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Response to Cutrone

Jensen Suther and Thodoris Velissaris

Platypus Review 131 | November 2020

In our article on Karl Korsch, we attempt a sort of balancing act. On the one hand, we aim to keep faith with Korsch’s recognition of the need to realize philosophy by abolishing it. On the other hand, we read Korsch against the grain in order to underscore those moments in his thinking where he himself suggests that realizing philosophy entails its persistence, the irreducibility of the philosophical concern with truth. In what sense is philosophy irreducible? Is this really anything other than an apologia for the sort of metaphysics that prevails under capitalism? Schopenhauerian despair, eternalized? The reified analytic division of philosophy into discrete disciplines — mind, language, metaphysics, and so on — simply taken for granted? Against this view, we argue that the “persistence of philosophy” must be understood in Hegelian terms: philosophy must persist — even beyond capitalism — as the theoretical recognition (1) of ourselves as living, sensible beings who are free to transform the way we live and (2) of the truth of society, the conditions under which individuals could truly lead free lives, could genuinely pose in common the question of how we ought to live.

As we argue, Hegel’s Science of Logic demonstrates reason’s innate drive to truth, to adequate self-comprehension. The rules that govern what could count as a possible object in the world, reason learns, are rules that reason gives to itself in trying to think the general thought of an object. In coming to grasp that there can be no action or experience or even “being” without its own purposive, conceptual activity, reason fulfills itself as reason, becomes what it is supposed to be, fully self-comprehending and self-determining — at last and in truth. Marxism itself, in its recognition of the possibility of collective self-transformation, of the proletariat as the subject-object of history, of communism as the true realization of freedom, is the practical-political embodiment of this Hegelian insight. To abolish philosophy is to overcome the one-sided contemplative form of philosophy necessitated by the social division of labor; to realize philosophy is to abide by Hegel’s own dictum: it is to make the rational actual, to make reason’s self-comprehension a practical actuality, in the revolutionary movement for socialism.

In Chris Cutrone’s response to our piece, he accuses us of “avoiding” Korsch’s key thesis regarding philosophy’s abolition instead of explaining it. For Cutrone, our piece marks a restoration of prima philosophia, of a philosophy founded on first principles, thereby falling below the “critical” philosophy of Kant and Hegel. We fall below them, Cutrone argues further, just in trying to provide a secure philosophical foundation for Marxism. “But Marxism is justified, if at all,” Cutrone writes, “only politically.” Cutrone contends that Kant and Hegel were “post-metaphysical thinkers,” by which we take him to mean “anti-foundationalist thinkers.” We agree, but it is crucial to understand the way in which Kant and Hegel challenged foundationalism as well as the distinctive sense in which metaphysics lives on even in German Idealism — a sense that eludes Cutrone.

The first thing to note is that Kant criticizes the metaphysics of the rationalist tradition in order to re-establish metaphysics on a scientific basis. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s famous “Copernican turn” shows that our understanding does not conform to the objects of experience but that such objects conform to the pure laws of our understanding, without which experience would not be possible. In the Transcendental Analytic, Kant undertakes a “metaphysical deduction” of the categories of the understanding, which are rules that pure reason gives to itself just in judging anything to be the case. Likewise, in the work foundational for Kant’s practical philosophy, his “groundwork” for a “metaphysics of morals,” he establishes the universal principle without which there could be no moral obligation — and without which ultimately there could be no agency. “Unless we want to deny to the concept of morality any truth and any relation to some possible object” Kant writes, “we cannot dispute that its law is so extensive in its import that it must hold not only for human beings but for all rational beings as such, not merely under contingent conditions and with exceptions but with absolute necessity.[1]

Pure practical reason requires of itself that it give itself a law, such that even the attempt to disavow one’s freedom, to be determined solely by one’s inclinations, is itself a manifestation of that a priori requirement. 

