The minor imperative

Williams’ accusation that morality is a “peculiar institution” is no more evident than in Schopenhauer’s reduction of freedom to guilt and accountability. The determination of will in an empirical character accounts for both the phenomenal individuality of action and, therefore, its (empirical) necessity while at the same time remaining fully within the Kantian solution to the antinomy of freedom: insofar as we regard ourselves as noumenon our reflective experience manifests as will and yet transcendental freedom is real only as a particular feeling.

Kant was fully aware, however, of the highly mediated nature of self-affection. Morality is only possible by virtue of the weakness of reflection and a fundamental passion first proposed by Shaftesbury. For Shaftesbury, the moral sense is a reflective affection: not the capacity for generosity, e.g., but the affirmation of such a desire. The capacity to be so moved, Kant argues, however, is itself an act of reason. Yet Kant insists equally on the mind’s receptivity, e.g., to the moral ideas as the condition for reason’s activity. Similarly, in the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant observes that the mind must be “attuned” to the feeling of the sublime in a way that requires the influence of culture (even if it is not produced by it) “in something that, along with common sense, we may require and demand of everyone, namely, the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to moral feeling”. Unlike the beautiful, the inadequacy of the sensibility to the infinite requires the “dominance” of reason “for the sake of expanding it [sensibility] commensurately with reason’s own domain (the practical one)”. The role of such an elevated sensibility is not cognitive but, rather, conative since its object is not found in nature (or, for that matter, even the idea of nature); instead it is the terror of the infinity of reason’s practical task itself that morality must transform from fatalism to action. The binding force of the categorical imperative requires

the determinability of the subject by this idea—the determinability, indeed, of a subject who can sense within [herself], as a modification of [her] state, obstacles in sensibility, but at the same time [her] superiority to sensibility in overcoming these obstacles, which determinability is moral feeling—is nevertheless akin to the aesthetic power of judgment and its formal conditions inasmuch as it allows us to present the lawfulness of an act done from duty as aesthetic also …

The Christian passion gives us an image of this conatus that explodes the encircling tendency of self-affection in the agony of the one who must suffer for the love of humanity. Such love is one of the moral feelings that made the mind receptive to the imperatives of duty, which appear simultaneously as if from the outside (from desperation and weakness) but also as if from the inside (from the strength of will to be moved from a noble self-respect). The will moved from duty is moved irresistibly by the appeal of humanity’s fragility and the horror of its reduction to bare life and such a will is ultimately bereaved by the passion of suffering.

But if the possibility of morality were predicated on actual suffering it would not be transcendental. The appeal of suffering has its power not from its exceptionality but rather in its ubiquity and invisibility. The cry of anguish reveals suffering too late and morality passes too easily into retribution for the fact of suffering or else we are moved merely by pity. Suffering has a transcendental role when precarity transforms cosmic fatalism into a love for humanity.

Yet humanity is never given; it must be perpetually constructed. This is why the sublime is propaedeutic for the impossible task of the transcendental imagination: to experience the inadequacy of its own power to cognize the ideas of reason as the necessity of acquiescing to reason’s practical task: “the imagination thereby acquires an expansion and a might that surpasses the one it sacrifices; but the basis of this might is concealed from it; instead the imagination feels the sacrifice or deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is being subjugated”.* Kant insists that the sublime is primarily not to be found in nature—and especially takes pains to warn us against adolescent awe at the night sky as diminishing us to insignificant specks (for such judgments are teleological and not aesthetic)—but in the formality of the idea.

*Or: “the object of a pure and unconditioned intellectual liking is the moral law in its might, the might that it exerts in us over any and all of those incentives of the mind that precede it. This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation—though one that serves our inner freedom—in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee).”

This formality is necessarily dialectically incomplete: “aesthetic purposiveness is the lawfulness of the power of judgment in its freedom. [Whether we then] like the object depends on [how] we suppose the imagination to relate [to it]; but [for this liking to occur] the imagination must on its own sustain the mind in a free activity” (translator’s interpolations). But, thus undetermined by experience, the reflective mind is faced by its own fundamental passivity, which, however, is logical and not temporal: it is always inferred from its effects. The liberation of ideas from sensible experience makes possible pure acts of expression whose constraints are not the usual conditions of discursive consistency but the endurance of an imagination whose activity is never applied to the given. The constants of expression are suspended and thought is turned from appearances toward the shadows: not to be dispelled but varied according to our points of view (or what Løgstrup calls a “sovereign expression of life”). Here, in this transcendental singularity, the imperative of the moral idea refuses the refuge of certainty either in conviction or in the constancy of sense; without the assurance that the ideas of reason are real—and thus where negation can lead only to nihilism—we are left only with the possibility of creating their reality: it is for this reason that “becoming-minoritarian as the universal figure of consciousness is called autonomy” (Deleuze). Thought’s practical task neither begins from nor arrives at the given but, rather, passes through existence as insufficient to satisfy its fundamental drive.