idealism and critical theory
Fred Rush interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Fred Rush is the amplituhedron of German Idealism and Critical Theory. He’s modest as he broods on Hegel, Kant, Habermas, downgrades the philosophical importance of the Glorious Rebellion and the French Revolution, thinks on old atheists, where Idealism and Romanticism come apart, Schlegel, the continuing relevance of Romanticism, the appeal of the Critical Theory tradition, Horkheimer’s role as the founding figure, Adorno’s influence, and how Architecture enables a broadening of the philosophical discourse. Fundamental.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always brooding away?
FR: My route to philosophy was indirect and my embrace of it tentative. I was brought up in an environment in which music was all encompassing. My mother had trained in piano at Juilliard, and her mother and maternal grandmother had studied at Peabody. I am also a musician. So, there was always music being played in the house. There was an intellectual side to this – one was expected to have opinions about what music mattered and be able to back them up – but it is not very directly connected to thinking philosophically. More germane may be my schooling, which laid stress on classical and European languages. As a boy I had to learn Latin and French well and, starting in high school, had decent instruction in Greek. The analytic rigor of language study was attractive to me, as was the sense that historically distant and very different ways of thought could be opened up through immersion in the literature and history written in those languages. The path from classical languages to philosophy is hardly unique; still, nowadays it is pretty unusual.
I entered university in the mid-1970s to continue study in classical languages and literature and, I hoped, to end up a writer. I tried philosophy out of curiosity. I wasn’t bowled over at first. Even then I saw philosophy as something of a trap. There are the pleasures of precision and complexity on offer, but such pleasures can be self-implicating – it is not easy to tell that what one is doing matters at all or is not rather just concocted in order to satisfy one’s intellectual vanity. These dangers are present differently in European and Anglo-American philosophy. In the former case, one has to watch out for pseudo-profundity, in the latter, for pseudo-clarity. In any case, philosophy of language was what attracted me initially; back in the 70s there was a sense of adventure in that field – a lot of fundamental issues were up for grabs. I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on the theory of reference, and considered going on directly to graduate school to concentrate on some combination of philosophy of language and ancient philosophy. But I chose instead at the very last moment to try a musical career. Surprise, surprise: playing rock music in the end did not provide a stable way of life. So, after tens years’ time, I defaulted to graduate school. Over the course of a decade my interests in philosophy had shifted. I kept up my languages to a reasonable degree, but the last book I read in philosophy – other than some classics like Plato – was Kripke’s Wittgenstein book in the early 1980s.
The next big thing in philosophy of language — Davidson — I only knew at its beginnings and then only through the prism of Gareth Evans’ discussion of it. What set me on the course of going back to school was a matter of complete and utter contingency – almost something out of a Paul Auster novel. I was browsing the philosophy section of a bookstore in Atlanta, where I was living at the time, and it just so happened that there were two new-looking books side by side alphabetically in the D-G range. One was Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace and the other was Raymond Geuss’ The Idea of a Critical Theory. I bought them both because they looked sort of interesting but, to be honest, primarily because they were both short and next to one another on the shelf. I was exceedingly suspicious of philosophers writing on art, and I still believe this to be a healthy first, second and third reaction. Well, Danto’s book was sharp analytically, showed a real knowledge of the art it was discussing, and drew very interesting consequences from the analysis. Geuss’ book knocked me out; it is still something like a template for how one successfully deals with difficult and out-of-the-mainstream philosophical concepts in a way that is both sympathetic and critical. I remembered Raymond’s name vaguely from a faculty list I must have seen when I was considering whether to go on to graduate work right out of college. But he had moved to Columbia and, of course, Danto was there too. So, there I landed.
3:AM: You’re a leading authority on German Idealism. Can you introduce us to this? Who are the main guys and what’s its significance? Is what they think is at stake still a live issue or is their importance just historical?
