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Europe, the Idea as Exception

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014.

I thank very much the organizers for this opportunity to discuss “The Idea of Europe.” Among the several specific topics for discussion suggested in the conference outline, my paper will address the question: “Universalism or exceptionalism?”

Now, in the context of this conference, this question might be understood either in historical-political or in philosophical terms, or somehow in both. And it is my contention that, in “the Idea of Europe” the historical-political and the philosophical as such substantially converge. In other words, in “the idea,” with its philosophical complexities, we should be able to find the trace of the decisive rupture in historical time—event, exception—that gave rise to modern Europe and conferred a particular direction, a primordial bias to its temporal unfolding; a bias not opposed to modern reason’s universalism, and inherently beyond the reach of its critical powers.

To examine this question I will follow the path traced by that modern master of ideas, Immanuel Kant. At the beginning of Chapter III of his Critique of Pure Reason (“Of the Ground of the Division of all Objects into Phenomena and Noumena”), Kant wrote:

We have now not only traversed the region of the pure understanding and carefully surveyed every part of it, but we have also measured it, and assigned to everything therein its proper place. But this land is an island, and enclosed by nature herself within unchangeable limits. It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean . . . (Kant, B294, 295; A236)

This “land of truth” (and of falsity) is the land of phenomena. And it is ruled by laws—the laws of the land—and, first of all, by the law that uncovers or establishes its insular limits: to be a legitimate part of it, an entity must undergo a trial conducted by Kant’s “Court of Justice” (Gerichtshof) so that, he writes, “reason may secure its rightful claims while dismissing all its groundless pretensions, and this not by mere decrees but according to its own eternal and unchangeable laws” (Axi–xii). To secure this, it has to be established that the entities in question have their origin in sense perception; that, nevertheless, they are structured according to the a priori forms of sensibility, time and space, and of understanding, the categories. “Thoughts without content are void; intuitions without conceptions, blind” is the motto inscribed at the threshold of the Kantian Court of Pure Reason.

Kant presents these limits, the law that draws them, as eternal. But his efforts to convince us that they are so backfire, affording the evidence that they are not: that he is not discovering an island, but producing it, as a sort of modern ocean platform in whose construction modernly processed materials are being used; that it is not a matter of recognizing eternal borders, but of drawing them, as conquerors do when installing fortresses in enemy territory. These self-betraying efforts to disguise the exceptional-historical as eternal are to be found, mainly, in two sections of the First Critique: in the “Transcendental Deduction” and in the “Discipline of Pure Reason.” These sections are intimidatingly obscure, but that obscurity is in itself very telling; only under its protection Kant’s conceptual legerdemain can go unobserved, even by himself. I will try to show this in not so many words.

The “Transcendental Deduction” is presented by Kant as a juridical question, the “quid juris” question. He writes:

Among the many conceptions, which make up the very variegated web of human cognition, some are destined for pure use a priori, independent of all experience; and their title to be so employed always requires a deduction, inasmuch as, to justify such use of them, proofs from experience are not sufficient; but it is necessary to know how these conceptions can apply to objects without being derived from experience. (A84–85; B117)

The question that the Transcendental Deduction seems to address is about the correspondence between a priori concepts and their objects. Or, in more exact terms, between those concepts and “sensible intuitions” (Anschauungen), corresponding to the immediately given. So the question seems to be a question about fit: how is it that a priori concepts and intuitions fit? In the so-called “Objective Deduction” Kant answers his quid juris question in straightforward factual and tautological terms:

. . . the objective validity of the categories, as a priori conceptions, will rest upon this, that experience (as far as regards the form of thought) is possible only by their means. For in that case they apply necessarily and a priori to objects of experience, because only through them can an object of experience be thought. (A93)

In other words, for entities to count as experience, as objects or phenomena, they must have already gone through a process, a trial; already been pre-processed, ad-justed to form. There is no way, then, in which the work of categories might not be recognized, “found” in in them. In other words, we have no way of knowing if categories and raw intuitions fit (how could we “know,” when knowledge as such presupposes the answer?). So we are not facing knowledge but commandment, force of law: it does fit! And, already for a few centuries before Kant’s time, a whole cultural, bio-political revolution had been going on out there to produce that ad-justment in factual terms; a lot of spadework to turn supposedly uncultured peasants into modern cultured Europeans. Colonialism, we might say, started at home; colonialist expansion, as we usually understand it, would be but the continuation of the self-colonization effort that produced modern Europe.

