On Kant, the Division of Labor & Restriction of Reason

by Theodor W. Adorno

Elsewhere he states: 'To think for oneself means to look within oneself (i.e. within one's own reason) for the supreme touchstone of truth; and the maxim of thinking for oneself at all times is enlightenment.' You can see, then, that on the positive side the concept of enlightenment, as Kant developed it, corresponds precisely to what I have shown you as being the kernel of the Kantian method in the Critique of Pure Reason. That is to say, it consists essentially in the demand for the unfettered use of reason and the installation of reason as the supreme authority. The disputes in which reason becomes involved, including those disputes with itself, are to be seen as reason's own life-blood. On the negative side, however, a couple of points will no doubt have occurred to you. The first is that in Kant enlightenment always refers to thought that does not allow itself to be dictated to; you have to have the courage to think for yourself as far as possible according to the principle of autonomy, that is, the laws of thought. But enlightenment does not really mean to be critical of the structures of objective spirit, that is, to be critical of whatever is not thought. We may say, then, that the concept of enlightenment in Kant is subjectively restricted from the outset: it is restricted to the way the individual behaves within the world of his own thoughts. The question of the objectification of spirit and therewith the institutions and arrangements of the world is not really included in this definition of enlightenment. Closely related to this is a second factor. This is that there is no real connection between enlightenment and the concept of practice, of action—even though this does indeed play a major role in Kant. Enlightenment as a pure mode of behaviour of reason is exclusively theoretical in nature.

This brings us to a statement that in my view leads into the heart of the problem of enlightenment in Kant in a way that amounts almost to parody or caricature. It leads us into the peculiar ambivalence that marks the concept of enlightenment in his thought. 'For enlightenment nothing is required but the freedom 'to make public use of one's reason in all matters’, both as writer and scholar, not however as servant of the state, who as such may not reason.' Here, then, you find the definition of enlightenment restricted in all innocence by that disastrous word 'as' that plays such a dubious role in our age too. You find it when people say in the course of a discussion, 'As a German, I cannot accept that. . .' or 'As a Christian, I must react in such-and-such' a way in this matter. . .'. This predicative use of 'as' signals a restricting of reason in line with the division of labour in which human beings find themselves involved; the restriction imposed on enlightenment here is in fact a matter of the division of labour. The purely theoretical human being—and that means quite concretely, the independent writer; in other words, the writer who is not paid for specific services and for propagating opinions that serve specific causes to a greater or lesser degree—the purely theoretical human being is free to be enlightened in a radical sense. The moment he has a particular function, the post of civil servant, for example, all reasoning is at an end. At that moment the unfettered use of reason becomes precisely what is concealed in the double meaning of 'reasoning', namely, a kind of unseemly grumbling, and hence to a kind of practical criticism of given institutions.  Such a person shakes his finger at you and says, 'Wait on, that is not really what is meant by enlightenment at all; as long as you remain pure and free within the realm of a self-sufficient reason, all will be well. But as soon as you leave it and start to act the enlightened man directly and in walks of life that are laid down, that is a very different matter. . .' I think that this is to let the cat out of the bag, and to expose the peculiar ambiguity to be found in Kant's relation to enlightenment. It may well be a sort of Freudian slip that underlies the curious ambivalence of the Critique of Pure Reason and which then tells us something about the passages where reason is exalted to the skies. I cannot resist reminding you that Hegel is evidently following in Kant's linguistic footsteps when we find critics rebuking him for his apologetic, affirmative stance. What I am referring to is the way in which Hegel's immeasurable efforts of speculation are alleged to end up by legitimizing existing institutions. Critics have noted that when he sets limits to the use of reason as a weapon with which to criticize existing circumstances, he, like Kant, always has recourse to the [derogatory] term 'reasoning' [Riisonieren]. However, this tendency both to exalt reason to the skies and, at the same time, to reduce it to a mere reasoning, is rooted in Kant, the allegedly radical exponent of enlightenment. Moreover, this is part of the tradition of bourgeois rationalism as a whole. On the one hand, reason is deemed to be the supreme and indeed the only authority by which to regulate human relations; on the other hand, this is always accompanied by warnings to the effect that reason must not be 'taken to extremes'.

What this expresses, of course, is a genuine social situation. On the one hand, the world with all the resources at its disposal is caught up in a constant process of rationalization: in the production process, in its shaping of individual human relations, in bourgeois society generally. It is permeated with science to a constantly increasing degree. At the same time, the irrationality of the whole, that is to say, the blindness of the forces at work, and with that the inability of the individual to determine his own life in accordance with reason, remains intact. This peculiar oscillation between rationality and irrationality characteristic of bourgeois society at its very core is reflected in the ambivalent attitude of philosophy, especially the greatest philosophy, towards reason. I feel it is important to point out that this does not apply just to Hegel, in whose writings it is shouted from the rooftops, but it is no less true of Kant. This holds good even though in Kant the emotional appeal of reason as the eighteenth century understood it is even more fully intact than in Hegel, in whose writings existing reality is given a very different status, thanks to his insistence on the objective nature of the concept of reason.

You can probably see from all this that the claims that enlightenment has been overcome, completed and then simultaneously superseded, are not entirely unproblematic. This Sunday phrase, as I have called it, assumes from the outset this very desire to stop enlightenment in its tracks, to call a halt to the advance of reason, and I have drawn your attention to the reasons for this. I should now like to go into greater detail about these reasons as they appear in the philosophy of Kant. The essence of it is that they all belong in the realm of apologia. In general, I believe that few concepts have been such a catastrophe for the history of German thought as the cliche that labels enlightenment 'superficial' or 'facile'. It was perhaps the greatest curse of this development that the effect of the Romantic, and ultimately theological, belittling of enlightenment was to ensure that much of the enlightened thought that flourished in Germany actually assumed the shape imagined by the obscurantists.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W.  Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 62-64. (Excerpt from Lecture Six, 9 June 1959, Enlightenment. Footnotes omitted.)


Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” by Theodor W. Adorno:

Lecture 7 (11 June 1959): Knowledge as Tautology

Lecture 16 (14 July 1959): Society · ‘Block’

T.W. Adorno on Theory, Practice, & Moral Philosophy

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno Study Guide

What is Enlightenment?
(Konigsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784)
by Immanuel Kant


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