FR: I’m sure that I am not a ‘leading authority’ on German Idealism. There are plenty of people who know more about that subject matter than I do: my colleague Karl Ameriks, my former colleague Paul Franks, Robert Pippin, and Allen Wood (not to mention German scholars like Dieter Henrich, who almost certainly is the leading authority in the area). That said, my approach to German Idealism is somewhat non-standard among scholars in the field, perhaps even disreputable. The first thing to say is that there is no one thing that is ‘German Idealism’. The phrase covers more a family of conceptions that partially overlap in their approaches to some general but not essential problems. One can sometimes receive the opposite impression if, for instance, one takes a Hegelian stance on the way Idealism leads, stepwise, up to Hegel. Richard Korner is a well-known case, but there are other, more subtle forms of this. It is very important to be historically accurate when approaching the later 18th and early 19th century in German philosophy. No one thinks that Hegel is the be-all-and-end-all these days – that ceased to be a viable view in the 1840s – but the same is not true of Kant.
There is a decided tendency to see Idealism primarily as extrapolated Kantianism, and this is an oversimplification. Kant is a touchstone in some areas, but not in the most philosophically interesting ones. Sometimes it’s a mixed bag. So, to take one instance, the idea that freedom consists in self-determination was important. But Kant’s account of the nature of this agency – ‘autonomy’, i.e. noumenal self-determination according to a pure intellectualized conception of ‘reason – was rejected almost immediately within Idealism. Likewise, the idea that much cognitive and evaluative structure is constrained by historical circumstance and is not strictly ‘transcendental’ is present in Herder’s and Hamann’s differing approaches to the centrality of language, a topic Kant discusses in only a rudimentary fashion. Later Idealism makes this empirical and historical element even more central to it and this is quite an un-Kantian way of looking at things. Kant scholars are extraordinarily protective of Kant’s turf and are sometimes subject to a rarefied form of tantrum when told that all things do not revolve around their favorite. So, the idea that Kant is really a transitional figure doesn’t get much of a hearing in those quarters. But that is how I view him: a thinker still caught up in secularized theological demands that he might like to escape but cannot. Of course transitional thinkers – ‘Alexandrians’, in Nietzsche’s memorable description – can be some of the most interesting thinkers, but not because their views are correct or otherwise controlling – precisely not.
All in all, perhaps the most general useful thing that one can say is that German Idealism is concerned to understand the relation of mind to world in terms of the relation of subjectivity to the world. During the modern period in the history of philosophy it became increasingly the case that thinkers promote one capacity of subjectivity above all others as a criterion for a number of metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the mind-world relation, i.e. the capacity of the mind to reflect on that very relation. The background against which the singling out of this capacity is one in which the mind-world relation is fraught by a perceived gap, a gap introduced by Christian conceptions of soul-substances or versions of that. In modern philosophy, theology comes to lose its explicit role as a guarantor of the mind-world relation, but the gap remained problematic, and philosophers of different stripes attempted to close the gap in different ways – the ontological argument, the doctrine of pre-established harmony, mental universalism, etc. Idealism comes to also reject this kind of dualism if but imperfectly.
Idealism also inaugurates a shift from philosophical concern with providing the foundations for the physical sciences to doing so with the foundations of the social sciences. Almost all of what we take for granted as systematic social science takes its first recognizably modern form in Idealism. But even here there is residual untoward influence exerted by the recent past rationalist connection of philosophy to physical science and to theology, i.e. the idea that ethical norms are to be on analogy to physical law, universal and strictly without exception. In advanced forms of Idealism, this incursion is present in a hybrid form, in which historical processes are seen as constitutive of the ethical domain yet driven by an intrinsic teleology. Hegel is the prime example. So, on the one hand, Hegel views actual history as a necessary component of ethical rationality and holds that such reason is a result of the reciprocal interaction of individual and social action. On the other, he cleaves to the idea that the conceptual structure of the possible base components of ethics is progressive, that its stages are in necessary relation to one another in virtue of being parts of the same whole, that there is an end to this progression, and thus that closure around the concept of the ethical. The emphasis on action as itself a basic form of thought is an advance on modern philosophy, but the continued role of teleology is regressive.
3:AM: You note that Jürgen Habermas, in calling for an open discourse between a form of consciousness that is scientifically enlightened and politically emancipated and a form of consciousness of religious conviction is speaking to the tradition of the European Enlightenment. Do you think this is a tenable stance when many might worry that there aren’t any Gods, and how far is the contemporary German Idealist committed to some kind of theological thinking?
