Symposium Introduction

Richard Eldridge’s Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Sciences is a powerful reflection on the entire process of “doing” history, on how we construct history by using certain images of what it amounts to and what it might be and ought to be. In reflecting on this more general topic of concern (a concern, really, that seems like it ought to be pressing to anyone who is even moderately reflective about what it means to be human), Eldridge also brings together two notoriously difficult German thinkers, Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin. The former is difficult because of his ambitions towards a systematic, unified project, while the latter is difficult exactly because of his eschewal of the same and his commitment to a sort of guerilla style of scholarship.

Eldridge’s reading of each thinker is incredibly lucid and offers much for thought. The substantive introduction is oriented around historical understanding and its relationship to human action. The next two chapters are oriented around Kant’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of history, his political philosophy, and his Religion book, presenting Kant as a sort of reformist, who is engaged a “constructivist-realist” methodology, where that is understood, above all, as the idea that “(1) the full content of relevant moral and political ideas is not given but must be constructed through the use of our rational and reflective powers, and [that] (2) those ideals are also dimly legible within human historical life regarded critically” (196). The chapters immediately following these two are oriented around Benjamin, especially his notion of modernism and his One Way Street. Benjamin is also presented as a “constructivist-realist.” The book concludes with a return to the broader themes of the book and to a consideration of history, this time with a synthetic and constructive approach in mind, aiming to synthesize the two thinkers, and involving now the thought of Stanley Cavell and Jonathan Lear. In many ways, the book is incredibly exciting and exhibits Eldridge’s sharp and comprehensive insight throughout.

The responses that follow all take up elements of Eldridge’s story. Sebastian Truskolaski focuses especially on Eldridge’s reading of Benjamin and the disciplinary boundaries that such a reading suggests or overthrow. Kristi Sweet focuses in large part of Eldridge’s understanding of Kant, and any possible recourse to aesthetic judgment. My own response focuses on similar issues in Kant and on Benjamin’s materiality, while Allan Megill’s response takes up some of the core issues that Eldridge’s book raises for the study and construction of history. Eldridge confronts these questions head-on and thereby opens up interesting paths for further discussion.

Martin Shuster


Benjamin and Kant

An Isomorphism

As a point of introduction, let me note that Richard Eldridge has written an excellent and commendable book on the uses and misuses of history, and on the very notion of what historical understanding might amount to in the context of human social practice. I can recommend the book on that aspect alone. A deeper ambition, however, is to pursue these questions by means of the thought of Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin. This is, in my opinion, and in many ways, the most interesting and captivating element of the book. On one hand, Benjamin and Kant are not that controversial a pair. It is now well known that Benjamin was greatly influenced by various elements of Kantianism, from some of his earliest days (as the relationship between him and Scholem makes clear). On the other hand, what oftentimes gets prioritized are the differences between Benjamin and Kant. Of course, Eldridge doesn’t deny these differences, but he does seem to bring the two thinkers closer together than many normally would, suggesting that both are pursuing a methodology that he terms “constructivist-realist” (33ff.), where that is understood as the idea that “(1) the full content of relevant moral and political ideas is not given but must be constructed through the use of our rational and reflective powers, and [that] (2) those ideals are also dimly legible within human historical life regarded critically” (196).

As I already suggested, what’s welcome about Eldridge’s book is that he leverages such an approach to these thinkers in order to think more deeply about our current commitments, about who we presently are as agents and as people, and he does so through a consideration of the sort of “images of history” that we have produced in Western modernity. Central to that account is a phrase that Eldridge deploys throughout the book: “bootstrapping” (4, 8, 17, 70, 167), and the most prominent image is in fact a “mutual bootstrapping” (17), where “political and moral ideals” are mutually bootstrapped with “historical narratives.” In other words, central to Eldridge’s project is the notion of judgment in history and the various issues this raises. And one way that he approaches this question is to think about how Kant and Benjamin—as the progenitors of two distinct approaches to the question—might be put into conversation with each other. For Eldridge, Kant’s critical approach to history is to pursue a reformist project, where we push our ethical, social, and political projects towards a vision of an “ethical commonwealth . . . [a] plausible ideal around which we can and should rally” (101). In contrast to this, Eldridge sees Benjamin as engaged in a persistent project of responding to the deep materiality of particular objects (and situations) and thereby revealing to ourselves only the merest glimpses of a world beyond our current world (to be clear: those glimpses are there, but they are fragmentary, merely glimpses; they are enough to make sure that we realize there is more, but not enough to sustain the sort of reformism that Kant pursues). Eldridge concludes the book by suggesting that we need to find a way to live with the sort of anxiety that an affirmation of both of these perspectives breeds. We are incapable of occupying, nor should we desire to occupy, either perspective on its own. Indeed, relying on the work of Stanley Cavell and Jonathan Lear, Eldridge suggests that “reasonable maturity and practical self-unity must involve a kind of lyrical, temporalized sense of modulated alternations” between these two perspectives writ large (181).

The force of this suggestion will depend in large part on the particulars of the readings of Kant and Benjamin. I cannot in the space here enter into any serious discussion of those details, except to note that Eldridge is a serious reader who is careful with his primary and secondary citations. At the same time, there are a few places at which I would like to push the account, albeit on more general grounds (I take it as a given that even with any such ambitious work, one can—assuming that the scholarship is above a certain threshold, as it is here—always push on the particulars of any account). For example, while I am able to countenance the level of generality at which Benjamin and Kant are glossed in order to conceive the latter as the apologist for continuing progress and institution building, and the former as the stand-in for those moments when such continuity and building must be abandoned in favor of more revolutionary moments and themes, I find the metaphor of “boostrapping” and the stress on something like individual judgment (even if modulated by social embeddedness) to be peculiar, and not to capture the full import of how I would frame the conversation between Kant and Benjamin. Let me say why.

At a certain point, Eldridge alleges that Kant’s highest good doesn’t provide enough content and is “unable by itself to help us to sort through practical difficulties,” and thereby “to achieve a sense of direction within an ensemble of progressively meaningful personal and social roles” (50). On one hand, and certainly from the perspective of the first and second critiques, this is true: the highest good doesn’t work in that way as part of moral deliberation. On the other hand, the third critique seems to complicate this picture. There, Kant highlights that because of the discovery of a new a priori principle,1 he can now view the entirety of nature as a purposive whole. In other words, this is a wholesale modification of the standpoint of the first critique. There, such a procedure simply could not be conceived, since nature could only be conceived mechanically, and judgments of taste were merely empirical. In the third critique, Kant notes that “the self-sufficient natural beauty reveals to us a technique of nature, which makes it possible to represent it as a system in accordance with laws the principle of which we do not encounter anywhere in our entire faculty of understanding, namely that of a purposiveness.”2 In other words, it is something about natural beauty in the world that reveals this to creatures like us (my sense is that “complicates and qualifies,” as Eldridges glosses on 208, is too mild for what is going on here). I mention this to note that with all of this in mind, Kant can now raise the question of whether the entirety of nature can be conceived as a purposive whole, and if so, then Kant realizes that one can ask after the purpose of this whole. One can ask about whether there is a final end to creation. Kant notes that neither human happiness nor human culture can serve as the final end of creation since one can always ask why either of them needs to exist in the first place (and Kant is surprisingly sensitive to this question, noting, that given the conditions of life for humans, from either of these perspectives, the value of life is “less than zero”).3 Only a moral point of view that takes freedom as the final end of creation can present human beings as more than a “link in nature” (Naturglied).4 My understanding of this claim5 is that it is not enough for an agent to set her own ends, even moral ones. Instead, even moral ends need to be framed appropriately within a broader final end (the highest good). Only in this way, would we really organize all of our pursuits morally and guarantee that we are not a mere link in nature (this is Kant’s distinction between “technically practical” and “morally practical” bases for action at 5:172). Without a conception of the highest good (and thereby a highest Gesinnung, two sides of the same coin),6 it may turn out to be that our (moral) ends might still, after all, turn out to be technically practical. I mention this to highlight that Kant’s picture requires a strong notion of rational theology and faith to underwrite its deepest ambitions (for the highest good necessitates belief in God). Such a picture rests on an understanding of human life that is already far more cosmically oriented than the sort of more liberally oriented ways in which Eldridge seeks to marshal Kant (e.g., 100–101).

An analogous issue, it seems to me, arises in Benjamin. While the particulars of Benjamin’s account are even more labyrinthian than Kant’s, Eldridge’s presentation is lucid and sophisticated, showing how Benjamin’s materialism is a useful counterbalance to Kant. Nonetheless, my sense is that Benjamin’s materialism is bounded by a distinct ethical orientation. For example, in the famous “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin stresses again and again that his vision is oriented towards the vanquished, the dead, the oppressed, and so forth . . . but in a distinct register: what he aims to capture—but what he knows he cannot capture—are all of the perspectives that are absent, that simply cannot appear, and thereby cannot be represented in any of our ethical, social, or political projects. This is what Benjamin means when he notes that “the only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”7 Benjamin’s point isn’t solely that we must acknowledge those who aren’t here, who were ground into dust by the ruling elite, but also that we fundamentally cannot acknowledge them in the way that morality demands of us . . . this is one reason why our messianic power is weak.

