A Critique of Rectitude
Adriana Cavarero



Inclination is not a steady state; it is a slope, as the word says, a disposition toward affect, which comes from certain likable qualities in the object: but it may become affect or impetuous love.

Niccolò Tommaseo, Nuovo dizionario dei sinonimi della lingua italiana*

In a fragmenton the concept of inclination in Kant, the young Walter Benjamin wrote that a change of perspective on the meaning of the term could turn it into one of the most fundamental concepts of morality.1 Because of the fragment’s brevity, it is not clear what Benjamin means. It is plausible that he meant to criticize the negative mode in which the ethical tradition regards human inclinations, pledging to provide a means adequate for their containment or control. Kant, therefore, is perhaps only a pretext—or better, the exemplary case of a general philosophical attitude that, relative to a positive revaluation of inclination, is not cause for optimism. Whatever Benjamin had in mind, his fragment fell on hostile ground. Philosophy, in general, does not appreciate inclination; it contests and combats it. Its methods are numerous and varied, depending on the epoch, but are all, in essence, as Foucault would put it, dispositifs of verticalization the aim of which is the upright man [l’uomo retto].2 And already, on the linguistic plane, this provides a clear indication of the geometrical structure underlying the question.

Of course, geometers and scientists have an excellent rapport with the concept of inclination. In their vocabulary, the term simply indicates “a divergent position or direction from the horizontal line,” which is to say a declivity, or a “divergent position or direction from the vertical line,” which is to say, a slope.3 The picture is clear, precise, formalized, and in this field, the term does not create problems; to the contrary, it allows for the analysis and resolution of problems. Nor does it create hostility; any emotional tone is programmatically absent. The same cannot be said about the many philosophers and other experts who, in various ways and with uncertain results, have for centuries discussed the thorny problem of human inclinations. Here, indeed, nothing is clear: geometrical exactitude suddenly vanishes and the greatest disquietude reigns. According to modern dictionaries, when the term moves from geometry to common speech and, even more, to philosophical language, it makes a crucial leap, from its proper sense to a figurative sense—which, as usually happens, inevitably complicates the situation. Philosophy, for its part, together with theology, often surrounds the term with fateful adjectives, making the question of its meaning even more difficult. In moral treatises, for instance, it is easy to encounter a conflict between “good inclination,” which is to say “an innate or acquired disposition to act virtuously,” and its opposite, “bad inclination,” a “natural and acquired propensity to behave dishonestly,” which is to say, in a depraved manner. Then there is the fact that philosophical language tends to include under the general definition of inclination the vast and frightening catalog of desires, instincts, and passions. Indeed, in a speculative vocabulary, “inclination” and “passion” are used often as synonyms. The theme of love is proof enough: as Kant writes, “The one who loves another wishes him well, but without owing it to him; he acts, rather, from a willing disposition, gladly, and from his own impulse. Love is well-wishing from inclination.”4 And Kant, in turn, worries that love may transform itself, inexorably, into appetite.

Sexual and emotional inclination toward a person—for brevity’s sake, we’ll call it eros—stirs serious apprehension, above all among philosophers. They perceive it as a threat to the subject’s equilibrium—a deep quiver, a slippery slope. With his famous theory of the erotic way to philosophy, Plato might be an exception. But we shouldn’t forget that even he casts aspersions on another type of inclination, namely, artistic inclination, or, more precisely, the inclination of those who lean (apoklinei) toward “technics.”5 This is a good place to highlight the etymological root of the term inclination, which already has started coming into view: to incline is to bend, to lean down, to lower; in Greek, klinè means “bed.” Traditionally, however, it is not artistic inclination that most worries the philosophers. What they fear most of all are inclinations that are too impetuous and difficult to master. In the turbulent realm of eros, these include the inclination that turns to lust and other pleasures of the flesh—prominent among which is the alleged propensity of specifically female nature to lasciviousness. In traditional ethics, this argument is often developed with particular passion, but it also appears in authors who would seem to be more open-minded. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the influential philosopher Pierre Proudhon, known for his innovative and revolutionary ideas, wrote some passages on this theme that are worthy of mention. “To speak of sexual relations, it is a law of nature in all animals that the female, incited by the instinct to have children, searches for a male in all manner of ways. Woman cannot escape this law. She is naturally more inclined to lasciviousness than man, first because her self is more fragile, such that liberty and intelligence struggle in her with less force against her animalistic inclinations, and secondly because love is the great, if not only, occupation of her life.”6

