Enthusiasm and Paul Keating’s Kantianism

Ex-Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has had a number of news pieces recently published about his career and work in light of his new book After Words. His invocation of Kant is absolutely striking. Can you imagine any contemporary political leader drawing intellectual inspiration from Kant?

Keating is isolating the tension between modernist, rational scientific progress and the passion — what Kant called Enthusiasm — required to mobilise a population so as to achieve the challenges posed by progress. He suggests that:

The great changes in civilisation and society have been wrought by deeply held beliefs and passion rather than by a process of rational deduction.

And, furthermore:

[The] greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. […]
When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity – a coherence – which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide.

Another way to frame Keating’s Kantianism is in terms of a positive view of aesthetics in politics. Benjamin and others were deeply suspicious of the aestheticisation of politics as they argued it inevitably lead to fascism. Keating’s remarks do not advocate an ‘aestheticisation of politics’, but neither does Keating follow Schiller in advocating for Spieltrieb (or the ‘play drive’ or ‘play impulse’) over industrious enterprise. Rather, if we turn to Schiller’s text from which Keating derives his opening quote “On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters” we see that Schiller is exploring a tension between the impetus of political action, as an expression of freedom, derived from ‘laws’ as compared to those derived from ‘forces’ both at the level of society and the individual:

The misfortune of his brothers, of the whole species, appeals loudly to the heart of the man of feeling; their abasement appeals still louder; enthusiasm is inflamed, and in souls endowed with energy the burning desire aspires impatiently to action and facts. But has this innovator examined himself to see if these disorders of the moral world wound his reason, or if they do not rather wound his self-love? If he does not determine this point at once, he will find it from the impulsiveness with which he pursues a prompt and definite end. A pure, moral motive has for its end the absolute; time does not exist for it, and the future becomes the present to it directly, by a necessary development, it has to issue from the present. To a reason having no limits the direction towards an end becomes confounded with the accomplishment of this end, and to enter on a course is to have finished it.

Schiller is in part talking about ‘self-interest’ (wounded self love) and the circular logic of applying reason to ‘definite ends’, that is, of an inability to think or imagine beyond the horizon of possibilities that consitute the current political juncture.

Schiller is also in part talking about Kant himself. In an earlier section of his letters, immediately before the passage quoted by Keating (in a slightly different translation of “On the Aesthetic Education of Man“), Schiller describes Kant’s reaction to the French Revolution, in part, as having a ‘noble enthusiasm for the weal of humanity’:

How tempting it would be for me to investigate such a subject in company with one who is as acute a thinker as he is a liberal citizen of the world! And to leave the decision to a heart which has dedicated itself with such noble enthusiasm to the weal of humanity. What an agreeable surprise if, despite all difference in station, and the vast distance which the circumstances of the actual world make inevitable, I were, in the realm of ideas, to find my conclusions identical with those of a mind as unprejudiced as your own! That I resist this seductive temptation, and put Beauty before Freedom, can, I believe, not only be excused on the score of personal inclination, but also justified on principle. I hope to convince you that the theme I have chosen is far less alien to the needs of our age than to its taste. More than this: if man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to Freedom. But this cannot be demonstrated without my first reminding you of the principles by which Reason is in any case guided in matters of political legislation.

Beyond a politics derived from the legislation of reason, is a conception of understanding derived from the interplay of ‘nature’ and ‘reason’ within which dwells ‘aesthetics’. (Steven Shaviro has been discussing this for a number of years.) Keating expresses this in some of the closing remarks in his interview with Paul Kelly of The Australian:

This is not to say that rationalism isn’t important and good. It is. But left to itself without the guidance of higher meaning and a higher concept, rationalism can be mean and incomplete. I say if you simply live on rational policy and briefing notes you are not sufficiently informed.
You need a higher calling or some inner system of belief – here I mention Kant and the inner command that tells you what is true, what is right, what is good. The inner command must be the divining construct in what you do.

For a leader, then, the challenge is one of guidance. For a population being lead it is a question of enthusiasm — not in a quasi-fascistic manner that celebrates violence against protesters, for example — by an enthusiasm inflamed in a population so that the population mobilises to faces the challenges of a future articulated by political leaders. A compromise to maintain leadership, with no sense of what challenges need to be engaged with by a leadership or a population, is what we have at the moment. To appropriate Marx, current generations make their own progress, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from a possible future that they are striving towards.

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