What’s emerging, I would suggest, is an odd isomorphism: Kant’s procedure demands that we orient our projects from the perspective of a future final end of creation (which, I would argue, is more than just an ethical commonwealth, it’s that, of course, but with something added to it: a distinct rational theology and faith, and thereby a sort of theocracy). Benjamin’s procedure demands that we orient our projects from the orientation of the sufferings of the past, and the perspectives of those who are absent, who cannot appear (except in flashes). Neither perspective—it seems to me—lends itself particularly well to the metaphor of bootstrapping (with its implication of something like a liberal orientation, understood in the classical, not strictly American, sense of the word). The point of both perspectives is to proceed politically by means of a position that, at best, seems to me to be in tension with the sort of representation required for our liberal institutions (a representation of the currently living and perhaps maybe a representation of the past and future in utilitarian terms). At worst, such positions seem manifestly to be in tension with liberalism and its procedures and institutions. Now, I am open to the possibility that perhaps this says more about our current institutions than it does about these positions . . . but even so, this seems to render the project that Eldridge sketches and pursues as far more radical, far more explosive and combustible, and far more oppositional to our current ways of doing history and politics than he lets on (after all, what would it mean to pursue history and politics from these expansive perspectives, even if we oscillate between them, as I’ve tried to qualify them?). It seems that it would require much more than Jonathan Lear’s psychoanalytic account . . . but, again, perhaps that says more about our current worldly (political) possibilities than it does about Eldridge’s intentions. In any case, I want to conclude only by stressing again what a wonderful book Eldridge has written, and, by asking Eldridge, somewhat speculatively (but quite sincerely, especially in light of my thoughts above), what he thinks his book might, in light of our present political moment, suggest about philosophy and its possibilities in the present?


Works Cited

Anderson-Gold, Sharon. Unnecessary Evil: History and Moral Progress in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” In Selected Writings, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 4:389–400. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Caswell, Matthew. “Kant’s Conception of the Highest Good, the Gesinnung, and the Theory of Radical Evil.” Kant Studien 97 (2006) 184–209.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kleingeld, Pauline. “What Do the Virtuous Hope For? Re-reading Kant’s Doctrine of the Highest Good.” In Proceedings of the Eight International Kant Congress. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1995.

Shuster, Martin. Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

  1. This is very clear in Kant’s December 1787 letter to Reinhold, where he reports the discovery of such an a priori principle (which before he had assumed simply to be analytic as opposed to synthetic as he now realizes).

  2. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:246, emphasis added.

  3. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:434.

  4. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:443.

  5. I’ve elaborated this in significant detail in the second chapter of Martin Shuster, Autonomy after Auschwitz.

  6. On this point, see Anderson-Gold, Unnecessary Evil, 33–53; Caswell, “Kant’s Conception of the Highest Good, the Gesinnung, and the Theory of Radical Evil”; Kleingeld, “What Do the Virtuous Hope For?,” 95.

  7. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 391, emphasis added.

  • Avatar

    Richard Eldridge


    Response to Shuster

    Martin Shuster alertly notes my crucial, all but oxymoronic coinage “constructivist-realist” and he usefully cites the definition of this coinage that is given in a footnote. He then further notes a crucial metaphor––bootstrapping––in my constructivist-realist account of the interaction between moral-political ideals and historical understanding. He wonders whether my account of bootstrapping is perhaps too individualist, too thin cosmologically (hence ungrounded), and too liberal-progressivist-proceduralist. These are important issues to raise, and I will take them in turn.

    While I am interested in stances that individuals may actively take within and on their lives, individual and social––in whether and how they might find orientation––I do think of such stance-taking as a moment within a social process. (Shuster notes that my account of individual judgment is “modulated by social embeddedness.”) In fact, in more or less Aristotelian-Hegelian terms, I think of being a discursive subject as a matter of a biological human being coming to occupy an available social role, crucially involving learning language and becoming responsive to reasons.1 While moments of individual responsibility (and responsiveness) can and do occur within the social life of attempting to live according to reason, the process is inherently a social one, and claims must be entered and redeemed within the framework of one’s relations with others. This is, furthermore, true of philosophy in general, as I see it, not only of moral and political conversation and thought. In making this point, I have often found it useful to adapt Arnold Isenberg’s account of critical communication to describe the doing of philosophy.2

    Like Kristi Sweet, Shuster raises the question of the role of the third Critique in Kant’s system and of the insights into the underlying metaphysical nature of nature that the experience of natural beauty may afford. I do note in Images of History that the experience of natural beauty involves something like an intimation of Spinozist natura naturans (57, 104, 138). The issue, however, as indicated in the reply to Sweet, is whether such an intimation can yield discursive knowledge of the direction of development of human life in nature as such, as opposed to more modestly nurturing hope via feeling. In my view, it cannot, and we should be suspicious of any moral or political theory that claims articulated knowledge of anything like providence, God’s will, or the self-unfolding of divine Nôus or Spirit. And yet we need and can have, I argue, not only felt intimations of purposiveness in nature, but also what I call, following Dieter Henrich, a developing image of history that is less than a theory that embodies knowledge and supports prediction, than it is a way of envisioning how to take fuller responsibility for ourselves within the framework of our historical inheritances and situation. Both Kant and Benjamin, as I read them, see this. They are suspicious of attempts, as Shuster puts it, “really [to] organize all of our pursuits morally and guarantee that we are not a mere link in nature.” For me, as for them (I think) there should be and are no guarantees.3

    Shuster is quite right, then, to see that there is what he calls “an odd isomorphism,” a “tension” or an “oscillation” in my view. To use Benjaminian terms, our messianism––our reasonably available ways of waiting, hoping, and working––is weak. It must alternate or oscillate between patient, attentive responsiveness, involving openness to radical surprises that, à la Benjamin, undo claims to theoretical moral knowledge and claims to act on principle. We should not claim to be “above reproach.”4 And yet we must also often enough do something, take a stand, where in doing so it will be useful to appeal to Kantian principle and (what one takes to be) its requirements in a particular context––even if appeals to Kantian principle can also sometimes embody “narcissistic and disguised aggression” (100), as in Kant’s own blinkered treatment of Judaism (94, 108). So, one might say, two cheers for (Kantian) liberalism. It is an important part of the story, but not the whole story, of our fallen, partial efforts to live freely and according to reason. My views are, as Shuster aptly puts it, “in tension with liberalism and its procedures and institutions,” in that I am not ready to abandon them, but not ready to insist on their adequacy as they stand either.

    Shuster concludes by wondering how I might address both our present political moment and the possibilities of philosophy in relation to it. Very abstractly and schematically (and so not much help), I favor an open conversationalist-perfectionist liberalism, or a commitment to liberal procedures and institutions that is not hubristic and insensitive to forms of suffering and of achievement that may have been overlooked or scanted under its aegis. More concretely and personally (and so also not much help), I hope that my own progress in Images in History in working through (and oscillating between) the complementary-competing attractions of Kantian liberalism and Benjaminian modernist weak messianism might serve as a kind of model of the cultivation of both political and philosophical attentiveness in difficult but interesting times.

    1. In Images of History, this is perhaps not so easy to see, apart from a brief discussion of Donald Davidson on language learning (24ff.). I argue for this view more explicitly and fully in my more recent Werner Herzog––Filmmaker and Philosopher (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), 99–110, and I am grateful to be able to call attention to this here.

    2. See Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 4–5.

    3. This is part of what I take to be going on in Kant’s claim that we must believe in God as the guarantor of the possibility of the highest good, without being able to know as an object of theoretical inquiry that God exists. Denial of such theoretical knowledge is the whole point of Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena, and it also figures in his tantalizing but obscure denial in the Opus Postumum of the existence of God as any sort of transcendent being apart from the whole of nature and human life.

    4. See my remarks on this phrase, drawing on Cavell, in my reply to Sweet, note 2.



Benjamin, Kant, and Aesthetics

Richard Eldridge has offered his readers not only a philosophically rich account of Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin on the topic of history, but also a deeply interesting and humane probing of a distinctly human phenomenon: our present and our futures are inextricably bound up with our past. More than this, as Eldridge draws out, we need for our past to be present to us in determinate and concrete ways for us truly to have our futures.

Eldridge focuses his attention on Kant and Benjamin because of a deep kinship in their commitments to recovering history for the sake of the future. At first glance, we find that this kinship betrays a deeper difference, namely, what it is we seek in returning to our past. Kant and Benjamin both suggest that something in the past may buttress or sustain our efforts to carry ourselves and our communities forward. They differ, though, in that for Kant, what we seek is a progressive trajectory of which we are already a part. We look to history to confirm for us that reason can be—indeed, has been—effective in the natural order. We must have some reason to believe that all of our efforts to bring about a moral world are not in vain. In this, Kant situates individual human identity and activity historically—we are charged with taking ourselves up as historical beings. For Benjamin, however, the issue is not one of a progressive history. Rather, as Eldridge gets to the heart of the matter, it is fundamentally about the possibility of meaning as such. Benjamin divorces meaning from its tethering to purposiveness in Kant’s philosophy. While Kant seeks a movement in history that allows us to imagine the possibility of a better future, with Benjamin we turn to the past to reconstruct ourselves and remember the possibility of a meaningful life.

Beyond this difference, though, Eldridge’s account brought out an almost hidden and unacknowledged shared sensibility in both Kant and Benjamin—the sensibility that ultimately leads us to need a recounting and maybe even rehabilitation of our past doings. What Kant and Benjamin both share is deep sense of the finitude of human life; specifically, both come to hold that there is much outside of the purview of what we ourselves can accomplish, and must then refer ourselves to something beyond us to offer hope in the realization of our vocation. They share a kind of tragic vision of human life. For Kant, this tragic vision takes shape insofar as the necessary ends that reason sets for human life are not realizable through the efforts of reason alone. In this, the moral vocation of human life depends on something that lies outside of our own purview. Our interest in history is driven by a need to discern a hint that the externality of our destiny is favorable to us. We may say that for Kant, there is an order to the cosmos, but our ability to enact it is not absolute, though our obligation to do so is. For Benjamin, by contrast, human finitude is keyed to fate—the mythic violence within nature. In this, we find that for Benjamin, there is not an order to the cosmos—here he is much closer, perhaps, to Nietzsche. Benjamin thus comes to focus attention not on the movement of history as such, but rather, on particular, concrete material objects. Such an object, Eldridge writes, expresses “the continuing conditions of human life within nature as marked by oppositions, as well as making manifest the continuing force of desire.” It further “makes evident . . . the standing presence of continuing efforts at fuller life in nature, however haunted by defeat” (144).