FR: I believe you are confusing me with someone else. I think that Habermas’ work up through the early 1980s has points of interest but that nowadays its theoretical potential has sunk under the weight of its neo-Kantianism. The question you pose about how abiding a secularized version of Christianity is in Idealism – how inherent it is to the position – is important. Let me amplify what I said above. Christian theology, or more generically a marriage of Platonism with an account of freedom that gives primacy to subjectivity, drives Idealism in its German forms. Much of the scholarship heralds the period of 1781-1806 – the period from the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to the writing of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – to be a golden age of philosophy (Henrich calls it a ‘supernova’ event). I prefer to think of matters otherwise.
To my mind the crucial historical events to which philosophy should be responsive have moved on from the Glorious Rebellion and the French Revolution. They occur rather during two other dividing points in modern European history. The first occupies the period from the mid 1840s to the early 1870s, roughly between the failed 1848 socialist revolutions in Europe to the ill-fated Paris Commune. The second extends from 1914 to 1945, from the time from WW I to WWII, including the Russian revolutions and socialist revolts after the WW I. The legacy of Idealism for these periods is both negative and positive – ‘negative’ because much of the most probing philosophy of the second half of the 19th century was built upon quite negative criticism of religious aspects of classical Idealism, ‘positive’ because some of the concepts developed incompletely in Idealism are important for the substance of later views – especially those having to do with historicity, alienation, and ideology. Marx, Weber, and Lukács are such critics.
3:AM: Do you think German Idealism offers a way of rethinking the relationship between science and theology that the arguments of the so-called new atheists of Dawkins et al seem to miss?
FR: I’m sorry to say that I do not know anything about the work of ‘new atheists’. Aren’t the old ones good enough?
3:AM: Romanticism came along more or less at the time as Kant was making German Idealism didn’t it? Where do these connect and where do they come apart?
FR: Precursors of Romanticism like Jacobi, Hamann, and Herder were contemporaries of Kant. The Romanticism that interests me comes into being in Jena and coheres for a very short period – from 1795 to 1801. Some scholars make a hard and fast distinction between Idealism and Romanticism. This can seem to be a viable way to view matters because of the strongly systematic bent of Fichte’s thought and the strong reaction against single-principle foundationalism in early Romanticism. But you are right to imply that these traditions diverge and converge in early 19th century German philosophy. The form of resistance against the systematic overreaching of Idealism native to the Romanticism that most interests me – the thought of Friedrich Schlegel – combines an honesty about the existential pull of feeling rooted as a subject in an ontological foundation with a skepticism concern cognitive purchase on that very foundation. The emphasis on subjectivity here may seem overwrought nowadays, but for me that is counterbalanced by an attractive, open-eyed view of what options are on the table at that point in history and the demand by Schlegel that those options be imaginatively investigated ‘in real time’ by holding at bay the temptation for theoretical closure, unlike Hegel. In this way, Schlegel is even a better representative of the idea that theory must be alive to history in the making than is Idealism. Schlegel tried to construct a mode of systematic thought around the process of discovering in medias res what available form of life, philosophically speaking, there was likely to be. Schlegel is often taxed with posturing as a moral genius in a smug, ironic way. But that is a superficial reading of the project; the deeper point is a kind of humility and an appreciation of the impact of the empirical on stability of choice. Kierkegaard’s relation to this Schlegel-Hegel dyad is in itself very interesting. I treat all of this in the book I am finishing, Irony and Idealism.
3:AM: You think that the issues raised by Romanticism are still relevant don’t you? Can you say something about this and why they aren’t just issues for a long gone epoch?
FR: ‘Relevance’ is a slippery concept when it comes to the relation of historically past philosophical views to contemporary concerns. If what ‘relevant’ means is merely ‘useful’, I’m afraid that issues a license to anachronistically assimilate historical views in terms of contemporary ones. That may indeed be philosophically productive, but this practice makes for historical inaccuracy. One needn’t judge the contemporary relevance of a past philosophical view, however, in terms of its direct contemporary import. Sometimes a view is important precisely because it exploits a possibility that for various reasons is not readily available nowadays.
