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Freedom’s Tendency to Get Ahead of Itself and Fall Short etc

Interview by Richard Marshall.

It is not original to turn to Kant to get clear about the notion of autonomy, but it is certainly counter-intuitive to consider him as a philosopher of life. As it turns out, however, Kant not only articulates a particularly interesting conception of life, but also makes clear that its significance lies precisely in the way in which it can help us make sense of autonomy.‘

I got interested in Kant’s and Heidegger’s understanding of schema in an attempt to make sense of the interplay of representation and abstraction in certain forms of contemporary art (specifically in minimalism and contemporary photography…

What is striking about the connection Hegel sees between life and spirit is his emphasis on both their productivity and negativity: Living and spiritual beings are marked by the self-constitutive and negative character of their unities.’

In her critique of the dominant understanding of human rights, one of the two fundamental flaws Arendt identifies is the tendency, shared by all kinds of declarations of human rights, to naturalize these rights and in this sense to “reduce politics to nature”’.

Thomas Khurana is a philosopher interested in Kant and German Idealism, 19th and 20th Century Continental Philosophy, Social Philosophy and Ethics and Aesthetics. Here he discusses Kant, freedom and autonomy, the philosophical significance of life, Hegel’s response, schema and representation in Kant, schema in Kant and Heidegger, how these philosophical reflections enrich our understanding of contemporary art, Thomas Demand, structural homology and the difference between life and spirit in Hegel, the Kantian paradox of autonomy, Hannah Arendt’s claim that there is but one human right, and what Arendt thought might be the legal implications, and finally how he’d categorise himself as a philosopher.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Thomas Khurana: As for many others, it happened only by detour. I always had a drive for theory and read some philosophers early on, but it was not clear to me that it was necessarily philosophy that I was after – rather than literature, art, psychoanalysis, or social theory. When I first started my studies, I majored in Psychology. What I was actually doing, however, was constantly questioning the conceptual and epistemological framework of the discipline I was studying, up to the point where my professors told me that this is all very well and interesting, but I should really take this someplace else. My sense was that the whole discipline was so relieved that experimental studies and statistics had finally given psychology the appearance of a “proper” science that no one wanted to discuss the possibility that their methods were not appropriate to their alleged object of investigation – subjectivity – but were rather designed to exclude it as a confounding factor.

After a semester or two, I finally took their advice and started studying philosophy, but I didn’t stop studying psychology (this must have been their hope) and never stopped exploring other fields. Though I don’t have any doubts today that what I am engaged in is philosophy, I think that this indirect path still informs my relation to the discipline. I did not originally aspire to become a philosopher, and to this day I am not attracted by the authoritative, intimidating posture with which philosophy still sometimes likes to present itself. I rather feel it is something I find myself doing, and can’t help doing: a certain mode of reading, questioning, thinking. What makes philosophy inevitable for me is an urge to understand the fundamental contradictions and complexities underlying our forms of life and thought, and the joy in finding ways of disclosing the world differently.

3:AM: You’re a philosopher who works broadly in philosophy arising out of Kant. Freedom and autonomy and life are some of your themes. Kant suggests that the rational life is a life of ‘mere form’. What does he mean by this – how does he relate this form to the force behind action – and why is it only ‘mere’ form?

TK: What led me back to Kant, was the attempt to get clear about two issues relevant to contemporary thought which are connected in Kant in an unexpected way: first, the problem of how to conceive of freedom as self-determination, a notion of freedom that deeply informs our self-understanding and and yet makes us increasingly suspicious: Is autonomy indeed the form of our freedom or it is rather a mode of internalized self-subjection, a mode of governance ruling us through our self-rule? The second issue is the philosophical significance of the notion of “life” that has such a confusing currency in diverse strands of contemporary thought. It is not original to turn to Kant to get clear about the notion of autonomy, but it is certainly counter-intuitive to consider him as a philosopher of life. As it turns out, however, Kant not only articulates a particularly interesting conception of life, but also makes clear that its significance lies precisely in the way in which it can help us make sense of autonomy. In my most recent book I argue that to overcome the paradox of autonomy and to understand the reality of freedom in the sensible world, we have to understand autonomy as a form of life.

Now, we are used to seeing Kant as being somehow dismissive of our living nature, since he seems to define practical reason by means of actions that precisely go against our sensible impulses, desires, and inclinations. But although he makes it very hard to notice this, Kant in fact has a surprisingly wide and inclusive conception of desire and life: He defines the faculty of desire as the capacity to be by means of a representation the cause of the existence of what we represent. And to be alive means nothing else than to be a being of desire in this sense, a being that is capable of this practical stance toward the world. Against this background, it becomes clear that practical reason cannot be opposed to life and desire, but has to be understood as a specific form of life, a specific determination of our faculty of desire.

What distinguishes a rational form of life for Kant is, as you rightly point out, that it is a life of “mere form”: a life in which the mere form of the law itself is the driving force. In our actions we are thus not determined by the given matter of our desires, objects which we have experienced as pleasurable and now try to attain; we are rather moved by the form of our willing itself: We are moved to act because we can will the maxim of our action as a universal law. What motivates the action is thus, as Kant says, the “mere lawgiving form” of our maxim, not the objects it might command us to pursue. Whatever concrete action or object we bring into existence is thus of interest only as a manifestation of the form that our will takes on in willing this action or object.

3:AM: Is this approach to life something that you find attractive – did Kant?

TK: What I find intriguing about Kant’s conception is the way in which he presents life as a distinctly practical notion. Whatever is practical in the sense that it can cause effects in the world by means of practically representing them, is thereby alive. Life is thus tied not to any specific material infrastructure or given organization, but to a distinctive mode of operation. Hegel has a nice way of stating the same thing by saying that in life, nature becomes practical.

I am also attracted to the more specific thought that a distinctly rational and free type of practical life is one that is formal in a radical way: It is not directed at attaining particular objects we happen to find pleasurable, but at attaining a specific form of life we have determined for ourselves. A rational and free life is thus determined by a general, not a particular representation, directed at a form not at an object, and in this sense both determined by and directed at itself, rather than anything external. Yet, Kant’s way of articulating this life at the same time raises deep problems. It sometimes can seem as if the rational and free will Kant has in mind has no real interest in the concrete objects it brings forth or in the sensible reality in which it ultimately needs to actualize itself. When Kant suggests that we may bracket any question about the actualization of the will in the outer world and focus entirely on the pure determination of the will itself, practical reason appears not just as self-directed, but as utterly self-involved, self-absorbed even. But if Kant is indeed describing a rational life, that is to say, a rational way of becoming the cause of the existence of what we represent, and if he is indeed describing a will that always needs an object, as he readily admits, this can’t be right. We have to understand how this mere form can actualize itself in the sensible world and constitute an object in which it can find itself. For this we need to understand how the form and the matter of practical reason can enter into an internal and productive relation.

3:AM: And why does Hegel find a rational life not a life of ‘mere’ form, but ‘absolute’ form? Are they talking about the same thing but making a different judgment about it – or is Hegel identifying something larger than Kant’s notion of form, perhaps something less abstract or schematic?

TK: I think Hegel here responds precisely to the problems I was just pointing to: He thinks that Kant hasn’t done enough to account for the actual realization of freedom in the sensible world, and he thinks that Kant’s account of the relation of the form and matter of practical reason remains unsatisfying. This does not mean that he rejects the very idea that a rational life is indeed a life of form. The point of Hegel’s so called “empty formalism” critique of the moral law is neither to deny that a rational life is one in which form is the driving force, nor to deny that such a free life includes as one of its moments a radical detachment from any given determination and content of our will. The point is that Hegel thinks that with his notion of “mere form” Kant hasn’t identified the type of form that could serve as the form of a self-determining practical life, a form that could give itself content. Kant oscillates between an impositionist model and an incorporation model to account for the way in which mere form gains content, but both models seem unsatisfying to Hegel due to the essentially abstract character of the “mere form” from which Kant starts.

