Georg Lukacs
History & Class Consciousness

II: The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought, continued

I may be permitted to devote a few words – as a sort of excursus – to the views expressed by Friedrich Engels on the problem of the thing-in-itself. In a sense they are of no immediate concern to us, but they have exercised such a great influence on the meaning given to the term by many Marxists that to omit to correct this might easily give rise to a misunderstanding. He says: [36] “The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the ungraspable Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’. The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained such ‘things-in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, whereupon the ‘thing in-itself’ became a thing for us, as, for instance, alizarin, the colouring matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow in the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheaply and simply from coal tar.”

Above all we must correct a terminological confusion that is almost incomprehensible in such a connoisseur of Hegel as was Engels. For Hegel the terms ‘in itself’ and ‘for us’ are by no means opposites; in fact they are necessary correlatives. That something exists merely ‘in itself’ means for Hegel that it merely exists ‘for us’. The antithesis of ‘for us or in itself’ [37] is rather ‘for itself’, namely that mode of being posited where the fact that an object is thought of implies at the same time that the object is conscious of itself. [38] In that case, it is a complete misinterpretation of Kant’s epistemology to imagine that the problem of the thing-in-itself could be a barrier to the possible concrete expansion of our knowledge. On the contrary, Kant who sets out from the most advanced natural science of the day, namely from Newton’s astronomy, tailored his theory of knowledge precisely to this science and to its future potential. For this reason he necessarily assumes that the method was capable of limitless expansion. His ‘critique’ refers merely to the fact that even the complete knowledge of all phenomena would be no more than a knowledge of phenomena (as opposed to the things-in-themselves). Moreover, even the complete knowledge of the phenomena could never overcome the structural limits of this knowledge, i.e. in our terms, the antinomies of totality and of content. Kant has himself dealt sufficiently clearly with the question of agnosticism and of the relation to Hume (and to Berkeley who is not named but whom Kant has particularly in mind) in the section entitled ‘The Refutation of Idealism’. [39]

But Engels’ deepest misunderstanding consists in his belief that the behaviour of industry and scientific experiment constitutes praxis in the dialectical, philosophical sense. In fact, scientific experiment is contemplation at its purest. The experimenter creates an artificial, abstract milieu in order to be able to observe undisturbed the untrammelled workings of the laws under examination, eliminating all irrational factors both of the subject and the object. He strives as far as possible to reduce the material substratum of his observation to the purely rational ‘product’, to the ‘intelligible matter’ of mathematics. And when Engels speaks, in the context of industry, of the “product” which is made to serve “our purposes”, he seems to have forgotten for a moment the fundamental structure of capitalist society which he himself had once formulated so supremely well in his brilliant early essay. There he had pointed out that capitalist society is based on “a natural law that is founded on the unconsciousness of those involved in it”. [40] Inasmuch as industry sets itself ‘objectives’ – it is in the decisive, i.e. historical, dialectical meaning of the word, only the object, not the subject of the natural laws governing society.

Marx repeatedly emphasised that the capitalist (and when we speak of ‘industry’ in the past or present we can only mean the capitalist) is nothing but a puppet. And when, for example, he compares his instinct to enrich himself with that of the miser, he stresses the fact that “what in the miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of the capital invested in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt as external coercive laws by each individual capitalist.” [41] The fact, therefore, that ‘industry’, i.e. the capitalist as the incarnation of economic and technical progress, does not act but is acted upon and that his ‘activity’ goes no further than the correct observation and calculation of the objective working out of the natural laws of society, is a truism for Marxism and is elsewhere interpreted in this way by Engels also.


To return to our main argument, it is evident from all this that the attempt at a solution represented by the turn taken by critical philosophy towards the practical, does not succeed in resolving the antinomies we have noted. On the contrary it fixes them for eternity. [42] For just as objective necessity, despite the rationality and regularity of its manifestations, yet persists in a state of immutable contingency because its material substratum remains transcendental, so too the freedom of the subject which this device is designed to rescue, is unable, being an empty freedom, to evade the abyss of fatalism. “Thoughts without content are empty,” says Kant programmatically at the beginning of the ‘Transcendental Logic’, “Intuitions without concepts are blind.” [43] But the Critique which here propounds the necessity of an interpretation of form and content can do no more than offer it as a methodological programme, i.e. for each of the discrete areas it can indicate the point where the real synthesis should begin, and where it would begin if its formal rationality could allow it to do more than predict formal possibilities in terms of formal calculations.

The freedom (of the subject) is neither able to overcome the sensuous necessity of the system of knowledge and the soullessness of the fatalistically conceived laws of nature, nor is it able to give them any meaning. And likewise the contents produced by reason, and the world acknowledged by reason are just as little able to fill the purely formal determinants of freedom with a truly living life. The impossibility of comprehending and ‘creating’ the union of form and content concretely instead of as the basis for a purely formal calculus leads to the insoluble dilemma of freedom and necessity, of voluntarism and fatalism. The ‘eternal, iron’ regularity of the processes of nature and the purely inward freedom of individual moral practice appear at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason as wholly irreconcilable and at the same time as the unalterable foundations of human existence. [44] Kant’s greatness as a philosopher lies in the fact that in both instances he made no attempt to conceal the intractability of the problem by means of an arbitrary dogmatic resolution of any sort, but that he bluntly elaborated the contradiction and presented it in an undiluted form.


As everywhere in classical philosophy it would be a mistake to think that these discussions are no more than the problems of intellectuals and the squabbles of pedants. This can be seen most clearly if we turn back a page in the growth of this problem and examine it at a stage in its development when it had been less worked over intellectually, when it was closer to its social background and accordingly more concrete. Plekhanov strongly emphasises the intellectual barrier that the bourgeois materialism of the eighteenth century came up against and he puts it into perspective by means of the following antinomy: on the one hand, man appears as the product of his social milieu, whereas, on the other hand, “the social milieu is produced by ‘public opinion’, i.e. by man”. [45] This throws light on the social reality underlying the antinomy which we encountered in the – seemingly – purely epistemological problem of production, in the systematic question of the subject of an ‘action’, of the ‘creator’ of a unified reality. Plekhanov’s account shows no less clearly that the duality of the contemplative and the (individual) practical principles which we saw as the first achievement and as the starting-point for the later development of classical philosophy, leads towards this antinomy.

However, the naïver and more primitive analysis of Holbach and Helvetius permits a clearer insight into the life that forms the true basis of this antinomy. We observe, firstly, that following on the development of bourgeois society all social problems cease to transcend man and appear as the products of human activity in contrast to the view of society held by the Middle Ages and the early modern period (e.g. Luther). Secondly, it becomes evident that the man who now emerges must be the individual, egoistic bourgeois isolated artificially by capitalism and that his consciousness, the source of his activity and knowledge, is an individual isolated consciousness a la Robinson Crusoe. [46] But, thirdly, it is this that robs social action of its character as action. At first this looks like the after-effects of the sensualist epistemology of the French materialists (and Locke, etc.) where it is the case, on the one hand, that “his brain is nothing but wax to receive the imprint of every impression made in it” (Holbach according to Plekhanov, op. cit.) and where, on the other hand, only conscious action can count as activity. But examined more closely this turns out to be the simple effect of the situation of bourgeois man in the capitalist production process.

We have already described the characteristic features of this situation several times: man in capitalist society confronts a reality ‘made’ by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its ‘laws’, his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfilment of certain individual laws for his own (egoistic) interests. But even while ‘acting’ he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events. The field of his activity thus becomes wholly internalised: it consists on the one hand of the awareness of the laws which he uses and, on the other, of his awareness of his inner reactions to the course taken by events.

This situation generates very important and unavoidable problem-complexes and conceptual ambivalences which are decisive for the way in which bourgeois man understands himself in his relation to the world. Thus the word ‘nature’ becomes highly ambiguous. We have already drawn attention to the idea, formulated most lucidly by Kant but essentially unchanged since Kepler and Galileo, of nature as the “aggregate of systems of the laws” governing what happens. Parallel to this conception whose development out of the economic structures of capitalism has been shown repeatedly, there is another conception of nature, a value concept, wholly different from the first one and embracing a wholly different cluster of meanings.

A glance at the history of natural law shows the extent to which these two conceptions have become inextricably interwoven with each other. For here we can see that ‘nature’ has been heavily marked by the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie: the ‘ordered’, calculable, formal and abstract character of the approaching bourgeois society appears natural by the side of the artifice, the caprice and the disorder of feudalism and absolutism. At the same time if one thinks of Rousseau, there are echoes of a quite different meaning wholly incompatible with this one. It concentrates increasingly on the feeling that social institutions (reification) strip man of his human essence and that the more culture and civilisation (i.e. capitalism and reification) take possession of him, the less able he is to be a human being. And with a reversal of meanings that never becomes apparent, nature becomes the repository of all these inner tendencies opposing the growth of mechanisation, dehumanisation and reification.

Nature thereby acquires the meaning of what has grown organically, what was not created by man, in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilisation. [47] But, at the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once more. “They are what we once were,” says Schiller of the forms of nature, “they are what we should once more become.” But here, unexpectedly and indissolubly bound up with the other meanings, we discover a third conception of nature, one in which we can clearly discern the ideal and the tendency to overcome the problems of a reified existence. ‘Nature’ here refers to authentic humanity, the true essence of man liberated from the false, mechanising forms of society: man as a perfected whole who has inwardly overcome, or is in the process of overcoming, the dichotomies of theory and practice, reason and the senses, form and content; man whose tendency to create his own forms does not imply an abstract rationalism which ignores concrete content; man for whom freedom and necessity are identical.

With this we find that we have unexpectedly discovered what we had been searching for when we were held up by the irreducible duality of pure and practical reason, by the question of the subject of an ‘action’, of the ‘creation’ of reality as a totality. All the more as we are dealing with an attitude (whose ambivalence we recognise as being necessary but which we shall not probe any further) which need not be sought in some mythologising transcendent construct; it does not only exist as a ‘fact of the soul’, as a nostalgia inhabiting the consciousness, but it also possesses a very real and concrete field of activity where it may be brought to fruition, namely art. This is not the place to investigate the ever-increasing importance of aesthetics and the theory of art within the total world-picture of the eighteenth century. As everywhere in this study, we are concerned solely to throw light on the social and historical background which threw up these problems and conferred upon aesthetics and upon consciousness of art philosophical importance that art was unable to lay claim to in previous ages. This does not mean that art itself was experiencing an unprecedented golden age. On the contrary, with a very few exceptions the actual artistic production during this period cannot remotely be compared to that of past golden ages. What is crucial here is the theoretical and philosophical importance which the principle of art acquires in this period.

This principle is the creation of a concrete totality that springs from a conception of form orientated towards the concrete content of its material substratum. In this view form is therefore able to demolish the ‘contingent’ relation of the parts to the whole and to resolve the merely apparent opposition between chance and necessity. It is well known that Kant in the Critique of Judgment assigned to this principle the role of mediator between the otherwise irreconcilable opposites, i.e. the function of perfecting the system. But even at this early stage this attempt at a solution could not limit itself to the explanation and interpretation of the phenomenon of art. If only because, as has been shown, the principle thus discovered was, from its inception, indissolubly bound up with the various conceptions of nature so that its most obvious and appropriate function seemed to provide a principle for the solution of all insoluble problems both of contemplative theory and ethical practice. Fichte did indeed provide a succinct programmatic account of the use to which this principle was to be put: art “transforms the transcendental point of view into the common one”, [48] that is to say, what was for transcendental philosophy a highly problematic postulate with which to explain the world, becomes in art perfect achievement: it proves that this postulate of the transcendental philosophers is necessarily anchored in the structure of human consciousness.

However, this proof involves a vital issue of methodology for classical philosophy which – as we have seen – was forced to undertake the task of discovering the subject of ‘action’ which could be seen to be the maker of reality in its concrete totality. For only if it can be shown that such a subjectivity can be found in the consciousness and that there can be a principle of form which is not affected by the problem of indifference vis-a-vis content and the resulting difficulties concerning the thing-in-itself, ‘intelligible contingency’, etc., only then is it methodologically possible to advance concretely beyond formal rationalism. Only then can a logical solution to the problem of irrationality (i.e. the relation of form to content) become at all feasible. Only then will it be possible to posit the world as conceived by thought as a perfected, concrete, meaningful system ‘created’ by us and attaining in us the stage of self-awareness. For this reason, together with the discovery of the principle of art, there arises also the problem of the ‘intuitive understanding’ whose content is not given but ‘created’. This understanding is, in Kant’s words [49] , spontaneous (i.e. active) and not receptive (i.e. contemplative) both as regards knowledge and intuitive perception. If, in the case of Kant himself, this only indicates the point from which it would be possible to complete and perfect the system, in the works of his successors this principle and the postulate of an intuitive understanding and an intellectual intuition becomes the cornerstone of systematic philosophy.

But it is in Schiller’s aesthetic and theoretical works that we can see, even more clearly than in the systems of the philosophers (where for the superficial observer the pure edifice of thought sometimes obscures the living heart from which these problems arise), the need which has provided the impetus for these analyses as well as the function to be performed by the solutions offered. Schiller defines the aesthetic principle as the play-instinct (in contrast to the form-instinct and the content-instinct) and his analysis of this contains very valuable insights into the question of reification, as is indeed true of all his aesthetic writings) . He formulates it as follows: “For it must be said once and for all that man only plays when he is a man in the full meaning of the word, and he is fully human only when he plays.” [50] By extending the aesthetic principle far beyond the confines of aesthetics, by seeing it as the key to the solution of the question of the meaning of man’s existence in society, Schiller brings us back to the basic issue of classical philosophy. On the one hand, he recognises that social life has destroyed man as man. On the other hand, he points to the principle whereby man having been socially destroyed, fragmented and divided between different partial systems is to be made whole again in thought. If we can now obtain a clear view of classical philosophy we see both the magnitude of its enterprise and the fecundity of the perspectives it opens up for the future, but we see no less clearly the inevitability of its failure. For while earlier thinkers remained naïvely entangled in the modes of thought of reification, or at best (as in the cases cited by Plekhanov) were driven into objective contradictions, here the problematic nature of social life for capitalist man becomes fully conscious.

“When the power of synthesis”, Hegel remarks, “vanishes from the lives of men and when the antitheses have lost their vital relation and their power of interaction and gain independence, it is then that philosophy becomes a felt need.” [51] At the same time, however, we can see the limitations of this undertaking. Objectively, since question and answer are confined from the very start to the realm of pure thought. These limitations are objective in so far as they derive from the dogmatism of critical philosophy. Even where its method has forced it beyond the limits of the formal, rational and discursive understanding enabling it to become critical of thinkers like Leibniz and Spinoza its fundamental systematic posture still remains rationalistic. The dogma of rationality remains unimpaired and is by no means superseded. [52] The limitations are subjective since the principle so discovered reveals when it becomes conscious of itself the narrow confines of its own validity. For if man is fully human “only when he plays”, we are indeed enabled to comprehend all the contents of life from this vantage point. And in the aesthetic mode, conceived as broadly as possible, they may be salvaged from the deadening effects of the mechanism of reification. But only in so far as these contents become aesthetic. That is to say, either the world must be aestheticised, which is an evasion of the real problem and is just another way in which to make the subject purely contemplative and to annihilate ‘action’. Or else, the aesthetic principle must be elevated into the principle by which objective reality is shaped: but that would be to mythologise the discovery of intuitive understanding.