Among the small group of historians of philosophy who have worked out views about the German Romantics, Novalis is generally accorded precedence. This is because his notes on the 1794 version of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, collectively known as the Fichte-Studien, try to ring changes on the foundational structure of Fichte. So, there is a closer connection to systematic Idealism present there. That is not to say that Novalis’ way of discussing what he takes to be problematic with Fichte is not philosophically innovative, but his approach to problems of foundationalism has a more transcendental cast than do Schlegel’s and can seem to collapse back into a kind of intuitionism. Not only does intuitionism have nothing to do with Schlegel’s thought but the sort of dialectic he promotes to take the place of Fichtean (and by extension Hegelian) dialectic, i.e. his account of irony, has the advantage of being so radical a departure from the Idealist norm that it cannot be mistaken as foundationalism. As I mentioned, what Schlegel offers in the idiom of his day is a much more expanded role for empirical experience on all levels of philosophical analysis. It is true that at times he calls his approach ‘transcendental’, but he substantially alters that term from its original meaning.
One way of putting it is to say that the Jena Romantics are concerned with what one would now call the phenomenology of being an empirical subject, under a certain understand of what a ‘subject’ is. It strikes me that Romanticism is relevant along at least two dimensions. The first is the emphasis it places on the exercise of imagination in emerging reflection. Philosophers often conceive of the exercise of imagination as having to do with counterfactual thought, or posing ‘possible worlds’. That heuristic is dedicated to clarifying purported intuitions about the meaning of modal terms. The Romantic form of imagination operates in the opposite direction, as it were, destabilizing intuition in favor of as yet inchoate alternative scenarios, and that is something that might be accentuated in philosophy in the contemporary context. Second, the honesty that I spoke about earlier in Romanticism’s self-assessment with regard to the question of the pull of theoretical closure in the face of empirical circumstance also merits discussion.
3:AM: You are also a leading expert on critical theory, one of the major intellectual traditions of the twentieth century that includes people like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Habermas, Pollock and Neumann. Did your interest in Critical Theory grow out of your interest in German Idealism or was it through Critical Theory’s interests in assessing Kant and post Kantian German philosophy that you became immersed in Idealism?
FR: Both. When I started reading German philosophy in earnest in graduate school I was taught that one had to engage with the whole of that line of thought, from Kant through the most contemporary materials. It would have been disreputable to, say, just know Kant and make ill-informed judgments about Idealism or to think of Hegel without taking the criticisms of Marx very seriously. Similarly, I was trained to see that Idealism and Critical Theory are both importantly similar in various ways and importantly different in various others. It is worth mentioning that Critical Theorists are themselves often quite concerned to understand their own doctrines in terms of their historical continuity and discontinuity.
3:AM: Critical Theory is by your own admission ‘fluid’, but could you say what it was that you think has made it such a powerful and appealing tradition? Is it that it wants to do more than merely interpret the world but wants to change it, as Marx puts it?
FR: Well, there is material for pitching a Coen Brothers’ film – a companion piece to Barton Fink – in the idea of philosophers wanting to change the world. Almost all ‘philosophers’ nowadays are academics, which is by definition a career and not a calling, and is not likely to induce change – quite the opposite! That’s another way of saying that I would like to maintain a distinction between philosophers and philosophy professors. The philosophers who interest me most tend to stay at the margins of academe, something that hasn’t been possible since the 1940s, since the establishment of what C. Wright Mills called ‘Brains, Inc.’ Benjamin was one such, but even more indicative perhaps are the anarchists and socialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these thinkers did attempt to change the world – a few succeeded, many more and failed – and some of these figures have stood the test of time. I’m thinking especially of Marx, but also of the Spartakusbund and Kropotkin. Gustav Landauer, who was stoned to death in prison after the fall of the Bavarian Soviet (for which he was education minister), is particularly interesting.
None of the early Critical Theorists exactly went to the barricades. Pollock, Neumann, and Otto Kirchheimer, whose works are often neglected by scholars of Critical Theory, were more concerned than others in their cohort with empirical questions having to do with institutional authority of the day in Germany and America. And, whatever one thinks of Fromm, he certainly cannot be accused of not practicing what he preached. On the other hand, Adorno was not very concerned to implement direct political change by means of theory. Marcuse is a mixed case. He became a star for the New Left in the 1960s and was much more ‘engaged’ with the student movement, which be thought had some capacity to be revolutionary. This lionization ended up costing Marcuse in serious readership. That is too bad; his essays from the 1930s and Eros and Civilization are important.