Hegel thinks that the right model for the form of a practical life cannot be the abstract unity of a law; the right model rather is the organic unity of a system. “Mere form” and “absolute form”, “law” and “system” differ considerably with regard to the relation of particular and universal that they instantiate. To subsume a particular under the law, we have to abstract from its particularity and focus entirely on whatever it has in common with the other elements of the same class. To grasp a particular as part of a system, on the other hand, we precisely cannot disregard what distinguishes each specific element from the other. It is rather through their differences that we understand them to be a part of this organic unity, since it is by means of the differences, even their conflict and struggle, that the parts co-determine both each other and bring forth the whole that in turns determines them. The point of organic unity is thus not necessarily that it offers a more harmonious picture, but that it provides a more internal conceptualization of the articulation of particular and general, matter and form. Hegel thinks that with this different type of form we can hold onto the idea that a rational life is a life of form and at the same time understand how it is no less essentially a material life, actualized in the sensible world. Whereas Kant’s “mere form” seems to imply an external relation to any matter of practical cognition, absolute form is understood to be inseparable from its concrete material articulation. And whereas a “mere form” can only indirectly manifest itself in the sensible world, always remaining at one remove from its manifestation, “absolute form” exists only in its own realization.

3:AM: You’ve written about the notion of schema and representation and how schema works in Kant.  Why do you think Kant’s use of it sets up a problem that Heidegger later confronts? What’s at stake in all this?

[Image: Thomas Demand]

TK: The question of how to understand the schematism chapter of the first Critique has of course far reaching consequences for understanding the relation of sensibility and understanding, intuition and concept, and, more abstractly, the matter and form of theoretical cognition in Kant. Understanding the schematism properly can help us avoid the impositionist picture in the theoretical realm that we just saw Hegel rejecting in the practical case. Given the extent to which the contemporary debate is obsessed with the relation of intuition and concept in Kant, it is quite puzzling that the debate focuses almost entirely on the deduction and pays so little attention to the schematism chapter. Heidegger, on the other hand, puts special emphasis on this chapter because it highlights the relevance of the faculty of imagination which Heidegger considers to be the hidden common root underlying sensibility and understanding.

Now, my own interest in the question of schema in Kant and Heidegger, although related to these bigger concerns, was much more specific: I got interested in Kant’s and Heidegger’s understanding of schema in an attempt to make sense of the interplay of representation and abstraction in certain forms of contemporary art (specifically in minimalism and contemporary photography, e.g. in Tony Smith, the Bechers, and Thomas Demand). A schematic presentation gives us something to see and understand precisely by making us abstract and look beyond the concrete figure to the method or rule of its figuration. I turned to Kant and Heidegger to better understand this astonishing connection of representation and abstraction, figure and rule, and the fundamental significance of this for human cognition in general.

Kant introduces the transcendental schema as a mediating representation that allows us to subsume intuitions under the categories despite the fact that these two forms of representation are fundamentally heterogeneous. The schema can operate as a joint in so far as it is itself of a double nature, having both a sensible and an intellectual “side”, as Kant calls it. This way of putting things, however, immediately raises the problem of the unity of the schema itself, as it appears as a somewhat hybrid form of representation. In Kant’s further discussion we see how he struggles to articulate schema in such a way that it reverts neither to intuition, nor to concept. Although the schema is a product of the imagination, Kant explicitly denies that it can be understood as an image, a specific intuition. Instead he suggests, the schema rather represents the method or procedure of providing an image for a concept. This however gives rise to formulations that make the schema look like a rule, which in turn would make it indistinguishable from a concept. This, too can’t be right, for then the schema becomes redundant and raises the same problem of application that the concept had posed, thus giving rise to a regress.

3:AM: How does Heidegger try and overcome the Kantian problem and does he succeed?