The first question, or suggestion, I have for Eldridge is in regard to Kant. Eldridge makes clear that for Benjamin the engagement with objects in the past is a kind of aesthetic engagement in which Benjamin shares company with both Nietzsche and Dewey, for whom the aesthetic is principally about making meaning. Eldridge suggests that for Kant, philosophical critique may point our way forward. I wonder, though, if Eldridge sees the possibility for a more aesthetic answer in Kant. I offer this possibility because Kant takes aesthetic judgments to pose a transition between what is and what ought to be; that is, judgments of taste lie between and mediate the way that things are now and the moral world we are meant to bring about. While scholars who work on Kant’s philosophy of history have properly noted that a progressive history in Kant falls under the auspices of reflective judgment, as do judgments of taste, perhaps one result of Eldridge’s posing Kant and Benjamin together on this issue yields pushing Kant out beyond what he himself suggests. I’d be interested to learn what possibilities Eldridge sees in pushing Kant in this direction.

With this in mind, I wonder, too, if Eldridge’s discussion can be brought to bear even more concretely on issues of our age. In our time, it is not hard to see a hard turn being made to grapple with events and deeds of our past. The question of historical memory—its aims, its limits—is at the forefront of much philosophical discourse. Outside of the academy, the driving question that initiates the discourse of historical memory has taken shape as a question about what we do about an immoral past whose legacies still shape injustices today. I think it is not too far a stretch to say that the more popular discourse lacks an appropriative aim in the way either Kant or Benjamin would suggest. Specifically, I am thinking of debates surrounding monuments that honor people or events we have come to judge as not only unworthy of our admiration, but, in fact, as morally reprobate. The very erecting of these statues, as the people and deeds themselves, were also part of a historical moment, with their own efforts and meanings being sought. I wonder if Eldridge believes that these particular material objects, which embody so much of the strife of meaning making at so many levels, could serve in some way as sites for us to imagine and reimagine our history in a way that opens on to a new and meaningful future. If so, what might such an engagement and appropriation of these markers look like?

  • Avatar

    Richard Eldridge


    Reply to Sweet

    In her opening paragraph, Kristi Sweet hits very aptly on my interest in how we might “truly . . . have our futures,” and she goes on to raise some important questions both about the metaphysics that might be presupposed by this project and about the role of art in furthering it. Let me begin my response by saying just a bit about what this project of truly having our futures, as well as having a past present to us, might be.

    I am interested, perhaps above all, in the possibility of leading a life affirmatively and actively, in exercise and endorsement by oneself and others over time (at least to some extent) of distinctively human powers of making meaning and creating culture. In thinking of us as biological animals possessing distinctively human powers, I am a kind of exceptionalist, non-dualist––along with many others, including Aristotle, Hegel, Davidson, and both Kant and Benjamin. The issue, then, is how we might best, or at least more fruitfully and recognizably, exercise our distinctive powers in order to come as close as we can to living freely, in Hegel’s sense of being with oneself in another (“bei sich selbst in einem anderen”), so that we might in doing so lead our lives actively rather than merely suffering or merely incidentally enjoying things that happen to us. How might we locate ourselves within natural and cultural history, respecting their constraints and taking up their affordances, so as best to do this? Kant and Benjamin are, for me, the authors who have, without heavy-handed moralizing, most helped me to think about this issue.

    As Sweet sees, Kantian philosophical critique (along with Benjaminian enhanced responsiveness and alertness) is a good part of the story. She then further wonders in what ways both responding aesthetically to nature and making and responding to art might play roles in this project. As it happens, I have written on both these topics elsewhere, and Images of History was significantly shaped by my thoughts about them. Roughly and schematically, I fully accept the importance of the experience of natural beauty as providing an intimation in feeling––but only an intimation––of the possibility that nature is apt to receive our efforts at sense-making and at free and meaningful life.1 We must be wary, however, of claiming any discursive knowledge of nature’s providential unfolding for us, any knowledge of a superintending logos, for that thought leads to dogmatism, hubris, and even madness.2 So felt intimations that nurture hope, yes; full-blooded providential cosmologies, no. And openness to surprising experiences of meaning––including being stopped in one’s tracks aesthetically by nature––yes, along with both Kant and Benjamin.

    Likewise, I do think of making and responding to art as vehicles for the achievement of original sense.3 But here too we must be careful of claiming too much knowledge of how to go on and of hubristically eschewing a freer, more imaginative, experimental, and temporally shifting responsiveness. Mediation of culture and nature there may be, both in making and responding to art and in the experience of natural beauty, but this mediation is open and ongoing, never amounting to the achievement of full knowledge or assurance.

    This brings me to Sweet’s apt question about monuments, especially monuments to those we no longer honor. I have, unfortunately, nothing terribly original to say about this. Contextualize them (always), tear then down (sometimes, often) but mark their one-time presence––it all depends. More broadly, the production, maintenance, revision, and use in general of monuments is an important topic that is part of the broader topic of how we are to remember and write history, imaginatively balancing courses of action to be taken up and continued with the acknowledgment of horrors to be avoided (often enough, alas, inextricably mixed with one another). In thinking about this issue recently, I have been helped by Jill Lepore’s wonderful These Truths: A History of the United States,4 a book that attends to the ongoing fraught interplay between an epochal experiment in reason-based, free, political self-legislation that I, at least, cannot foreswear and practices of colonial genocide and chattel slavery that no one can deny or defend. It is up to us to take up and respond to this complex history, as I hope Images of History shows, along with These Truths and other important pieces of historical writing.

    1. See the chapter on “Beauty and Form” in my An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and my treatments of Wordsworth on beauty in On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism, and Self-Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 56–57, and in Literature, Life, and Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 69ff., see also 8–9.

    2. Stanley Cavell aptly tracks Torvald’s reply “I am above reproach” to Norah in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as an instance of hubris about what is to be done that is a failure of imagination, conversation, and responsiveness. See Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 108–13.

    3. See Images of History, 56–57, Eldridge, The Persistence of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 34–38. Here I have been influenced by Timothy Gould’s important “The Audience of Originality: Kant and Wordsworth on the Reception of Genius” in Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics, ed. Ted Cohen and Paul Guyer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 179–93. More recently, Sanford Budick’s Kant and Milton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) usefully tracks Kant’s picking up of the idea of original “following after” (Nachahmung) from Milton’s “On His Blindness” and Samson Agonistes.

    4. Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: Norton, 2019).



Disciplinary Discontent

Richard Eldridge’s book Images of History operates on several levels. On the surface, it is a comparative study of Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin’s respective philosophies of history. However, the book’s manifest motivation is not, per se, to add to the growing body of scholarship on the relationship between these authors—to join ranks with, say, works by Peter Fenves, whose writing is approvingly cited throughout. Rather, it seeks to articulate—differentially—a means for navigating some of the perceived problems inherited from both authors, and, more importantly perhaps, from the contemporary intellectual/disciplinary currents that have, in one way or another, enlisted their services. As for the latter, whilst Eldridge does not explicitly state who his imagined interlocutors might be, one senses in his book an effort to get to grips with a lingering tension between—on the one hand—the relativism (moral or otherwise) that is sometimes attributed to post-modern “theory,” and—on the other hand—the Weltfremdheit that is occasionally ascribed to academic philosophy. As for the former, the book is ostensibly concerned with how to think about the historical situated-ness of human action caught between the poles of a belief in progress and its perceived impossibility. All the while, Eldridge’s stated aim is to derive, from Kant and Benjamin, a sense of “orientation” (a term that crops up repeatedly throughout the book) with a view to arriving at a “coherent and fruitful but never fully final articulation of personal and social institutional prospects now” (xi). In short: Eldridge’s book—first—uses the mode of academic commentary in order to—second—enter what is sometimes called “continental” thought into a dialogue with what is commonly referred to as “analytical” philosophy, so as to—third—provide some preliminary reflections on Kant and Benjamin’s actuality: to ask “what,” generally speaking, “is politically possible and desirable” within prevalent conceptions of human historical development. Each of these levels has strengths and weaknesses, I think, and in what follows I want to touch on some of them without, of course, presuming, to make any authoritative judgment concerning Eldridge’s book.


With regards to the first dimension, commentary, Images of History is praiseworthy for at least two reasons. First, because it foregrounds an aspect of Benjamin’s writing, which is all-too-often seriously underplayed, namely: its grounding in philosophy (especially in Kant and Neo-Kantianism); and, second, because it poses the genuine question as to how Kant, for his part, is (or isn’t) able to reconcile a priori knowledge of the moral law with its derivation from—and its imperfect institutionalisation in—lived, historical experience. Indeed, this was part of Benjamin’s question too; and it is significant, I think, that this intersection occasions Eldridge’s own inquiry into how a cross reading of these authors can yield “a continuous sense of felt conviction in the worth of what one does” (Eldridge, 2016: 169), politically or otherwise. This point is worth exploring in a bit more detail.

