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German Idealism and Modernism

Interview by Richard Marshall.

(Art: Julio Larrez)

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‘The German Idealists, including Kant, tried to overcome the division between nature and freedom that had arisen during the Enlightenment. It did so, I would argue, not by postulating the existence of a counter-scientific, metaphysical world of noumenal essences, but by figuring out how our status as agents can be made compatible with the fact that we are perfectly natural beings – or human animals.’

‘While Habermas seems to have been quite deeply influenced by especially the early Hegel, he shares the view, widespread in the German tradition, of his later writings as being excessively metaphysical. ‘

‘Stanley Cavell was a deeply original and creative thinker, one of the truly great American minds of the recent decades. While finding his philosophical voice, as he would say, in his encounters with Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Austin’s ordinary language philosophy, his own work reached out in a number of different directions, including aesthetics, political theory, epistemology (including skepticism), and the study of language. ‘

‘Beckett, for example, who was Adorno’s favorite modern author, and Kafka, are said to be exploring fictional environments in which our ordinary ways of experiencing salience and significance have gone more or less completely lost. There may of course be something very sentimental and romantic about how Adorno repeatedly returns to art as expressing a sense of experiential crisis. Isn’t our endless pursuit of efficiency, speed, control and instrumentalization also offering us numerous advantages without which we would lead more primitive, cruel and uninteresting lives? I think so.’

‘I prefer to see the upshot of Quine’s critique of the a priori/a posteriori distinction as not that we should be narrow naturalists, but that philosophy, as Davidson and even more strongly Rorty would later advocate, should engage more freely with culture at large. The post-Hegelian European tradition has always done this, which is an important reason why, in my own work, I keep gravitating in that direction.’

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Espen Hammer’s main interests are in Kant and German Idealism, social and political philosophy, modern European philosophy, phenomenology, Critical Theory, and aesthetics. Here he discusses German Idealism and why it’s currently fashionable, comparing European and American approaches to it, Idealism’s relationship with metaphysics, Habermas and Idealism, Cavell, why Cavell’s approach to skepticism is important, Adorno and modernism, whether the ‘expanded field’ is no threat to Adorno’s approach to aesthetics, Adorno and aesthetic freedom,  agent-relative  experiential features of temporality, existential meaninglessness and transitoriness in modernity, Kafka’s Trial, and why we should heed philosophy.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Espen Hammer: That is never an easy question to answer. I grew up in Norway. Like many academics I was an early and fairly voracious reader. At some point, probably by chance, I discovered certain popular histories of philosophy – Arne Næss, Will Durant, and so on – and became hooked. My dad and especially my brother were very scientifically inclined, raising many of the large questions of physics, biology and astronomy around the dinner table. I remember being deeply gripped by questions about the origin, size and fate of the universe – those sorts of things. In high school, thanks in part to a particular teacher, I obtained a strong literary interest through reading Sartre, Camus, Mann, Hamsun, Hesse, Céline, Nietzsche, Kafka, and so on. However, at some point, probably during my late undergraduate years in Oslo, the attraction to books and writing gradually transformed itself into some kind of aspiration towards “the life of the mind,” including something academic. I went on to do graduate work in Germany and the United States. These were incredibly exciting and rewarding years for me.

German Idealism

3:AM: You’re an expert in German Idealism. It’s kind of fashionable at the moment – how do you account for its resurgence? Was it Quine’s attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction that gave room for it to start to thrive once more as a branch of naturalistic enquiry into what there is in a deep ontological sense?

EH: People seem to be attracted to German Idealism for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps the most widespread and obvious ones seem to center on what I would describe as a deep dissatisfaction with the philosophical implications of certain forms of reductive or ontological naturalism. If our only grip on reality is via causal explanations, then how are we to account for our sense of being agents, our commitment to norms and values, our belief in the normative force of truth, and the ways in which we take ourselves to be acting rationally when applying concepts and justifying beliefs? Science is obviously an incredibly powerful tool for understanding the world. Yet no human undertaking seems, at least indirectly, to challenge our sense of what it is to lead a human life more effectively than that.