From Fichte onwards it became increasingly necessary to make the mythologising of the process of ‘creation’ into a central issue, a question of life and death for classical philosophy; all the more so as the critical point of view was constrained, parallel with the antinomies which it discovered in the given world and our relationship with it, to treat the subject in like fashion and to tear it to pieces (i.e. its fragmentation in objective reality had to be reproduced in thought, accelerating the process as it did so). Hegel pours scorn in a number of places on Kant’s ‘soul-sack’ in which the different ‘faculties’ (theoretical, practical, etc.) are lying and from which they have to be ‘pulled out’. But there is no way for Hegel to overcome this fragmentation of the subject into independent parts whose empirical reality and even necessity is likewise undeniable, other than by creating this fragmentation, this disintegration out of a concrete, total subject. On this point art shows us, as we have seen, the two faces of Janus, and with the discovery of art it becomes possible either to provide yet another domain for the fragmented subject or to leave behind the safe territory of the concrete evocation of totality and (using art at most by way of illustration) tackle the problem of ‘creation’ from the side of the subject. The problem is then no longer – as it was for Spinoza – to create an objective system of reality on the model of geometry. It is rather this creation which is at once philosophy’s premise and its task. This creation is undoubtedly given (“There are synthetic judgements a priori – how are they possible ?” Kant had once asked). But the task is to deduce the unity – which is not given – of this disintegrating creation and to prove that it is the product of a creating subject. In the final analysis then: to create the subject of the ‘creator’.


This extends the discussions to the point where it goes beyond pure epistemology. The latter had aimed at investigating only the ‘possible conditions’ of those forms of thought and action which are given in ‘our’ reality. Its cultural and philosophical tendency, namely the impulse to overcome the reified disintegration of the subject and the – likewise reified – rigidity and impenetrability of its objects, emerges here with unmistakable clarity. After describing the influence Hamann had exercised upon his own development, Goethe gives a clear formulation to this aspiration: “Everything which man undertakes to perform, whether by word or deed, must be the product of all his abilities acting in concert; everything isolated is reprehensible.” [54] But with the shift to a fragmented humanity in need of reconstruction (a shift already indicated by the importance of the problem of art), the different meanings assumed by the subjective ‘we’ at the different stages of development can no longer remain concealed. The fact that the problematics have become more conscious, that it is harder to indulge confusions and equivocations than was the case with the concept of nature only makes matters more difficult. The reconstitution of the unity of the subject, the intellectual restoration of man has consciously to take its path through the realm of disintegration and fragmentation. The different forms of fragmentation are so many necessary phases on the road towards a reconstituted man but they dissolve into nothing when they come into a true relation with a grasped totality, i.e. when they become dialectical.

“The antitheses,” Hegel observes, “which used to be expressed in terms of mind and matter, body and soul, faith and reason, freedom and necessity, etc., and were also prominent in a number of more restricted spheres and concentrated all human interests in themselves, became transformed as culture advanced into contrasts between reason and the senses, intelligence and nature and, in its most general form, between absolute subjectivity and absolute objectivity. To transcend such ossified antitheses is the sole concern of reason. This concern does not imply hostility to opposites and restrictions in general; for the necessary course of evolution is one factor of life which advances by opposites: and the totality of life at its most intense is only possible as a new synthesis out of the most absolute separation.” [55] The genesis, the creation of the creator of knowledge, the dissolution of the irrationality of the thing-in-itself, the resurrection of man from his grave, all these issues become concentrated henceforth on the question of dialectical method. For in this method the call for an intuitive understanding (for method to supersede the rationalistic principle of knowledge) is clearly, objectively and scientifically stated. Of course, the history of the dialectical method reaches back deep into the history of rationalistic thought. But the turn it now takes distinguishes it qualitatively from all earlier approaches. (Hegel himself underestimates the importance of this distinction, e.g. in his treatment of Plato.) In all earlier attempts to use dialectics in order to break out of the limits imposed by rationalism there was a failure to connect the dissolution of rigid concepts clearly and firmly to the problem of the logic of the content, to the problem of irrationality.

Hegel in his Phenomenology and Logic was the first to set about the task of consciously recasting all problems of logic by grounding them in the qualitative material nature of their content, in matter in the logical and philosophical sense of the word. [56] This resulted in the establishment of a completely new logic of the concrete concept, the logic of totality – admittedly in a very problematic form which was not seriously continued after him.