Now, to many a Kantian specialist, convinced as she or he is that, as in a puzzle, pieces have somehow been made to fit, the so-called “Subjective Deduction” looks more promising. More promising because it does not appeal to a fact that, though it is the very fact of modern experience, can be misunderstood as external and heteronomous. It appeals instead to the autonomous subject: to the so-called “transcendental subject” (also called the “transcendental unity of apperception’), the Cartesian “I am” that Kant understands, not as a “res cogitans,” a thinking substance, but as the supreme synthesizing principle:

The “I think” . . . is an act of spontaneity. . . . It is in all acts of consciousness one and the same, and unaccompanied by it, no representation can exist for me. The unity of this apperception I call the transcendental unity of self-consciousness, in order to indicate the possibility of a priori cognition arising from it. (B132)

But again, what we find here is not an eternal principle. Because the principle in question is the will—a primordial spontaneity—understood now, in modern terms, as a will-to-order. A will-to-order that, starting from the real construed now as formless and indifferent raw material, projects and produces a world, our modern world.

In other words, regarding reality, that stormy ocean, Kant is displaying sovereign, constituent powers. And, as often sovereigns do, he is disguising decision as obedience to the same law he is establishing: che non c’é un fuori legge, in Giorgio Agamben’s fitting expression. As we know, this is a self-inclusive statement that, intending to provide a legal foundation to the law, in fact performs the opposite: it gives rise to the perverse figure of sovereignty, which is simultaneously within and without the law. In fact, in “The Discipline of Pure Reason” Kant examines his own constituent powers. That is, the nature of the propositions, labeled “transcendental,” that compose his own Critique of Pure Reason, and that Kant believes should be cognitive. But, to be cognitive in the Kantian sense, these “transcendental” propositions should be synthetic a priori (that is, they should not be devoid of content, albeit a content that is not empirical, but that anticipates the form of possible experience). And what would this content be now? The only possibility would be pure internal, non-sensorial intuition; but then philosophy would be reduced to mathematics. So Kant has to show his cards: we are dealing here with a “synthesis [framed] from concepts alone, a synthesis with which the philosopher is alone competent to deal” (A719/B747); the “transcendental proposition,” would “possess . . . the remarkable peculiarity of being the condition of the possibility of its own ground of proof, that is, experience, and of forming a necessary presupposition in all empirical observation.” (A737/B756). Again, we are running in circles.

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason we find, then, not cognition, but the onto-theological expression of the historical decision (cut, wound), of the fiat that puts the modern world in movement. Raw reality, first of all, is construed as undifferentiated (disenchanted, in Max Weber’s lexicon) and thus, in itself, unknowable. But only when immanent order is lacking—order is difference; indifference is chaos, entropy—the modern will-to-order can be deployed, to produce not only knowable phenomena, and truth and falsity with them, but a whole humanized world with its techno-science, its market economy, its concept of the political, and its realization, the modern liberal state.

What about the Idea? Ideas, according to Kant, are not conditioned by any intuition, be it sensorial or pure; in consequence, they should not be confused with pure concepts, as long as these lose their meaning when working in the void. This constitutive ban is unequivocally stated in the same section of the KrV that begins with the island metaphor: “That the understanding . . . cannot make of its a priori principles . . . other than an empirical use, is a proposition which leads to the most important results,” he writes there (B303). In other words, the unconditional may not have any positive content: it should be “purely negative” (B309). But already in his island fable, Kant has surreptitiously introduced a word that will allow him to transgress his own ban. Because the association of the stormy ocean surrounding our island with the Greek “nous” (intellect, mind)—or with “things in themselves”—is the key to the transformation of the “purely negative” into the positive rationality Kant claimed for his Moralität, his ethics of the unconditional. With this alchemy, the exception is domesticated, rationalized; a task that Hegel was quite happy to complete.