TK: Heidegger clarifies that if we think of the schema as the belated union of the already fully constituted realms of sensibility and understanding, we are lost from the start. It is even misleading, he thinks, to consider schemata as separate representations that somehow connect or bridge the gap between intuitive and conceptual representations; we should rather consider schematization immanently as the process of articulation of concept and intuition, the very process by means of which concepts inform intuitions and intuitions sensibly present concepts. It is thus less helpful to think of the schema as a separate type of representation, than to consider schematization as a particular use we make of intuitions and concepts. By means of the schematizing articulation of intuition and concept, the intuition turns into a schema-image (the “intuition of a rule”, to use Schelling’s expression), while the the concept is schematized (actualized as a rule articulating and expressing itself in an intuition made intelligible by it).

With this account, Heidegger wants to mobilize and make use of the tension that remains puzzling in Kant: that the schema can seem to be both a sensible figure and a rule, and at the same time should not be equated with either. What I find particularly interesting is the way in which he brings out that an intuition that is articulated in this way necessarily differs and abstracts from itself. Where an intuition becomes schematic or, more precisely, becomes transparent to the schema expressed and actualized in it, it differs from itself: it becomes the image of a schema, the figure of a rule, the condensed expression of its own procedure. And in turn, concepts gain meaning only by articulating this self-difference of intuitions. Both concept and intuition are thus rooted in, inseparable from, the process of schematization. By focusing on the inner and productive tension of figure and procedure, Heidegger is thus aiming to reject an impositionist conception and instead reveal the internal articulation of the matter and the form of theoretical cognition.

[Image: Thomas Demand]

3:AM: And how do these reflections on schema and representation enrich our understanding of pictorial strategies found in contemporary art?

TK: Kant called the schematism a “hidden art in the depths of the human soul”, and Heidegger’s reading is particularly helpful in understanding how works of art can bring this hidden art to light. If it is true that the schema cannot be identified with the conceptual rule, but rather articulates an immanent transition between figure and rule, we can see why art has a specific role in exhibiting schematization that cannot be substituted for by means of a merely conceptual reflection. Through its sensible mode of investigation of images, art articulates images in such a way that they become transparent to their schematization and, as it were, explicate or thematize themselves.

One contemporary artist that I find particularly interesting in this regard, is Thomas Demand. The images that he produces are photographs of life size paper models constructed in accordance with a scene from found imagery (often images circulating in mass media that have attained a certain iconic character). What you see is thus not a pictorial representation of an existing object, you see an image of a model of an image. Producing the model includes a certain type of abstraction from the found image, as Demand eliminates all traces of humans, all signs of wear and tear from the depicted scenery, and reconstructs the images using flat card board surfaces. The photographs of these models bring out the inherently schematic character of the images on which the artwork is based. They have an eerie, uncanny character pointing us to the self-difference that divides each image from itself in so far as it becomes intelligible by means of schematic articulation. Quite fittingly, Demand gives indeterminate titles to his works (like “Parliament,” “Office,” “Staircase”) that hover between a definite and an indefinite article: What we see in these pictures is neither the parliament nor a parliament – neither this specific parliament alone nor just any old parliament, but rather a determinate and specific parliament that becomes transparent to the rules and procedures informing its view. We see an image becoming transparent to its schema.

3:AM: You’ve addressed the issue of that point where life occurs in the phenomenology of spirit, the ‘turning point’ where consciousness grasps itself as consciousness. So first can you sketch for us what you mean by the ‘structural homology and difference between life and spirit’ and where these ideas grow out of –  I take it that this is very much a position rooted in a German, Hegelian philosophical tradition in some way?

