Georg Lukacs
History & Class Consciousness

II: The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought

Modern critical philosophy springs from the reified structure of consciousness. The specific problems of this philosophy are distinguishable from the problematics of previous philosophies by the fact that they are rooted in this structure. Greek philosophy constitutes something of an exception to this. This is not merely accidental, for reification did play a part in Greek society in its maturity. But as the problems and solutions of the philosophy of the Ancients were embedded in a wholly different society it is only natural that they should be qualitatively different from those of modern philosophy. Hence, from the standpoint of any adequate interpretation it is as idle to imagine that we can find in Plato a precursor of Kant (as does Natorp), as it is to undertake the task of erecting a philosophy on Aristotle (as does Thomas Aquinas) . If these two ventures have proved feasible – even though arbitrary and inadequate – this can be accounted for in part by the use to which later ages are wont to put the philosophical heritage, bending it to their own purposes. But also further explanation lies in the fact that Greek philosophy was no stranger to certain aspects of reification, without having experienced them, however, as universal forms of existence; it had one foot in the world of reification while the other remained in a ‘natural’ society. Hence its problems can be applied to the two later traditions, although only with the aid of energetic re-interpretations.


Where, then, does the fundamental distinction lie? Kant has formulated the matter succinctly in the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason with his well-known allusion to the “Copernican Revolution”, a revolution which must be carried out in the realm of the problem of knowledge: “Hitherto, it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to the objects.... Therefore let us for once attempt to see whether we cannot reach a solution to the tasks of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our knowledge. ...”[1] In other words, modern philosophy sets itself the following problem: it refuses to accept the world as something that has arisen (or e.g. has been created by God) independently of the knowing subject, and prefers to conceive of it instead as its own product.

This revolution which consists in viewing rational knowledge as the product of mind does not originate with Kant. He only developed its implications more radically than his predecessors had done. Marx has recalled, in a quite different context, Vico’s remark to the effect that “the history of man is to be distinguished from the history of nature by the fact that we have made the one but not the other”. [2] In ways diverging from that of Vico who in many respects was not understood and who became influential only much later, the whole of modern philosophy has been preoccupied with this problem. From systematic doubt and the Cogito ergo sum of Descartes, to Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz there is a direct line of development whose central strand, rich in variations, is the idea that the object of cognition can be known by us for the reason that, and to the degree in which, it has been created by ourselves. [3] And with this, the methods of mathematics and geometry (the means whereby objects are constructed, created out of the formal presuppositions of objectivity in general) and, later, the methods of mathematical physics become the guide and the touchstone of philosophy, the knowledge of the world as a totality.

The question why and with what justification human reason should elect to regard just these systems as constitutive of its own essence (as opposed to the ‘given’, alien, unknowable nature of the content of those systems) never arises. It is assumed to be self-evident. Whether this assumption is expressed (as in the case of Berkeley and Hume) as scepticism, as doubt in the ability of ‘our’ knowledge to achieve universally valid results, or whether (as with Spinoza and Leibniz) it becomes an unlimited confidence in the ability of these formal systems to comprehend the ‘true’ essence of all things, is of secondary importance in this context. For we are not concerned to present a history of modern philosophy, not even in crude outline. We wish only to sketch the connection between the fundamental problems of this philosophy and the basis in existence from which these problems spring and to which they strive to return by the road of the understanding. However, the character of this existence is revealed at least as clearly by what philosophy does not find problematic as by what it does. At any rate it is advisable to consider the interaction between these two aspects. And if we do put the question in this way we then perceive that the salient characteristic of the whole epoch is the equation which appears naïve and dogmatic even in the most ‘critical’ philosophers, of formal, mathematical, rational knowledge both with knowledge in general and also with ‘our’ knowledge.

Even the most superficial glance at the history of human thought will persuade us that neither of the two equations is self-evidently true under all circumstances. This is most obviously apparent in the origins of modern thought where it was necessary to wage prolonged intellectual wars with the quite differently based thought of the Middle Ages before the new method and the new view of the nature of thought could finally prevail. This struggle, too, can obviously not be portrayed here. A familiarity with its dominant motifs can be assumed. These were the continuity of all phenomena (in contrast to the medieval distinction between the world ‘beneath’ the moon and the world ‘above’ it); the demand for immanent causal connections in contrast to views which sought to explain and connect phenomena from some transcendental point (astronomy versus astrology); the demand that mathematical and rational categories should be applied to all phenomena (in contrast to the qualitative approach of nature philosophy which experienced a new impetus in the Renaissance – Böhme, Fludd, etc. – and even formed the basis of Bacon’s method. It can similarly be taken as read that the whole evolution of philosophy went hand in hand with the development of the exact sciences. These in turn interacted fruitfully with a technology that was becoming increasingly more rationalised, and with developments in production. [4]

These considerations are of crucial importance for our analysis. For rationalism has existed at widely different times and in the most diverse forms, in the sense of a formal system whose unity derives from its orientation towards that aspect of the phenomena that can be grasped by the understanding, that is created by the understanding and hence also subject to the control, the predictions and the calculations of the understanding. But there are fundamental distinctions to be made, depending on the material on which this rationalism is brought to bear and on the role assigned to it in the comprehensive system of human knowledge and human objectives. What is novel about modern rationalism is its increasingly insistent claim that it has discovered the principle which connects up all phenomena which in nature and society are found to confront mankind. Compared with this, every previous type of rationalism is no more than a partial system.

In such systems the ‘ultimate’ problems of human existence persist in an irrationality incommensurable with human understanding. The closer the system comes to these ‘ultimate’ questions the more strikingly its partial, auxiliary nature and its inability to grasp the ‘essentials’ are revealed. An example of this is found in the highly rationalised techniques of Hindu asceticism [5], with its ability to predict exactly all of its results. Its whole ‘rationality’ resides in the direct and immediate bond, related as means to ends, with an entirely supra-rational experience of the essence of the world.

