Reply to Drucilla Cornell

 Originally Appeared in: Critical Inquiry: Volume 26, Number 1 | Published: Autumn, 1999

A response to Enlightening the Enlightenment: A Response to John Brenkman by Drucilla Cornell

I am extremely grateful to Drucilla Cornell for her thoughtful and spirited response to my essay, and to Critical Inquiry for the opportunity to reply (see Drucilla Cornell, “Enlightening the Enlightenment: A Response to John Brenkman,” Critical Inquiry 26 [Autumn 1999]: 128-39). I would like first briefly to clarify my view on three specific questions she raises and then give a more ample response to her argument that John Rawls provides in A Theory of Justice a viable vision of a radically egalitarian society.

 First, the clarifications:

 1) While Cornell’s reading of my essay is extraordinarily attentive and respectful at every turn, in her penultimate paragraph she represents my position in terms that are almost unrecognizable to me. She argues that I need to recognize that the ideals I am defending-publicness, including the publicness at play in the judgment “this is beautiful,” personhood, and so on-are “configurations” and therefore “can always be contested and judged again for the moral and political effect they have in the form they give to our public life” (p. 139). In the closing paragraphs of my essay I meant to stress just that. In saying that the zoon politikon, “one’s own understanding,” the “worth of others,” and “your body is a temple” are all figures of personhood, I wanted to underscore that these concepts are drawn from symbolizations of moral experience and are therefore intrinsically polyvalent in their moral and their political significance. In the same vein, I also think that the decisive universalistic moment in political and social criticism-“this is unjust”-elaborates or draws on resonant symbolizations of harm. It is why no concept, in the sense of a theoretically consistent proposition or even a universal maxim, can exhaust the experienced symbols of injustice or forecast where new points of social upheaval and political struggle will come from. The innovativeness of a claim to justice lies in the unprecedentedness of the claim itself, the fact that it does not simply apply a fixed principle to a new situation. The new situations change the meaning of the principle. My remarks on the political modernism of Douglass, DuBois, and King were meant to indicate how
important that dialectic has been to African American politics and citizenship.

2) In her elaboration on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Cornell very astutely draws the implication that the “enlarged mentality,” which Kant attributes to the sensus communis involved in aesthetic judgment, is a kind of horizon in the communicability of feelings. As a consequence, “the sensus communis aestheticus to which Kant refers always points us to a projected ought to be of a shared community,” rather than an achieved or required community. Accusing Jurgen Habermas of “collaps[ing] the sensus communis aestheticus into the sensus communis logicus” in his supposition
of “an overarching concept of communicative reason,” Cornell provocatively asks, “just how much of a Habermasian” am I (pp. 130, 131)?

Well, on this question I am not a Habermasian at all. I share Cornell’s impulse to dialogize Kant’s faculty of judgment and to construe its universalistic moment-the appeal to the agreement of everyone or the capacity of putting oneself in the place of everyone else-as a horizon. In fact the horizon of the sensus communis aestheticus is more virtual and problematic than Kant himself thought. In the historical context in which he wrote, Kant saw in the sensus communis of the emergent public sphere around him and in the tastes of its bourgeois and aristocratic participants a relatively homogeneous “community sense” and more importantly had the expectation that the gradual expansion and inclusiveness of that public sphere would little alter its tastes, discursive decorum, or sense of community. He thus could believe that there was a relatively short distance between the concrete sensus communis he participated in and humanity as a whole. As we now know, he was wrong. The actual development of the public sphere through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries looks nothing like what Kant anticipated. For criticism today, the moment of aesthetic judgment-with its tacit claim or appeal to the agreement of everyone-is immediately caught up in the differentiated, contoured,
contradictory dynamics of the public sphere.

3) Kant’s slogan “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” exemplifies, in its very syntax and
vocabulary, the language of modern social and political criticism. He designates Enlightenment as a process of emergence; he does not define it as a completed achievement or the unique possession of a particular society. The standard is the negative one of “immaturity,” collective “self-incurred immaturity” defined as the inability to use one’s own
understanding “without the guidance of another.”‘ Doctrines, authority, autonomy-robbing forms of socialization, unexamined prejudices-all types of “self-incurred immaturity” were alive and well in Kant’s society and are in our own. Enlightenment as learning process and as public criticism is the unending process of emergence from them. I followed in Kant’s negative spirit by saying that the “beyond” implicit in the post-Enlightenment stance of Arjun Appadurai and Carol A. Breckenridge hardly represents a “maturing” of contemporary thought insofar as it abandons the supreme
value Kant puts on the aim of using “one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” I do not believe some cultures are “mature” and others not; a culture, one’s own or another’s, cannot be evaluated whole-cloth in any sense.

As regards the Rushdie affair or international human rights more generally, the key questions are about modern states and regimes, not “cultures.” The fatwa was issued by a head of state, not a culture or an Other. When a head of state pronounces a death sentence and bounty on a writer, licensing his murder by anyone anywhere, the decision of other
governments, Western or not, to protest and apply diplomatic and economic pressures hardly qualifies as ethnocentric fear run amok….

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