Across the Great Divide
Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory
Jeremy Arnold

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WHERE SHOULD WE GO NOW? THE NEED FOR CROSS-TRADITION THEORIZING

The chapters in this book are intended to support two big claims. The first claim is that more political theorists and philosophers ought to engage in what I call cross-tradition theorizing. The second claim is that what I call aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is a viable and attractive mode of cross-tradition theorizing. Given the significant differences between analytic and continental theorizing, an obvious question is why we should bother with cross-tradition theorizing generally, which I will address before arguing for the aporetic mode I prefer.

A basic premise of this book is that many, if not all, fundamental political phenomena are dense. Density is, in physics, the ratio of mass to volume, but in political phenomena we can think of density as the ratio of historical mass to simplicity for a phenomenon. For example, the phenomenon of freedom is, presumably, quite simple. To be free, we can learn from the Oxford English Dictionary, is, roughly, to be unconstrained (Oxfordians, apparently, all think a great deal of negative liberty). Yet, freedom is a dense phenomenon in the western tradition because of the central place of freedom in political thought and practice since at least the ancient Greeks. Solon’s reforms in 594 BC introduced an idea of political freedom and instantiated it constitutionally, and two centuries later the distinction between slaves and free people is made early in Book I of Aristotle’s Politics. Obviously, freedom continues to be central to our understanding of politics, at least in constitutional liberal democracies. Yet, we have many competing accounts of freedom and its conditions, from the ancient Greeks to the social contract theorists to Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, and Philip Pettit. The intellectual history of the concept of freedom in political thought is linked to the history of philosophical explorations of metaphysical freedom as well and, more recently, biological and neurological accounts of the questionable freedom of the will. The difficulty of conceptual problems with freedom is perhaps exceeded by the complexity and ambiguities of freedom in political practice. Debates over free speech, civil disobedience, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the proper form of democratic rule, human rights, and many other issues present obvious instances of this complexity and ambiguity. To be free is to be unconstrained; but in both thought and practice, the density of freedom is apparent. Unpacking that density is difficult, not only because analysis is hard when the constituent features of an object are numerous and so closely bound together but also because political theorists and philosophers are in the business not only of description and analysis but of normative and axiological inquiry. We want to know not only what freedom is—hard enough—but what the value of freedom is and whether we ought to be free or to design institutions that enhance freedom. What is true for freedom is true for justice, equality, legitimacy, coercion, violence, and other fundamental political phenomena.

Dense phenomena are difficult to theorize, and one reason we need cross-tradition theorizing is that we need all the help we can get, from any intellectual tradition that focuses on political thought and practice. This first reason ought to be uncontroversial, although controversy begins when we start to identify which traditions are, in fact, helping rather than harming political understanding. This first reason is, of course, not nearly enough to seal the case for cross-tradition theorizing.

A second and more important reason is that the analytic and continental traditions each respond to a different need, or set of needs, in the face of dense political phenomena. The analytic tradition, in its focus on justification and conceptual analysis, responds to the need, which I think is inescapable, to provide a convincing set of reasons why the coercive power of states (or other political institutions) can be used to order our social, economic, and political arrangements. Reason, once it speaks, should be heard. Once we ask “how,” “what,” and “why” questions—for example, how can primary goods be distributed among citizens?; what is a just distribution of primary goods?; why should we strive for a just distribution of primary goods?—I see no good reason for ignoring those questions. They seem obviously and immediately relevant and, absent a convincing answer to those questions, the whole, often nasty, business of employing coercive power to arrange the world in one way or another becomes deeply suspect. It is unclear, absent a justification, why any of us should accept the way the political world is as more than the arbitrary employment of force for the self-interested purposes of those who have the power to order the world. Perhaps Thrasymachus is right, but we want to know if he is right, that is, to be given good reasons for the correctness of his view. The analytic tradition derives its power and persuasiveness from its focus on justificatory issues because coercive power without a justification is deeply, horrifyingly, troubling. We need the analytic project of justification if we aspire to a political life in which we are more than mere objects of power, hostages to the circumstances of our birth and the violent powers that threaten us. The reconciliatory project of political philosophy identified by Rawls is impossible without the justificatory practices of analytic political philosophy (unless a political world without coercion is realized).

