Monthly Archives: November 2013

Reason and Flesh in Bondage

Detail of Caravaggio's Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

Detail of Caravaggio’s Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

A few times in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out that reason is stupid, that it needs knowledge and the Understanding to guide it. Given reason’s penchant for veering wherever it wishes, Kant mentions different ways in which it must be restrained. This might not always be a bad thing: Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is an indictment of the ways in which reason can be used for the justification of awful things, for example: the reasoning behind genocides as a purification of the human race. In his lecture on knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno points out the strangely old-fashioned way that Kant restrains reason for the sake of morality, when Kant writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” I’ll quote Adorno’s lecture at length here:

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favor of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason […]. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther’s reference to ‘that whore, reason’, and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about ‘straying into intelligible worlds’. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. […] Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant’s view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are ‘houses of ill-repute’ (71-72).

The tradition of self-denial within western culture makes its appearance even in Critique of Pure Reason-a work of philosophy which attempts to cast off theological, ascetic strictures upon metaphysics. Adorno points out that Kant holds reason itself back in such a manner because its characteristic of being natural is grounds for claiming its unreliability to think beyond nature. Reason’s proximity to natural indulgences, according to Kant, hinders its abilities. Perhaps Kant is worried that reason, in the realm of the human body, might linger indefinitely on the island of lotus-eaters. And as Adorno points out, this restriction on reason mirrors those placed on human pleasure.

Nietzsche attempts to philosophically trace the sacred ascendency of asceticism. In doing so, he writes of slave morality, which is a deification of powerlessness, a lack of the sensual, and a lack of happiness. Thus, the religious act of giving up such things is based rather in an envy for a life full of them. Is it any wonder that the institutions most known for their devout abstention are also known for their obsession with all indulgences? Human bodies have long been relegated to a position inferior to the spirit in matters of knowledge and happiness. The painting above of Saint Peter’s crucifixion points to the total self-abnegation in death that then becomes deified in the tradition of martyrdom. The New Testament demands a kind of faith that makes the flesh worthless, for example when Jesus is contemplating his impending death in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

In his essay “On Hedonism,” Herbert Marcuse ponders this divide between idealistic and materialistic happiness. As is to be expected, he finds a more dialectical than polar answer to this conundrum: since happiness has been so strictly tied within subjectivity, it is currently difficult for such personal happiness to be the grounds on which citizenship in society can rest. The future, however, Marcuse hopes, is one in which personal happiness properly coincides with a happy society. As it stands today, it is sometimes too easy for one to fall into the offered pleasures of a culture that is complicit in the status-quo: “If happiness is no more than the immediate gratification of particular interests, then eudaemonism contains an irrational principle that keeps men within whatever forms of life are given. Human happiness should be something other than personal contentment. Its own title points beyond mere subjectivity” (120). Marcuse points out how the history of philosophy has its own ascetic strain in which happiness is not to be found in the subject’s material self. He notes that hedonism’s material happiness is also shared by the interests of critical theory:

It is against this internalization of happiness, which accepts as inevitable the anarchy and unfreedom of the external conditions of existence, that the hedonistic trends of philosophy have protested. By identifying happiness with pleasure, they were demanding that man’s sensual and sensuous potentialities and needs, too, should find satisfaction—that in them, too, man should enjoy his existence without sinning against his essence, without guilt and shame. In the principle of hedonism, in an abstract and undeveloped form, the demand for the freedom of the individual is extended into the realm of the material conditions of life. Insofar as the materialistic protest of hedonism preserves an otherwise proscribed element of human liberation, it is linked with the interest of critical theory (121).

In the goal of true human happiness, critical theory shares something with hedonism. It is due to our existence in a realm of pleasures and drives that Frankfurt School thinkers became interested in what psychoanalysis might be able to offer to the struggle for a happy, human future.

Fredric Jameson on Narrative at UChicago

Fredric Jameson onstage with Leela Gandhi

Fredric Jameson onstage with Leela Gandhi

A few days ago I visited my old neighborhood of Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago. While walking I happened to recognize an acquaintance who asked if I’d be going to see Fredric Jameson talk in mere minutes. Shocked that I hadn’t known about this earlier, I decided that I really had no choice but to go see one of the greatest thinkers alive today.

Jameson, among others, had been invited to the University of Chicago for the multi-day conference “Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English.” The main focus of the conference was an examination of four novels: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Having not read all of them, I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow all of Jameson’s talk, which turned out to be on Ulysses among other ideas, but my worry was assuaged by his handling of the material. Jameson unknowingly had made a case for me to read Ulysses along with giving me a bit more faith in the novel as a worthwhile form of reflection of the world.

Happiness, Moral Reason, and Citizenship in Kant

In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defines happiness derived by practical and moral law:

Happiness is the satisfaction of all our desires (extensively, in regard to their manifoldness; intensively, in regard to their degree, and also protensively, in regard to their duration). The practical law, derived from the motive of happiness, I call pragmatic (that is, rule of prudence); but the practical law, if there is such a law, which has no other motive but the worthiness to be happy, I call moral (law of morality). The former advises us as to what we have to do if we wish to attain happiness; the latter dictates how we ought to conduct ourselves in order to become worthy of happiness (636, emphasis Kant’s).

When reading this I was reminded of the way in which some of the key members of the Frankfurt School—perhaps all of the members—approach the current problems of self-determination and being a member of society in the world. This also may be in part connected to the Frankfurt School’s concern for genuine happiness. This happiness derived from self-determination seems unable to be achieved in an irrational world. For a society to determine itself under practical and moral laws, it would be necessary that its own conception of reason and its place be better understood.

In his lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno explains autonomy, Kantian moral and practical law:

What lies behind it [the idea of the critique of pure reason as a tribunal]—and in this respect we cannot really separate Kant’s theoretical philosophy, that is, the critique of reason, from his practical philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason—is Kant’s remarkable conception which actually supplies the unifying factor that must not be made the subject of mockery, but which must rather be properly understood. It is the idea that the freedom and sovereignty of spirit amounts to what he calls autonomy. This element is represented here by the judge who can freely resolve all these matters; it is the ability to give oneself laws, to restrict oneself and to determine one’s own limits. Autonomy literally means that you give yourself laws—and autonomy is the supreme concept in Kant’s moral philosophy, and by implication also of Kant’s theory of knowledge (54).