Adorno on Kant and Enlightenment (in 1959)

Over the last decade or so, the publication and translation of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France have led to a broader reconsideration of how his work ought to be understood. But, unless I’ve missed something, the publication and translation of Theodor Adorno’s lectures at the University for Frankfurt have generated considerably less interest.0804744262 In part, the difference is not entirely surprising. Foucault’s influence has, if anything, grown since his death, while Adorno’s work tends to be regarded with an ambivalence tempered by incomprehension. But the neglect of Adorno’s Frankfurt lecture is unfortunate, if only because (as is also the case with Foucault’s lectures) they sometimes help us to avoid misunderstanding what he was trying to accomplish in his published work. For example, consider his 1959 lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and, in particular, the discussion of Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment.1 What we find here helps to supplement his great, enigmatic, and (as least in some quarters) passionately disliked collaboration with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Dialectic of Enlightenment tends to be read (and not just by those who have not bothered read it) as maintaining that “the Enlightenment” was responsible for the legion of horrors that defined the twentieth century. The fact that the book’s actual discussion of Enlightenment thinkers is confined to an excursus on Sade and Kant tends to be overlooked, along with a passage from Minima Moralia that provides a concise summary of what he and Horkheimer were trying to do, in the infamous Sade chapter and elsewhere: “Not least among the tasks now confronting thought is that of placing all the reactionary arguments against Western culture in the service of progressive enlightenment.”2

Even Samuel Fleischacker’s recent discussion of the book, which distances itself from the tendency to see Horkheimer and Adorno as opposed to the Enlightenment “root and branch,” nevertheless maintains that they had significant reservations about Kant’s conception of enlightenment:

Horkheimer and Adorno saw fascism as but a symptom of a much wider social phenomenon, which included totalitarianism on the left and the right as well as the softer oppression of industrial capitalism and the mass media that works to promote consumption …. The root of the demonization they saw in all these evils was, they believed, a certain malformation of the Enlightenment: indeed quite specifically of the Enlightenment as Kant conceived it. They begin one of their chapters by quoting the opening of “What is Enlightenment?”, and go on to argue that the maturity, the independence of external guidance, that Kant lauds there is best exemplified by the amoral, egotistical characters in the works of the Marquis de Sade.3

Fleischacker sees their approach was “heavily influenced by Nietzsche, despite his politically right-wing, and sometimes anti-Semitic, proclivities” and, for that reason, can be seen as part of a “second wave of criticism explicitly directed at Kantian enlightenment.” This line of critique would be “further developed by the work of Michel Foucault, a left-wing thinker influenced by Heidegger, despite his right-wing proclivities, as well as by Nietzsche” (102).

This does not strike me as the most helpful way of approaching Dialectic of Enlightenment.4  To the extent that the book has much to say about Nietzsche, the discussion is confined to the excursus on Kant and Sade, and it is difficult (for me, anyway) to see Horkheimer (who bore the brunt of the responsibility for writing this chapter) as having been “heavily influenced” by Nietzsche (Schopenhauer, yes; Nietzsche, no). Nor is it clear that there is much in Dialectic of Enlightenment to suggest that Horkheimer or Adorno were particularly troubled by Kant’s account of enlightenment: for the most part, the discussion in chapter on Kant and Sade recycles Hegel’s critique of the alleged “empty formalism” of Kant’s ethics. While it is true that Kant’s definition of enlightenment is invoked in the opening sentence of the chapter, that is the last we hear of it. Indeed, the short shrift given to the essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment is one of the things that makes the discussion of Kant’s answer to question “What is enlightenment?” in Adorno’s Frankfurt lectures all the more significant: they help to clarify Adorno’s stance towards Kant’s conception of enlightenment and to the Enlightenment in general.

Situating Kant

That Adorno discusses Kant’s article on enlightenment at all is, in itself, intriguing. After all, the course in question was devoted to Kant’s first critique and its principal focus fell on Kant’s treatment of questions of epistemology and metaphysics. In contrast, while Adorno’s 1963 lectures on Problems of Moral Philosophy consider Kant’s moral philosophy, they have nothing to say about Kant’s stance towards the Enlightenment.

