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Our complex, difficult & fragile enlightenments

Katerina Deligiorgi interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Katerina Deligiorgi is a top Hegelian philosopher. She is a top Kantian philosopher. She philosophises on history, on art history, on creativity, on literature, on the Enlightenment and what it means today. And what it meant back in the day. And how it has things to say about education. She wonders about action and how we intend to do things. She wonders about morality and autonomy and has a podcast on the theoretical challenges from cosmetic neurology. She has written a cutting edge book on Kant and the Culture of Enlightenment, and edited a book on Hegel: Hegel: New Directions. She has a new book coming out in June, The Scope of Autonomy: Kant and the Morality of Freedom which will dazzle us. She hasn’t burned her armchair like Josh Knobe, but is still a groove sensation.

3:AM: How did you become a philosopher? Was it something that was predictable to anyone who’d known you from the start or was it something that was a gradual evolution?

Katerina Deligiorgi: I was a bookish child in a bookish home, but the bits of philosophy I came across I did not recognise as such (Rousseau, Plato, a volume on Aristotle on nature full of weird and wonderful stuff). The first time I read something that called itself philosophy, a short dictionary of philosophy, I found it terrifically boring and resolved never to have anything to do with this.

3:AM: You are best known for your work on Hegel and Kant. So let’s begin with Kant. You begin your 2005 book Kant and the Culture of Enlightenment with the claim that Kant can be read as an interpretation of a particular Enlightenment project. As early as 1783 Johann Friedrich Zollner was asking, ‘what is the enlightenment?’ and commenting. “This question which is almost as important as what is truth, should be answered before one begins to enlighten. And yet I have never found it answered.” So how have you answered Zollner’s question?

KD: There was, and still is, a lot of sloganising about ‘enlightenment’ as an idea. Today we hear glib pronouncements about critical thinking or freedom of expression, back in the 18th century about generic improvements to our lot. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to communicate the complexity, difficulty and fragility of some of these ideas.

Kant himself of course did give ‘enlightenment’ a famous motto ‘dare to be wise’ and defined it as ‘exit from self-incurred immaturity’ but these are far from straightforward. This is why: ‘enlightenment’ is both a project that is ongoing and the aim of the project. This already opens up a terrific amount of complication, before even venturing onto political, legal, and empirical matters.

Speaking of the project, one needs to specify the principles that guide it, the commitments it requires, the conditions under which it can be undertaken. Speaking of enlightenment as an end or aim one needs to show why it might be worth-pursuing and so describe something that is recognizable as a value.

Starting from the end then, my answer is this: enlightenment describes the value of rational autonomy, ‘autonomy’ in this context is not a moral notion, it describes an aspiration regarding the exercise of our reason. ‘Our’ refers to all and to each. This in turn yields the principles, inclusion and publicity, that guide the project. Enlightenment as a project describes the public use of reason. But to say this is merely to scratch the surface because, as I mentioned earlier, these ideas are not stand alone, they sustain and are sustained by commitments, practices, and so forth, in short, a culture that embraces and promotes the value of rational autonomy.

3:AM: You argue that the Enlightenment is still a live issue. You cite Foucault who claimed, rather like yourself, that the ‘event that is called Aufklarung… has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today?’ You call the Enlightenment ‘Janus faced.’ And you want to engage with the Enlightenment without being in historical bad faith. So can you tell us about these issues and how you approach them?

KD: This question is about the Enlightenment, as opposed to enlightenment, that is, about a period in European history in which the concept of enlightenment became current and its meaning intensely debated, at least in the German intellectual scene. Out of this debate emerges the concept I set out briefly in the previous answer. As I try to show in the book this does not boil down to have a critical attitude, which is what I think Foucault advises in his own writings. In fact, my take on enlightenment goes against this subjectivisation or perhaps better, privatisation of enlightenment.

The Janus face metaphor is intended to convey that the concept is forward looking since it describes a project and a goal, but it also has a past, a history of debate, of right and wrong turns, that must inform our current views of it.

3:AM: So according to your approach, Kant sets up a tribunal of enlightenment to put enlightenment on trial? Can you say what you mean by this?

