The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II)

My previous post examined how Kant distinguished “public” and “private” uses of reason and discussed the differing ways in which he drew this contrast. This one will focus more narrowly on the three examples he offered: an officer following orders from a superior, a clergyman instructing his congregation in the tenets of the faith, and a citizen paying taxes. It will begin by discussing how these examples had been treated by his contemporaries. It will then consider what recourse Kant’s agents have when they find themselves in disagreeing with the orders they have been given. It will conclude by examining a fourth example that Kant did not discuss: that of a university professor.

Kant’s Examples and their Context

At least two of the three examples Kant used in his answer to the question ” What is Enlightenment? had figured in earlier articles in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. Four decades ago, Eberhard Günter Schulz made a compelling argument that Kant’s reading of Moses Mendelssohn’s discussion of religious oaths, which appeared in the third volume of Mendelssohnthe journal, might help to explain the peculiar footnote that closed Kant’s essay by observing that while he had not had the opportunity of reading Mendelssohn’s article, he had nevertheless decided to submit his article in order to see whether his answer might “coincide by chance” with the answer Mendelssohn had already given.1 Mendelssohn wrote his article on religious oaths in response to Johann David Michaelis’ critique of his treatment of the topic in his Jerusalem. But, at the time when Kant was preparing his article, Mendelssohn had yet to address the critique of his position that had appeared in a 1784 book on Jerusalem written by Johann Friedrich Zöllner, the clergyman who first posed the question that Mendelssohn and Kant were attempting to answer.2 Schulz suggested that Kant might have had good reason to think that Mendelssohn’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” continued the discussion of religious oaths that he began in his rejoinder to Michaelis. Hence the stress that Kant devotes in his article to the example of the clergyman.

The case of an army officer’s response to orders from a superior had also figured, in passing, in an article in an earlier issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. In a discussion addressing the issue of freedom of the press (a topic of obvious relevance for Kant’s response), the jurist Ernst Ferdinand Klein framed the relationship between obedience and criticism as follows:

Subordination is the soul of the whole Prussian state. This subordination, on the one hand so indispensable and on the other so burdensome, is moderated, but not obstructed, by the freedom to think out loud. No superior will be hindered by it from doing what he wants, but only to want what he should not. Under such circumstances, fear of the judgment of the public can serve as a substitute for patriotism. It will not release the subordinate person from the duty of obedience, and what should be done, will be done. However, one is only forced to obey the command, not to condone it; to do, not to judge; to follow, not to agree. The bold reasoner bows ever so deep, and obeys as quickly as the rest; but one fears the audacity of his judgment, and takes care not to give him an opening.

The passage continues with the following example:

Suppose the leader of an army is surrounded by officers who strenuously judge all his measures. What is the effect of their reasoning? Will they hold up the execution of commands? Do they reason first, before obeying? Neither of these! Their reasonings after the event have only the result that the leader, if he recognizes their cleverness, seeks their approval either through asking for advice, or by considering carefully all his steps.3

The contrast Klein drew between carrying out a command and endorsing it captures something of what Kant seems to have aiming at in his discussion of private and public uses of reason. And though the passage skirts the issues of whether officers have the liberty to publish criticisms of their superiors, the next paragraph suggests (at least in Klein’s view), that current Prussian policy permits such works to appear:

Thus when Prussia’s ruler suppresses writings against the state by censorship, he refers only to those which impugn the state itself, which betray it to its enemies, which loosen the subjects from their duty of obedience, and stimulate civil disorder. He does not censor moderate judgments about measures carried out by the prince or his servants. … Such freedom of the press is the distinguishing mark of a wise government.

The implications of philosophical arguments for military discipline had long been a point of contention in Prussia. In 1723, Frederick William I removed Christian Wolff from Halle and exiled him from Prussia on the grounds that his philosophy might be read as endorsing the view that soldiers who had deserted their posts should not be punished, since their actions had been predetermined and, hence, they could not help but desert. Though Frederick II reversed his father’s decision and reinstated Wolff when he assumed the throne in 1740, echoes of the incident can be heard in a comment Klein attached to one of the Wednesday Society’s internal documents:

If I write a morality for the common man, the censor cannot condemn my book because I have nothing to say about the duty to take oaths. If I however said that the soldier is obliged to nothing through the oath that he is not already bound as a citizen of the state or by virtue of its initial contact, the censor must prohibit the publication of the book, even if he is of the same opinion. It is entirely different if I express this proposition in a philosophical treatise. I can assume that such writings will not come into the hands of soldiers.4

In addition to serving as a reminder of how leery Berlin enlighteners remained when it came to comments that might be viewed as undermining military discipline, Klein’s comment also drives home the contrast between his rather cautious approach to the question of censorship and Kant’s far more radical stance. Where Kant argued that there should be no limitations on public discourse, Klein’s approach followed the prevailing Prussian policy of including a consideration of the likely audiences of works in deciding whether to censor a work.

Finally there is the example of the citizen and the tax collector. A search of the Bielefeld’s digital archive of Enlightenment journals turns up little prior to 1790s and nothing in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. There is a passing swipe at tax collectors in the critique of Kant’s essay that Johann Georg Hamann sent to their mutual friend Christian Jakob Krauss but, as far as I have been able to determine, though citizens may have had complaints about tax collectors, there would seem to be little discussion of it in print.5

Arguing, Obeying, and Resigning

These three examples Kant provides are supposed to clarify the options available to individuals who (1) hold some sort of civil posts or position and (2) find themselves disagreeing with the orders given by their superiors. The standard interpretation of Kant’s essay sees him as leaving these individuals with the following options:

  1. When they are engaged in discharging the responsibilities associated with their positions (i.e., in so far as they are engaged in the “private use of reason”), they are required to do what they have been told to do, without argument.
  2. However, these same individuals are at liberty to address the public in the role of “scholars” (i.e., engage in a “public use of reason) and in that role ought to be able to raise objections to these activities without punishment.

But matters are somewhat more complicated than this summary suggests: (1) the “private” use of reason frequently involves something other an unquestioning obedience to orders and (2) in at least one of the cases, Kant notes that there is a third option available: resigning one’s position.

Regarding the first point, as Will Thomas rightly noted in his comment on the first post in this series, it is significant that Kant characterizes what takes place when individuals discharge the responsibilities associated with their “civil posts” as a “private use of reason”. Those who carry out orders are not automata; in at least some of the cases, they will have some latitude in determining how to execute the tasks they have been told to do. The conduct requested of the citizen is the simplest of the three: the tax collector specifies what needs to be paid and the citizen pays it. But the case of the clergyman is considerably more complex: the “symbolic books” specifying the central tenets of the faith require interpretation and the relationship of these tenets to the particular pastoral responsibilities is hardly transparent.6

The case of the officer (which, as I suggested in the previous post, tends to be the example that today tends to trouble readers most) falls somewhere between the citizen and the clergyman. Eighteenth-century military orders covered a great deal of ground and were issued in forms that ran the gamut from detailed written orders dictating the order of march, logistical considerations, and command structure for a campaign to verbal orders issued in the heat of battle.7 Though it is not clear what sort of orders Kant had in mind in his example, Klein would appear to be describing what would have transpired in an officers’ conference, typically held the night before or the morning of the actual engagement, at which the plan of attack would be presented and responsibilities for executing it assigned.

In Article XXV of his Military Instructions, Frederick had this to say about such councils:

frederick-ii-of-prussia-1757Prince Eugene used to say, that a General who had no mind to fight, need only call a council of war; and it is very certain, that in these meetings the question is generally carried in the negative: even secrecy, which is the very soul of war, is but seldom strictly observed.

A General, whom his sovereign has entrusted with the command of an army, ought to act in consequence of his own opinion, in which he is sufficiently authorized by the confidence which is reposed in him. Nevertheless I am of opinion, that he ought not entirely to reject the advice even of a subaltern, provided, after mature deliberation, it seems reasonable. In that case, he ought to forget the rank of him who started the hint, and act as if it had been his own.

In this case, at least, it would appear that the dictum Kant attributes to Frederick — “Argue, as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey” — does not mean that private uses of reason (i.e., what is taking place in the officers’ conference) proceed without argument. There are occasions when argument is central to the proper execution of obligations associated with what Kant would characterize as an individual’s civil post.

The scope of this argumentation is, however, limited: the common feature of the three examples Kant offers is that they all are cast in the form of what Kant would subsequently characterize as “hypothetical imperatives.”8 As Kant would explain a year later in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, such imperatives (also known as “rules of skill”) are principles of action necessary to obtain a particular end that agents may, or may not have. Should the agent in question have no particular interest in the end the imperative is a “problematic hypothetical imperative” while in those cases where the agent actually does have an interest in achieving the end, it is an “assertoric hypothetical imperative.” Hypothetical imperatives are distinguished from the pragmatic imperative, which is directed towards an end that rational beings allegedly have (namely, the achievement of happiness), but lack a consensus on how to achieve. More importantly, it is also distinguished from the categorical imperative (also known as the moral law), which — in contrast to both hypothetical and pragmatic imperatives — is good, not because it directs us to an end we happen to desire or ought to desire, but because it is good in itself.

When agents are engaged in private uses of reason, their actions might be understood as conforming to the general structure of hypothetical imperatives (i.e., their reasoning is directed at the attainment of certain contingent ends) but with the added feature that the end to be achieved has been stipulated by another agent or group of agents. As a result, implicit limits are set on the scope of argument: for example, while those participating in an officers’ conference might be welcome to express reservations about the plan of battle or — in extreme cases — the advisability of engaging the enemy at this particular place and time, it is not the place to discuss the advisability of the war itself.9  However, at least in Kant’s account, officers should not be prohibited from raising the full range of questions — from concerns about the effectiveness of particular strategies to the overall rationale for the war itself — in texts addressing the general reading public.

While the foregoing may help to clarify the sort of arguments that might be raised within the private sphere of reason, it still leaves us with an agent who is forced to live the double life of an individual who, as a holder of a civil post, advances certain projects that this same agent criticizes in writings addressing the general public. But in the case of the clergyman, Kant suggests a third option. After discussing possible conflicts between the views that a clergyman might profess in his role as “a scholar” writing for the general public and the views he is obligated to present as part of his responsibilities to is parish, Kant goes on to note:

… what he teaches as a consequence of his office as an agent of his church, he presents as something about which he does not have free rein to teach according to his own discretion, but rather is engaged to expound according to another’s precept and in another’s name. He will say: our church teaches this or that; these are the arguments that it employs. He then draws out all the practical uses for his congregation from rules to which he himself may not subscribe with complete conviction, but to whose exposition he can nevertheless pledge himself, since it is not entirely impossible that truth may lie concealed within them, and, at least, in any case there is nothing in them that is in contradiction with what is intrinsic to religion. For if he believed he found such a contradiction in them, he could not in conscience conduct his office; he would have to resign.