Despite his misogyny, or perhaps precisely because his prejudice does not spare even maternity, Proudhon’s words are ultimately thought-provoking. Following a widely accepted theory, Proudhon argues that love, with its pathologies and excesses, is essentially rooted in natural and animal phenomena related to sexual inclination, understood not as an orientation for a particular sex but as the instinct to have sex. He also suggests that, in women as in females of other species, this instinct is subordinated to the instinct for procreation. From this perspective, erotic and maternal inclinations spring from a core that is as imperious and indomitable as nature itself. Obviously, were woman a free and rational individual, she too, like the male of the human species, would be able to oppose the rule of the instincts. But because nature instead provided her with a rather weak ego, “liberty and intelligence struggle in her with less force against her animalistic inclinations.” For Proudhon, in short, the weak sex represents a reality in which inclinations rage out of control, and are therefore stronger and more dangerous; the fact that pleasures of the flesh (perhaps sugarcoated with romantic ideals) are closely associated with maternal inclination makes the issue even more disquieting. For Schopenhauer too—to remain within nineteenth-century philosophy—feminine nature is characterized by a perfect short-circuit between lasciviousness, giving birth, and the instinctual care of offspring. After condemning the indecent female art of seduction, he writes that “women in truth exist entirely for the propagation of the race, and their destiny ends here.” He adds that although women are suited for the care of children, “they themselves are childish, foolish, and short-sighted—in a word, they are big children all their lives, something intermediate between the child and the man, who is a man in the strict sense of the word.”7 One may find this passage excessively misogynist; in essence, however, it has a broad consensus within a respected tradition: in the library of the West, whenever discussion turns to the dangers of inclinations, women are regularly in the mix. From this perspective, the well-known theological doctrine on original sin that ascribes an innate inclinatio ad malum to the whole human race appears less sexist. If everyone is inclined toward evil, the starting point is, however dismaying, nevertheless equal regardless of gender.

With the thesis of a congenital and originary inclination to evil, we face an extreme, perhaps totalizing, case that resoundingly escapes established critical frameworks. Philosophy, as a rule, avoids bringing the whole system of human inclinations back to a single, predestined origin. It instead limits itself to denunciations of the more or less devastating effect of some inclinations, above all those related to the sexual sphere, and often it does not even try to offer a complete map. Although characterized by certain constants, this framework is essentially open to numerous variants: in different epochs and contexts, certain inclinations—at times considered natural, at times socially acquired, or the result of a perversion—are more worrisome than others. Compared to a precise recognition of the problem, this is of course still too general, but it at least provides an opportunity to point out another fact regularly registered in dictionaries. Not all the phenomena that language ascribes to the term inclination interest philosophers; indeed, many possible meanings remain consistently marginal to speculative turbulence and receive little attention from philosophers. Whereas the discourse of the moral tradition surrounds the concept of inclination with alarm, ordinary language—which philosophers can also rely upon—allows it to be used in an innocuous or even banal way, indeed, without frightening anyone. There is here, it would seem, a vast no-man’s land, indifferent or neutral, or, at least, not immediately worrisome for moral discipline and, hence, irrelevant. This no-man’s land includes the inclinations that define a temperament or character, such as the inclination to melancholy or to solitude, to happiness or to optimism, and many more. It also includes inclinations to a certain activity or form of amusement, to the range of activities that everyday vocabulary all too hastily calls hobbies. Those inclined to fishing or puzzles don’t really alarm philosophers or moralists all that much; those inclined to meditation or reasoning, by contrast, arouse philosophers’ appreciation. In its common sense—as a synonym for “propensity,” “taste,” “disposition,” “predisposition,” and “tendency”—the term is particularly flexible and easily shakes off the negative valences that appear in the domain of ethical reflection. It depends, precisely, on the context.

