The following is the text of the University Lecture given by New Polis editor Carl Raschke for the University of Denver (DU). According to the DU website, “the University Lecturer Award is given in recognition of superlative creative and scholarly work”. This is the second of a two-part transcript. The first can be found here.
At the same time, Kant himself had a larger insight into the enigma of valuation and moral discernment that succeeded mainly in mystifying it. Kant called this primal precedent for our evaluative habits of thinking the “moral law.” But the moral law is not a “law” only because it wells up in our psyches as some kind of formidable divine decree that provides a rational warrant for what otherwise would be arbitrary authority. Kant expounded two different versions of the moral law. They are as follows: “Act only on that maxim [i.e., principle for moral decision-making] that you can consistently will to be a universal law.” AND “Always treat persons (including yourself) as ends in themselves, never merely as a means to your own ends.” Now Kant saw both these formulations mainly as differing variants of a single “categorical imperative”.
A “categorical” imperative is one that is absolutely necessary. In other words, there are no circumstances under which it would prove to be invalid or unreasonable. The categorical imperative is equivalent to the “moral law”, for Kant, not because the “universality” of the law can be derived from the way human beings routinely behave. Quite the opposite!. In fact, there is some unique property of moral behavior, the behavior of human beings toward one another that is altogether different from the regularities and law-like behavior of natural phenomena. Human beings, have subjective awareness of themselves which they recognize not only in themselves, but in other human beings. We are talking about the wholly unnatural phenomenon of human intersubjectivity.
Kant as a philosopher has often been dismissed, if not even lampooned, for his tedious and convoluted style of writing, even he remains only second to Plato in his overall influence on Western philosophy. But Kant’s epistemology, that is, his theory of knowledge, is the source of much of today’s cognitive and developmental psychology as well as the method employed in so much of the humanities and social sciences we know as “constructivism”. His moral philosophy, with which we are concerned here, is engraved unmistakably in the United Nations Universal of Declaration of Human Rights, and his political thought backgrounds much of international law. Even his theories of education became a driving force behind the secularization of learning throughout the following centuries and helped give rise to the notion of the “common school,” or state-sponsored learning, not to mention the “common curriculum”.
Yet Kant’s foundational insight, even if it was initially ladled out in a clunky German that often translates even more awkwardly into English, is that the true wellspring of human valuation is that we should treat everyone as we want to be treated. This very ancient intuition reaches back to the dawn of history. We know it as the Golden Rule. But the same familiar principle, sometimes referred to as the principle of reciprocity, is not at bottom a principle at all. Kant’s insight arises out of the even more profound realization that the infinite expanse of emotion and cognition, which we as sentient beings experience in the boundless depths of our own self-awareness, comes back like a lightning flash within a colossal reflecting mirror when we gaze into the eyes of another person.
The German word for “respect”, which Kant employed, was Ehrfurcht, not just your average type of respect, but an awe-inspiring respect, respect accompanied by a heightened feeling of reverence. Sublime respect for the reality of the other human being! The way the term is employed in Kant’s philosophy carries some of the connotations that the German Protestantism of his day. Kant was accustomed to talk about how we should conduct ourselves in the presence of significant others when we are in the presence of the most holy God. Kant’s special use of the word, not to mention his reputation as a “public philosopher”, frequently get lost in the technical questions and esoteric minutiae in accordance with which his followers exploited his ideas. Kant often talked about “duty” to the moral law, and as the American philosopher John Dewey complained during the First World War, he was often blamed for the rise of German militarism and fascism. Kant, who never left the town in which he grew up, also in his more casual writings often succumbed to mouthing the parochial prejudices of his day.
But a serious and honest reading of Kant’s philosophy, something with which Dewey and others like him never seemed to have bothered, makes it evident that such “duty” is not an abstract moralism that can be easily massaged and misconstrued into fanatical service to a totalitarian monster like the Führer of the Third Reich. When Kant famously gushed about “the starry heavens above and the moral law within me”, he was poetically alluding to the spiritual majesty of the categorical imperative. He was saying, in effect, that we must regard every other human being with the same reverential respect, that is, Ehrfurcht, with which we regard ourselves. That is the Golden Rule made four-dimensional.
Yet, for Kant, this attitude of “respect” is far more than a mere ethical reflex. It is the very manifestation of what it means to be a self-conscious and (as the Enlightenment was always emphasizing) “rational” personality. Raised a German pietist who scrupulously sought over a lifetime to reconcile his religious beliefs with the standards of the Age of Reason, Kant was simply transposing into a secular idiom the insight of Martin Luther in his early treatise titled The Freedom of a Christian in 1521, “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”
I don’t want to wave a red flag, as we often do instinctively in academia these days, when we hear such a statement as Luther’s and try to reduce such an affirmation to all the failings and hypocrisies of the person who said it, or discard it out of hand as nothing more than ethno-religio-centric frame of the modern European mind. But we have to concede, as the American political thinker Mark Lilla has hammered home in recent years, the so-called global “secular” principles of human rights and responsibilities, much of which is encoded into our own university vision and values statements, have this kind of religious, or quasi-religious origin. It is not mere happenstance that the inscription on all university stationery and correspondence up until the turn of the millennium was pro scientia et religio, “for the sake of science and religion.”
