Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Interface: Modernity and Post-Modernity: The Possibility of Enthusiasm According to Immanuel Kant and Jean-Francois Lyotard

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Interface: Modernity and Post-Modernity: The Possibility of Enthusiasm According to Immanuel Kant and Jean-Francois Lyotard

Article excerpt

Both Immanuel Kant and Jean-Francois Lyotard explore the nature of enthusiasm and provide diverse interpretations as to its political relevance. Kant offers his readers a modernist view confirming the possibility of a genuinely moral human tendency towards improvement as concretized in the external, objective, and "disinterested" sign of the French Revolution- a political enthusiasm. Lyotard, on the other hand, presents a postmodernist view negating the possibility of any objective proof of such a human tendency, thereby relegating enthusiasm to an irrational enterprise inspired by a merely subjective sentimentality or affect-ed dementia. Enthusiasm is passively amoral, as it can be affected by a wide array of "emotions" ultimately resulting, in some cases, in the eruption of violence and hatred. This essay will have as its focus a critical reading of both philosophers' positions, and will endeavor to show that Lyotard's rereading of Kant eschews the distinction between aesthetics and politics by collapsing the analogous relation between aesthetics and politics into one of identity, thereby rendering Kant's vision of a genuine political enthusiasm too sentimental and too affected.

In his The Contest of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant examines the question of "whether the human race, as a whole, is continually improving." (1) In order to answer his question, Kant realizes that he must posit certain proof for his assertion. He dismisses the appeal to the prophets or predictors of the future as guaranteeing the future continued improvement of the human race (non singulorum sed universorum ). Kant hypothesizes and says that we can appeal to predictions and prophets; however such an enterprise can never guarantee a positive answer to the question of whether the human race is improving:

We can obtain a prophetic historical narrative of things to come by depicting those events whose a priori possibility suggests that they will in fact happen. But how is it possible to have history a priori? The answer is that it is possible if the prophet himself occasions and produces the events he predicts.(2)

The only way we can plausibly believe the prophets and their "a priori history" is if the prophets themselves author and concretely realize their own self-made predictions in which case the predictions become limited in scope, contrived, and therefore hardly predictions of future events. If everything is predicted, and therefore pre-ordained, then there is no possibility for the exercise of human freedom, which is essentially what characterizes the human subject as "human." Extending his notion of the prophet to both politicians and "divines," Kant severely reprimands the practices of both groups accusing them of making such self-fulfilling prophecies, thereby reducing their respective followers to a mediocre and limited state.(3) In sum, the prophets are limited at best and, hence, not a reliable source upon which we can base any possible future evidence that might confirm our original hypothesis concerning the progress of the human race.

Kant goes on to list three possible modes in which we can view human history. First, we can view it as constantly declining and regressing. Kant calls this view the "terrorist conception of human history." Such a view is not tenable for Kant, as "a process of deterioration cannot go on indefinitely, for mankind would wear itself out after a certain point had been reached."(4)

Second, there is the "eudaimonistic" view of human history. In this view, mankind is constantly progressing and improving. Here Kant's realism is striking, for he recognizes the limited capacities of mankind and that to speak of constant improvement without some setbacks is idealistic and simply not in accord with the concrete experience of the human person as a finitude capable of good and evil:

After all, no effects can exceed the capacity of their effective cause; and the quantity of goodness in man must therefore remain below a certain level in proportion to the amount of evil with which it is intermixed, so that man cannot work his way beyond a given limit and go on improving further. …

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