The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought – Georg Lukacs

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”. 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. 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 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. 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”, 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, 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.” 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.” 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. 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’.

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