When the context is purely philosophical and pertains to Kant, things always seem to take an interesting turn. In addition to Benjamin, Hannah Arendt offers further proof in her 1965 lectures on Kant at the New School entitled “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.” In those lectures, Arendt did not miss the chance to underline that “every inclination turns outward, it leans out of the self in the direction of whatever may affect me from the outside world.”8 Despite its apparent simplicity, this utterance is worthy of much consideration. Not only does it have the merit of reminding us that the meaning of the word inclination points to a geometrical imaginary; it also, above all, clarifies that, in the theater of modern philosophy, center stage is occupied by an I whose position is straight and vertical.9 Words like righteousness and rectitude, which occur frequently in dictionaries of morals, and were often used already in the Middle Ages for the “rectification” of bad inclinations, are an important anticipation of this scenario. The “upright man” of which the tradition speaks, more than an abused metaphor, is literally a subject who conforms to a vertical axis, which in turn functions as a principle and norm for its ethical posture. One can thus understand why philosophers see inclination as a perpetual source of apprehension, which is renewed in each epoch, and which takes on even more weight during modernity, when the free and autonomous self celebrated by Kant enters the scene. As we might say with Arendt, the thrust of inclination knocks the I from its internal center of gravity and, by making it lean to the outside, “be they objects or people,”10 undermines its stability. Besides posing a moral problem for the modern conception of the self, inclination is a matter of structural equilibrium and thus, in the end, becomes an ontological question as well. An inclined I, leaning toward the outside, is no longer straight: it leans forward with respect to the vertical line that supports it and that, because it allows it to balance itself, makes it an autonomous and independent subject. For Kant, who is the most ardent supporter of perfect autonomy, this is a very serious outcome.

Even common people who may be unfamiliar with philosophy know that the most frequent and feared inclination, love, is an attack against the self’s balance. To fall in love, to be moved outside of the self, to give in to the attraction coming from another person and to slide down a slope that pulls irresistibly—this is a big mess for everyone. To lean or depend on the other, to rely on the other rather than preserving one’s own autonomy—this is the same kind of trouble, only now expressed philosophically, in strictly Kantian terms. Maria Zambrano observes that in love “the center of gravity of the person moves, first of all, to the loved person, and when love disappears, that movement ‘outside of the self’ remains, even though that position is difficult to maintain,” because “to be a man means to be steady, to weigh on something,”11 to rest perpendicularly on one’s base. More than mystics, here it would be appropriate to let poets, or narrators, speak. Proust, for instance, uses illuminating metaphors when describing Swann’s ruinous love for Odette in Search for Lost Time. Regarding the walk to his beloved’s house, which Swann performs obsessively every evening, he writes: “the path that separated him from her was the one he inevitably traveled as though it were the slope itself, rapid and irresistible, of his life.”12 In the case of “falling in love” and other sweeping passions, inclination is not only a powerful force that pushes the self outside itself, but also an oblique plane on which the self slides without bannisters. The euphoria children feel playing on slides is testimony that, in abandoning oneself to the laws of gravity, in assenting to descent without resistance, there is an intrinsic pleasure. For his part, Proust writes, Swann felt that the inescapable slope of his love obeyed “immutable and natural laws” and that, in the rare moments when he seemed to recover his old balance, “little by little he became himself again, but possessed by another.”13 Inclination bends and dispossesses the I. As is often said, the attractions of love remove self-control from the I, causing it to get carried away and to exit itself: this, precisely, is the meaning of ek-stasis. Erotic inclination, accordingly, has an intrinsically ecstatic effect, even without the ultimate enjoyment that some, not surprisingly, call ecstasy.