Eldridge’s summary of Benjamin’s early interest in Kant—outlined in chapter 4 of his book—is surely apt, even if, in the words of another reviewer, it tends to efface “some intentional rough edges” (more on this later).1 As is well known, Benjamin had, in fact, planned to write his doctoral dissertation on “the concept of the “eternal task” in Kant,”2 as he states in a 1917 letter to his friend, Gershom Scholem. As Eldridge reminds us—in the context of his book, at least—Kant’s “eternal task” can be taken to mean something like “the perfection of humanity . . . to be carried out in historical time” (Eldridge, 2016: 108); and it is precisely on this point that—in Benjamin’s estimation—Kant’s philosophy remained “underdeveloped.”3 Although the thesis was never written, Benjamin outlines the basic tenets of this putative underdevelopment in a number of other texts from around this time—most prominently in his 1918 essay, “On the Programme of the Coming Philosophy.” Here the manner in which Kant’s project of striving for progressive societal perfection is said to play out historically hinges on his concept of experience and the epistemological precepts according to which it is construed. In Eldridge’s words:

Kant’s ethics, politics, aesthetics, and religion all require and struggle to articulate the nature of a distinctive kind of nonempirical experience, and intimation . . . of one’s own power to be articulated as autonomy, in relation to a developing order of culture within nature. And yet Kant is unable to count such intimations and senses of dawning powers to be fitly exercised as experiences in the restricted and official sense of experience as empirical knowledge. (Eldridge, 2016: 111)

Eldridge is right, I think, to trace an often underplayed continuity in Benjamin’s work back to this concern: that a philosophically restrictive concept of experience and an associated epistemological apparatus constrain our ability to adequately grasp possibilities of historical change, including—but not limited to—possibilities of political transformation “in historical time.” Put briefly: for Eldridge, the oft-invoked “shock” of modernity, brought on not least by WWI, undermines Benjamin’s faith in the (Neo-)Kantian model of historical progress, which is—above all—critically interrogated, and, in turn, opposed to a model for “an active-receptive modulated attention to the disclosive historical object” (Eldridge, 2016: 145). Eldridge distils such a mode of “attention” from Benjamin’s writings—both early and late—eschewing the common distinction between the systematically theological-metaphysical texts of his youth, and the later, more self-consciously materialist works. (The discussions of Benjamin’s engagement with literary figures, such as Hölderlin and Goethe stand out in this regard.) Of course, one might object that the selection is somehow partial or partisan, but it seems to me that this would be to miss the point. To the extent that Images of History is commentary at all, it is useful for its clear summaries of some major themes in Benjamin, which recommend this title to a “non-specialist” audience. All this is to the author’s credit.

However, the specific questions that Eldridge extracts from his readings of Kant and Benjamin, do not—as I suggested earlier—seem to me to constitute his book’s main interest. How so?


The real drama contained in Images of History, I would wager, plays out beneath the surface. It is not so much to do, I think, with the author’s stated interest in the possibilities of political action today (although this also plays a role), nor, for that matter, is it straightforwardly to do with his accounts of Kant or Benjamin; instead, it involves a certain institutional, not to say disciplinary disquiet in the relationship between “literary studies” and “philosophy.” The fact that, on Eldridge’s reading, Benjamin turns to poets like Hölderlin for responses to philosophical problems derived from Kant merely occasions this confrontation. The history of Benjamin-reception in the Anglophone world is a case in point. Its centre of gravity has, historically, lain well outside philosophy departments. (The same is not exactly true in Germany, where, partly due to the editorial efforts of Theodor Adorno—a philosopher, after all—Benjamin was, in fact, read through the prism of philosophy.) In the English-speaking lands, by contrast, Benjamin was more likely to be read by media theorists, or, indeed, by literary scholars. Whilst this is neither surprising nor even problematic, given the interdisciplinary character of Benjamin’s project, it is telling nonetheless. In the United States, for instance, Benjamin was first widely studied as part of a wider turn toward broadly deconstructionist “theory” that rose to prominence across (comparative) literature programmes at institutions such as Yale, via Paul de Man, and Johns Hopkins, via Jacques Derrida and his colleagues/students (from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthes to Werner Hamacher).4 My brief response to Eldridge’s book is not the place to rehearse the particular reasons why philosophy departments may have historically been suspicious of such “theory” or its objects of study (including Benjamin); nor is this the place to consider at any length the recent turn away from such approaches within literary studies. All this is to say is that what I am choosing (somewhat polemically) to call mainstream, Anglo-American philosophy has—since the 1950s, at least—tended to distance itself from what has come to be know by the regrettable phrase “continental” thought: a mode of philosophizing that is often derided for its supposed terminological imprecision. Against this backdrop one could—again, polemically—say that Benjamin and his ilk have, for the most part, been left to literary theorists, whilst philosophy “proper” goes about the business of scientifically determining what can and what cannot, apparently, be articulated as, say, the normative ground of human action.

Eldridge’s book is laudable in the sense that it positions itself as part of a longer tradition of philosophers who have sought to bridge this unfortunate split in favour of exploring—in an unfettered fashion—questions inherited from a wide range of sources beyond “academic” philosophy, whilst remaining, in some sense, committed to its idiom. Characteristically, Eldridge refers on several occasions to the work of Arthur C. Danto, and, above all, to the late Stanley Cavell, whose interest in art, literature and their philosophical dimensions he obviously shares. (Other authors associated with this tendency might be said to include Andrew Bowie or Robert Pippin.) In this regard, it seems to me, Images of History is especially praiseworthy for tacitly addressing its underlying institutional conditions simply by virtue of sympathetically engaging with Benjamin’s reading of Kant as philosophy. However, the book’s mode of positioning itself has a number of noteworthy consequences, both at the level of language, and, I would argue, at the level of politics.


The third and final dimension of Eldridge’s book, which I would like to briefly address, is its lexical peculiarity and the political consequences that, I would wager, follow from it. Images of History, as it were, translates Benjamin’s engagement with Kant into a register that—at first glance—operates at some remove from it, namely: that of a certain kind of academic philosophy. If, as Eldridge acknowledges, the manner in which Benjamin presents his work is, in fact, coextensive with his philosophical concerns—that the instrumental use of language in philosophy is itself a symptom of the withering of experience and, hence, of adequately grasping possibilities for historical transformation—then, it might be argued that turning the pointedly hermetic “style” of, say, Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities into a series of propositional statements misses something substantial. There are at least two terms that come up repeatedly in Images of History that seem to me to illustrate this point. They are: “bootstrapping” and “clarity.” As Eldridge writes:

Practical self-unity, individual or social, is to be accomplished . . . via bootstrapping, under which moments of clarity about reasonable and stable commitments are continually played off against possibilities of new commitment that emerge historically within developing practices, where these practices themselves have no logic of progress that is independent of how we may come to take responsibility within and for them. (Eldridge, 2016: 179)

My question, here, is not so much how (or whether) Eldridge’s appeal to “clarity” or the Munchhausen-esque figure of “bootstrapping” can be squared with Benjamin’s philosophy of language (his pointed opacity), which, for its part, informs his critique of Kant, and—in turn—occasions Eldridge’s inquiry; rather, I wonder if his appeal to a moderate middle ground between Kant and Benjamin—neither inevitable progress towards perfection nor revolution, but the far more modest, “eternal task” of continual reform—does not in some sense follow from his institutional positioning, his own particular mode of disciplinary presentation. What I mean is that, arguably, the references to “intersubjective recognition” (Eldridge, 2016: 188) and to “reasonably endorsable” (Eldridge, 2016: 84) institutional norms—to “clarity” and “bootstrapping”—recall the language of John Rawls or Axel Honneth more closely than that of Kant or Benjamin; and, as such, the book’s terminological register might, in fact, be seen as giving some sense of its political outlook: a kind of critical centrism presented in the guise of an image (not a theory) of history. In other words, my question is this: does Eldridge’s concluding endorsement of “reasonable enough commitments” (Eldridge, 2016: 190) really require the excursus via Kant and Benjamin?

  1. Susan Shell, “A Moral Image of the World,” Los Angeles Review of Books, last altered 8.4.2017,

  2. Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem (eds.), The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 103–4.

  3. Adorno and Scholem, Correspondence, 97.

  4. Cf. Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America (Fordham University Press: 2015).

  • Avatar

    Richard Eldridge


    Response to Truskolaski

    Sebastian Truskolaski is more on target than he can possibly have known in conjecturing about the contending institutional and disciplinary imperatives, stemming from postmodern theory / literary studies and Anglophone analytic philosophy, that have shaped both Images of History and my career in general. I also appreciate his noting that, while I hope my scholarship on Kant and Benjamin is sound, my primary aim is to address some contemporary problems, not simply to add to the existing scholarship. To speak autobiographically for a moment, I was trained in analytic philosophy in the days––its heyday?––when Wittgenstein, Austin, Ryle, and Davidson still counted as analytic philosophers. I left the University of Chicago in 1981 with a PhD dissertation on the languages of self-understanding in Descartes, Frege, Davidson, and Wittgenstein. I still regularly teach moderately technical work on truth-conditional semantics as well as logic. Yet my primary interests were always in topics that were somewhat distant from the center of even those forms of analytic philosophy: self-understanding, the nature and value of the emphatic experience of art, and the historical nature of human being in the world. (Stanley Cavell was a central figure for me here, along with my teachers Ted Cohen, Stanley Bates, and Timothy Gould, Cavell’s students.) These interests have led me continuously to work in aesthetics and literary studies, with essays on Hölderlin, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Ingeborg Bachmann, among many others, and to pay continuous attention to the trajectory of structuralist and post-structuralist theories of criticism. In this body of writing, I have tried, as Truskolaski cannily puts it, to “explor[e] in an unfettered fashion questions . . . from . . . beyond ‘academic’ philosophy, whilst remaining, in some sense, committed to its idiom.” (I am pleased to have my efforts aligned with those of Arthur Danto, Andrew Bowie, and Robert Pippin, along with Cavell.)

