- Politics without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century by Tracy B. Strong
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 406 pp. isbn: 9780226104294. Paper, $29.00.
The notion that modernity entails the loss of authoritative grounds has become a piece of conventional wisdom in contemporary political philosophy. In Politics without Vision, Tracy Strong offers a new perspective on this notion by identifying a unique tradition in twentieth-century political thought. His cast includes Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt. With the insightfulness that characterizes much of his scholarship, Strong sheds new light on the familiar and persuasively draws connections that would otherwise seem farfetched. This is because he eyes a grand theme, while remaining attentive to nuances. With a nod to the late Sheldon Wolin's classic Politics and Vision (1960; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), Strong suggests that the intellectuals he discusses stand out because they all "reject the need for, and the possibility of, a 'vision'" (7). A vision is the "bannister"—to adopt Arendt's famous metaphor—without which these thinkers thought.
The particular vision Strong's thinkers reject is the belief in "the capacity of rationality and knowledge to resolve the human condition they see around them" (8). With this claim, it is clear why Nietzsche must serve as a pivotal figure in Strong's study. Yet, Strong prefaces his foray into Nietzsche by focusing on two strands of Kant's thought that, he believes, [End Page 457] lay the groundwork for Nietzsche. First, he emphasizes how the Kantian conception of the autonomous subject, which renders recourse to religion for morality unnecessary, eventually paved the way for a world in which "God is dead." Second, distancing his reading of Kant from one founded on rationality, Strong focuses on Kant's aesthetic theory in The Critique of the Power of Judgment, where, like Arendt, he finds a theory of political community based on the subject's claims upon the assent of others when she makes aesthetic judgments. Even if Kant never abandoned reason, these features of his thought open the way for a radical Kantianism that renders reason suspect. And although contemporary Kantians will take issue with this suggestion of diminishing the role of reason in Kant's thought, it is important to acknowledge that Strong's reading is not without precedent. It has much in common with Arendt's, as well as those of Schiller and post-Kantian romantics.
In these respects, Strong sees his main actors as Kant's heirs. And both the general characterization of a radical Kantianism based on a suspicion of reason, and the more specific argument for a relation between the aesthetic and the political set the stage for Strong's discussion of Nietzsche. His engagement with Nietzsche dates back to his 1975 work, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration (expanded ed., Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), which he has revisited over the course of several editions. In that work, Strong identified a democratic dimension in Nietzsche's thought through an analysis of Nietzsche's relation to the Greeks. Politics without Vision echoes some of these older claims through a discussion of Nietzsche's engagement with Greek tragedy: "It is the spirit of music that makes tragedy possible that is at the source of what one may call, even and especially in Nietzsche, the democratic element of Nietzsche's political thinking" (86). The experience of music brings us out of closed subjectivity and, thus, provides a possible basis for ties to others (herein lies a similarity to Strong's account of the relation between aesthetics and politics in Kant). The fact that music makes possible the forging of ties to others, but also eludes rationality because we are always striving to find words "adequate to our experience of it" (90), qualifies Nietzsche as a thinker who offers us a politics without a rational ground.
Two questions emerge regarding Strong's discussion of Nietzsche. First, is Strong rehashing an old argument? Not if we take seriously...