Love overwhelms, dispossesses, and sometimes leads to a romantic death—the literature on this phenomenon is, as we know, immense. Men as well as women suffer it, but, as Proudhon and others believe, it especially afflicts women because of their structural absence of a stable self. Paradigmatic in this sense, to remain in the realm of masterpieces of the western novel, is the figure of Anna Karenina, in whom the devastating and exemplary lethal force of the inclination of love comes into conflict with maternal inclination. When it reveals its full power, it sweeps her away with its blind fury: “If I could be anything else but a mistress who passionately loves only his caresses—but I cannot and do not want to be anything else,” says the unfortunate woman in the delirious soliloquy preceding her suicide. Then, when remembering the love she once felt for her son, she coherently adds: “But I did live without him, exchanged him for another love, and didn’t complain of the exchange as long as I was satisfied by that love.”14 Tolstoy already had warned the reader that if Count Vronsky should say to Anna “resolutely, passionately, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Abandon everything and fly away with me!’—she would leave her son and go with him.”15 This is an easy prophecy, of course, for the omniscient author, who does not hesitate to linger on the definitive collapse of maternal inclination in the face of the passion of love, narrating how Anna, after abandoning her legitimate child, is then able to feel affection for the daughter—the love-child—she had with her paramour. That in such a context eros easily can claim victory is already clear from the conservative tradition which, since antiquity, has assigned women two distinct social roles: while some women are destined for the use of pleasure, others are supposed to dedicate themselves to the domestic sphere and to maternal care. As an unfaithful wife, and hence as a depraved woman—lost to herself and to society—Anna Karenina overcomes precisely the limit that keeps these two ambits distinct. In an open confrontation between maternal inclination and inclination for her lover, once the barrier that should have enclosed eros has fallen, the former ends up succumbing to the latter. Certainly, the fight could have ended differently under different skies and in different times; but the novel is emblematic precisely because of how the story unfolds, up to and including the final suicide. The misogynistic vein, which pulses through Tolstoy’s masterpiece, needs the fallen woman to die, and she does so in a horrible way, even more so because she is a mother.

Reduced to its bare plot, Anna Karenina’s story is banal, didactic, and melodramatic, not unlike the story of another famous female character, Emma Bovary, whose treatment is even more pitiless. Flaubert’s novel reiterates an old and severe lesson: adulterous love, forbidden to women and tolerated in men, cannot but transform bad wives into bad mothers. In the great books of world literature as in the feuilletons, which narrate the unequal relation between the arrows of eros and the married woman, a stereotypical view of the feminine predominates. This applies to many different aspects of the way that feminine character is dramatized, but it is especially true of the conventional image of maternal inclination. In order to emphasize the scandal of maternal inclination succumbing to eros, emphasis is placed on the traditional traits of the self-sacrificing mother who, absorbed by the care of her children, is completely fulfilled and sublimely happy. Not without a touch of sarcasm, Tolstoy has one of the novel’s most libertine characters (one who, unlike Anna, will not be punished) define Anna Karenina as “une couveuse,” a nesting female who incubates her “brood.”16 In English, one would say that she’s a “mother hen.” The basic idea, idyllically rural, is that a mother/hen reclining on a soft bed with her baby/chicks should be an effective metaphor for woman’s natural inclination for the joys of maternity. But if it is true that the term inclination insists on a geometrical imaginary, then this picture ends up confounding established coordinates. The expected oblique line, which unbalances the self’s vertical axis, making it lean toward the outside, is here replaced by an unusual horizontal line that rests tranquilly on the ground. In other words, and not without irony, the mother who reposes with her “brood” does not lean forward or toward her infant, as in Christian iconology pertaining to the Virgin Mary. She instead sits on her child, running the risk of smothering him. It is indeed a curious postural variant. The figure of the upright I standing in erect position, which already is denied to the “weak sex” by nature, here inclines so low that it becomes a squat—which, whatever else one may say about it, at least avoids the risk of slippage.

As the iconology of the Virgin Mary testifies, even though the mother is bent over the infant, tilting to the exterior, she doesn’t slip. Leaning over the other, forming an oblique line, she reposes in tranquility, in a static and perfect equilibrium. Indeed, when the figure is that of the Madonna bent over baby Jesus, a figure popularized by religious art, she stays immobile and crystallized, in a “frozen state,” as if maternal inclination were not a movement but an originary and natural mold, an archetypical posture. The effect of this crystallization is, in truth, remarkable: on the symbolic plane, it is also empowered by an image of maternity so pure that it excludes any interference by eros. Paradoxically, to the extent that she rises to the level of a moral example, the Virgin Mary “establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfill this destiny.”17 Also on account of this paradox, at least as compared to the postural geometry of ethics, and with reference to the true or presumed nature of the two sexes, the picture is, after all, simplified: avoiding the usual subordination of the feminine to the masculine, each sex ends up acquiring an originary posture because of its specific being. Next to the paradigm of the vertical axis, appropriated by man because of his inborn rationality, appears the paradigm of an oblique line, reserved to woman because of a constitutive predisposition to maternity, which causes inclination. It is of course indisputable that we are speaking here about outdated stereotypes: the schema works, precisely, by emphatically and repeatedly proposing conventional characteristics for the two sexes. But looking closer, and through a philosophical frame, we see two postural paradigms referring to two different models of subjectivity, two theaters for questioning the human condition in terms of autonomy or independence, two styles of thought, two languages: the first relates to individualistic ontology, the second to a relational ontology. Retracing the distinction between one outline that is masculine and another that is exquisitely feminine makes for a very interesting operation. In her famous book The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir writes: “A man is in his right by virtue of being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. In fact, just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical that defined the oblique, there is an absolute human type that is masculine.”18 Given that two sexes are in question here, the problem is not so much, or not only, to contest the absoluteness of the vertical axis, but also to free inclination from its normative command and its defining grip.

