Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”

Theodor W. Adorno


11 June 1959

Knowledge as Tautology

Last time I told you something about the curious and, as it seems to me, deeply rooted, dual attitude of the Critique of Pure Reason towards its own object, that is, to reason. I argued that, on the one hand, the Critique of Pure Reason contains the elements of an identity philosophy since it attempts to derive authoritative, universally valid knowledge from the analysis of reason. On the other hand, however, it strives with equal vigour to bring the element of nonidentity to the fore. This means that Kant is conscious of a problem that was not perceived so clearly by his successors precisely because of their greater consistency. This is the problem of knowledge as a tautology, that is to say, the problem that if everything that is known is basically nothing but a knowing reason, what we have is no real knowledge but only a kind of reflection of reason. That we are confronted here with Kant's own clear philosophical decision – and not, as is frequently imputed to him, the mere vestiges of a position not properly thought through – is evident. It was demonstrated as a matter of historical fact by his impassioned resistance to the interpretations placed on his critique of reason by his first great successor, Fichte, who regarded himself, not without cause, as a consistent Kantian. This is why he argued that Kant's critique of reason still appeared to contain dogmatic elements, particularly in its insistence on the thing‑in‑itself which is said to exist outside the sphere of consciousness, but to impinge on us nevertheless. The fact that this leads to inconsistencies in the Critique of Pure Reason and that in consequence the book really does find itself forced into contradictions it is unable to resolve is a story so often told in the history of the literature on Kant that I have no need to dwell on it here. I should like only to say about these contradictions or inconsistencies that if they have been defined as necessary contradictions, this testifies to the influence of the most consistent method to have succeeded Kant, namely Hegel's. For what Hegel did was to analyse the contradictions necessarily contained in the method of the critique of reason in an attempt to arrive at a solution to the problem of knowledge in general and ultimately to the problem of philosophy as such. I may also add that in the process Hegel explicitly embraced that element of tautology that I have described as the essence of identity philosophy. This means that in his philosophy the culmination of thought in 'absolute spirit' is actually identical with the Absolute with which it began – except that everything is placed inside the process which leads to this tautology. Here, too, the elements that made their appearance in Kant against the will of philosophy and took the form of its aporetic limits have been made conscious of themselves and transformed into the instruments of knowledge. But I do not wish to spend more time on these matters now, even though I think it perfectly legitimate to use my rather broadly conceived introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason to give you some idea of the way in which philosophy developed after Kant. For there is a sense in which this further development is already implicit in Kant himself and it is important to see this instead of treating each philosophy in a separate compartment.

More important than this perspective on future developments, however, is the peculiar duality with which the Critique of Pure Reason regards its own object, namely reason itself, and the genuine ambivalence towards enlightenment of which I have already spoken. I told you last time about the positive elements of enlightenment – 'positive' in the sense of a simple identification of the critique of reason with enlightenment – and I argued then that the true element of enlightenment in Kant is the assertion that nothing may be held to be true that cannot withstand the scrutiny of thought, above all, subjective thought. This view of reason is not the only one to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason, however. You will discover a different view in one of the most famous passages of the Critique of Pure Reason, a passage I should like to read out to you now so as to give you a precise idea of what is at stake. Kant is talking about the positive introduction of the supreme categories of metaphysics – God, freedom and immortality – categories which are regarded only negatively in the book on the grounds that they are theoretically unknowable. He says of these ideas in the Preface to the Second Edition:

[From what has already been said], it is evident that even the assumption – as made on behalf of the necessary practical employment of my reason – of God, freedom, and immortality is not permissible unless at the same time speculative reason be deprived of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For in order to arrive at such insight –

in other words, to arrive at the thesis that the existence of God, freedom and immortality can be proved on the basis of pure thought alone –

it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to objects of possible experience, and which, if also applied to what cannot be an object of experience, always really change this into an appearance, thus rendering all practical extension of pure reason impossible.

In this 'always really change this into an appearance', if we reflect on what lies behind it, reason is reproached for something like blasphemy if it believes it can prove the existence of the highest goods – to use the expression current in the older language of philosophy – purely from within itself. It is a kind of hubris on the part of ‘the mere light of nature’ to attempt to transcend what is given to it, namely, the world of the finite and the phenomenal, and to appropriate the Absolute even while leaving the latter's absolute status intact. This is made quite explicit in the following, famous statement:

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the preconception that it is possible to make headway in metaphysics without a previous criticism of pure reason, is the source of all that unbelief, always very dogmatic, which wars against morality.