The continental tradition—once again keeping in mind the richness and diversity of each tradition that limits what we can say about them generally—responds to the need to recognize the contingent, historical, constructed, reified, and thus often ideological character of our political worlds, and to demand a different, often radically different, political life. There are good reasons to suspect that any justification of a theorized coercive political power bearing any resemblance to the operations of the real coercive power present in our societies is ideological. But there are also good reasons to suspect that any justification will rely on logical analyses of concepts that ignore the density of those concepts, thereby reifying concepts that are, at any moment, products of determinate theoretical and practical struggles. Some continental theorists—Derrida is the most obvious example—are both deeply skeptical and hyper-rationalistic insofar as they strive to go deeper and farther in the quest for justification but, in so doing, come to realize the impossibility of any justification. Starting with Hegel, though, most continental theorists tend to, in Hegel’s words, “tarry with the negative,” and in political terms that entails attending to the failings, limitations, contingencies, histories, reifications, and ideologies at work both in theory and political practice (Hegel 1977, 19).

We need cross-tradition theorizing, then, because both the analytic and continental traditions respond to a real political and theoretical need. Of course, the needs I have identified are clearly in tension with one another. One mode of cross-tradition theorizing—what I call the synthetic mode—would seek to reconcile the best of both traditions, to respond to both needs. Synthetic cross-tradition theorizing tries to unite the two needs I have identified: the need for justification and the need to take historicity and contingency seriously. I have my doubts about that mode because I think the two needs truly are incompatible. Any justification of political power will have to avoid or repress or reify a contingent historical feature of the society in question; and attention to historicity and contingency cannot but undermine even the desire for justification. The first two chapters of this book are examples of synthetic theorizing intended, in part, to convince you that the synthetic mode is not the way to go. Rather than seeking synthesis, I argue in this book for aporetic cross-tradition theorizing.

Aporetic cross-tradition theorizing intensifies, without resolving, the tension between the needs met by the analytic and continental traditions by emphasizing the power, persuasiveness, and incompatibility of a theory of a political phenomenon taken from each tradition. There are at least three good reasons for employing the aporetic mode.

First, and most importantly, if fundamental political phenomena are truly dense, no single theory, or tradition, will be able to analyze phenomena completely. However, no synthesis of theories or traditions will do any better. Synthesis will not work because dense phenomena contain irreconcilable elements, elements we cannot eliminate and cannot unify. This is a consequence of the historical mass unstably held together within a dense phenomenon. Without pushing the atomic metaphor too far, I hope, we can say that a dense phenomenon stabilizes only when it loses one or many of its elements. To take Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty as an example, we can stabilize our concept of liberty by denying the very idea of positive liberty. If positive liberty requires, as it does in Rousseau, the idea that one can be “forced to be free,” and if that idea is a paradox we cannot resolve, then we might think of Rousseauian positive freedom as not liberty at all. While this might stabilize our concept of freedom—in this very simple example, excluding all other accounts of freedom—it does so by changing the phenomenon, by eliminating an influential, historically important definition of freedom. Given an argument, this might be a valid move. However, there are also elements of freedom that cannot be removed from freedom without transforming the phenomenon. This too, of course, requires an argument, and Chapter 3 provides an argument that we can neither dismiss nor fully accept one element of freedom: self-control. Freedom, in short, is an unstable phenomenon, and rather than ignore that fact or transform the phenomenon, we should approach freedom aporetically, that is, theorize freedom as containing incompatible elements or conditions that can be neither eliminated nor reconciled.

If I am right, then we will necessarily arrive at aporias, at blocked paths, paradoxical needs that cannot be met, when we engage in cross-tradition theorizing. This is a bold claim, perhaps too bold, but it is one of the claims of this book. The necessary failure of both individual theories and synthesis is a consequence of the density of political phenomena and the limitations of our intellectual powers. Chapters 3 through 5 are examples of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing in practice, and I hope to show through those chapters that any good theory of a fundamental political phenomenon will capture some necessary feature or property of that phenomenon. I try to show in those chapters that both theories at issue are persuasive and speak to undeniable intuitions about the phenomenon of freedom and of justice; yet they cannot be reconciled. I can see no non-question-begging reason for thinking that one aspect of freedom is more basic or essential than another, nor that one requirement of justice is necessary and another not. Aporetic consequences are due to the density of the phenomenon itself, not just our current intellectual limitations, which, over time, might be overcome through synthesis. We cannot see this, however, without doing the work of putting as many theories into conversation with each other as we can; the more disparate the better. Thus, aporetic cross-tradition theorizing helps us to make sense of dense phenomena by showing us, in the first place, that and how the phenomena are dense.

