In my reading I have chosen this very strange claim located inside and almost at the very beginning of the Preface of Karatani’s book Transcritique as the basic interpretative method of reading that entire work, by positing it as a necessary presupposition held by the author in order for him to even be able to launch the very project of Transcritique as a form of reading Kant via Marx and vice versa.
So what specifically can and does this precise negative claim even mean in its concrete sense?
Here we can find Karatani using the specifically Marxian term which, when understood inside the field of philosophy without a doubt relates to the name of Marx and the technical lexicon as it is specifically employed in Marx’s writing and later also by Marxist followers, following the entire logic of either someone determined as a bourgeois, or as proletarian, a simple application of the two terms which are by the very function of their use very directly, without any sort of mediation, employed in a relation to one of the most crucial and central concepts ever developed by Marx in his writing, the idea of class struggle as it appears in every society, a very specific concept the understanding of which is in a meta-reflexive way itself a matter of a profound interpretative struggle.
Let us just briefly remember via a detour at this point and point out the recent vulgarity of a very reductionist reading on the entire meaning of the concept of class struggle by the alt-right ideologist Jordan Peterson in the so-called “debate of the century” he had staged with Slavoj Žižek in Toronto, together with the curious fact that Žižek chose to not in any way respond to that precise provocation and attack made by Peterson against him, occurring already at the very beginning of the debate, although Žižek’s readership knows beyond any doubt that he not only has an understanding of class struggle within his theoretical work, but that his own very specific interpretation of the term is by itself quite radical, a variation and elabpration of it that has a lot of many different important consequences in philosophy already in its own right.
But don’t we risk the entire concept of class struggle in some way becoming completely nonsensical in itself through this very direct literal application to of it onto Kant as a person through the very procedure of Karatani’s very specific claim that “Kant was not a bourgeois philosopher!”?
This is what this text attempts to question. So what exactly does happen when we apply the logic of class struggle on an object of inquiry I hereby designate as “Kant as a name?“
“Kant as a name”: Two Variations on the Concept
A proper singular name designating “Kant the individual”.
A very specific person named Immanuel Kant undeniably did live in a certain social context in a defined historical moment, where there were of course also precise class differences at work in that society. So his own social position, thought and action, was surely in some way correlated to and determined by all of those specific class differences, something which can actually be found out through a concrete historical analysis of him as a concrete individual — and here we can quite easily see the Marxist term historical materialism somehow suddenly appearing in the middle of discussion, as if purposefully crashing a party uninvited — an analysis of him as a specific case of a singular personality which thus bears a certain character, a unique persona, a particular psychological profile of a man, the entire attempt to pinpoint the specificity of his personal identity and it’s specific features…
The very sole factional accuracy of the description of him being a white European male being put forward bstween the lines, the underlying echo of the claim that this designation is then the ultimate proof of the false nature of the entire conception of universal validity of his work, a way in which this procedure supposedly undermines universality from within, supposedly proving that every form of this notion of universality is thus a form of false universality, especially when applied to the ultimate figure of Enlightenment thinking himself.
By taking some biographical developments during the course of his life as an interpretative procedure and the main guideline of analysis, which should without a doubt include all of his own specific idiosyncrasies which can be discerned from historical writing, like the description of him of forever living in that backward, uninteresting place called Königsberg, not bothering to travel much around, as if someone has glued him in place.
We shouldn’t forget to mention the myth of his unique specific way of walking, of him literally calculating the length of his individual steps while taking a stroll, supposedly in the effort of maximising daily efficiency, with the additional detail that he was always taking these walks precisely attuned to the clock, so that locals actually set their own watches when seeing him pass by, this pointing to the belief of those local folk that these walks must always have been so precisely calculated that he can’t possibly ever have been early or late.
The idea here is to make him somehow more interesting as an individual character with his specific quirks, thus to present him as far more human, familiar, to which an average person can in some way in a sense relate, that this very apparent absurdities of the details provided mainly function to point towards the perception of him also being a mere mortal who also quite often held various obviously unreasonable beliefs. The primary underlying motive here being the procedure of humanising him as an individual, of thus providing a kind of a point of identification with the reader, although perhaps in a negative way.
The point of very personal and intimate details of his life should then also be justified in this procedure by pointing out the specific function of those details for an analytic tool when trying to determine in what precise way these and other specific biographical details of the thinker may be related to the society within which he lived as a whole, the norms and customs of that society, in a sense one would do a precise contextual analysis of that specific period of history in that designated geographical area and thus figure things out via conducting a retroactive reading of the social situation and what was the place of the specific individual within it.
Considering biographical and contextual analysis focusing on Kant of course automatically reminds me of seeing the 1992 French film directed by Philippe Collin titled Les derniers jours d’Emmanuel Kant (The Last Days of Immanuel Kant). It is available for viewing if you care to search for it online. The way in which we see Kant biographically portrayed in the film itself is as a very grey, old, boring, I’d even dare to call it an especially aristocratic image of the philosopher.
All of what I’ve managed to describe so far thus falls in under the umbrella notion of Kant the individual, which in its essence points towards a specific portrayal and procedure of analysis whose final end result and outcome are that which I here designate as the Kant of nominalist reason, a form of thinking leading to the logic of finitude set up against the very form of universal reason.
