Embrace the Scandal of Reason


Minerva and Arachne, from The Illustrated Bulfinch’s Mythology: Legends of Charlemagne, the Age of Chivalry, the Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch. Illustration by Giovanni Caselli

by Albena Azmanova

It was in a moment of exasperation, one imagines, that Kant discovered what he named ‘the scandal of reason’ – reason’s tendency to get entangled in its own contradictions and thus degenerate into either dogma or uncertainty – a tendency that has haunted modern history.

Politics perpetually faces the unfortunate choice between taking action but doing wrong, and incurring harm by failing to oppose it. Any political decision confronts this dilemma, the choice between what Hannah Arendt called ‘crimes of commission’ and ‘crimes of omission’. Should we sit back and watch the carnage in Syria or intervene, with the risk of creating another debacle, like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we don’t have the guts to intervene, will we not be creating another Serebrenitsa? Faced with hard choices, how do we know what is the right thing to do? Is there a theory of justice that can help political judgment?

Contaminated by reason’s scandalous quality to waver between doubt and grand but futile gestures, philosophical endeavors have rarely been of use to politics. My recent book, The Scandal of Reason sets out a search for a politically relevant theory of justice. This search confronts what I describe as “the paradox of judgment”:  the higher our moral aspirations, the less realistic, and therefore politically useful, the theory is. The more down-to-earth our thinking, the more we risk becoming complicit to existing injustice.

Major traditions in political philosophy (such as European Critical Theory and Anglo-American Philosophical Liberalism) have struggled to resolve this paradox. Through the work of Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, these two traditions have converged on a solution: let the democratic public design the just rules and norms in a process of inclusive discussions. This solution amounts to a pragmatic turn – eliminate ideal theory and leave it to free and equal citizens to decide on the right course of action. Not quite.

Despite their declared trust in democracy, both Habermas and Rawls are unsure of leaving it completely to democratic dialogues, since anything can come out of democratic deliberations, we cannot be certain that what people accept as just is effectively just. This daunting risk of error presses philosophers to maintain a hefty load of ideal theory, for instance, by specifying demanding conditions for the validity of established norms: that citizens be free, equal, and respectful of one another, or that discourses be not contaminated by political and economic power. However, if these demanding ideal conditions were to be available, the issue of justice would not even emerge. Any social interaction (including democratic deliberations) is inevitably permeated by power asymmetries, as well as by partiality and particular interests. This is the whole point of politics. Eliminating particular interests from public discussions about justice would eliminate what matters to people. When it comes to serious political contentions, sterilized public discussions about the common good are rarely of use, except to sidetrack the debates away from the real issues.

The solution I propose to the judgment paradox is the following: rather than shun the scandal of reason, we should embrace it. We should position our judgment on the critical interzone between dogma and skepticism – this is where resides what I call “critical deliberative judgment”. This means that our choices should be guided not by grand, ideal theories of justice (professing liberty, equality, democracy, human rights, etc.) but by our asking three practical questions: who suffers, why do they suffer and what can we do to reduce suffering. As Theodor Adorno once remarked in a debate with Ernst Bloch, we might not know what is right, but we usually know that something is amiss, that something is wrong, and this feeling of injustice (rather than an ideal of justice) is the most reliable guide available to us.

La Dialettica o l’Industria, Paulo Veronese, c. 1578

Public deliberations are only as good as they allow a confrontation among conflicting grievances, a contention which brings into view what is amiss and what is critically relevant for all participants. This issue of shared relevancy I find in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the spectator in the ancient polis. Drawing on Arendt’s writing on common sense and judgment, I propose to see inclusive public discussions as an engine of ‘making sense in common’. For this we do not need a common sense inherited from a cultural community; what we need instead is a capacity to understand the others grievance, a capacity that is developed in the process of daily social interactions. By implication, the universalism I endorse is a grounded one. It is grounded not in an imaginary global humanity, but in the particularity of specific human suffering whose geographical and temporal span is decided by the social processes causing that suffering.

Public deliberations can help here too. They can help discern the common social causes of seemingly irreconcilable claims to endured injustice. I observed this taking place at the public debates (deliberative polls) organized in Hungary a few years ago by the Center for Deliberative Democracy of Stanford University. I draw on these deliberations to show how what started as a decidedly impolite dispute about ‘lazy gypsies’ and ‘honest entrepreneurs’ robbed of their livelihood by taxation, transformed into participants’ shared guilt for taking part in a system in which social opportunities and risks are unevenly allocated due to the state’s shedding of its social responsibility.

Forced in this way to keep its focus on the common social causes of suffering, politics is more likely to stay on the right track, rather than get entangled into usually futile and occasionally dangerous grand enterprises.

My idiosyncratic take on Kant’s ‘scandal of reason’ is encoded in the book cover, for which is used a fragment of Paulo Veronese’s “La Dialettica o l’Industria”. It can be seen on the ceiling of Sala del Collegio of Palazzo Ducale in Venice. A surface reading of the image of a woman weaving a spider web illustrates Kant’s original notion, that in our industrious effort to pursue truth we construct elaborate and clever contraptions that might be dangerous (we get entangled in a spider web) if not simply futile (it is but a spider web).

Yet notice that the woman is attired in a toga, leading us to the Greco-Roman legend of Arachne, in which the weaving effort has a positive connotation. Arachne was a mortal woman who, proud of her weaving skills, challenged Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and crafts. In her jealousy at Arachne’s talents, Minerva turned Arachne into a spider. For me, the painting celebrates the human rebellion against the gods: taking the weaving of one’s life in one’s hands, daring to take charge despite the likelihood of errors, imperfections, even defeat. This is my appeal to embrace the scandal of reason: we should take the risk of error and dare to judge, rather than rely on ideal or divine theories of justice.

About the Author:

Albena Azmanova teaches political and social theory at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, where she directs the graduate programs “International Political Economy” and “Political Strategy and Communication”. After having taken active participation in the dissident movements and student strikes that brought down the communist regime in her native Bulgaria in 1987-1990, she studied European Law at Strasbourg University, did her doctoral studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, and taught political theory at the Institut d’Etudes Politics (Sciences Po.) in Paris. Her writing bridges political and social philosophy and sociology and focuses on democratic transition and consolidation, European integration, social justice, and the transformation of political ideologies. She is the author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment.