It is quite serendipitous to me that Axel Honneth begins his book Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory with a look at Immanuel Kant’s essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.” As an undergraduate, I lived and breathed Kant’s transcendentalism. I kept my heavily underlined copies of the Meiklejohn translation of Critique of Pure Reason in my backpack. “As-if” was my mantra, as one professor or another listed their arguments against Kant. “You make ethical decisions as-if you could will them universally.” “Judgments of taste are subjective, they are only willed as-if everyone would agree.” The Kantian world I inhabited was a mystical place of uncanny “as-ifs” and sublime negative pleasures connecting harmoniously with scientific reason and synthetic a priori knowledge.
When I read “Idea for a Universal History,” however, everything changed. Kant’s desire to prove the inevitability of progress and the connection between progress and nature annihilated my carefully positioned “as-ifs.” “[I]f it considers the play of the freedom of the human will in the large,” Kant argues, “it can discover within it a regular course; and that in this way what meets the eye in individual subjects as confused and irregular yet in the whole species can be recognized as a steadily progressing through slow development of its original predispositions” (10). I had little interest in a “in the large” deterministic Kant. Much of the disillusionment came from my inability to historicize either Kant’s development as a thinker or his place within the prejudices of the Enlightenment. As time wore on, and I entered graduate school, I thought less and less about Kant and more and more about thinkers like Benjamin, Derrida, and Badiou.
Honneth’s chapter brings me back to Kant for two related reasons. First, Honneth aligns Kant with historical awareness and critical social theory. This succeeds in showing an alternative Kant whose model of social progress might be fragmentary, but who is nevertheless interested in the historicity of social and political change. Second, by sketching this portrait of Kant as a social and historical thinker, Honneth places Kant in the tradition of not only the Frankfurt school but also more contemporary thinkers like Alain Badiou. Willing the universal through the powerful and critical figure of the “as-if,” Kant’s ideas of progress become invaluable in thinking the importance of the event as a critical model of historical awareness.
It is important, I believe, to point out that Honneth’s Kant is a Kant constructed by fragments: not a satisfactory systematic model. Honneth admits, “a satisfactory model of historical progress cannot be constructed from these fragments of an alternative explanatory model in Kant’s writings” (17). He portrays a Kant always almost on the verge of historical thinking, ambivalent, stretched between explanations for why progress makes theoretical and methodological sense. “[I]ndeed,” Honneth writes, “the impression is not entirely unjustified that Kant hesitated between these different alternatives right up to the end of his life” (3). One Kant believes in an explanation for progress based on the tendencies of our reason. Human beings are, like Kant, caught between believing in laws of nature and insisting upon the freedom to make moral choices. For this Kant, our cognition (always wanting unity instead of chaos) bridges this paradox in accordance with the expectation of purpose. Purpose is cognitive, reflective, retroactive, and cultural. Random events are reordered by a purpose-directed rationality to synthesize the opposition between freedom and order. The cosmopolitan state that Kant mentions in his essay is a practical necessity emerging from the need of human beings to imagine better and better purposes for themselves.
Honneth’s second Kant believes in historical purpose stemming from our practical reason. Those who act as moral agents must, in Kant’s view, believe in social progress. Instead of relying upon a theoretical argument about cognition, Kant instead appeals to the ability to will an act universally. Moral agents must act as-if they could will that everyone (past, present, and future) act in the same manner. In this sense, those who act morally and will their moral acts universally must admit that history is turned towards progress. Note that, at least for Honneth, Kant’s argument means that one’s attitude toward history has an impact on one’s ability to be a moral actor. One cannot act morally without willing that act universally and, by doing so, affirming the belief in progress. Even those who eschew the concept of progress, yet act to promote the welfare of others (Honneth mentions Moses Mendelssohn), secretly believe in the possibility that their work will lead to social progress. For Honneth, this is due not to any inevitable transcendental plan but “the narrative organizational principle of historical self-reassurance in the politically-driven process of enlightenment” (10). Acting with regards to political improvement, for Honneth’s second Kant, makes historical awareness of progress a practical (though not theoretical) inevitability.
While Kant hesitates between the cognitive and the practical framework for political and social progress, Honneth does not. Honneth, acting in accordance with his own historically situated political awareness, chooses the interventionist Kant over the cognitive-theoretical Kant. He suggests, for example, several models Kant proposed as mechanisms for continuing social progress. One is social antagonism that, for Kant, develops “a heightened sense of honor […] kept continuously alert by the constant threat of war” (13). Another is embedded within Kant’s theory of education. While nature gives human beings the ability to think freely, the culmination of successive generations of free thinkers creates “the cognitive process of progress” or history as “the unfolding of moral rationalization” (15). Kant argues that such an unfolding depends upon the ability of individuals to not be dulled by conventional thinking or bullied by “intimidation, the threat of violence, and state censorship” (16).
The cognitive-theoretical Kant sees progress emerging from a cognitive necessity: whether necessity comes from a desire for unity or a vanity. The interventionist Kant sees progress between moral actors aware of their place within a history of social progress and suppressive, conventional powers who keep thinking dull and safe. One cannot help but see progress in Honneth’s interventionist-Kant erupting in much the same way Alain Badiou describes the event. While Badiou would be critical of Kant’s description of history, the method whereby moral actors become part of history represents – I believe – a proto-Badiouian elaboration of what he will later call the fidelity to the event. Here, I believe, the description of moral actors acting as-if they could will an act to be universal is key.
Badiou’s description of the event, one’s fidelity to the event, and universalism are probably well known to many people on this site. I will, therefore, attempt to briefly define all three before showing how Honneth’s interventionist Kant fits into this tradition. Badiou describes the event in Ethics as “whatever convokes someone to the composition of a subject […] something that happens in situations as something that the usual way of behaving cannot account for” (41). The subject, in Badiou’s analysis is formed outside of conventionality by something absolutely outside its situation. This something is the event. A little down further on the page, Badiou distinguishes “multiple being, where it is not a matter of truth (but only of opinions), from the event, which compels us to decide a new way of being” (41). The event ruptures the situation and compels a new existence. While creating this new being is a subjective act (in that it creates a subject), the truth of the event is a willed universalism, outside of all opinion. Fidelity to the event is fidelity to this universalism: an act of indifference to opinion and situation that nevertheless fits entirely within the situation of the subject.
Honneth’s and Kant’s work are not reducible to Badiou’s event. I want to suggest, nevertheless, that Honneth’s contribution in this first chapter is formulating Kant as an interventionist social theorist whose commitments to willed universalism, progress, and moral action form analogues to Badiou’s later formulation of the event. The interventionist power of the “as-if” retains an awareness of multiplicity while also asserting the universality of moral and political acts. The non-teleological work done by Kant’s formulation of progress places moral actors within a history whose meaning is established by their actions and decisions. The possibility of moral action depends upon formulating knowledge that erupts convention and, while also relying upon awareness of one’s place within history, also positions itself against the stupefying powers of conformity. Kant’s moral actor chooses progress over cynicism by seizing the power of the “as-if” and willing universality. Likewise, Honneth reconfigures Kant as an interventionist social thinker by seizing the event of his work and choosing the power of decision and fidelity over ambivalence. Honneth’s Kant reminds me of the interventionist power of the “as-if” which, like any political or moral action, must be chosen, willed, and formed out of the chaos of ambivalence.
Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. New York: Verso, 2002.
Honneth, Axel. Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory. Trans. James Ingram. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.
Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim: A Critical Guide. Ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.