    More specifically, I remain committed to addressing problems about human life in a relatively straightforward, even earnest idiom (while also taking style seriously and indulging in textual allusion, imagery, and metaphor). Yet I have been and I remain both troubled and haunted by a kind of spatialized presentism about justification that, as I see it, figures centrally in the analytic tradition (less so in Wittgenstein and Austin, Cavell and Danto, each of whom self-consciously cultivated a strong personal style)––the thought that justifications can and should be fully articulated in a systematic, structured way, modeled on deductive validity, that is surveyable in a moment, without stopping to worry about the human subject who is doing the survey and who is, by my lights, always entangled in history. I remain troubled by this because it seems impossible and inhuman, while also haunted by it as an image of the achievement of full clarity and self-responsibility in the stances one takes. In practice, my response to this troubling and haunting has turned out to involve what, borrowing from Freud, I call durcharbeiten, working through. I try to write out my engagements with problems, developing tight arguments where I can, but just as often foregrounding my own course of thinking narratively, with all its swerves and halts. (The image of the Wordsworthian halted traveller is central for me, in casting the moment of thinking as a modulated part of a larger process, and it appears briefly in Images of History.)

    Does anything about the substance of either my views––my modest, middle-ground reformism, as Truskolaski sees it––or my style “in some sense follow from [my] institutional positioning,” as Truskolaski suggests it might? Somewhat predictably, my answer is, “yes and no.” Yes, there is certainly influence and a broad background situation of contending disciplinary structures. Yet I also think that bringing together Wittgenstein and Wordsworth (as in earlier work) or Kant and Benjamin (as in Images of History), and in doing so foregrounding my working through of my own attachments and aversions as an open process, involves actively and imaginatively taking up and developing possibilities of thinking and writing that were not simply given. In this sense, my own progress (if that is the right word) embodies and mirrors the progress (if that is the right word) of joint social life in its fitful and sometimes blocked development toward freedom. Here, too, while I accept the characterization of my views as broadly reformist, I also take seriously, along with Benjamin, the value of the emphatic experience of particulars. It’s up to us to work through, or to work out, our political and moral-educational institutions and procedures, in the hope (without guarantees, and without any external measure of “what works”) of “reasonable enough commitments.” So there isn’t a real possibility of doing abstract, general political philosophy “straight,” as it were, without some complicated, contestable entanglements with history, and here, for me, with the figures of Kant and Benjamin. Yes, abstraction and generality can figure importantly in larger narratives and arguments about the organization of our joint moral and political life. But if all the weight is placed on them, then there are risks of thin proceduralism, empty utopianism, and self-serving fantasy.1 The way, or a way, to avoid or at least to moderate them is to take our complex history, including our intellectual history, seriously.2

    1. Raymond Geuss, whom I cite in Images of History, has helped me to see this, especially in his Philosophy and Real Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012) and Outside Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

    2. I sometimes criticize Rawls, following Cavell (see the reply to Sweet), for a failure to take seriously the importance of emphatic experience. But Rawls’s work was also deeply informed by a massive awareness of political and intellectual history, especially in his less read Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge: Belknap, of Harvard University Press, 2008), and Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Barbara Herman, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).



History, Image, Hope

Comments on Richard Eldridge, Images of History

In Images of History Richard Eldridge draws from the tradition of philosophical anthropology, as well as from the present-day disciplines of philosophy of history and moral and political philosophy, with the aim of casting light on the relations between “historical understanding” and “political ideals” (Eldridge 2016, 1–43). Eldridge hopes to point the way toward an alternative position that would be different both from the over-generalizing approach to ideals that he finds prominent among philosophers and from the prioritizing of particular experience that he finds in the Walter Benjamin who tells us that “the past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognizability, and is never seen again” (Eldridge 2016, Preface, ix–x; 101; quoting Benjamin at 146). I here leave aside the task of assessing what Images of History can contribute to the reorienting of moral and political philosophy: there are others who are more qualified than I am to address that issue. I focus instead on the resonances that Images of History has with historical perception, as manifested both in the thought of historians and in one exemplary instance of what I call “popular history.”1

The normal job of historians is to write histories, not to reflect on the theoretical assumptions that make their work possible. As Eldridge notes, “History writing on any significant scale presupposes a philosophical anthropology or general account of the powers and interests of human subjects, including their (often tacit) commitments to ideals” (Eldridge 2016, online edition, book abstract).2 The key word here is “presupposes.” Historians usually presume a theory of human nature, often without being aware that they are doing so, and even when they are aware of this, they also know that a serious attempt to justify their enabling theories would divert them from their primary task, which is to write histories. In addition, most historians, most of the time, take the ideals of the human subjects about whom they write as simply part of the scenery, not as something to be interrogated. (There are exceptions, of course: some historians of ideas take political and ethical ideas as their chosen object of investigation; and some social, cultural, and political historians may find the ideals adhered to by their subjects so alien and repugnant that the historian cannot ignore them.) Even less are historians inclined to investigate the role of ideals in the grounding of their own work as historians.

Yet the role of ideals is fundamental, as we can see if we ask the question: What is the cognitive point of engaging in the massive labor required to write “true” history (that is, a history that is evidentially and argumentatively well-supported)? Imagine that humans were mere automata, driven by underlying forces. There would then be no sense in researching and writing history: instead, historians could be replaced by white-coated observers of the human world, perhaps denizens of some other galaxy, who, looking down on us from outside, would seek to formulate, and to defend in their scientific meetings, a set of theories aimed at predicting human happenings, as physicists observe and describe physical nature with the aim of explaining and (insofar as possible) predicting its workings, and as medical scientists seek to describe the workings of bodily systems, with the aims both of predicting the workings of those systems and of counteracting disease and extending human life.

Note, however, that if humans actually were driven entirely by exterior or interior forces—whether physical, chemical, biological, economic, social, psychological, or psychopathological—historical research as we know it today would be utterly unneeded for the advance of knowledge. Required for justifying the writing of history considered as a cognitive enterprise is the implicit assumption that human beings are not mere automata but are instead, in some degree, “free” beings. Accordingly, historians do something more than, and different from, what natural scientists normally do: historians construct narratives, by which they seek to make sense of beings whose doings and fate they regard as both necessary and contingent, both determined and “free,” both driven by forces outside human control and capable of some measure of agency. To see human beings in this way is to see them as moved by something more than deterministic forces. But what is this “something more,” this assumed realm of agency without which history as a knowledge-producing pursuit cannot be justified? Clearly, from the historians’ point of view such a realm—which Kant, it will be remembered, put beyond the reach of factual investigation—is hard to plumb. But we do, at least a word for it—it is the realm of “ideals.” And so, we are back in Eldridgean territory. What, then, can historians tell us about “ideals”?

Perhaps not so much, at least not directly. An oft-overlooked feature of narrative is that it makes it easy for historians to avoid questions that they either do not wish to answer or are incapable of answering. Consider one of the most striking passages in Leopold von Ranke’s History of France. On the final pages of book VII, chapter 7, Ranke, who is quite rightly seen as perhaps the most important founding father of professional historiography, describes the assassination of the great king Henri IV by “a wild, uneducated man by the name of Ravaillac” (Ranke 1857, 143–45). Before his assassination, Henri’s policies had helped give rise to “one of those moments of political disruption, where everything was considered possible” (Ranke 1857, 139). Then the madman killed the king. Book VII ends. The curtain next rises on book VIII, chapter 1, “Situation and Politics of the Regency”:

There was one man fewer in the world.

The man who had ended the civil war in France, who had unified the fundamental conflicting forces in his kingdom, and who, free from the madness and brutality of his recent predecessors, had brought into being the supreme power that . . . took into itself all the great interests of the nation—this man had suddenly disappeared from the nation’s midst. Surely, one must fear that the entire structure of the state that he had erected would collapse with him. (Ranke 1857, 149)

Here Ranke craftily avoids a multitude of questions concerning the role of economic, social, and political forces at play in France at the time, and concerning the resulting agency, or lack thereof, attributable to Henri IV and to Ravaillac. To what extent were events driven by determinisms that outweighed the intentions of human beings? On the other hand, to what extent were ideals and energies in play that breached what would otherwise have been the necessary course of French history? In one resonant sentence, “Ein Mann weniger war in der Welt,” Ranke propels the reader past such questions.

In short, historians are easily able to avoid dealing with ideals and their justifications, a subject matter that they are, for the most part, neither professionally equipped nor temperamentally inclined to delve into. Consequently, one welcomes the kind of attention that a moral and political philosopher can give to history—although my guess is that Richard Eldridge’s juxtaposing of moral and political ideals with historical understanding has more to offer to philosophers (if they will listen) than it does to historians.


Interesting though Eldridge’s juxtaposing of ideals and understanding is, my attention was more seriously piqued by his concern in Images of History with images. Eldridge articulates two different senses of image in the book. One sense has to do with graphicness, vividness, an arresting and attention-drawing descriptiveness. In this side of his thinking Eldridge draws inspiration from Goethe, from “Hölderlin’s practice of poetic Anschaulichkeit [vividness],” and above all from Walter Benjamin (Eldridge 2016, online edition, chapter 4 abstract). Eldridge finds examples of the historiographical (or at least quasi-historiographical) practice of Anschaulichkeit in Benjamin’s One-Way Street, in “Imperial Panorama,” and in the The Arcades Project. He draws attention to Benjamin’s “close, active attention to the materials” and his wish to find “something hitherto ignored . . . [that] must be pulled out of the flow of history as something singular, and [that] must . . . be made visible and productive for the present” (106). Eldridge also remarks upon Benjamin’s “intense encounters with particulars” (chapter 5 abstract, online edition).

“Image” in this first sense requires something that can be presented as visible, but “visible” in much more than a strictly literal sense (think of the different ways we have of using and understanding the sentence “I see!”). We can think of visibility, in this first sense, as amounting to the historian’s presenting of the “thingness” of past things. The “thing” in question can be a situation that readers or listeners can see only in their mind’s eye, such as the assassination of Henri IV by Ravaillac, as well as the wider human resonances of that physical event. In clear, vivid, and economical language, Ranke in his account of the assassination of Henri IV makes it possible for a picture to arise in the minds of attentive readers. Implicated in this imagistic aspect of history is the poetical, creative character of historical representation itself.