What Kant offers here is a description of a case in which an agent can no longer continue, through his private use of reason, to support an institution whose principles and practices he criticizes in his role “as a scholar” addressing a reading public. What would appear to trigger this conclusion is a recognition that his conflict with the aims of the institution he serves cannot be resolved and, as a result, he cannot, in good conscience, continue to support it. As a description of the challenges that sometimes face clergy, this seems plausible enough. What is not clear, however, is how this might apply to his other two cases.

Consider, for example, the case of Siegfried Sassoon. In July 1917, having served with Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)distinction on the Western Front since the Spring of 1915, Sassoon released the following statement:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

It is clear that Sassoon’s objections were not directed at the competence of his superiors (though, as a survivor of the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme, he would certainly have had grounds to do so), but rather centered on what he saw as a change in the overall aims of the war itself: he enlisted in a war that he thought would be directed at halting the advance of German armies into France; he found himself engaged in what he concluded was a war of territorial expansion.

Like Kant’s clergyman, Sassoon’s decision was grounded on an objection in principle: he had come to see that he could no longer, in good conscience, continued to support the ends of the institution that laid claim on the “private use” of his reason. There is, of course, an obvious difference between Sassoon’s action and that of the clergyman: unlike clergy, army officers are typically not free to resign their commissions when they choose.  This difference might, however, be mitigated by the particular context in which Sassoon announced his declaration. He issued it in England at the end of a convalescent leave, rather than at the front, which meant that his action would had no immediate consequences for those under his command.10 So, while Sassoon was disobeying an order to return to service at the end of his leave (and, hence, violating what would appear to be Kant’s insistence that soldiers must obey, rather than argue with orders), the order he was disobeying prevented him from exercising an option that Kant grants to the clergyman: the option of resigning an office that violated the dictates of his conscience.

The example of the Bürger and the tax collector is no less puzzling. It is easy enough to construct cases where a citizen might conclude that the continued payment of taxes to a state might violate certain deeply held moral convictions, but though Kant offers clergy the option of resigning their positions and while we might, with enough work, be able to come up with a Kantian account of what set of circumstances might justify an officer’s decision to resign his position, it is far from clear what options a citizen might have beyond paying the requested tax and proceeding, in print, to criticize the uses to which it is put. The problem, in part, follows from the fact that tax levies are typically used to support a variety of projects, not all of which our hypothetical citizen finds morally objectionable.

In cases where it is possible to draw a clear connection between a specific tax and a morally objectionable practice, a citizen could refuse (“on principle”) to pay the tax. For example, during the Vietnam War — which, in contrast to recent wars, was funded by increasing the telephone excise tax rather than by increasing the deficit — those who objected to the war could register their dissent by refusing to pay the seven percent increase that Congress enacted).11 In the absence of a specific tax, a citizen would be forced to opt, as Henry David Thoreau did at the start of the Mexican War (a war that he rightly viewed as a device for expanding slavery westerward), simply to refuse to pay whatever taxes he was asked to pay, regardless of their function. As Thoreau explained,

I meet this American government, or its representative, the Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredState government, directly, and face to face, once a year — no more — in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. …

It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.12

It is, however, difficult to speculate on what Kant would have made of Thoreau’s action, which amounts to a withdrawal from civil society, per se, and — as in the case of the rights of military officers to resign their positions — there is little in his essay to suggest how one might go about constructing an account.13

I would be inclined to read Kant’s silences on this point as a further indication that the only example that actually concerned him — and, hence, the only one that he actually considered at any length — was that of the clergyman. This would be consistent with what we know about the context in which he wrote his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and suggests that the essay might best be understood as a contribution to an ongoing discussion about the range of opitions available to clergy who held beliefs that diverged from the official doctrines. As a result, attempts to derive any insight about Kant’s views on the obligations of army officers or taxpayers from this essay may amount to a fool’s mission (which, of course, is not to say that such an account could not be constructed from other writings by Kant).

Scholars & Professors

At the risk of prolonging what appears to have turned into a discussion of all the things that Kant didn’t consider in his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”, there is one “civil post” that Kant with which he was quite familiar but on which his essay was silent: that of a professor at a Prussian university.

It is tempting to assume since professors tend to be “scholars,” their lives are devoted exclusively to the “public use of reason.” But this temptation should be resisted for at least two reasons: (1) they also, as part of the terms of their employed, engage in activities that might better be understood as falling into the category of “private”, rather than “public,” uses of reason and (2) the concept of “scholar” is not particularly well developed in Kant’s essay.

To start with with the second point, while the word “scholar” appears eight times in the essay, a review of its occurrences reveals that Kant’s usage is somewhat peculiar. Here are all the sentences in which the term occurs:

  1. I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world.
  2. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.
  3. But he [i.e., an army officer] cannot fairly be forbidden as a scholar to make remarks on failings in the military service and to lay them before the public for judgment.
  4. This same individual [i.e., a citizen] nevertheless does not act against the duty of a citizen if he, as a scholar, expresses his thoughts publicly on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of such taxes.
  5. But as a scholar he [i.e., the clergyman] has the complete freedom, indeed it is his calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well-intentioned thoughts on the imperfections of that symbol and his proposals for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs.
  6. In contrast, as a scholar, who through his writings speaks to his own public, namely the world, the clergyman enjoys, in the public use of his reason, an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak in his own person.
  7. At the same time, all citizens, especially the clergy, would be left free, in their capacities as scholars — that is, through writings — to make remarks on the failings of the current institutions.
  8. Under him [i.e., Frederick the Great] venerable clergy, in their role as scholars and irrespective of their official duties, freely and publicly present their judgments and insights — which here or there diverge from the established symbol — to the world for examination.

Alert readers will note that Kant consistently employs circumlocutions such as “as a scholar” (five times), or “in the role of a scholar” (twice), or “in their capacities as scholars” (once). In other words, “scholar” designates a role that individuals take up. It is an activity that individuals who hold one of a number of particular posts in society (e.g., that of a citizen, an army officer, or a clergyman) might, from time to time, perform. Hence, while one can do various things, as a scholar, the role of scholar is not a “post” that one holds. Hence while a “professor” may, of course, step into the role of “scholar”, holding the post of “professor” does not, automatically, make one a “scholar.”

Kant’s essay is either remarkably vague or quite generous as to what one has to do to step into the role of scholar. The only requirement seems to be that the individual in question public a work that is available to the reading pubic.

This would suggest that, in many of the activities in which professors are engaged,  they are not occupying the role of “scholars.” For example, when Kant lectured to his students at Königsberg, he was performing a task associated with a particular civil post but not (at least as he defines it here) speaking “as a scholar.” Indeed, were we to be picky (and, why not since, after all, we’re dealing with a picky philosopher), we might want to say that the phrase “speaking as a scholar” is a contradiction in terms: a scholar addresses the public “as a scholar” by publishing texts, not by “speaking” to them. When faculty lecture in a classroom or when clergy deliver a homily to a congregation, they are not action “as scholars.” This raises interesting questions about the status of communications that begin as spoken communications delivered in the course of fulfilling the obligations of a civic post that are subsequently made available to the general reading public. For example, prior to its publication in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, Johann Friedrich Zöllner’s article on prejudice and superstition had been delivered as a sermon at the Marienkirche. While, I suppose we would have to say that there is nothing to prevent private uses of reason from being made public, this is not something I’ve thought much about.

In any case, the idea that the lectures faculty deliver as part of the obligations associated with their posts do not constitute a “public use of reason” and, hence, the implication that, in delivering them, professors are not occupying the role of “scholar” is not as peculiar as it may sound. While Kant had considerable latitude in the courses that offered, in teaching those courses he was performing functions within a corporate entity that set regulations about how long semesters ran, how many hours a week courses met, and how classes were to be conducted (perhaps the most significant was that faculty were expected, as Manfred Kuehn explains, “to base their lectures on a textbook or ‘compendium.’”14 Kuehn goes on to note that Kant tended not to follow the compendia he selected very strictly and tended to use the order in which they presented topics as the jumping off point for his own discussions. But since his elaboration of his arguments was accomplished verbally and his audience was limited to those in the classroom, it would not seem to meet his requirements for what was involved in “addressing the general public of the reading world.”

To sum up: Kant did not seem to be particularly interested in setting boundaries on who could step into the role of “scholar.” It would seem to have had few, if any, entry requirements beyond the ability to write and to find a way of getting what one had written published. Kant, it would appear, thought that friends of enlightenment should not be in the business of limiting what individuals could read and, especially, what they could write.

That, more or less, concludes what I have to say about Kant’s discussion of private reason. What it means for those of us who occupy posts in corporate entities that (among other activities) recruit the students that we teach in classes that (with luck) provide some sort of benefits to those who take them is, of course, a different question. Since this post is already long enough, I’m reluctant to drag it out further.  But, in my role “as a scholar” (which, as I hope should be clear by now, may not be quite the same as the role I occupy as “Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science at Boston University”), it is difficult to avoid noting that certain principles, which one would have thought were reasonably secure, have recently begun to appear surprisingly shaky and administrators at certain universities have displayed an unseemly interest in statements that faculty have issued to that part of the “general public of the reading world” that prefers its texts to be no longer than 140 characters.

The only sensible response to the question “What would Kant think about Twitter?” is to point out that Kant hasn’t been thinking about anything for at least the last 210 years. But it might be worth pointing out, especially to those who evince concern about (as they tend to say) the “impact” of public statements made by faculty concerning various matters of public interest on the allegedly easily offended minds of students that Kant seems to have assumed that congregations could deal with clergy who instructed them in doctrines that — when they were not in the pulpit — they criticized in writings addressed to the public at large. But then Kant, while conceding that his was not an enlightened age, could still hope that it might be an age of enlightenment. I’d like to think the same. But the way things seem to be going, I wouldn’t bet on it.15

 

Sun

 

  1. Eberhard Günter Schulz, “Kant und die Berliner Aufklärung ,” Akten des 4. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses, Mainz 1974, Teil II, 1: Sektionen, ed. Gerhard Funke (Berlin, 1974), 60-80. I discussed Schulz’s work in the first article I wrote on these matters (“The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:2 (1989): 269–91) .
  2. J. F. Zöllner, Über Moses Mendelssohns Jerusalem (Berlin, 1784).
  3. “Ueber Denk- und Drukfreiheit. An Fürsten, Minister, und Schriftsteller,” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 3, 1784, 312-330. I am quoting John Christian Laursen’s translation, in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 92 but have modified it slightly. Laursen translated “befolgen, nicht zu billigen” as “obey the command, not consent to it.” I think “not condone it” probably does a better job rendering of “billigen.”
  4. Ludwig Keller, “Die Berliner Mittwochsgesellschaft: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Geistesentwicklung Preussens am Ausgange des 18. Jahrhunderts”. Monatshefte der Comenius-Gesellschaft V:3&4 (1896) 78.
  5. For a translation, see James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions *(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 145-153.
  6. On this point, see the discussion of the “hermeneutic problem of application” in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method II:ii:2:A. 
  7. In what follows, I am much indebted to discussions with a colleague who, unlike me, actually knows something about military history.  A cursory reading of Military instructions, written by the King of Prussia, for the generals of his army: Being His Majesty’s own Commentaries On his former Campaigns (London: Becket and De Hondt, 1762) also helped.
  8. Drawing on in terms of Weber’s account of Zweckrationalität, Will Thomas makes a similar point in his comment.
  9. This captures something of what Onora O’Neill may have had in mind when she noted “privative” character of “private use of reason.”
  10. It should be noted that Sassoon’s subsequent decision to return to the front, like that of his friend Wilfred Owen, was driven, not by a change in his view of the nature of the war, but instead by a concern that enlisted men were likely to suffer under the command of incompetent officers.
  11. The Wikipedia has what seems to be a generally accurate discussion of the history of the tax.
  12. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government” in Aesthetic Papers (Boston 1849) 198-99, 206.
  13. As I’ve learned from my colleague David Lyons, what Thoreau is proposing is difficult to reconcile with the account of “civil disobedience” offered in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. See David Lyons, “Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27:1 (1998): 31–49 and, more generally, his recent collection of essays, Confronting Injustice : Moral History and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  14. Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 106.
  15. To make things (as Richard Nixon liked to say) “perfectly clear,” when I began work on these two posts, I’d been thinking about the initially clumsy response of administrators at the University of Rhode to Erik Loomis’ tweet, issued in the wake of the Newtown shootings, that stated:  “I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.” That the President of URI eventually managed to issue a statement affirming that Loomis’s statement was (obviously) protected by the First Amendment (and “head on a stick” is what we call a “metaphor” not a set of marching orders) and clearly not an expression of the views of the University of Rhode Island (which, I trust, has no opinion as to where Mr. LaPierre’s head should be).  As I was working on this post,  the news of the “dehiring” of Steven G. Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been unfolding (see, especially, Ed Kazarian’s discussion of the implications of this case).  Whatever the differences between the two cases, in both administrators have found themselves forced to respond to organized campaigns by groups outraged by statements made by faculty in public fora.  While it is too much to hope that administrators might settle of a strategy of responding to campaigns of this sort by issuing a laconic statement along the lines of “Just what part of public use of reason don’t you get?”,  they would be well-advised to recognize that situations like this are not likely to become rarer and developing a suitably anodyne bit of boilerplate affirming that faculty are, indeed, citizens as well as employees (and that we hope our students are smart enough to understand this) might come in handy:  you’re probably going to need it. By the way, I’d like to see Wayne LaPierre go duck hunting with Dick Cheney.
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Kant and the “Private” Use of Reason

Readers of Kant’s little essay on the question “What is enlightenment?” have long recognized that the distinction between “public” and “private” uses of reason is both central to its argument and rather odd. Those perplexed by the distinction are in good company: in one of the written comments attached to the manuscript of the essay when, prior to its publication, it circulated among members of the Berlin “Wednesday Society,” Moses Mendelssohn characterized the distinction as “somewhat strange.”

The problem stems, in part, from the tendency to see the protection of a “right to privacy” as fundamental to modern, liberal societies and the further tendency to view this right as connected to the right of citizens (to employ the language of the Fourth Amendment) “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Attempting to map this onto Kant’s distinction only leads to massive confusions. For while Kant maintains that an unrestricted freedom to publish opinions is fundamental to the progress of enlightenment, he also argues that the “private use” of reason “may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered.”

Everything, of course, hinges on the peculiar way Kant goes about distinguishing public and private uses of reason. The “public use of reason” involves the use that individuals make of their reason in addressing that peculiar beast known as “the Public”, while the “private of reason” transpires in those cases then individuals perform certain tasks related to particular vocations. Indeed, Mendelssohn reframed the distinction precisely along these lines for his friends in the Wednesday Society: the “private use” of reason was “vocational” while the “public use” was “extra-vocational.” While this goes a long way towards clarifying the distinction, it doesn’t entirely remove the difficulties that plague Kant’s discussion.

Thanks to the now extensive literature on the “public use of reason” the use of the term “public” to refer to something other than various entities associated with the state probably seems less strange than the idea of a “private” use of reason that transpires in contexts that most present-day readers will have difficulties seeing as “private.” Kant provides three examples of individuals engaged in the private use of reason: (1) an army officer following an order given by a superior, (2) a citizen paying a tax levy, and (3) a clergyman instructing catechism students. I suspect that the difficulties present-day readers are likely to have with Kant’s discussion have much to do with the examples he picks — particularly the first one. History has not been kind to his essay: any discussion by a German philosopher of the need for soldiers to follow orders without arguing is bound to sound rather different in 2014 than it did in 1784.

Prompted by a recent exchange of emails with Robert Louden, who has also been working Kant’s essay, I thought it might make be worth spending some time exploring Kant’s account of the private use of reason.

The Distinction Between Public and Private Uses of Reason

In the fifth paragraph Kant distinguishes public and private uses of reason this way:

Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.

Here’s my translation:

I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world. The private use I designate as that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him.

Kant would seem to offer two different ways of framing the difference between public and private uses of reason:

  1. As a difference in the role of the agent: the private use of reason is associated with holders of “civil posts” while the public use of reason is associated with “scholars.”
  2. As a difference in the addressee: an agent is engaged in a “public use” of reason when addressing “the entire public of the reading world,” while the addressees of private uses of reason are not (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) immediately specified. .

In what follows I will try to work out how these two distinctions work.

Office Holders and Scholars

Like much else in the essay, the distinction between “scholars” and “office holders” seems straightforward enough until one attempts to unpack it. It strikes me that there is a certain asymmetry in the way in which Kant goes about drawing the position: the public use of reason is exercised by those who act as a scholar while the private use is exercised in a certain position. The reader would be well-advised to wonder what’s up with the “as” and the “in”.

What seems to be at work here is a distinction between the various roles that individuals take up and the positions that they occupy in society. Kant’s military officer, for example, occupies a certain position within the Prussian military but, outside of the responsibilities associated with that office, may also act as a scholar by writing articles that are addressed to a broader reading public.

Judge Richard G. Kopf

Judge Richard G. Kopf

For a more recent example, consider the case of Richard George Kopf, who has, since 1992, held the office of Judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska and, since February 2013, has also written posts for his blog, Hercules and the Umpire. If we apply Kant’s distinction to Kopf, we can say that when discharging the responsibilities associated with his position as a Federal District court judge, Judge Kopf is engaged in a “private use of reason,” while — in his capacity as a blogger at Hercules and the Umpire — he is engaged in a “public use of reason.”

While the particular terms that Kant uses to describe the different actitivites in which Mr. Kopf is engaged will undoubtedly strike us as strange, the distinction itself shouldn’t. In 2004 Judge Kopf wrote a decision that overturned the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (a Federal statute barring the medical procedure known as “intact dilation and extraction”) on the grounds that it did not include an exemption for those cases when the procedure would be “medically necessary to preserve the health of the woman.” While the norms governing legal argumentation are not entirely clear (and one of the concerns of Hercules and the Umpire is to try to talk about how judges go about their work), there is no reason to suppose that Kopf’s decision in this case reflects nothing more than his views on the moral status of abortion or, perhaps, an assessment of the soundness of the Partial Birth Abortion Act as a matter of public policy. It is not unreasonable to expect that the decisions reached by Federal Judges to the cases before them will turn on something other than a judge’s particular moral or political beliefs.

More recently, writing on Hercules and the Umpire, Kopf had this to say about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case:

The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues” — that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute. What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases?  What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would  have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?

Even before arriving at the final line of Kopf’s post — “As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu” — it should be obvious that Kopf is speaking, not in his capacity as a judge, but instead a scholar/blogger. In carrying out this discussion, he may appeal to certain arguments (e.g., those of Alexander Bickel) that will be more familiar to those in the legal profession than to lay readers, but there is nothing here that, in principle at least, could not be understood by a lay reader interested in learning something about the implications of the work that judges do.1 Kant would score this as an example of a holder of a civil post stepping out of that post and engaging in a public use of reason.

Citizens and Cosmopolitans

Another way of getting at the distinction between public and private uses of reason is to consider the addressee. In Kopf’s case, it should be obvious that the audience reading Hercules and the Umpire differs from the audience for his 474 page decision on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The former consists of anyone with access to a computer, an internet connection, and an interest in the subjects addressed on his blog. The latter consists, first of all, of the particular litigants in the case (who can be expected to read the decision with an eye towards framing a possible appeal) and whatever U.S. Court of Appeals (in this case, the Eighth Circuit) will be dealing with the appeal. The decision, of course, is also available — as what we would call a “public document” — to anyone who wants to read it, but as anyone who has spent much time reading court decisions comes to realize, reading them is a bit like listening in on someone else’s conversation.

Translating this into Kant’s terminology, it should be obvious that the audience for Hercules and the Umpire is, potentially, the “ganzen Publikum derLeserwelt.” But, at least at this point, Kant does not characterize who (or what) is the target of private uses of reason. The explanation for this is straightforward enough: while it’s easy enough to say that those who are involved in public uses of reason are, in principle, addressing anyone, the audiences for private uses of reason are discrete and varied. Confining ourselves to the three examples he uses:

  1. the officer makes private use of his reason when he translates the orders he receives from his superiors into actions that will be performed by those under his command
  2. The citizen makes private use of his reason when he take whatever steps are necessary to pay the levy demanded by the tax collector
  3. The clergyman makes private use of his reason when he instructs his congregation in the teachings of his particular faith.