KD: In the German debate about the meaning of the enlightenment, there was a lot of what I called earlier sloganising, including unsupported claims about the good things that would come out of this project, movement, cast of mind (it was different things to different people). There was also a lot of anxiety about its corrosive aspects. Often Kant comes to debates that are polarised and changes them by altering the way in which the problem is set. In this case, there is a ‘rationalist’ sense in which enlightenment means reason’s shining forth to illuminate all our practices and to guarantee progress; conservative critics pointed out that this shining forth is an intellectualist fantasy that has nothing to do with the condition in which most people find themselves and is likely to destroy values embedded in traditions. There is also an ‘empiricist’ sense that sees open discussion as best means for advancing our affairs, to which the counter-argument is that the cost benefit analysis here is rigged.

So enlightenment appears on the tribunal in pretty bad shape, accused of both dogmatism and scepticism. Kant rescues it by identifying its legitimacy as residing in the critical employment of our reason and this last as expressing a value of autonomy. This value has normative features, rules by which it can be realised, so there is a structure to rational autonomy; it is not a free for all. Although he too appeals to reason, this is not a facility we have on tap, it is a how not a what. But the how, which is just the normative features I just mentioned the principles of enlightenment, gives us access to something like a what, that is, they give us a normative handle on reason.

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3:AM: You link Kant with Rawls and Habermas, although point to several important differences and distinctions. Can you give us the geography of this terrain?

KD: That would take a long while. Also it is a task made difficult by the fact that both Rawls and Habermas have shifted their positions over time. Very basically, there is one point of contact and two points of departure from Rawls. The contact is with his early work, the Rawlsian bit, not what he calls Kantian constructivism: the way in which justice as fairness both makes explicit certain conditions of a just society and does so by asking us not to make an exception for ourselves when we guide our reflection on these conditions. The points of departure is his substantive reading of public reason, in the Political Liberalism, and the emphasis on reason’s capacities for self-authentication in his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.

With Habermas again the point of contact is his early work on Knowledge and Human Interests, which I read as considerably more Kantian than he acknowledges, and the points of departure is his own interpretation of the public sphere, in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which is a socio-historical analysis with Arendtian features, his attempt to make pragmatic sense of certain commitments that I think are more plausibly viewed as expressing a priori concepts (his now relinquished commitment to consensus is just one instance of this pragmatic turn).

3:AM: A key issue is whether his notion of rational autonomy is possible? Your new book, coming out soon, The Scope of Autonomy: Kant and the Morality of Freedom, examines the idea of personal autonomy. You examine what this means in terms of morality, practical rationality and agency. Kant is famous for arguing that we should think of people as ends in themselves. This is important to you because your view of Kant is one that insists that autonomy should not be thought of just in terms of oneself but also extends to others. Can you explain how this argument works?

KD: The new book starts with a question that I found increasingly pressing: why should we think of autonomy as a moral ideal? I can think of a whole bunch of so-called ‘thick’ moral concepts and understand why they are moral and why one might value them as such, kindness say. I can think also of the so-called thin ones, the right and the good, and equally understand their moral appeal and indeed indispensability to our judgments. On the other side, I can see the personal appeal of autonomy, the attraction of being self-directed, of being one’s own master so to speak, and also its metaphysical attraction, the idea that my actions being up to me enters in important ways to moral discussions downstream, i.e. at the level of ascribing blame and praise to each other. But the morality of autonomy was not obvious to me, at least, not if we stay within the bounds of the contemporary discussion.

Things change in interesting ways if we look to Kant for help. The question that starts Kant onto the path that concludes with the formulation of autonomy is about objectivity in ethics. It is unsurprising then that he did not conceive of autonomy as primarily a self-relation, a relation to the heautos. Rather it is a relation to others shaped by the idea of nomos, law. The moral content of autonomy is given by the demand that one think of oneself in relation to others under a shared law. The book is then an attempt to show both what this means, but also, and that is its main focus what it takes to be able to say this, what kind of cognitive and psychological abilities we need to have to be autonomous in the requisite sense and what metaphysical commitments the theory has to sustain this notion of autonomy.

3:AM: In terms of the challenge that a philosophical naturalist might put to Kant, how would you defend Kant from producing a scheme that bears no relationship to how people actually are. In particular, a naturalist might argue with Nietzsche that there is no freewill, our motivations and drives are not self transparent and we are not all the same. Brian Leiter accuses the rational moral agency of Kant of being an ‘above the fray’ morality. It is a wonderful ideal fantasy, and survives in pristine state even if it applies literally to no actual living human, ever! Leiter just considers that we can’t be guided by such a fantasy. Would you defend Kant, and if so, what would you say to this and other similar challenges from naturalist philosophy?

KD: That’s exactly the kind of criticism that motivated my interpretation. I fully share Leiter’s view, the Kantian rational agent is sometimes presented as a super-human creature, the sort Murdoch likened to Lucifer himself, sometimes as a senior civil servant, obeying reason and implementing its orders efficiently and priggishly. And this is just the positive picture! I think I answered before why it is wrong. But I want to add that this sort of alienated fantasy is not just available to misguided Kantians, naturalists are perfectly able to fall in under its spell either in their disabusing mode or in full on utilitarian mode. I couldn’t possibly comment on Nietzschean versions of naturalism.

3:AM: Hegel is notoriously difficult, not only in the sense that his writing is obscure – I think, but maybe you don’t – but also because there’s uncertainty about the nature of his achievement. Pinkard says that he is the thinker ‘with the best and the worst reputation.’ I think you say that the difficulty is largely to do with the battle between conservative and radical disciples fighting over his legacy. Can you say something about this?

KD: Pinkard has done a tremendous job making Hegel less obscure whilst showing why the difficulty is there. One issue that is and remains unresolved is the religious and perhaps also theological dimension of Hegel’s thought. By this I do not mean what Hegel himself believed or whether one needs to be a believer to be a Hegelian. I mean the following: religion as practice and form of thought (‘picture-thinking’) is both recognised as important and as something to be put behind us, when we reach purely conceptual thinking. Arguably this is what Hegel himself does when he translates into philosophical and metaphysical commitments ideas that have a home in a certain tradition of Christianity. But then you can follow this through and say pretty similar things about Marx, who in a sense sought to ‘materialise’ the metaphysics by placing emphasis on what he considered to be the more solid foundations of economic analysis.

So from the previous vignette what conclusion is one to draw: is religion important or not? Answering this one way or another already sets the different interpretative hares running: the conservatism of the ties that bind, like Oakshott‘s, or the pragmatic liberalism of self-determination of someone like Pippin, or pained anti-utopianism, like Adorno’s. I do not think that fighting over someone’s legacy is a tremendously fruitful activity. Those I mention here did something much more interesting, they shaped a new position, rooted in Hegel but going beyond Hegel.

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3:AM: You understand Hegel in terms of his dissatisfaction with Kant’s division of labour between theoretical and practical philosophy. Can you say what this dissatisfaction was and how Hegel went about overcoming this perceived problem. He predicted a revolution on the basis of his reading of Kant – you cite a letter to Schelling in April 1795 where he writes ‘humanity is represented as worthy of respect in itself; this is proof that the nimbus surrounding the heads of the oppressors and the earthly gods is disappearing. The philosophers have expounded human dignity, the people will learn to experience it; they shall not content themselves with merely claiming their rights, which are trampled in the dust, they will appropriate them for themselves.’ It’s inspiring stuff. Is the shift from claiming to appropriating the shift Hegel makes in respect to Kant?

KD: I love that quote from the letter to Schelling. Generally, I must confess that I find genuinely affecting the rhetoric of re-discovered humanism that animates some of Kant’s and also Schiller’s writings and which fired up Hegel in his youth. There is an unappealing Promethean element in some of its reception that obscures the profound awareness of our finitude and the modesty in Kant’s thought. Some read Hegel as Promethean in this fashion.

I disagree, I think there is a common thread that finds expression in what can be called Hegel’s version of modesty, namely the thought that appropriating our rights as he puts it in this letter requires recognition of structures we did not create as individuals but which are necessary in order for us to realise our rights. This does lead to a rather different moral landscape to the one we find in Kant. In seeking to strengthen the intersubjective elements of Kantian autonomy, he develops a fully contextual theory of the evaluation of actions that tends to erase the specificity of morality by leaving unsupported its claim that its imperatives are categorical; to put it somewhat polemically, the theory’s gains in terms of social and historical specificity come at the cost of absorbing morality into social etiquette.

3:AM: In terms of moral theory, there’s a distinction between Hegel and Kant that you bring out through your analysis of Kant’s and Hegel’s interpretation of ‘the Fall’. Can you explain the difference between their approaches.

KD: What interests me more in their take on the Fall is what unites rather than what separates them, and what unites them is an attempt to describe and defend a certain notion of a moral telos for human beings. Now the proviso here is that for Hegel this is moral in the expanded sense of sittlich, that is, of a morality that has become a form of life to which we are suitably acculturated.

