Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”

Theodor W. Adorno

LECTURE SIXTEEN

14 July 1959

Society · Block’

Last time I attempted to show you that our reflections on the rela­tions between constituens and constitutum and the connections we established between them and that Kantian ‘we’, which we saw as a subject with a social dimension, did not amount to a sociologism. By way of demonstration I offered a brief critique of a view opposed to that of Kant, namely, that of Durkheim, who incidentally was well versed in Kant's philosophy and had made the attempt to provide a social explanation for the Kantian forms of intuition and some other important logical and epistemological categories. We perceived that such explanations necessarily presupposed the forms or categories they set out to explain, and conversely that these forms or categories refer to existing things, realities. My aim was not only to demon­strate to you the impossibility of an epistemological sociologism, but also to show you that the question of which comes first—actual existence or formal category—is misguided. That is to say, these different elements simply cannot be separated from one another; and that this is the case points ultimately to the fact that their apparent existence as separate entities is itself the product of the reflecting mind rather than something that can be ascribed to being or existing things as such. On the other hand, you must not forget that this Kantian ‘we’ contains a reference to the social—that is, not just the individual—nature of the transcendental subject. His inability to dispense with such an expression as ‘we’ does not simply reflect an old‑fashioned linguistic usage, a kind of politeness—in which an ‘I’ is replaced by a ‘we’, whereby it remains unclear whether it does not also express something of the royal ‘we’.

It contains in addition a very important epistemological insight. You can picture this to yourselves by saying that if epistemology expects from each of us sitting in this room (as it traditionally does) that each person can regard himself as the fount of all knowledge, then this claim is made arbitrary in the extreme by the fact that each person, who of course looks after his own interests, can be replaced by every other subject. Furthermore, the point of departure is not final, if only because an expression ‘I’ that can be replaced by every other ‘I’ must be occasionalist in nature: it proves that the ‘I’ that is being appealed to is not being taken seriously as an ‘I’. On the other hand, this kind of epistemology, by which I mean this entire strand of subjectivist philosophy, cannot avoid the issue since experience can be generated only through the reference to a personal subject. If immediacy is elevated into the ultimate criterion of knowledge, then of course every consciousness is ‘immediate’ only to itself. That is to say, the facts of consciousness are given immediately only to each individual concerned. The facts of consciousness of others are only ever given indirectly, through communication, by making inferences from analogous situations, through empathy—or however we wish to describe it. You can see here a very remarkable antinomy in this general explanatory framework of epistemology as a whole, which must be deemed to include Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This is that, on the one hand, the talk of an ‘I’ necessarily implies a ‘we’, so that as an ‘I’ it cannot be taken seriously. On the other hand, if no appeal is made to this ‘I’, the idea of an immediate point of departure, the experience which stands at the beginning of all knowledge cannot be maintained. Traditional epistemology has never succeeded in overcoming this contradiction. This is one more reason, I would say, for abandoning the entire approach. As the foundation of epistemology, the ‘we’ is not immediately given, but highly mediated. In exchange it is saved from arbitrariness. In contrast the ‘I’ is immediate in every instance, but as a starting‑point it is always arbitrary in comparison to the ‘we’. Thus, taken in isolation, as inflexible models, both these points of departure are relatively arbitrary and problematic. I do not wish to say more about them at present. Those of you who would like to pursue the question further should look up what I have to say about it in chapter 4 of Against Epistemology.

