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It may be worth noting that Guelzo is chiefly an historian of the American Civil War and the author of many prizewinning books, including a biography of the confederate general Robert E. Lee. At Princeton he directs the Initiative in Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Surely no one should fault Guelzo if his expertise as a historian of the Civil War and his many prizes do not equip him with a deep and detailed understanding of modern European philosophy. Still, for those who take seriously the conceptual inheritances of the philosophical tradition, it was remarkable to learn from this accomplished scholar that the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century (Marxism and Nazism, to be specific) found their early justification in Kant’s concept of critique.
The claim is so lacking in credibility that correctives may seem unnecessary. When I first alerted some of my philosophy colleagues to this editorial, their only response was a sigh of dismay and the suggestion that we turn our energies to more pressing matters. Perhaps they were right; skirmishes like this one seldom end happily, and typically produce more heat than light. All the same, the circulation of such claims should arouse our concern. We are living in a time of enhanced political disinformation when conspiracy theories of every kind seem to be flourishing as never before, and those who are drawn to them often adopt the strategy of exposing what they take to be a hidden or previously unknown historical lineage that connects our current politics to a secret past.
Among the myths that now circulate with astonishing popularity is the one that alludes to dark forces on the left conspiring to destroy America; it is a common theme that academic movements such as critical race theory are the offspring of a cabal of foreign-born intellectuals from Germany who first promoted critical theory, or what its detractors now call “cultural Marxism.” In a podcast that bears the elegant name, “What the Hell Is Going On?” Guelzo explained that “critical theory has a very long trail [sic],” and that its origins are to be found in “a reaction against the Enlightenment.” Such inventive tales weave together half-truths with outright falsehood, but they have enjoyed such a strong resurgence in recent years that it seems important to confront them directly.
The idea of critique plays a key role in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (first published in 1781), where it designates reason’s capacity for self-reflection. The human mind, Kant says, consists in two basic faculties: one that is receptive, another that is active. The receptive faculty (sensibility) opens itself to what is intuited or sensually given; the active faculty (understanding) subsumes what is given under universal concepts or categories. It was the primary lesson of Kant’s Critique that genuine knowledge consists in the union between these two basic faculties, neither of which on its own can yield knowledge. As he put it: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”
As a partisan of Newtonian science, Kant meant to demonstrate that our claims to empirical knowledge of the surrounding physical world are justified: a “critique” in this sense was meant to serve as a justification of reason’s claim to knowledge. As a partisan of the Enlightenment, however, Kant also believed that certain dogmatic claims to metaphysical knowledge (of God, or the immortal soul) could not be justified since they lie beyond the bounds of all possible experience. It followed that the very principles that underwrite human reason’s knowledge of the empirical world also disable it from knowledge of the realm that lies beyond our senses. In Kant’s technical language, we can think of God or the immortal soul, but we cannot know them. The twofold meaning of critique — as marking both the rightful claims and the limits of our knowledge — is captured in the ambiguity of the book’s title: A critique of pure reason means, simultaneously, a critique performed by reason but also a critique that is directed at reason and scrutinizes its claims to knowledge. This is reason’s principle of self-reflexivity. It acknowledges no authority higher than itself.
Among the myths that now circulate with astonishing popularity is the one that alludes to dark forces on the left conspiring to destroy America.
Seen in this light, we can understand why it is highly misleading to suggest that Kant’s concept of critique could imply anything as drastic as a rejection of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, Kant saw himself as honoring the Enlightenment’s highest ideals, not only in his theory of knowledge and in his defense of Newtonian science, but also in his moral and political philosophy. He embraced without embarrassment the cardinal principle of the Enlightenment as an emancipatory project that subjects all norms and institutions to rational criticism. In his political philosophy, the principle of reason’s self-reflexivity was transformed into a social practice: Reason was no longer simply a faculty of the individual mind, it was understood as a medium of public argumentation that serves as the final arbiter of legitimacy. “Our age,” Kant wrote,
is the genuine age of critique to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.
When we respond to the skeptics, the critic’s chief task is to explain that critique implies arguments, and that in the end arguments must be based on reasons. The world as we find it does not deserve our assent merely because that is the way it is arranged. This principle, which derives mostly from Kant, retains its validity even now. It is not enough, however, to declare that one opposes a certain state of affairs simply because one feels in one’s gut that it is wrong. If we believe that a current situation is objectionable, we must be able to explain why we object. This appeal to rational criteria (a word that derives, like critique, from the Greek term for “to decide”) is what distinguishes Kant as a founder of the critical tradition in philosophy. It was his view that only that which has passed “the test of a free and public examination” — that is, only that which can withstand critique — deserves our respect.