Now, one might view some Critical Theorists’ refusal to prognosticate or even to give themselves over to specific contemporary reform movements as a marking a deficiency. The first thing to say in response is that this is a refusal born from circumspection, not just a lack of will or commitment on their parts. It is worth considering whether one might see this refusal as a laudable recognition of the limits of philosophical thought on the part of Critical Theory. Second, one might hold that the relation of philosophical criticism to change in what is criticized might simply consist in specifying what may not be. I criticize X and, if the criticism is salient, I have circumscribed what is permissible going forward, i.e. not X. This is part of what Marcuse meant to mark by his slogan ‘The Great Refusal’. (In fact, he adapts the slogan from Alfred North Whitehead. It is one of the quaint aspects of Critical Theory that Whitehead’s process philosophy could be treated as an important point of reference.) For some, that may seem like small beer but it is certainly not trivial. Adorno especially cleaved to this idea of critique as ‘negative’. What might seem from the perspective of specific planning for the future to be a rather indeterminate result of critique is in fact a calculated result from within the theory. In Adorno this comes part in parcel with a further idea, i.e. that the apparatus of even the most searching criticism may be coopted by what is being criticized and must always, therefore, actively dodge the appropriation. This leads to yet another of Adorno’s basic attitudes, i.e. that one should seed in one’s writing linguistic devices that thwart its misuse. Adorno’s suspicion of what he took to be ill-informed quick fixes was put into practice more than once. Recall that he called the cops to rid his offices of pesky protesting graduate students in the 1960s – not a particularly flattering episode, but it happened.
3:AM: Was Horkheimer the founding figure? What do you take to be his key ideas and how far have his ideas retained their hold as a blueprint?
FR: Yes, he was, in the sense that his inaugural address on taking over the directorship of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt was a very clear and comprehensive statement of the interdisciplinary approach of Critical Theory. In that speech, Horkheimer calls for a reconceptualization of what constitutes philosophical thought. He had firmly in mind what might be later called a ‘research program’ for the Institute. Remember, this is in the last years of the Weimar Republic, in which there was plenty of competition for ‘new visions’ in philosophy – Heidegger’s phenomenology, logical empiricism, Second and Third International Marxism, etc. Horkheimer’s statement was quite formative; it outlined an approach that was both internally cohesive and distinctive, allowing Critical Theory to present itself as a reasonably unified approach that was importantly different from its rivals. Horkheimer’s outline has retained its hold on Critical Theory in spirit if not exactly by the letter: the main contemporary proponents in Germany of Critical Theory all combine elements of history, anthropology, psychology, economics, sociology, and philosophy in their writings.
As for the substance of Horkheimer’s views, they are mostly expressed in concert with Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, which can still claim with some right to be the main text in the history of Critical Theory. There are a lot of important ideas there – some less well formed than one might like – but one that continues to inform Critical Theory is that, where there is ‘enlightenment’, there is ‘myth’ (and vice-versa). No matter how much one wants to congratulate oneself on one’s clean, rational grasp of a domain of human concern, one has to keep in mind the conative costs of that purchase: with every exercise of reason there is an undertow of sublimated richer primary experience. Likewise, every seemingly immediate experience requires cognitive elements. When the Institute was forced to leave Germany prior to the outbreak of WW II and relocate to New York, Horkheimer sacrificed his own research in order to better take in hand the administration of the Institute in exile. Later, when he returns to Germany in the 1950s, he does take up writing again, and this time more in his own voice. Schopenhauer figures prominently in this later thought.
3:AM: Adorno was enormously influential. How do you assess his influence? Do you still find him able to speak to us or was his chief period of importance during the Cold War? Indeed, wouldn’t it be true to say that Critical Theory itself fared best in the Cold War?
FR: For many Adorno has turned out to be the Critical Theorist who holds the most interest. Even those who take Habermas to be of more continuing relevance seem driven to break bread with Adorno in their own fashion.
There is something to what you say about Adorno and the Cold War atmosphere, but it is important to take the point dynamically. One might think, that is, that the increased impact of Adorno in those times was of those times but not limited to those times. One might instead say that the Cold War atmosphere finally caught up to Adorno, and early Critical Theory more generally, in the sense that what Adorno and others all along had been pointing out as structures of experience became finally so explicit and overbearing that they were especially difficult to ignore. One would point out in this connection not only the obvious – the increased awareness of possible global obliteration travelling under the rubric of ‘mutual assured destruction’, the excesses of Soviet-style communism, and rampant consumerism after WW II – but also the decline in the possibility of idiomatic experience and the shrinking margins for creation of much art of real seriousness.
