Political Philosophy and Real Politics: An interview with Albena Azmanova, author of "The Scandal of Reason"

The Scandal of Reason

“Ideal theories of justice only stand in the way of sound judgment.”
–Albena Azmanova

Albena Azmanova is the author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. This post is the first of a three-part series we will be posting in which Professor Azmanova discusses The Scandal of Reason, theories of political judgment, and ways in which political philosophy can become more helpful in the actual political process.

What problems does The Scandal of Reason confront?

Political judgment is always trapped in the choice between taking action and failing to act, poised to commit either “crimes of commission” or “crimes of omission” (as Hannah Arendt named them). Intervening to stop the carnage in Syria has risks as perilous as not intervening. Allowing the building of an Islamic cultural center next to Ground Zero is as problematic as banning it. How do we know what is the right thing to do? How should judgment be directed? Can political philosophy be of help to real politics? What is a politically relevant theory of justice that can effectively guide judgment? These are the questions prompting my writing.

What is the “judgment paradox”? Why it is important to consider?

The “paradox of judgment” is my point of departure in the search for a politically relevant theory of justice. The paradox is this: the higher the normative ideals of a theory of justice (such as human rights, democracy, sustainable development, autonomy and equality), the more useless it is to politics – the demanding nature of the ideals allow them to be dismissed as unrealistic, untenable, or simply too vague to be helpful in solving real problems. Yet the more sober the theory, the more accepting of the reality of interest-driven politics, the less politically useful it is simply by force of being morally suspect. There is, however, a way out of this conundrum, and The Scandal of Reason aims to charts this escape from the judgment paradox. In the book, I advocate the duty of judgment and action, but argue that ideal theories of justice only stand in the way of sound judgment.

What is the “scandal of reason”? What led you to use this phrase as the title of your book?

The “scandal of reason” was observed by Immanuel Kant in a moment of formidable frustration, I imagine, since he dedicated his life to defending the power of reason. The “scandal” is this: in its earnest search for truth, reason degenerates either into dogma or into uncertainty, as it gets entangled in its own contradictions; while aspiring to truth and justice, reason falls prey either to sterile (and often dangerous) ultimate principles, or gets paralyzed by doubt. For Kant, this was the curse of modern man’s rational effort to do the right thing. For me, the “scandal of reason” is not a threat, it is the solution. I propose that we embrace the scandal of reason and dare to judge. It is possible to guide political judgment along the slim critical interzone between dogma and skepticism. This interzone is the territory on which operates what I call “critical deliberative judgment”. Critical judgment drops the crutches of ideal theory and is instead steered by the question “who suffers and why?”. As it pays close attention to empirical experiences of social injustice and the interpretations that those who suffer give to their suffering, critical judgment has neither the time, nor the patience for grand theories of justice.

Part II of the interview.
Part III of the interview.
Read the full interview.

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