A second reason for aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is that our intellectual resources are limited—a claim few would seriously dispute—and more importantly and contentiously, must respond to those incompatible intellectual needs mentioned previously. My discussions of the limitations of the synthetic cross-tradition approaches of political realism and Cavellian consent in Chapters 1 and 2 aim to show that we can neither fit the continental need to attend to contingency, history, dissensus, and so forth, into the justificatory mode of analytic theorizing, nor satisfy the analytic need for justifying coercive power by “reading” a justificatory project like Rawls’ Theory of Justice as a “text.” There is a bit of irony in coming to this conclusion thanks to Cavell’s reading of Rawls, because it is Cavell’s discussion of intellectual needs—drawn from his reading of Immanuel Kant and Wittgenstein—that inspires my own aporetic cross-tradition theorizing. Intellectual needs are discovered by patiently listening to Reason’s many voices, those polyvocal and often dissonant claims made on our intellect by questions we cannot help but ask in the course of serious inquiry. Not all the voices in our head are entirely sane, of course. To accept an unresolvable tension in our intellectual needs is not to refuse critical analysis of those needs or of their satisfactions. A bad theory is a bad theory, and often we have compelling reasons for criticizing and dismissing both a voice in our head and a theory. An aim of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, however, is to respond to our competing intellectual needs and their theoretical satisfactions by offering the most persuasive defense of incompatible theories in order to show that the best we can do is discover the limits of our intellect, of both its resources and its needs. This must be shown though, not taken for granted, and aporetic cross-tradition theorizing aims to reveal something we need to know about our theories and the political world we are trying to understand. It is knowledge that we are seeking, not skepticism. If we must fail to know or understand, that is a positive result, an intellectual advance.

Third, aporetic cross-tradition theorizing reminds us that however abstract and academic political theory might be, in political theory we are explaining and often justifying the all-too-real practices of often violent coercion used on and against the all-too-real embodied individuals with whom we share a political world. Analytic theorizing, in its justificatory mode, should remind us that if we are to use coercion against this individual, then we ought to have something to say in justification of that coercion. However, the abstract character of analytic theorizing, even in its most political and least metaphysical moments, often ignores—perhaps must ignore—the concrete individuals who are the objects of the practices being justified. A useful test of a justificatory theory, I would suggest, is to imagine offering that justification face-to-face to the real individual affected by coercive power. This may seem cheap, but I often wonder about the emotional fortitude and intellectual self-confidence required to explain to a prisoner one’s preferred theory of why he should be in chains. To the extent that continental theorizing returns us—if just as abstractly—to the contingent, embodied, historical life of politics, that theorizing can check the analytic abstraction that blithely justifies some of the nastier realities of politics.

Conversely, if continental theorizing eschews justification, it leaves us with nothing at all to say, normatively, in defense of political practices that many of us are not prepared to give up entirely or at all. I think there is a great deal of evidence that human beings, just to survive much longer, must radically transform their economic and political arrangements. Such a transformation would require, among other things, a massive global expropriation and redistribution of wealth. Whatever else this entails, it surely entails taking things that at present are understood to be the property of some individual or collective, and giving those things in one way or another to another person who, at present, has no property in those things. We also, at present, have the idea that taking things that belong to one person and giving them to someone else must be justified because of the existence of individual property rights. Is an argument against property rights based, for example, on the contingent, constructed, historical character of those rights—the fact that they didn’t exist at some time, exist now, and need not exist in the future—enough to justify taking someone’s money or other property? I don’t see how a critical analysis of the concept of property rights itself could justify taking someone’s property unless we make the further argument that any justification of property rights is ideological, that is, a historically contingent justification of a state of affairs that is naturalized by those who stand to benefit from present economic arrangements. However, unless we are relying on a conception of history in which, inevitably, economic arrangements are going to arrive at an economic order without property rights—whether that is metaphysically understood or just the consequence of the psychological, political, and economic consequences of capitalism—then something must be said in justification of a world without property rights and thereby in justification of expropriating the wealth of the few in the service of all. I do not deny that continental theorists can—and perhaps some do—offer such justifications, but if so then they surely have to meet, on the same ground, justifications of capitalism, property rights, unequal distributions of goods, and the like, many of which are found in the analytic tradition.

Aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, or at least my rendition of it, has, at its ethical core the demand of the singular, embodied, all-too-real coerced individual, the simple demand for justification, for an answer to “why?” To remain faithful to the continental need is to remind ourselves of the concrete, lived, contingent, historical realities of this individual subjected to political power; to remain faithful to the analytic need is to remind ourselves that this person has every right to demand a rational, reasonable answer to that question, to demand a justification. I hope the chapters in this book all demonstrate that we must and cannot remain faithful to both demands at the same time. This is the ethical core of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, and although academic political theory is usually just that—academic—it is nevertheless an academic discourse about contingent employments of power, power that is exercised here and now, but need not be. I would suggest that aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is a powerful expression of the unrealizable but valuable ethical and political ideal of answering to this person’s subjection to power with reasons this person could accept.

Readers of this book in manuscript have raised an important objection that needs to be addressed. The objection is quite straightforward: “You say that we learn, understand, or know, something through aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, but all we come to know is that we don’t know, or can’t know, enough. Why is this nothing more than setting impossible standards of satisfaction for a political theory? Sure, no theory is perfect, but so what? Moreover, isn’t this just a Socratic lesson that teaches us only the limits of what we can know, rather than any concrete, substantive piece of knowledge? I already know that our intellectual resources are limited, but that is true of all intellectual inquiry.” This is a powerful objection, and it needs answering, a task this introduction has aimed to accomplish. Let me summarize those answers here.

It is true that aporetic cross-tradition theorizing doesn’t itself teach us something new about, say, justice, other than teaching us that no theory of justice is likely to succeed because justice is dense and our intellectual needs are real and in real, unresolvable tension. Only a theory of justice—or a novel, or work of history, or new form of political action or social movement, or some similar endeavor—will teach us something new about justice, and aporetic cross-tradition theorizing doesn’t produce new theories of justice, or anything else. To continue with the example of justice, one can read the later Rawls to find out that justice cannot rest, in modern liberal democracies, on metaphysical foundations. And one can read the later Derrida to find out that justice couldn’t possibly be fully realized in our polities without metaphysical foundations. Both Rawls and Derrida are right, but if they are both right, then justice both requires and cannot require, for us, now, in our liberal democratic societies (if that is where we live), a metaphysical foundation. If we learn something substantive from aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, it is that dense political phenomena are dense, and we learn more about that density and where it leaves us. Is this too little to learn? Perhaps. However, I don’t think so, if only because I think I have learned a great deal more about legitimacy, state violence, freedom, and justice by reading more widely and writing aporetically about those phenomena. The density of the phenomenon of justice came to light only when I put theories from different traditions into conversation with each other, that is, when I wrote about them. We can learn a great deal about justice by writing about Aristotle and Rawls, Rawls and Amartya Sen, Rawls and Thomas Pogge, Rawls and Gaus, and so on. But we learn something very different about justice in writing about Rawls and Derrida. Or so I hope to have shown in Chapter 5.