That history is deeply poetic is a point that Ranke made early in his career, in a response to a critic of his first book, Histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples from 1494 to 1535 (Ranke 1824). The critic had asserted that Ranke’s Histories contained “a poetical addition [ein poetischer Zusatz]” (Ranke’s phrasing)—that is, something not to be found in the historical sources. According to the critic, Ranke had claimed that after some military and diplomatic setbacks “[the Emperor] Maximilian’s hopes were at an end” (Ranke 1828, 660). In a powerful response, Ranke insisted that historical research is not a matter of copying the sources: it is a matter, rather, of creatively engaging with them. And Ranke pushed further, articulating the principle that, he insisted, he sought to follow in his history writing:

I have tried to present the general, immediately and without long digressions, through the particular. I have attempted . . . to draw near to the phenomenon itself, as it emerges, outwardly only as a particularity, inwardly . . . something general [ein Allgemeines], meaning, spirit. In and with the event I sought to present its course and spirit and have striven to wrest [abzuwinnen] from it its characteristic features. Convinced that this was the most essential moment in the poetic and artistic expression [Überzeugt, daβ dies das wesentlichste Moment in dem poetischen und künstlerischen Ausdruck sei], I considered it permissible to make such an attempt in history as well. (Ranke 1828 [1890]), 664–65)

In evoking Benjamin’s “intense encounters with particulars,” his “close attention to the materials” and his interest in finding “something hitherto ignored . . . [that] must be made visible and productive for the present,” Eldridge brings Ranke to mind, even though he never mentions him. Indeed, the nineteenth-century German historian and servant of the Prussian state is a surprising figure to associate with the twentieth-century German-Jewish feuilletoniste, messianic Marxist, and rebel against academic standards. Still, in his desire to make his readers vividly aware of past particulars, Eldridge’s Benjamin reminds me of the work of the best historians in their best moments. Less surprising is another affinity, with the explicitly aestheticist Nietzsche, who insists in “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” that the “genuine historian must have the strength to recast the well known into something never heard before” (Nietzsche 1980 [1872], §6, p. 37).

When Eldridge turns to the second sense of “image,” he switches from the plural to the singular, speaking not of “images of history” but of “an image of history” (Eldridge 2016, 33). In play here is history with a capital H, that is, history as a coherence, as “Zusammenhang” or “holding together.” Eldridge is cagey about what “an image of history” might be, or how it can do what it needs to do in order to bring coherence. But he does tell us what it is not: “An image of history is not a theory.” Further, an image of history “does not support either prediction of historical events or efforts at expert management of historical processes based on a grasp of laws of history. . . . Nor is its content fixed ‘behind our backs’ by some transhuman presiding agency” (33). Rather, an image of history “must be elicited out of historical experience . . . generated imaginatively from within an experience of history” (33). It seems to me, however, that Eldridge does not show in any concrete way what such an image is and how it might be elicited “from within historical experience.” Eldridge is clearer in his account of the first, particularistic sense of image than he is in his rather abstract account of the second, “general” sense of—perhaps in part because Benjamin had an uncomfortable realtion with “generality.” As for how such images might arise from historical experience, although Eldridge’s “engagements with Kant, Benjamin, and the images of history that they develop” (xi) are quite illuminating, it helps to get closer to actual historical experience.

Benjamin is a paradigmatic instance of a disabused modernist, a not uncommon position for a German intellectual, especially a Jewish-German intellectual, living in the wake of the Great War. For purposes of the discussion here, I take a “modernist” to be someone who has faith there is something deeply imbedded in the human world that conduces to the coherence, rationality, and, at some level, progressiveness of History. To find not-yet disabused modernists, we need look no further than that large set of nineteenth-century European thinkers who espoused a faith in the underlying rationality of the world, a faith that they variously saw as supported by God’s beneficient intentions for humankind, or by the anticipated relentless progress of science, technology, and administration, or by a combination of these two views. (Many nineteenth-century believers in the progress of science, even some of an insistently anti-clerical and even anti-religious orientation—e.g., Herbert Spencer—could not entirely dispense with “God.”)

A serious intellectual who loses (or who never had) faith in History is bound to think differently about historiography than someone who still holds to such a faith. Recall Ranke’s assertion, quoted above, that “I have tried to present the general, immediately and without long digressions, through the particular. I have attempted . . . to draw near to the phenomenon itself, as it emerges, outwardly only as a particularity, inwardly . . . something general [ein Allgemeines], meaning, spirit.” Underlying Ranke’s notion that there is a generality that is somehow available to be presented through the particular was his confident faith, rarely if ever expressed explicitly in his historical writing, that God manifests himself in and through man’s doings, and hence that there is indeed, at the deepest level, a coherence in history. As a result, there is a co-presence in Ranke’s historiography of the particular and the universal—an unresolving co-presence, since Ranke held that knowledge of how everything in the human universe fits together is reserved to God alone.

Commitment to the notion that historiography contains tensions that do not resolve is present not only in Ranke but also in the “modern” Western tradition of historical research and writing as a whole.3 Although Nietzsche stood in a vastly different place than did Ranke, being an opponent of rather than a participant in the professional historiography that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century, early in his career he articulated the same motif of a co-presence of the particular and the general. Above, I quoted in truncated form the following sentence from Nietzsche; here I complete the sentence: “The genuine historian must have the strength to recast the well known into something never heard before and to proclaim the general so simply and profoundly that one overlooks its simplicity because of its profundity and its profundity because of its simplicity” (Nietzsche 1980 [1872], §6, p. 37 [emphasis added]). But how could Nietzsche “proclaim the general,” given that he rejected, or would soon reject (Megill 1985), any and all assumptions that would allow him to hold that there is an Allgemeinheit waiting to be discovered? Nietzsche and Benjamin both felt, as Ranke did, “a participation and joy in the particular thing,” but the other side of the particular/general tension, which Ranke variously referred to as the “general aspect of things [ein/das Allgemeine],” “total history,” “general history,” and “world” or “universal” history, was beyond their reach—and, I suggest, beyond the reach of historians, unless historians silently appeal to philosophical or theological assumptions that, as historians, they are hardly in a position to justify. Consequently, the question arises: Are we left with sheer incoherence?

Consider again what Eldridge writes about his second sense of “image,” which, he asserts, is “not a theory,” and does not allow either human prediction of history’s course or expert management of its processes. A noteworthy feature of the mode of historical thinking that has emerged in modern Western historiography is the presence within it of another unresolvable tension, which actually has ancient Greek roots, the tension between Determinism and Contingency (Megill, 2019). As Eldridge rightly observes, on the one hand we have “a sense of human beings as deliberative agents, capable of reflection,” while on the other hand we have “a sense of the standing force of forms of opposition” (33). This dual presence, I assert, makes it impossible to have, within the sphere of historical thinking, a “theory of history.” Any theory worthy of the name purports to offer predictions— but the practice of history, which must leave room for human unpredictability, militates against this pretension.

It is my claim that Eldridge’s second, general, sense of image, which he calls “an image of history” (33), is an image not of history but of something else—it is an image of what may hoped for.4 This second sense of image has nothing to do with the comforting but unjustifiable notion that there is an “arc of history,” whether bendable or not. I would further assert that history, in the sense of a mode of inquiry and representation that is attentive to the general and to the particular, is possible only if there is hope. My claim here is abstract and general—abstract because general. Accordingly, in the section below, I offer an example intended both to make more concrete the two senses of image that Eldridge draws our attention to in Images of History, and to develop, at least to some extent, Eldridge’s intuition (rooted, of course, in Benjamin and other thinkers from whom Eldridge draws inspiration) that history is aesthetical and not only a cognitive pursuit.


History is aesthetical. I intend the word aesthetic not only in the post-1750 sense that relates it to works of art, but also in the ancient Greek sense wherein it relates to sensibility, to feeling, to emotion. The non-cognitive dimension of history is something that, several years ago, I resolved to explore, if I could, on the level of “popular” rather than of “professional” history.5 In the course of my explorations I came upon a work that offers a history of a “rural municipality” (county) in the “Prairie Provinces” of Western Canada. The area in question is known as the Rural Municipality of Willow Creek, No. 458, a nearly square eighteen by eighteen–mile bloc of territory in east-central Saskatchewan. The RM’s southern boundary (at 52°50′ N Lat) lies 440 kms north of the “49th parallel” that divides Canada from the United States in Western North America. There is no need here to describe the RM in detail.6 Suffice it to say that, beginning in 1906, in the wake of the completion of a nearby rail line, agricultural settlers flooded into the RM, attracted by its quite fertile land and by the Canadian government’s offer of the grant of full title to a quarter-section of land (160 acres) to any settler who managed to turn the quarter-section into a working farm. In 1901, the Canadian census had counted only eighteen residents in the 324 square miles that, in 1913, would begin to function as an autonomous local administrative and legislative district. By 1936, the RM had 4,185 residents, its peak of population.

There then followed an almost unremitting decline in population, the result of technological improvements in agriculture that eventually made it possible for one person, with little outside help, to farm two square miles or more of land; the expensive equipment also made it difficult to farm much less than that. By 1991, the RM’s population had declined from 4,185 persons to 1,002; by 1996, to 918 persons; and in the census of 2016, only 630 people lived in the RM, a decline of over 80 percent from the 1936 peak. (This decline should not be regarded as a “death trip”—on the contrary, the RM has long been relatively prosperous, and there has been little evidence of social disintegration. Young people could easily move away from the RM to better-paid and often more interesting jobs in other parts of Canada—a move made easier by the fact that all Canadians had the right to “free,” that is, tax-supported, medical care wherever they resided.)