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favour of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason – quite in opposition to the views of High Scholasticism and to Thomas Aquinas. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther's reference to 'that whore, reason', and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about 'straying into intelligible worlds'. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. That is to say, if this curiosity is knocked on the head by the hand of authority as soon as it stirs, the faculty of knowledge will be damaged. We are talking here of the phenomenon of neurotic stupidity and it is on the side of this stupidity that Kant places himself here, doubtless without intending to do so. Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant's view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are 'houses of ill‑repute'. This phenomenon recurs over and over again. I shall leave you to make up your own minds about it.

I have already said that the denigration of reason (I believe that I told you about this last time) accompanies self‑sustaining reason like a shadow. That is to say, reason is held to be legitimate; it is to be tolerated where it serves to control nature and to introduce a kind of order into the world. But as soon as it goes beyond that, as soon as it touches the true ground of existence, it finds itself accused of sacrilege and unwarranted curiosity. This affords a parallel to the way in which the gnostics were always being criticized for their excesses, their antinomianism, in short, their illegality, their violations of the law. We might say that the more Kant attributes to reason as a criticizing activity – the more he regards it as the authority that presides over the possibility of judgements in general – then the more he seems to subtract from the individual act of subjective reason, that is, reason as something criticized. You will discover in him the tendency to give emotional emphasis to a completely abstract concept of reason, entirely divorced from actual, individual, rational human beings. In consequence the individual human being who makes unfettered use of his reason without making the concessions that Kant insisted on in servants of the state and that I told you about last time," finds himself accused of 'pseudo­rationality' and the like.

Thus Kant can be seen to add his voice to the ancient complaint about a consistently critical reason, decrying it as mere sophistry. His reasoning contains an anti‑utopian element: the insistence that this shall not be. You can observe the peculiar ambivalence of Kant's attitude towards the utopian very clearly in the highest concept to which his metaphysics aspires, namely the concept of the infinite. On the one hand, Kant is enough of a champion of the Enlightenment to demand again and again that the requirements of reason be satisfied. Although reason for him is an essentially formal principle, he does necessarily (I would say) provide quite, concrete and comprehensible definitions of what it is supposed to achieve – humanity, for example, in the Critique of Practical Reason, or again, the absolute reconciliation of mankind, absolute peace between nations and individuals in such writings on the philosophy of history as the tract On Eternal Peace. At the same time, the idea has the character of a task that is postponed to infinity – quite apart from the fact that it demands that human beings should strive constantly and tirelessly, much as Max Weber does in the case of the Protestant ethic. In short, human beings must slave away in the service of this idea to the point of infinity, without ever being allowed to rest. This motif is then intensified to the utmost degree in Fichte. On the other hand, this concept of infinity also contains a negative meaning. It is that the fulfilment of the utopia which is demanded of us should never take place, that it is no more than a dream, and we might almost say that it ought to remain a dream. The great difficulty of Kant's practical writings in particular is that these two elements are in permanent conflict with each other. I mean by this the utopian, enlightened element that strives for the making real of reason despite everything, and the critical – and hence no less enlightened – element, but one that is intertwined with the strand of thought taken from Protestant theology. This [critical] strand of thought would like to thwart all that and in the spirit of Protestantism it calls for submission to existing circumstances, regimes or governments, of whatever kind.

To come to a conclusion about what we were discussing last time, we might say that in this sense Kantian philosophy does not really transcend the Enlightenment and bring about a consummation of philosophy, as we are constantly told. The case is rather that in Kant an ambiguity of Enlightenment thought itself reaches a culmination and finds itself in an antinomic situation. On the one hand, enlightened and enlightening thought really does aspire to a utopia, to the making real of reason; while, on the other hand, it turns its critical gaze on the concept of reason and thus restricts its own validity, recoiling from the complete establishment of utopia, the Absolute. To wish to perceive a particular merit in this peculiar ambiguity, in this curious backwardness of philosophy, in the light of the challenges confronting it, is the mark of a specific and highly dogmatic concept of depth. (I thought I would take the opportunity to say something to you about the fundamental underlying principles of this notion of depth in connection with Kant's philosophy, which is renowned as the 'deep' philosophy par excellence. But we have not yet reached the point where this would be appropriate.)

