuenesse goes along with this description throughout the book while treating Wittgenstein’s notion. Accordingly, even when ‘I’ actually refers to ‘oneself as an object’ and that person later infers that the mentioned subject is identical to himself (as in John Perry’s example where he finds out that the person who is making a mess in the market turns out to be himself), the final criterion for finding out the truth about the statement (person x = ‘I’) is not objective. Rather, “there needs to be a point at which no more search for objective criteria is called for in order to establish the identity between the entity of which the predicate is true, and the believer and speaker of the current thought asserting the predicate to be true.” To establish this, the believer should have a special access to information about herself.

Longuenesse argues that even the ‘use of I as object’ depends on the kind of information that, expressed in a judgment, would ground a ‘use of I as a subject’. So, the question becomes what this ‘I as subject refers to’ (of course if it refers to anything at all; Anscombe argues that it does not, but Longuenesse argues against such a position). Evans thinks that the referent is the embodied entity. Accordingly, self-ascriptions, which are immune to error through misidentification (IEM), “are not limited to mental states but include bodily mental states.” For him, the referent as an embodied entity constitutes the conditions of the possibility for a referential use of ‘I’. He makes use of Kant’s ‘I’ as accompanying all our perceptions, and argues that without such an embodied and embedded referent we end up with at most a formal ‘I think”. It follows that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ represents only “a form of thought and it is not used to refer to any entity at all.” Longuenesse agrees with Evans on emphasizing the role of the embodied entity, while she disagrees that Evans’ claim about the referent of ‘I’ is true, both as a Kantian interpretation and as a claim in itself. According to Longuenesse, it is right only to say that in the lack of information about the properties of the referent of ‘I’, one cannot derive any property ‘I’ refers to. Nevertheless, this does not mean that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ does not refer to any entity at all. This is an important point on which Longuenesse builds the second part of the book where she treats Kant’s criticisms of rationalist claims about the nature of ‘I’. Accordingly, Kant denies that we can infer the properties of the ‘I’ – as being a substance, simple and a person, as claimed by rationalists, while he does not deny that ‘I’ refers to any such entity at all.

Longuenesse thinks that Kant`s distinction between ‘consciousness as a subject’ and ‘consciousness as an object’ does not match Wittgenstein’s distinction. The ‘use of I as a subject’ that grounds all the uses of I (as an object or subject) is better understood through the Kantian notion of ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, which maps only a part of  Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as a subject’ – as in ‘I think’. So one needs to distinguish different uses of I as subject: 1) self-location, 2) self-ascription of bodily predicates, 3) self-ascription of P predicates and 4) the unity of `I’ that grounds `I think’. The fourth kind of self-consciousness on which ‘I think p` rests is presupposed in all other uses of I and is a necessary condition for any use of I and any judgment.

Chapter 3 is devoted to different uses of ‘I’ as a subject, this time from a phenomenological perspective, and continues to investigate its relation to ‘I’ as an embodied entity. Longuenesse makes use of Sartre`s distinction between ‘non-thetic/non-positional’ consciousness and ‘thetic/positional’ consciousness. ‘Non-thetic consciousness’ accompanies all consciousness that is directed to an object, and it is omnipresent, while it is not itself taken as an object (which is the case in thetic consciousness). Thetic consciousness is a reflective kind of consciousness where one`s attention is directed to the non-thetic consciousness. Sartre considers both the awareness of one`s own body (body-for-itself) and awareness of the unity of mental activity (pre-reflective cogito) as forms of non-positional consciousness. Longuenesse makes a comparative analysis between Sartre`s ‘pre-reflective cogito’, Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as subject’ and Kant`s ‘consciousness of oneself as a subject’. She argues that Sartre`s and Wittgenstein`s notions share the weaknesses vis-a-vis Kant`s notion: Sartre and Wittgenstein defend stronger and broader claims than Kant by aiming to offer an account of the kinds of self-awareness that back all cases of the use of I as subject, but then they fall into a contradictory position. Kant`s position is stronger by presenting a less comprehensive position: it only tries to back the ‘use of I as subject’, which is then considered as a ground for other kinds of uses of I (like of our body).

