The Bourgeois Kant



From Radical Philosophy:

For Wayne, a more authentic anti-bourgeois understanding of Kant will emerge once we place aesthetic experience back at the heart of the critical project, allowing us to reframe broader political issues of freedom, community, reification and the spectacle. This ‘red Kant’ will negate the dialectical need to turn idealism ‘on its head’ in Marx’s famous formulation – certainly saving a lot of philosophical labour, and, for Wayne, allowing a thoroughgoing critique of the bourgeois conception of subjectivity based on Kant’s writings alone. Wayne thus offers, for example, a productive account of how the Kantian aesthetic emerges out of a dynamic ‘gulf’ identified by Kant himself (with ‘courageous honesty’) between the technically practical and the morally practical, or Reason as determination and as (potential) freedom. Whilst previous (‘bourgeois’) Kantian scholars such as Paul Guyer have subsumed such contradictions under the identity of a unified transcendental subject, Wayne wants to re-emphasize how these gulfs or breaks are in fact symptoms of actual historical problems which Kant identifies in a proto-materialist manner. The project as a whole is thus an attempt to philosophically critique a ‘collapsed’ modernity – where the majority of aesthetic experiences are subsumed under the ‘functional ends’ of commodity culture – by finding a critical conception of the aesthetic which escapes bourgeois utilitarianism or commodification. Chapter 3 (‘The Aesthetic, the Beautiful and Praxis’), for example, stresses the importance of the noumena as a non-sensible idea of freedom and the role this plays in the methodological development of the critical project. Wayne builds upon this to provide compelling re-evaluations of the sublime, labour and metaphor – all read via the aesthetic – while juggling and briefly critiquing numerous Marxist and post-Marxist philosophies along the way (Lukács, Kracauer, Benjamin, Althusser). Given the breadth and volume of the post-Kantian philosophical history he wants to cover, Wayne’s accounts are inevitably brief and, sometimes frustratingly, end up begging more questions than they answer. However, as high level overviews they largely work well.

It is worth reflecting on the title of the book itself. Although Wayne acknowledges Robert Kaufman as the first to name and seriously delineate a ‘red Kant’, one senses a certain playfulness in the choice of title. The term ‘red’ as a political appellation of course has strong historical (and perhaps even quaint) connotations – a ‘mid-century modern’ example of political shorthand, which here signals the ironic juxtaposition of Kant’s name (and all the innate conservatism that popularly connotes) with radical politics. It is a neat way to signal the intent of this book, as a counter-intuitive attempt to read Kant as a secret ‘red’ all along. Perhaps one is being led to expect a sort of McCarthy witch trial in reverse: a public grilling of those who ever professed to be Kantian Marxists with ‘are you now or have you ever been a bourgeois philosopher?’ But this of course begs a further question: as with McCarthy and his victims, is Wayne trying too hard to find ‘redness’ in Kant? Is the political description more projection than reality?

Despite the ironies of the title, the method revealed here is a not uncommon strategy in philosophical rereadings – if it is possible to retrieve something truly ‘red’ in Kant it will help us understand and even undo the wrong turn of subsequent political philosophy and create a new interpretation of Kant, different even to the previous ‘red’ readings which Wayne goes to such lengths to compartmentalize. Perhaps all philosophical ‘returns’ have this in common – something got lost, got misinterpreted, and it is this author’s job to lead us back to the source and take a different turn, find the right path. Kant already underwent a series of such ‘returns’ in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, for example with the ‘left’ and ‘right’ neo-Kantianism of Hermann Cohen or Ernst Cassirer, where what was at stake was what had been occluded by the narrow systematicity of the Kantian inheritance itself, or the possible grounding of experience and the value of historical knowledge.

“Are you now or have you ever been a bourgeois philosopher?”, Nickolas Lambrianou, Radical Philosophy