Politics without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century


From Plato through the nineteenth century, the West could draw on comprehensive political visions to guide government and society. Now, for the first time in more than two thousand years, Tracy B. Strong contends, we have lost our foundational supports. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the state of political thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has left us effectively “thinking without a banister.”

Politics without Vision takes up the thought of seven influential ...

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Politics without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century

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From Plato through the nineteenth century, the West could draw on comprehensive political visions to guide government and society. Now, for the first time in more than two thousand years, Tracy B. Strong contends, we have lost our foundational supports. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the state of political thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has left us effectively “thinking without a banister.”

Politics without Vision takes up the thought of seven influential thinkers, each of whom attempted to construct a political solution to this problem: Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Lenin, Schmitt, Heidegger, and Arendt. None of these theorists were liberals nor, excepting possibly Arendt, were they democrats—and some might even be said to have served as handmaidens to totalitarianism. And all to a greater or lesser extent shared the common conviction that the institutions and practices of liberalism are inadequate to the demands and stresses of the present times. In examining their thought, Strong acknowledges the political evil that some of their ideas served to foster but argues that these were not necessarily the only paths their explorations could have taken. By uncovering the turning points in their thought—and the paths not taken—Strong strives to develop a political theory that can avoid, and perhaps help explain, the mistakes of the past while furthering the democratic impulse.
Confronting the widespread belief that political thought is on the decline, Strong puts forth a brilliant and provocative counterargument that in fact it has endured—without the benefit of outside support.  A compelling rendering of contemporary political theory, Politics without Vision is sure to provoke discussion among scholars in many fields.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education
“I’ve been waiting for this book all my life. If Strong’s aim is to look on the past with new eyes, then he is undoubtedly successful. Each chapter provides a heady mixture of intellectual energy, scholarly passion, and fresh perspectives. And, like all good books, it raises as many questions as it answers. . . . This is a book that demonstrates Strong’s rare gift for discussing complex issues in an accessible manner, and his capacity for bridging ‘politics as theory’ and ‘politics as practice.’”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226104294
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/22/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 1,480,370
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tracy B. Strong is distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He is a former editor of Political Theory and the author or editor of many books, including Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Politics of the Ordinary, and The Many and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World.

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Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10429-4


Kant and the Death of God

A voice said, Look me in the stars And tell me truly, men of earth, If all the soul and body scars Were not too much to pay for birth. Robert Frost, "A Question"

The greatest poverty is not to live In a physical world, to feel that one's desire Is too difficult to tell from despair. Wallace Stevens, "Esthétique du Mal"

NIETZSCHE ANTICIPATES THE GENERAL DEVELOPMENTS THAT LED TO the post–World War I disillusion and famously refers to them as the death of God. He means by this not only the discrediting and erosion of the Christian religion—after all, every Christian knows that God did die—but also the disappearance or discrediting of any realm that might stand independently of our understanding and to which our understanding might be referred. Call this the vision or a transcendental realm or, to reverse the orientation, a foundation. It serves as a banister. In practice, it means to recognize as authoritative some understanding outside ourselves, that is, as an understanding in which we claim to recognize ourselves. It could be class, race, reason, nature, logic, science, God. The death of God thus designates a situation in which we are cast loose from any source of authority external to our self, and it is, thus, the precondition for what Arendt referred to as the possibility of thinking "ohne Geländer." In the paragraph of the Gay Science that immediately precedes the one that informs the populace of God's death, Nietzsche calls attention to the fact that, even without the knowledge of his demise, humans find themselves cast adrift: "We have left the land and taken to ship! We have demolished the bridges behind us—even more, we have destroyed the land behind us.... Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if more freedom had been there—and there is no longer any land." This says: we have started on a journey without an end (there are no more ports as we have destroyed the land). There is a danger that we long for the security of hard ground, failing to acknowledge that there is no longer any (was there ever?). Importantly, Nietzsche finds that our condition as cast adrift on a sea without the possibility of ports precedes the knowledge of the death of God. It is a development in process, and the sequence of seventeen paragraphs in the Gay Science that precede the announcement of the death of God (pars. 108–24) lead up to it just as the seventeen ones that follow it detail the possibility of clearing "the air of everything Christian" (pars. 126–42). Nietzsche proclaims God's death in paragraph 125 of the Gay Science—it is a truth the news of which has not yet reached the general consciousness of the public, who continue to live on in the "shadows of the dead God." Furthermore, Nietzsche sees God's death as a murder and Westerners as the assassins. Those to whom a "madman" calls out in the marketplace of his search for God mock him: "Is God lost?" The madman replies:

We have killed him,—you and I! We all are his murderers! But how have we done this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we unbound this earth from its sun? To where does it move now? To where do we move? Away from all suns? Are we not continually plunging about? And this backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Do we not wander though an unending nothingness? Does not empty space blow on us? Has it not become more cold? Does not the night and not only the night come constantly on? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?

As always, Nietzsche's vividness makes a point. The man is mad because the world in terms of which he could make sense to and of himself is vanishing, now just a shadow. The death of God is the consequence of human actions, and the consequences of this death are or will be cosmic and catastrophic. The death of God means that we no longer know how to stand toward anything that used to give constancy and meaning. It is also a challenge: in the midst of this preaching, two problems are quietly set for the reader. The first has to do with a grasping of the consequences, actual and to come, that this event has for human understanding and life. There are, Nietzsche says, no natural limits anymore (no "horizon"), and regularity has disappeared as experience (the earth is "unbound ... from its sun"). Our vision—that is, our security in what we understand—is impaired for night comes on and we are forced to rely on artifice to preserve our normal life patterns (to light "lanterns ... in the morning"). Second, Nietzsche asks: "How have we brought this about?" In other words, what is it that humans have done such that God has died? There is, of course, a third question: What then is to be done? What is important here is that the death of God is not so much a declaration of atheism (and how could it, in fact, be?) as the formula for a set of experiences that are central to the West over the twentieth century.

Importantly, what is lost with the death of God is not just God but the human being who had an understanding of God. At the end of the Third Meditation, Descartes tells us that his "nature could not be as it is" if the God of which "the idea was in him did not exist." The implication—and it is present in Nietzsche's understanding of the death of God—is that, should the concept of God disappear, then I would myself be changed. Hence, the changes demanded by the death of God are, while slow to come about (Nietzsche foresees two hundred years), changes in what it means to be human. If the twentieth century is the beginning of this process, the question arises as to how to take hold of it.

The various answers to these questions will take shape, I hope, over the course of this book. Preliminarily, in response to the first question—How will humans react to the disorientation in and of their world?—one might note that reactions typically took the path of trying to find a mooring point that was apparently not affected by the death of God. For some it was science and the extension of human power over nature. I shall pursue this theme in several chapters of this book, most notably in those on Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, and Heidegger, all of whom cast doubt on the viability of this answer. For others, it was in the elaboration of a world that was somehow exempt from the discontents of the present. To anticipate even a bit further: for many a model of such a world was found in antiquity, most oft en in Greece. Why Greece? In 1755, in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, Johann Winckelmann wrote: "The only way for us to become great ... lies in the imitation of the Greeks." The same attitude governs the presuppositions of so excellent a book as Bruno Snell's The Discovery of the Mind, first published in 1946 and accomplished during the Second World War. With Winckelman, Snell asks: "If we are to be Europeans ... the question looms before us, 'Who were the Greeks?'" Here, the historical has replaced the heroic. Snell's analysis was premised on the possibility of going back to a culture before the Christian one, without a monotheistic God, and arguing that the basis of a common European culture lay there. His recognition or belief was that Christianity had not sufficed to stave off Nazism, and, thus, he sought the origins of a comprehensive European culture in Greece. The sense here is that the death of God was the death of the Christian God and that one therefore had to find something antecedent.