This basic principle drives a strong wedge between is and ought, between the way things are and the way they should be. No social institution or moral insight, not even the most venerable norms that we may have considered beyond scrutiny or challenge, should count for us as normatively valid simply because they have endured. To be sure, this means that critique carries with it a spirit that is essentially hostile to traditionalism, and this may be one reason why political and moral conservatives have discerned in Kant’s philosophy a principle of universalism they cannot endorse.
This principle, however, did not die with Kant. It survived well into the 19th century, and it retained enough of its original force that even the young Karl Marx (in an 1843 letter to his friend Arnold Ruge) conceived of his task as “the ruthless critique of all that exists.” Granted, Marx was not satisfied with mere criticism. He gave his essay on the “Holy Family” of left-Hegelian philosophers a satirical subtitle, “Critique of Critical Critique,” to mock their belief that critique alone could set us free. But he never abandoned his view that criticism, though not sufficient, is nonetheless a necessary condition for transforming society.
No less essential to this concept of criticism was the view that the norms we wish to realize are in some sense already available to us in the social order we now inhabit. Like Hegel before him, Marx believed that critique cannot proceed if it imposes on the world an abstract “ought,” or normative demand, that is wholly exotic to the world we mean to change. Following the Hegelian method of immanent critique, Marx insisted that our current society is shot through with contradiction and that we can only gain critical leverage against current injustice by mobilizing values that are already latent in our current order. As he explained to Ruge: “We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles.”
It is true that the work of the Frankfurt School occasionally lapses into despair, but the view that they wholly broke their bond with the Enlightenment is based on caricature. A careful reading would show that they were no less faithful in their commitment to rational criticism than was Kant himself. Even in the preface to their 1947 book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, a work that expresses their bleakest verdict on reason’s betrayal of its emancipatory ideals, Horkheimer and Adorno nonetheless say that “freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking.” Elsewhere they claim that Kant’s concept of reason is animated by “the utopia which is contained in every great philosophy,” namely, “the utopia of a humanity which, itself no longer distorted, no longer needs distortion.” This hardly expresses a rejection of the Enlightenment.
Nor is this an isolated case. In his 1958 lecture course in Frankfurt, “Introduction to Dialectics,” Adorno takes care to explain that the critique of the enlightenment can proceed only if it honors its own rational standards. He insists that “we must constantly recognize the dialectic of enlightenment,” in the sense that we should acknowledge “all the sacrifice and injustice which the Enlightenment has brought in its course.” But this means that we must acknowledge these liabilities as reflecting moments when the Enlightenment has betrayed its own promise, revealing itself as “still partial, as actually not yet enlightened enough.” Rather than issuing a wholly negative verdict on the Enlightenment, Adorno insists that “it is only by pursuing the Enlightenment’s own principle through to its end that these wounds may perhaps be healed.”
If such statements have grown unfamiliar to us today, this is chiefly because the image of Frankfurt School critical theory has been reduced to a series of popular clichés that have little to do with its actual arguments. The challenge of reading beyond those clichés is made all the more difficult today because the name of “critical theory” has assumed a far more capacious meaning that attaches to various social theorists and philosophers who had no association with the community of scholars who first assembled a century ago at the Institute for Social Research, in Frankfurt. Walk into an academic bookstore today and you might confront a wall of books that are classified as critical theory, including works by Nietzsche and Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. To specify what distinguishes the Frankfurt tradition of critical theory from these other theorists is no simple task, but I wish to suggest that perhaps the most relevant feature is a persistent commitment to the principle of rational critique — a principle that descends from Kant.
This claim may come as a surprise to readers who are already familiar with the Frankfurt school of critical theory; but let me suggest that familiarity has not been altogether kind to their actual legacy. Some further remarks about Adorno will help to explain what I mean. The practice of rational social critique takes as its point of departure the basic insight that the present world is not as it should be. But one cannot stay fixed at this rudimentary claim. It is not enough simply to announce that one finds social reality objectionable, as if one were a child rejecting the food that is placed before him. The social critic needs to move beyond a primitive sense of dissatisfaction to specify in what respects social reality is deficient and what expectations it has failed.
But this is only possible if the critic somehow withdraws her consent from conditions as they are given. Adorno once described this gesture as “self-detachment from the weight of the factual [von der Schwere des Fakischen sich Loslösens].” In effecting this withdrawal, however, the critic cannot imagine that she can ever fully unbind herself from the social world she inhabits, since there is no alternative world of pure ideals to which she can retreat. What self-detachment really amounts to is little more than a critical judgement that the surrounding world has failed to realize its own ideals. Critique does not offer a privileged vantage from the outside — it is a practice that is internal or immanent to our social reality. Critique must therefore be immanent critique, or it is not critique at all.