TK: It is indeed in German Idealism, most prominently in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that we encounter this idea. In being conscious of the living, consciousness becomes aware of an object that possesses the same type of processual unity that characterizes consciousness itself. In finding itself in its object in this way, consciousness first grasps itself as self-consciousness. Now, the way in which Hegel dramatizes the encounter with the living as a turning point in the dialectical development of consciousness is uniquely his. But the more general idea, that the living possesses a type of unity that is in some sense akin to the unity of spirit, is a common thought in the tradition. We can find it in both the rationalist and the empiricist tradition – think of the way in which Leibniz compares the living unity of what he calls “machines of nature”, i.e. living beings, with the unity of what in us is called the “I”; or think of Locke’s pointing to a parallel between the continuity and identity of a living being, and the continuity and identity of a person.

What is striking about the connection Hegel sees between life and spirit is his emphasis on both their productivity and negativity: Living and spiritual beings are marked by the self-constitutive and negative character of their unities. What distinguishes them as “higher natures” is that they can bear an inner contradiction and contain within themselves the negation of themselves. The most basic form of this is exemplified by a living being existing in a state of need or lack and sustaining its life not just despite this need, but rather organizing itself through this need, gaining its distinct living unity through this negative self-relation. In the passage of the Phenomenology of Spirit you were pointing to, Hegel accordingly focuses on life not so much in terms of an individual subsumed under its given life-form, but on life as a self-negating and self-transgressive process: a process both producing and transgressing its own living forms. This contrasts with the contemporary broadly Neo-Aristotelian approaches that suggest that what makes the living instructive for understanding the realm of spirit is the normative relation of life form and exemplar.

On this picture, we understand living phenomena by subsuming them under a given life form that defines them as the particular living phenomena they are and thereby determines them as normal or deficient. On Hegel’s account, however, we underestimate the normativity of the living if we think of it solely in these terms. Living beings do not just exhibit normality – a unity in accordance with a given form –; but normativity, to use Canguilhem’s expression, a capacity to exceed a given standard of normality and to constitute new norms. In this sense, Hegel has a quite rich notion of natural life which allows him to go so far as to suggest that life as such already exhibits the very structure or concept of spirit. But natural life does not present this structure for itself, but only for us, this “other life” that knows itself to be alive and thus has this structure for itself.

3:AM: How far does spirit, if its concept is obtained at precisely this turning point, remains alive, however much it may have to transcend the form of the object of consciousness “life”? I guess this raises the issue of the double character of being both already and not yet free?

TK: In his Lectures on Aesthetics Hegel has an interesting way of putting this issue. Hegel writes that “precisely because he knows that he is an animal,” man “ceases to be an animal and attains knowledge of himself as spirit.” As this remark suggests, self-consciousness is not self-positing or self-confirming in the sense that in knowing myself to be a being of a certain type I thereby actualize myself as this type of being. Instead, self-consciousness is structurally self-negating: in knowing myself to be a being of a certain kind, I cease to be just that being; and in ceasing to be that being I attain knowledge of my “self”, that is to say: of my being different from the very object I know myself to be. We can thus hear Hegel as suggesting that self-consciousness has an inherently ironic structure.

According to this conception sprit, or self-conscious life as we may also call it, depends on life – it is only by knowing myself to be an animal that I attain knowledge of myself as spirit – and at the same time spirit is defined by the way in which it exceeds the very life it knows itself to be. Self-conscious life thus needs to find a higher form of unity that can contain and preserve this difference. In his Science of Logic Hegel expresses this by saying that spirit is both opposed to life and at one with life, in a unity reborn out of spirit itself. Spirit must thus produce a “second nature”, where this means a unity that internalizes and maintains the difference between nature and spirit. Hegel precisely does not aim at a form of second nature that makes this difference disappear, as we find it in many other conceptions of second nature. With this conception, Hegel articulates a quite unique take on our unity as spiritual beings, one that goes beyond the split nature we find in Kant yet without aiming at an undifferentiated unity. For Hegel, our spiritual existence cannot reside in the mere abstraction from or suppression of our living nature, but it also cannot simply coincide with our natural life. It is only in grasping and conceiving and thereby transforming this life that spirit comes to pass. Call this Hegel’s dialectical naturalism.