It is commonly claimed – and the claim has something of the Enlightenment about it – that even reason, like everything else, can become a dogma. You will constantly hear objections of this kind made if you occupy yourselves with theological studies of the Critique of Pure Reason. You will hear people say that indeed, there is faith in reason just as there is religious faith – and by reducing this faith in reason to a 'mere faith', the door is opened wide to the true faith. I hold this argument to be false, and I believe that there is a kind of equivocation in the concept of faith here, a sort of ambiguity that you would be well advised to think about. When we speak of faith in the strict sense what we mean is that something is said to be true because – or although – it lies beyond the scope of our reason; because it conflicts with reason; or because in a weaker version, more commonly encountered, reason has not yet been able to make it its own because no decision has yet been reached about its truth or untruth. Thus the concept of faith lies in its opposition to knowledge. If we then take the concept of faith as defined in this way and use it to refer to the acceptance of everything that exists, this blurs the distinction according to which faith can refer only to things that are accepted as being true without being grounded in reason. In contrast to this the acceptance of propositions validated by reason has a very different character, a transparency, that is necessarily absent from the concept of faith. It follows (to return to our previous theme) that when Kant says that he is placing restrictions on knowledge in order to leave scope for faith, this is not really reconcilable with the intention of the Critique of Pure Reason as a whole. This is because of his principle that only those propositions are permissible that are evident to our reason; it derives from his idea of absolute maturity as this was represented in the essay on Enlightenment from which I read you some crucial statements last time. And these restrictions on knowledge are of course quite incompatible with a view that suddenly introduces a different, no less legitimate cognitive source – even if it is only in the realm of practical cognition – which is the very antithesis of knowledge [grounded, in reason]. Philosophy in the emphatic sense can no more tolerate the placing of restrictions on reason through reason than it can condone a concept of faith that aspires to be independent of thought and superior to it. This is because the moment it did so it would introduce an element that would be beyond the reach of philosophy itself.

In this respect the theologians who have simply abandoned philosophy or who, like Soren Kierkegaard, became its enemies, are infinitely more consistent, and, if I may say so, more profound than the representatives of the tradition of semi‑theological philosophy – among whom Schopenhauer included Kant – with their belief that space could be found for the category of faith in a philosophy conceived of as the speculative employment of reason. The vehicle of this ambiguity I have been telling you about is the limitation placed on the critical findings of the critique of reason, the fact that these findings are not themselves unambiguous and so do not come down clearly on one side or other of a question like the existence of God. This in turn is connected with the fact that these findings are methodological in nature and hence refer simply to the ability to gain knowledge of such matters, and not to knowledge of these things themselves. The block placed on the method, in Kant's view, the assumption of an irreducible residue, of something non‑identical, the negative side of Enlightenment, which has the profundity and the greatness that comes from asserting absolute limits to the arrogance of a reason that asserts itself absolutely – this block also has the curious weakness that when confronted by superstition it ceases to function as an authority. It is no accident that the adherents of a consistent positivism – and positivism is basically the rationalism of an absolute self‑limitation – that positivists are never immune to superstition. When they find themselves faced by occult phenomena of one sort or another, they exhibit a casualness that would be unthinkable in a speculative philosopher of the calibre of Hegel, who would never let such things pass without comment. On the other hand, it should be said – and since these matters are extremely complex I have to present them to you in their full complexity as it would never do to convey to you a crude or primitive idea of such difficulties – on the other hand, then, because of the Kantian block and even more because of this theological idea that reason cannot be asserted absolutely, we see that there is an ultimate barrier which prevents reason, spirit, the very thing that in the final analysis has separated itself off from manual labour,  from being asserted in an absolute way. This barrier prevents something which is deeply embedded in nature from behaving as if it were a transcendent category, utterly superior to nature. We may well say that the spirit that forgets that it is rooted in nature, and that consequently truly asserts its own absolute status, is committing an act of hubris that condemns it all the more to fall victim to its own roots in nature. We may say, in other words, that it will be doomed to perpetuate blind natural conditions.

I should like at this point to say something of relevance to the structure of Kantian philosophy as a whole. You would be making a mistake if you were to imagine that this strange ambivalence towards Enlightenment and reason simply coincided with the twofold division of the Kantian system in general, an assumption that is easily made. In other words it would be all too easy to claim that the Kant who championed the Enlightenment is the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason; this Kant was an agnostic who said that we are only able to have knowledge of, and to organize, the world of appearances, while we have no true knowledge of God, freedom and immortality; when it comes to such matters we do not rightly know where we are and cannot allow ourselves to make judgements. In contrast we might assert that the Kant of the practical philosophy who introduced such ideas as regulative ideas, this Kant really just smuggled them in. In that sense the Kant of practical reason was opposed to the Enlightenment. But matters are not so simple. I believe you would do well, now that we are meditating on the place of the Critique of Pure Reason within the whole Kantian system, to take cognizance of the fact that the fissure I have been telling you about is one that runs right through the entire Kantian system. It is not simply one of a divide in Kant between theoretical, scientific knowledge and practical, that is, moral knowledge. The situation, then, is one in which, on the one hand, theoretical reason is anti‑dogmatic and denies itself the right to go beyond the limits of possible experience. In so doing, it embraces the Enlightenment.