The German Idealists, including Kant, tried to overcome the division between nature and freedom that had arisen during the Enlightenment. It did so, I would argue, not by postulating the existence of a counter-scientific, metaphysical world of noumenal essences, but by figuring out how our status as agents can be made compatible with the fact that we are perfectly natural beings – or human animals. Quine’s attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction may for a while have made Kant’s position somewhat unattractive. Today, however, I see Quine’s pioneering appeal to naturalism, which changed the agenda of much Anglo-American philosophy, as having been transformed into more inclusive programs of naturalistic thinking, some of which are not constitutively hostile towards German Idealism. Terry Pinkard’s suggestion that Hegel was a naturalist may seem provocative. However, I think it is basically true on a generous interpretation of what naturalism involves.

3:AM: On the face of it there does seem something different in the approach of, say Brandom, Putnam and McDowell on the one hand and Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, Gadamer and Habermas on the other, although they all seem to put Kant and Hegel at the heart of their work. Is there a philosophically non-superficial difference between the approach to Idealism found in the Anglo/American tradition and the German and continental European tradition, and if there is how would you characterize the main features of this distinction?

EH: The European thinkers you mention have tended to view German Idealism, at least in its post-Kantian development, as largely a metaphysical movement. To the extent that Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism was interpreted in skeptical terms, as a restriction of knowledge in the realist sense (leaving the noumenal realm, the realm of metaphysical reality, incognizable), they would also interpret the Kant/Hegel development as being discontinuous: Hegel’s Geist, for example, would be considered a grandiose and metaphysical attempt to close the “gap between subject and object” purportedly opened by Kant’s transcendental project. Rather than offering a metaphysical reading of German Idealism, the American thinkers you mention have been more interested in questions of rationality, normativity, and objectivity. Since they have viewed Kant as the originator of a completely new approach to these questions that would deeply influence someone like Hegel, they have been more keen to stress the continuities between their projects.

To be sure, the metaphysical approach to German Idealism generated a very large and complex philosophical discourse of trying to “overcome” metaphysics. In both Heidegger and Adorno, the critique of philosophy’s “totalizing” ambitions became linked to the even larger effort of criticizing modernity itself (assuming, often in ways that were quite obscure, that certain key achievements of modern thinking instantiate non-trivial homologies with reason as German Idealism had conceived it). Having been shaped by decisively anti-metaphysical movements such as pragmatism, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and naturalism, American philosophy in its post-World War II dispensations was simply not that bothered with (or by) metaphysics. Moreover, the question of what it is to belong to a culture that supposedly interprets itself along the totalizing lines of idealist metaphysics never found much resonance in the more scientifically oriented American philosophy. It pretty much remained a European obsession.

3:AM: It seems odd that at a time when in the Anglo-American tradition metaphysics is making a comeback the Idealists are walking away from metaphysics. Or is it just that the new Idealists are doing metaphysics in a different way from how its usually understood – that in the new approach reason and logic is metaphysics? What is meant in the literature when we read about the ‘new’ Kant and ‘new’ Hegel, and by ‘deflationary’ readings of these figures in the post-metaphysical framework being developed by some? Is Fred Beiser right in saying that these new readings are distortions of the originals and misreadings?

EH: One possible source of confusion here is that the term “metaphysics” is being used in such different ways. Robert Pippin, for example, who is often claimed to have a deflationary approach to the idealists (especially Hegel), seems perfectly happy to grant that some of what they do deserves to be called metaphysical. By arguing that, for Hegel, thinking and being necessarily share the same fundamental structure, he can hold that his dialectical logic yields results that are of a metaphysical nature. On this reconstruction, since the logic does not impose subjective content on an essentially mind-independent reality but, rather, in what is an obvious nod to Kant, articulates the conditions under which anything can be objectively experienced, there can be no gap between thought and world and therefore no “thing-in itself”-problem.

People like Fred Beiser and many younger scholars seem to think that absolute idealism in this sense cannot do justice to the metaphysical aspirations of Hegel. Beiser, in particular, sees in both Hegel and Schelling a retrieval of pre-Kantian, realist metaphysics. Notions of absolute ego and spirit are, in his view, best read as attempts to reformulate Spinoza’s account of substance. Stated in these very general terms, I side with Pippin in this debate. Appeals to pre-critical, pre-Kantian metaphysics quickly rob German Idealism of much of its deep and revolutionary philosophical interest. There may, as Adorno argues, be good reasons to pause before some of Hegel’s most grandiose claims to totality and closure. However, criticism of Adorno’s sort does not, in my view, require recourse to metaphysics in the rationalist sense. All it does is to press the idealists on their demand for conceptual determination of experiential content. There may, as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (and also Adorno) argue, be ways of taking up the given that allow for non-conceptual modes of determination of the given. If thinking metaphysically involves a commitment to some form of transcendence, then perhaps this internal critique of conceptuality is what ultimately deserves to be called metaphysical in the genuine sense. However, if this is true, then Pippin might need to rethink the use he makes of the term “metaphysics.”