Thus, here too, it will not do to regard ‘rationalism’ as something abstract and formal and so to turn it into a suprahistorical principle inherent in the nature of human thought. We perceive rather that the question of whether a form is to be treated as a universal category or merely as a way of organising precisely delimited partial systems is essentially a qualitative problem. Nevertheless even the purely formal delimitation of this type of thought throws light on the necessary correlation of the rational and the irrational, i.e. on the inevitability with which every rational system will strike a frontier or barrier of irrationality. However, when – as in the case of Hindu asceticism – the rational system is conceived of as a partial system from the outset, when the irrational world which surrounds and delimits it – (in this case the irrational world comprises both the earthly existence of man which is unworthy of rationalisation and also the next world, that of salvation, which human, rational concepts cannot grasp) – is represented as independent of it, as unconditionally inferior or superior to it, this creates no technical problem for the rational system itself. It is simply the means to a-non-rational-end. The situation is quite different when rationalism claims to be the universal method by which to obtain knowledge of the whole of existence. In that event the necessary correlation with the principle of irrationality becomes crucial: it erodes and dissolves the whole system. This is the case with modern (bourgeois) rationalism.

The dilemma can be seen most clearly in the strange significance for Kant’s system of his concept of the thing-in-itself, with its many iridescent connotations. The attempt has often been made to prove that the thing-in-itself has a number of quite disparate functions within Kant’s system. What they all have in common is the fact that they each represent a limit, a barrier, to the abstract, formal, rationalistic, ‘human’ faculty of cognition. However, these limits and barriers seem to be so very different from each other that it is only meaningful to unify them by means of the admittedly abstract and negative-concept of the thing-in-itself if it is clear that, despite the great variety of effects, there is a unified explanation for these frontiers. To put it briefly, these problems can be reduced to two great, seemingly unconnected and even opposed complexes. There is, firstly, the problem of matter (in the logical, technical sense), the problem of the content of those forms with the aid of which ‘we’ know and are able to know the world because we have created it ourselves. And, secondly, there is the problem of the whole and of the ultimate substance of knowledge, the problem of those ‘ultimate’ objects of knowledge which are needed to round off the partial systems into a totality, a system of the perfectly understood world.

We know that in the Critique of Pure Reason it is emphatically denied that the second group of questions can be answered. Indeed, in the section on the Transcendental Dialectic the attempt is made to condemn them as questions falsely put, and to eliminate them from science. [6] But there is no need to enlarge on the fact that the question of totality is the constant centre of the transcendental dialectic. God, the soul, etc., are nothing but mythological expressions to denote the unified subject or, alternatively, the unified object of the totality of the objects of knowledge considered as perfect (and wholly known). The transcendental dialectic with its sharp distinction between phenomena and noumena repudiates all attempts by ‘our’ reason to obtain knowledge of the second group of objects. They are regarded as things-in-themselves as opposed to the phenomena that can be known.

It now appears as if the first complex of questions, that concerning the content of the forms, had nothing to do with these issues. Above all in the form sometimes given to it by Kant, according to which: “the sensuous faculty of intuition (which furnishes the forms of understanding with content) is in reality only a receptive quality, a capacity for being affected in a certain way by ideas.... The non-sensuous cause of these ideas is wholly unknown to us and we are therefore unable to intuit it as an object.... However, we can call the merely intelligible cause of phenomena in general the transcendental object, simply so that ‘we’ should have something which corresponds to sensuousness as receptivity.”

He goes on to say of this object “that it is a datum in itself, antecedent to all experience”. [7] But the problem of content goes much further than that of sensuousness, though unlike some particularly ‘critical’ and supercilious Kantians we cannot deny that the two are closely connected. For irrationality, the impossibility of reducing contents to their rational elements (which we shall discover again as a general problem in modern logic) can be seen at its crudest in the question of relating the sensuous content to the rational form. While the irrationality of other kinds of content is local and relative, the existence and the mode of being of sensuous contents remain absolutely irreducible. [8] But when the problem of irrationality resolves itself into the impossibility of penetrating any datum with the aid of rational concepts or of deriving them from such concepts, the question of the thing-in-itself, which at first seemed to involve the metaphysical dilemma of the relation between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ now assumes a completely different aspect which is crucial both for methodology and for systematic theory. [9] The question then becomes: are the empirical facts – (it is immaterial whether they are purely ‘sensuous’ or whether their sensuousness is only the ultimate material substratum of their ‘factual’ essence) – to be taken as ‘given’ or can this ‘givenness’ be dissolved further into rational forms, i.e. can it be conceived as the product of ‘our’ reason? With this the problem becomes crucial for the possibility of the system in general.

Kant himself had already turned the problem explicitly in this direction. He repeatedly emphasises that pure reason is unable to make the least leap towards the synthesis and the definition of an object and so its principles cannot be deduced “directly from concepts but only indirectly by relating these concepts to something wholly contingent, namely possible experience” [10]; in the Critique of Judgment this notion of ‘intelligible contingency’ both of the elements of possible experience and of all laws regulating and relating to it is made the central problem of systematisation. When Kant does this we see, on the one hand, that the two quite distinct delimiting functions of the thing-in-itself (viz. the impossibility of apprehending the whole with the aid of the conceptual framework of the rational partial systems and the irrationality of the contents of the individual concepts) are but two sides of the one problem. On the other hand, we see that this problem is in fact of central importance for any mode of thought that undertakes to confer universal significance on rational categories.

Thus the attempt to universalise rationalism necessarily issues in the demand for a system but, at the same time, as soon as one reflects upon the conditions in which a universal system is possible, i.e. as soon as the question of the system is consciously posed, it is seen that such a demand is incapable of fulfilment. [11] For a system in the sense given to it by rationalism – and any other system would be self-contradictory – can bear no meaning other than that of a co-ordination, or rather a supra- and subordination of the various partial systems of forms (and within these, of the individual forms). The connections between them must always be thought of as ‘necessary’, i.e. as visible in or ‘created ‘by the forms themselves, or at least by the principle according to which forms are constructed. That is to say, the correct positing of a principle implies – at least in its general tendency – the positing of the whole system determined by it; the consequences are contained in the principle, they can be deduced from it, they are predictable and calculable. The real evolution of the totality of postulates may appear as an ‘infinite process’, but this limitation means only that we cannot survey the whole system at once; it does not detract from the principle of systematisation in the least. [12] This notion of system makes it clear why pure and applied mathematics have constantly been held up as the methodological model and guide for modern philosophy. For the way in which their axioms are related to the partial systems and results deduced from them corresponds exactly to the postulate that systematic rationalism sets itself, the postulate, namely, that every given aspect of the system should be capable of being deduced from its basic principle, that it should be exactly predictable and calculable.

It is evident that the principle of systematisation is not reconcilable with the recognition of any ‘facticity’, of a ‘content’ which in principle cannot be deduced from the principle of form and which, therefore, has simply to be accepted as actuality. The greatness, the paradox and the tragedy of classical German philosophy lie in the fact that – unlike Spinoza – it no longer dismisses every given [donné] as non-existent, causing it to vanish behind the monumental architecture of the rational forms produced by the understanding. Instead, while grasping and holding on to the irrational character of the actual contents of the concepts it strives to go beyond this, to overcome it and to erect a system. But from what has already been said it is clear what the problem of the actually given means for rationalism: viz. that it cannot be left to its own being and existence, for in that case it would remain ineluctably ‘contingent’. Instead it must be wholly absorbed into the rational system of the concepts of the understanding.

At first sight we seem to be faced by an insoluble dilemma. For either the ‘irrational’ content is to be wholly integrated into the conceptual system, i.e. this is to be so constructed that it can be coherently applied to everything just as if there were no irrational content or actuality (if there is, it exists at best as a problem in the sense suggested above). In this event thought regresses to the level of a naïve, dogmatic rationalism: somehow it regards the mere actuality of the irrational contents of the concepts as nonexistent. (This metaphysics may also conceal its real nature behind the formula that these contents are ‘irrelevant’ to knowledge.) Alternatively we are forced to concede that actuality, content, matter reaches right into the form, the structures of the forms and their interrelations and thus into the structure of the system itself. [13] In that case the system must be abandoned as a system. For then it will be no more than a register, an account, as well ordered as possible, of facts which are no longer linked rationally and so can no longer be made systematic even though the forms of their components are themselves rational. [14]

It would be superficial to be baffled by this abstract dilemma and the classical philosophers did not hesitate for a moment. They took the logical opposition of form and content, the point at which all the antitheses of philosophy meet, and drove it to extremes. This enabled them to make a real advance on their predecessors and lay the foundations of the dialectical method. They persisted in their attempts to construct a rational system in the face of their clear acknowledgment of and stubborn adherence to the irrational nature of the contents of their concepts (of the given world).

This system went in the direction of a dynamic relativisation of these antitheses. Here too, of course, modern mathematics provided them with a model. The systems it influenced (in particular that of Leibniz) view the irrationality of the given world as a challenge. And in fact, for mathematics the irrationality of a given content only serves as a stimulus to modify and reinterpret the formal system with whose aid correlations had been established hitherto, so that what had at first sight appeared as a ‘given’ content, now appeared to have been ‘created’. Thus actuality was resolved into necessity. This view of reality does indeed represent a great advance on the dogmatic period (of ‘holy mathematics’).

But it must not be overlooked that mathematics was working with a concept of the irrational specially adapted to its own needs and homogeneous with them (and mediated by this concept it employed a similarly adapted notion of actuality, of existence). Certainly, the local irrationality of the conceptual content is to be found here too: but from the outset it is designed – by the method chosen and the nature of its axioms – to spring from as pure a position as possible and hence to be capable of being relativised. [15]

But this implies the discovery of a methodological model and not of the method itself. It is evident that the irrationality of existence (both as a totality and as the ‘ultimate’ material substratum underlying the forms), the irrationality of matter is qualitatively different from the irrationality of what we can call with Maimon, intelligible matter. Naturally this could not prevent philosophers from following the mathematical method (of construction, production) and trying to press even this matter into its forms. But it must never be forgotten that the uninterrupted ‘creation’ of content has a quite different meaning in reference to the material base of existence from what it involves in the world of mathematics which is a wholly constructed world. For the philosophers ‘creation’ means only the possibility of rationally comprehending the facts, whereas for mathematics ‘creation’ and the possibility of comprehension are identical. Of all the representatives of classical philosophy it was Fichte in his middle period who saw this problem most clearly and gave it the most satisfactory formulation. What is at issue, he says, is “the absolute projection of an object of the origin of which no account can be given with the result that the space between projection and thing projected is dark and void; I expressed it somewhat scholastically but, as I believe, very appropriately, as the projectio per hiatum irrationalem”. [16]

Only with this problematic does it become possible to comprehend the parting of the ways in modern philosophy and with it the chief stages in its evolution. This doctrine of the irrational leaves behind it the era of philosophical ‘dogmatism’ or – to put it in terms of social history – the age in which the bourgeois class naïvely equated its own forms of thought, the forms in which it saw the world in accordance with its own existence in society, with reality and with existence as such.

The unconditional recognition of this problem, the renouncing of attempts to solve it leads directly to the various theories centring on the notion of fiction. It leads to the rejection of every ‘metaphysics’ (in the sense of ontology) and also to positing as the aim of philosophy the understanding of the phenomena of isolated, highly specialised areas by means of abstract rational special systems, perfectly adapted to them and without making the attempt to achieve a unified mastery of the whole realm of the knowable. (Indeed any such attempt is dismissed as ‘unscientific’) Some schools make this renunciation explicitly (e.g. Mach Avenarius, Poincare, Vaihinger, etc.) while in many others it is disguised. But it must not be forgotten that – as was demonstrated at the end of Section I – the origin of the special sciences with their complete independence of one another both in method and subject matter entails the recognition that this problem is insoluble. And the fact that these sciences are ‘exact’ is due precisely to this circumstance. Their underlying material base is permitted to dwell inviolate and undisturbed in its irrationality (‘non-createdness’, ‘givenness’) so that it becomes possible to operate with unproblematic, rational categories in the resulting methodically purified world. These categories are then applied not to the real material substratum (even that of the particular science) but to an ‘intelligible’ subject matter.

Philosophy – consciously – refrains from interfering with the work of the special sciences. It even regards this renunciation as a critical advance. In consequence its role is confined to the investigation of the formal presuppositions of the special sciences which it neither corrects nor interferes with. And the problem which they by-pass philosophy cannot solve either, nor even pose, for that matter. Where philosophy has recourse to the structural assumptions lying behind the form-content relationship it either exalts the ‘mathematicising’ method of the special sciences, elevating it into the method proper to philosophy (as in the Marburg School) [17], or else it establishes the irrationality of matter, as logically, the ‘ultimate’ fact (as do Windelband, Rickert and Lask). But in both cases, as soon as the attempt at systematisation is made, the unsolved problem of the irrational reappears in the problem of totality. The horizon that delimits the totality that has been and can be created here is, at best, culture (i.e. the culture of bourgeois society). This culture cannot be derived from anything else and has simply to be accepted on its own terms as ‘facticity’ in the sense given to it by the classical philosophers. [18]

To give a detailed analysis of the various forms taken by the refusal to understand reality as a whole and as existence, would be to go well beyond the framework of this study. Our aim here was to locate the point at which there appears in the thought of bourgeois society the double tendency characteristic of its evolution. On the one hand, it acquires increasing control over the details of its social existence, subjecting them to its needs. On the other hand, it loses – likewise progressively – the possibility of gaining intellectual control of society as a whole and with that it loses its own qualifications for leadership.

Classical German philosophy marks a unique transitional stage in this process. It arises at a point of development where matters have progressed so far that these problems can be raised to the level of consciousness. At the same time this takes place in a milieu where the problems can only appear on an intellectual and philosophical plane. This has the drawback that the concrete problems of society and the concrete solutions to them cannot be seen. Nevertheless, classical philosophy is able to think the deepest and most fundamental problems of the development of bourgeois society through to the very end – on the plane of philosophy. It is able – in thought – to complete the evolution of class. And – in thought – it is able to take all the paradoxes of its position to the point where the necessity of going beyond this historical stage in mankind’s development can at least be seen as a problem.


Classical philosophy is indebted for its wealth, its depth and its boldness no less than its fertility for future thinkers to the fact that it narrowed the problem down, confining it within the realm of pure thought. At the same time it remains an insuperable obstacle even within the realm of thought itself. That is to say, classical philosophy mercilessly tore to shreds all the metaphysical illusions of the preceding era, but was forced to be as uncritical and as dogmatically metaphysical with regard to some of its own premises as its predecessors had been towards theirs. We have already made a passing reference to this point: it is the – dogmatic – assumption that the rational and formalistic mode of cognition is the only possible way of apprehending reality (or to put it in its most critical form: the only possible way for ‘us’), in contrast to the facts which are simply given and alien to ‘us’. As we have shown, the grandiose conception that thought can only grasp what it has itself created strove to master the world as a whole by seeing it as self-created. However, it then came up against the insuperable obstacle of the given, of the thing-in-itself. If it was not to renounce its understanding of the whole it had to take the road that leads inwards. It had to strive to find the subject of thought which could be thought of as producing existence without any hiatus irrationalis or transcendental thing-in-itself. The dogmatism alluded to above was partly a true guide and partly a source of confusion in this enterprise. It was a true guide inasmuch as thought was led beyond the mere acceptance of reality as it was given, beyond mere reflection and the conditions necessary for thinking about reality, to orientate itself beyond mere contemplation and mere intuition. It was a source of confusion since it prevented the same dogmatism from discovering its true antidote, the principle that would enable contemplation to be overcome, namely the practical. (The fact that precisely for this reason the given constantly re-emerges as untranscended in its irrationality will be demonstrated in the course of the following account.)

In his last important logical work [19] Fichte formulates the philosophical starting-point for this situation as follows: “We have seen all actual knowledge as being necessary, except for the form of ‘is’, on the assumption that there is one phenomenon that must doubtless remain as an absolute assumption for thought and concerning which doubt can only be resolved by an actual intuition. But with the distinction that we can perceive the definite and qualitative law in the content of one part of this fact, namely the ego-principle. Whereas for the actual content of this intuition of self we can merely perceive the fact that one must exist but cannot legislate for the existence of this one in particular. At the same time we note clearly that there can be no such law and that therefore, the qualitative law required for this definition is precisely the absence of law itself Now, if the necessary is also that which is known a priori we have in this sense perceived all facticity a priori, not excluding the empirical since this we have deduced to be non-deducible.”

What is relevant to our problem here is the statement that the subject of knowledge, the ego-principle, is known as to its content and, hence, can be taken as a starting-point and as a guide to method. In the most general terms we see here the origin of the philosophical tendency to press forward to a conception of the subject which can be thought of as the creator of the totality of content. And likewise in general, purely programmatic terms we see the origin of the search for a level of objectivity, a positing of the objects, where the duality of subject and object (the duality of thought and being is only a special case of this), is transcended, i.e. where subject and object coincide, where they are identical.

