The antinomy of autonomy

In my current research project, The Tragedy of Revolution, I argue that α central topic of modern tragedy is the ethico-political dilemma of rebellion, namely, the predicament of the revolutionary beginning caught between limitless self-authorization and self-limiting rule.

Modern tragedy stages the drama of the Greek arche/ἀρχή in its double meaning of beginning and rule, and asks whether self-rule may control itself, whether radical autonomy may limit itself.  Thus, it explores the inherent contradiction of auto-nomia captured in its very etymology: Can freedom and rule co-exist?  Can a collectivity be free and at the same time live under the rule of law?  This contradiction, when insurmountable, makes freedom “tragic.”  The concept of “tragic freedom” has been central to Critical philosophy from Kant to post-anarchism.  Its earliest concise articulation is the “paradox of autonomy,” the hugely influential Third Antinomy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

Kant defines freedom negatively as independence from heteronomous determination and positively as self-lawgiving – in short, as the law of self-legislation.  This definition frees the rebels from the normativity of necessity and encourages them to make their own laws yet it sounds self-contradictory.  “The way in which Kant articulates the idea of autonomy might give rise to a paradox:  autonomy understood in Kantian terms seems in imminent danger of reverting into arbitrariness of force, into a freedom without law or a law without freedom. [] In order for there to be a paradox in the full sense of the word we need to see how the conditions that autonomy seems to require at the same time appear to be conditions of the impossibility of autonomy.  This is precisely the sense of paradox that is at issue in the interesting diagnoses of the paradox of autonomy” (Thomas Khurana: “Paradoxes of Autonomy:  On the Dialectics of Freedom and Normativity,” Symposium 17:1, 2013, p. 61).

Law-giving as a foundational act of the revolutionaries is lawless.  However, such an act may be repeated again and again in celebration of its arbitrariness.  “The condition of possibility of autonomy – a reasoned and non-arbitrary positing of the law – seems to reveal itself as the condition of the impossibility of autonomy:  it implies an order of heteronomy in which the self-prescribed law is not binding as such but only due to a former law that was not self-prescribed” (62).

Is there a way to balance arbitrariness and heteronomy or seek another option?  “The paradox is brought to the fore by conceiving autonomy in terms of self-legislation and thereby implying a first instituting act that seems to be either arbitrary and hence open to an infinite series of different institutions or else dependent upon pre-existing reasons that open up a regress beyond the putative first instituting act.  The question then is whether we can make sense of our being the authors of the law without invoking of such a first legislation” (67).  The tragedy of revolution dramatizes the dilemma of self-constitution and the antinomy of autonomy, an issue that continues to preoccupy both political theory and moral philosophy.

5 February 2020

Peter Hallward: ‘A law unto ourselves: autonomy as mass sovereignty’

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