There would be no point in attending, in the present context, to the RM of Willow Creek, No. 458 were it not for the fact that, in 1991, a group of its residents published a 960-page double-columned book, 8½” x 11” x 2” in its dimensions, entitled Our Courageous Pioneers: History of Gronlid and Surrounding Districts of Argus, Athol, Edenbridge, Freedom, Maryville, Murphy Creek, Sandhill Creek, Taelman, Taras, Teddington (Gronlid 1991) (see figure 1). The book offers a history of roughly one-half of the RM, namely, an area covered by eleven of the twenty-three school districts that had once operated in the RM. Public elementary education was compulsory in Saskatchewan (and elsewhere in Canada), and in order, in a time before good roads and reliable motor vehicles, to educate children whose families lived scattered over the land, it was necessary to scatter schools over the land as well. But by the early 1950s, times had changed. Both the number of families on the land and the size of families had already declined sharply; meanwhile, rural roads had been vastly improved, and motor vehicles were much more reliable. At the same time, both families and the Saskatchewan Department of Education came to see a high school education as something that ought to be offered to all children. For these and other reasons, almost all of Saskatchewan’s rural schools were closed, and children were bussed to “consolidated” schools in the larger towns. All the school districts mentioned in the title of Our Courageous Pioneers closed early in the 1960s. At the same time, other institutions that could exist when the RM had a population of more than four thousand also began to fall into decline—notably its churches (and one synagogue). But what seems to have most affected people was the loss of the schools. We know this, because the foreword of Our Courageous Pioneers reports that the idea of producing the book arose when two local residents, Irene Russell (Slipiec) and Sylvia Kruchkowski (Mikulsky) began to reminisce about their school days. They first thought to organize a reunion, but by the time of the second meeting on the subject “there was not only a reunion in the making but an intense motivation for a history book” (Gronlid 1991, 3).

This work of popular history arose out of a feeling—an aesthesis—on the part of the book’s organizers, writers, compilers, and editors that the world of their childhood, and the worlds of their parents and grandparents, were forever gone. However, it is not as if they wanted to return to an earlier time of greatness—even though they did make clear, in the title of Our Courageous Pioneers and elsewhere, their admiration and gratitude for the struggles of their parents and grandparents, many of whom had made the daring decision to emigrate to Canada from Eastern Europe, from places that, during the Second World War, were to become places of destruction, death, and other forms of intense suffering that most people in Canada found hard to imagine. The authors of Our Courageous Pioneers manifested their admiration and gratitude, and their recollections of life in the RM as it once been lived, by the piling up of myriad particulars. These include details concerning the schools in their half of the RM, the churches (and one synagogue), the RM’s elected council, roads and the difficulty of maintaining them, local industries (notably lumbering), the slow and uncertain advance of the telephone system, and so on. Our Courageous Pioneers also contains six hundred family histories, organized according to school district. And the book also includes hundreds of photographs—of individuals, family groups, religious congregations, farming equipment and activities, school board records, a naturalization certificate, newspaper clippings, tax notices, the annual financial statement of the RM for the year 1927, and receipts for such things as threshing services and the payment of the obligatory ten dollar fee to register a homestead claim. In short, the authors and editors of Our Courageous Pioneers were attached to “images” in Eldridge’s first sense—images of particular things that evoke a past.

Beyond the images inside Our Courageous Pioneers there are also visible and invisible traces on the land—things that are there (churches buildings, sometimes well kept, sometimes ruined) or are not there (a schoolhouse or a church hall disappeared). One thinks (figure 2) of the roadside sign that local residents put up in 1985 to commemorate the fifty-year run of Maryville School, which had closed in 1960 and of which, apparently, not a trace existed in 1985. One thinks also of two of the churches located in the Maryville School District: St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church (figure 3), which, after a long slow decline in the size of its congregation, closed down in 1990; and, three hundred meters south of St. Nicholas, Holy Ascension Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church (figure 4), which ceased operation sometime around 1963. As we see in figure 3, by July 2017, St. Nicholas, with a broken window and a broken front door and no doubt other broken things not visible in the photograph, was in bad repair; as for Holy Ascension (figure 4), on that same day it was continuing its slow descent into the ground itself. But what is to be done? The descendants of the congregants of these two churches are scattered to the wind, no doubt for the most part doing well enough if they are still alive. No resurrection seems possible or necessary for either remnant—a judgment that would only change if some community of people were to rebel against the loss. For Holy Ascension in particular, such a outcome seems utterly impossible—it is not even known, in 2019, who legally owns the building, or the land on which it is situated, for it was an “autocephalous” church, beholden to no higher church organization, and to all appearances the nonprofit corporate entity that owned it is in limbo.

In their ruination and even in their absence, such particulars have the possibility (which may or may not be actualized) of evoking reflection—even perhaps on the part of people who were never there in that time. These particulars also have the possibility of bringing forth attempts to memorialize, and perhaps to reconstruct by a creative, poetical effort, what once was and now is gone. These things can affect even those who did not live there, or in that time. But who in their right mind would want to return to the old days, to the “world we have lost”? The lost world was a world of homesteaders who had the hard task of turning bush into farmland under primitive conditions, in an extreme climate, with bad roads, with hordes of mosquitoes once the winter had passed, no electrical power, no running water, no indoor plumbing, coal-oil lamps for lighting, and, at best, by the late 1930s, for some people with a bit of money to spare, a battery-operated radio set for contact with the airwaves.

But what of the moment of generality? Remember that sometime before 1991 ordinary citizens were able to come together and produce a 960-page book on the history of one-half of their rural municipality. At that time, only about five hundred people would have been living in the eleven school districts “covered” by Our Courageous Pioneers. The fact that a dedicated subset of these five hundred or so people could do what they did bespeaks a social order within which people were able to cooperate with each other on a project that aimed not at private profit but at honoring the community itself. Somehow, these people had the leisure, motivation, and skill to carry out such a task. More could be said about the social conditions that must have been needed to make this effort possible, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. We must rest with the thought that one source of generality is the existence of a community that is something more than simply a collection of utility-maximizing individuals. One could call this “generality as social solidarity”—a solidarity that evidently existed among these people around 1990, when they carried out their work.

More interesting for our purposes is the diachronic dimension of solidarity. The runner-up, as a possible title for Our Courageous Pioneers, was the title proposed by Mrs. Jenny Bodnarchuk: “We Have Come a Long Way” (Gronlid 1991, 4). Two things are of note here. First, Mrs. Bodnarchuk assumes that the people of the RM (or at any rate the people of the eleven school districts represented in the book) are a Zusammenhang, in this case a coherent “We” (hence my reference to social solidarity). But second, and more relevant to the issue at hand here, is that the title, and the book that it might well have named, assume a projection both backward into the past and forward into the future. In the context of the book and its contents, the sentence “We Have Come a Long Way” strongly implies “and We Shall Go Even Further in the Future.” In other words, Mrs. Jenny Bodnarchuuk was manifesting a hope and confidence for the future. She was imagining a future that, at least in some modest way, would be even better than the present, in which people enjoyed all sorts of amenities that had not been available to their parents and grandparents, or even to them in their early years. To truly have an “image of history” is to be able to hopefully imagine a future.

Much of the history of the RM of Willow Creek, No. 458, from 1906 to 1991, was the history of loss, and the losses have continued since then—loss of population above all, but also loss of institutions that could not survive under the new conditions. But loss alone surely inclines more to indifference, forgetfulness, despair, anger, violence, drug addiction, and xenophobia than it does to history. So: what is it that turns loss into history? My suggestion here is that it is indeed hope—not hope in a vague sense, but rather people’s capacity and inclination for imagining a future better than their present. Without hope—that is, without the capacity and inclination to imagine (to make an image of) a better future, it is unlikely that “the people” will desire to make history out of their experiences of the past. The essential characteristic of the second sense of “image of history,” which inclines toward generality, is hope, in the sense of a capacity to imagine a better future for the people considered as a collectivity (We have come a long way . . .), a future that would be an extension of the improvements already seen, from 1906 to 1991. Our Courageous Pioneers is crafted as a chronicle (cp. White 1980) that leads seamlessly from the past into the present, a present within which the authors and compilers of Our Courageous Pioneers were reasonably happy.

It would be an idealist error to claim that hope alone can generate history. In addition to hope, “the people” need to be literate in the common language of “the people.” It is evident from the work accomplished by the rural people who wrote, edited, and compiled Our Courageous Pioneers: History of Gronlid and Surrounding Districts of Argus, Athol, Edenbridge, Freedom, Maryville, Murphy Creek, Sandhill Creek, Taelman, Taras, Teddington that they had learned in their tiny schoolhouses how to write in a grammatical, logical, and literate common language, in this case English. In addition to hope, a level of social cohesion among “the people” is necessary, such that people of differing backgrounds will have the will to cooperate with each other on a common, and quite complex, project. Finally, in addition to hope, literacy, and social cohesion, these rural people also needed sufficient leisure, and sufficient exemption from extraneous worries, to allow them the time and concentration for writing a history that sought to give both the particular and the general their due. But what are these—literacy, social cohesion, hope, and freedom from pressing want—if not the minimal conditions needed for a well-functioning democratic order?

