- Reason’s Homelessness: Rationalization in Bentham and Marx
introduction: questions and directions
On many fronts it is said that reason cannot provide answers to fundamental questions of political life, that the Enlightenment faith in reason is barbaric, that the final consequences of our belief in truth and truth qua value at any cost are being drawn — and that these consequences leave us without means for establishing the conditions of authentic political life. And yet why do we hold that we need / can “think” our way out of the peculiar predicament of modernism and its attendant irony? Do we believe that we can spot the trajectory that leads to this place of paroxism using the same gaze that obliterates and levels difference without distinction? By somehow maintaining that we can work our way to the bottom of the matter we maintain a commitment to the Christian metaphysical creed that reason is willful. Christian metaphysics presupposes a world of bodies created and acted upon by external force, a concept of will as cause. In a godless world, we must assume this weighty position — and cannot. Thinking is understood as acting, positing, creating — we still come up short. Thus even imagining ourselves at our most powerful, the nihilism prophesied by Nietzsche cannot simply be a matter of retracing our steps to take another path — there is no avoiding its inner necessity. And so we must begin to admit that reason will not provide the conditions for achieving freedom. The continuity of the debate between the Ancients and the Moderns is to cease, as only ghosts imagine that there remains something one can carry out to properly secure one’s proper end. We come too late to despair over reason’s homelessness.
Following Weber, we late moderns can see that the emergence of reason in the world, and the rationalization of social relations that follows that emergence, identifies an historical process that eviscerates the grounds upon which peoples are. We recognize that all-powerful reason, that which levels and displaces, cannot work to establish conditions that render our homelessness into something home-like. “Philosophy is really homesickness, a striving to be at home everywhere.” And yet we can also see that the grasping for an account of such a history is itself implicated in the Western gesture that attempts to capture the essence of historical existence in technical mastery.
The question is not who we might be, how we might achieve it and be in control of that which we are to become, but to reconsider ourselves in light of the critical events that have rendered us in this uncanny way. In the exercise of digging into the tradition of political theory that informs our thinking, as with any biography, we are necessarily struck by events in that tradition: events, properly understood, are not the mere happenings in a life story or history, but rather those happenings that are somehow definitive, somehow summarize, overturn, and yet preserve all that has gone before, somehow overcome and manifest them. It is in this spirit that I invite you to approach two particular events in the history of reason’s progressive homelessness: Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx. We approach them with questions of design and destiny, and the strange homelessness of reason, and the attempts to bring our thinking back into the fold of our dwelling. They are events in the history of reason. To see them as events against the backdrop of reason’s movement through time, we examine their works to understand how they invite us to behold the human, what “natures” require, and what separates and joins these. We will ask how their conceptions become events in the development of rationalization, of what happens to the objects of their study, and where their abstraction takes them and leaves them, and, consequently, leaves us. By looking to understand the changing conception of the human and the underlying understanding of truth and its purpose in the 19th century as paradigmatic of the larger unfolding of rationalization, we move closer to comprehending our own time and to account for some of the vagaries of loss, and for remaining possibilities.