Category Archives: Blog

Kant’s ethics of autonomous obedience

I find it puzzling that, while there is a huge bibliography on Kant’s notion of freedom/autonomy, there is next to nothing on his notion of obedience/subordination even though the two notions are inextricably connected in both his ethics and his politics in a “profound paradox” (Paul Guyer: Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness, 2000, p. 1).  Freedom, which is only moral freedom, refers to free will under moral law, that is, will obeying its own law.  The exercise of freedom involves practices of obedience. Yet, studies of Kantian freedom focus on autonomy and have very little to say about forms of obedience because they see freedom as liberating and enabling rather than regulating and restricting.

Kant distinguishes between two uses of reason, the free public use and the autonomous private one.  While public reason is unfettered, private reason is obedient to its self-imposed moral law, a practice of “free submission” of the will to moral law for its own sake. Reason disciplines and controls the subject, not the citizen.  Autonomy is a duty and a submission:  The proper way for individuals to be free is to autonomously prescribe for themselves the duty of autonomy, which (duty) is the free submission of their morally self-legislative will to its own law.

I see Kantian autonomy is a kind of “government” that exercises power by “guiding the possibility of conduct,” structuring “the possible field of action” of individuals (Foucault:  “The Subject and Power,” in Dreyfus & Rabinow, Michel Foucault, pp. 220-21).  What makes possible this particular kind of modern government is freedom. Individuals are governed by being required to become self-governed subjects.  “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221).

Foucault is interested in these askeses of autonomous obedience, “the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself” (“Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, 19).  He raises this question: “Which kind of political techniques, which technology of government, has been put to work and used and developed in the general framework of the reason of state in order to make of the individual a significant element for the state?” (“The Political Technology of Individuals,” 153)  I suggest that a major political technique of government is Kantian autonomy, the obedience of those “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault:  18).

In all his three discussions of Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment” Foucault stresses that obedience is practiced not in public discussion (where citizens may openly express any views they have) but in private government (where subjects learn to police themselves), thus guaranteeing that thoughts of resistance and revolution will be internally suppressed and forbidden. Here are three quotes from these discussions.

In Kant’s view, critique tells knowledge: “Do you know up to what point you can know?  Reason as much as you want, but do you really know up to what point you can reason without it becoming dangerous?  Critique will say, in short, that it is not so much a matter of what we are undertaking, more or less courageously, than it is the idea we have of our knowledge and its limits.  Our liberty is at stake and consequently, instead of letting someone else say ‘obey,’ it is at this point, once one has gotten an adequate idea of one’s own knowledge and its limits, that the principle of autonomy can be discovered. One will then no longer have to hear the obey; or rather, the obeywill be founded on autonomy itself” (Foucault, “What is Critique?” 195).

Kant distinguishes between “on the one hand, a government of self which will develop in the form of the universal (as public discussion, public reasoning, and the public use of understanding) and, on the other, the obedience to which all those who are part of a given society, state, or administration will be constrained” (38).  Subjects obey on their own free will.  “The more you allow freedom to thought, the more sure you will be that the people’s mind will be shaped to obedience” (The Government of Self and Others, 38).

The question regarding Enlightenment as a political problem “is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible.  And Kant … proposes to Frederick II … what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason:  the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason” (“What is Enlightenment?” 37).  In short, Kant believes that “reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use” (36).   Hence the well-known command that he envisioned Frederick as a truly enlightened monarch addressing to his subjects: “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey” (The Government of Self and Others, 40). “Far from rejecting obedience to sovereignty, it was Kant’s unique achievement to have grounded obedience on the concept of autonomy.  Critique is a play of power and truth that gives the subject the power to govern itself, a power that is not necessarily opposed to obedience to sovereigns” (Schmidt & Wartenberg: “Foucault’s Enlightenment,” in Kelly:  Critique & Power, 1994, 290).

Autonomist and anarchist thought have not developed any systematic interest in ideas of freedom in Kantian liberalism.  The sources for radical self-institution and self-rule must be sought elsewhere.

February 20, 2019

Gastón Gordillo: Syllabus of the course “The Anthropology of Insurrections and Revolution”

how to teach about insurrections and revolution at a time when the world is headed toward an environmental-social catastrophe unless we manage to generate truly revolutionary changes.”

“Editorial Note: The Question of Political Revolution”

Introduction to issue No. 1 (Fall 2018) of Socialist Forum

Robert D. Taber & Charlton W. Yingling: “Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean”

“Our new book, Free Communities of Color in the Revolutionary Caribbean: Overturning, or Turning Back?, brings together emerging and established scholars to explore meanings of community and belonging for people of color in the late Age of Atlantic Revolutions, not just in Haiti or the British Atlantic, but also Caracas, Cartagena, the Dutch and Swedish Caribbean, and the European metropole.”

“The Photos that Captured the First Day of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia”

August 21, 1968 at the Czech Center New York features 20 images of dynamic photo-reportage capturing the first day of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia.”

Rebecca Solnit: “All the Rage: What a literature that embraces female anger can achieve”

“Instead of a theory of male anger, we have a growing literature in essays and now books about female anger, a phenomenon in transition.” Rebecca Solnit on three new books about women’s anger.

Carlos Lozada: “Why women’s rage is healthy, rational and necessary for America”

GOOD AND MAD: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister. Simon & Schuster. 284 pp. (2018)

RAGE BECOMES HER: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly. Atria Books. 392 pp. (2018)

“How the Performance of a French Opera about a Neapolitan Revolt Sparked a Belgian Revolution”

The plot of the fiery libretto of the grand opera The Mute Girl of Portici by the French composer Daniel Auber revolves around the Neapolitan revolts of 1647.

Jackson Lears: “Aquarius Rising”

“Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater.”  Review essay on several books.

“The Failure of Egypt’s Revolution”

Steve Negus reviews Into the Hands of Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East by David D. Kirkpatrick (2018)