Promise without Procrastination
Posted on July 21, 2017
In my previous post I reflected on Nelson Maldonado-Torres’ concept of “Imperial Man,” the self-apotheosizing attitude of a conquistador like Cortés who sees himself and his desires as elevated above the people of color he colonizes, thereby setting up a paradigm of war through which world history gets constructed as the story of Europeans civilizing the globe through subordinating it. I reflected on how Kant’s philosophy of history plays into this paradigm of war, ironically undermining his desire for perpetual peace. I wish to further extend the theological implications of this way that Kant betrays his own best insights by reduplicating the Leibnizian theodicy he criticizes. In other words, in straining to see social inequality as justified—in straining for empirical confirmation that Providence has made a world that is already good—Kant abandons the idealism that puts the unconditional dignity of all individuals at the center of his moral system.
The lynchpin of Kant’s justifications of inequality in his historical essays rests on the bald assertion that the moral duty to fully develop one’s talents and capacities cannot be satisfied by individuals since they die off too soon, and this must instead be carried out by the human species that survives them. Kant’s first statement of this principle is in his 1784 essay Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim: “In the human being (as the only rational creature on earth), those predispositions whose goal is the use of his reason were to develop completely only in the species, but not in the individual.” What’s curious here is that the postulate of immortality is grounded in this very same duty to fully develop one’s rational potential. This maximal virtue, or a holy will, would take a finite being an eternity to attain, and so one must hope for an afterlife not of hedonist abandon but perpetual moral progress; to abjure this hope is to arbitrarily alter the ideal moral standard to suit what one can attain in a human timespan, like someone cheating at limbo. There is nothing in this that would warrant outsourcing the cultivation of one’s capacities to one’s descendants, which Kant’s historical essays take as the only rational response to our mortality. Manfred Kuehn is rare among scholars in noting that this difference between the arguments of the 1784 Universal History essay and the Second Critique of 1787 is “in some ways…odd,” but like most scholars he remains relatively untroubled by the admittedly amoral way that the mechanisms of Kant’s historical progress treat individuals as mere means.
Against this scholarly trend, I want to rehabilitate the immortality postulate as a way of insuring against the instrumentalization of individuals for the sake of History or Progress. If the worth of individuals is conditional upon their contribution to Progress, progress becomes one-dimensional, its transcendent character evaporates, and with the evaporation of transcendence, the possibility of critique. As Kant understands “moral religion” to be identical to “moral hope,” the hope for the kingdom of ends is a hope that is not grounded on any empirical evidence of its plausibility, but instead it is a hope that is grounded upon the mindset of moral striving. The mentality that regards a truly egalitarian society as supremely valid is one that has to behave as if it is possible to bring about the kingdom of ends by treating each individual as unconditionally important. The means to the end cannot operate through a different principle than the end; this means that no individual can be treated as disposable life , as a mere instrument of historical progress, for when that happens, history makes no true progress but only more elaborate forms of misery (technical progress without humanitarian progress).
If we think that the misery and subordination of some is necessary for the prosperity and development of others—after all, it is so much more realistic to think in this utilitarian way—then we are likely to be thinking through paradigm of war. Global “development” appears to operate through this vampiric logic of the conquistador, where the exploitation of “uncivilized” individuals is justified as part of the forward march of Humanity in the majuscule sense. This Humanity is in fact the idol of Imperial Man in its newest guise. Salvadoran liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has a Girardian remark that I keep on returning to lately:
Juan Luis Segundo used to say that, existentially speaking, the most pressing problem was not that of faith and atheism, but that of faith and idolatry. And with the help of exegetes (von Rad, José Luis Sicre), a new definition of idols emerged: historical realities that promise salvation. To that end they require a cult and an orthodoxy, and above all, like Moloch, they require victims in order to subsist. The conclusion is of the greatest importance: there exists a transcendental correlation between idols and victims. Where there are victims, there are also idols. Idolatry, therefore, finds expression not principally in the religious realm, but in history itself. The astonishing thing is that such idolatry is today a characteristic not of “primitive peoples,” but most especially of “civilized peoples.”
If politics is the art of the possible, then political theology informs our sense of the attainable. When we remove the postulate of immortality from the picture of Kant’s religion, we are liable to think that individual contributions to the highest good are circumscribed in terms of empirical familiarity, that is, in terms of what can be achieved within our mortal timespan. To strive for the highest good is then to participate in realpolitik. Thereby, we envision a kingdom of ends in which it is permissible to not see each and every individual as an end in themselves. This is the internal contradiction between Kant’s philosophy of history (with its justification of slavery and colonialism) and Kant’s philosophy of religion (with its insistence upon a new world-order in which nobody is a slave). How then is one to rethink Kant’s philosophy of history, starting this time from the postulate of immortality and remaining consistent on the issue of the unconditional worth of all people?