Obviously the great classical philosophers were much too perceptive and critical to overlook the empirically existing duality of subject and object. Indeed, they saw the basic structure of empirical data precisely in this split. But their demand, their programme was much more concerned with finding the nodal point, from which they could ‘create’, deduce and make comprehensible the duality of subject and object on the empirical plane, i.e. in its objective form. In contrast to the dogmatic acceptance of a merely given reality – divorced from the subject – they required that every datum should be understood as the product of the identical subject-object, and every duality should be seen as a special case derived from this pristine unity.

But this unity is activity. Kant had attempted in the Critique of Practical Reason (which has been much misunderstood and often falsely opposed to the Critique of Pure Reason) to show that the barriers that could not be overcome by theory (contemplation) were amenable to practical solutions. Fichte went beyond this and put the practical, action and activity in the centre of his unifying philosophical system. “For this reason,” he says, “it is not such a trivial matter as it appears to some people, whether philosophy should begin from a fact or from an action (i.e. from pure activity which presupposes no object but itself creates it, so that action immediately becomes deed). For if it starts with the fact it places itself inside the world of existence and of finitude and will find it hard to discover the way that leads from there to the infinite and the suprasensual; if it begins from action it will stand at the point where the two worlds meet and from which they can both be seen at a glance.” [20]

Fichte’s task, therefore, is to exhibit the subject of the ‘action’ and, assuming its identity with the object, to comprehend every dual subject-object form as derived from it, as its product. But here, on a philosophically higher plane, we find repeated the same failure to resolve the questions raised by classical German philosophy. The moment that we enquire after the concrete nature of this identical subject-object, we are confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, this configuration of consciousness can only be found really and concretely in the ethical act, in the relation of the ethically acting (individual) subject to itself. On the other hand, for the ethical consciousness of the acting individual the split between the self-generated, but wholly inwardly turning form (of the ethical imperative in Kant) and of the reality, the given, the empirical alien both to the senses and the understanding must become even more definitive than for the contemplative subject of knowledge.

It is well known that Kant did not go beyond the critical interpretation of ethical facts in the individual consciousness. This had a number of consequences. In the first place, these facts were thereby transformed into something merely there and could not be conceived of as having been ‘created’. [21]

Secondly, this intensifies the ‘intelligible contingency’ of an ‘external world’ subject to the laws of nature. In the absence of a real, concrete solution the dilemma of freedom and necessity, of voluntarism and fatalism is simply shunted into a siding. That is to say, in nature and in the ‘external world’ laws still operate with inexorable necessity [22], while freedom and the autonomy that is supposed to result from the discovery of the ethical world are reduced to a mere point of view from which to judge internal events. These events, however, are seen as being subject in all their motives and effects and even in their psychological elements to a fatalistically regarded objective necessity. [23]

Thirdly, this ensures that the hiatus between appearance and essence (which in Kant coincides with that between necessity and freedom) is not bridged and does not, therefore, give way to a manufactured unity with which to establish the unity of the world. Even worse than that: the duality is itself introduced into the subject. Even the subject is split into phenomenon and noumenon and the unresolved, insoluble and henceforth permanent conflict between freedom and necessity now invades its innermost structure.

Fourthly, in consequence of this, the resulting ethic becomes purely formal and lacking in content. As every content which is given to us belongs to the world of nature and is thus unconditionally subject to the objective laws of the phenomenal world, practical norms can only have bearing on the inward forms of action. The moment this ethic attempts to make itself concrete, i.e. to test its strength on concrete problems, it is forced to borrow the elements of content of these particular actions from the world of phenomena and from the conceptual systems that assimilate them and absorb their ‘contingency’. The principle of creation collapses as soon as the first concrete content is to be created. And Kant’s ethics cannot evade such an attempt. It does try, it is true, to find the formal principle which will both determine and preserve content – at least negatively – and to locate it in the principle of non-contradiction. According to this, every action contravening ethical norms contains a self-contradiction. For example, an essential quality of a deposit is that it should not be embezzled, etc. But as Hegel has pointed out quite rightly: “What if there were no deposit, where is the contradiction in that? For there to be no deposit would contradict yet other necessarily determined facts; just as the fact that a deposit is possible, is connected with other necessary facts and so it itself becomes necessary. But it is not permissible to involve other purposes and other material grounds; only the immediate form of the concept may decide which of the two assumptions is correct. But each of the opposed facts is as immaterial to the form as the other; either can be acceptable as a quality and this acceptance can be expressed as a law.” [24]

Thus Kant’s ethical analysis leads us back to the unsolved methodological problem of the thing-in-itself. We have already defined the philosophically significant side of this problem, its methodological aspect, as the relation between form and content, as the problem of the irreducibility of the factual, and the irrationality of matter. Kant’s formalistic ethics, adapted to the consciousness of the individual, is indeed able to open up the possibility of a metaphysical solution to the problem of the thing-in-itself by enabling the concepts of a world seen as a totality, which had been destroyed by the transcendental dialectic, to reappear on the horizon as the postulates of practical reason. But from the point of view of method this subjective and practical solution remains imprisoned within the same barriers that proved so overwhelming to the objective and contemplative analysis in the Critique of Pure Reason.

This sheds light on a new and significant structural aspect of the whole complex of problems: in order to overcome the irrationality of the question of the thing-in-itself it is not enough that the attempt should be made to transcend the contemplative attitude. When the question is formulated more concretely it turns out that the essence of praxis consists in annulling that indifference of form towards content that we found in the problem of the thing-in-itself Thus praxis can only be really established as a philosophical principle if, at the same time, a conception of form can be found whose basis and validity no longer rest on that pure rationality and that freedom from every definition of content. In so far as the principle of praxis is the prescription for changing reality, it must be tailored to the concrete material substratum of action if it is to impinge upon it to any effect.