3:AM: Where do you stand in all this: you’ve written about Habermas, and maybe you can sketch for us how your approach helps show us where you stand in relation to Idealism. Is Habermas right to say that the totalizing tendencies of Hegel are just not possible in these postmetaphysical times?

EH: While Habermas seems to have been quite deeply influenced by especially the early Hegel, he shares the view, widespread in the German tradition, of his later writings as being excessively metaphysical. Hegel’s Geist, Habermas argues, is some sort of cosmic or divine ego seeking unification and reconciliation with its lost other, created being. It thus falls in line with the subject-centered thinking that Habermas claims has unduly dominated most of Western philosophy since Descartes. As already mentioned, I find that this reading stands in danger of returning Hegel to a pre-critical, pre-Kantian position. Rather than postulating the existence of such evidence-transcendent entities, Hegel always insists on the immanent nature of dialectical reflection and philosophical critique. Spirit itself develops by overcoming contradictions that are immanent to already existing determinations of being.

Acknowledging that Hegel is not a pre-critical metaphysician does not mean that I assume, as Habermas clearly does, that, because of the authority of natural science and the impact of many anti-metaphysical philosophical movements over the last century or so, we are confined within epistemic limits set by our supposedly postmetaphysical epoch. As a thesis about contemporary culture, it may – although I doubt how adequate and useful such a designation actually is – be true that we live in a postmetaphysical age. However, if interpreted as a prohibition on thought itself, then I would see it as overly dogmatic. I would like to see arguments, rather than merely assertions, about what can and cannot be done in any so-called epoch.

In my work on Adorno, I have tried to take seriously his claim that certain modes or modalities of experience may lead us to call into question some of the key ways in which we ordinarily determine the world conceptually. Agreeing that experiences of this sort, since they at least in part transcend our standing conceptual grasp, may deserve to be called metaphysical, I follow Adorno in highlighting more specifically the importance of aesthetic experience. If one is willing to entertain the notion that at least part of what serious art does is to explore significances, ways and modalities of mattering, for a subject whose capacity for orientation in the world is never fully accounted for by appeal to its capacity for conceptual determination, then, even if one is not particularly keen on using such loaded terms as “metaphysics,” it might at least be worth pondering whether our ordinary experience of the world in fact may be limited or reified. A view such as this has been common in the European tradition of philosophical aesthetics from Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Adorno. In writings from the 1980s, Habermas gets close to brushing off this tradition as “mysticism.” I do not follow Habermas at this point. I find the tension and dialectics between everyday and scientific modes of rational behavior, on the one hand, and aesthetic rationality, on the other, to be immensely fascinating and worthy of sustained philosophical reflection.

Stanley Cavell

3:AM: You’ve written about the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, who sadly died recently. His approach to philosophy was a bit like Wittgenstein’s, wasn’t it – so what are the central features of his philosophical approach and why does he appeal to you? Is it the way he binds interests in Thoreau, Emerson with Schlegel and Heidegger, suggesting links between American pragmatism and elements of German Idealism? (Which also makes Wittgenstein’s work perhaps take on these inflections as well?)

EH: Stanley Cavell was a deeply original and creative thinker, one of the truly great American minds of the recent decades. While finding his philosophical voice, as he would say, in his encounters with Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Austin’s ordinary language philosophy, his own work reached out in a number of different directions, including aesthetics, political theory, epistemology (including skepticism), and the study of language. Cavell’s philosophy cannot in any way be easily summarized or reduced to slogans. Nor do you find much in Cavell by way of theses or theories. Like Adorno and Wittgenstein, his writing – focusing on our life with language, how words are used and the implications of this use – tends to be diagnostic rather than theoretical in the narrow sense. In particular, he was interested in skepticism considered not as a purely epistemological challenge but, rather, as a standing possibility of failing to make full sense, of becoming unintelligible. Unintelligibility (and “emptiness”) arises when, sometimes for perfectly good reasons, the purported fact of our separation from the world and others becomes an intellectual problem, to be resolved by appealing to proofs (or what Cavell calls “criteria”) rather than by active yet personally involved discernment of significance and “acknowledgment.” The “ordinary” (as in “ordinary language philosophy”) is this fragmentary network of responses – normatively structured yet without “rails” (Wittgenstein) – that ultimately make up a “form of life.”