I think there is some value here in an approach taken by Jacques Rancière on a slightly different issue. In “The Uses of Democracy,” Rancière is disputing with Pierre Bourdieu about the methodology of philosophizing about our educational institutions. Bourdieu starts by looking at French society and finding “savage inequalities” as Jonathan Kozol might say, and then from there he is trying to reverse engineer a just educational system. Rancière, on the other hand, thinks we need to start with the assumption that we are all equal, and then be shocked by the inequalities we discover, for we will then feel more sharply the irrationality of the established order.
This is very Kantian: to articulate a moral theory a posteriori is to assume that the given reality is moral, and to avoid conflating what is with what ought to be one needs the a priori. It is in one sense undeniably realistic to think that there are people who are more advanced and people who are backward—and yet as this realism is bound to replicate existing hierarchies with more sophisticated ones, it falls short of the ideal. The ideal stands over against this and is in the mind of the idealist vibrantly realizable—realistic from the standpoint of ultimate reality, the reality of the Ought—rather than “realistic” in the familiar sense of the empiricist’s perspective. Whereas Bourdieu’s method of thinking about inequality in schools leaves the teacher/student dichotomy more or less unchallenged and unchallengeable, Rancière thinks a naïve egalitarian attitude preserves egalitarianism.
Such naiveté engages in what Rancière calls “the syllogism of emancipation.” I’ll illustrate this with a different example than the one Rancière gives:
major premise: Black lives matter.
minor premise: Philando Castile was Black and was shot by a police officer without cause and without due process of law.
conclusion: The police must be brought into alignment with true justice and Black people must be given full protection under the law.
Whereas someone like Bourdieu thinks egalitarian radicalism is best served by demystifying ideals and stating the facts of inequality in a bald and disenchanted manner—he would make the major premise read “Black lives don’t matter”—Rancière charges that such disenchanted thinking keeps us trapped in dispirited acquiescence to the way things are as though they are inalterable. If we were to state “Black lives don’t matter,” we might accustom ourselves to a conclusion of resignation. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is instead functioning as the major premise of Ranciere’s syllogism of emancipation, and notice how it shocks a culture of white supremacism, forcing us not merely to notice the disconnect between ideals and reality but to do something about it. Another example of the syllogism of emancipation would be the 1966 statement of the Black Panther Party’s platform, “What We Want, What We Believe,” which ends with a verbatim restatement of the opening of the Declaration of Independence, as if to say: alright America, it’s high time to start acting as if this is actually true.
Notice the urgent temporality of this “as if”: by (naively) believing the ideal to be already true, one is pained by the squandering of emancipatory possibilities of the past and in the present, and the present becomes imbued with the necessity of realizing those possibilities and confidence that they are indeed realizable, even when empirical and historical evidence speaks to the contrary. We are far from procrastinating here. As Martin Luther King wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, “The time is always ripe to do what is right.” A believer in the kingdom of ends if anyone was, King was not a procrastinator, and in fact subjected the white moderate’s slothful pseudo-justice to brilliant and consistent critique. I want to sort out how these two things—belief in the kingdom of ends and refusal to procrastinate—are not merely accidentally juxtaposed but inherently conjoined. Although Rancière does not notice and even seems unfriendly to such religious progressivism, his description of the syllogism of emancipation in meontic terms could be rearticulated to accord with the idea of the transcendent:
The interesting thing about this way of reasoning is that it no longer opposes word to deed or form to reality. It opposes word to word and deed to deed. Taking what is usually thought of as something to be dismissed, as a groundless claim, it transforms it into its opposite—into the grounds for a claim, into a space open to dispute. The evocation of equality is thus not nothing. A word has all the power originally given to it. This power is in the first place the power to create a space where equality can state its own claim: equality exists somewhere; it is spoken of and written about. It must therefore be verifiable. Here is the basis for a practice that sets itself the task of verifying this equality.
How can one verify words? Essentially, through one’s actions. These actions must be organized like a proof, a system of reasons.