On the other hand, however, it is this selfsame theoretical reason that actually installs this block which prevents reason from going beyond that point. It is theoretical reason in Kant that commands reason to stop and prevents it from carrying out its original task, namely, to think the Absolute. Instead, it ponders the question of whether thinking the Absolute can be possible as a science, and only resolves it in the context of science itself. That is to say, it refuses to recognize any truth apart from scientific truth. This is the sense in which the anti-­Enlightenment side of Kant, that is, the side that paralyses reason and binds it in fetters, limiting it simply to organized science, is deeply embedded in the Critique of Pure Reason. On the other hand, it is perfectly true that the theological categories that are criticized in the Critique of Pure Reason and are excoriated throughout the Enlightenment, then make their reappearance in the Critique of Practical Reason. However, precisely because they do reappear there, we can say that this Critique really does make space for elements that can be called authentically utopian – that is to say, the creation of humanity and of human solidarity – all the elements mentioned in the concluding sections of the Critique of Practical Reason and for which there was no room in the Critique of Pure Reason. You see, then, how the structure I have shown you is really a fundamental feature of Kantian philosophy as a whole, and, I should like to add, of bourgeois thought. It is a structure, or so I would claim, that is only obliquely reflected in the division of Kant's critique of reason into two great sections.

If you place Kant's philosophy at the very beginning of the liberal era, you could perhaps add the speculative idea – which is in fact rather more than mere speculation – that bourgeois thought in its cradle – that is to say, at the turn of, the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries – was both bourgeois and also something that pointed beyond it. The outlook of any given class at the point at which it becomes the subject of history represents of course the history of that class, but it also points beyond it. That is to say, the moment a class bursts through the barriers of antiquated social relations of production, it feels itself – and with justice – to be the executive arm of mankind as a whole. This double role is evident in the Critique of Pure Reason with particular force. On the one hand, you feet at every turn a certain homely bourgeois rationality, as well as countless bourgeois virtues, such as prudence, righteousness, judicious appraisal, and a specific type of humanity that is highly characteristic of Kant, in contrast to his successors. But you also gain the strong impression that the moment this class begins to determine its own ideals, and to define them in a self-critical manner, it transcends the horizons of its own particular interests, and in a sense starts to act as spokesperson on behalf of humanity as a whole. This is a peculiarity of Kant, one he shares with the greatest thinkers of his age in the realm of social theory – an example is the great French social theorist Saint-Simon. It is my belief that this remarkable ambiguity, this flirtation with the anti-­utopian and repressive, with duty and the insistence on definite set tasks, in short, the commitment to all such ideas, on the one hand, and, the idea on the other hand, that the world as a whole must become rational – the tension between these two. strands of Kant's philosophy has its roots ultimately in this point in the history of philosophy. The hour had struck when this philosophy ceased for an instant simply to represent its own particular interests and really became the voice of the World Spirit, to use Hegel's expression, an ability which it went on to lose soon enough.