The emphasis on the personal, the experimental, the essayistic and aphoristic – and indeed on self-authorization via our ongoing efforts at sense-making – does bring Cavell into fairly close proximity with the kinds of projects you find in Schlegel, Emerson, Thoreau, and Heidegger (on all of whom he wrote extensively). However, his strong anti-foundationalism, orientation towards communally sanctioned meaning, and interest in modernism also relates him to Hegel. I think that what drew me to his writing was the perfectionist sense of philosophy as an ongoing activity and quest, addressing our deepest interests and concerns in ways that are fundamentally risky and open. In this I see some very obvious connections between Cavell and Adorno, for whom philosophy ultimately takes the form of radical self-reflection, turning selfhood into a task and a project rather than something given.

3:AM: Why do you think Cavell’s acceptance of skepticism an important feature of his approach?

EH: Part of why Cavell is often so difficult to understand is that he tended to reject both skepticism (when interpreted in the roughly Cartesian sense, as a rationally motivated denial of the possibility of knowledge) and its anti-skeptical rejoinders. Think for example of our experience of others, on which Cavell wrote a whole lot. The criteria we have for mindfulness allow us to discern the difference between expressions of anger and expressions of sorrow. However, they do not allow us to differentiate between cases involving an actual inner life (of “mindfulness”) and cases, such as zombies, involving just outer (and therefore “simulated”) expression. Criteria give you identity, not existence. In this the skeptic is right. However, does this mean that we do not relate to others as mindful beings? Of course not. In our actual concern for others, we do, at least most of the time, display a kind of ongoing attitude towards other minds.

A proof, however, if it could be given, would not relieve us of the responsibility we all have for maintaining the kind of attitude that makes the inner life of others evident to us. This is why Cavell rejects anti-skeptical conclusions. They simply misconstrue the challenge and the fragility pertaining to our human bonds and relations. According to Cavell, we thus need to live our skepticism. Accepting that the other (qua mindful being) might be cognitively out of reach, we must focus on case-by-case assessments of the relations in which we find ourselves. Perhaps, like King Lear when he refuses to listen to Cordelia, tragically asking his three daughters for proofs of their love for him, we shut the other out. Perhaps, I would like to add, there are social and cultural constraints on our capacity to acknowledge the other. This is not just about the ways in which we relate to each other as human beings (and thus our “humanity”), but also about our ability to make sense of our experience and allow it to matter in ways that are both adequate and humanly fulfilling.

Adorno's Modernism

3:AM: Another great interest of yours is aesthetics and you’ve written about Adorno’s contribution to this area. He responds to Kant and Hegel, and you say Adorno’s modernism raises the question whether meaningful social practice is conceivable. Can you sketch for us why Adorno came to see this as the central question and what you take him to mean by that?

EH: As it stands, and without qualification, “meaningful social practice” is no doubt a vague and not very useful expression. By bringing it to bear on Adorno, I have in mind his laments, to some extent derived from a long German tradition which includes both Hegel, Marx and Lukács, about reification. In societies such as ours, in which transactions between human beings as well as our relationships to the material world are to a large extent commodified, we may find that what counts as everyday rational behavior is restricted. While relations and experiences do have qualities that are unique to them (and do, in Marx’ terms, have “use-value”), there is a sense in which we tend to prioritize their “exchange-value,” the ways in which they can be quantified, allowing for both standardization and effective instrumentalization. If, for example, as our government likes us to do, I think of my education as predominantly an “investment,” allowing me, if everything goes well, to reap the profits later, I will be likely to display a very different attitude to it than would someone who cares about being educated as a value to be pursued for its own sake. I will, in short, see it as meaningful mainly or merely as a means to something else. At potentially great cost to myself as a creature in need of establishing meaningful, binding relations to my environment, its intrinsic claim to meaning will largely be lost on me. What Adorno means by reification thus goes to the heart of how we permit the world and others to matter.

