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.