Even more original is the fact that the subject is neither the unchanged observer of the objective dialectic of being and concept (as was true of the Eleatic philosophers and even of Plato), nor the practical manipulator of its purely mental possibilities (as with the Greek sophists): the dialectical process, the ending of a rigid confrontation of rigid forms, is enacted essentially between the subject and the object. No doubt, a few isolated earlier dialecticians were not wholly unaware of the different levels of subjectivity that arise in the dialectical process (consider for example the distinction between ‘ratio’ and ‘intellectus’ in the thought of Nicholas of Cusa). But this relativising process only refers to the possibility of different subject-object relations existing simultaneously or with one subordinated to the other, or at best developing dialectically from each other; they do not involve the relativising or the interpenetration of the subject and the object themselves. But only if that were the case, only if “the true [were understood] not only as substance but also as subject”, only if the subject (consciousness, thought) were both producer and product of the dialectical process, only if, as a result the subject moved in a self-created world of which it is the conscious form and only if the world imposed itself upon it in full objectivity, only then can the problem of dialectics, and with it the abolition of the antitheses of subject and object, thought and existence, freedom and necessity, be held to be solved. It might look as if this would take philosophy back to the great system-builders of the beginning of the modern age. The identity, proclaimed by Spinoza, of the order to be found in the realm of ideas with the order obtaining in the realm of things seems to come very close to this point of view. The parallel is all the more plausible (and made a strong impression on the system of the young Schelling) as Spinoza, too, found the basis of this identity in the object, in the substance. Geometric construction is a creative principle that can create only because it represents the factor of self-consciousness in objective reality. But here [in Hegel’s argument] objectivity tends in every respect in the opposite direction to that given it by Spinoza for whom every subjectivity, every particular content and every movement vanishes into nothing before the rigid purity and unity of this substance. If, therefore, it is true that philosophy is searching for an identical order in the realms of ideas and things and that the ground of existence is held to be the first principle, and if it is true also that this identity should serve as an explanation of concreteness and movement, then it is evident that the meaning of substance and order in the realm of things must have undergone a fundamental change.

Classical philosophy did indeed advance to the point of this change in meaning and succeeded in identifying the substance, now appearing for the first time, in which philosophically the underlying order and the connections between things were to be found, namely history. The arguments which go to show that here and here alone is the concrete basis for genesis are extraordinarily diverse and to list them would require almost a complete recapitulation of our analysis up to this point. For in the case of almost every insoluble problem we perceive that the search for a solution leads us to history. On the other hand, we must discuss some of these factors at least briefly for even classical philosophy was not fully conscious of the logical necessity of the link between genesis and history and for social and historical reasons to be spelled out later, it could not become fully conscious of it.

The materialists of the eighteenth century were aware that history is an insuperable barrier to a rationalist theory of knowledge. [57] But in accordance with their own rationalistic dogma they interpreted this as an eternal and indestructible limit to human reason in general. The logical and methodological side of this fallacy can easily be grasped when we reflect that rationalist thought by concerning itself with the formal calculability of the contents of forms made abstract, must define these contents as immutable – within the system of relations obtaining at any given time. The evolution of the real contents, i.e. the problem of history, can only be accommodated by this mode of thought by means of a system of laws which strives to do justice to every foreseeable possibility.

How far this is practicable need not detain us here; what we find significant is the fact that thanks to this conclusion the method itself blocks the way to an understanding both of the quality and the concreteness of the contents and also of their evolution, i.e. of history: it is of the essence of such a law that within its jurisdiction nothing new can happen by definition and a system of such laws which is held to be perfect can indeed reduce the need to correct individual laws but cannot calculate what is novel. (The concept of the ‘source of error’ is just a makeshift to cover up for the fact that for rational knowledge process and novelty have the [unknowable] quality of things-in-themselves.) But if genesis, in the sense given to it in classical philosophy, is to be attained it is necessary to create a basis for it in a logic of contents which change. It is only in history, in the historical process, in the uninterrupted outpouring o f what is qualitatively new that the requisite paradigmatic order can be found in the realm of things. [58]

For as long as this process and this novelty appear merely as an obstacle and not as the simultaneous result, goal and substratum of the method, the concepts – like the objects of reality as it is experienced – must preserve their encapsulated rigidity which only appears to be eliminated by the juxtaposition of other concepts. Only the historical process truly eliminates the-actual-autonomy of the objects and the concepts of objects with their resulting rigidity As Hegel remarks with reference to the relation between body and soul: “Indeed, if both are presumed to be absolutely independent of each other they are as impenetrable for each other as any material is for any other and the presence of one can be granted only in the non-being, in the pores of the other; just as Epicurus assigned to the gods a dwelling place in the pores but was logical enough not to impose upon them any community with the world.” [59] But historical evolution annuls the autonomy of the individual factors. By compelling the knowledge which ostensibly does these factors justice to construct its conceptual system upon content and upon what is qualitatively unique and new in the phenomena, it forces it at the same time to refuse to allow any of these elements to remain at the level of mere concrete uniqueness. Instead, the concrete totality of the historical world, the concrete and total historical process is the only point of view from which understanding becomes possible.

With this point of view the two main strands of the irrationality of the thing-in-itself and the concreteness of the individual content and of totality are given a positive turn and appear as a unity. This signals a change in the relation between theory and practice and between freedom and necessity. The idea that we have made reality loses its more or less fictitious character: we have – in the prophetic words of Vico already cited – made our own history and if we are able to regard the whole of reality as history (i.e. as our history, for there is no other), we shall have raised ourselves in fact to the position from which reality can be understood as our ‘action’. The dilemma of the materialists will have lost its meaning for it stands revealed as a rationalistic prejudice, as a dogma of the formalistic understanding. This had recognised as deeds only those actions which were consciously performed whereas the historical environment we have created, the product of the historical process was regarded as a reality which influences us by virtue of laws alien to us.

