Transcendence and Finitude: In Memory of Drucilla Cornell12-18-2022
Drucilla Cornell died on Monday, Dec 12, 2022. Her obituary is here. Drucilla was a dear friend and also a constant supporter of the Arendt Center. She spoke at many of our annual conferences, including this talk on Dignity Jurisprudence in South Africa and a memorable panel with her, George Packer, Charles Murray, Kendall Thomas, Zephyr Teachout, and Philip Howard.
Drucilla was one of the most unique and self-possessed people I’ve met, someone who could laugh and cry unapologetically, often in quick succession. Her friends whom she collected and loved included academics, trainers, and people she encountered daily in shops and on the street. Her annual Christmas party was a place to witness her loving community. It was to be held this year on Dec. 16th. Sadly, we must instead mourn Drucilla’s passing. Those who knew Drucilla miss her; we all are richer for her work.
I met Drucilla in 1992. I told the story of our meeting and what it meant to me in an essay published in the book Imagining Law: On Drucilla Cornell, edited by Renée Heberle.
At the end of my first year of graduate school, I was bored. Faced with the reduction of thinking to politics on the one hand and the perversion of thinking into an indulgent pastime on the other, I was experiencing firsthand the anti-intellectualism that now pervades our elite colleges and universities. And yet, from out of the swamp that is the American academy, two discoveries gave me hope. One was the encounter with the thought of Martin Heidegger through my mentor in Berkeley, Philippe Nonet. The other was the work of Drucilla Cornell.
I had never heard of Cornell when I was assigned The Philosophy of the Limit in a seminar in the Berkeley Rhetoric department in 1992. What struck me in that book—struck me so hard that I sought out the author and, with her blessing, took a leave of absence from graduate school to journey back across the country to study with her for six months—what struck me was its force of thinking.
Philosophy and thinking matter for Cornell in the deepest sense of the word: philosophy itself “does have practical consequences; the practical consequences are precisely that law cannot inevitably shut out its challengers and prevent transformation, at least not on the basis that the law itself demands that it do so.” (Philosophy of the Limit, 165) Unlike those who enlist philosophy in political causes, Cornell’s politics demands that she engage in the activity of philosophy itself. By continually and rigorously pointing to the impossibility of a closed and actualized knowledge of the good, philosophy makes room for utopian dreams and justice. The force of philosophy is to open a space for living justly.
Her devotion to the forceful importance of the idea of justice has led Cornell to be called a dreamer, a utopian, and an idealist. She is unapologetically all three. But what is often forgotten is that Cornell’s utopia is founded upon a relentless probing of her fundamental question: the possible unity of freedom and law—a unity that itself has its ground in the activity of thinking.
This paper situates Cornell’s work within a specific tradition of thinking the belonging together of law and freedom. From Kant to Heidegger, the possibility of freedom amidst legal obligation is one of the central questions of political and ethical philosophy. Following both Kant and Heidegger, Cornell thinks freedom as the free embrace of obligation. At the same time, Cornell insists that contemporary thinkers take seriously the radical meaninglessness—the absence of both freedom and obligation—that threatens the modern condition. Suspicious of both Kant’s turn to a universal law of reason and Heidgger’s free embrace of man’s finite legal inheritance, Cornell accepts the increasingly widespread view that all meaning and all law are without ground. What is needed, Cornell argues, is a freely accepted embrace of law within and amidst the recognition of radical nihilism. Her insistence that finite beings can and must live in the paradoxical state of commitment to law in the face of the fact of law’s meaninglessness is the ethical center of her work.
Cornell’s philosophical inquiries gather their force from her conviction that the force of thinking can and does change the world. The force of thinking, in other words, is an active force that furthers justice. However, to say that the philosophy of the limit is the active force of justice is to locate Cornell’s thinking on the plane of ontology. This is to use a language that Cornell frequently does not. Yet, if the philosophy of the limit is justice, and if justice is that part of law that must be vigilantly protected in its distinction from law, then the philosophy of the limit is a characterization of the essential way in which the law is. Understood as the philosophy of the limit, law is the thinking of the absolute (the metaphysical dream of universal justice) from the position of human finitude (the limit). As one crossroads where the absolute and the finite meet in human experience, law is a space of paradox—a space of the necessary encounter of the impossible dream of justice.