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  • An Ethical Perspective on the Historical Development of Humanity in Patočka
  • Eric Pommier (bio)

Translated by Zack Hugo

First, couldn't one reproach Patočka for marginalizing the condition of plurality, which is so essential for the ethical dimension of humanity? In effect, by placing excessive value on the sacrifice of and devotion to the other, Patočka could be led to devaluing the necessity for everyone to affirm him- or herself just as he or she is with others and to overemphasizing self-forgetting for the benefit of others. Is the course of history, in which subjectivities can stand up for themselves, compatible with a strictly moral aspiration of humanity?

Second, one may also wonder whether the moral valorization of sacrifice is sufficient for remedying the potentially violent conflicts that characterize human existence. Is it really possible to conceive a moral [End Page 165] fulfillment of humanity through sacrifice without taking into account the reality of war, without considering the antagonistic character of historical existence? If the answer to these last two questions were negative, we would have to conclude that Patočka's morality of sacrifice turns out to be inadequate and impotent when it comes to orienting the historical development of humanity against the danger of its technification.

This twofold difficulty warrants staging a dialogue with Hannah Arendt insofar as she calls attention, on the one hand, to the need for understanding history outside a moral imperative, particularly to preserve human plurality qua plurality; and, on the other hand, to the problematic and controversial nature of (historical) action when it comes to being able to regulate history without yearning for an impotent idealism.

The nonmoral development of history, however, does not preclude, for Arendt, the possibility of ethically orienting its course. Therefore, the confrontation with the Arendtian analyses should help us to better understand and highlight the real importance of plurality for Patočka—in particular through the figure of the "solidarity of the shaken"—and the acknowledgment of the ontologically polemical dimension of human history. In this way, one could show how Patočka's ethics can orient the course of human history, not only because his ethics respects plurality but also because it takes the polemical character of human relations seriously. One could even suggest that Patočka radicalizes the deep nature of human antagonism more than Arendt by inscribing it on the level of being itself. However, this remains to be demonstrated.

In light of the foregoing, I will proceed to lay out the anthropologicalcosmological prolegomena to show how Patočka calls for an ethical orientation of human history. This proposal requires a confrontation with Arendt's philosophy to respond to two possible objections regarding the fulfillment of such an ethics and to better understand its meaning.

I. Brief Prolegomena for Patočka's Philosophy of History, Anthropology, and Cosmology

Patočka holds that both the Husserlian and Heideggerian descriptions of history remain abstract. That is owed to the lack of a description of the [End Page 166] appearing and arising of historical meaning, a description that would be impossible from a situation in which one does not exist. Nor, on his critique, do these phenomenologists offer the conditions for the execution of such a description. For this reason, it becomes necessary to describe the transition from the ahistorical and prehistorical stage of humanity to its final historical stage, characterized by the consciousness of the problematic character of meaning. However, Patočka falls into a possible ambiguity. Even if he aims to conceive such a continuous transition through these three moments, he tends to affirm an essential difference between the first two states and the last one. In so doing, he runs the risk of endorsing a form of substance dualism between them. In reality, whereas the problematicity of existence characterizes the historical stage, the preceding periods are characterized by a humanity that limits itself to living. If Patočka truly seeks to describe the emergence of the historical, it is necessary to describe the transition between all of the stages, which would be made impossible by a substance dualism between mere life...