Albena Azmanova


On her book The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment

Cover Interview of March 27, 2012

A close-up

Although the Enlightenment, at the dawn of Modernity, raised the beacon of Reason and thus raised humanity’s hopes for a right answer to complex issues, doubts about that promise emerged early on.  One of the most prominent advocates of reason, Immanuel Kant, was exasperated by what he called “the Scandal of Reason.” The “scandal” is this: as much as the human mind is incapable of certain and verifiable knowledge, we are invariably compelled to seek such knowledge, especially concerning matters of human existence.  The controversial faculty of reasoned judgment to waver between the extremes of uncertainty and dogma, of doubt and treacherous certainty, and to both destabilize political rules and render justification to morally appalling political rule (like Nazism and Stalinism), is the political expression of the “scandal of reason.”

From the scandal of reason grows what I call the “paradox of judgment”—the more ambitious the ideal of justice, the less applicable and useful the model is to political practice; yet the more politically realistic the theory, the weaker is its moral ambition, rendering the model unsound and equally useless.

So how do we know what is the right course of action and even when to act and when to stay put?

Rejecting, in a post-modern posture, the fundamentalist Enlightenment view of human beings as rational autonomous individuals is no answer. Because in this way we escape the guilt of embarking on an erroneous course of action only by succumbing to the guilt of becoming complicit to evil by not opposing it.  As Hanna Arendt observed, when we are not guilty of “crimes of commission” we are guilty of “crimes of omission.”  This means that whether we want it or not, we cannot suspend political judgment: we are equally responsible when we act as when we abstain from acting.