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The Illusion of History: Time and the Radical Political Imagination
by andrew r. russ
catholic university of america,
338 pages, $69.95

A century ago, Charles Péguy observed that self-­consciously modern intellectuals “want for everyone to criticize everything. But they don’t want anyone to critique critique.” For Péguy and others, “critique” broadly designates thinking in which reflexive suspicion of truth and truth claims is assumed to be superior to any reasoned assent to those claims, and analyses of becoming and historical flux are increasingly assumed to be more powerful, more valuable, and more honest than thinking affirmatively about being, nature, truth, goodness, God, or any metaphysical term intimating abiding “essences” in the world and beyond it. 

From early modernity forward, a doughty and eclectic succession of thinkers have criticized this kind of critique. Pascal, ­Johann Georg ­Hamann, Péguy, and many others have exposed its tendency to depend tacitly upon bold metaphysical commitments that it elsewhere decries. 

That is, modern critical thought often loudly proclaims its radical skepticism and the need to take nothing from metaphysics—or nothing that it cannot establish entirely on its own—but then smuggles into its arguments and exhortations to readers a silent metaphysics of truth, of the good, the beautiful, and the ultimate nature of reality, all the while claiming to emancipate those same readers from metaphysical burdens. Critics observe that modern critical thinking is often rather amusingly inconsistent and—more seriously—threatens to deprive us of the metaphysical freedom that is indispensable to human flourishing, and with it our potential for living lives of purpose in the time available to us. 

Yet the critique of critique can sometimes develop the destructive symptoms that it attributes to critique. For all its acute observations about critique’s shortcomings, it can include only tentative gestures toward affirmative metaphysical arguments about truth, goodness, or meaning, creating an amorphous protest against the presumptions of modern critique. The critique of critique can thus be parasitic upon the apparently parasitic tendencies of critique, and thus does not cure but intensifies the malady it encounters. 

In The Illusion of History , by ­Andrew Russ, the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant is the supreme transformative moment in modern critical thinking. Kant claimed that his philosophy defended (certain kinds of) metaphysics and constituted a refutation of David Hume’s radical skepticism. But for Russ, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, Kant points the way toward an account of human being in which a radically autonomous will exists apart from creaturely history and the historical institutions that help to orient us in the world.

Kant’s philosophy of history posits an ultimate rapprochement between the autonomous rational will and human experience, but for Russ, these Kantian ends stand in remote repose, far from the institutional, continuous, and organically historical realities of human life. After Kant, these realities were diminished in both meaning and importance and left undefended before a fiercely historicizing skepticism. 

For Russ, Kant created the space for the most radical forms of modern critique. Human being is separated from its indispensably embodied, temporal, and culturally instantiated conditions of experience. This separation produces seemingly liberated but thoroughly alienated modern persons, who are then compelled to protest their alienation in uncompromising terms, often by lurching toward still more radical forms of critique—attacking remaining claims about truth, purpose, goodness, and so on. It is this move that first appears by way of prolepsis in Rousseau and is transfigured by Marx and Foucault. 

The audacity of this argument is not to be gainsaid: Russ claims that the philosophies of ­Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault are not, as conventional wisdom generally assumes, distinct movements toward a thoroughly historical understanding of human experience. Rather, they are three philosophies that tacitly rely upon an ahistorical dualism with profound Kantian resonances, in which the shared historical world we inhabit and the metaphysical traditions conveyed by our cultures are assumed to be lies.

To create their distinctive forms of radical critical distance from their places in a continuous history, Russ claims, Rousseau, Marx, and ­Foucault imagine three different stark, timeless, yet immanent metaphysical ideals that stand in perpetual critical judgment upon our experience. The fictive past of Rousseau’s state of nature and his selective account of life in ancient Sparta serve him as idylls. Marx’s dialectical and universally valid “scientific” affirmation of use value, labor power, and the quotidian hunter, fisher, cattle-raiser, and critic of The German Ideology places his timeless yet historical ideal in the communist future. Foucault’s universal emptiness of historical time, at once “autistic” and without consciousness, allows the “imaginative critical individual” to survey history’s “species of thought” while remaining forever separated from history in an  isolated present. 