“The method of exaggeration, of the extremization [die Extremisierung] of every important and correct insight,” is, according to Hans Jonas, a typical trait of Arendt’s thought.19 Even though this claim is not malevolent, it is perhaps the case that Jonas himself is here exaggerating, pushing to the extreme his own judgment of Arendt. For those who have some familiarity with Arendt’s texts, there is nevertheless something true in this judgment. In the following pages, through an emphatic forcing of maternal inclination, we will try to imitate Arendt’s method—beginning with the idea, undoubtedly important and correct, that Arendt introduces when she frames inclination in postural terms and relates it to the geometry of the subject. Among the various geometries of modernity, the prevailing one involves precisely the individualistic ontological model, which can be found in Kant. This model is widely known; later I will submit its egocentric verticality to a detailed deconstruction. Right now it will be more useful to refer briefly to its latest misadventures. Far from having a peaceful and undisputed reign, the autocratic, integrated and cohesive ego has been under attack for at least a century; in the twentieth century, it has been the main target of various critical currents that, in the wake of the postmodern wave, focus primarily on the fragmentation of the subject. In fact, even today, despite the apparent decline of the postmodern, one must resist the temptation to break the subject down into fragments, turning its pretense of unity into a feast of difference. Instead of continuing to fragment the subject, one could try—drawing on Arendt—to incline it. Instead of breaking its vertical axis into multiple pieces, one could try bending it, giving it a different posture. This could perhaps happen by inclining the subject toward the other—as the relational model allows and, from a geometrical perspective, even encourages.

Without any pretense of covering the topic exhaustively, I will use the expression relational model as a generic rubric to include the various theoretical perspectives that, in the panorama of philosophy today, concentrate on the category of relation to rethink a subjectivity marked by exposure, vulnerability, and dependence. This trend is connected in many ways to the most recent products of feminist thought, in whose vocabulary one finds expressions such as “new embodied ontology,” “ontology of the human,” or “altruistic ethics,” and whose more or less hidden aspiration—according to some—is a new “humanism.”20 In this theoretical field, Arendt’s relational conception of the human and her political views are often openly invoked, sometimes in conjunction with the treatment of the theme of vulnerability developed in the writings of Emmanuel Lévinas. It is not by chance that both thinkers gained great attention by writing about the tragedy of totalitarian violence. A passage from Lévinas may prove useful to frame this question more clearly. In Proper Names, when commenting on the transition of twentieth-century philosophy from the individualistic to the relational model, he writes:

The history of the theory of knowledge in contemporary philosophy is the history of the disappearance of the subject/object problem. Contemporary philosophy denounces as an abstraction the subject closed in upon itself and metaphysically the origin of itself and the world. The consistency of the self is dissolved into relations: intentionality in Husserl, being-in-the world or Miteinandersein in Heidegger, or continual renewal of durée in Bergson. Concrete reality is man always already in relation to the world, or always already projected beyond his instant. These relations cannot be reduced to theoretical representation. The latter would only confirm the autonomy of the thinking subject. In order to demolish the idea of the subject closed in upon itself, one must uncover, beneath objectification, very different relations that sustain it: man is in situation before situating himself.21