Only this approach to the problem makes possible the clear dichotomy between praxis and the theoretical, contemplative and intuitive attitude. But also we can now understand the connection between the two attitudes and see how, with the aid of the principle of praxis, the attempt could be made to resolve the antinomies of contemplation. Theory and praxis in fact refer to the same objects, for every object exists as an immediate inseparable complex of form and content. However, the diversity of subjective attitudes orientates praxis towards what is qualitatively unique, towards the content and the material substratum of the object concerned. As we have tried to show, theoretical contemplation leads to the neglect of this very factor. For, theoretical clarification and theoretical analysis of the object reach their highest point just when they reveal at their starkest the formal factors liberated from all content (from all ‘contingent facticity’). As long as thought proceeds ‘naïvely’, i.e. as long as it fails to reflect upon its activity and as long as it imagines it can derive the content from the forms themselves, thus ascribing active, metaphysical functions to them, or else regards as metaphysical and non-existent any material alien to form, this problem does not present itself. Praxis then appears to be consistently subordinated to the theory of contemplation. [25] But the very moment when this situation, i.e. when the indissoluble links that bind the contemplative attitude of the subject to the purely formal character of the object of knowledge become conscious, it is inevitable either that the attempt to find a solution to the problem of irrationality (the question of content, of the given, etc.) should be abandoned or that it should be sought in praxis.

It is once again in Kant that this tendency finds its clearest expression. When for Kant “existence is evidently not a real predicate, i.e. the concept of something that could be added to the concept of a thing” [26], we see this tendency with all its consequences at its most extreme. It is in fact so extreme that he is compelled to propose the dialectics of concepts in movement as the only alternative to his own theory of the structure of concepts. “For otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than I had thought in the concept and I would not be. able to say that it is precisely the object of my concept that exists.” It has escaped the notice of both Kant and the critics of his critique of the ontological argument that here – admittedly in a negative and distorted form arising from his purely contemplative viewpoint – Kant has hit upon the structure of true praxis as a way of overcoming the antinomies of the concept of existence. We have already shown how, despite all his efforts, his ethics leads back to the limits of abstract contemplation.

Hegel uncovers the methodological basis of this theory in his criticism of this passage. [27] “For this content regarded in isolation it is indeed a matter of indifference whether it exists or does not exist; there is no inherent distinction between existence and nonexistence; this distinction does not concern it at all.... More generally, the abstractions existence and non-existence both cease to be abstract when they acquire a definite content; existence then becomes reality . . .” That is to say, the goal that Kant here sets for knowledge is shown to be the description of that structure of cognition that systematically isolates ‘pure laws’ and treats them in a systematically isolated and artificially homogeneous milieu. (Thus in the physical hypothesis of the vibrations of the ether the ‘existence’ of the ether would in fact add nothing to the concept.) But the moment that the object is seen as part of a concrete totality, the moment that it becomes clear that alongside the formal, delimiting concept of existence acknowledged by this pure contemplation other gradations of reality are possible and necessary to thought (being [Dasein], existence [Existenz], reality [Realitat], etc. in Hegel), Kant’s proof collapses: it survives only as the demarcation line of purely formal thought.

In his doctoral thesis Marx, more concrete and logical than Hegel, effected the transition from the question of existence and its hierarchy of meanings to the plane of historical reality and concrete praxis. “Didn’t the Moloch of the Ancients hold sway? Wasn’t the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks? In this context Kant’s criticism is meaningless.” [28] Unfortunately Marx did not develop this idea to its logical conclusion although in his mature works his method always operates with concepts of existence graduated according to the various levels of praxis.

The more conscious this Kantian tendency becomes the less avoidable is the dilemma. For, the ideal of knowledge represented by the purely distilled formal conception of the object of knowledge, the mathematical organisation and the ideal of necessary natural laws all transform knowledge more and more into the systematic and conscious contemplation of those purely formal connections, those ‘laws’ which function in-objective-reality without the intervention of the subject. But the attempt to eliminate every element of content and of the irrational affects not only the object but also, and to an increasing extent, the subject. The critical elucidation of contemplation puts more and more energy into its efforts to weed out ruthlessly from its own outlook every subjective and irrational element and every anthropomorphic tendency; it strives with ever increasing vigour to drive a wedge between the subject of knowledge and ‘man’, and to transform the knower into a pure and purely formal subject.

It might seem as if this characterisation of contemplation might be thought to contradict our earlier account of the problem of knowledge as the knowledge of what ‘we’ have created. This is in fact the case. But this very contradiction is eminently suited to illuminate the difficulty of the question and the possible solutions to it. For the contradiction does not lie in the inability of the philosophers to give a definitive analysis of the available facts. It is rather the intellectual expression of the objective situation itself which it is their task to comprehend. That is to say, the contradiction that appears here between subjectivity and objectivity in modern rationalist formal systems, the entanglements and equivocations hidden in their concepts of subject and object, the conflict between their nature as systems created by ‘us’ and their fatalistic necessity distant from and alien to man is nothing but the logical and systematic formulation of the modern state of society. For, on the one hand, men are constantly smashing, replacing and leaving behind them the ‘natural’, irrational and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality they have created and ‘made’, a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier on with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form). “To them, their own social action”, says Marx, “takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.”