Art, on Adorno’s account, tends, if it is sufficiently sophisticated, to address the manner in which we make sense of our experience and allow its objects to matter (or not). Beckett, for example, who was Adorno’s favorite modern author, and Kafka, are said to be exploring fictional environments in which our ordinary ways of experiencing salience and significance have gone more or less completely lost. There may of course be something very sentimental and romantic about how Adorno repeatedly returns to art as expressing a sense of experiential crisis. Isn’t our endless pursuit of efficiency, speed, control and instrumentalization also offering us numerous advantages without which we would lead more primitive, cruel and uninteresting lives? I think so, and I think even Adorno did view modern life, at least if you contrast it with the kind of rural simplicity found as an ideal in late Heidegger, as essentially worth defending. However, I also see the need for extending the long discourse on meaning and human self-actualization found in so much of the post-Kantian tradition.

3:AM: Why don’t you think that the rise of the so-called expanded field doesn’t render his approach anachronistic and irrelevant? Isn’t one crisis of modernity the crisis of whether there is a project of modernity any more – if there ever was one in the first place?

EH: When, in 1979, Rosalind Krauss coined the term “expanded field,” she had in mind the dissolution of the institution of autonomous art as witnessed in the many great transformations of the artworld during especially the 1960s. Replacing Greenberg’s ideal modernist works of art, which would celebrate and cultivate their difference from the world of non-art by focusing exclusively on their own medium-specificity (and thus on “form”), she saw a new generation trying to efface, or at least call into question, the distance between art and world. Thus, questions of form yielded to questions of social relevance via such means as narration, documentation, and other more immediate forms of self-expression. Art happily took its place as one cultural expression among many, and, as Arthur Danto would argue, everything (as long as it tells an interesting story!) could in principle be accepted as a work of art.

The expanded field has little or no place for works that display the kinds of commitments highlighted by Adorno. With his emphasis on form, his subscription to an ideal of aesthetic autonomy, his highlighting of privileged forms of expression, and his fairly pronounced distinction between “high” and “low” (entertainment-oriented) art, he would have been more inclined to see the expanded field as involving the final end of art than as its energetic, youthful and historically necessary expansion and democratization.

While powerfully expressed and historically extremely influential, Greenberg’s modernist formalism of painterly self-reflexivity may come across as profoundly irrelevant today. Not just did it shut art too effectively off from the world to sustain the kind of interest attached to pre-modern art, but the whole range of human experience, art’s capacity to express, was totally overlooked. Adorno’s formalism was different, allowing for expression at the potential expense of aesthetically pleasing form. I find his aesthetic project profoundly compelling and philosophically very interesting. However, I do worry about its lack of contemporaneity. If, as Adorno himself believed, the principles of an adequate aesthetic conception of the arts must be responsive to the kinds of works that actually count as the most advanced in any given period, then Adorno’s own theory must be left behind as belonging to a bygone social and aesthetic constellation.

It is fair to say that Adorno philosophized in the shadow of the great Hegelian and Marxist philosophies of history. Although he believed that they had failed to identify an effective and philosophically satisfying telos of human history, the very endeavor of seeing history, and especially modernity, as a kind of project involving a macro-subject trying to achieve some sort of overall and defining goal, was never entirely absent from Adorno’s thinking. The advanced, modernist work of art would contribute to our understanding of history as providing both disastrous moments of regression and redeeming moments of anticipation of a better, more humane society. Today, for all sorts of reasons, both social, philosophical, and political, I think we should treat such notions with great caution. Indeed, there may never have been such a thing as a “project of modernity.”

3:AM: Why does Adorno place freedom at the heart of his aesthetics and what does he mean by it? Is Heidegger and late Wittgenstein helpful to understand his approach here – and how is his approach indebted to Kantian approaches to rationality, and how far is it at odds with it?

EH: Like Kant, Adorno is very much a philosopher of aesthetic autonomy. He thinks that both the creation and reception of works of art involve competences and capacities that rarely, if ever, are being exercised outside of the aesthetic domain, and he understands them as involving a peculiar form of rationality occasionally referred to as “aesthetic.” If I read Adorno correctly, the element of freedom in aesthetic rationality has to do with the kind of responsiveness one finds in aesthetic contexts. While, according to Adorno’s view, everyday living is to an overwhelming degree subjected to norms over which the individual has little or no control, art offers at least a promise of greater spontaneity, playfulness, imagination, and pleasure. The Kantian background should be fairly obvious. For Kant, while aesthetic rationality does not exactly provide freedom in the practical sense, of acting on self-imposed and rational norms, the so-called “free play of the faculties” places the subject in a different and more playful relation to the world. The requirements that have to be met with for cognitive or practical involvement to be possible (centering, in the familiar Kantian manner, on applying a priori rules to oneself) loose their hold on us and we just enjoy what Kant calls free beauty. Adorno criticizes Kant for subjectivizing aesthetic rationality too much. However, he also adopts many features of the Kantian analysis.