For Lévinas, demolishing the autonomous and closed subject to affirm an open and relational subjectivity isn’t just an epistemological operation; it doesn’t just refound ethics on the primacy of the Other. It aims, above all, at countering the violence of the egocentric subject. Precisely this aspect, considered vis-à-vis an eschatological vision of peace that “breaks the totality of wars and empires,”22 makes Lévinas’s thought especially interesting in the broad field of criticism that tries to redefine the relational model. The true target of this heterogeneous and varied field is not, in fact—or not only—the philosophical genealogy of the subject; it is the violent practices of domination, exclusion, and devastation of which the subject itself is an accomplice (ranging from racism to sexism, to homophobia, as well as war and other regular or irregular forms of destruction). The emphasis on vulnerability, in the relational model invoked here, is therefore first of all an accent on politics, ethics, and the social. The choice of assuming vulnerability as a paradigm of the human, far from an abstract speculative move, is instead rooted in the analysis of concrete situations and, as Judith Butler would say, of precarious lives that are especially exposed. As Butler herself observes: “It won’t even do to say that I am promoting a relational view of the self over an autonomous one or trying to redescribe autonomy in terms of relationality.”23 That is to say: emphasizing vulnerability is not a matter of correcting individualistic ontology by inserting the category of relation into it. It is rather to think relation itself as originary and constitutive, as an essential dimension of the human, which—far from limiting itself to putting free and autonomous individuals in relation to each other, as the doctrine of the social pact prescribes—calls into question our being creatures who are materially vulnerable and, often in greatly unbalanced circumstances, consigned to one another.

In its radical version, which liquidates any residue of individualistic ontology, the relational model does not in fact allow for any symmetry at all, but only for a continuous interweaving of multiple and singular dependence. At its most extreme, it is exemplified by scenarios in which the protagonists are altogether unbalanced. Chief among these is the “primary scene,” in which the infant finds itself in a condition of absolute and unilateral dependence on others, or more obviously, on the mother. But precisely this obviousness—and this is a crucial part of the problem, on which we must insist—instead of being used or perhaps recoded, destructured, and rethought, is often censured and silenced. Put differently: at the same time that the infant, as the emblem of a unilateral and absolute dependence, often appears at center stage to exemplify relational ontology, the mother, because of the burdensome self-sacrificing stereotype that is draped over her, is often absent. However understandable this absence may be in cultural terms, it nevertheless hinders philosophical speculation. That which, because of what seems by now to be an intractable stereotype, is lost to reflection is not just the ordinary and, if you will, banal experience of thousands of loving mothers bending over their child, but, above all, a popular imaginary that has the dubious merit, it would seem, of keeping the subject’s posture under check. If the aim is finally to take leave of the subject, this occasion should not be missed. If the idea—to overstate, exaggerate, and accentuate, as suggested by Arendt’s method—is to think the turn between verticality and inclination, then the maternal stereotype should be reinterrogated and exploited to its fullest potential. Stated differently: the prejudice must be transformed into an unprejudiced capacity for judgment.

The figure of the Madonna and Child, portrayed by innumerable artists and disseminated in thousands of churches, museums, and streets, is not just a Christian icon that melts the hearts of the faithful; it is, above all, a popular and hyperrepresented image of maternity that no relational ontology can put aside with impunity. Stereotypes, after all, don’t always function as stumbling blocks for the free and disenchanted labor of the concept. Some stereotypes, such as that propagated in the iconology of the Virgin Mary, in fact have a great critical potentiality that risks remaining concealed precisely because they are too exposed. To exploit it properly, however, one must accentuate the emotional and sentimental baggage of this figure so as to fix and crystallize it into a form—a simple, oblique line, the relational sign of a specific posture. Or again—and this is precisely the challenge—one must geometrically distill the rhetoric of maternity and superimpose it, like a transparent screen, over the rhetoric of the philosophical subject, in order to highlight the differences between the two ontological, ethical, and political models. In the case of the maternal stereotype, which is in direct contrast with the verticalizing geometry of the autonomous subject and its possible symmetrical refraction, we are in the presence of a scene in which the vulnerable par excellence, the infant, not only unilaterally consigns itself to the other, but also, and more importantly, provides for originary bending, for a certain anomalous slope, for a posture. It is as if the fundamental concept of ethics were now seen, despite ages of sermons on moral uprightness, from the perspective of the vulnerable—or, more to the point, inclination. Or better: as if the ontology of the vulnerable, finally freed from the subject’s belligerent masks, could count on the persistence of a popular imaginary that imposes an emotional pause and a mute resistance against the long record of violence.

