No Man’s Land

Reading Kant historically

RP 110 () / Article

In 1784 Kant published an essay for a journal that represented the public face of an Enlightenment secret society of senior officials in the administration of Frederick II. In the forty-fourth year of Frederickʼs reign it was necessary to plan for the succession and to ensure as far as possible the irreversibility of the achievements of the Enlightenment. The achievements of the Enlightenment, as well as the officials that promoted them, were under threat from the obscurantist religious views of Frederickʼs heir, who indeed would attempt to reverse the Enlightenment after his succession to the throne in 1786. In the last years of Frederickʼs reign it was deemed necessary to make an extra effort to strengthen the presence of the Enlightenment in the culture of Prussia and the institutions of the Prussian state. In this the promoters of secret society and journal were prescient, since less than a decade after the publication of his essay Kantʼs work would be subjected to direct censorship and Kant himself threatened with ʻunpleasant measuresʼ for ʻcontinued obstinacyʼ.

Readers of Manfred Kuehnʼs biography* will learn little about this political background to the publication of ʻAn Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?ʼ The journal in question, the Berlinische Monatsschrift, is treated as if it were a neutral medium, even though Kuehn informs us en passant that it had ʻclose ties with freemasonryʼ, had to cease publishing in Berlin in 1792 because of political pressure, and its editor, Johann Biester, was subject to police harassment. The omission of a critical discussion of the context of one of Kantʼs most celebrated essays is consistent with the generally uncritical approach to Kantʼs life and thought that characterizes this new biography. While Kuehnʼs biography is invaluable for its summary in English of the results of the research of Rudolf Malter and Werner Stark, as well as the use it makes of the published letters and works of Kantʼs Königsberg contemporaries Theodor Gottlieb Hippel and Johann Georg Hamann, it does not succeed in situating Kantʼs life and thought within the political and cultural conditions that made it possible.

In ʻAn Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?ʼ Kant makes several references to the relationship between the life of a thinker, the institutions and structures in which they have to work and the way in which their thought can exceed these structural limits. The essay emphasizes the difficulty facing a ʻsingle individualʼ who has to ʻwork themselves out of a life under tutelageʼ and pays homage to the efforts of the enlightened officials and guardians behind the Berlinische Monatsschrift who try, probably in vain, to enable others to do so. The cryptic comments on the life of a thinker in an inhospitable political climate at the beginning of the essay are inseparable from Kantʼs distinction towards the end between living in an ʻenlightened ageʼ and living in the ʻage of enlightenmentʼ. Just as the individual thinker must work their way out of tutelage, so too must reason itself, a reference to the historicity of thought that is summed up in the term criticism. Yet Kant quickly adds that the ʻage of enlightenmentʼ is also the ʻcentury of Frederickʼ, with its institutional structures underpinned by an omnipresent ʻwell disciplined army to ensure public orderʼ: these structures both made possible and set the limits to the free exercise of criticism, and through it the development of reason.

The movement between confinement and freedom of thought characterizes Adornoʼs method of reading Kantʼs Critique of Pure Reason in his lectures from 1959.** In the sixteenth lecture he refers to a procedure of reading ʻthat places far greater emphasis on the ruptures, the immanent antinomies of [Kantʼs] thinkingʼ; for Adorno these ʻconstitute the Kantian philosophyʼ. The seemingly casual emphasis on constitution refers to Adornoʼs complication of the relation of constituens and constitutum in the previous lecture, which would suggest that the ruptures and antinomies that constitute Kantʼs philosophy are themselves constituted by its existence ʻwithin timeʼ. Thus Adorno provocatively describes Kantʼs philosophy as ʻnothing more than a form of stammeringʼ or ʻa form of Dadaʼ, indulging in a pedagogical exaggeration that is in fact belied by most of the lectures. On the whole, the Kant summoned forth by Adorno is peculiarly suspended between Hegelian and Husserlian phenomenology, with the intentional relation of constituens and constitutum that is detected at work in the moments of rupture being described in terms of Hegelian mediation. This movement allows Adorno to escape the ʻBaedekerʼ or tourist-guide view of Kant that ʻthere is no world without a transcendental subjectʼ (Lecture Fourteen), but does produce some idiosyncratic results.

Perhaps the most refreshing peculiarity of Adornoʼs reading of the Critique of Pure Reason is its structure: contrary to almost every other reading, it ends rather than begins with the Transcendental Aesthetic. This may have been due to his experience of not getting beyond the Transcendental Aesthetic in his lectures of 1954, but more probably respects a deliberate decision to organize the reading of the critique around the question of formal and transcendental logic. Adornoʼs reading accordingly opens with the moment of excess implied in the synthetic a priori judgement and moves from there towards questions of logic and metaphysics, only arriving in lectures eleven and twelve at the deduction and schematism.

The unconventional structure of the lectures is intended to emphasize the speculative moments of the Critique that disrupt its otherwise orderly juridical and economic procedures of argument and proof. Yet Adornoʼs improvised confrontation with Kantʼs text produces a number of strange ruptures and breaks in its own act of commentary. A peculiar feature of Adornoʼs style in these lectures is the extensive mobilization of a metaphoric structure indebted to the description of warfare. Even while alerting his students to the unconscious of a text revealed in its metaphors, Adorno extends Kantʼs simile between metaphysics and a battlefield into a description of the transcendental as a ʻno manʼs landʼ between psychology and logic. What is more, Adornoʼs ʻno mans landʼ is a terrain characterized by ʻconstant frictionʼ, where analysis makes a ʻforward marchʼ and criticism ʻdrives a trenchʼ. The ruined philosophical landscape that for Adorno is the Critique of Pure Reason is one which bears the scars of conflicts that presided over its birth and that continue to shape its afterlife.

One of these conflicts is evident throughout the lectures in Adornoʼs insistent attempt to lay the ghost of the ontological reading of the Critique. The focus of the early lectures on the ʻno manʼs landʼ of logic and psychology and the forthright rejection of Heidegger and his reading of Kant combines with a critique of Kantʼs attempt to ʻsalvage ontologyʼ. While Adorno insists that the Rettung of ontology is the ʻthrust of Kantʼs philosophy as a wholeʼ, he nevertheless sees this attempt to preserve ʻspiritual realitiesʼ that are ʻvalid for all timeʼ as an alleviation of an insight into the finitude of thought. Whether this is as far from Heidegger as Adorno wished his 1959 listeners to believe is open to doubt. What it entailed was an insistence on Adornoʼs part upon a view of the historicity of thought that would be more concrete and historically specific than that of Heidegger.


* Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001. 544 pp., £24.95 hb., 0 521 49704 3.

** Theodor W. Adorno, Kantʼs Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001. 300 pp., £50.00 hb., £15.99 pb., 0 7456 2183 X hb., 0 7456 2845 1 pb.