Adorno differs from Kant in that he explicitly sees aesthetic rationality as a repressed feature of cognitive and practical rationality. Engaging with items of aesthetic perfection may therefore teach us a lesson about something we ordinarily don’t cultivate or prioritize. There are perhaps some interesting parallels between this kind of critique of rationality and Heidegger’s critical analysis of representational and technological thinking. However, since Heidegger utilizes the “alternative” mode of rationality – for him the thinking of being (Sein) – to create a vast, totalizing and ontological account of history, I feel more at ease with Adorno, who avoids the Heideggerian bombast. In his account of aspect-perception, the late Wittgenstein also pointed to a form of responsiveness, a sensitivity, irreducible to rule-following. Since rules do not (and cannot) regulate every intelligible projection of a word or concept, we need that responsiveness in our use of language as well. The overlap with Adorno, which I am confident exists, remains to be explored fully.

3:AM: So how would you summarize Adorno’s aesthetics and what do you take from it that can still speak to contemporaries?

EH: Summarizing it would be hard. In Germany, and especially with regard to contemporary music, Adorno’s work shaped much of the post-World War II generation of artists and critics and, in part via the contributions of Adorno-scholars and thinkers such as Albrecht Wellmer and Christoph Menke, continued until this day to inform how people think about ambitious art. Like many in this constituency, I do think of Aesthetic Theory as by far the most philosophically sophisticated take on modern art in the twentieth century. However, I also, as already mentioned, realize how much the art he cherished has aged. Indeed, when viewed from the age of neo-liberal capitalism, digitalization, globalization, and looming environmental catastrophe, the fifties and sixties, when Adorno wrote many of his most important texts as an aesthetician, strike me as in some ways very distant from us. A lot of water has flown in that river. Reading favorite authors of his such as Beckett, Proust and Kafka, while I certainly experience their power, I cannot help feeling that important aspects of their works will forever be indexed to a never fully retrievable past. Like Adorno, I think that no cultural achievements, including philosophy, contain an ahistorical core or essence to which we can forever return. We engage of course with the past, and are able to identify claims and commitments that we can see as rationally challenging and in some cases as binding, but always from new perspectives and with differing epistemic orientations and interests in mind.

That said, I do think that Adorno’s aesthetics continues to be well worth studying. It remains, as I said, the most rewarding and philosophically satisfying approach to modernist art. In more directly contemporary terms, I think the complex ways in which it relates art to society at large (Adorno is both a proponent of aesthetic autonomy and a theorist of aesthetically mediated social critique) still comes with an ability to inspire and illuminate. The old, noble, yet in some people’s view naive, vision of art as a site of resistance, inviting audiences to reflect critically on fundamental commitments informing and influencing their experience of the world, is not one we should easily discard. Finally, I think the attention paid by Adorno to the capacity for experience itself – the social, cultural, but also more narrowly phenomenological, conditions of experience – is as suggestive today as it must have been fifty or sixty years ago. There is plenty of contemporary art that encourages similar modes of attention.

Modern European Philosophy: Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory

3:AM: You’ve taken an interesting approach to time, avoiding the metaphysical question and asking instead what it means to be a human living in time – and you’ve partly explained this project as one that allows you to look at how post-Kantians through to Adorno have been influenced by their understanding of temporal experience during the process of modernity. So what are the three guiding claims of what time means to us as we live our lives that you make in your investigation?