Posed in this way, it would appear that not only are the particular audiences different inPrussian each of these cases, but that the character of the reasoning involved also differs significantly. Without knowing more than I do about eighteenth-century Prussian military practice, it is risky to specify what exactly is involved in the first example, but presumably it involves determining how orders (e.g., “set up defensive positions at location X”) are best executed. In other words, it rests on a combination of military training, previous combat experience, and the officer’s familiarity with the capacities of his troop. While it would be easy to find present-day parallels to the taxpayer (e.g., each year I spend quite a bit of time using Quicken and spreadsheets to pull together the information that I need to pay my Federal and state taxes), I suspect that the Prussian system was a good deal more straightforward, but there are, nevertheless, certain skills that Prussian taxpayers needed to have in order to go about doing what they need to do to pay their taxes.

In contrast to the taxpayer and the soldier, what Kant had in mind with the example of the clergyman is easier to comprehend (this is no accident: I’m inclined to think that the example of the clergyman is the only example that really mattered to Kant). Among other things, clergy are responsible for conveying the general principles of their faith to members of the congregation who differ greatly in their familiarity with church doctrine, life situations, capacity for understanding the finer points of scriptural interpretation, and so on. Clergy have considerable latitude in how they carry out this task, but there is a general expectation that they will not stray to far from the general principles that define their faith (e.g., Lutheran clergy may have rather different ways of explicating certain points of church doctrine, but it is reasonable to expect that their interpretations will coalesce around recognizably “Lutheran” interpretations of the main points of the faith).

A distinction of this sort would seem to be what Kant has in mind in the sentences that immediately follow the passage I quoted at the start of this post, though the way in which he frames the distinction is likely to raise additional confusions:

Nun ist zu manchen Geschäften, die in das Interesse des gemeinen Wesens laufen, ein gewisser Mechanism notwendig, vermittelst dessen einige Glieder des gemeinen Wesens sich bloß passiv verhalten müssen, um durch eine künstliche Einhelligkeit von der Regierung zu öffentlichen Zwecken gerichtet oder wenigstens von der Zerstörung dieser Zwecke abgehalten zu werden. Hier ist es nun freilich nicht erlaubt zu räsonnieren; sondern man muß gehorchen. Sofern sich aber dieser Teil der Maschine zugleich als Glied eines ganzen gemeinen Wesens, ja sogar der Weltbürgergesellschaft ansieht, mithin in der Qualität eines Gelehrten, der sich an ein Publikum im eigentlichen Verstande durch Schriften wendet, kann er allerdings räsonnieren, ohne daß dadurch die Geschäfte leiden, zu denen er zum Teile als passives Glied angesetzt ist.

Here’s my translation:

Now a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to public ends, or at least restrain them from the destruction of these ends. Here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather, one must obey. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.

Without, I hope, doing too much violence to the text, perhaps we can reformulate Kant’s argument this way:

  1. There are various ends that cannot be achieved unless individuals put aside their disagreements.
  2. The pursuit of these ends is best carried out when the government directs the actions of citizens.
  3. When engaged in the pursuit of these ends, citizens should not question the commands they have been given.
  4. During those periods when citizens are not engaged in pursuing these ends they should be free to raise objections in writing.
  5. Governments must respect their citizens’ right to raise these objections, subject to the conditions specified in #4.

Many readers, I suspect, may regard the second point as the red herring in Kant’s argument. While granting that there are some collective undertakings that require government direction, there are any number of others (e.g., running a restaurant, an academic department, or a professional baseball team) that don’t (though their successful pursuit may profit from the government enforcement of certain restraints on the actions of other individuals and other collective enterprises). It would appear that Kant — either out of conviction or for the sake of convenience — has simply accepted the enlightened absolutist program: the monarch holds the reins of power.

Readers might also note Kant’s characterization of the goals pursued by the government as “public ends” (öffentlichen Zwecken), which means that the “public ends” are achieved only when those who pursue them engage in a “private” use of reason. Even for someone as fond of paradoxes as Kant, this may be a bit much. But it does help to clarify what a peculiar world he seems to be constructing.

As a citizen (Bürger) individuals take up positions in the vast machinery that is “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft), a machinery whose proper functioning requires them to act “passively” — i.e., to carry out the instructions they receive without (then and there) initiating arguments about their propriety. But during those hours when they are not fulfilling their roles as part of the machinery, they are members of a broader society (i.e., the ganzen gemeinen Wesens) or, indeed, members of a cosmopolitan community (Weltbürgergesellschaft). In this role, they are something more than “passive” parts of the machine: they are cosmopolites — or, as we sometimes like to call ourselves, “scholars.”

Since I know a bit more about them, I’ll have more to say about scholars next time, especially scholars who spend some of their time in classrooms where they are engaged in what Kant would characterize as a private use of reason and some of their time at keyboards where they change, as if by magic, from functionaries in the machinery of the higher-education branch of the carceral-educational complex into members of the cosmopolitan community of readers and writers.

  1. That Kopf is well aware of potential tensions between these two roles is clear from his account of the restrictions on what he is willing to discuss. See http://herculesandtheumpire.com/the-who-and-why-of-this-blog/

 

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Rights, “Unalienable” or “Inalienable”?: A Concluding Philological Postscript

[This version has been revised since it was initially posted;  see below]

Since my posting of Bentham’s critique of the “Declaration of Independence” last Thursday, traffic on this blog has increased dramatically. While I appreciate the attention, I suspect that it will be fleeting and that my readership will soon return to the small, but persistent, company of friends of the Enlightenment who have sustained it over the last year and a half. But, before bidding adieu to Bentham and returning to the usual concerns of this blog, I thought I’d post a few final observations on the Declaration’s use of the phrase “unalienable rights.”

While Bentham was rather suspicious of the notion of  unalienable rights, my concern is not with the concept but with the words, the first one in particular. The Declaration clearly says “unalienable,” but I suspect that many of us labor under the impression that the text says “inalienable” (at least I know that I do and, when talking about the Declaration, regularly have to correct myself). While there is no difference (at least that I know of) in the meaning of the two words, I’m curious as to why we (or, at least, I) keep making this slip. Fortunately, our old friend, the Google Ngram, can bring some enlightenment.

Unalienable vs. Inalienable:  A Preliminary Sketch

We can start by noting the simple fact that, starting in 1832, usages of “inalienable” rapidly begin to become more common than “unalienable.”

In and Un

“Inalienable” starts its ascent in the early nineteenth century, peaks in 1862 (I bet that quick-witted readers already suspect why), and then begins a modest descent into the present. The track for “unalienable”, in contrast, falls steadily until around 1880 and then flatlines (this is one case where turning off the smoothing doesn’t produce much of a change).

The Ngram for the bigrams “unalienable rights” and “inalienable rights” more or less tracks that of the two adjectives.

 

Rights In and Un

This led me to wonder how frequently these adjectives are applied to nouns other than “rights.” Fortunately, Google has a tool that lets us find out.

It is simple enough to do a wildcard search with the Ngram by inserting an asterisk after “inalienable” or “unalienable”. The Ngram then will spit out a graph of the most frequent words that follow the two adjectives.  Here’s the one for “unalienable”:

Wildcard Unalienable

 

And here’s the one for “inalienable”:

 

 

Wildcard Inalienable

The results look much more cluttered here than they do on the Ngram Viewer itself, where dragging the cursor over the lines hightlights them, so readers might want to spend a few minutes playing around with this themselves (click here for “unalienable” and here for “inalienable”).

The main point here is that the most frequent use for both “inalienable” and “unalienable” was as a modifier for “right” or “rights” with (if we discard “and” and “in”) “inheritance” and “property” running a distant third and fourth (I suspect that “property” is not being used in the legal sense in most of these cases).  The fact that “inalienable” and “unalienable” are typically used in connection with rights got me to wondering how many of the occurrences were, in fact, quotations from the Declaration of Independence.  When I initially posted this discussion, I thought I’d figured out a way of getting at this, but I have serious doubts as to whether my procedure isolated what I was looking for.  So, until I’ve worked this out to my own satisfaction, it is best to leave this question open.

 

Lincoln’s Role

What, then, explains the fact that after 1860 or so, discussions of the Declaration of Independence have it speak of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights? The answer, as I suspect most readers have already figured out, has to do with Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln turns up 17 occurences of “inalienable,” all in the context of discussions of the Declaration of Independence (and here I should register the caveat that I am not a Lincoln scholar and that I am moving way out of my areas of competence).  While the bulk of them occur during his debates with Stephen Douglas, the most frequently quoted is from a speech delivered in his speech at Lewiston, Illinois of August 17, 1858:

Now if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

The only occurrence of “unalienable” that I could find in Lincoln’s works occurs in the report on the Lewiston speech that appeared in the Chicago Press and Tribune of August 21, 1858, an account that (according to the editors of the Collected Works) was picked up by other newspapers.

The reporter for the Press and Tribune rendered the relevant passage of the speech as follows (emphasis mine):

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The reporter had every reason to think that Lincoln said “unalienable” — that, after all, was the word that was in the Declaration.  That we, in contrast, tend to recall the Declaration as speaking of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights is but a small testimony to the role Lincoln played in securing a place for the Declaration in our cultural memory.

abraham-lincoln

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Periods and Plots: A Postscript to Bentham’s Critique of the Declaration of Independence

Shortly after uploading Jeremy Bentham’s critique of the Declaration of Independence, I got around to reading the discussion in the New York Times of Danielle Allen’s questioning of the period that appears immediately after the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. According to the Times, she sees this “errant spot of ink” as leading to a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the Declaration. Here’s how the Times summarizes her argument (a draft of her paper can be downloaded here):

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights. “The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

The Times quotes Jack Rakove (whose volume Declaring Rights is worth consulting for those interested in how declarations of rights were framed in run-up to the only declaration of rights that Americans now bother to read) as pointing out that Allen’s work raises a significant issue about how to interpret the text:

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

At this point I suspect that readers of this blog are probably asking themselves, “what implications does this have for Jeremy Bentham’s attack on the Declaration of Independence?” Good question!

Bentham Vindicated

It strikes me that Allen’s discovery could perhaps be seen as lending further support to Bentham’s claim that the Declaration’s famous discussion of “unalienable rights” is inherently incoherent. Let’s take a look at (and, much as it might pain us, as patriotic Americans, admire the elegance of) what I take to be Bentham’s central point:

The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — by Jeremy_Bentham_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill_detailwhich, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness — they ” hold to be unalienable.” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure there rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights. — That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.