From this it follows that the powers that are beyond man’s control assume quite a different character. Hitherto it had been that of the blind power of a – fundamentally – irrational fate, the point where the possibility of human knowledge ceased and where absolute transcendence and the realm of faith began. [29] Now, however, it appears as the ineluctable consequence of known, knowable, rational systems of laws, as a necessity which cannot ultimately and wholly be grasped, as was indeed recognised by the critical philosophers, unlike their dogmatic predecessors. In its parts, however – within the radius in which men live – it can increasingly be penetrated, calculated and predicted. It is anything but a mere chance that at the very beginning of the development of modern philosophy the ideal of knowledge took the form of universal mathematics: it was an attempt to establish a rational system of relations which comprehends the totality of the formal possibilities, proportions and relations of a rationalised existence with the aid of which every phenomenon-independently of its real and material distinctiveness – could be subjected to an exact calculus. [30]

This is the modern ideal of knowledge at its most uncompromising and therefore at its most characteristic, and in it the contradiction alluded to above emerges clearly. For, on the one hand, the basis of this universal calculus can be nothing other than the certainty that only a reality cocooned by such concepts can truly be controlled by us. On the other hand, it appears that even if we may suppose this universal mathematics to be entirely and consistently realised, ‘control’ of reality can be nothing more than the objectively correct contemplation of what is yielded – necessarily and without our intervention – by the abstract combinations of these relations and proportions. In this sense contemplation does seem to come close to the universal philosophical ideal of knowledge (as in Greece and India). What is peculiar to modern philosophy only becomes fully revealed when we critically examine the assumption that this universal system of combinations can be put into practice.

For it is only with the discovery of the ‘intelligible contingency’ of these laws that there arises the possibility of a ‘free’ movement within the field of action of such overlapping or not fully comprehended laws. It is important to realise that if we take action in the sense indicated above to mean changing reality, an orientation towards the qualitatively essential and the material substratum of action, then the attitude under discussion will appear much more contemplative than, for instance, the ideal of knowledge held by Greek philosophers. [31] For this ‘action’ consists in predicting, in calculating as far as possible the probable effects of those laws and the subject of the ‘action’ takes up a position in which these effects can be exploited to the best advantage of his own purposes. It is therefore evident that, on the one hand, the more the whole of reality is rationalised and the more its manifestations can be integrated into the system of laws, the more such prediction becomes feasible. On the other hand, it is no less evident that the more reality and the attitude of the subject ‘in action’ approximate to this type, the more the subject will be transformed into a receptive organ ready to pounce on opportunities created by the system of laws and his ‘activity’ will narrow itself down to the adoption of a vantage point from which these laws function in his best interests (and this without any intervention on his part). The attitude of the subject then becomes purely contemplative in the philosophical sense.


But here we can see that this results in the assimilation of all human relations to the level of natural laws so conceived. It has often been pointed out in these pages that nature is a social category. Of course, to modern man who proceeds immediately from ready-made ideological forms and from their effects which dazzle his eye and exercise such a profound effect on his whole intellectual development, it must look as if the point of view which we have just outlined consisted simply in applying to society an intellectual framework derived from the natural sciences. In his youthful polemic against Fichte, Hegel had already pointed out that his state was “a machine”, its substratum “an atomistic . . . multitude whose elements are . . . a quantity of points. This absolute substantiality of the points founds an atomistic system in practical philosophy in which, as in the atomism of nature, a mind alien to the atoms becomes law.” [32]

This way of describing modern society is so familiar and the attempts to analyse it recur so frequently in the course of later developments that it would be supererogatory to furnish further proof of it. What is of greater importance is the fact that the converse of this insight has not escaped notice either. After Hegel had clearly recognised the bourgeois character of the ‘laws of nature’ [33], Marx pointed out [34] that “Descartes with his definition of animals as mere machines saw with the eyes of the manufacturing period, while in the eyes of the Middle Ages, animals were man’s assistants”; and he adds several suggestions towards explaining the intellectual history of such connections. Tonnies notes the same connection even more bluntly and categorically: “A special case of abstract reason is scientific reason and its subject is the man who is objective, and who recognises relations, i.e. thinks in concepts. In consequence, scientific concepts which by their ordinary origin and their real properties are judgements by means of which complexes of feeling are given names, behave within science like commodities in society. They gather together within the system like commodities on the market. The supreme scientific concept which is no longer the name of anything real is like money. E.g. the concept of an atom, or of energy.” [35]

It cannot be our task to investigate the question of priority or the historical and causal order of succession between the ‘laws of nature’ and capitalism. (The author of these lines has, however, no wish to conceal his view that the development of capitalist economics takes precedence.) What is important is to recognise clearly that all human relations (viewed as the objects of social activity) assume increasingly the objective forms of the abstract elements of the conceptual systems of natural science and of the abstract substrata of the laws of nature. And also, the subject of this ‘action’ likewise assumes increasingly the attitude of the pure observe of these – artificially abstract – processes, the attitude of the experimenter.

Further reading:

Marxism & Philosophy, Karl Korsch, 1923
Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Istvan Meszaros 1970
A Philosophical ‘Discussion’, Cyril Smith, 1998

next section


1 Reclam, p. 17.

2 Capital I, p. 372 (note).

3 Cf. Tönnies, Hobbes' Leben und Lehre and especially Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. We shall return to the conclusions of this book which are of value for us because they have been arrived at from a completely different point of view and yet describe the same process, showing the impact of the rationalism of mathematics and the 'exact' sciences upon the origins of modern thought.

4 Capital I, p. 486. See also Gottl, op. cit., pp. 238-45. for the contrast with antiquity. For this reason the concept of 'rationalism' must not be employed as an unhistorical abstraction, but it is always necessary precisely to determine the object (or sphere of life) to which it is to be related, and above all to define the objects to which it is not related.

5 Max Weber, Gesammelle Aufsdtze zur Religionssoziologie II, pp. 165-70. A like structure can be found in the development of all the 'special' sciences in India: a highly advanced technology in particular branches without reference to a rational totality and without any attempt to rationalise the whole and to confer universal validity upon the rational categories. Cf. also Ibid., pp. 146-7, 166-7. The situation is similar with regard to the 'rationalism' of Confucianism. Op. cit. I, p. 527.

6 In this respect Kant is the culmination of the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Both the line from Locke to Berkeley. and Hume and also the tradition of French materialism move in this direction. It would be beyond the scope of this inquiry to outline the different stages of this development with its various divergent strands.

7 Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 403-4. Cf. also pp. 330 et seq.

