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notes to Constant and Kant (1)

I am writing with some very brief notes on the first week of readings from Kant, his essays on "What is Enlightenment?" and "The Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View," and Benjamin Constant's essay on "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns."

We are moving somewhat non-chronologically, starting with Constant as a reading from 1819 that synthesizes Smith with Rousseau (as well as taking issue with a Rousseauian perspective that cannot address the growth of modern, capitalist society since Rousseau's time). Constant is continuing and not critiquing let alone opposing Rousseau (he is distinguishing Rousseau from the supposedly Rousseauian Jacobins, et al.).

Constant should serve to put a finer point on Smith and bring out more emphatically what is only implied -- or taken for granted -- by Smith. As I pointed out in my previous post, Smith is most emphatically in dialogue with the Rousseau of The Social Contract. So one should not get bogged down in Smith vs. Rousseau on the conception of property, in, e.g., The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, because Rousseau's conception there is polemical in a way more easily recognizable to Smith than it might be for us barbarians! Smith is in dialogue not with Rousseau's "negative" polemic in which is raised a radical image of individual freedom, but rather with Rousseau's more "positive" theory of society, and first and foremost, social freedom, the possible coherence of society in and through its transformation in freedom, in The Social Contract.

Smith's notion of modern society as exchange -- increased breadth of trade and reciprocally increased depth of division of labor -- and its self-regulating character (e.g., the "invisible hand") must be seen as Smith's interpretation and specification of what Rousseau called the "general will," i.e., society as more than the sum of its parts, capitalism as social freedom -- the freedom of society to transform and progress through transformation. Smith wants to know what makes the Rousseauian "general will" possible, and this is what drives his conception of capitalism.

-- This involved for Smith the transformation of traditional relations of space and time, e.g., relations between town and country, and new and different purposes and forms of colonization, etc., which I would want to emphasize at least as much as, e.g., the "labor theory of value," etc. Smith should not become merely a traditional Marxist avant la lettre in an analytic-categorial sense, but rather needs to be grasped as a philosopher of freedom, which is why Marx would take him seriously to begin with.

Constant, a liberal, interprets modern society in such Smithian cosmopolitan-commercial terms, as in that differences among nations were becoming more apparent than real, etc., bringing about a real cosmopolitanism of international fraternity (as against and despite the power games of statesmen, who are rightly viewed with suspicion as potential criminals against this emergent global society), and, on a more local level, the sublimation of Hobbes's "war of all against all" into the mutually developmental process of competition, etc.

The most important aspect of Constant's argument, of course, is the profound qualitative transformation of modern society, from the traditional/ancient, that he seeks to register and grasp in its implications for the transformation of politics. The transformation of the very ground for and concept of freedom is Constant's ultimate point and should not be obscured or dodged (in terms of "how he understands capitalism," etc., "ideologically" -- again, we're interested in Constant's argument from the standpoint of the philosophy of freedom); Constant gives a very straightforward and prosaic argument that Hegel will make more apparently abstrusely. Both Hegel and Constant derive their thinking about modern freedom from Rousseau and Smith -- with Hegel also coming from Kant.

Turning to Kant, the issue of freedom as transformation must be kept foremost in mind.

In "What is Enlightenment?" Kant is concerned with where freedom in this social-transformative sense is located. He is trying to specify its place and role.

Kant's peculiar use of the public-private distinction, which is wholly counter-intuitive to our colloquial commonsensical use of these terms, needs emphasis, in order to bring out what Kant is trying to say. -- As usual, one should never get hung up on the terms themselves but stay focused on how they are being used to make a specific argument, how they are serving that argument. So first we need to know what that argument actually is.

Kant is in dialogue with Rousseau at the level of the open-ended and profound, qualitative-transformative character of human freedom. (In working through this summer syllabus, when in doubt, always return to the James Miller epigraph on Rousseau I gave you as an initial guide, which will serve for all the readings this summer.)

The idea that the merely "private" use of reason is not the realm of freedom for Kant is quite difficult to wrap one's mind around, because it means going against all our commonplace assumptions of psychological predispositions.

For Kant, e.g., Obama's use of reason in exercising his duties as President counts only as the merely "private" use of reason. It is not in this capacity that Obama can act on behalf of the freedom of humanity. Rather, it is only in public discourse and debate, on behalf of further "enlightenment," that Obama can affect positively the unfolding of human freedom -- the freedom to transform humanity's own conditions. It is thus indirect.

As President, and not only as husband to his wife and father of his children, or as employee in the private sector such as being a law professor at UChicago before entering politics, Obama is not free to act in such a way as to be able to contribute to the development of human freedom, because he is a mere cog in the machine of the social order, compelled to act in the service of interests, both his own as well as others'.

For Kant, it is only as a public citizen than Obama can exercise any possible influence on free humanity. In other words, it's not in making policy decisions in his "public" role as President, but only in his speaking, as we would term it, as a "private citizen" that Obama could, for Kant, participate in the furthering of enlightenment, or what he describes as humanity's emergence from self-incurred immaturity.

This is a tremendous if not preposterous idea of Kant's, and it serves us well to consider where it comes from. It comes from Rousseau's idea of the "general will" as something more than the sum of its parts in individual wills, in which the movement of human freedom -- both individual and collective -- manifests and unfolds.

Kant is taking Rousseau's radically new conception of human freedom and specifying it as a matter of "enlightenment" and what is meant by this. The apparent peculiarity of Kant's argument (its counter-intuitive use of categories of public and private, etc.) comes from the obscurity of the desideratum of free humanity as freedom in transformation with which our radical bourgeois philosophers were wrestling as an emergent property of their world (what we take for granted and to which we have thus dulled ourselves).

What is this "humanity?" It is not the sum total of human beings, but rather the human social (meaning, for moderns, global-cosmopolitan) collective's transcendental character, or more than the sum of its parts (hence taking for granted Rousseau's account of the "general will").

Kant's "Cosmopolitan History" is a great and wonderful precursor and point-for-point program for Hegel's subsequent philosophy of history, which is also followed by Marx and by Marxist politics. -- We seek to continue to pursue the "revolution" of which Kant speaks in his "Cosmopolitan History."

The barbarism of our era can only read Kant with a debunking, jaundiced eye, and ignore what they can read right before them in this bracing text.

Kant is very clear here, for instance that if a world of a cosmopolitan civil society is not achieved then Rousseau's negative opinion of civilization (as polemical mien) and relatively positive estimation of "noble savagery" would be (perversely, against Rousseau's actual intentions) vindicated. This is what Benjamin will call the "go-for-broke game of history." History has become a task, to make civilization worthwhile by transcending its history in freedom -- in the freedom that civilization both evinces and whose open-ended possibilities it furthers.

We are back to Rousseau's account of humanity's unlimited "perfectibility" as that which ails us, but also what tasks us with transformation in freedom, and makes that task capable of fulfillment.

Smith, Kant and Constant, following Rousseau, want to know what about modern society allows this, and thus want to further our consciousness of it, as part and parcel of our practical achievement of it: theirs is the radical project of enlightenment in the service of freedom.