His point would seem to go like this:

  1. The Declaration maintains that there are certain rights (including, but not limited to, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) that ought not, under any circumstances, be alienated.
  2. It further argues that governments are established to secure these rights.
  3. But the establishment of a government necessarily involves the alienation of rights.
  4. Among the rights that must be alienated in #3 are certain of the rights that have been characterized as “unalienable” in #1.

As far as I can tell, the presence of the (potentially) spurious period matters not a bit to Bentham’s argument since his interpretation of the passage confirms Rakove’s point: even with the period after “the pursuit of happiness,” it was still obvious to him that the Declaration viewed the establishment of governments as essential to the securing of those rights. From this, he went on to argue that the argument advanced in the Declaration is fundamentally incoherent: government can’t secure those unalienable rights without requiring the alienation of certain of these allegedly unalienable rights. In other words, Bentham did not assume that the period ended the thought.

Though Bentham believed that it was clearly bonkers to assume that “Nature or Nature’s God” bestowed rights, he was willing to tolerate that claim, provided — of course — that those who talk this way could come up with some evidence:

If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, and all controversy was at an end.

He was, of course, not particularly pleased that, in response, all that the representatives of the American Congress offered was an invocation of “self-evident truths.” But what seems to have been the place where the Congress’ case tips over into what he would, in another context, characterize as “bawling on paper” was the self-contradictory claim that — period or not period — the whole purpose of establishing governments was to secure the list of “unalienable rights” compiled by the sage of Monticello.  For, in Bentham’s eyes, that list was so broad as to rule out the possibility of creating any government that would not, of necessity, infringe on certain of these allegedly “unalienable rights.”

Let’s Blame Locke

Not to drag things out (after all, it’s a national holiday in the country where I reside and we have rituals we need to perform: having been born in New Jersey, I am obligated to spend the rest of the day listening to every recording of Bruce Springteen’s “Sandy” in my iTunes library), but there’s one other part of Bentham’s argument that struck me as relevant to these troubled times.

Trying to make sense of the list of grievances compiled in the Declaration, Bentham observes,

For what, according to their own shewing, what was their original their only original grievance? That they were actually taxed more than they could bear? No; but that they were liable to be so taxed. What is the amount of all the subsequent grievances they alledge? That they were actually oppressed by Government? That Government has actually misused its power? No; but that it was possible that they might be oppressed; possible that Government might misuse its powers. Is there any where, can there be imagined any where, that Government, where subjects are not liable to taxed more than they can bear? where it is not possible that subjects may be oppressed, not possible that Government may misuse its powers?

What he is pointing out here was nicely captured in a famous sentence from the Declaration that he did not discuss:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The sentence (which reads slightly differently in Jefferson’s original draft) recalls an earlier one (the emphasis here is mine):

revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

JohnLockeThe author of that passage is, of course, John Locke (Second Treatise § 225).  Jefferson — perhaps recalling Locke and certainly aided by Franklin’s substitution of “absolute Depotism” for Jefferson’s “arbitrary power” — conceded that governments were not to be dissolved for what he termed “light and transient causes.” Instead, what was required was evidence of a concerted effort to revoke those “unalienable rights” that governments were supposed to secure. What he might have found in Locke (and, if he didn’t find it there, could have found in any number of latter day English libertarians) was a way of making the case of dissolving a government. Central to that case was the idea of a concerted plot against liberties.

What Bentham might have found toxic here was the combination of (1) a conception of the relationship between rights and government that is inherently contradictory and (2) a case for dissolving governments that focuses not on actual actions done by governments but instead on the potential implications of these current actions for future actions that this government might take. To sum up:  since (according to Bentham) governments must, inevitably, infringe on certain of the allegedly “unalienable rights” that individuals possess as a gift from “Nature or Nature’s God,” it is all too easy for these infringements to be read by those persuaded that they are, indeed, the carriers of “unalienable rights”) as part of a master plot against liberty itself.  By now, we should be all too familiar where this sort of argument tends to lead.

So, happy Independence Day, fellow citizens. And, to my friends from the Garden State:  may the “the Aurora” keep rising behind you.

[Updated with minor corrections and clarifications, July 6, 2014].

 

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Of Rights and Witches: Bentham’s Critique of the Declaration of Independence

It is not surprising that friends of the Enlightenment tend to assume that the Enlightenment was generally friendly towards the American Revolution. Richard Price had, after all, been an energetic supporter of the Colonial cause and, like Joseph Priestley, saw it as a link in the chain of “glorious revolutions” that stretched from 1688, through 1776, to 1789. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais spent several crucial years figuring out ways of getting weapons to the American revolutionaries. There was also considerable interest in the revolution in German-speaking Europe. The Basel Aufklärer Isaak Iselin translated the Declaration of Independence for the October 1776 issue of his journal Ephemeriden der Menschheit (a translation of a text by John Adams followed in a later issue). And, between 1787 and 1788 the Berlinische Monatsschrift devoted three articles to the recently enacted Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

There were, however, a few enlighteners who were not quite so enthusiastic. The Berlin radical enlightener Andreas Riem attributed the founding of the American republic to acts of deception by American colonists and by their British governors:

If the ministers of Great Britain had known the truth about the situation in its colonies, they would indisputably have acted differently. If the colonies had acted without deception, they would not now be a sort of anarchic state that maintains itself through weak bonds without any majesty, a state whose constitution is without true inner greatness and without the force that a well-ordered state ruled by a sovereign must have. Every province is sovereign, and so every province is by itself powerless! There is no spirit of harmonious unity, and everywhere there are false concepts of freedom!

And while the German Kantian turned Burkean Friedrich von Gentz, drawing up a comparison between the American and the French Revolutions, labored long and hard to emphasize how much more moderate and reasonable the Americans had been, he had some difficulties with the Declaration of Independence’s invocation of abstract rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the most relentless critique of the American declaration came from a thinker with impecable creditials as a radical enlightener: the great Jeremy Bentham. That Bentham’s critique is not as familiar as it deserves to be (and here I should record my profound thanks to David Armitage for calling it to my attention) stems from its having appeared not under Bentham’s own name but, instead, as the final chapter of John Lind’s Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (1776).

In a better ordered world, John Lind (1737-1781) would have been the subject of a BBC miniseries: his life appears to have been considerably more interesting than that of the dim-wits who populate Downton Abbey (in what follows I lean rather heavily on H. L. A Hart’s “Bentham and the United States of America,” Journal of Law and Economics 19:3 (1976): 547–67). He first enters the historical record as the Anglican chaplain in the British legation at Constantinople. But, after becoming “too agreeable” with the Ambassador’s mistress, he was sacked and, leaving the clergy (after all, isn’t the opportunity for “familiarity” with superiors’ mistresses one of the perks of the job?), he returned to London, and began a career as a lawyer and pamphleteer. As the situation with the colonies worsened, the British government made increasing demands on his skills as a propagandist: between 1775 and 1766 he turned out a series of small books attacking the actions of the colonists.

Lind was also a friend of the young Jeremy Bentham, who lived in Lind’s house at the time of the composition of Lind’s Answer and was recruited into writing the book’s final chapter. While the rest of Lind’s Answer — which marched, article by article, through the Declaration — probably deserves more attention than it gets, Bentham’s concluding summary is in a class by itself: sardonic, ruthless, and unfailing adept at finding the weakest points in the colonial case (though, unlike other critics, Bentham was curiously silent here on the great hypocrisy of the Declaration: a document signed by slaveholders that protests their potential enslavement by the home government).

In the transcription that follows (which, I fear, probably contains a few errors that, I trust, readers will point out) I have made a few minor changes in the use of commas but retained Bentham’s sometimes peculiar sentence structure and flamboyant use of emphasis. All of the footnotes (which, for the most part, refer to the particular grievances voiced by the American rebels and discussed, at length, by Lind in the earlier part of the book) are Bentham’s.  I’ve indicated, in parentheses, where the page breaks fall.

Lind Titlepage

SHORT REVIEW OF THE DECLARATION

IN examining this singular Declaration, I have hitherto confined myself to what are given as facts, and alleged against his Majesty and his Parliament, in support of the charge of tyranny and usurpation. Of the preamble I have taken little or no notice. The truth is, little or none does it deserve. The opinions of the modern Americans on Government, like those of their good ancestors on witchcraft, would be too ridiculous to deserve any notice, if like them too, contemptible and extravagant as they be, they had not led to the most serious evils.

In this preamble however it is, that they attempt to establish a theory of Government; a theory, as absurd and visionary, as the system of conduct in defence of which it is established is nefarious. Here it is, that maxims are advanced in justification of their enterprises against the British Government. To these maxims, adduced for this purpose, it would be sufficient to say, that they are repugnant to the British Constitution. But beyond this they are subversive of every actual or imaginable kind of Government.

They are about “to assume,” as they tell us, “among the powers of the earth, that equal and separate ( 120 ) station to which” — they have lately discovered — “the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God entitle them.” What difference these acute legislators suppose between the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is more than I can take upon me to determine, or even to guess. If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, and all controversy was at an end. Instead of this, what do they produce? What they call sell-evident truths. “All men,” they tell us, “are created equal.” This rarity is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.

The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness — they ” hold to be unalienable.” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights. — That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.

That men who are engaged in the design of subverting a lawful Government, should endeavour by a cloud of words, to throw a veil over their design; that they should endeavour to beat down the criteria between tyranny and lawful government, is not at all (121) surprising. But rather surprising it must certainly appear, that they should advance maxims so incompatible with their own present conduct. If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty’s province of Canada? Whence the unprovoked destruction of so many lives of the inhabitants of that province? If the right of enjoying liberty be unalienable, whence came so many of his Majesty’s peaceable subjects among them, without any offence, without so much as a pretended offence, merely for being suspected not to wish well to their enormities, to be held by them in durance? If the right of pursuing happiness be unalienable, how is it that so many others of their fellow-citizens are by the same injustice and violence made miserable, their fortunes ruined, their persons banished and driven from their friends and families? Or would they have it believed, that there is in their selves some superior sanctity, some peculiar privilege, by which those things are lawful to them, which are unlawful to all the world besides? Or is it, that among acts of coercion, acts by which life or liberty are taken away, and the pursuit of happiness restrained, those only are unlawful, which their delinquency has brought upon them, and which are exercised by regular, long established, accustomed governments?