Here in our newly-won knowledge where, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, “the true becomes a Bacchantic orgy in which no one escapes being drunk”, reason seems to have lifted the veil concealing the sacred mystery at Saïs and discovers, as in the parable of Novalis, that it is itself the solution to the riddle. But here, we find once again, quite concretely this time, the decisive problem of this line of thought: the problem of the subject of the action, the subject of the genesis. For the unity of subject and object, of thought and existence which the ‘action’ undertook to prove and to exhibit finds both its fulfilment and its substratum in the unity of the genesis of the determinants of thought and of the history of the evolution of reality. But to comprehend this unity it is necessary both to discover the site from which to resolve all these problems and also to exhibit concretely the ‘we’ which is the subject of history, that ‘we’ whose action is in fact history.

However, at this point classical philosophy turned back and lost itself in the endless labyrinth of conceptual mythology. It will be our task in the next section to explain why it was unable to discover this concrete subject of genesis, the methodologically indispensable subject-object. At this stage it is only necessary to indicate what obstacle it encountered as a result of this aberrancy.

Hegel, who is in every respect the pinnacle of this development, also made the most strenuous search for this subject. The ‘we’ that he was able to find is, as is well known, the World Spirit, or rather, its concrete incarnations, the spirits of the individual peoples. Even if we – provisionally – ignore the mythologising and hence abstract character of this subject, it must still not be overlooked that, even if we accept all of Hegel’s assumptions without demur, this subject remains incapable of fulfilling the methodological and systematic function assigned to it, even from Hegel’s own point of view. Even for Hegel, the spirit of a people can be no more than a ‘natural’ determinant of the World Spirit, i.e. one “which strips off its limitation only at a higher moment, namely at the moment when it becomes conscious of its own essence and it possesses its absolute truth only in this recognition and not immediately in its existence.” [60]

From this follows above all that the spirit of a people only seems to be the subject of history, the doer of its deeds: for in fact it is the World Spirit that makes use of that ‘natural character’ of a people which corresponds to the actual requirements and to the idea of the World Spirit and accomplishes its deeds by means of and in spite of the spirit of the people. [61] But in this way the deed becomes something transcendent for the doer himself and the freedom that seems to have been won is transformed unnoticed into that specious freedom to reflect upon laws which themselves govern man, a freedom which in Spinoza a thrown stone would possess if it had consciousness. It is doubtless true that Hegel whose realistic genius neither could nor would disguise the truth about the nature of history as he found it did nevertheless seek to provide an explanation of it in terms of “the ruse of reason”. But it must not be forgotten that “the ruse of reason” can only claim to be more than a myth if authentic reason can be discovered and demonstrated in a truly concrete manner. In that case it becomes a brilliant explanation for stages in history that have not yet become conscious. But these can only be understood and evaluated as stages from a standpoint already achieved by a reason that has discovered itself. At this point Hegel’s philosophy is driven inexorably into the arms of mythology. Having failed to discover the identical subject-object in history it was forced to go out beyond history and, there, to establish the empire of reason which has discovered itself. From that vantage point it became possible to understand history as a mere stage and its evolution in terms of “the ruse of reason”. History is not able to form the living body of the total system: it becomes a part, an aspect of the totality that culminates in the ‘absolute spirit’, in art, religion and philosophy.

But history is much too much the natural, and indeed the uniquely possible life-element of the dialectical method for such an enterprise to succeed. On the one hand, history now intrudes, illogically but inescapably into the structure of those very spheres which according to the system were supposed to lie beyond its range. [62] On the other hand, this inappropriate and inconsistent approach to history deprives history itself of that essence which is so important precisely within the Hegelian system.

For, in the first place, its relation to reason will now appear to be accidental. “When, where and in what form such self-reproductions of reason make their appearance as philosophy is accidental,” Hegel observes in the passage cited earlier concerning the “needs of philosophy”. [63] But in the absence of necessity history relapses into the irrational dependence on the ‘given’ which it had just overcome. And if its relation to the reason that comprehends it is nothing more than that of an irrational content to a more general form for which the concrete hic et nunc, place, time and concrete content are contingent, then reason itself will succumb to all the antinomies of the thing-in-itself characteristic of pre-dialectical methods.

In the second place, the unclarified relation between absolute spirit and history forces Hegel to the assumption, scarcely comprehensible in view of this method, that history has an end and that in his own day and in his own system of philosophy the consummation and the truth of all his predecessors are to be found. This necessarily means that even in the more mundane and properly historical spheres, history must find its fulfilment in the restored Prussian state.

In the third place, genesis, detached from history, passes through its own development from logic through nature to spirit. But as the historicity of all categories and their movements intrudes decisively into the dialectical method and as dialectical genesis and history necessarily belong together objectively and only go their separate ways because classical philosophy was unable to complete its programme, this process which had been designed to be suprahistorical, inevitably exhibits a historical structure at every point. And since the method, having become abstract and contemplative, now as a result falsifies and does violence to history, it follows that history will gain its revenge and violate the method which has failed to integrate it, tearing it to pieces. (Consider in this context the transition from the logic to the philosophy of nature.)

