This afternoon, my Department sponsored a showing of the remarkable German movie “The Lives of Others.” The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, was there. The movie is about a secret police officer in the unlamented German Democratic Republic—East Germany—who is assigned to spy in an artistic couple—he a playwright, she an actress.
The critical response to this movie in Germany was pretty intense, but as far as I followed it centered largely on just how accurate was its portrayal of life back in the “DDR.” Von Donnersmark’s comments also had a lot to do with that. But I think the movie has other ramifications and goals, and can be read on many levels. One way is as the parable of a philosopher.
The philosopher in question is Immanuel Kant. In his astonishing fore-telling of the Cold War, which I touched on in a long-ago book, Hegel conjures up the picture of a society in which everything is rational, but rationality is located exclusively in the state. In this society, individuals who do not conform to state planning are irrational, and so evil; they are to be crushed, except when they stamp themselves into servants of the state down to the tiniest detail. Since reality is merely something to be crushed when it does not conform to reason, reason is not enriched by experience (as happens in Hegel's own philosophy), and remains abstract.
Somebody has to do the crushing, and in the DDR that job fell to the Stasi, the secret police, whose motto was “know everything” (Alles wissen!). The protagonist of the movie, a man without emotions, is thus an enforcer of abstract state rationality.
Hegel develops his picture of such rationality in explicit connection with Fichte, but it can also hold for Kant. True, Fichte's detailed social "blueprint" was hypertrophic compared to Kant's relatively empty view of civil society. But in Kantian terms, as in Fichte’s, the only force beyond that of reason in human affairs is coercion; Humean sympathy, love in general, or even friendship, has no place. In order to make itself felt in human affairs, then, reason itself must coerce. It does this for Kant by constituting itself as the legal system. It did it in the DDR by constituting itself as the Stasi.
When the law goes beyond the mere categorical imperative and undertakes to flesh out the nature of the Good Life, as it does for Fichte, we get abstract rationality reposing upon sheer force and directed against the individual—the model, von Donnersmark seems to think, for East Germany.
Fichte claimed to develop his philosophy out of the Critique of Judgment, but his blunt opposition of rationality and coercion actually comes from the second Critique, that of Practical Reason. In that book, as Fichte rightly saw, the causality of reason is direct: reason gives us a plan, and reality must—as far as we are able—be made to conform to that plan. So, East Germany.
In the Critique of Judgment, such subsumption is mediated by the imagination, which must sum up or recapitulate the actual given state of affairs before a concept (or plan) is applied to it. Reason thus cannot move directly from formulating the Good to prescribing changes in reality; instead of forcing, it must hesitate, to allow for that intermediate summing-up. The name of the experience of this hesitation is “beauty,” and art is its strongest vehicle.
So when Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi officer, is ordered to spy on a couple of artists, we know from the start that a crisis is building. This gathering crisis (though not the movie as a whole) reaches its climax in a stunning, wordless, scene in which the officer, sitting in the attic of the artists’ apartment building, listens through his earphones to the playwright playing a sonata. I won’t go into further detail, but let us say that after that, Wiesler’s whole life as an agent of the state is over—and his redemption begins. Abstract and coercive rationality is, in true "Third Critique" fashion, undone by beauty.
The undoing of Reason by beauty was also experienced by Kant himself, as he worked on the Critique of Judgment. Intended to save his system from the inner contradiction eating away at its core—the fact that our Reason tells us to think of ourselves as free, while our Understanding tells us that we are determined—the Critique outruns that assignment and begins to supply norms of its own. In the end, as Friedrich Schiller recognized in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, if you have the right account of what beauty means to the soul you don’t need any of Kant’s transcendental apparatus. You don’t need the transcendental Idea of freedom, or the Categorical Imperative, or the Kingdom of Ends to live a good life. All you need is the experience of beauty and the lessons it teaches.
Wiesler gives in to this aesthetic liberation, but Kant—whose own life was even more abstract than Wiesler's—fights it every step of the way; coercion, I guess, was truly dear to him.
Wiesler lives through the Fall of the Wall to a relatively happy ending. Kant's final tragedy is that the scars and missteps of his greatest struggle—the fallacies and confusions that dog the Third Critique— should be seen by today’s philosophical hoi polloi not as the honorable wounds of a gallant but losing battle, but as evidence of senility.[Author: John McCumber]