At any rate, you cannot escape the fact that social factors lie concealed in the crucial attributes that Kant assigns to the subject. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit may in a manner of speaking be regarded as the attempt to explicate the latent social motifs that are objectively present in the so‑called problem of constitution. If you reflect for one moment that the basic defining feature, the attribute that underpins everything else in Kant's concept of subjectivity, is the dichotomy between spontaneity and receptivity, or activity and passivity, then this points unequivocally to the social process in which two elements are always present. I am referring to work and nature on which work operates. There has long been an idea that knowledge really just repeats what has always existed in the actual process of human labour; that we are dealing with a kind of raw material, on the one hand, that is then given shape by consciousness, on the other—something of this idea reverberates through the whole of the Critique of Pure Reason. We can doubtless say—and this has been explored a number of times in detail, for example, by the late Franz Borkenau in his book on seventeenth‑century theories in the age of manufacture—we can doubtless say that in their objective form theories of cognition are a kind of reflex of the labour process. Not in the sense that they have been brought forth causally by the labour process, but in the sense that, when consciousness reflects upon itself, it necessarily arrives at a concept of rationality that corresponds to the rationality of the labour process. I have in mind here the qualities of the division of labour and the planned processing of materials given in nature. On the other hand, it would be quite misguided to say—and I must confess to you that I have on occasion been very tempted by this idea—that the transcendental subject actually is society. It undoubtedly has one feature in common with society. This is that only the global social subject—not the contingent individual subject—possesses that character of universality, of all‑encompassing totality, that Kant ascribes to his transcendental subject. We may add that behind the idea of constitution stands that of labour as social labour—and not just isolated, individual labour. On the other hand, however, in contrast with that global social subject which may be regarded as the summation of all the concrete factors of society, the Kantian transcendental subject, that is, the famous ‘”I think” that accompanies all my representations’, is a complete abstraction that has nothing in common with it.

Needless to say, this social interpretation of the transcendental subject should not be thought of as arbitrary. We can say that in its relation to society thought qua the Kantian ‘I think’ is both things. On the one hand, it is the truth of society, its ‘universality’. It points beyond the merely contingent nature of individual existence and, ultimately, even beyond the conditional and ephemeral form that a society possesses at certain stages of its history. It is truly the λόγος of society, the overall social rationality in which the utopia of a rationally organized society is already implicit. On the other hand, this transcendental subject also contains, if I may risk a rather bold statement, the untruth of society. That means, the abstraction characteristic of this transcendental subject is nothing but the internalized and hypostatized form of man’s domination of nature. This always comes into being through the elimination of qualities, through the reduction of qualitative distinctions to quantitative forms. It is therefore objectively always abstract in character. We may say, then, that the deepest reason for our refusal to identify the concept of truth with society is not to be found in the fact that there is a pure kingdom of truth entirely separate from society, a χόσμος νοητιχός—of the kind that Plato was still able to imagine.

It is rather the case that the concept of truth of which social factors form constituent parts points beyond the shape of society as it happens to exist. Furthermore, in the form ratified by epistemology it bears the stigmata of the historical process in the shape in which it has come down to us. That is all I have to say for the present about the relation of Kantian philosophy to society. I may perhaps add only that the ideas I have presented to you here with their rather complex implications are not so alien to Kantian philosophy as they may appear to be to the actual text of the Critique of Pure Reason. In the Critique of Practical Reason the elimination of empirical elements is taken much further than in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the later text the fear of contact with the empirical, with actual reality, is taken to such lengths that the object of practical reason, namely, action, is declared to be simply independent of empirical reality and to be something that has arisen purely from the subjective imagination, in contrast to the objects of theoretical reason. Thus the Critique of Practical Reason goes well beyond the formalism of even the Critique of Pure Reason, but ends up after a very complicated trajectory with ideas of a just society, a conception of mankind that is actually inconceivable on the basis of the Kantian programme if we were to preserve that pure distance from the facts. It would be an interesting project, one that really ought to be tackled seriously at some point, to show how the apparently extreme formalism of Kantian philosophy actually contains elements of transmutation into a kind of materialism.