In these tenets they have outdone the utmost extravagance of all former fanatics. The German Anabaptists indeed went so far as to speak of the right of enjoying life as a right unalienable. To take away life, even in the Magistrate, they held to be unlawful. But they went no farther, it was reserved for an American Congress, to add to the number of unalienable rights, that of enjoying liberty, and pursuing happiness; (122) — that is,— if they mean any thing, —pursuing it wherever a man thinks he can see it, and by whatever means he thinks he can attain it: — That is, that all penal laws — those made by their selves among others—which affeet life or liberty, are contrary to the law of God, and the unalienable rights of mankind: — That is, that thieves are not to be restrained from theft, murderers from murder, rebels from rebellion.

Here then they have put the axe to the root of all Government; and yet, in the same breath, they talk of “Governments,” of Governments “long established.” To these last, they attribute same kind of respect; they vouchsafe even to go so far as to admit, that “Governments, long established, should not be “changed for light or transient reasons.”

Yet they are about to change a Government, a Government whose establishment is coeval with their own existence as a Community. What causes do they assign? Circumstances which have always subsisted, which must continue to subsist, wherever Government has subsisted, or can subsist.

For what, according to their own shewing, what was their original their only original grievance? That they were actually taxed more than they could bear? No; but that they were liable to be so taxed. What is the amount of all the subsequent grievances they alledge? That they were actually oppressed by Government? That Government has actually misused its power? No; but that it was possible that they might be oppressed; possible that Government might misuse its powers. Is there any where, can there be imagined any where, that Government, where subjects are not liable to taxed more than they can bear? (123) where it is not possible that subjects may be oppressed, not possible that Government may misuse its powers?

This I say, is the amount, the whole sum and substance of all their grievances. For in taking a general review of the charges brought against his Majesty, and his Parliament, we may observe that there is a studied confusion in the arrangement of them. It may therefore be worth while to reduce them to the several distinct heads, under which I should have classed them at the first, had not the order of the Answer been necessarily prescribed by the order — or rather the disorder, of the Declaration.

The first head consists of Acts of Government, charged as so many acts of incroachment, so many usurpations upon the present King and his Parliaments exclusively, which had been constantly exercised by his Predecessors and their Parliaments.1

In all the articles comprised in this head, is there a single power alleged to have been exercised during the present reign, which had not been constantly exercised by preceding Kings, and preceding Parliaments? Read only the commission and instruction for the Council of Trade, drawn up in the 9th of King William III addressed to Mr. Locke, and others.2 See there what (124) powers were exercised by the King and Parliament over the Colonies. Certainly the Commissioners were directed to inquire into, and make their reports concerning those matters only, in which the King and Parliament had a power of controlling the Colonies. Now the Commissioners are instructed to inquire — into the condition of the Plantations, “as well with regard to the administration of Government and Justice, as in relation to the commerce thereof;”–into the means of making “them most beneficial and useful to England; — “into the staples and manufactures, which may be encouraged there;” — “into the trades that are taken up and exercised there, which may prove prejudicial to England;” — “into the means of diverting them from such trades.” Farther, they are instructed “to examine into, and weigh the Acts of the Assemblies of the Plantations;” — “to set down the usefulness or mischief to the Crown, to the Kingdom, or to the Plantations their selves.” — And farther still, they are instructed “to require an account of all the monies given for public uses by the assemblies of the Plantations, and how the same are, or have been expended, or laid out.” Is there now a single Act of the present reign which does not fall under one or other of these instructions.

The powers then, of which the several articles now before us complain, are supported by usage; were conceived to be so supported then, just after the Revolution, at the time these instructions were given; and were they to be supported only upon this foot of usage, still that usage being coeval with the Colonies, their tacit consent and approbation, through all the successive periods in which that usage has prevailed, would be implied; — even then the legality of those powers would stand upon the same foot as most of the prerogatives (125) of the Crown, most of the rights of the people, — even then the exercise of those powers could in no wise be deemed usurpations or encroachments.

But the truth is, to the exercise of these powers, on many occasions the Colonies have not tacitly, but expressly, consented; as expressly as any subject of Great Britain ever consented to Acts of the British Parliament. Consult the Journals of either House of Parliament; consult the proceedings of their own Assemblies; and innumerable will be the occasions, on which the legality of these powers will be found to be expressly recognised by Acts of the Colonial Assemblies. For in preceding reigns, the petitions from these Assemblies were couched in a language, very different from that which they have assumed under the present reign. In praying for the non-exercise of these powers, in particular instances, they acknowledged their legality; the right in general was recognised; the exercise of it, in particular instances, was prayed to be suspended on the sole ground of inexpedience.

The less reason can the Americans have to complain against the exercise of these powers, as it was under the constant exercise of the self-same powers, that they have grown up with a vigour and rapidity unexampled : That within a period, in which other communities have scarcely had time to take root, they have shot forth exuberant branches. So flourishing is their agriculture, that — we are told — “besides feeding plentifully their own growing multitudes, their annual exports have exceeded a million;” So flourishing is their trade, that — we are told — “it has increased far beyond the speculations of the most (126) sanguine imagination.”3 So powerful are they in arms, that we see them defy the united force of that nation, which, but a little century ago, called them into being; which, but a few years ago, in their defence, encountered and subdued almost the united force of Europe.

If the exercise of powers, thus established by usage, thus recognised by express declarations, thus sanctified by their beneficial effects, can justify rebellion, there is not that subject in the world, but who has, ever has had, and ever must have, reason sufficient to rebel: There never was, never can he, established, any government upon earth.

The second head consists of Acts, whose professed object was either the maintenance, or the amendment of their Constitution. These Acts were passed with the view either of freeing from impediments the course of their commercial transactions,4 or of facilitating the administration of justice,5 or of poising more equally the different powers in their Constitution;6 or of preventing the establishing of Courts, inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution.7

To state the object of these Acts, is to justify them. Acts of tyranny they cannot be: Acts of usurpation they are not; because no new power is assumed. By former Parliaments, in former reigns, officers of customs had been sent to America: Courts of Admiralty had been established there. The increase (127) of trade and population induced the Parliaments, under the present reign, for the convenience of the Colonists, and to obviate their own objections of delays arising from appeals to England, to establish a Board of Customs, and an Admiralty Court of Appeal. Strange indeed is it to hear the establishment of this Board, and these Courts, alleged as proofs of usurpation; and in the same paper, in the same breath, to hear it urged as a head of complaint, that his Majesty refused his assent to a much greater exertion of power: —to an exertion of power, which might be dangerous; the establishment of new Courts of Judicature. What in one instance he might have done, to have done in another, cannot be unconstitutional. In former reigns, charters had been altered; in the present reign, the constitution of one charter, having been found inconsistent with the ends of good order and government, was amended.

The third head consists of temporary Acts, passed pro re notá, the object of each of which was to remedy some temporary evil, and the duration of which was restrained to the duration of the evil itself.8

Neither in these Acts was any new power affirmed; in some instances only, the objects upon which that power was exercised, were new. Nothing was done but what former Kings and former Parliaments have shew their selves ready to do, had the same circumstances subsisted. The same circumstances never did subsist before, because, till the present reign, the (128)

Colonies never dared to call in question the supreme authority of Parliament.

No charge, classed under this head, can be called a grievance. Then only is the subject aggrieved, when, paying due obedience to the established Laws of his country, he is not protected in his established rights. From the moment he withholds obedience, he forfeits his right to protection. Nor can the means, employed to bring him back to obedience, however severe, be called grievances; especially if those means be to cease the very moment that the end is obtained.

The last head consists of Acts of self-defence, exercised in consequence of resistance already shewn but represented in the Declaration as Acts of oppression, tending to provoke resistance.9 Has his Majesty cut off their trade with all parts of the world? They first attempted to cut off the trade of Great Britain. Has his Majesty ordered their vessels to be seized ? They first burnt the vessels of the King. Has his Majesty sent troops to chastise them? They first took up arms against the authority of the King. Has his Majesty engaged the Indians against them? They first engaged Indians against the troops of the King. Has his Majesty commanded their captives to serve on board his fleet? He has only saved them from the gallows.

(129) By some, these acts have been improperly called “Acts of punishment.” And we are then asked, with an air of insult, “What! will you punish without a trial, without a hearing?” And no doubt punishment, whether ordinary or extraordinary; whether by indictment, impeachment, or bill of attainder, should be preceded by judicial examination. But, the acts comprised under this head are not acts of punishment; they are, as we have called them, this of self-defence. And these are not, cannot be, preceded by any judicial examination. An example or two will serve to place the difference between acts of punishment and acts of self-defence in a stronger light, than any definition we can give. It has happened, that bodies of manufacturers have risen, and armed, in order to compel their masters to increase their wages: It has happened, that bodies of peasants have risen, and armed, in order to compel the farmer to sell at a lower price. It has happened, that the civil magistrate, unable to reduce the insurgents to their duty, has called the military to his aid. But did ever any man imagine, that the military were sent to punish the insurgents? It has happened, that the insurgents have resisted the military, as they had resisted the civil magistrate: It has happened, that, in consequence of this resistance, some of the insurgents have been killed: — But did ever any man imagine that those who were thus killed, were therefore punished? No more can they be said to be punished, than could the incendiary, who should be buried beneath the ruins of the house, which he had feloniously set on fire. Take an example yet nearer to the present cafe. When the Duke of Cumberland led the armies of the king, foreign and domestic, against the Rebels in Scotland, did any man conceive that he was (130) sent to punish the Rebels? — Clearly not. — He was sent to protect dutiful and loyal subjects, who remained in the peace of the King, against the outrages of Rebels, who had broken the peace of the King. — Does any man speak of those who fell at the battle of Culloden, as of men that were punished? Would that man have been thought in his senses, who should have urged, that the armies of the King should not have been sent against these Rebels in Scotland, till those very Rebels had been judicially heard, and judicially convicted? Does not every man feel that the fact, the only fact, necessary to be known, in order to justify these acts of self-defence, is simply this: — Are men in arms against the authority of the King? — Who does not feel, that to authenticate this fact, demands no judicial inquiry? If when his Royal Highness had led the army under his command into Scotland, there had been no body of men in arms; if, terrified at his approach, they had either laid down their arms and submitted, or had dispersed and retired quietly, each to his own home, what would have been the consequence? The civil magistrate would have searched for and seized upon those who had been in arms would have brought them to a court of justice. That court would have proceeded to examine, and to condemn or to acquit, as evidence was, or was not, given of the guilt of the respective culprits. The Rebels did not submit, they did not lay down their arms, they did not disperse; they resisted the Duke: a battle ensued: some of the Rebels fled, others were slain, others taken. It is upon those only of the last class, who were brought before and condemned by Courts of justice, that punishment was inflicted. By what kind of logic then are these acts ranked in the class of grievances?

