Précis: "Images Of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, And The Human Subject"

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History And Theory


My fundamental motivation in writing Images of History was to avoid some forms of hubris and despair that trouble contemporary philosophy and to develop instead a picture of human life in historical time. According to this picture, we live amid institutional and practical inheritances we can address but can never fully stabilize and perfect. In different ways, Kant and Benjamin each accept this thought, and they each develop a picture of philosophy as historically situated, open criticism of existing practices and institutions. Each emphasizes the priority of the practical over any fixed metaphysical‐theoretical stance. I survey each of their general theories of critical historical understanding, and I pay special attention to the texts in which they each provide detailed, specific accounts of Western social‐historical development or circumstances: Kant's Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Benjamin's One‐Way Street. Where Kant's philosophical criticism is reformist, liberal, and casually dismissive of non‐Christian religion, Benjamin's is modernist, erotic, and improvisatory. Their respective images of history according to which we achieve orientation are both complementary and fundamentally opposed—not readily combinable into a consistent whole. Drawing on the work of Jonathan Lear, I end with a picture of maturity and practical self‐unity as centrally a matter of developing the skill of modulated alternation between these two orientation‐affording images.