3:AM: How far do you think his aesthetic ideas have survived the new modes of production and transmission of contemporary arts, which has made contrasts between high and low art forms less tenable?
FR: It is a commonplace that Adorno rejects ‘low art’, but that is not accurate. He does say rather disparaging things about folk and popular music that seem now more an extrusion of antecedent theorizing than well-informed and fair assessment. What Adorno rejects really has nothing to do with ‘low’ and ‘high’ categories of art as such; he rejects art that can no longer operate at the avant-garde of refined subjectivity, which can no longer exhibit and prompt new forms of imagination. Some art that is ‘low’ might be able to affect one in this fashion, if it were able to operate on the artistic mainstream in the correct, destabilizing way. Weill’s use of Tin Pan Alley is one example that Adorno gives. If by ‘low’ one means, however, ‘commodified’, then Adorno rejects such art.
I have heard some people assert that postmodern art ‘disproves’ Adorno or makes his account irrelevant. But Adorno’s theory is highly selective, and it’s perfectly compatible with the view (indeed it is what one would expect on the view) that almost all art is commodity or that one would (incorrectly) think that the distinction between art and commodity is no longer relevant. For Adorno functionally almost everything that falls descriptively under the term ‘art’ fails as a matter of evaluation to be art, a view he shares with Hegel, Tolstoy, Heidegger, and others.
3:AM: How important is Habermas, do you think, as a contemporary Kantian pragmatist? How does his Kantian pragmatism differ from American versions, such as Brandom and Korsgaard for example?
FR: Habermas’ pragmatist credentials are somewhat overrated. Mead is the pragmatist substantively most important to him, although Habermas’ work does contain lengthy discussions of other American Pragmatists. For Kantian forms of pragmatism – and all of the problems with them – the touchstone is of course C.I. Lewis’s Mind and the World Order and An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, which also provide first points of contact between pragmatism and analytic philosophy. I have profited by reading Brandom and Korsgaard. I would not call Korsgaard’s work pragmatist, however, and Brandom’s ‘inferentialism’ seems to me to have more to do with Hegelian forms of pragmatism (i.e. Dewey) than Kantian ones.
3:AM: If Habermas’ central work was done in the 1960s to the 1980s, who are the post Habermasians of critical theory?
3:AM: How relevant is Hegel to your understanding of Critical Theory?
FR: There is something right in Hegel’s doctrine that conceptual formation, refinement, and change, at least with regard to concepts that can have histories of social construction, like ‘rights’, ‘justice’, ‘conscience’, ‘beauty’, is fundamentally historical. As for the specific engine of that process, i.e. ‘the dialectic’, things are more complicated, as I have said. One has to get rid of the teleology governing the sequence and wean oneself from the idea that what is most important about conceptual life is achieving conceptual completeness, fixity, and stillness (or having those as ideals). The most interesting part of Hegel’s account instead is his focus on conceptual-practical fluidity and permeability. Conceptual determinacy is possible only when one rules out other ways to conceive things, and keeping those options alive while still serving the demands for some differential orientation is a very important critical tool. This is one salvageable function of Hegelian dialectic. In a way, one has the essentials for this sort of view already in Herder, in German Romanticism, as well as before in Montaigne. An aspect of Hegel that I find less satisfactory is his account of mutual recognition. The problem here is assimilation of what is foreign to one in terms of what is already known. This can happen – and it can happen in ways that are very difficult to mark – when one thinks the good, Hegelian thought that one is adjusting one’s native comprehension to be open to what may turn out to be the very different nature of views other than one’s own. Hegelian recognition works through projection; the two positions in mutual relation adapt themselves to one another by discovering through their interaction that they are both about the same thing. They look to one another, that is, not primarily as others but as their own selves darkly mirrored. This is dialectics in the form of prolepsis and seems open to the charge that it is reductive of real and constitutive difference. One might want to say that understanding another in her own terms and according something like dignity to her in those terms involves discretion rather than recognition. Schlegel and Kierkegaard better deliver on this front.
3:AM: Your book ‘On Architecture‘ takes architecture as ‘thinking in action’. Why is this philosophically important to you?