The quite abstract and particular name designating “Kant the philosopher”
We can presume without much risk, through purely being familiar with the description of Kant as the most prominent philosopher of Europe in the Enlightenment era, without the actual need so far of being actually directly familiar with the concrete textual details of his work beforehand, that in various times through the course of his life he must have held very specific and carefully developed philosophical concepts along with certain general convictions by which he guided his behaviour and actions, and in the same way also necessarily held at least a few political opinions and reflections regarding the more prominent events that took place in the course of his life, and some specific sense of what he took to be the proper way of acting as an active member in a society, at least when considering his very own person if not always also that of others in general.
At this point the task of considering the contents of the philosophers very own writings themselves, the specific procedure of engaging in a direct textual analysis of the source material, the primary literature and the specific concepts that form the essence of his entire work, the political stances taken, together with any possible form of an ethical theory possibly developed should be done. This entire task described thus at this very point becomes an absolute necessity as the primary form of conducting the very course of the work of interpretation itself, especially if the reader has a sincere interest to form a correct and proper understanding of the philosopher through his work of interpretation.
The various beliefs, convictions, concepts, political stances, ethics, etc. which form the entire corpus of the various aspects of the philosopher’s thinking can be then carefully analysed through the specific philosophical way of interpretation. One common example of a contemporary procedure of conducting an interpretation is taking the entire author’s theoretical framework, then to throw it into, mulch it through, the theoretical machine of another theorist to whom he is compared, and by doing this mutual cross-reading and thus making a precise comparison and in this way conducting the engagement of the thought of one philosopher with the other and vice versa. So as an example let’s say that in our current specific situation we decide to read our primary author, Kant, through the second one, Marx, or maybe choosing a conceptual apparatus of a third author instead, a common conceptual pair to Kant himself very often being Hegel himself, and also doing the same work of interpretation in the reverse, that of reading the second author back through the first one. This of course is not the only possible way of interpretation within philosophy, but it is without doubt one which is very often employed by contemporary authors of philosophical texts.
In this way it can be philosophically demonstrated that the thinking of Kant, some precise ideas that he personally held to be correct and true, when isolated from their overall system, taken by themselves on their own ground, and read through Marx’s specific concepts of our choice, the example in our case being Marx’s understanding of class struggle, would then be the entire logical goal of our current philosophical project and its procedure, the specific way the work of interpretation is done. To achieve this we must thus be able to fully understand the chosen ideas of both Kant and Marx in precise detail as they were conceived by their own authors.
In our case therefore we should ideally be able, through the use of Marx’s own method of interpretation, more specifically the precise procedure of his specific way of doing a concrete form of class analysis, to perfectly discern if a certain idea developed by Kant is therefore either of a bourgeois, or perhaps on the contrary that of a proletarian character by analysing the precise way in which the concepts follow their inner logic of functioning.
This can itself be achieved in far less abstract and more specific terms by doing a an analysis of the given abstract philosophical systems of ethics, which would in our situation specifically referring to the one developed by Kant in his own philosophical texts, and how that abstraction or an entire system consisting of abstractions then applies, manifests, actualises, materialises itself in directly concrete ways in some specific social engagement within and through class struggling itself, situations in which these abstractions themselves are applied and concretized, for example in the exemplary act of conducting an explicitly personal form of political engagement within one’s society.
There is also the interpretative procedure in which an analysis points towards the final outcome of the application of what was formerly perceived as a purely abstract system of notions by primarily logically following the inherent conceptual logic of those notions up to the very end point and the culmination of its logic, achieving its inherent conclusion, in this way thus being able to discern the end result as seen in practice of following the given logic of a formerly wholly abstract system, by going through the procedure of the application, actualisation, manifestation, materialisation… of the ideas that at first glance seemed abstract, thus becoming concretely aware of the logical structure of necessity at work within that specific theory of former pure abstraction.
In our specific case the actualisation of the ideas of Kant’s ethics into concrete social situations is then at the very same time also to be seen through the specific lenses of Marx’s own theory of performing the interpretative work of class analysis, which means that when Kant’s ethics are applied and actualised in a situation of engaged class struggle, then the ethical situation can then also be read as always already being a specific situation of class difference itself, discerned by using and applying as our own the specific procedure of conducting the work of class analysis in the same way as originally done by Marx himself.
The end result of this work of interpretation through the inner necessity of its entire internal logic of applying these very ideas of the interpretative procedures in a specifically systematically correct and precise manner into the given concrete situation of “struggling” engagement in principle becomes the ability to provide concrete answers the following two seemingly completely abstract questions:
1) When Kant’s ethics is applied and those who are performing its application are themselves directly engaged in the process of a struggle waged within the heated political arena of a given society, which class does Kant’s system of ethics in the end result actually favour and serve in its concrete form?
2) If its true that concepts themselves can be, and are always used as “weapons in of struggle waged within a given society”, whom among the specific and concrete classes which are discerned by the interpretive work really benefit the most in the concrete actuality of their realisation through their application?
We should thus in principle be able as an end result of our practical engagement and of the interpretative work being done through struggle thus be able to provide a very precise and concrete answer to these questions which might at the beginning to us appear to as purely abstract and purely theoretical questions.
So was Kant in any form a “bourgeois philosopher” or wasn’t he?