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
Paperback $35.00

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.