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“‘Justice,’ or ‘Just’ Speech?: How Philosophy Conceives its Limit, from Plato through Kant, Hegel, and Arendt”

Lecture by Claudia Brodsky, Princeton University

Friday, April 28, 7:00 p.m., Great Hall

This lecture is part of the Carol J. Worrell annual lecture series on literature


The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that, of all the abstract ideas that actively orient, ground (or upend) the practical lives and histories of human beings, the inherently relational notion of “justice” is perhaps the most difficult to define. “Justice” names a relation of equivalence between two otherwise unrelated actions or things. Necessarily comparing -- “weighing” or “taking the measure” – of one “side” of a relation it has itself to invent, the identity of “justice” remains two-sided or equivocal in more than one literal sense. As first demonstrated in Plato’s Republic, any attempt to define the identity of “justice” – most important of all “Ideas” according to the inventor of these, and with them, philosophy itself -- must engage not only separate identities but distinct semantic fields: the ideational or theoretical and the concrete or practical. The thesis of this paper is that, in posing the question of the definition of “justice,” Socrates not only opens up the semantic division within language between the abstract and the concrete, but transforms a dialectical dialogue that might have instead come to be entitled Δικαίoσύνη into the hypothetical account of a mechanically synched (or “ad-justed”) state. The paper further argues that the abrupt turn from the ideational to the mechanical that seems to render the very question of “justice,” as of judgment in general, moot, indicates the fine line between the least delimited (i.e., “just” in the highest, moral sense) and most delimited (“just” in the constricted sense of “merely”) that discursive philosophy straddles at its best. With brief related discussions of Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Arendt and J. L. Austin.


Claudia Brodsky earned her BA in English and Comparative Literature magna cum laude from Harvard University and PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale, where she taught in the German and Comparative Literature Depts. before joining the Dept. of Comparative Literature at Princeton.  She studied in Germany as a DAAD and Humboldt Fellow, at the Universities of Freiburg, Munich, and Constance.  Her many articles engage with literary and philosophical 17th-through 20th century works in English, German, French, and Spanish; her books include The Imposition of Form: Studies in Narrative Representation and Knowledge (1987), Lines of Thought: Discourse, Architectonics, and the Origin of Modern Philosophy (1996), In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent (2006), Words’ Worth: What the Poet Does (2020), and The Linguistic Condition: Kant’s Critique of Judgment and the Poetics of Action (2021).  She is co-editor with Toni Morrison of Birth of a Nation’hood (1997), with E. LaBrada of Inventing Agency. Essays in the Philosophical and Literary Production of the Modern Subject (2017), and editor of Kant and Literary Studies (forthcoming Cambridge U P, 2023).



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