The distinguished social historian Rodney Stark in his book The Victory of Reason makes a very strongly documented case that it was the unique religious and ethical world picture of Christianity, whatever we mean by that word, that nurtured the intricate pre-requisites for the emergence of the modern secular, knowledge-based society. That rationale, so far as Stark’s argument runs, applies specifically to the assumption that the best of all possible worlds is a democratic and inclusive one.
But out of what does this “inclusivity” arise? In an important sense Stark can be severely criticized for glossing over the fact that much of what he terms the “Christian” thread of the axiological DNA within the semiotic code of the modern West stems from a more primordial Jewish, monotheistic strand that is also closely interspersed with the Islamic genome. Thus what we are used to describing as “Western” civilization is far more “Abrahamic” than we are accustomed to acknowledging.
But the real issue is not how we define the spiritual pedigree of what we understand to be “inclusive values”. The ideals of democracy and inclusivity could only arise in a cultural context where, at least as a matter of symbolic capital if not actual social practice, the ideal of the infinite worth of every human being was given some kind of lip service. Balibar has dubbed this ideal “intensive universality”. And in a highly important book from the contemporary post-structuralist canon titled Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism,French philosopher Alain Badiou makes the claim, despite his dismissal of what he calls the “fable” of Christian belief, that the grafting in late antiquity of the monotheistic faith traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean on to the Graeco-Roman paradigm of critical rationality becomes the indisputable catalyst for the revolutionary and emancipatory fervor of so much of modernity. That is especially true of what liberation theologians have dubbed the “preferential option for the poor” along with the broader postmodernist interest in prioritizing marginalized ethnicities and gender identities.
Nevertheless, the noted twentieth century Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas, whose inspiration for his mature philosophy came while he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, is perhaps the one theorist who gives a sophisticated accounting of what we mean by the “revolution of respect”. Levinas’ works are wide-ranging and sometimes highly opaque. They run the gamut from hyper-technical treatises to rabbinic commentary. But Levinas is known best for engineering a radical turn in philosophy, a turn to the Other. In this case I capitalize “Other” because, for Levinas, otherness is neither what should give us anxiety, or what we should turn away from. Otherness is not a problem for philosophy. It is its source of wonder. What Aristotle called “first philosophy”, or metaphysics, has traditionally – and that is not true only of so-called “Western philosophy” – been concerned with the question of what lies before, or underlies, everything else.
Aristotle in his Metaphysics used the Greek term ousia (i.e., “being” or “presence”) to characterize these so-called “first principles,” or that which precedes everything else, both temporally and logically. Aristotle, however, considered what otherwise might be translated as “primary being” as a generic construct. To get to what something really is you have to ask something like “what is the specific case of something” (in Hellenic Greek todi ti)? But, as linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorff discovered during the interwar period, our habits of staging philosophical questions are determined by the very grammatical structure of our language. Greek metaphysics, in particular, is obsessed with the riddle of what Aristotle called “Being as Being” because the various forms of Indo-European language depend on the copulative verb, the verb to “be”.
Understanding that the Semitic language, in which the Tanakh or Hebrew bible is written, has a different grammatical structure, something which in the interest of time I won’t elaborate here. But Levinas, harking back to the revelation of the unnameable name of God to Moses on Mount Sinai, says that first philosophy must begin in the face-to-face encounter with the ineffable Other, the “I am that I am”, which is actually a trick God plays on Moses by refusing to give his real name. It is not simply the face of God but also the face of my “neighbor” that in this formulary remains both infinite and nameless.
When asked about the relationship of the two infinite, nameless faces to each other, Rabbi Jesus condensed them into what has come to be known as the Great Commandment, that is, the commandment to love God with all one’s heart and strength, but also in a love that is truly manifested in love for one’s neighbor as oneself. Whether any of these two commandments have priority over the other, or whether they are fused into one, is not Levinas’ concern. For Levinas, it is the encounter with the face of the Other – and our moral response to that face – that constitutes the point of departure for any “first philosophy”.
Levinas says, “ethics is first philosophy.” Philosophy begins not in a reflection on what is the ground of “objective truth”, but in what it means to be in a relationship between subjects confronting others as equal subjects. Such equality is not formal, but immeasurably concrete. Following today’s fashion, we may say that Levinas’ pronouns are not he, him, his but you and I. However, the you and I are not at all figures of speech, because they realign the very vectors of all theory. Proverbs says “the fear of God is beginning of wisdom.” If philosophy is, as the Greek etymology indicates the “love of wisdom”, then first philosophy as ethics must focus on the “wisdom” derives from encountering the abyss of human otherness, an experience akin to Kant’s Ehrfurcht, i.e., a raw reverential respect. That is not only the true source of what we mean by “values”, but also by what Fukuyama has in mind when he talks about the rising universal demand for “recognition”, a demand the philosopher Hegel in the early nineteenth century detected as the spark that ignites the tinder that flares into history-making, revolutionary conflagrations.