I should like now to say a few words about the Kantian block which I have mentioned several times in a more or less desultory way. I would like to discuss it in connection with the ideas that we have been considering and with which we are still concerned, and in particular with the kinds of experience that are articulated by Kant's philosophy. I believe I observed at one point that this Kantian block can be understood as a form of unmediated Cartesian dualism that is reflexive, that reflects upon itself. It is a dualism in which a great chasm yawns between inner and outer, a chasm that can never be bridged. This chasm is the chasm of the alienation of human beings from one another, and the alienation of human beings from the world of things. This alienation is in fact socially caused; it is created by the universal exchange relation. Through the idea that our knowledge is blocked Kantian philosophy expresses as an experience the state of philosophy at the time. In particular, it expresses the idea that in this universally mediated society, determined as it is by exchange, in this society marked by radical alienation, we are denied access to existing reality as if by a blank wall. This is an experience, incidentally, that was suggested to Kant by his reading of Rousseau, which as we know today played a major role in the formation of the entire Kantian system. I believe that it is important in this context for you to realize that this idea of a block, of unbridgeable chasms between different realms, is in fact ubiquitous in the Critique of Pure Reason; it does not refer simply to the single point where it first makes its appearance, namely the question of the unknowability of the so‑called things-in‑themselves. For when Kant says that the ideas are not valid objects of knowledge, but merely 'regulative' ideas, this is effectively to assert the χωρισμός, the disjunction, between truth in the ontological sense and our ability to comprehend. In the light of this emphatic assertion of a qualitative leap between the ontological world of ideas and the possibility of our obtaining valid knowledge, the salvaging efforts I told you about earlier, all have something of the flavour of an insurance policy. In fact the position with Kant—and this too is something rightly criticized by his successors—is that the two spheres of the understanding—that is, the really valid knowledge relating to experience—and reason—that is, the knowledge of ideas—point in opposite directions and are incapable of being reconciled. This remains true even though the organ of knowledge, namely the λόγος of man himself, in other words thought, is identical in both cases. This is an unmediated piece of thinking that is at bottom difficult to reconcile with Kant's ambition—and he did have such an ambition—to create a self‑consistent system. Thus we really are talking here about what Nietzsche meant when he said that ‘I am banished from all truth.’ What he had in mind was the disenchanted world which has been emptied of meaning, a topic I have tried to explain to you at some length. This motif of radical enlightenment has become fused with the theological idea that always accompanies it, to wit, that as finite, conditioned beings we can only have finite and conditional, not unconditional, knowledge.

But I should like to add to what I have already said and mention something that has not been said up to now and goes beyond it in important respects. I 'believe that it is worthwhile reflecting here a little more deeply on Kant's relation to the natural sciences. If I am not mistaken, Kant is the last of the major philosophers who thought of himself as being in agreement with the natural sciences, while at the same time holding fast to the traditional themes of philosophy, that is, of metaphysics. After him—and here Hegel's case is exemplary—the two branches of knowledge diverged completely. That is to say, philosophers who understood something of science generally came to conclusions that were bluntly hostile to philosophy and they basically regarded logic and the methodology of science as the only possible and valid form of philosophy. Conversely, those philosophers who were unwilling to abandon their metaphysical impulses strove to maintain them as a pure realm on their own, isolated from the mathematical sciences, as far as was possible. The first symptom of this development was in fact the Hegelian system. This system did try to synthesize these strands of thought in an external manner but it manifestly failed in the attempt as far as science was concerned, that is to say, in Part Two, The Philosophy of Nature, of the Encyclopedia. I mean by this that what he says there is in flagrant contradiction to the facts of science.

Kant is initially rather more successful here. But if I understand this doctrine of a Kantian block more or less correctly, in particular in its implications for the unknowability of the thing‑in‑itself, then you begin to see—perhaps for the very first time—how Kant can be said to represent a historical watershed leading to subsequent developments in philosophy, much as could be said of the bourgeoisie of his age. You begin to see, in a kind of premonition that is not clearly articulated, the idea that science does not necessarily represent the last word about nature. Kant was enough of a scientist and was sufficiently self‑confident to refrain from calling for a kind of knowledge that would reveal the ‘true’ essence of nature. In this respect he differed from the great Romantic philosophers. I am thinking here of Ritter and Schelling, and even, in a sense, of Schopenhauer. Kant, however, did not do this; he would certainly have rejected all such aspirations as obscurantist. But he knows, or rather, I should not really say ‘he knows’. I should say instead that it is a metaphysical experience implicit in the doctrine of the block in the Critique of Pure Reason that the object of nature that we define with our categories is not actually nature itself. For our knowledge of nature is really so preformed by the demand that we dominate nature (something exemplified by the chief method of finding out about nature, namely the scientific experiment) that we end up understanding only those aspects of nature that we can control. In addition there is also the underlying feeling that while we are putting out our nets and catching more and more things in them, there is a sense in which nature itself seems to keep receding from us; and the more we take possession of nature, the more its real essence becomes alien to us.