Naturally, this is not what the young Benjamin meant in the fragment cited earlier. His reference to Kant, perhaps accompanied by Arendt’s notes on the geometry of the subject, nonetheless allow us to push our inquiry in precisely that direction, or at the very at least allow us to regard the problem of inclination with curiosity. In fact, as one learns from his writings, Kant did not love mothers, children, or nannies, and, like most male philosophers, he was an unrepentant bachelor, easily bothered by crying children.

Which, all things considered, is actually a promising sign.


*Epigraph: Niccolò Tommaseo, Nuovo dizionario dei sinonimi della lingua italiana (Florence: Luigi Pezzati, 1830).

1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974–99), p. 55. For an elaborate interpretation of the fragment, see Brendan Moran, “Eros Thanatos in Benjamin’s Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” in The Erotic: Approaches to a Cultural Contextualisation, ed. Koen De Temmerman (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary-Press, 2005), pp. 1–5.

2. [In the few cases where Cavarero’s engagement with the discourse of rectitude risks being obscured by the available English equivalents, we have included Cavarero’s Italian in brackets.—Trans.]

3. These are the first two definitions of inclinazione in the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, ed. Salvatore Battaglia (Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1961). The majority of dictionaries of modern western languages opt for a similar choice for inclination in English and French, although the latter includes the variant inclinaison in the scientific field, inclinaciòn in Spanish, and Neigung in German.

4. Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, ed. Peter Heath and J. B. Schneewind, trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 177.

5. Plato, Laws 847a, trans. A. E. Taylor, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961).

6. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, La pornacratie, ou les femmes dans les temps modernes (Antony, France: Tops-H. Trinquier, 2013), p. 177. [Trans. by the translators of this volume.]

7. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays of Schopenhauer, trans. Mrs. Rudolf Dircks (London: Walter Scott, 1900), p. 65.

8. Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2003), p. 81.

9. [The Italian io, like the German Ich, can refer to the “self” or “ego” as well as to the use of the first-person singular pronoun “I.” Cavarero’s critique of the io of modern philosophy not only uses these two senses interchangeably and simultaneously (so that her references to “self” or “ego” are also, and at the same time, references to the use of the first-person singular pronoun, and vice versa); it also extends to include the very appearance of the pronoun I itself, the rectilinear typography of which testifies to its exemplary place and function within the discourse of “rectitude.” Our translations of io have observed the distinction in English grammar between the nouns “self” and “ego,” on the one hand, and the pronoun “I,” on the other: depending on the requirements of the sentence and paragraph in question, as well as the text Cavarero is interpreting, we have at some points rendered io as “self” or “ego,” and at other points as “I” or even “the I” (most especially in Chapter 3 and the Coda, where the relevant extant English texts authorize and even require this construction). The reader, however, should bear in mind that these distinctions do not hold for Cavarero, who to the contrary seeks throughout this book to critique a genre of the self, a formation of the ego, or a mode of subjectivation that actualizes itself grammatically in and through the utterance of an upright, independent, and rectilinear “I.”—Trans.]

10. Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” p. 81.

11. María Zambrano, Sentimenti per un’autobiografia: Nascita, amore, pietà, ed. Samantha Maruzzella (Milan: Mimesis, 2012), p. 58.

12. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 244.

13. Ibid., pp. 247–48.

14. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin, 2002), pp. 763–64.

15. Ibid., p. 315.

16. Ibid., p. 695.

17. Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Vintage, 1983), p. 336.

18. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011), p. 5.

19. Jonas expressed this judgment, in a confidential tone, in an April 19, 1980, letter to Günther Anders, Arendt’s first husband. Cited in Christian Dries, “Günther Anders und Hannah Arendt, eine Beziehungsskizze,” in Günther Anders, Die Kirschenschlacht: Dialoge mit Hannah Arendt und ein akademisches Nachwort, ed. Gerhard Oberschlick (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2011), p. 105. [Trans. by the translators of this volume.]

20. Ann V. Murphy, “Corporeal Vulnerability and New Humanism,” Hypatia, 26:3 (2011): 575–90.

21. Emmanuel Lévinas, Proper Names, trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 19.

22. Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic, 1991), p. 23.

23. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), p. 24.