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.

  • Richard Eldridge

    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.

Kristi Sweet


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?

  • Richard Eldridge

    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).

Sebastian Truskolaski


December 11, 2019, 1:00 am

Allan Megill


December 18, 2019, 1:00 am