Snell and the others were not the first to seek an alternative for Western civilization in the ancients: this cannot be the place to replay the entire and important debate. What is important is that the search for Greece and for a fons origo on which Western culture might rely comes precisely at the time that the autonomous individual acquires full shape in the thought of Kant—precisely thus at the time at which we might locate the beginning, as it were, of God's death. Certainly, as such, the pursuit of Greece characterizes much of thought from the middle of the eighteenth century on, sufficiently such that Nietzsche can remark in a note from 1884 or 1885: "German philosophy as a whole—Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, to name the important ones—is the most basic kind of romanticism and nostalgia there has been. The desire for the best that ever was. One is nowhere at home, one strives in the end to go back, to where one somehow could be at home, because one may only there be at home: and that is the Greek world. But all bridges that reach precisely there are just the ones that are broken—excepting the rainbow-bridges of concepts." Nietzsche's remark does not deny that we can learn something from the Greek experience. The allusion to the rainbow bridge by which the Gods cross over into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold is, however, double-edged. We cannot become Greek, but we can learn how the Greeks did what they did. Here, Nietzsche's inclusion of Kant may raise eyebrows: I hope to show some reasons below.

Nietzsche's second task is set by the question of how we came to kill God. It is in the answer to this that one finds the possibility of an alternative to the external or divine foundation for knowledge and meaning. The most important answer, described in great and informative detail in Jerome B. Schneewind's recent book, is that humans invented autonomy. Autonomy, as it is there understood, is the "ability to live by and make the moral law." And, although "made" by humans, this moral law is claimed to be valid independently of who or whatever may have made it. Schneewind sees a culmination in Kant's "astonishing claim ... that God and we can share membership in a single moral community." In other words: God makes no ultimate difference as to what is morally right.

That Kant probably continued to believe in God—though his beliefs occasionally led him to trouble—is not at question here. What is important is his recognition that autonomy requires, not only giving a law to yourself, but also doing so in such a way that the maxim of your law be universalizable. God makes no difference to the rationality of morality. The rationality of morality, however, is, as Kant makes quite explicit, dependent on the "autonomy of the will" (the "property of the will by which it is a law to itself"). Importantly, Kant's achievement in the First Critique (the Critique of Pure Reason) was immediately recognized as having released what Jacob Oberreit called in 1792 a "gigantic horror" on the world. The replacement of God with the noumenal (about which nothing was knowable) changed the human position in the world. The same point was made by Jacobi, Jean-Paul, and others. As Nietzsche was to remark in the third of the Untimely Meditations: "This danger [of the despair of truth] attends every thinker who sets out from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clattering thought—and calculating machine.... As soon, however, as Kant might start to exercise a popular [populär] influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating relativism and skepticism.... We cannot decide whether what we call truth is really truth, or whether it only appears to us to be such." (One can only contrast these reactions to the bloodless analyses of the First Critique in much of contemporary analytic philosophy.)


If the invention of autonomy was finally formulated in Kant, and if that invention was itself instrumental in the death of God, one must spend some time in an investigation of some themes in Kant. This cannot be exhaustive—in particular, I would have had to start with an exploration of the Critique of Pure Reason. Nevertheless, what follows here is, I think, central to the concerns of this book.

Let me anticipate a bit. I have chosen to start here with a consideration of the Third Critique (the Critique of the Power of Judgment) because in it Kant shows that to be a (human) subject—to have a voice of one's own—is not a simple given, like arms and legs, but something to be achieved. His analysis of maturity in the essay on enlightenment is clear as to what such an achievement entails: one must acknowledge the limits of human comprehension, and, in doing so, one finds that one is tied to those with whom one shares a world. Thus, any judgment I make in the first-person singular ("I") may command the attention of my fellows, although it cannot compel their agreement. This is why the aesthetic opens up the space for the political. I do not think that those whom I consider in the rest of this book share Kant's exact position, but I do think that they take up the elements of his position: a concern for the subject, a concern for the limits of knowledge, a concern for the universe of subjects and for the constructed world that we all live in. In turn, this greatly complicates the legacy of the Enlightenment for we moderns: many of those considered here are read as counter-Enlightenment figures, whereas they are, in fact, the complex heirs of a particular strand of the Enlightenment.