3:AM: Kantian autonomy contains the insight that freedom and the law can’t be understood as an opposition but rather one conditions the other. Can you sketch for us the paradoxes of autonomy found in Kant – and are these paradoxes overcome by Hegelians like yourself?

TK: It is the truly striking ambition of Kant’s concept of autonomy to give us both an account of the source of normativity and an account of the actuality of freedom in one and the same stroke. With Rousseau and Kant it becomes possible to give a single answer to the questions as to what it means to be bound by something normatively and what it means to act freely: obedience to laws we have given to ourselves. We can thus only understand freedom and law through their internal relation and not through their opposition. Positive freedom is not freedom from normative constraint, and true normative obligation is not a restriction of our freedom. Rather, true normative obligation is grounded in our freedom, and freedom expresses itself in normative self-determination. I think this is in fact a quite ingenious construction.

Now, the paradox of autonomy, or the Kantian paradox, as Terry Pinkard has called it, goes to the heart of this very construction. If we understand autonomy on the basis of the scene of self-legislation, a subject giving itself the law, we find ourselves in a situation where we oscillate between two accounts that both seem to undermine the very idea of autonomy. First, self-legislation seems to require that in giving itself the law the subject cannot be bound by anything other than itself. This seems to suggest that the first act of self-legislation has to be a lawless act of arbitrary positing. But if that were true, it is unclear what should prevent the subject from untying itself from this law in the next moment. This suggest that we should try to conceive of the act of lawgiving differently, such that there are reasons to give ourselves this law. And yet if that is true, then there was already something obligating us independently of the law we are about to give to ourselves. It thus seems that autonomy is either grounded on arbitrary positing or on heteronomy, either based on lawless freedom or a pregiven law, where both of these answers threaten the very idea of autonomy.

To overcome this paradox, we can start by realizing that the metaphor of “self-legislation” is in fact misleading. In my last book I argue, with Hegel, that if we rather understand autonomy in terms of self-constitution and consider the type of self-constitution that we see in living processes, we gain a picture of a process of self-determination that is neither simply arbitrary nor predetermined. The inherent tension exposed in the paradox of autonomy does not completely vanish in this picture but is rather unfolded in such a way that the paradox is thereby rendered operative. From a Hegelian point of view, it is insufficient to simply circumvent the paradox by re-defining autonomy as being under rules that are one’s own in the sense that they are laws derived from one’s own nature, derived from the kind of being that one is. Laws of autonomy are not simply laws of one’s nature, but laws of one’s own self-constitutive nature. By developing this thought further we can see why it might be misleading to conceive of freedom as a realm, and more appropriate to consider freedom in terms of a process of liberation. The precarious nature of this process, its tendency to get ahead of itself and fall short of itself, is at the heart of many narratives of liberation. To my mind, the series Breaking Bad had an interesting take on this, but that’s a different story.

3:AM: You’ve recently written about Hannah Arendt’s thesis that there is only one human right – the right to rights. First can you tell us how Arendt arrives at this conclusion, and what motivates her thought? Is she pivoting from insights taken from post-Kantian, Hegelian and Heideggarian discussions about freedom, autonomy and life?

TK: Hannah Arendt’s claim that there is only one human right is definitely stunning at first. We all are familiar with various historic and contemporary declarations of human rights that all seem to agree that there are multiple human rights. Arendt’s claim is, however, not without precedent in the tradition you refer to. Consider Kant’s claim in the Metaphysics of Morals that there is only one innate right: the right to freedom in so far this freedom can co-exist with the freedom of everyone else under a universal law. In other words: a right to freedom according to the principle of right. If you put it like this, it becomes obvious that Kant has in fact anticipated the thought that there is only one innate human right: a right to rights.