Does aporetic cross-tradition theorizing set impossible standards for theory-success, only to point out, trivially enough, that the theory fails? Yes, but pointing to the failure of a theory to satisfy an impossible standard is not trivial, because political theories, to say it again, fundamentally concern the imposition of force against individuals. There are things physicists do not understand about the cosmos, and the best physical theories are surely not complete. Is anyone’s pain or suffering or deprivation legitimized by the failure of those theories? No (yes, I can think of counter-examples too, but to what end?). Things get a little trickier when we come to economic and moral theory, because a flawed and limited economic or moral theory might very well lead to deprivation or pain; but does the economic or moral theory justify that deprivation? If so, then economic and moral theory share something with political theory. The point remains the same: if we believe, as I do, that intentionally causing pain and suffering and deprivation is prima facie wrong, then political power must be justified. Can a flawed theory of legitimacy satisfy the “why?” of the prisoner? Must it? Can we say to the prisoner, with a straight face, “Yes, yes, I know that this justification of state violence is not perfect, but it’s good enough to punish you”? I can’t think of a single political theorist whose work explicitly acknowledges this response; but I can think of many ultimately flawed political theories that would have to say as much. I cannot accept that response; it is not good enough, not when we are talking about the flaying of flesh or the destruction of minds. If aporetic cross-tradition theorizing sets impossible standards for political theories, that is because those theories attempt to justify, directly or implicitly, the intentional imposition of pain, suffering, and deprivation. Good enough is not good enough. The commitment to impossible standards of theory-success is ethical, not intellectual. There is no problem with a limited physical theory; such are the limits of human knowledge. A limited political theory that justifies violence, however, is a real problem: an ethical problem.

That brings me to the end of the story: how we got here, where we are, and where we should go. The burden of this book is to show that aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is a viable strategy for navigating the analytic-continental divide, and a valuable mode of political theory. I have found myself unable to shake either tradition, and rather than being faithful to one tradition or drawn and quartered by inescapable ties, I have chosen, in this book, to bring both traditions together and to remain suspended between them, in a tolerable amount of pain, but without being dismembered.

THE STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK

I have chosen to focus on five thinkers and one “movement” in political theory. The continental side of things is represented by Arendt, Derrida, and in the first chapter, by Cavell’s synthetic mode of theorizing. The analytic side is represented by political realism (as an example of a synthetic mode), Pettit, and Rawls. Some might question my choice of Pettit to represent the analytic tradition, but his work is undoubtedly in that tradition, both in aim (it intends to justify both a theory of political freedom and a form of government) and in method. Given the wealth of theorists in both traditions, my choices say as much about my interests in political theory as they do about the divide more broadly. I hope those convinced by this book will carry out their own cross-tradition work, whether in an aporetic, synthetic, or some other possible mode.

Chapters 1 and 2 explore two synthetic cross-tradition possibilities, although only one of the possibilities, Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of consent and the social contract, is self-consciously a crossing of traditions. While the central focus of each of these chapters is the theory itself, each chapter begins by showing how Cavell and political realists are engaging in synthetic cross-tradition theorizing. The chapters end with a discussion of how, and why, the synthetic mode fails to get a grip on a central political phenomenon: state violence. These “bookends” foreshadow my discussion in the final chapter.

Chapter 1 is a discussion of the political realism we find in contemporary political theory. Inspired by the work of Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss, the distinctive claim of realists of all stripes is the rejection of “moralist” approaches to politics, on display most prominently in philosophers such as the early John Rawls, G. A. Cohen, and Robert Nozick. Realists today are working to develop a “political” rather than moralist theory of legitimacy, relying on values and norms internal to politics. Any realist theory of legitimacy will likely find itself in trouble, however, when it turns to the problem of state violence, a central practice within any state. A realist theory of legitimacy will fail to find political norms that can justify state violence and ensure a distinction between legitimate force and illegitimate violence. The chapter ends with my suggestion for realists dealing with the problem of violence: give up the attempt to find a realist theory of legitimacy, and thereby become even more “realist.”

Chapter 2 turns to the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who occupies a unique position between the analytic and continental traditions. His work—informed by Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—attempts to expand upon the problems and solutions of both traditions in philosophy of language, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political theory. Cavell’s unique interpretation of the social contract tradition, seen in the light of the putative legitimacy of state violence, is far more problematic than it might at first appear. If a crucial aim of classical consent theory and the social contract is to legitimize state violence, Cavell’s interpretation not only fails, in fact, to respond to that aim, it also cannot, in principle, respond to the moral problem of state violence. Like realist legitimacy, Cavellian consent runs into significant problems when confronted with the legitimacy of state violence. This chapter reinforces the conclusion of the first, both on the substantive issue and, more broadly, with respect to the possibilities of synthetic cross-tradition theorizing.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer a detailed discussion of the two most powerful contemporary theorists of political freedom: Hannah Arendt and Philip Pettit. Both theorists offer the two most attractive alternatives to freedom as conceived in the liberal tradition. The centrality of freedom in both Arendt’s and Pettit’s work is not the only link between them. They both share a commitment to republican political ideas and institutions. However, in a variety of important, and perhaps ultimately incommensurable, respects, Pettit and Arendt disagree greatly about the “ground” of freedom, its description, and the relation of these philosophical and phenomenological accounts of freedom as such to political freedom.