When read in the context of the lectures on the Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno’s discussion of Kant and the Enlightenment initially seems to be little more than a historical excursus. It begins:

Last time I told you something about Kant’s approach in the Critique of Pure Reason, focusing particularly on the problem of metaphysics, and I had reached the point of reading you the relevant passages in the text dealing with this problem and offering a brief interpretation of them. In the course of these passages in which Kant tells us about his intentions and about the meaning of the critique of reason there is a form of words that is extremely revealing about the problem I should like to discuss with you today. This concerns the relationship of the Critique of Pure Reason to the Enlightenment. He says there that in his book the answer of these metaphysical questions “has not been such as a dogmatic and visionary insistence upon knowledge might lead us to expect — that can be catered for only through magical devices, in which I am not adept” (57).

Suggesting that quotation from Preface to the first edition of the Critique should be read as an allusion to Swedenborg’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, he proceeds to quote the rest of it:

Such ways of answering them are, indeed, not within the intention of the natural constitution of our reason; and inasmuch as they have their source in misunderstanding, it is the duty of philosophy to counteract their deceptive influence, no matter what prized and cherished dreams have to be disowned (57, quoting Critique of Pure Reason A:xiii).

Adorno characterizes this a “an openly and explicitly enlightened statement” and goes on from here to discuss the “complex nature” of Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment.

In order to appreciate what follows it helps to remember that, while we tend to see Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment as anything but “complex”, the treatment of Kant as “an Enlightenment thinker” was hardly unproblematic in the tradition that Adorno sees himself as criticizing. Noting that the question of Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment “has not escaped the attention of the traditional historians of philosophy,” he argues they have tended to deal with its complexity by deploying a cliché that he will sets out to “demolish” in the discussion that follows.

This cliché is the phrase that Kant was indeed the completer of the Enlightenment, but at the same time the Enlightenment was overcome in his philosophy. We shall shortly have more to say about what this ‘overcoming’ amounts to. First, however, we would do well to remind ourselves that the tradition of German thought and the German philosophy of which Kant was a part never achieved a full, authentic Enlightenment. It was once remarked — accurately, I believe — that there never was an Enlightenment in Germany, but only an enlightened theology (58).

In support of this claim he invokes the names of Leibniz and Lessing and “indeed, of Kant himself.” But arguing that his intent is not to provide “a historical introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason” but, instead, “an introduction to the substance of this book, that is, to the philosophical problems it raises,” he turns to a consideration of “how the problem of the Enlightenment appears to Kant.”

I have already told you that Kant is enlightened in the sense that he is a critic of dogmatism. It must be pointed out, however, that the concept of dogmatism undergoes a curious enlargement at his hands. Whereas the older Enlightenment and the Western Enlightenment mainly used the term to refer to theology proper, Kant uses the term, as I have already suggested, to apply also to metaphysics. This, too, is a feature that Kant shares with the mature Enlightenment. Those of you who have studied French will be aware that one of Voltaire’s chief works, certainly the book that is best known in Germany, is his Candide. Candide is an attempt to expose the dogmatic character not so much of theology as of German metaphysics, namely, Leibniz’s theodicy. To a degree, then, this critique of the dogmatic side of reason is to be found among the themes of the Critique of Pure Reason (58)

There is little in this account to suggest that Adorno has any particular problems with “Kantian Enlightenment” aside, perhaps, from a reluctance to draw a distinction between Kant’s conception of enlightenment and a “mature Enlightenment” that includes such figures as Voltaire.

What readers might overlook, however, is the difference between Adorno’s treatment of Kant and those earlier German histories of philosophy to which he refers at the start of his discussion. That tradition, which can be traced back at least to Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, always saw Kant as a thinker who represented a break with the Enlightenment. This can be seen even in the case of historians who were at pains (as Hegel was in his Berlin lectures) to distinguish between a German Enlightenment (e.g., Mendelssohn, Nicolai, and other “popular philosophers”) and the French version. By treating Voltaire and Kant united in an attack on “dogmatic” approaches to metaphysics, Adorno advances an interpretation of the relationship between Kant and the Enlightenment that — like Ernst Cassirer’s account — stressed the extent to which the Enlightenment was a European movement and that German thinkers were a part of it. At a time when the faculties of German universities were still home to scholars who, during the period between 1933-1945 labored very hard to draw distinctions between the profound and German Kant and the superficialities of the French Enlightenment, the political stakes of the way in which Adorno situated Kant should not be minimized.

