Hasana Sharp


Despite the formidable epistemological system that Immanuel Kant spent many years constructing in the Critique of Pure Reason, Georg Luk‡cs asserts that Kant got it all backwards. According to Luk‡cs ’s reading of Marx, our knowledge of and relationship to the external world does not come from a system of rules and categories proper to the subject, as Kant would have it, but rather our consciousness is an effect of our class position or relationship to the capitalist mode of production. Consciousness, what one contemplates and thinks oneself to know, depends upon the society, economic conditions and historical situation in which an individual resides. This paper explores Luk‡cs’s important critique of Kant’s philosophy as an epiphenomena of its historical conjuncture and class determined consciousness, but endeavors to think simultaneously the reciprocal determinacy of social relations enacted by Kant’s work and its subsequent institutionalization in the university. Luk‡cs’s critique of Kant in History and Class Consciousness demonstrates persuasively that philosophy does not lie in the isolated realm of genius uncontaminated by material conditions, but rather is firmly implicated in the social relations in which it was produced. Philosophy, in this sense, is always necessarily a partial and historically situated activity. Luk‡cs performs a Marxist intervention into philosophy robbing it of its objective and neutral status. In other words, Luk‡cs objects to the very project essential to Kant: that is, the establishment of philosophy and reason as an indispensable verifiable science. While his objection and analysis enacts a provocative and productive encounter between Kant and Marx, Luk‡cs does not think the materiality or the force of Kant’s work or doctrine of rationality. Luk‡cs, for example, does not consider the material institutionalization of the practice of the critique of pure reason in the form of the university.

Kant goes to great lengths to account for conditions of possibility for experience, more specifically to characterize relations between humans and things-in-themselves, subject and object, the inside and the outside. Georg Luk‡cs concerns himself with ascertaining the material conditions of possibility for Kant’s writing and thinking, what he calls Kant’s (bourgeois) consciousness.

Luk‡cs, in History and Class Consciousness, describes the project of rationalism in general as the production 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.

For Luk‡cs, Kant serves as the prime example of this mode of philosophical production, and reads Kant as a manifestation of the material conditions of existence during the time in which he wrote. The architectonic, the magnificent edifice that Kant constructs, mirrors the alienated, reified and abstracted condition of humanity produced by capital, or more specifically the infrastructure productive of eighteenth century bourgeois experience. Kant’s description of the function of the understanding as that which predicts, calculates and controls phenomena, rather than describing the objective status of the categories, more accurately characterizes, for Luk‡cs, the function of capitalism. Capitalism—most importantly in Luk‡cs’s critique, the saturation of life with commodity relations—renders necessary an exigency of calculation, accounting for time and value (which in Kant sometimes takes on the language of moral worth, or moral debt), prediction (for the determination of currency), and control of subjects or laborers. This exigency of capitalism becomes naturalized, normalized, abstracted from history, individuals and material reality, and rendered universal and necessary in Kant’s philosophy.

This paper will not pretend to articulate Luk‡cs’s critique for all of Kant’s work, but rather describe some of the tensions and innovations constitutive of Kant’s notion of objects, what Robin May Schott calls Kant’s fetishism of objectivity, as well as the effects of the claim that Kant is a manifestation of his historical conjuncture. Along with Lucien Goldmann, Schott argues that

Kant’s stature in the history of philosophy attests to the proximity of his views to the experience of bourgeois individuals ... [his] views about knowledge appear to be selfevident because he has systematized the ‘necessary conditions’ of experience in a society characterized by commodity relations.

Luk‡cs does not quite make the same claims about Kant’s embrace by philosophy, yet he does suggest that Kant’s systematization of formal laws of both knowledge and ethics reflects the laws regulating commodity exchange which produce the reified consciousness he finds dehumanizing and objectionable.


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