In Chapter 3 I argue that these two accounts, however opposed, each point us toward a crucial aspect of freedom downplayed, undertheorized, or simply ignored in the other account. Bluntly stated, there is a tension between freedom as control of the self by the self and freedom as the initiation of newness through action, an experience of non-sovereign, spontaneous activity that requires the absence of all control. There is a tension because Arendt and Pettit can both appeal to intuitions and ordinary language to support their claims, and yet it seems clear that freedom cannot both require, and not require, control.

I first examine Pettit’s and Arendt’s theories of freedom as such in order to show the place of control in each account and, at least in the case of Arendt, to reconstruct an at times unclear set of descriptions and claims into a coherent phenomenology of freedom. The aim of the chapter is to show that the place of control in freedom is something we can neither accept fully nor do without, because the experiences and values associated with freedom as control and freedom as spontaneous activity are too central both to our conceptions of freedom and to our individual and collective lives.

Chapter 4 builds on the previous chapter by demonstrating that the standoff between Pettit’s and Arendt’s conclusions about freedom as such shapes and produces a conflict between their accounts of political freedom as well. Once again the issue is control, but the political consequence of control is a conflict between two ways of conceiving the relationship of freedom to the structure of rule. For Pettit, non-dominating freedom is not only possible under legitimate rule but enabled and protected by a legitimate democratic regime. Arendt, however, suggests in a number of places that isonomy—which she defines as a structure of “no-rule”—is the “regime” most conducive to freedom.

Both Pettit and Arendt face real difficulties, though, in their arguments for republican democracy and isonomy. On the one hand, Pettit cannot successfully distinguish his version of republicanism from the moralized versions he opposes in Rousseau and Kant. This raises serious questions about the possibility of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate government interference without reference to a moralized conception of the common good and freedom. On the other hand, Arendtian isonomy faces real difficulties when we think seriously about how to institutionalize a condition of “no-rule.” For whatever the value of freedom as disclosive action, without a stable space for political action freedom is only the fleeting experience of a lucky few. Arendt’s attempts to think through the institutionalization of the political reveal just how problematic isonomy becomes as a stable structure of “rule.”

In Chapter 5 I explore Rawls’ and Derrida’s accounts of the concept and various conceptions of justice because when read together, Rawls and Derrida expose a deep, and often recognized, difficulty in modern political thought: can we do without metaphysics in political theorizing?

Rawls and Derrida navigate this debate, albeit from opposite directions: they both try to articulate a post-metaphysical conception of justice by tying it to the specific legal and political history of the West. The central innovation in Rawls’ views, from Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism, is to replace “metaphysical” foundations for justice as fairness with historical “foundations.” Rawls, in an attempt to dispense with metaphysics, turns to a specific historical tradition. Drawing upon a Kantian lineage, Derrida argues that justice is unconditional but must be rendered, however impossibly, in law: specifically, and explicitly, the law as it has developed in the western constitutional tradition.

In both cases, history cannot provide normative validity to justice without presupposing a metaphysic of history that neither Derrida nor Rawls can endorse. In both cases we are left with a compelling problem that has no obvious answer: we can neither dispense with metaphysics nor, for familiar Rawlsian reasons, use it to ground politics and law in modern liberal democracies. If this claim is correct, then we political theorists face some serious difficulties.

The concluding chapter makes three claims in defense of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, and summarizes the reasons why the synthetic mode is not as viable an alternative. It also “applies” the results of Chapter 5 to the problem of reparations for America’s long and continuing history of brutal enslavement and oppression of black Americans, considering specifically Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential “The Case for Reparations.” I argue that Coates’ case betrays his reliance on a specific American jeremiadic tradition and can succeed only if we accept metaphysical presuppositions of the jeremiadic tradition. His argument’s power rests on those presuppositions, but cannot succeed because of them. The aporia of justice in its relationship to history and metaphysics can no more be mastered by Coates than by Rawls or Derrida.