This footnote aside, Arendt does not arrive at her thought through Kant exegesis, but rather through her material reflections on the origins of totalitarianism. She starts from the observation that the Twentieth Century has produced unprecedented masses of stateless people and refugees who were deprived of any rightful existence and thrown into a condition of absolute rightlessness. This was true even though they supposedly should have still enjoyed human rights, which are supposed to be independent of any citizenship. Arendt thinks this historical situation is not only evidence that there is some truth to Burke’s pragmatic criticism of human rights: that we have reason to prefer the rights granted to us as citizens over human rights that prove to be so ineffective. More importantly, she takes this to suggest that we have misconstrued the very form and ground of human rights. First, we have treated them as if they had the same basic form as the determinate subjective rights we enjoy as citizens, when in fact they refer to a right that is different in kind. Second, we have tried to base human rights on abstract, naked human nature, but as historical experience has made painfully clear, this is in fact no proper ground for rights at all.

In order to find a new conception of human rights, Arendt thinks it is helpful to consider the situation of the stateless more closely, since their condition is the most obvious case of a situation in which we feel someone is in fact being deprived of basic human rights. What the stateless are fundamentally, and wrongly, deprived of, is as Arendt suggests, their place in the world, their ability to take part and be a part of a human community, the ability for their actions and opinions to count. She puts this by saying, that we deny them not this or that specific right – no matter how fundamental – but the right to have rights at all. And this is a right that inheres not in their naked life as such, but in their potential to participate in political life, in the life this right entitles them to.

3:AM: How does her conclusion politicize and naturalise the justification?

TK: In her critique of the dominant understanding of human rights, one of the two fundamental flaws Arendt identifies is the tendency, shared by all kinds of declarations of human rights, to naturalize these rights and in this sense to “reduce politics to nature”. This is in fact a feature that has also affected our understanding of civic rights, on Arendt’s account, since following the rise of the nation state the status of citizenship was often tied to birth. For Arendt this is a grave misconception, as our rights are in fact not based on our naked life, but on our community with others, our political existence. Her critique of a reduction of politics to nature also informs her new formulation of the one and only human right. This right to rights does not entitle us to our birth rights, but entitles us instead to a political existence. The right to have rights is first and foremost the right to partake in a community and to contribute with one’s actions and utterances to the way in which it governs itself. This human right politicizes our concrete subjective rights in the sense that it puts these rights back into the political process through which they are determined. The right to have rights does not delineate provisional rights that are to be secured in a civil state by positive law; it rather entitles us to active participation in a political community and through this participation connects us to any rights that may be constituted through this political process.

But how should we in turn understand the ground or basis for this fundamental right to have rights?  If it is true that this one human right, the right to have rights, insists even where we are put in a position that denies us participation in any community and if this right to rights is itself the enabling condition of such participation, we cannot conceive of this right as conferred to us by any particular community. It would thus be quite natural to assume that this right must instead be innate: rooted in the abstract nature of the human being taken in insolation or abstraction from whatever particular human community it may exist in. But with this we return to the very naturalization of rights Arendt had criticized. It is not entirely clear what Arendt wants to say at this point but it seems to me that she suggests that our way out depends on a new understanding of the nature on which this right may be based.

This nature is not a given empirical fact, but rather a potentiality, not a positive foundation, but a presupposition we posit in the very practices enabled by it. Arendt suggests that there must be a way to relate us back to nature that does not reduce politics to nature but rediscloses our nature as open to, even requiring, its political unfolding and development. If human rights are essentially revolutionary rights, as recent history suggests, then this means that they can neither be accounted for by an existing political order nor reduced to an apolitical naked nature. They articulate the very threshold of politics and nature; they define the political process as a development of our nature, and our nature as a resource for questioning and exceeding any particular political order.

3:AM: Did she think this right could be put into law? Did she think it went beyond the form of subjective rights?