It is interesting to see a comparison between Kant and Sartre that also includes Wittgenstein, if we consider recent discussions on consciousness in philosophy of mind. Phenomenology has been having an effect on theories of phenomenal consciousness in the last decades, through using ideas by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre. Dan Zahavi has been one of the pioneers to bring these ideas back to analytical philosophy to argue against representational theories – particularly Higher-Order Representational Theories. An important focus of attack of such phenomenological approaches is David Rosenthal with his classical Higher-Order Thought Theory. He argues that one can explain what-is-like-ness, a subject’s being phenomenally conscious of being in a mental state, through explaining state-consciousness. State-consciousness of a particular state that is directed to the worldly object is explained through a higher-order mental state, which is thought-like in form and makes the first-order mental state conscious by representing it in an immediate and non-inferential manner. Without the presence of such an occurrent Higher-Order Thought (HOT), our first-order mental state is not conscious and there is nothing-it-is-like to undergo that particular mental state. This state has still the property of ‘mentality’ as having a particular qualitative object as its content and this is explained though a theory of mentality, distinct from a theory of consciousness. Dan Zahavi argues against such an approach by using notions from the phenomenological tradition such as ‘mineness’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘first-person perspective’, and ‘pre-reflective consciousness’. The essential idea is that there is always a form of pre-reflective consciousness present in our experience, for which a higher-order representation is not necessary and even destructive to understand that particular phenomenological consciousness, because representation changes the nature of conscious experience by objectifying and thus modifying it. This pre-reflective consciousness makes an experience ‘for-me’, through which I experience the world and of which I am always aware. Thus, this is at the same time a form of self-consciousness: there would not be any form of self-consciousness possible without the minimal, pre-reflective consciousness, and we don’t need to give a different account for self-consciousness by explaining it through meta-representation or reflexivity.

It is important for such a discussion that Longuenesse points to the relation between a Kantian ‘I’ in ‘I think’ as the condition of possibility for any experience and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ as the condition for Cartesian ‘cogito’. But the similarities are not limited to this: both in Sartre and Kant ‘I’ is not an object, the representation of which falls under the concept ‘I think’/cogito, but rather ‘I think’ is “the very expression of the act of thinking.” This emphasis is again important to consider the activity and the subject of activity together. Only by understanding this interrelatedness is it possible to discuss the subject of experience in a proper way, for which phenomenology has had important effect against theories distinguishing between subject and its experience (and which then try to understand how an experience belongs to a self and how the unity of self is constituted through distinct theories), and against views which treat ‘I’ as representation as the outcome of a developed ability of concept usage.

The second part of the book (Chapters 4, 5 and 6) deals with the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ and with the question of whether we can infer anything about the nature of ‘I’. Kant accuses “Descartes and his rationalist followers for having been under the illusion that they could derive not only ‘I exist’, but also an answer to the question ‘What am I?’ from the mere consideration of the proposition ‘I think’” (74). Chapter 5 deals with the different reasons Descartes and Kant choose to infer from ‘thinking’ to ‘I think’ rather than ‘it thinks’. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Kant`s refutations of rationalist arguments that `I’ is i) a substance , ii) simple, and iii) a person (with personal identity across time).

It is illuminating to see in Chapter 4 how far Descartes and Kant agree on the role of ‘I’, while they have different motivations to use ‘I think’ in their arguments. Longuenesse explains how Descartes deals with skeptical doubt and presents ‘I think’ as a foundational solution to it, while Kant responds to a Humean skepticism that is “primarily directed at the objective validity of the idea of causal connection.” According to Kant, for a representation to be possible or to be something to me, it should always be accompanied by the ‘I think’. Kant does not progress from there to “I think cannot be true unless ‘I’ is true”, nor does he infer the nature of ‘I’, but he rather moves to the claim that “all representations I ascribe to myself are so ascribed in virtue of being taken up in one and the same act of bonding and comparing them, an act that is determined according to some universal concepts of the understanding,” and the concept of causal connection is one of these with which Kant primarily deals. The author does a great job comparing the notion of thought and consciousness between these two philosophers in depth that is helpful towards any contemporary theory of consciousness, as lots of theories lack clear distinctions between different kinds of consciousness and how these relate to ‘thought’ and ‘I’.  Accordingly, Descartes’ notion of ‘thought’ is broader than Kant’s in terms of including any occurrent mental state, while Kant refers only to conceptual representations, particularly to judgments.