FR: I am struck in the philosophy of art by the narrowness of discourse on principal questions, especially on the question of what the principal questions are. It takes a lot to write meaningfully about art from a philosophical perspective. First of all, one really has to know the art inside out. Imagine if in the philosophy of science as it is now practiced one were to say that one needn’t really know a good deal about the sciences under study, what the main debates in the actual sciences are, how runs of experimentation support certain hypotheses, what formal structures the science in question deploys, etc. I don’t mean just knowing about those sciences, but being able to follow the technical literature in the field with a good deal of comprehension. I wager that ignorance of those sorts of things wouldn’t cut it at all. In aesthetics and philosophy of art, however, there is apparently a good deal of slack when it comes to such matters– the level of the bar seems to be set at being decent at generic philosophical analysis and ‘liking art’. In architectural theory, things can be really skewed by this sort of thing.
Here’s an example. What some architectural theorists call ‘occularism’ – roughly, the idea that all one needs in order to understand buildings as forms of art is to see them ‘in profile’ i.e. as if they were paintings – is rampant. (A slightly more subtle version of this is to treat architecture as sculpture writ large.) But that’s an awful way to approach thinking about architecture as art. Here is the problem: philosophers take their views on painting and transfer them without argument to the foreign context of buildings. Architects are well aware of this problem and, therefore, are often dismissive of some forms of philosophical meddling. Who can blame them? But when one turns to architectural theory correctly so-called one finds that it is insular and polemical. With a few exceptions, architects and architectural theorists write manifestos, not studies. Given this state of affairs, I thought it might be a good idea to write a non-technical yet philosophically informed book on what it is like to experience architecture in the full. This requires close and extended analysis of actual buildings by means of ideas that adequately capture the primary experience of architecture. In my view, the relevant ideas are phenomenological in character and have to do with what it is like to move through buildings – concepts of ‘embodied experience’. I see no reason to withhold the status of thought to actions, so ‘thinking in action’ (the title of the series in which On Architecture appeared) seems fitting.
3:AM: If a push back against German Idealism is that it seems to require some sort of theological thinking the push back against critical theory is that it hasn’t changed the world and that neo-liberalism has been able to dominate without fear. Why isn’t critical theory a dead duck these days?
FR: I don’t buy the Arendt-Bell-Fukayama line that ideology is over and done with, that socialism and anarchism are rendered obsolete by the dominance of liberal capitalism, Aristotelian ‘common sense’, or a combination of the two. That canard is just a Cold War repetition of the older and more philosophically substantive dispute between Karl Mannheim and Lukács back in the 1930s. Horkheimer has an early essay on that dispute, which is in my estimation definitive. What is true is that no one has shown a way out of capitalism thus far, but that is not counsel for utter despair. One might think, in fact, that it is precisely when criticism seems most difficult that one should redouble efforts. There is a view that utopian thought has been shown to be useless, foolish, or even evil. Some took that to be the lesson of Kronstadt in 1921, Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring. The two main fictional treatments of utopian thought that every adolescent reads are deeply dystopian, Brave New World and 1984. But one should not equate the power of utopian thought with laying out in diagram proposals for actual utopian conditions and then discount all utopian thought on the basis of that conflation. That is, there is no reason, once one thinks about it, to reduce utopian thought to totalitarian thought. ‘Plan for the future’ utopianism is not really utopian thought, or perhaps it is a pathological form of it. The exercise of imagination required for utopian thought must leave intact the utopian impulse by not being overly programmatic. It seems to me that fantastical socialists like Fourier bring this out quite vividly. One might think that this is programmatic utopianism run amok, but that mistakes the force of the view. No one thinks that the oceans of the future will be made of lemonade. Fourier’s wild projections are not proposals at all, rather they are examples of the potency of a more unhinged kind of imagination than is usual.
3:AM: And for the readers wanting to follow up your thinking with more reading, are there five books you could recommend to them?
FR: Any short list is of course invidious by leaving out excellent work. If I may, I’ll recommend six books from recent English-language work (listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ last names):
1. Malcolm Budd, Aesthetic Essays
2. Michael Forster, After Herder
3. Paul Franks, All or Nothing
4. Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait
5. Lydia Goehr, Elective Affinities
6. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 11th, 2013.