8 Feuerbach also connected the problem of the absolute transcendence of sensuousness (by the understanding) with a contradiction in the existence of God. "The proof of the existence of God goes beyond the bounds of reason; true enough; but in the same sense in which seeing, hearing, smelling go beyond the bounds of reason." Das Wesen des Christentums, Reclam., p. 303. See Cassirer, op. cit. II, p. 608, for similar arguments in Hume and Kant.

9 This problem is stated most clearly by Lask: "For subjectivity" (i.e. for the logically subjective status of judgement), "it is by no means self-evident, but on the contrary it is the whole task of the philosopher to ascertain the categories into which logical form divides when applied to a particular subject-matter or, to put it differently, to discover which subjects form the particular province of the various categories." Die Lehre vom Urteil, p. 162.

10 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 564.

11 This is not the place to show that neither Greek philosophy (with the possible exception of quite late thinkers, such as Proclus) nor medieval philosophy were acquainted with the idea of a 'system' in our sense. The problem of systems originates in modern times, with Descartes and Spinoza and from Leibniz and Kant onwards it becomes an increasingly conscious methodological postulate.

12 The idea of "infinite understanding", of intellectual intuition, etc., is partly designed as an epistemological solution to this difficulty. However, Kant had already perceived quite clearly that this problem leads on to the one we are about to discuss.

13 Once again it is Lask who perceives this most clearly and uncompromisingly. Cf. Die Logik der Philosophie, pp. 60-2. But he does not draw all the consequences of his line of reasoning, in particular that of the impossibility of a rational system in principle.

14 We may point for example to Husserl's phenomenological method in which the whole terrain of logic is ultimately transformed into a 'system of facts' of a higher order. Husserl himself regards this method as purely descriptive. Cf. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie in Vol. I of his jahrbuch, p. 113.

15 This fundamental tendency of Leibniz's thought attains maturity in the philosophy of Maimon where it appears in the form of the dissolution of the problem of the thing-in-itself and of "intelligible chance"; from here a path leads directly to Fichte and through him to later developments. The problem of the irrationality of mathematics is analysed incisively in an essay by Rickert, "Das Eine, die Einheit und das Eins," in Logos II, p. 1.

16 Die Wissenschaftslehre of 1804, Lecture XV, Werke (Neue Ausgabe) IV, p. 288. My italics. The problem is put similarly - though with varying degrees of clarity - by later 'critical' philosophers. Most clearly of all by Windelband when he defines existence as "content independent of form". In my opinion his critics have only obscured his paradox without providing a solution to the problem it contains.

17 This is not the place to offer a critique of particular philosophical schools. By way of proof of the correctness of this sketch I would only point to the relapse into natural law (which methodologically belongs to the pre-critical period) observable - in substance, though not in terminology - in the works of Cohen and also of Stammler whose thought is related to that of the Marburg School.

18 Rickert, one of the most consistent representatives of this school of thought, ascribes no more than a formal character to the cultural values underlying historiography, and it is precisely this fact that highlights the whole situation. On this point see Section III.

19 Transcendentale Logik, Lecture XXIII, Werke VI, p. 335. Readers unfamiliar with the terminology of classical philosophy are reminded that Fichte's concept of the ego has nothing to do with the empirical ego.

20 Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre, Werke III, p. 52. Although Fichte's terminology changes from one work to the next, this should not blind us to the fact that he is always concerned with the same problem.

21 Cf. Die Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Philosophische Bibliothek, p. 72.

22 "Now nature is in the common view the existence of things subject to laws." Ibid., p. 57.

23 Ibid., pp. 125-6.

24 Ober die wissenschaftliche Behandlungsarien des Naturrechts, Werke 1, pp. 352-3. Cf. ibid., p. 351. "For it is the absolute abstraction from every subject-matter of the will; every content posits a heteronomy of the free will." Or, with even greater clarity, in the Phenomenology of Mind: "For pure duty is . . . absolutely indifferent towards every content and is compatible with every content." Werke II, p. 485.

25 This is quite clear in the case of the Greeks. But the same structure can be seen in the great systems at the beginning of the modern age, above all in Spinoza.

26 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 472-3.

27 Hegel, Werke III, pp. 78 et seq.

28 Nachlass I, p. 117. [Fragments on The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature].

29 From this ontological situation it becomes possible to understand the point of departure for the belief, so alien to modern thought, in 'natural' states, e.g. the "credo ut intellegam" of Anselm of Canterbury, or the attitude of Indian thought ("Only by him whom he chooses will he be understood," it has been said of Atman). Descartes' systematic scepticism, which was the starting-point of exact thought, is no more than the sharpest formulation of this antagonism that was very consciously felt at the birth of the modern age. It can be seen again in every important thinker from Galileo to Bacon.

30 For the history of this universal mathematics, see Cassirer, op. cit. I, pp. 446, 563; II, 138, 156 et seq. For the connection between this mathematicisation of reality and the bourgeois 'praxis' of calculating the anticipated results of the 'laws', see Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (Reclam) I, pp. 321-32 on Hobbes, Descartes and Bacon.

31 For the Platonic theory of ideas was indissolubly linked - with what right need not be discussed here - both with the totality and the qualitative existence of the given world. Contemplation means at the very least the bursting of the bonds that hold the 'soul' imprisoned within the limitations of the empirical. The Stoic ideal of ataraxy is a much better instance of this quite pure contemplation, but it is of course devoid of the paradoxical union with a feverish and uninterrupted 'activity'.

32 Die Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems, Werke I, p. 242. Every such 'atomic' theory of society only represents the ideological reflection of the purely bourgeois point of view; this was shown conclusively by Marx in his critique of Bruno Bauer, Nachlass II, p. 227. But this is not to deny the 'objectivity' of such views: they are in fact the necessary forms of consciousness that reified man has of his attitude towards society.

33 Hegel, Werke IX, p. 528.

34 Capital I, 390 (footnote).

35 Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 3rd edition, p. 38.