Although Kant would use the term “postulate” rather than “syllogism,” he thinks of religious hope in an essentially similar way to Rancière’s syllogism of emancipation: contrary to the social norm, it is not up to the idealist to explain equality, rather it is inequality that has to be explained. Or rather, to modify that last word, Kant thinks that injustice is not to be explained, exactly—such explaining falls into the errors of Leibnizian theodicy—but it “has explaining to do.” Perhaps it is best to notice that Kant distinguishes a postulate from a hypothesis on the grounds that a hypothesis functions as an explanation for theoretical reason, but a postulate is a call to action for practical reason. What evidence grounds hope? Nothing, as it turns out, and that’s a good thing, for the moral hope of Kant’s religion is groundless. Its “evidence,” if you will, is that there is no other way to keep on choosing the fight the egalitarian fight than to hope that the fight is not in vain, even if one cannot explain how it will work out. If this hope consoles, it is not the false consolation of despondent quietism, but the true peace of soul of determined activism.
Hope’s future orientation in thinking allows history to appear as the embattled progression toward the kingdom of ends without justifying past atrocities as “necessary” for perpetual peace, as theodicy does. Instead of Kant’s religious hope being about the justification of past evils, when properly rearticulated and understood, its essence is about the perpetual possibility of beginning again in perpetual progress, a natality of means appropriate to the end of the kingdom of ends. Belief in the promise of the ideal is what keeps us from compromise of the ideal. The postulates spring out of the demand of reason (Vernunftbedürfniss) and preserve that demand, sharpen that demand, make that demand perspicuous and capacious and imaginative, going beyond what we have become accustomed to settle for. This is the link between promissio and missio that Jürgen Moltmann articulates. Or, to put it in the decolonial context of Salvadoran liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría:
Jesus’ experience in history, and the experience of the Christians who follow his work, apparently leads to the conclusion that salvation, although incipient, is not yet within reach in all its fullness. Not even the whole life of Jesus, before his death, recognizes the totality of the salvific process; only with his resurrection and exaltation are we able to speak fully of salvation, through the communication of divinity to humanity. The logic that led Kant to postulate the immortality of the soul, in order to harmonize the just life with the happy life, can be used here to affirm Jesus’ promise of eternal life: the assurance of eternal life for the elect, where the greatest possible communication from God to his creature comes beyond history, after the resurrection of the whole human being.
 Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim, in Anthropology, History, and Education, 8:18, 109.
 Ibid., Critique of Practical Reason, 5:122-124, 238-239.
 Manfred Kuehn, “Reason as a Species Characteristic,” in Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim: A Critical Guide, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty and James Schmidt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2009. P. 83 and p. 91, respectively.
 See Marcuse’s “Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts” for more on this distinction between humanitarian progress and technical progress.
 See Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Trans. Cedric Belfrage. New York: Monthly Review Press. 1997.
 Jon Sobrino, “The Centrality of the Kingdom of God Announced by Jesus: Reflections before Aparecida,” in No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays. Trans. Joseph Owens. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2008. Page 86.
 Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics. Trans. Liz Heron. New York: Verso. 2007. Pages 51-52: “The democratic experience is thus one of a particular aesthetics of politics. The democratic man is a being who speaks, which is also to say a poetic being, a being capable of embracing a distance between words and things which is not deception, not trickery, but humanity; a being capable of embracing the unreality of representation. A poetic virtue, then, and a virtue grounded in trust. This means starting from the point of view of equality, asserting equality, assuming equality as a given, working out from equality, trying to see how productive it can be and thus maximizing all possible liberty and equality. By contrast, anyone who starts out from distrust, who assumes inequality and proposes to reduce it, can only succeed in setting up a hierarchy of inequalities, a hierarchy of priorities, a hierarchy of intelligences—and will reproduce inequality ad infinitum.”
 Rancière 45.
 Rancière 47.
 Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, ., 5:126, 241.
 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. James W. Leitch. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1969. “Christian eschatology speaks of ‘Christ and his future’. Its language is the language of promises. It understands history as the reality instituted by promise. In the light of the present promise and hope, the as yet unrealized future of the promise stands in contradiction to given reality. The historic character of reality is experienced in this contradiction, in the front line between the present and the promised future. History in all its ultimate possibilities and dangers is revealed in the event of promise constituted by the resurrection and cross of Christ. …The promissio of the universal future leads of necessity to the universal missio of the Church to all nations. The promise of divine righteousness in the event of the justification of the godless leads immediately to the hunger for divine right in the godless world, and thus to the struggle for public, bodily obedience. The promise of the resurrection of the dead leads at once to lover for the true life of the whole imperiled and impaired creation. …The history of the future of Christ and the historic character of the witnesses and missionaries condition each other and stand in a correlation of promissio and missio. The Christian consciousness of history is a consciousness of mission, and only to that extent is it also a consciousness of world history and of the historic character of existence” (224-225).
 Ignacio Ellacuría, “Salvation History,” in Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation. Trans. Michael E. Lee. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 2013. Page 187.