(131) These are the Acts — these are the exertions of constitutional, and hitherto, undisputed powers, for which, in the audacious paper, a patriot King is traduced — as “a Prince, whose character is marked by every Act “which may define a tyrant;” as “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” These are the Acts, these exertions of constitutional, and, hitherto, undisputed powers, by which the Members of the Congress declare their selves and their constituents to be “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown” pronounce “all political connection between Great Britain and America to be totally dissolved.” With that hypocrisy which pervades the whole of the Declaration, they pretend indeed, that this event is not of their seeking; that it is forced upon them; that they only “acquiesce in the necessity which denounces their separation from us:” which compels them hereafter to hold us, as they hold the rest of mankind; enemies in war; in peace, friends.”

How this Declaration may strike others, I know not. To me, I own, it appears that it cannot fail — to use the words of a great Orator— “of doing us Knight’s service.”10 The mouth of faction, we may reasonably presume, will be closed; the eyes of those who saw not, or would not see, that the Americans were long since aspiring at independence, will be opened; the nation will unite as one man, and teach this rebellious people, that it is one thing for them to say, the connection, which bound them to us, is dissolved, another to dissolve it; that to accomplish their independence is not quite so easy as to declare it: that there is no (132) peace with them, but the peace of the King: no war with them, but that war, which offended justice wages against criminals. — We too, I hope, shall acquiesce in the necessity of submitting to whatever burdens, of making whatever efforts may be necessary, to bring this ungrateful and rebellious people back to that allegiance they have long had it in contemplation to renounce, and have now at last so daringly renounced.

  1. Under this head are comprised articles I. II. so far as they are true, III. VII. IX. so far as the last relates to the tenure of the Judges’ offices. XI. XII. XIII. XIV. XVII. XVIII. so far as the last relates to the Declaration of the power of Parliament to make laws for the Colonies binding in all cases whatsoever.
  2. See Com. Journ. vol. xii. , p. 70, 71, 72.
  3. See Mr. Burke’s speeches. [Bentham's reference is to Burke's speech in Parliament of April 19, 1774 on a proposal to repeal the tea duty.  The speech had been published as early as 1775 by J. Dodsley.  It also appears to have been available bound in a volume containing other speeches (though editions in this form seem to be rare), which may explain Bentham's use of the plural)].     
  4. Article X.
  5. Article XVIII, so far as it relates to the multiplication of the Courts of Admiralty.
  6. Article XXI
  7. Article VIII.
  8. Under this head may be classed Articles IV., V. VI. IX. so far as the last relates to the payment of the Judges by the Crown. XV. XXII so far as the latter relates to the suspension of their legislatures.
  9. Under this head may be classed Articles XVI.,XXIII, XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII. Two other Acts there are, not comprised with any of the four heads, the XX and XXVIII. The former of there relates to the government of Quebec., with which the revolted Colonies have no more to do, than with the government of Russia: The latter relates to the humble petitions they pretend to have presented “in every stage,” as they style it, “of the oppressions,” under which they pretend to labour. This we have seen to be false. Not one one humble petition; no one decent representation, have they offered,
  10. Mr. Burke’s speech. [Bentham is again referring to Burke’s speech of April 19, 1774 and draws a parallel to Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act and the present discussion of the tea levy.   The relevant passage reads, “Sir, a partial repeal, or, as the bon ton of the court then was, a modification, would have satisfied a timid, unsystematic, procrastinating Ministry, as such a measure has since done such a Ministry. A modificatio [sic] is the constant resource of weak, undeciding minds. To repeal by the denial of our right to tax in the preamble, (and this too did not want advisers,) would have cut, in the heroic style, the Gordian knot with a sword. Either measure would have cost no more than a day’s debate. But when the total repeal was adopted; and adopted on principles of policy, of equity, and of commerce; this plan made it necessary to enter into many and difficult measures. It became necessary to open a very large field of evidence commensurate to these extensive views. But then this labour did knight’s service. It opened the eyes of several to the true state of the American affairs; it enlarged their ideas; it removed prejudices; and it conciliated the opinions and affections of men.”  E. J. Payne’s editorial note suggests a possible allusion here to Shakespeare’s use of  “yeoman’s service”  in Hamlet V:2, though this strikes me as a bit of stretch].
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Foucault, the “History of Thought,” and the Question of Enlightenment

My previous post examined how, during the last eighteen months of his life, Foucault repeatedly drew a distinction between the “history of thought” in which he was engaged and more conventional (though, in his view, “entirely legitimate“) approaches employed within the “history of ideas.” This distinction was related to his emphasis on what he called “problematization”: the process by which “a group of obstacles and difficulties” come to be seen as problems that prompt a range of possible responses. As he explained to Paul Rabinow in one of his final interviews,

The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematization not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought.1

This post will attempt to draw out some of the implications of Foucault’s distinction by exploring his discussions of a text that has been significant both for work in “history of ideas” and for Foucault’s discussion of the “history of thought”: Immanuel Kant’s 1784 answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”

Enlightenment as Concept and Context

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a long-standing tendency —both among historians of ideas and others — to use Kant’s essay to clarify the aims of the historical period that we call “the Enlightenment.”2 This tendency has been aided and abetted by Kant’s having closed his attempt to answer the question posed by Johann Friedrich Zöllner in the Berlinische Monatsschrift by asking and answering a question about the attributes of his age:

If it is asked: “Do we now live in an enlightened age?” the answer is: “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”

While it is understandable that readers might be tempted to understand Kant’s phrase “Zeitalter der Aufklärung” as referring to what we have learned to call “the Age of the Enlightenment,” it is important (or so I’ve argued) to recognize that Kant and his contemporaries understood “enlightenment” as an activity or process in which one was engaged rather than a period to which one belonged. While they might — at their most optimistic — have argued that theirs was an age that was notable in its vigorous pursuit of this process, they were clear that there had been ages of enlightenment prior to theirs. It also bears remembering that, in the various discussions that led up to the posing of Zöllner’s question, there had been an extended discussion within the Wednesday Society (a secret society of “friends of enlightenment” whose members included, in addition to Zöllner and Moses Mendelssohn, the editors of the Berlinische Monatsschrift) of why, despite the concerted efforts of various enlighteners, enlightenment had made so little progress in Prussia.3

“Enlightenment” occupies a prominent, albeit somewhat peculiar, place in the history of ideas. For the most part, it tends to be used here in much the same way as it is used elsewhere: as a term that refers to a particular historical period. In that sense it functions less as a concept whose history is traced than as a historical context in which certain other ideas (e.g., “progress,” “death”, or “religion”) occur.4 It is, however, a context of a rather peculiar sort. In some cases, it serves simply a way of setting temporal boundaries and, in that usage, is roughly equivalent to “the eighteenth century” or the “long eighteenth century.” But since the eighteenth century (in either its regular or elongated forms) contained much that was not particularly “enlightened”, the term can also be used to denote a particular, temporally bounded, intellectual context. Understood in that way, historians of ideas have gone on to divide their time between explorations of the history of particular ideas within the broader context of “Enlightenment thought” and offering general discussions of the characteristics that define that peculiar entity known as “the Enlightenment.” The last several decades have also seen a variety of attempts to trace the history of the concepts of “enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment.” Much of what I’ve written might be understood as a contribution to that particular effort.

Foucault’s work has had a wide-ranging, but somewhat ambiguous, relationship to the history of ideas in general and to work on the Enlightenment in particular. The ambiguity can, in part, be attributed to the general skepticism with which an earlier generation of dix-huitiémistes received his work (see, for example, G. S. Rousseau’s dismissive review of the translation of Les Mots et le Choses in Eighteenth-Century Studies5) and to misgivings about what was viewed as Foucault’s general antipathy towards the ideals of the Enlightenment. The field of eighteenth-century studies was, as Leo Damrosch aptly put it, “born defensive” and its practitioners sometimes do not take kindly to critiques of the objects of its affection.6 And, finally, Foucault’s work was sometimes regarded as not sufficiently serious: in 1989, one of the readers’ reports I received when I submitted my article on discussions of the question “What is enlightenment?” to the Journal of the History of Ideas (while generally favorable) wondered whether my citation of Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s response might be too “trendy.”7

Times have changed: at this point references to Foucault’s discussion of Kant are hardly unusual. But while his work has had a pervasive influence on the history of ideas, the contrast he drew between his “history of thought” and conventional approaches in the “history of ideas” remains largely unexplored (at least by historians of ideas). In this post I will explore whether his (no longer trendy) discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is enlightenment?” might be as good a place as any to attempt to remedy that.

Problematizing the Enlightenment?

In his Berkeley lecture, Foucault argued that Kant’s 1784 essay in the Berlinische Monatsschrift marked

the discreet entrance into the history of thought [emphasis mine] of a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering, but that it has never managed to get rid of, either. … From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly. What, then, is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today?8

At the close of the lecture, he went on to suggest that the question Kant was attempting to answer opened up the possibility of a series of “historico-critical investigations” that

are quite specific in the sense that they always bear upon a material, an epoch, a body of determined practices and discourses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western societies from which we derive, they have their generality, in the sense that they have continued to recur up to our time: for example, the problem of the relationship between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law; the problem of the role of sexual relations; and so on (49).

He stressed that he was neither imputing a “metahistorical continuity” to these problems nor suggesting that it would be necessary to trace all their variations. But he did stress that

What must be grasped is the extent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes of relation to oneself. The study of modes of problematization [emphasis mine] (that is, of what is neither an anthropological constant nor a chronological variation) is thus the way to analyze questions of general import in their historically unique form (49).

When read in the context of Foucault’s 1983 discussions of the aims of his “history of thought” it is clear that he seemed to have seen a particular affinity between Kant’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and his own work. Kant was regarded as making a contribution to the “history of thought” and one of the implications of his work was a concern with “modes of problematization.” In this light, it may be worth recalling that Foucault had begun his 1983 lectures at the Collège de France by confessing that Kant’s essay on enlightenment was “something of a b1azon, a fetish for me” and that it “bears some relation to what I am talking about.”9

But the relationship between this opening invocation of Kant’s essay and the discussion of the “government of self and others” that followed is far from clear. Kant returns briefly in the February 23 lecture, in the context of a discussion of Diogenes and Plato (292). An echo of this discussion returns in his Berkeley lecture when Foucault suggests that Kant was proposing something along the lines of a parrēsic contract to Frederick the Great (i.e., if you let us argue, we promise to obey).10

We can get a somewhat clearer sense of what Foucault seems to have found appealing in his final discussions of Kant’s essay if we contrast Foucault’s 1983 discussions with his 1978 lecture to the Société française de Philosophie “What is Critique?” There, Foucault associated the emergence of what he termed the “critical attitude” with the question of “how not to be governed” — a question that, as he immediately stressed, was not equivalent the demand not to be governed “at all,” but instead had to be understood in the context of efforts to question

How not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of these principles, in view of such objectives and by the means of such methods, not like that, not for that, not by them ….”11

What we find here reads like a preliminary formulation of what he would later characterize as the work of “problematization”: the attempt to govern in a certain way is met with a response that insists on not being governed in that specific way (while leaving open the prospect of other forms of governance).