In his lectures on logic, Kant famously remarked: "The field of philosophy may be reduced to four questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. For what may I hope? 4. What is a human being?" He continued by asserting: "The first question is answered by Metaphysics, the second by Morals, the third by Religion and the fourth by Anthropology. In reality, however, all these might be reckoned under anthropology, since the first three questions refer to the last." The central structure of Kant's answers to the four questions is the critique, a reflective elaboration of what has to be the case for something to be what it is (and, thus, available as knowledge). The critique is not simply an intellectual tool. Rather, one should ask, What sort of individual is able to live a critical life? Typically, in Kant, the shorthand word for adequate character is mature or adult—manifesting what Schneewind, following Kant, designates as autonomy. Maturity is a quality of character, not of age. This theme, I might anticipate here, will not stop with Kant. Weber, in "Politics as a Vocation," refers to a "mature man, whether old or young in years." Freud, at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents, suggests that most humans are, psychologically considered, "children." Lenin, in his discussion of the Party, describes the last stage of the development of a professionally competent revolutionary as that of "adulthood."

Whence these metaphors? I do not want in this book to replay (yet another) history of the nineteenth century. I do, however, think that the association of these ideas one with the other is a constant theme in nineteenth-century thought, an association that is to a great degree inherent and oft en explicit in the thought of Kant. The revolution in philosophy—the invention of autonomy—associated with Kant set the framework within which and to some degree against which the next two centuries of thought must work. I want now to turn to a consideration of what can stand as or in or for the source of these associations, namely, to Kant's consideration of the aesthetic object and of aesthetic experience.


It is important to see that the idea of maturity, and, thus, of character, is associated with the idea of the critique. An obvious source is Kant's famous 1783 essay "A Response to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" Kant argues, famously, that enlightenment is an individual's emergence from his or her own "self-induced immaturity." The word for immaturity here is Unmündigkeit—it could be rendered as dependence or as not of age—and it carries with it the resonance, if not the etymology, of not having a voice. It refers here not so much to something like voting (though it does not not refer to that) as to something like being able to speak in front of others and to others. Accordingly, the strongest characteristic of maturity is having one's own voice. Importantly, Kant is immediately explicit that minority is "self-incurred" and that it is such because it is consequent, not to a lack of knowledge, but rather to a lack of will. In other words, maturity is not a state that can be consequent simply to the acquiring of more knowledge. (Here again is Kant's debt to Rousseau.) An exploration of immaturity is, thus, an exploration of what it means for one to have a voice that is one's own: what does it mean to use the first-person pronoun authentically?

At the very beginning of the essay, we are urged to "Sapere aude! Have the courage to make use of your own understanding." We are called on to manifest courage, a quality of character. The Latin citation is from Horace's Epistles; it means "dare to know (or be wise)" and immediately follows a line that indicates that to begin is half the journey. In context, Horace tell us:

Why indeed

do you hurry to remove things hurtful to your eye, while if something is harmful to your soul, you put off the time for curing it till next year? Who begins a project has it half done; dare to know; begin! Whoever postpones the hour of living rightly is like the yokel who is waiting until the river runs out: but it will glide onwards and continue to glide forever in its flow.

Excerpted from POLITICS WITHOUT VISION by TRACY B. STRONG. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



The World as We Find It

Kant and the Death of God

Nietzsche: The Tragic Ethos and the Spirit of Music

Max Weber, Magic, and the Politics of Social Scientific Objectivity

“What Have We to Do with Morals?” Nietzsche and Weber on the Politics of Morality

Sigmund Freud and the Heroism of Knowledge

Lenin and the Calling of the Party

Carl Schmitt and the Exceptional Sovereign

Martin Heidegger and the Space of the Political

Without a Banister: Hannah Arendt and Roads Not Taken

Conclusion: The World as It Finds Us



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