The reason for looking at this issue is that the idea of a telos has been largely ignored by those who do not work in Aristotelean or neo-Aristotelean moral philosophy. Not only this, but it is seen by some as fundamentally in competition with moralities of autonomy or, if you prefer a more historical reference, what Pippin calls the modern project.

3:AM: Can you say something about whether you think Hegel can still be a relevant voice in contemporary philosophy? I think you suggest that McDowell and Anscombe in particular are philosophers who are directly or at least interestingly linked to Hegelianism, in discussions about the relationship of mind and world and intentional action? And they would perhaps also be important to your idea of autonomy that you discuss in your forthcoming book on Kant too. Can you say something about this?

KD: Action theory is an area to which I am increasingly attracted and in which I hope to contribute. The relation between mind and world is exactly at the heart of it. I had a go at showing in an earlier essay how Hegel can be seen as criticising the notion of ‘agency’ as a needless hypostatisation of what agents do, agents can be all sorts, not just human individuals and actions they perform are anything from moving one’s limbs about to doing mental arithmetic. Becoming obsessed with ‘agency’ and then trying to pinpoint its exact nature, mental characteristics and the like is for Hegel a fantastical enterprise. This is just therapy though. The positive story needs a lot of work and it is work that involves ideas from Kant, as well as Hegel, and Aristotle. I hope to be doing some of this in the context of my Reach of Reasons project.

3:AM: You’ve written about aesthetic value. My question is a general one: do you think that aesthetic appreciation is best resourced by an engagement with the categories of the enlightenment tradition?

KD: I would not say ‘best resourced’ I would say necessarily or at the very least usefully resourced to the extent that the thinkers of that period bequeathed us central concepts in the debate about aesthetic value, including the notion of ‘aesthetic’ as something that is in need of demarcation. But recent discussion of aesthetic value, and germane discussions about aesthetic value and beauty, ethics and aesthetics, and aesthetic autonomy in the analytic tradition have contributed intellectual resources it would be foolish to ignore. I hope to return to this topic and treat it more systematically in the near future.

3:AM: One of the things that is refreshing about your approach is that it is clearly written and eschews the obscurities and stylistic infelicities of some commentators discussing these issues. There has been much discussion about the so-called distinction between continental and analytic traditions in philosophy. Do you agree that it’s an unhelpful distinction?

KD: I am so glad you think I write clearly: this is certainly my aim. I detest jargon. I also think, with Aquinas, we have a duty not to bore our audience. However, as Aquinas knew well (and if not he, his readers), technical distinctions cannot be avoided. Some ideas just are complicated and sometimes the analysis and defence of something quite straightforward leads to unexpectedly deep waters. But this is different from adopting depth as some sort of goal, to my mind this produces risible or exasperating results. In short the ways of avoiding thinking are myriad and manifold. And they affect both the traditions you mention and also feed the animus of the debate about this distinction. Pragmatically and as a prompt for thinking, I do not find the distinction unhelpful. As a principled distinction I do find it unhelpful. But it is an instance only of a very wide-spread phenomenon that has its roots to the way we experience our own limitations: when we reach limits to understanding a position or a behaviour, we generally have difficulty just accepting this and moving on (for what I think deep important philosophical reasons). Pure bafflement of this sort is rare. Usually we have the suspicion that the others are profoundly misguided.

3:AM: You’re also a woman working in philosophy and again, there has been much discussion about how poor academic philosophy has treated women. Clearly you are a success, but is this an issue that you think is important and have you any thoughts about what can be done?

KD: Philosophy at Sussex is somewhat an exception, with women well-represented and a thriving women in philosophy student group; in fact, we were recognised as women-friendly back in 2007. But to the more important, general point you raise, I would like to draw the attention of your readers to a fascinating study commissioned by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy [PDF], published in September 2011.

3:AM: And finally if you were to recommend your top five books that we sassy crowd at 3:AM should be reading, what would you suggest?

KD: I will sidestep this question, I do not have a top five, but there are some books that for one reason or another I found myself consulting recently, years after the original lecture, and then found myself absorbed: John McDowell’s Mind, Value and Reality, a great collection of essays. From an earlier period of analytic philosophy, Bernard Williams’s Moral Luck, Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions, Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking. We are having a reading group at Sussex on G.E.M. Anscombe’s Intention, if you fancy some hard work, this very slim volume is recommended.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 27th, 2012.