Longuenesse’s categorization of three kinds of consciousness in Kant is useful to compare him with Descartes and Sartre: 1) the mere consciousness of the act of thinking, 2) the indeterminate perception that I think, 3) the empirically determined consciousness of the sequence of one’s mental states. The first one is self-consciousness as consciousness of the pure act of thinking. We cannot represent it as an object and we cannot categorize it. We cannot infer anything about its essence, even if we cognize it as the subject and ground of thinking. This spontaneous consciousness is considered similar to Sartre’s ‘pre-reflective cogito’. The latter kind of consciousness is an empirical intuition, “a mere perception of an act of thinking I take to be mine.” It has ‘time’ as its form and ‘sensation’ as its matter that is constituted of affecting oneself with one’s own act of thinking. This propositional ‘I think’ is located in time in relation to other perceptions but it remains indeterminate in so far as it is not. The third one is a “consciousness of my own existence in time as a thinking being” and here ‘I think’ contains ‘I exist.’ Longuenesse compares this explicit reflection on the sequence of my thoughts with Sartre’s ‘reflective self-consciousness’. The first kind of consciousness provides an immediate consciousness of myself, while the third kind of consciousness plays an important role to refute Descartes’ idealism. Descartes establishes the epistemic certainty of ‘I think’ through the identity between ‘perceiving that one thinks’ and ‘thinking’, and then infers ‘I exist’ from ‘I think’. On the other hand, Kant does not need such a move by considering ‘I think’ as a Cartesian, simple inspection of mind, because his argument is that ‘I think’ just means ‘I exist thinking’. Kant secures our knowledge of ‘I think’ through ‘perceiving that I think’, but he characterizes that perception as an act of self-affection differently from Descartes. So Longuenesse argues that there are more similarities than supposed between Descartes and Kant, while she shows that Kant essentially differs from Descartes by arguing that the consciousness of my thinking that grounds the consciousness of my own existence does not show anything about the nature of ‘I’. From the premise that ‘I think’ includes ‘I exist’, it does not follow the conclusion that “I exist merely as a thinking being distinct from my body.” This entity only refers to the individual currently thinking the proposition in which ‘I’ is used.

Chapter 5 deals with Kant’s argumentation against the ‘Paralogism of Substantiality’ and ‘Paralogism of Simplicity’ – fallacious arguments used by the rationalists towards the nature of ‘I’, respectively, that it is a substance and that it is simple. For Kant, they make use of a middle term, which has a “different meaning in [the] major and minor premise[s].” This is the reason they make syllogistic inferences from the apparently same concept that has in fact two different meanings. Kant aims to analyze these different meanings to show how rationalist arguments are valid in appearance but in fact invalid.

According to Kant’s formulation, the rationalist arguments have a ‘major premise’, a ‘minor premise’ and a ‘conclusion’. In the Paralogism of Substantiality, rationalists refer from the major premise that a subject that cannot be thought of something other than a subject as it cannot be a predicate of something else, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking can only be thought of as a subject and cannot be predicated of something else to the conclusion that ‘I’ as thinking is a substance. However, there is a difference between saying ”I can only think of myself under the concept of substance” and “I am a substance,” where Kant agrees with the former claim and rationalists infer the latter one. For Kant, the minor premise is wrongly constructed to lead to an invalid inference from major premise and minor premise to the conclusion: The “entity thought under the concept ‘I’ is represented as an absolute subject only in a logical sense.” While ‘subject’ in the major premise refers to an absolute subject, ‘subject’ in the minor premise refers to a ‘logical subject’ – the substantiality of the subject is only represented to the subject itself. Hence ‘subject’ (and thus substance) that is used as a middle term by rationalists is actually not a middle term at all. Similarly, in the Paralogism of Simplicity, from the major premise “that something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things, is simple”; and the minor premise that “‘I’, as thinking, am something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things”; the conclusion “So I, as thinking, am simple” is inferred. Again, the concept ‘I’ is only logically simple and the subject thought under the concept ‘I’ is necessarily thought to be simple because “its action is thought to be indivisibly one.” However, the simplicity of the subject of the action is represented only to that subject itself.

Longuenesse infers from these discussions a positive Kantian idea that has found its place in contemporary philosophy of mind in the distinction between the “first-person standpoint and third-person standpoint”. Accordingly, the entity that represents itself under ‘I’ necessarily represents itself as an existing thing (substance), as indivisibly present in all its thoughts (simple), but ‘this first-person standpoint’, however universally indispensable to the act of thinking, tells us nothing about the objective nature of the thing that thinks” (131). That Longuenesse considers this distinction as the positive Kantian idea is valuable when we consider the discussions in contemporary philosophy of mind, epistemology and science on the question whether one should apply a special first-person methodology for a research on consciousness, or whether one can give a scientific and/or reductive explanation of consciousness with a third-person methodology that is used by science and on other philosophical notions.