What we know as “identity politics” is only looking at the issue of intersubjectivity from one restricted angle. Every “I” is but the visible tip of a deeper iceberg whose imperceptible undersea mass is encrusted with myriad, half-conscious intimations of pride and shame, triumph and tragedy, things said about us that we have sorted through to the point that only the ones that seem to fit actually stick. In the final analysis identity politics is the sunlit side of the politics of recognition. All revolutions are in some essential way revolutions of respect. It is not simply that I affirm myself as I. I also ask you to recognize me in all my concrete “I”ness, not as an equivocal whatsoever. I also ask you to affirm my legacy, my language, my culture, my experiences, my longings, my frustrations. But it is not a matter of you or I simply education ourselves about each other. We must engage each other at the disquieting thresholds of our mutual and interpenetrating worlds. We must have respect for each other.
I would go out on a limb here and argue here that the reason polarization is the dominant trend, not just in America but in so many different divergent global scenarios, is because we confuse discontent with the demand for respect. Today’s cognitive elites, among which we academics are numbered, have historically perceived political reaction and turmoil as but the bad manners of disgruntled outliers. It goes back to the ancient Greeks who dismissed those who did not speak their cherished precision-tooled language as “barbarians”. “Barbarians” merely muttered rude and unintelligible sounds – bar, bar, bar. These barbarians – the word we prefer nowadays is “populists” – somehow fail to appreciate our role as virtuous and benevolent hegemons when it comes to speaking on behalf of the very social institutions we delineate and dominate.
I pose, however, this question. Is it because we elites have our own “deplorable” habit of construing human populations as data sets, as neural nets or categorial schematics that make it easy for us to pinpoint the “what” but not the “who” we are observing? Human reality cannot be subsumed within the paltry rhetoric of either the first or the third person. It is only when we say “you”, be it in the singular or plural, that we begin to understand the true significance of the revolution of respect. Must we always in the pursuit of knowledge, as the poet Wordsworth once put it, “murder to dissect”? For Levinas that is impossible when we position ourselves open-mouthed before the mystery of the Other.
In the view of Catherine Walsh, the noted Ecuadorean scholar who with Walter Mignolo has popularized the notion of “decoloniality”, we are in the midst of an “epistemic revolution”, (that is, a revolution in the nature of knowledge). Globally, we are all engaged, she writes, in a “politics of naming” that forces us to radically rethink how we map and deploy our standard nomenclatures for the roiling and sprawling seaways of human history as well as our present day human reality. It is at the same time a radical reversal of the earlier politics of naming that in an much earlier era, that is, the sixteenth century, the so-called “Age of Discovery”, we learned to mass produce for largely European consumption such familiar and enticing commodities as sugar, tobacco, citrus fruits, and coffee.
We financed the scientific and industrial revolutions by commodifying and viciously exploiting and degrading human beings in the Atlantic slave trade along with erasure of the lives, livelihoods, and basic dignities of the indigenous inhabitants. It was such a strategy of “classify and conquer,” in the phrasing of South African social theorist David Chidester, that yoked colonialism with the new science and technology.
It was this particular epistemic revolution, what Mignolo terms the “darker side of Western modernity”, that runs counter to the “decolonial” revolution Walsh is describing. It is this darker epistemology that has bestowed on us what critical theorist Sylvia Wynter dubs the “divinely organized caste organizing principle” of modernism. It is the epistemology that has given us the comprehensive research university, but it has also dealt us in the same concealed hand the epistemic justification for colonial “extraction” economies, “scientific racism”, eugenics, sex trafficking, and the post-humanist pipe dreams of the Silicon Valley-based globalist, oligopolist, wannabe masters of the metaverse. I would also add identity theory, which was originally a psychoanalytical innovation from the late 1950s. It began as an inquiry into how adolescent rebellion could be curated into a productive, civically engaged adult personality, then later was seized on by ethnic intellectuals to resist their own cultural homogenization and social marginalization.
The concept of identity was always intended as a logic of intersubjectivity, whereby you recognize and respect me for who I am and who you are in the most profound sense, and I relate to you in exactly the same way. It was never intended as a weapon of de-personalization and demonization, where you are no longer the revelation of the divine infinite in a Levinasian flash of awareness, but merely some demographic differential, a counter in the master calculus of bureaucratic management or political mobilization, a ruinous Republican or a dastardy Democrat, a Trumpist or a Black Lives Matter activist, a red-stater or a blue-stater, a racist or anti-racist, an Islamist or an Islamophobe, one of us or one of them, regardless of how we hallucinate ourselves. Actually take time to pause from the flammable insanity of your own internalized polemics and peer into the face of one other, regardless of their status.
To quote Dr. Seuss, another famous philosopher who said it better than Kant, “a person’s a person no matter how small.” That is the real emancipatory project. The truth is not formulated in the genetically deformed modernist idiom of Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am” but in these still stuttering “I respect you, and I expect you to respect me with the same attention and recognition. Therefore, we are.” That is what globalization means when all is said and done.
And now I am done.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.