EH: I have been interested in agent-relative, experiential features of temporality – how, as time-conscious beings, we structure time and make it intelligible to us. The way we do this, I argue, is in large part via inferential capacities that also allow us to make sense of the way we experience reality. In his famous analysis of the causal relation, Hume gave us a very simple example of such structuring, arguing that, on the basis of experiences of contiguity in space and time and constant conjunction, we make inferences from cause to effect involving the modality of necessity. In my book I generalize the basic features of this account by arguing that all human sense-making, both individually and collectively, require us to negotiate and manage a normatively structured space of inferences from what was to what is, from what is to what we believe, hope, expect or fear is going to take place, and so on. We always bring certain inferences to bear on what we experience such as to transform mere succession into meaning and form. Among the larger building blocks of these systems of inferential structuring I count narratives. Important as they are for our sense of selfhood and interpretation of social action and events, they make possible the representation of a set of events as unified and to some extent intelligible. Of course, we are all likely to find that our ability (and sometimes striving) to see ourselves as authors of these narratives is limited by the overwhelming fact of contingency and the conventionality of the narratives themselves. (Yes, I decided to become an academic philosopher, and who I am today is largely a result of what this decision made me do and be committed to. Yet how I came to make that decision and what exactly it involved were not things I could fully control.)

Having tried to argue for such a view of temporal structuration, I made a second central claim, to some extent derived from Max Weber. This was that contexts of rapid modernization, in which self-interpretation, evaluation and decision-making tend to be tailored towards efficiency and calculated control of future events, disengaging the agent from socially sanctioned meaning handed over from the past, has its own kind of temporality. At least to a significant extent, modern agents experience time as linear, composed of homogeneous now-points irreversibly following each other, each of which is assigned a specific value depending on the productivity and satisfaction it makes possible. This is the time of the clock, of seconds, minutes and hours passing – a time to be seized upon, controlled, and overcome.

I finally claimed that key figures in the post-Kantian tradition, including Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, have been deeply preoccupied with temporality, and, in my reading, especially with how our dealings with time are affected by modernization and modern culture. It has of course been a commonplace that these thinkers had been interested in temporality. What has not been properly appreciated, I would claim, is that the manner in which they conducted their “discourse of modernity” (as Habermas so aptly called it) was intimately tied up with their accounts of temporality. To understand how this happens is crucial for zeroing in on what this history of philosophical reflection actually has to offer.

3:AM: How do you see time linked to existential meaninglessness and transitoriness in modernity?

EH: My claim about meaning takes off from the idea that modern temporality (along with a number of other influences) tends to weaken the authority of pre-given and traditional patterns of value and self-interpretation embodied in rituals, narratives, practices, and the expectations associated with membership in various forms of institutions. The purportedly autonomous, modern agent seeks orientation not by asking how things have been done but by how they should be done, given the principles he or she chooses to accept as valid. The advantages that come with the cultivation of such an attitude are familiar and central to Kantian views of the self. The disadvantage, if I may use such an expression, is that it risks thinning out the self, disengaging it too much from contexts in which substantive reasons for action and self-interpretation can be offered and modes of significance be accepted for what they are. I see Hegel’s account of modernity as being highly attentive to this tension. More recently, this was one of Bernard Williams’ great points against principled moral visions at odds with the commitments making up our sense of selfhood.

The claim about transitoriness takes its bearing from the observation I just mentioned regarding the modern primacy of clock-time. While most traditional societies have had an account of time as involving repetition qua regular yet natural return to some form of origin, modern clock-time, with its seconds, minutes and hours, confines our experience of things to a framework in which every moment appears fleeting and impossible to hold on to. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both obsessed with this, in their view tragic, theme. Our real existence, Schopenhauer writes, “is only in the present, whose unimpeded flight into the past is a constant transition into death, a constant dying.” While Schopenhauer called for some sort of Platonic escape from transitoriness, mainly through art, Nietzsche, in his mature work, wanted to search for ways to “affirm” the singularity of the present moment and live fully in it without being burdened either by its transience or its historically determined meaning.

In my view, the most promising response to the dissatisfactions associated with the modern time frame would have to consist in trying to identify practices that allow us to challenge its uniformity and homogeneity. Platonic solutions of the kind we find in Schopenhauer would not be able to do that. Moreover, the Nietzschean strategy seems to make meaning and significance a matter purely of subjective acts of affirmation, thereby threatening to preclude any recourse to experiences that are able to make a genuine claim on us and be binding beyond one’s more or less arbitrary assent. Following Benjamin and Adorno, I instead develop an account in which human experience is viewed as susceptible to encounters with the ephemeral and different, items that hold a unique interest, exert a special authority, beyond our standard conceptual and instrumental modes of sense-making. The cultivation of such forms of experience are likely to require a reconsideration of the aesthetic register, perhaps of the category of the sublime, and of the fate of art in modernity.