I said to you at one point in an earlier lecture that the categories of subjectivism and reification are not incompatible opposites, but corollaries. That is to say, the more subjectivism there is, the more reification, and vice versa. This means that the more we appropriate, the more we find ourselves alienated from what we are really looking for, and what we do actually appropriate is only a kind of lifeless residue. This feeling (if I may for once make use of a highly dubious psychological expression), this experience, is hard to express in rational terms, because the sphere of rationality is the sphere that contradicts experience. Nevertheless, this feeling is deeply embedded in Kant's philosophy. Thus we may say that what Kant shares with positivism is the insistence on the finite nature of knowledge and the rejection of metaphysics as a ‘wild extravagance’. But we must add that the atmosphere which informs his entire way of thinking is extremely unlike that of positivism (if indeed we can speak at all of ‘atmosphere’ in connection with positivism). That is to say, we have a situation in which knowledge is illusory because the closer it comes to its object, the more it shapes it in its own image and thus drives it further and further away, much as civilization has driven the wildest and most exotic animals into the most inaccessible jungles. This is what is reflected in the doctrine of the block; it is a kind of metaphysical mourning, a kind of memory of what is best, of something that we must not forget, but that we are nevertheless compelled to forget. This memory is quite alien to positivism, just as positivism has no room for any theory that propounds the idea of a block on knowledge. Instead, positivism would say that this is all nonsense, these are all obsolete fantasies; stick to the ‘positive’ facts, to the given realities—nothing further ties behind them.

However, Kant's historical consciousness (or whatever you want to call it) stretches to the point of refusing to be fobbed off with this. The memory of the questions philosophy formerly asked is still so powerful in him that even against the grain of his own positivistic rationality, he retains at least a notion of what lies beyond reason.

You can see, then, that his relation to science is contradictory. Science is still the model, as in older philosophy, but now that it is under the aegis of the block, of the fact that knowledge gives us only phenomena and not noumena, it is already as problematic as it was to become in post‑Kantian thought. You can see from this—and if you wish you can turn this into a criticism of Kant—that he is inconsistent here, that he does not follow his arguments through to their logical conclusions. On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to venture at least some statements about this authentic world that is slipping from our grasp and about its nature, but leaves it so empty of content that to all intents and purposes it really does amount to nothing at all. On the other hand, he lacks the logical consistency of the positivists who hold fast to what is given, its interconnections and its forms, while dismissing everything over and above that as mere phantoms. Faced by these alternatives Kant can be described as a vacillating thinker, unable to make up his mind.

But I should like to remind you here that his reluctance to follow his ideas to their logical conclusion is the expression of what might be called the metaphysics of the block. To follow through his ideas to their logical conclusion would mean ignoring this block and the experience underlying it. It would mean creating an unambiguous identity governed by the dominance of the understanding, whereas the decisive feature of Kant is that the άνάμνησις, the power of memory, thrives because that identity is not possible. Kant prefers to accept that illogicality; he would rather acquiesce in the inconsistencies to which we have repeatedly drawn attention than create a seamless intellectual, harmony which nevertheless would prevent him from delivering on his specific philosophical ambitions. To take matters to their logical conclusion means denying the existence of the block and laying claim to absolute identity. The dialectical or antinomic structure of Kantian philosophy means that it aspires to create a system, to provide a central point, which is that of the idea that can construct reality—but at the same time, it refuses to regard the world as identical with that idea. This implies a vast effort to square a circle and it is very easy to criticize him for the errors that spring from it. I believe that this is the deepest thing to be found in Kant. On the one hand, he holds fast to the intention of philosophy to understand reality as a whole, to decode the totality. At the same time, he declares that philosophy is incapable of this, and that the only form in which the totality can be grasped is the expression of the fact that it cannot be comprehended.