Immanuel Kant

Kant rejects the dogmatic conception of metaphysics — founded on definitions (Spinoza) or first principles (Descartes) — as the science of a special class of objects, like God and the soul. But Cutrone conflates metaphysics in the rationalist sense with metaphysics as such, thereby missing the critical, self-grounding metaphysics first pursued by Kant and later radicalized by Hegel. Kant and Hegel do not abandon philosophy as the “love of wisdom” and as the pursuit of truth. As Hegel points out, “All spiritual activity has this goal alone, to make itself aware of its freedom,” and in coming to know itself as free, reason “determines and develops itself in itself, and unfolds its elements as its organic parts.” He adds: “The ancients knew nothing of this ‘gothic’ intellectual architecture of Reason.”[2] Self-comprehending reason thus knows itself in truth; it knows itself as it ought to be known, as radically self-determining. Going beyond Kant, Hegel shows that the attainment of such self-knowledge does not consist in recognition of a single moral principle but in the development of concrete institutions and practices (the “’gothic’ intellectual architecture of Reason”) that could actually be shared and in which we could see ourselves. That is, society would have the form that it must have if it is to truly be society — if it is to truly be free.

Cutrone rightly notes that “the goal of socialism is to overcome the — real — metaphysics of capitalism,” which he proceeds to accuse us of reifying. But the “metaphysics of capitalism” does not exhaust the metaphysics that emerged in bourgeois society’s revolutionary phase, in which the historicity of social reality is first recognized. Marx does not break with Hegelian metaphysics — with the transhistorical principle of the radical historicity of the social — but rather recognizes what it calls for in practice. Marx overcomes the Hegelian conception of philosophy as a method of retrospective justification but keeps faith with Hegelian metaphysics as the scientific specification of the form of historically self-constituting, rational life. As Hegel learned from the Kant of the third Critique, rational animals are “amphibious” in that they live between two worlds: that of nature and that of spirit. Hegel again goes beyond Kant in grasping spirit not (just) as nature’s other but as a natural being whose inner purpose is to change its nature: to make itself free. As the young Marx himself writes, “Natural science will in time subsume under itself the science of man, just as the science of man will subsume under itself natural science: there will be one science.”[3] That “one science” of which Marx speaks is the “realization of philosophy,” the necessary counterpart to its abolition.    

At another point in his response, supposedly in disagreement with us, Cutrone recalls that “for Marx, bourgeois philosophy is not a ‘class philosophy’ in a sociological sense, but rather expresses a historical horizon of politics in capitalism.” This raises a question: are we class reductionists who deny philosophy’s autonomy, or are we fetishists of philosophy who elevate it above historical society? One cannot have it both ways. We do not hold that bourgeois philosophy is a class philosophy in a sociological sense but rather that bourgeois philosophy — qua bourgeois philosophy — is both ideology and promise: it is a symptomatic expression, in its one-sided contemplativeness, of class society as well as the historical recognition of society’s potential, the promise of freedom. Cutrone chastises us for writing of the “full freedom” to be achieved in a post-capitalist form of life. But as Marx himself writes, “in a higher form of society […] the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.”[4] Is such a ruling principle not precisely an ideal, derived immanently through the dialectical critique of bourgeois society, of what actualized freedom would require? Is Marx not here telling us what must be true of society, if it is to correspond to its own concept — if it is to be “true” in the Hegelian sense, “fully free”?

Cutrone writes that “there will be no ‘full freedom’ in some absolute sense, but what is foreseeable, however dimly, is only overcoming the unfreedom of capitalism.” He poses a question: “Beyond that, who knows?” Cutrone appeals — again rightly — to the notion of “immanent dialectical critique” but fails to take responsibility for the conception of reality and of agency — the “metaphysics” — which such critique presupposes and which is not reducible to the metaphysics of bourgeois labor. The logic of actualization grasped by Hegel that makes it possible to measure a phenomenon against itself is not just specific to capitalism; rather, capitalism is the historical point at which we come to recognize spirit itself as spirit — and thus as subject to such a logic. Even under the most ideal emancipated conditions, we would still have to strive to be the free beings we would finally take ourselves to be, actualizing our freedom through our collective practices. Cutrone often implies that freedom would not be free if it itself were not free to change. But this is a category mistake. Freedom is — as Kant and Hegel following Rousseau made clear — the capacity to be bound only by those laws one recognizes as binding. What logically distinguishes spirit from nature is the former’s power of self-determination. If pure reason were “free” to become something other than self-determining, it would cease to be reason. As the capacity to bind ourselves to laws and to transform the laws to which we are bound, freedom is not itself “free” to become something else — where freedom seems to mean, in contrast to the Kantian-Hegelian-Marxian understanding, “free-wheeling.” If this were so, then strictly speaking, we could not speak of freedom at all, because there would be nothing that ought to be understood as freedom — as distinct, say, from mechanism or mere life.