These observations and the remarks I let fall last time have of course taken me well beyond the limits of what is usually understood by the interpretation of Kant. I have not simply given you a faithful and straightforward account of what there is in the text, and translated Kant's more difficult expressions into easier ones – something I cannot at all regard as my task. Nor have I attempted to explain to you what thoughts were in Kant's mind when he was writing, a task of supreme indifference for the understanding of philosophy. Instead, I have kept within a framework which I would like to think of as being the appropriate framework within which to discuss Kant objectively, that is, in terms of the philosophy of history. I would of course ask you to take the term 'philosophy of history' in a very definite sense. I am not concerned with Kant's precise position in the history of mind or actual history (such an approach would strike me as relatively primitive and indeed pre‑philosophical). What I wish to explore is what Kant reveals to us of the movement of mind itself, of what we might term the internal history of truth, as this has been expressed on the sundial of truth itself. I refer explicitly to whatever Kant's philosophy contains that is over and above the immediate meaning of the text – in the spirit in which Hegel observes in one of the great passages of the Logic that certain propositions (Hegel means the principles of identity or contradiction) contain more than what is actually meant by them. This is what I have set out to do – and not to show you what philosophers had in mind when they wrote their philosophies, something we are not able to reconstruct anyway, and certainly not to indulge in such trivial activities as to discuss Kant's place in the history of philosophy between Leibniz and the German idealists, something you can easily read up in any textbook. What I am concerned with is what a philosophy objectively expresses, over and above its own opinion: that is what is at stake. In other words, I am concerned with the constellation of truth – and this constellation is identical with the force field I have talked about so often – that has crystallized into such a philosophy, that is the decisive point. I am fully aware that I am making considerable demands on you, that is to say, I am doing something that deviates from everything you will have learnt about interpretation in either the disciplines of philology or jurisprudence, for example, in the interpretation of a particular law, where to my layman's eye the thoroughly mysterious 'intentions of the legislator' feature in such a striking way.

I believe, then, that it is incumbent upon me to give you an account of my own methodology here, for two main reasons. Firstly, so that you should know where you are, so that you are not just drifting and do not have the feeling of being swept along over an abyss. And secondly, because there are genuine difficulties here that cannot simply be passed over by anyone unwilling to offend against the virtue of intellectual integrity which Kant demands. I can define this problem of methodology for you quite sharply and succinctly. On the one hand, you will be aware how unprofitable it is to reflect on what someone thinks about his own thoughts; that what matters is what is objectively expressed in those thoughts, what their truth content is, what significance they have over and above their immediate meaning. My belief is that this is the crucial aspect of a philosophy, and not the task of eliciting the philosopher's opinions. For this mere eliciting of opinions basically presupposes their objective meaning; it would only be sensible to do this if we already know that what he means is something of objective importance. And all this is just repeated parrot‑fashion in the histories of philosophy which have contrived to include so‑called great philosophers like the Great Elector or Dante in their pantheon. But the very proof of importance is exactly what would have to emerge from an objective scrutiny. On the other hand, you may rightly say, 'That's all very well, but isn't what you are saying completely arbitrary? Are you not just reading things into a philosophy in an entirely speculative way? Or perhaps it is just a kind of sociology of knowledge, that is, a process of relating a particular body of thought to some social trend or other, even though such links are quite unproven and it is very debatable whether they have anything to do with the philosophy in question.’

I should like to say in reply that there are definite limits to arbitrary interpretation, and these limits that are set by a text of whatever kind – and I know I am in agreement here with the philologists – these limits really are set by the text. This means that no analysis of this type can be released from the necessity of making a quite explicit appeal to statements on the page. If I may distinguish my approach from another, likewise speculative, method, namely that of the school of Martin Heidegger (and I think it my duty to do so), the distinguishing feature can be found at this point. For I think it wholly impermissible simply to twist what is said in a text like the Critique of Pure Reason, and to turn it upside down. But even more important is the question of how to justify the claim that more is said in such an interpretation than can be found on the page. I can speak only briefly about that here. Basically, the justification is nothing but the demonstration of an immanent tension within such a text; the method of interpretation is actually one of extrapolation. In other words, it consists in focusing on the way in which such contradictions as the one about identity or non‑identity are anchored in the text, and the way in which they define its specific character. If you then refuse to accept these contradictions simply as intellectual flaws, and attempt instead to show how they are motivated within the structure of the text overall, you really do arrive at the point of understanding the ideas as containing more than appears on the surface: they are the precipitate of a force field. Once you have defined such a force field, and have identified the forces at work in it, forces that are in a state of constant friction with each other, you then acquire the right to call such forces by their names, and in so doing, you go beyond the immediate meaning on the page. My task here is not to present the Kantian system to you as a coherent totality, free from contradictions. In this respect I find myself in disagreement with the most recent approach to Kant, that of what might be called the neo‑Marburg School of Ebbinghaus and, above all, Klaus Reich. You can find an example of their work in Klaus Reich's extremely rigorous book on the completeness of the table of judgements. I, on the contrary, am much more interested in the inconsistencies, the contradictions in Kant. I regard these inconsistencies and contradictions as providing far more compelling evidence of Kant's greatness than any harmonious system. This is because they express the life of truth, whereas smoothing over the contradictions and creating a superficial synthesis is an easy task.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (1959), translated by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 69-80. Footnotes omitted here.

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