In Chapter 6, the focus is Kant’s argument against ‘Paralogism of Personality’ – the claim that ‘I’ is a person. For Kant, the rationalist argument has a similar structure, inferring from the major premise that someone conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different times is a person, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking is conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different time, to the conclusion that ‘I’ am a person. Again, Kant accepts the major premise and he is in favor of an idea of person that is diachronically synchronous contrary to the Lockean idea of person whose memory is enough to establish psychological continuity. However, Kant rejects the idea that the consciousness of identity expressed by the use of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ is sufficient to infer that I am, as an existing entity, a person. Longuenesse sums up this issue nicely as follows:

So the paradox of ‘I’ is this: ‘I’, as used in ‘I think, refers to an existing thinking, known by the I-user (the thinker) to exist, in virtue of the fact that the I-user, in each instance of thinking knows herself to exist. ‘I’, as used in ‘I think’, is even the only purely intellectual concept that does give access to an existing thinking. But if, from the way we think of ourselves in using ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, we infer there is an object that we take to be, as a thinking thing, a substance, simple, and numerically identical through time, then we make a mistake: that object is a fiction. The error of the rationalist metaphysician (the error of Kant himself in his pre-critical incarnation) is to insist that on the basis of the thought ‘I’ think we have sufficient ground to assert that the fictitious object of that representation is transcendentally real: real in itself. The mere thought ‘I think’ in fact provides no such ground (164).

What is especially different in the discussion about personality is that Kant enriches the concept of personality by focusing on moral personality in addition to psychological personality. Moral personality is dependent on two components: i) “being an empirically determined, persisting entity, conscious of its own numerical identity through time, and ii) having the capacity to prescribe the moral to oneself, as the principle under which one’s maxims are determined.”  Without an understanding of moral personality, it is not possible to comprehend Kant’s criticism of Syllogism of Personality and also his full picture of ‘I’ in general. This notion also relates previous discussions in the book to Longuenesse’s important final claim in the last part (Chapters 7 and 8) that Freud can be considered in a sense a descendant of Kant, if we consider the parallels between Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ with Freud’s ‘ego’, and Kant’s ‘I ought to’ with ‘superego’.  Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, as the concept of ‘unity of apperception’, is an organization of mental processes governed by logical rules. This is a formal condition and Kant is known to assign this capacity “to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject” (175). Kant’s methodology is clearly not empirical and the discussion is part of his transcendental philosophy, which constitutes a clear polarity to Freud’s empirical investigation and causal-developmental account of the capacity to think in the first person. Despite the differences, Longuenesse argues that we can see important similarities between them, and Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental subject.

The author considers the similarities under four points: Firstly, Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ (‘I’ as discursive thinking) has its counterpart in Freud’s ego. Kant’s ‘logical use of the understanding’ is similar to Freud’s ‘reality principle’. Ego functions in line with the ‘law of secondary processes’ according to this principle and it can conflict with ‘id’ and the ‘laws of primary processes’. “Intuitions are brought under concepts and then combined in judgments and inferences according to logical rules.” So, the differentiations Freud makes between ‘id’ and ‘Ego’; ‘laws of primary processes’ and ‘secondary processes’; ‘consciousness as an immediate quality of mental states’ and ‘consciousness as the property of mental states’ (whose content obeys the rules of the ego) can be compared to the distinctions Kant makes between different kinds of consciousness (as discussed in Chapter 5). The nature and function of ‘ego’ is parallel to the second notion of consciousness in Kant, “according to which I am conscious of a representation if it is taken up in the unity of consciousness that makes objective representation and thinking possible.” Secondly, there are parallels between Kant’s ‘synthesis of imagination’ and Freud’s perceptual images that are organized according to the rules of ego. Just as in Kant the discursive expression of the unity of consciousness in concepts and judgments presupposes a “prediscursive activity of combination or synthesis performed by the imagination,” in Freud perceptual images and representations of imagination are subject to the rule of the ego, and if they are pre-conscious, these images can become conscious only if they are associated with words. Thirdly, Kant and Freud have parallel views on the mental activities of which we are generally not conscious. For Kant, there is no thought without language and intuitions are blind if they are not subsumed under concepts. In Freud, “access to words is the way a representation enters the realm of reason and level-headedness.” Kant emphasizes that qualitative or intentional consciousness of the working of our imagination is blind (not conscious), while Freud also argues that “the complex operations that go on in our minds are mostly unconscious.” Fourthly, it is necessary for Kant that ‘I’ is represented as an object in the world. The transcendental unity of apperception gets information of the body via the sensory information carried by a bodily state. Freud also argues that “the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego” and thus the emphasis on embodiment of ‘I’ in Kant and ‘ego’ in Freud is again parallel.