The critic is thus immediately drawn to the task of identifying alternative sources of insight and normative demands that are immanent to our own social reality. Other social critics, such as Foucault, are happy to abjure this task, since they do not feel obligated to explain why one social arrangement is any better than another. They feel it should suffice if they merely show us through thick description what our world is like, and they are willing to outsource the task of criticism to the readers, who presumably bring with them the normative commitments that they require if they wish to explain why they find a current state of affairs intolerable. It is worth noting, however, that Foucault did not think of himself as a conventional philosopher, so it is not altogether surprising that he left this normative task to others.
In a 1978 lecture, “What is Critique?,” Foucault defined “l’attitude critique” as “not accepting as true what an authority tells you to be true.” This is a laudable ideal, and a genuine sign of his debts to Kant, except that Foucault did not set forth criteria by which to determine whether an authority’s words are true or false. Instead, he tended to see all truth as constituted through regimes of power, ignoring the question of why some of those regimes might be deemed more objectionable than others. The difficulty is that one might easily conclude from his descriptions that our current world offers us not even the slightest glimpse of a better alternative, or a standard by which we can justify our objections to the way it is now. But a social critic who no longer believes in the practice of rational justification has no other recourse than to admit that no meaningful objections can be raised against conditions as they are given. In fact, in his 1978 lecture Foucault is fairly explicit in stating that he wishes to detach the practice of critique from the norms of rationality that derive from the Enlightenment. This is tantamount to surrendering the task of critique altogether.
It is here, however, that Adorno confronts a more-serious challenge. Given the overwhelming weight of the given, it may seem nearly impossible to understand how we could ever hope to discover such principles and use them as points of leverage against our surroundings. The skeptic will say the world as we found it is simply too powerful and that, even if we could identify principles that conflict with the current order, they would be far too weak to serve as reliable guides.
Adorno recognized the force of this objection. He was ready to admit that in a damaged world, the sources of normativity that are available to us for the practice of rational criticism are likewise damaged and uncertain. For “any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold binding, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.” He thus admitted that we possess no knowledge of the absolutely good. The philosophical challenge, however, is that he did not wish to permit the absence of absolute or undamaged standards to serve as a warrant for thoroughgoing skepticism. He held fast to the promise of human flourishing and freedom, even if little in our experience can possibly equip us with the absolute certainty that this promise will be realized. In his 1963 lectures on moral philosophy, Adorno made just this point: “something like the right life [ein richtiges Leben] is not conceivable unless you hold fast to both conscience and responsibility. […] We need to hold fast to the normative [an dem Normativen], to self-criticism, to the question of right and wrong, and at the same time to a sense of the fallibility of the authority that has the confidence to undertake such self-criticism.”
Notice that Adorno does not imply that self-criticism equips us with absolutely certain standards of what is right and what is wrong. Much like Kant, he sees reason as a self-reflexive practice that orients us toward the improvement of our situation, even while he recognizes our fallibility and accepts that we do not know precisely what such improvement would consist in. But he does not surrender the basic presupposition that we practice critique with the aim of revealing contradictions between how the world is and how it should be. It will not surprise us to discover that in a radio broadcast from late May 1969, Adorno restated Kant’s principle of publicity, namely, that “critique is essential to democracy.”
All of this brings me back to the rather striking suggestion that “critique” is somehow inimical to the Enlightenment and that those who embrace critique are against reason. The case is precisely the opposite. Critique is not against reason; it is the very practice of reason. More to the point, those of us who wish to claim that society has not honored its own standards are practicing a species of social criticism that we owe to the Enlightenment, when philosophers such as Kant insisted that the purpose of critique is to alert us to the persistence of worldly conditions that do not satisfy our moral and political requirements. In fact, when we practice critique we demonstrate that we are already committed to a norm of mundane reason. As Kant argued, critique can only proceed on the basis of reasons that we submit to “a free and public examination.” This is not a principle we can easily evade, since it belongs to the very logic of social action that we intervene in the nexus of human affairs with what we take to be good reasons, reasons which we could defend if asked to do so.
The lesson we should take away from these reflections is quite straightforward: Critique is hardly an unfamiliar practice. It is simply the name we give to an everyday habit of human reasoning when we seek to expose the gap between is and ought, by calling attention to normative standards that the world has failed. Critique, if it is defensible at all, cannot help but appeal to such normative standards. This was already the case in the time of Kant, when he insisted that all government policies, including those of the crown, must submit to the tribunal of public reason. It was no less the case in the 19th century, when Marx applied the method of critique to identify a form of economic exploitation that persists in bourgeois society even when we uphold the formal principle of equality before the law. And it remains the case today, when critical theorists and critical race theorists alike seek to show us how structures of inequality and exclusion still distort our social relations and inhibit us from realizing our highest moral and political ideals.
Portions of this essay are drawn from A Precarious Happiness: Adorno and the Sources of Normativity (now available in German from Suhrkamp Verlag and in English from the University of Chicago Press).