For Russ, these critical positions serve as implicit trans-historical standards: They are Rousseauian, Marxist, and ­Foucauldian illusions of history rather than engagements with history. Hence the pride that modern critique takes in its uncompromising historicism is also illusory. 

That some of the most important thinkers and methods of modern ­critique rely upon a tacit, often Kant-inflected ideal of critical autonomy that is placed in time yet set apart from their putative historicism is a bold and important argument, and it is generally persuasive. Russ is also incisive when reading fiction preoccupied with modern critique; the pages devoted to literature are among the book’s best. For him, Camus and especially Kafka expose with uncanny clarity the dilemmas attending a culture in which critical imaginings begin to form the habitual ways of thinking. 

Russ also alludes to a rich counter-critical philosophical history to affirm the importance of historical continuity and its institutions when modern critique has left us alienated and diminished by reflexive suspicion. He commends, for aid in responding to those he calls “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a ‘what’ but a ‘why’” when they investigate human experience, attention to Montesquieu, Jacobi, Hamann, Burke, Hegel, and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. These philosophers sustain his critique of critique; they are “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a ‘what’ but a ‘why’?” when they investigate human experience.

While there is much to praise in The Illusion of History , there are dubious generalizations at work in its treatment of its major philosophers, especially Rousseau. Furthermore, while it is an author’s prerogative to identify unexpected ­correspondences, it does not require a scholarly obsessive’s party-pooping pedantry to observe that thinkers like Burke, Hamann, and Hegel are generally not identified as part of a single school of thought, and that there are important reasons for distinguishing among them. 

Precisely which institutions do they variously affirm? As for why institutions are legitimate and important, is it because of their particular and organic duration that cannot be entirely subjected to reason (Burke), or as part of the universal, cumulative dialectical realization of the Absolute (Hegel)? Or are they best conceived by the continuous power of the Incarnation, through which eternity fuses sense and reason, matter and language (Hamann)? These differences are essential; here they are mentioned in passing or passed over in silence. 

The subtitle of the book, Time and the Radical Political Imagination , offers the prospect of investigating time and imagination, but here that work is often left undone. There are interesting passages about Kant’s account of imagination, but the extraordinary importance of imagination in Rousseau’s philosophy—where it has an altogether different and often intensely political function—is simply absent. Working with Rousseau’s earlier account of imagination’s power would have allowed Russ (in keeping with his own argumentative commitments) to write with greater sensitivity to history, rather than repeatedly enlisting Rousseau as an awkwardly anachronistic philosophical emanation of Kant.

Above all, Russ fails to reckon with the question of time, a preoccupation of both Christian and modern secular thought. In these pages, time is generally identified with history and the timeless with the trans-historical, but later sections of the book jettison this already debatable usage. 

Russ claims there that the organic, “unbroken” trinity of past, present, and future has been shattered by modern critique, and he hopes to reveal “time in its Trinitarian unity.” The theological implications of sustained trinitarian language are undeveloped; they are abandoned abruptly in favor of “all four dimensions of time,” including eternity, which appears only as a posterity that permits institutions to perpetuate the vision of their founders. A book promising to explore time and the political imagination must take more care with its major terms.

The Illusion of History is an ambitious, original, and often truly insightful book. Its argumentative shortcomings leave the reader wondering whether critiques of modern critique would benefit from greater attention to their animating, positive commitments, whether those commitments are “historical-­institutional” or philosophical. 

The critique of a now-conventional critical habit of thought requires that its critics dare to know—and to explore openly with lucid, peaceful, and reasoned confidence—precisely where and how they have found themselves beyond the increasingly closed and institutionally fortified frontiers of modern critique, and how readers might find their way there too.

Matthew W. Maguire is associate professor of history and Catholic studies at DePaul University .