Kafka's The Trial

3:AM: Your interest in modernism extends to its great literature, and you’ve written about Kafka’s The Trial in Wittgensteinian terms. So what do you think is happening with this work and how does a Wittgensteinian approach help us?

EH: I recently edited a volume in a new OUP series devoted to exploring the philosophical dimensions of great works of literature. Focusing on Kafka’s The Trial I tried in my own essay to avoid the traditional thematic readings – the theological, the social, the psychoanalytic, and so on. Instead, aiming to bring out its modernist dimension, I looked at the text as an exercise in radical literary and linguistic self-reflection. On trial in The Trial is not only the confused and despairing Josef K., who finds himself being accused of a crime he seems to have no recollection of having committed and whose nature is never revealed to him, but our very capacity for making ourselves intelligible through the use of language. Of course, The Trial displays a surface clarity unsurpassed by most so-called modernist writings. Kafka was a brilliant story-teller and never conducted “experiments” with language. My claim, though, is that the surface clarity of his prose only barely disguises a deeper and more fundamental sense of uncertainty with regard to speech as a means for creating mutual understanding.

Characters in The Trial will say things that sound comprehensible. However, since the context and conditions in which genuine claims can be made are often missing, the novel seems to ask questions about what it is to make sense in the first place. Although all sorts of statements and pronunciations are being made, the reader (and the protagonist) is often left in the dark about such things as the speaker’s authority, why an utterance is being made, as well as the implications it may have. Josef K. is being told that the court looks at his case in a specific way. Yet who is in a position to say that, and why is it said? What expectations should it reasonably invoke? The epistemic fog of the novel’s court system is about language having, as Wittgenstein would put it, “gone on holiday” – a general context of skepticism that offers little or nothing by way of clarification and eventual self-understanding.

Many people, including myself, read Kafka obsessively in their youth. I continue to find his work incredibly powerful and, in our information-saturated, digitalized life-world, still highly relevant.

3:AM: As a take home, how do you characterize the role of philosophy in our contemporary setting – and what do you say to those who say that we no longer need to heed the philosophers because we have scientists who can cover all the bases?

EH: Philosophy has been an integral part of Western culture for more than two thousand years and, despite scientism or, for that matter, neo-liberal visions of the university, is not likely to fade away easily. That said, I have for a long been of the persuasion that philosophy, especially in the Anglophone world, has been too narrowly construed, and that it has lost touch with the issues that actually move people in our time and that in fact call for serious philosophical reflection. Part of the reason why this is the case has been a certain tendency to assign epistemic priority to the sciences, and to see the task of philosophy as essentially that of clarifying our practices and commitments in light of that sense of priority.

The post-Quinean generation of naturalists has shifted the attention away from the earlier obsession with the a priori and made philosophy relevant in a number of settings that previously were confined to psychologists, biologists, etc. However, the sense of philosophy as being faced with much larger swaths of significance than those dealt with in science has not been cultivated all that much. Hard or reductive naturalism makes our lives virtually unrecognizable to us. There is no consciousness, no value, no free agency, no moral responsibility, no art, no institutions, no normative standards: it is all at best illusory. While relatively few philosophers support such programs, I prefer to see the upshot of Quine’s critique of the a priori/a posteriori distinction as not that we should be narrow naturalists, but that philosophy, as Davidson and even more strongly Rorty would later advocate, should engage more freely with culture at large. The post-Hegelian European tradition has always done this, which is an important reason why, in my own work, I keep gravitating in that direction.

Possibly the greatest challenge to our civilization, and indeed to the world as we know it, is climate change and environmental disaster, including rapid and uncontrollable species extinction, and I sincerely believe that philosophers should be reflecting a lot more on the large moral, political, cultural, and existential issues these frightening processes raise. We may have to rethink a lot of our assumptions about value, well-being, human self-actualization, technology, and nature, and philosophy ought to play a central role in doing so. In a world that is literally falling apart before our very own eyes, I am sometimes amazed at the myopia and self-referentiality of much that passes for academic philosophy these days.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you can recommend to our readers here at 3:AM, other than your own of course, which will take us further into your philosophical world?

EH:

The Claim of Reason

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Aesthetic Theory

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Modern European Philosophy: Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations

Robert B. Pippin, Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Phenomenology of Perception

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Outside Ethics

Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is biding his time.

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

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 23rd, 2018.