In consequence, as Marx has emphasised in his criticism of Hegel, the demiurgic role of the ‘spirit’ and the ‘idea’ enters the realm of conceptual mythology.” [64] Once again – and from the standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy itself – it must be stated that the demiurge only seems to make history. But this semblance is enough to dissipate wholly the attempt of the classical philosophers to break out of the limits imposed on formal and rationalistic (bourgeois, reified) thought and thereby to restore a humanity destroyed by that reification. Thought relapses into the contemplative duality of subject and object. [65]

Classical philosophy did, it is true, take all the antinomies of its life-basis to the furthest extreme it was capable of in thought; it conferred on them the highest possible intellectual expression. But even for this philosophy they remain unsolved and insoluble. Thus classical philosophy finds itself historically in the paradoxical position that it was concerned to find a philosophy that would mean the end of bourgeois society, and to resurrect in thought a humanity destroyed in that society and by it. In the upshot, however, it did not manage to do more than provide a complete intellectual copy and the a priori deduction of bourgeois society. It is only the manner of this deduction, namely the dialectical method that points beyond bourgeois society. And even in classical philosophy this is only expressed in the form of an unsolved and insoluble antinomy. This antinomy is admittedly the most profound and the most magnificent intellectual expression of those antinomies which lie at the roots of bourgeois society and which are unceasingly produced and reproduced by it – albeit in confused and inferior forms. Hence classical philosophy had nothing but these unresolved antinomies to bequeath to succeeding (bourgeois) generations. The continuation of that course which at least in method started to point the way beyond these limits, namely the dialectical method as the true historical method was reserved for the class which was able to discover within itself on the basis of its life-experience the identical subject-object, the subject of action; the ‘we’ of the genesis: namely the proletariat.


next section


36 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in S.W. II, p. 336.

37 E.g. the Phenomenology of Mind, Preface, Werke II, p. 20; and also ibid., pp. 67-8, 451, etc.

38 Marx employs this terminology in the important, oft-quoted passage about the proletariat (it is to be found in these pages too). The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 195. For this whole question, see also the relevant passages in the Logik, especially in Vol. III, pp. 127 et. seq., 166 et seq., and Vol. IV, pp. 120 et seq., and see also the critique of Kant in a number of places.

39 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 208 et seq.

40 Nachlass I, p. 449. [An Outline of a Critique of National Economy].

41 Capital I, p. 592, etc. Cf. also the essay on "Class Consciousness" for the question of the 'false consciousness' of the bourgeoisie.

42 It is this that provokes repeated attacks from Hegel. But in addition Goethe's rejection of the Kantian ethic points in the same direction although Goethe's motives and hence his terminology are different. That Kant's ethics is faced with the task of solving the problem of the thing-in-itself can be seen in innumerable places, e.g. the Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitien, Philosophische Bibliothek, p. 87; Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, p. 123.

43 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 77.

44 Cf. also the essay "The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg" on the question of the methodological interrelatedness of these two principles.

45 Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus, pp. 54 et seq., 122 et seq. How near Holbach and Helvetius came to the problem of the thing-in-itself - admittedly in a more naive form - can likewise be seen there on pp. 9, 51, etc.

46 The history of the stories 5 la Robinson cannot be undertaken here. I refer the reader to Marx's comments (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 266 et seq., and to Cassirer's subtle remarks about the role of Robinson Crusoe in Hobbes' epistemology. Op. cit. II, pp. 61 et seq.

47 On this point cf. especially Die Kritik der Urteilskraft § 42. Via Schiller the illustration of the real and the imitated nightingale strongly influenced later thinkers. It would be of absorbing interest to follow through the historical development leading from German Romanticism via the historical school of law, Carlyle, Ruskin, etc., in the course of which the concept of 'organic growth' was converted from a protest against reification into an increasingly reactionary slogan. To do so, however, would be outside the scope of this work. Here it is only the structure of the objects that need concern us: namely the fact that what would seem to be the highpoint of the interiorisation of nature really implies the abandonment of any true understanding of it. To make moods [Stimmung] into the content presupposes the existence of unpenetrated and impenetrable objects (things-in-themselves) just as much as do the laws of nature.

48 Das System der Sittenlehre, 3. Hauptstück, § 31, Werke II, p. 747. It would be both interesting and rewarding to show how the so rarely understood Nature philosophy of the classical epoch necessarily springs from this state of affairs. It is not by chance that Goethe's Nature philosophy arose in the course of a conflict with Newton's 'violation' of nature. Nor was it an accident that it set the pattern for all later developments. But both phenomena can only be understood in terms of the relation between man, nature and art. This also explains the methodological return to the qualitative Nature philosophy of the Renaissance as being the first assault upon a mathematical conception of nature.