The question has sometimes been asked: How much history is needed for society to be healthy? (Nietzsche 1980 [1872]; Moskalewicz 2014). But that is perhaps the wrong question, too grandiose in its pretensions. More down to earth is what I find to be, from the point of view of historiography, the most compelling nugget in Eldridge’s Images of History, namely, his insistence on the importance of images, and specifically on those arresting and epiphany-inducing images (so beloved by Benjamin) that have the capacity to alert both inquirers and whatever audiences they might have to loss and difference, and thus to jolt people out of their too often complacent present existence. (I think, for example, of the Stolpersteine, and similarly modest monuments, that one sees and feels in certain streets in Germany.) To images of this sort I would add, not the grandiose and ethereal intellectualism of Kant (and, yes, of Walter Benjamin too, in his “Angel of History” mode), but simply the possibility of imagining a future different from the present. To be sure, historians are not prophets or prognosticators or projectors of the future. What they do have is the ability to dredge up from past times—whether near or distant—features of human life in those past times that for one reason or another stand in what may well be an edifying contrast with the present, out of which contrast the imagining of a future different from the present might well be sparked.


Figure 1: Gronlid and District Historical Society, Our Courageous Pioneers (published 1991)


Photo Credit: Photo taken by Allan Megill


Figure 2: Maryville School: All That Remains


Photo Credit: Janette I. Stuart, Wembley, Western Australia, photo taken July 2017, all rights reserved; used with permission. 

Figure 3: St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, “Maryville,” SK


Photo Credit: Janette I. Stuart, Wembley, Western Australia, photo taken July 2017, all rights reserved; used with permission.


Figure 4: Holy Ascension Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church, “Maryville,” SK


Figure 3b Photo Credit: Janette I. Stuart, Wembley, Western Australia, photo taken July 2017, all rights reserved; used with permission.


Works Cited

Eldridge, Richard. 2016. Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016; also consulted, the electronic edition, DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190605322.001.0001.

Gronlid and District Historical Society [Gronlid]. 1991. Our Courageous Pioneers: History of Gronlid and Surrounding Districts of Argus, Athol, Edenbridge, Freedom, Maryville, Murphy Creek, Sandhill Creek, Taelman, Taras, Teddington. Melfort, SK: Phillips Publishers.

Megill, Allan. 1985. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2019. “History’s Unresolving Tensions: Reality and Implications.” Rethinking History, DOI: 10.1080/13642529.2019.1625544

———. forthcoming. “The Affective Dimension: What Theory of History Can Learn from Popular History.”

Moskalewicz, Marcin, 2014. “The Old Nietzschean Question Raised Again: How Much Past Do We Need for Having a Healthy Life?” Contributions by Frank Ankersmit, Sande Cohen, Jan van der Dussen, Allan Megill, and Jörn Rüsen. Rethinking History 18.4: 556–68. DOI: 10.1080/13642529.2014.893666.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1980 [1872]. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. Translated by Peter Preuss. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Ranke, Leopold von. 1824. Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1535. Erster Band. Leipzig: Bey G. Reimer.

———. 1828 [1890]. “Erwiderung auf Henrich Leo’s Angriff [Response to Heinrich Leo’s Attack].” In Sämmtliche Werke, Bände 53–54, edited by Alfred Dove, 659–66. Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot.

White, Hayden. (1980). “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7.1: 5–27.


  1. My thanks to Martin Schuster, Corey Runkel, and R. Felski for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this paper. I also thank the Guangqi International Center for Scholars, Shanghai Normal University for stimulus in pursuing the issues addressed here.

  2. The Oxford Scholarship Online version of Images of History (available through many academic libraries) contains concise book and chapter abstracts that are not available in the paper editions.

  3. See Megill 2019 for a discussion of this motif. (In the present essay and in Megill 2019, “modern” historiography does not mean all historiography written after such-and-such a date; it means, rather, historiography that adheres to a particular set of commitments.)

  4. Tellingly, three out of the five times that Eldridge uses the phrase “image of history” he does so in relation to Kant, whose “Idea of history” was manifestly an exercise in hopeful expectation (Eldridge 2016, 94, 97).

  5. By “popular history” I mean history produced neither by professional historians, nor by experts in museology, nor by experts in media, nor by propagandists, but rather by and for “the people” themselves, proceeding on their own initiative, with little direction from experts, or higher-ups of any kind.

  6. Further discussion (with full documentation) is anticipated in Megill forthcoming.

  • Avatar

    Richard Eldridge


    Response to Megill

    I am grateful to Allan Megill for drawing out what he calls “the resonances that Images of History has with historical perception,” especially since he is arguably the most distinguished Anglophone intellectual-social historian who has also written explicitly and eloquently on historiography, including work on Kant. His general point that human beings are not automata and that history writing makes sense only in light of this fact is well put, and the detailed comparisons he offers between a Benjaminian sense of the image in my work (sense 1, as he puts it) and certain moments in Ranke’s poetic history writing and in the aesthetical history writing in Our Courageous Pioneers are apt and illuminating. As the case of Our Courageous Pioneers shows, history writing on all scales, local and broad, involves memorialization, projection, and the enactment of solidarity, and it presupposes and draws on “literacy, social cohesion, hope, and freedom from pressing want.” As both Ranke and Our Courageous Pioneers show, historians make poetic and aesthetic choices to achieve and embody “historical perception.” Frequently this will involve “jolting images” of simultaneous similarity and difference, surrounded by a sense of temporality, as in the evocative photographs of the Maryville School marker, the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, and the Holy Ascension Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church that he includes. (It is no accident that Benjamin, too, wrote on photography, in particular on the haunting documentary photographs of Eugene Atget, in relation to his work on the dialectical image.) The generation and extended elaboration of what Megill calls historical perceptions is the daily stock in trade of effective working historians. Megill is correct, I think, that Images of History has perhaps less to offer to historians than to philosophers, since my aims with respect to history writing were not radically revisionary, in contrast with my more frankly revisionary aims with respect to overly abstract and generalizing moral and political philosophy. At the same time, however, the resonances that Megill elaborates are worth dwelling on, and so is the role of emplotment in the development and presentation of a striking dialectical image that Megill implicitly brings up.

    Historians, as Megill puts it, “usually presume a theory of human nature, often without being aware that they are doing so,” and it is their proper business to go on with this presumption to narrate the past in an illuminating way, without stopping to justify it. Yet some of the best historians––for example, Jill Lepore (mentioned in the reply to Sweet) or Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down) or E. P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) are, like Ranke, also reflective about the (often conflicting) ideals that they see lived out, variously and comically or tragically, in the lives of their subjects and in their own lives––even if Ranke also sometimes “propels the reader past” large causal questions. As Megill notes, human beings are not automata; they are “both determined and ‘free,’ both driven by forces outside human control and capable of some measure of agency.” They are always already contextualized, fitfully and contestably reason-responsive animals, who attempt to build in interaction with others temporally extended courses of life with which they can identify. This was the point of my citation of Hegel’s famous passage in his Aesthetics about human beings as “amphibious animals”; we live within, and respond to, conflicts between being “imprisoned in the common world of earthly temporality, borne down by need and poverty, hard pressed by nature, enmeshed in matter, sensuous ends and their enjoyment” and being able to “lift [ourselves] to eternal ideas, to a realm of thought and freedom, [to] give [ourselves], as will, universal laws and prescriptions.”1 (This is, of course, true of both the human subjects of historical writing and of the writers of history; history writing and being a historical subject are roles that anyone may occupy, not fixed matters of inert fact.)

    While Megill is quite correct, then, to distinguish two different senses of image in my book: the Benjaminin-Rankean-Nietzschean sense of what is present in many images that involve vividness, visibility, poetry, creativity, and particularity, and the notion of a singular image of history––an overall sense of what we as human beings might be “up to” over the extended course of human history––that I adapt from the work of Dieter Henrich on Kant. In order to illustrate the former sense, Megill aptly cites a paragraph from Ranke, where Ranke describes his effort in writing history to “draw near the phenomenon itself” poetically, “as it emerges,” and Megill then goes on to elaborate the achievement of such images in Our Courageous Pioneers. All this does usefully capture much of what historians at their best do in cultivating historical perception.

    As Megill also accepts, however, the production of such images is not by itself the whole story about what historians do or should do. Echoing Aristotle, Ranke’s paragraph includes the thought that he is undertaking “to present the general . . . through the particular,” where the general, by my lights, must be a broad image of the shared powers, interests, and possibilities of human beings––their shared ideals––as they are legible and dimly achievable within historical life. Like dramatic literature (of which it is, after all, a form), history writing lives in the ongoing, fraught interplay between the general and the particular––between a developing, singular image of history (of human beings and their lived ideals) and particular striking moments of the visibility of particular achievements and failures. Disabused modernism and the cultivation of the perceptual image alone are not enough. In Megill’s phrasing, “historiography contains tensions that do not resolve” between the general and the particular, between enframing narratives that refer to ideals and the vivid perception of particulars.

    So yes, we need hope––“an image of what may be hoped for,” as Megill puts it, in history writing and in life. Abstract and generalizing philosophy can help to provide us with articulations of ideals that shape larger narrative frames. But it should not in the end lose contact with concretely discernible pursuits in vivid particular cases of the ideals that it articulates. Nor should responsive vivid presentation of particular cases lose contact with ideals. To close with just one example of how to balance generality with vivid particularity, an example with clear political implications, let me mention John Rawls’s theory of justice. In its first appearance in 1971, it looked like, and was sometimes critically received as, merely an abstract, general, utopian proposal––a kind of philosopher’s fantasy. In fact, however, Rawls grounds his detailed theory of justice in a kind of historico-philosophical anthropology: an account of human beings as possessing and being committed to the effective exercise of two moral powers––the ability to articulate and pursue an image of the good for oneself (drawing on and revising inherited materials and possibilities), and a sense of fairness. As his later Political Liberalism and collected essays in moral and political philosophy make clear, this account of human beings as possessing and exercising powers is both elicited from history and in turn brought to bear in understanding and assessing historical achievements and failures in the pursuit of justice. We can, I think, still hope, albeit not prove, that such theory, both wedded to and contested by perceptions, is an important part of the story about what we are up to.

    1. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 54.