I have formulated this in a very pointed, perhaps overstated way, and many of you will perhaps be shocked by it. Nevertheless, I believe that I have been completely faithful to the Kantian idea here which I perceive to be deeply paradoxical. It is the attempt to give an account of the totality, while simultaneously conceding that this totality is no such thing, that subject and object do not seamlessly fit together and that ultimately the absence of this seamless fit, which is what the block amounts to, is itself what a Romantic artist once named the innermost life of the world. I should like to emphasize that, with hindsight, this seems to me to provide the justification for the procedure I have adopted in this course of lectures. This procedure is one that places far greater emphasis on the ruptures, the immanent antinomies in his thinking, than upon its harmonious, synthetic form. This is because these ruptures can almost be said to constitute the Kantian philosophy, for the reason that they reveal the innermost core of his thinking. This core is encapsulated in the idea that the totality that the mind is just able to encompass is no more than the fact that as mind it is unable to comprehend the totality; but that it somehow contrives after all to comprehend what it does not comprehend and the fact that it cannot comprehend it.

With this observation we have reached a critical point in our discussion of Kantian philosophy. Like all intellectual phenomena, a philosophy does not stand outside time; it exists within time—not merely in the sense that it can be forgotten, or subject to different interpretations, but rather in the sense that its own meaning unfolds in time, forming a variety of configurations that release meanings and generate meanings that were not remotely considered at its inception. This is particularly true of the question of the block about which I have attempted to say something today by way of conclusion. If I am not mistaken, we are looking here at the deepest aspect of Kant, at his attempt to say what cannot be said—and his entire philosophy is actually nothing more than a form of stammering, infinitely expanded and elevated. Like the act of stammering, it is a form of Dada, the attempt to say what actually cannot be said. And just as this motif of the block is the deepest aspect of Kant, it is highly paradoxical that it is this aspect that Kant has bequeathed to the stock of bourgeois wisdom and has thus become the feature that will have made Kant look so old‑fashioned to you. When I tell you about the Kantian χωρισμός, the Kantian block, I am reminded of a commonplace hit-song or student song that I learnt from my parents and that must have been current at about the turn of the century. It contained the lines—‘The soul soars high into the air / The body rests upon the chair’. This unspeakably pathetic piece of bourgeois wisdom represents in a sense the ultimate degradation, the ultimate fate of Kantian philosophy in the dire form to which it had sunk in the normal consciousness of the bourgeoisie. It is my view that this is a side of the Kantian philosophy that we have to think through so as to become fully aware that this degenerate form is not simply something that the wicked bourgeois have done to Kant, but rather something that is teleologically implicit in his philosophy from the outset. The structure of the block that I have attempted, perhaps over-emphatically, to convey to you is one that faces both ways; it faces not just towards metaphysical experience, but also towards the world. And the side it turns towards the world is all too similar to the world to which it turns. From this vantage‑point of the χωρισμός or the dualism of Kantian philosophy what is involved is a sort of arrangement between naturalism, the empirical world, on the one hand, and non‑binding ideals on the other.

Before going into this question I should like to draw your attention to a very characteristic feature of Kant's philosophy. This is that the huge effort that he has made to ground experience has actually done that experience no harm. We might also say that it is a philosophy in which the distinction between appearance and essence does not occur to a significant degree. More precisely, it is to be found in the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, but, characteristically, nothing is said about essences, only about appearances. In other words, the world of appearances, the ordinary world of things, the ordinary world of cause and effect, and of the empirical self all of this survives unscathed in this philosophy just as it does in everyday consciousness. In this sense Kantian philosophy is a philosophy of reconstruction; it merely reconstructs in scientific form what ordinary consciousness contains anyway. It may be said, therefore, to be far less radical and far less profound than, say, Hume’s philosophy. Hume provided a penetrating critique of significant naturalistic concepts such as the self, causality and the thing. In so doing, he really did change the world to the point where it could be said that the self was lost beyond all redemption, as Mach expressed it. In the same way, it could be said that for Hume there is no causality, there are no things. Kant avoids such radical conclusions. Instead, in its entire vast profundity and effort, his philosophy amounts to recreating anew the world as it presents itself to consciousness, to producing with the enormous power of the productive imagination the world as it already exists. This feature of Kant contains as its implicit goal a possibility I have already mentioned. This is that in contrast to the rethinking of all deeper matters, in contrast to utopian thinking or to the realities of alienation, this grandiose metaphysical system was able to become the world view of alienation and of the blunted consciousness of the bourgeoisie.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (1959), translated by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 170-179. Footnotes omitted here.


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