Monday 15 December 2008

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

'The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought' is the second part of Lukacs' seminal essay, 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat'. It is also the section I found most difficult to follow, not being philosophically-inclined nor particularly interested in the work of Immanuel Kant. But it is nevertheless an important part of Lukacs' argument because in it he sketches out what is unique about bourgeois thought vis a vis its predecessors and the proletarian alternative (the latter is the topic of the next History and Class Consciousness post).

As we saw in the
previous post, capitalism engenders reified consciousness, of treating the human life world as if it is ruled by objects governed by alien laws apart from and independent of human kind, even though they are the result of human activity in the first place. This for Lukacs is the starting point of bourgeois philosophy. The philosophical inquiries of antiquity and feudalism are radically different because they were not formulated in a reified context. The 'alien power' confronting these thinkers were the forces of nature, over which pre-capitalist societies had little control. Therefore applying these philosophies to more contemporary conditions might be a jolly exercise, but it does not deepen our understanding of the uses to which the ancients put them.

For Lukacs, Kant's preface to his
Critique of Pure Reason identifies the fundamental distinction of modern philosophy, "it sets itself the following problem: it refuses to accept the world as something that has arisen (or, for example, has been created by God) independently of the knowing subject and prefers to conceive of it instead as its own product" (Lukacs 1968, p.111). In other words it is the philosophical assumption that objects of cognition are not only knowable to the degree to which they are created by the mind, but also that the world is, philosophically speaking, created by the mind. Modern bourgeois thought may try and plot the ebbs of the alien powers capitalism has unleashed, but at the point of its emergence we find, in distorted form, the admission that the bourgeois world is the product of human activity. But this is as far as it can go - the signature of reified philosophy is an inability to consider the connection between what it considers to be the fundamental problems and the material basis of these problems and why they are deemed significant.

The new modern philosophy of rational inquiry developed in conjunction with science and the beginnings of industrialisation in the latter half of the 18th century. As Lukacs puts it, "what is novel about modern rationalism is its increasingly insistent claim that it has discovered the
principle which connects up all phenomena which in nature and society are found to confront mankind" (p.113). And that principle is, naturally enough, rationalism; the ability to break processes down into its components and make sense of them. In this way bourgeois rationalism can make systematic sense of the world around it. Its diametric opposite is therefore irrationality, the notion that meaningless can erupt into rational systems at any time and dissolve the whole theoretical edifice. For Lukacs, in Kant's case the danger of irrationality was always an imminent potential in his system. While it is true objects that enter cognition are invested with meaning (and it is these meanings/constructs that concerned Kant), the thing-in-itself, the internal "essence" of an object is ultimately unknowable - the thing-in-itself is an insurmountable barrier to human consciousness. Thus Kant reduces objects to two "complexes", the issue of matter (the content) of the forms through which we understand the world - these we can speak of. The other complex, the 'noumenal', is beyond cognition and should therefore be excluded from scientific investigation.

Lukacs notes it would be a mistake to confuse philosophy with science. Rationalism is about investigating the formal presuppositions of scientific inquiry, but as we have seen, in Kant's hands the irrationality of matter is ruled out. What is ruled in is the phenomenal, that which can be known, thereby an aversion to totality is hardwired into philosophy. What this means for society is "it acquires increasing control over the details of its social existence, subjecting them to its needs. On the other hand, it loses - likewise progressively - the possibility of gaining intellectual control of society as a whole and with that it loses its own qualifications for leadership" (p.121).

What Kant does is sketch out philosophically the dilemma facing the bourgeoisie. In fact he earns Lukacs' praise because he was open enough to acknowledge the limits of bourgeois thought without proposing some dogmatic system to logically complete the problem. Indeed, the philosophy that followed Kant (including Hegel) merely reproduced the same philosophical contradictions, between subjectivity and objectivity, on ever higher and more abstract levels. But the problems remained and were consistently and constantly revisited from then up until now.

This does much violence to Lukacs' discussion of Kant in this section, and the way Hegel responded to these problems. But the main point has been established, of being unable to reconcile subject and object and its permutations - will vs necessity, action vs structure, voluntarism vs fatalism, etc. The bourgeoisie may consistently revolutionise society via the developmental logics of capitalism, but they do this without understanding that same society. That total understanding is only possible from the standpoint of the proletariat.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Previous posts on History and Class Consciousness are as below:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Commodities and Reification

Thought I'd take this chance to reply to Dominic Smith who left quite a hefty comment on the last H&CC thread on Lukacs and Trotskyism. I can't speak with any certainty about Lukacs views on Trotsky, but you must remember that he spent most of his professional life under the Stalinist shadow. Whether he believed Trotsky was a revolutionary worthy of honour is neither here nor there - admitting he was would have been career suicide. That said, he was a minister during Imre Nagy's famous 1956 Hungaran govt.

Re the Preface, I do have the 1967 preface but didn't bother doing an in-depth discussion of it simply because I wanted to get stuck in! I haven't made my mind up about it yet, we'll have to see. ;)