TK: Arendt was aiming at diagnosing a fundamental flaw in the common conception of human rights and attempting to offer some conceptual clarification. She did not go very far in thinking about the way in which this different conception may be implemented legally. With regard to this question, the two issues you point to seem particularly pressing: What legal form could this indeterminate right to have rights itself possibly take on? And in what sense is it adequate to express the right to have a place in the world as the right to have rights? With regard to the first question, the idea that Arendt formulates is definitely challenging. Not only does the one and only human right differ qualitatively from the subjective rights to which it entitles us , it challenges the very concept of rights on which we were relying. If we remain with the formulation that Arendt herself has given us, this right seems more suited to operate as a rule of reflection in considering how our legal orders may prevent a violation of this fundamental claim to community, rather than as a fundamental law already determining the range of possible rights.

With regard to the second issue, Arendt indeed seems to tie this fundamental human right to our ability to be bearers of subjective rights. However, what the right to rights itself claims for us is a place in the world, the right for our actions to count and our words to be heard, our right to inclusion in a community. As these formulations suggest, something much wider and more open is granted to us than just the status of a holder of subjective rights. This right to rights should thus be understood as a right to have a part not only in determining the contents, but in questioning and transforming the very form of subjective rights.

3:AM:As a take home, how would you characterize your own philosophical position and what would you say were key positions you hold? And is there a name that captures it – for example – would you call yourself an existentialist, a Hegelian, a Phenomenologist?

TK: I find it hard to classify other thinkers, let alone myself. I think it is fair to call me a post-Kantian thinker, in the double sense that it would be difficult to articulate my questions without using Kantian ways of putting the problem, and equally hard to formulate my responses without going beyond what might seem acceptable for a good Kantian. I agree with Hegel that there is no way of keeping the world itself free of the “stain of contradiction” and that Kant was thus misguided in treating the essential contradictions he identified as merely subjective. I agree with Derrida that the conditions of possibility of our theoretical and practical achievements are at the same time the conditions of the impossibility of their purity. And I agree with Adorno, Horkheimer, and Foucault that our investigations of conditions of possibility should not stop short of historical and societal conditions, lest they become ideological. In other words, you may call me a Hegelian, a deconstructionist, or a critical theorist, but it probably distinguishes me that I think one can be all of those at the same time.

3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books that you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

TK: First, let me recommend two recent accounts of the trajectory from Kant to German Idealism that are a source of deep inspiration and helpful to anyone who tries to orient themselves in this extremely dense and exciting period of German Philosophy:

Eckart Förster’s Twenty Five Years of Philosophy

and Paul Franks’ All or Nothing.

Förster’s book deserves a recommendation for its fantastic thesis that there were actually only twenty five years of true philosophy: It started with Kant’s first Critique (according to Kant, everything that came before was mere groping in the dark) and it was concluded by Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (at the end of which we have allegedly entered the homeland of truth and arrived at the shores of absolute knowledge). It is an additional ironic twist of the book that the decisive contribution that made this completion of philosophy possible did not come from a philosopher, but from Goethe, who was the first to delineate the methodology of intuitive understanding that Hegel put to work in his Phenomenology. Paul Franks’ book is unique in the way it highlights the negativity at the very heart of German Idealism and reveals the extent to which we can understand it as an engagement with the problem of nihilism and skepticism. Instead of attributing the astonishing claims to systematicity in German Idealism to the presumptions of its leading figures, Franks makes you see why these authors thought they had no choice, for it is either all – or nothing.

Second, I would like to point the readers to three books that turned me into the philosopher that I am before I even knew it. Even though they are not on my present reading list, they inform how I read whatever is on that list:

Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, I believe the first philosophy book I read cover to cover when I was in high school. Though my notes in the margins from that time completely escape me today, it still strikes me as the most challenging attempt to understand the inseparability of modern art and philosophy.

Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems, one of the most groundbreaking books in Social Theory in recent decades, filled with ingenious distinctions and reflections, many of which are still waiting to be picked up.

Finally Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy, in lieu of many other books by this philosopher that drew me so deeply into the philosophical tradition that I am now hopelessly attached to. I find it truly baffling that some people still seem to believe that Derrida is not philosophy.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 25th, 2018.