49 Die Kritik der Urteilskraft, § 77.

50 On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 15th Letter.

51 Die Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems, Werke I, p. 174.

52 It is in his opposition to this that we can locate the substantive core in Schelling's later philosophy. However, his mythologising approach now became wholly reactionary. Hegel represents - as we shall show - the absolute consummation of rationalism, but this means that he can be superseded only by an interrelation of thought and existence that has ceased to be contemplative, by the concrete demonstration of the identical subject-object. Schelling made the absurd attempt to achieve this by going in the reverse direction and so to reach a purely intellectual solution. He thus ended up, like all the epigones of classical philosophy, in a reactionary mythology that glorified an empty irrationality.

53 It is not possible to examine the question in detail here, but I should like to point out that this is the point at which to begin an analysis of the problematics of Romanticism. Familiar, but seldom understood concepts, such as 'irony' spring from this situation. In particular the incisive questions posed by Solger who has wrongly been allowed to slide into oblivion, place him together with Friedrich Schlegel as a pioneer of the dialectical method between Schelling and Hegel, a position in some ways comparable to that occupied by Maimon in between Kant and Fichte. The role of mythology in Schelling's aesthetics becomes clearer with this in mind. There is an obvious connection between such problems and the conception of nature as a mood. The truly critical, metaphysically non-hypostatised, artistic view of the world leads to an even greater fragmentation of the unity of the subject and thus to an increase in the symptoms of alienation; this has been borne out by the later evolution of consistently modern views of art (Flaubert, Konrad Fiedler, etc.) On this point cf. my essay, Die Subjekt-Objekt-Beziehung in der Asthetik, Logos, jahrgang iv.

54 Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book 12. The subterranean influence of Hamann is much greater than is usually supposed.

55 Werke I, pp. 173-4. The Phenomenology is an attempt - unsurpassed hitherto, even by Hegel - to develop such a method.

56 Lask, the most ingenious and logical of the modern Neo-Kantians, clearly perceives this development in Hegel's Logic. "In this respect, too, the critic must admit that Hegel is in the right: irrationality can be overcome if and only if dialectically changing concepts are acceptable." Fichtes Idealismus und die Geschichte, p. 67.

57 Cf. Plekhanov, op. cit., pp. 9, 51, etc. But methodologically only formalistic rationalism is confronted by an insoluble problem at this point. Setting aside the substantive scientific value of medieval solutions to these questions, it is indubitable that the Middle Ages did not see any problem here, let alone an insoluble one. We may compare Holbach's statement, quoted by Plekhanov, that we cannot know "whether the chicken preceded the egg, or the egg the chicken" with e.g. the statement of Master Eckhard, "Nature makes the man from the child and the chicken from the egg; God makes the man before the child and the chicken before the egg" (Sermon of the noble man). Needless to say, we are here concerned exclusively with the contrast in methodology. On the basis of this methodological limitation as the result of which history is made to appear as a thing-in-itself, Plekhanov has rightly judged these materialists to be naive idealists in their approach to history. Zu Hegels 60. Todestag, Neue Zeit X. 1. 273.

58 Here too we can do no more than refer in passing to the history of this problem. The opposed positions were clearly established very early on. I would point to e.g. Friedrich Schlegel's critique of Condorcet's attempt (1 795) to provide a rationalist explanation of history (as it were, of the type of Comte or Spencer). " The enduring qualities of man are the subject of pure science, but the changing aspects of man, both as an individual and in the mass, are the subject of a scientific history of mankind." Prosaische jugendschriften, Vienna, 1906. Vol. II, p. 52.

59 Die Encyclopädie, § 309. For us, of course, only the methodological aspect has any significance. Nevertheless, we must emphasise that all formal, rationalist concepts exhibit this same reified impenetrability. The modern substitution of functions for things does not alter this situation in the least, as concepts of function do not at all differ from thing-concepts in the only area that matters, i.e. the form-content relationship. On the contrary, they take their formal, rationalist structure to its extreme logical conclusion.

60 Hegel, Werke II, p. 267.

61 Die Philosophie des Rechts, § 345-7. Encyclopädie, § 548-52.

62 In the last versions of the system history represents the transition from the philosophy of right to the absolute spirit. (In the Phenomenology the relation is more complex but methodologically just as ambiguous and undefined.) 'Absolute spirit' is the truth of the preceding moment, of history and therefore, in accordance with Hegel's logic, it would have to have annulled and preserved history within itself. However, in the dialectical method history cannot be so transcended and this is the message at the end of Hegel's Philosophy of History where at the climax of the system, at the moment where the 'absolute spirit' realises itself, history makes its reappearance and points beyond philosophy in its turn: "That the determinants of thought had this importance is a further insight that does not belong within the history of philosophy. These concepts are the simplest revelation of the spirit of the world: this in its most concrete form is history." Werke XV, p. 618.

63 Werke 1, p. 174. Needless to say, Fichte places an even heavier emphasis on chance.

64 Cf. the essay "What is orthodox Marxism?"

65 With this the Logic itself becomes problematic. Hegel's postulate that the concept is "reconstituted being" (Werke V, 30) is only possible on the assumption of the real creation of the identical subject-object. A failure at this point means that the concept acquires a Kantian, idealistic emphasis which is in conflict with its dialectical function. To show this in detail would be well beyond the scope of this study.