In the “Third Antinomy of Pure Reason” we have a somehow different situation. There, Kant presents the encounter with the unconditional—the idea—as the result of the maximization of the phenomenal world; of going to the very borders of his island; and though he equivocally names it “freedom” (equivocally because, again, freedom in Kant equals reason), what he finds there is “absolute spontaneity” (A446/B474). And, as this “absolute spontaneity” beyond reason, the idea is the exception, as Carl Schmitt characterized it in his Political Theology:

The exception is more interesting than the rule. . . . It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of the real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.

In the Kantian idea, then, “the power of the real life breaks through.” More precisely, the idea stands for the very point in which the unrestrained spontaneity of Kant’s stormy sea is put to work in the production of its other, the island of phenomena. In it we would then find the trace, the one and only unconditional trace, of the epochal discontinuity (decision, event) at the origin of our humanized modern world; a discontinuity bound to be neutralized, “forgotten” in it.

Of course, historiographical explanations of this origin do exist. But the historiographical discourse, whatever its conceptual depth, richness of factual research, etc., is phenomenal: it belongs to the island of truth and falsity and, therefore, lacks the unconditionality of the idea: its unconditional, non-propositional truth: its truth, then, as event, as Heideggerian aletheia.

It follows that to speak of “events,” in plural, is to commit anachronism; only the idea of Europe is an event. Because, even if we leave aside, as contemporary science has done, the strict Kantian apparatus, we still have a law according to which valid statements are those, and only those, that can be proved, or disproved, according to protocols that may vary, but have one thing in common: the absolute may well be harbored in the depth of one’s heart (or even within a community of believers), but has no public currency. This exclusion is the only Law that rules Europe. But, provided we accept that Europe is not eternal, then its historical, sufficient cause, has to be un fuori legge: exception, the miracle as exception, and the one and only event. The sovereign exception would then correspond to a structure lodged, so to say, in our modern’s world DNA, far deeper than the realm of “the political.”

It also follows that the break between modern Europe and medieval Christianity is the break between opposing strategies to deal with the absolute. The medieval strategy admitted the absolute, but confined it to the space of the sacred; the sacred is that space—more concretely, the space enclosed within churches and cathedrals—in which the absolute is honored, but is also contained. In temporal terms, this confinement strategy is eschatology: the absolute may be claimed, provided its realization is postponed till the end of times. The Greeks may also have followed a similar strategy: the god Pan was not allowed to run amok through the land; to prevent it, festivals and mysteries were instituted. Our secular society lacks those strategies; our only solution, then, is to outlaw the absolute. This strategy is our religion.

The exploration of the idea—of the sole legitimate Kantian idea, the idea of Europe—has led us to this conclusion: albeit peculiar, this idea is a religion. We often react with scandal at the Islamic notion of Sharia, Islamic law. This is because we are blind to our own Sharia. In the best of possible worlds, we should be able to understand that our ways and mores may be, for the Islamic world, as scandalous an unacceptable as theirs usually are to us. They have their strict prohibitions, their strange bodily practices; though we may not perceive them, we surely do have ours; when we look at our bodies in the mirror, we see a human body as such; we do not perceive it as formed—and thus, de-formed—by our particular culture. So, in the best of possible worlds, we would live in our particularity and let live others live in theirs. Why don’t we?

Even in the worst days of traditional European or Islamic colonialism and imperialist expansion, the concern with infidels was mostly a matter of states and public law. Discounting occasional Orientalist wet dreams, no one lost her/his sleep because, for instance, of women being commanded either to piously conceal their bodies or proudly to display it in the public space.

But global communication networks have changed all this: in their workplaces and in their bedrooms, and everywhere in between, human beings at both sides of the line are now constantly reminded of the infidel’s weird habits and thus, summoned to judge them according to their law, the spectator’s law. In this way, and even against politicians from both sides best judgment, the universalist construction of the other as non-human is at work, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. I regret to say that I think it is beyond the power of anyone to stop this process.

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