In a discussion of Foucault 1983 lectures, Frédéric Gros summarized their relationship to the 1978 lecture this way:

In 1978 Kant’s text was situated in the perspective of a “critical attitude” that Foucault dates from the beginning of the modern age and in opposition to the requirements of a pastoral governmentality (directing individuals’ conduct by the truth). Posing the question of Enlightenment involved rediscovering the question: how not to be governed in that way? The problem posed was that of a “desubjectification” in the framework of a “politics of truth.” Modernity was then defined as a privileged historical period for studying the subjecting/subjectifying forms of knowledge-power. In 1983 the question of Enlightenment will be thought of as the reinvestment of a requirement of truth-telling, of a courageous I speaking the truth that appeared in the Greeks, and as giving rise to a different question: What government of self should be posited as both the foundation and limit of the government of others? The meaning of “modernity” also changes: it becomes a meta-historical attitude of thought itself 12

While Gros does an excellent job of capturing the main differences between the two discussions, I have a few minor reservations about his account.

The first has to do with the question of which of “Kant’s texts” is actually central to this account. Though Foucault somewhat coyly delays invoking the title of Kant’s little essay until the close of his 1978 lecture, for the most part this earlier discussion attempts to work out the parallels between the various contexts in which objections to governance emerge and the concerns of Kant’s three critiques. In contrast, his 1983 discussions of Kant emphasize the difference between Kant’s critical philosophy and more historical focus of Kant’s essay on enlightenment. My second reservation concerns Gros’ characterization of “modernity” as a “meta-historical attitude.” How can we to reconcile this with Foucault’s stress, in his 1983 Berkeley lecture, that the inquiries prompted by Kant’s essay need not be concerned with tracing a “metahistorical continuity over time,” but instead should focus on particular “modes of problematization”? My final question has to do with what, exactly, is supposed to be “problematized” by the question “What is enlightenment?”

For my immediate purposes, this final question is of greater import than the first two reservations, since it may help to clarify the differences between analyses of Kant’s essay that take their bearings from conventional approaches in the history of ideas and the approach of Foucault’s proposed “history of thought.” But we still have one earlier text to talk about in which Foucault distinguished the “history of thought” from the “history of ideas.”

Foucault on Cassirer and Hazard

As I noted in an earlier post, one of Foucault’s more interesting discussions of the Enlightenment has been routinely ignored: his 1966 review of the French translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der Aufklärung. Contrasting Cassirer’s approach to Paul Hazard’s Crise de la conscience européenne, Foucault argues that Hazard tended to assume that “an ‘age’ (siècle) has, like everything else, consciousness, opinions, anxieties, aspirations ….” Cassirer, in contrast, dispensed with the discussion of individual motivations, biographical accidents, and minor thinkers and also avoided the analysis of economic and social determinants. Instead, he concentrated on the “inextricable web of discourse and thought, of concepts and words, of énoncés and affirmations,” which he proceeded to analyze “in its own configuration.” The result, Foucault argued, was a study that explored an “autonomous universe of ‘discours-pensée‘” that “isolates from all other histories the autonomous space of ‘the theoretical’.”

My earlier discussion had been content to note the parallel between Foucault’s description of what he saw Cassirer as doing and his own procedure in the Archaeology of Knowledge, but overlooked a few lines near the end, whose significance should now be a good deal clearer. Here Foucault noted that Cassirer’s account was not without its shortcomings: it gave philosophy in general and “reflection” in particular an unwarranted primacy. Foucault went on to argue,

Without a doubt it will be necessary — it will be our task — to free ourselves from these limits which are still disturbingly reminiscent of the traditional history of ideas.

But, reversing course, he ended by praising Cassirer for not limiting the Enlightenment, as had been customary, to England and France and for refusing to “play the game of looking for missing pieces and warning signs for the future.” He argued that, at the very moment when National Socialism were reviving a virulent form of German nationalism, Cassirer revealed “the calm, irresistible, enveloping force of the theoretical universe.” The result was a book that “founded the possibility of a new history of thought[emphasis mine]” — a possibility that Foucault viewed as a point from which “we others can take our departure.”

At the risk of reading too much into what might, after all, simply be a turn of phrase, the appearance, at this early date, of “history of thought” is worth noting, especially since Foucault contrasts it with approaches (both in Hazard and in Cassirer’s weaker moments) that remain tied to the conventions of the history of ideas. And, of courses, it is also significant that this contrast occurs in the context of a study of the Enlightenment.

What is most striking here are the differences between Foucault’s 1966 and his 1983 accounts of the “history of thought”. In 1966 he countered approaches like those of Hazard with an approach that would explore an “autonomous universe of ‘discourse-thought” [discours-pensée].” But in 1983, the aim of the “history of thought” was to explore those moments when individuals

step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and to question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals.13

The contrast becomes a bit clearer if we note that there remains, despite these changes, a continued emphasis on emphasis on the function of “archaeology.”

In my last post, I noted that one of occasions on which Foucault invoked the idea of “history of thought” was a discussion with members of the Berkeley history department. In response to the suggestion that “archaeology” might be seen as emphasizing “discontinuities” while genealogy stressed continuities, he responded:

No: the general theme of my research is the history of thought. How could we make the history of thought? I think that thought cannot be disassociated from discourses and we can’t have any access to thought, either to our own present thought, or our contemporaries’ thought, or of course thought of people of previous periods, but through discourses. And that is the necessity of the archeological consideration. And that has nothing to do with continuity or discontinuity. You can find either continuity or discontinuity in those discourses.

This may help to clarify the differences between the treatment of the “history of thought” in Foucault’s review of Cassirer and the way in which he presented it at the close of his life. What remains constant is the role of discourses, which serve as the sole access we have to “thought.” It is this that renders the consideration of “archeology” necessary. What changes is the emphasis in his later work on the particular ways in which systems of thought become problematic.

Against the tendency to assume that systems of discourse were some inherently “discontinuous”, he stressed the way in which it was possible to trace the emergence, at certain particular sites of contestation, of problems that persist for shorter or longer periods of time. Understood in that way, the “history of thought” might be understood as

the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that – for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.14

Would it, perhaps, be possible to add one further term to the list of things that, at particular historical moments, people begin to care about: namely, “enlightenment”?

What Was — and What Still Might Be — Problematic About Enlightenment?

One of the things that initially puzzled me about Foucault’s discussion of Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” was his lack of interest in either the context in which the question arose or the answers that others offered (he mentions Mendelssohn’s response briefly in his Berkeley lecture, but has little to say about it). Granted, he had other concerns and it is possible that, had he been granted more time, he might have had more to say about an essay that clearly mattered a good deal to him. Then again, it may be that my problems with Foucault’s treatment of Kant’s answer are the result of expecting a “historian of thought” to do the sort of work that is normally done by “historians of ideas.”

As a historian of ideas who (I hope) has learned something from Foucault’s “history of thought,” what interests me about the question Kant was answering (and it is worth noting that this not the same thing as being particularly interested in Kant’s answer) was how — in the space of a year — a question about the advisability of clerical participation in marriage ceremonies turned into a wide-ranging discussion of the limits of civil and ecclesiastical power, the relationship of writing and thought, the obligations of citizens to their rulers, and so on. Could we see this, perhaps, as an example of “problematization” with a vengeance?

Foucault’s approach to these matters was, in one sense, quite traditional: he privileged Kant’s response and took little notice of the various lesser thinkers who sought to answer Zöllner’s question. Further, his exclusive focus on Kant’s answer prevented him from seeing that, at the origins of these arguments, there lay a set of concerns that ought to have interested him: the role of ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the administration of marriage, the potentially corrosive effects of discourse on obedience, and (particularly in the case of Mendelssohn’s response) the conflict between different regimes of knowledge. Finally, in his influential little footnote Zöllner had suggested that the question “what is enlightenment?” was “almost as important” as the question “what is truth?” — a suggestion that might have been of considerable interest for a thinker who was skilled in the art of exploring the complex rules that govern games of truth and power.

Foucault, however, regarded Kant’s essay as a “blazon, a sort of fetish,” which may explain why he was reluctant to subject it to the cold, merciless, and endlessly provocative analysis that characterized the best of his work.

Sun

  1. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997) 119.
  2. See James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 (2011): 43–52 and “Enlightenment as Concept and Concept,” forthcoming in Journal of the History of Ideas — until publication, a preprint is available at https://www.academia.edu/4177077/Enlightenment_as_Concept_and_Context. 
  3. I’ve discussed these points at length in my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). 
  4. For example, Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason; the Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1948),  John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment : Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York, 1981), and Peter Harrison, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 
  5. G. S. Rousseau, “Whose Enlightenment? Not Man’s: The Case of Michel Foucault,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 6:2 (1972): 238–56.
  6. This view of Foucault continues to turn up from time to time: for example, see Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011) 23-24. 
  7. James Schmidt, “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:2 (1989): 269–91.
  8. Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 32.
  9. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 6-7.
  10. I’ve discussed this point in “Misunderstanding the Question” 50-51.
  11. Foucault, “What is Critique?” in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 384.
  12. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983, ed. François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana, trans. Graham Burchell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 378-379.
  13. Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations,” 117.
  14. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Semiotext(e), 2001) 74.
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“The Radical Enlightenment” – Diametros Volume 40

Volume 40 of the online philosophy journal Diametros (available here) focuses on “The Radical Enlightenment.”  The main event is the latest in the ongoing series of exchanges between Jonathan Israel and Margaret C. Jacob, along with discussions of Israel’s work by Sebastian Gardner and Przemysław Gut.  The issue also includes articles by Eric Schliesser on Toland and Smith, Bert van Roermund on the Code Civil, Zbigniew Drozdowicz on Voltaire, a discussion of the role of rights, responsibilities, and republicanism in the Enlightenment by Kenneth Westphal, and my thoughts on Burke and Gillray (at least some of which may already be familiar to readers of this blog).

 

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