Freud’s naturalization of ego makes use of ‘second nature’ as the developmental account he presents on the occurrence of ego happens in a social context. This structure that includes the social aspects of this developmental process is understood through his notion of ’super-ego’ (ego-ideal). This is in accordance with the notion of ‘I’ in Kant’s ‘I ought to’ and his account of ‘personality’ that includes a moral self (as dealt in Chapter 6). The argument on this similarity between Kant and Freud has the same structure:  just as we can give a causal-development account of Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ through Freud’s ‘Ego’, we can do the same of ‘I ought to’ through Freud’s ‘super-ego’, which “can be seen as providing a developmental story for the conflicted structure of mental life that grounds, according to Kant, the use of ‘I’ in the moral ‘I ought to’” (226). Freud considers Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ as the direct heir of ‘Oedipus complex’ – as an unconditional normative constraint on the ego. Freud explains the practice of reason-giving and justification as characteristic of a developed ego, and gives a causal history of the idea of categorical imperative through the development of ideas from eigtheenth-century rationalistic philosophy. More than that, just as Kant considers the manifestation of moral attitude primarily through a feeling of respect, there is also a moral feeling at work in Freud’s picture on “curbing libido and aggression,” which he calls the “supra-personal side of human nature” (221). Another point is that in both pictures we have blindness to one’s real motives. Even if this blindness is to be treated in different ways, there is one thing in common: Freud’s ‘unconscious’ and Kant’s ‘motivated blindness’ both refer to our lack of knowledge of our real motives for performing an action, even in cases when we believe we acted upon a universal maxim. Lastly, the relation between ego and body is comparable to the way Kant indexes transcendental unity of apperception to a particular body.

After showing the similarities and differences, Longuenesse ends up with the claim that Freud gives us a naturalized account of Kant’s picture of ‘I’:  firstly, in Freud we do not need to refer to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject to explain ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and ‘I ought to’. Secondly, a developmental history is presented to our capacity to settle norms of cognition and practical agency. Thirdly, second nature is naturalized. The contents of our norms are constituted by the internalization of parental figures and (through language) by the social and symbolic tools, rather than by our relation to nature. All of these parallel points present us a path to understand a non-transcendental subject through relating bodily and transcendental self in an empirical way, while also doing justice to a Kantian, broad understanding of ‘I’ by including psychological and moral self under the study of self.

Longuenesse’s book does not only provide us with a deeper and enriched understanding of Kant’s understanding of ‘I’, but it is also packed with many insightful ideas about how we can relate different notions of various philosophers from different paradigms and disciplines. She fills in the gaps within the history of philosophy to get a better understanding of contrary positions both within a particular time-period and across time, and traces back many important distinctions and ideas in contemporary philosophy of mind to Kant. This is a special source for anyone working in Kant for sure, but other than that it will also be an invaluable source for philosophers of mind and language and epistemologists who work in any aspect of self and consciousness such as phenomenal consciousness, phenomenology of our experience, the nature of self, first-person perspective, unity of self, first-person usage of ‘I’, personal identity, agency and moral self, and ego. I believe it will lead to further analysis of Kant under the auspices of such contemporary discussions, and it will motivate further comparisons between Kant and other historical figures. Most importantly, her treatment of Kant through Freud’s ego and superego opens up a new dimension of discussion, and as her argumentation has a deep and solid structure, it is not easy for anyone working in philosophy of mind and ethics to stay unresponsive to this provocative and thought-provoking comparative analysis.

Mark Sinclair (Ed.): The Actual and the Possible: Modality and Metaphysics in Modern Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2017

The Actual and the Possible: Modality and Metaphysics in Modern Philosophy Book Cover The Actual and the Possible: Modality and Metaphysics in Modern Philosophy
Mind Association Occasional Series
Mark Sinclair (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £50.00
256

Markus Gabriel, Anders Moe Rasmussen (Eds.): German Idealism Today, De Gruyter, 2017

German Idealism Today Book Cover German Idealism Today
Markus Gabriel, Anders Moe Rasmussen (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2017
Hardcover 109.95 €
xi, 232

Gerhard Thonhauser (Hrsg.): Perspektiven mit Heidegger: Zugänge – Pfade – Anknüpfungen, Karl Alber, 2017

Perspektiven mit Heidegger: Zugänge - Pfade - Anknüpfungen Book Cover Perspektiven mit Heidegger: Zugänge - Pfade - Anknüpfungen
Alber Philosophie
Gerhard Thonhauser (Hrsg.)
Verlag Karl Alber
2017
Paperback 44.00 €
368

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.

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.