This “logic of freedom” is the conceptual space that Kant blasted open with his “transcendental logic,” and that Hegel further charted and expanded in his Science of Logic, the science of science, pure thought thinking being and itself in their intelligibility. Marxism inherits Hegelian logic, which was one of the most profound achievements of the bourgeois revolution. But that it was a historical achievement does nothing to diminish its truth. It just means that, in bourgeois society, we begin to understand how it is we ought to understand ourselves, namely as the free beings that we are. Cutrone cites Adorno’s famous line that philosophy lives on because the chance for its realization was missed. But he draws the wrong lesson from Adorno’s proclamation. It is precisely because philosophy “lives on” under degenerated conditions, is threatened on all sides (and from within) by liquidation, that we must uphold and defend its fragile achievement of “absolute knowing” — once the “head of emancipation” and now just a “message in a bottle.” To quote Adorno’s closest intellectual interlocutor apart from Benjamin: “Since isolated subjectivity in our time is triumphing everywhere, with fatal results, critique must necessarily be carried on with an emphasis on objective reason rather than on the remnants of subjectivistic philosophy.”[5] 

As we noted at the beginning of this response, Cutrone holds that “Marxism is justified, if at all, only politically.” But what would this mean? That the truth is just “what works” and Marxism is justified only if politically it happens to succeed? According to this logic, Marxism was “disproven” long ago, as its detractors often point out. Why, then, insist on keeping Marxism alive? Cutrone does not do justice to Marx’s claim that philosophy is the recognition of a truth that must be realized in practice — that there is some way that the world ought to be. Philosophy cannot be conceived as just a “means” to a contingent political end Marxists happen to have — as if a set of ideologies or principles pragmatically useful for achieving “our” political goals — since the “ends” of Marxism themselves must be justifiable, must in principle be recognizable by all, and must meet the standards of Reason.   

Cutrone points out that, from the standpoint of the present, the call to abolish philosophy and the state can “seem utopian in the pejorative sense of threatening to do more harm than good” by promising to return us to a “pre-philosophical or even pre-social condition.” Cutrone is right to observe that this reflects the loss of “the emancipatory horizon of socialism in Marxism,” but he is wrong to think that our insistence on the persistence of philosophy is an expression of this loss. If philosophy were not to persist in some form under post-capitalist conditions, there would be no way to articulate conceptually and to critically reflect on who it is we would have become. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx acknowledges that the “state [will undergo] transformation in communist society” and that its “social functions will remain in existence.” Engels likewise notes that “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things [our emphasis], and by the conduct of processes of production.” Coupled with the young Marx’s claim, cited earlier, that there will be one unified science under communism, such remarks make clear that Marx and Engels continued to recognize the necessity of the activity of critical self-reflection (philosophy) and the activity of collective self-organization (the state). Far from reflecting the loss of Marx’s vision, our work attempts to identify the categorial conditions for its possibility. Without such categorial constraints, communism would be wholly indeterminate, less than a dream.

With his early vision of communism, Marx radicalizes the Hegelian recognition of the Absolute: “This communism, as fully-developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully-developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution [our emphasis].”[6] Against the ultra-historicism of Cutrone, who attempts to reduce philosophy to the “metaphysics of bourgeois society,” we submit that Marx was a historical rationalist, for whom communism represents the “genuine resolution of the conflict between man and man,” “the riddle of history solved,” and indeed — the “full realization” of human freedom. Philosophy would persist, to conclude, in our knowledge of this truth: “[Communism] knows itself to be this solution.”

[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 20.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett Publish Company, 1988), 52, 51.

[3] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988), 111.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 739.

[5] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 174.

[6] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 102-103.

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