Having situated Kant squarely within the “mature Enlightenment,” Adorno concludes that The Critique of Pure Reason and Candide — two works that, on first glance, would seem to have very little in common — were united in a common endeavor.

It is this refusal to accept statements unquestioningly that marks the rather more incisive version of Enlightenment thought in Kant in which reason broadens its critical, anti-dogmatic activities to embrace everything that is not completely transparent and self-evident. I should like to say that the programme of Enlightenment shares this feature with the entire movement of modern Western thought (59).

And nowhere does Adorno see the modernity of this project more clearly articulated than in “an essay entitled ‘Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’” (59).

Adorno on “What is Enlightenment?”

And so we arrive at the discussion of Kant’s response to the question “What is enlightenment?,” a discussion that occupies much of the remainder of the lecture. Perhaps the most surprising part of Adorno’s discussion comes at the very outset, when he explains to his students,

This essay is not very widely known, but it is very instructive. If you just taken an uninformed look at Kant’s own statements, you make some very striking and surprising discoveries. I should like to acquaint you with some of these statements, both for their own sake, and because of their value from the standpoint of method (59).

Because Kant’s essay is so familiar today, we tend to forget that this was not always so. As I noted in a previous post, as late as 1921 Gisbert Beyerhaus observed that the article had become a sort of step-child among Kant’s writings. While an Ngram for the phrase “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit” (a phrase unlikely to be found anywhere other than quotations from or discussions of Kant’s essay) shows a steady increase from 1920 onward (with a significant uptick after 1945), the phrase was far less frequent at the time of Adorno’s lecture than it would be a decade or so later.

Kant BigramHence, Adorno may not have been mistaken in assuming that the essay he was about to discuss might not have been a text with which his students would have been familiar.

He begins by stressing that the “positive side” of Kant’s account of enlightenment is consistent with

the kernel of the Kantian method in the Critique of Pure Reason. That is to say, it consists essentially in the demand for the unfettered use of reason and the installation of reason as the supreme authority. The disputes in which reason becomes involved, including those disputes with itself, are to be seen as reason’s own life-blood (62).

But he also notes two significant shortcomings in Kant’s discussion.

On the negative side, however, a couple of points will no doubt have occurred to you. The first is that in Kant enlightenment always refers to thought that does not allow itself to be dictated to; you have to have the courage to think for yourself as far as possible according to the principle of autonomy, that is, the laws of thought. But enlightenment does not really mean to be critical of the structures of objective spirit, that is, to be critical of whatever is not thought. We may say, then, that the concept of enlightenment in Kant is subjectively restricted from the outset: it is restricted to the way the individual behaves within the world of his own thoughts. The question of the objectification of spirit and therewith the institutions and arrangements of the world is not really included in this definition of enlightenment (62).

In other words, the “motto” that Kant associates with the Enlightenment —   Sapere aude!, dare to be wise —  turns enlightenment into an individual decision: one summons the courage to make use of one’s own reason or one doesn’t. In doing so, he neglects to consider the domain of possible courses of action that individuals fail to undertake, not because they lack the courage to do so, but instead because they have not conceived of the possibility of their doing so. The account of the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment might be seen as a variant on this general line of criticism. It is not a lack of courage that prevents the consumers of cultural products from acting differently. It is rather a lack of imagination: like Odysseus’ oarsmen, their ears have been blocked to the possibility that there could be an alternative.

Adorno suggests that this shortcoming is bound up with a second failing in Kant’s account: the lack of a “real connection between enlightenment and the concept of practice” (62). This problem can be seen most clearly in the distinction Kant draws between public and private uses of reason.

Here, then, you find the definition of enlightenment restricted in all innocence by that disastrous word ‘as’ that plays such a dubious role in our age too. You find it when people say in the course of a discussion, ‘As a German, I cannot accept that …’ or ‘As a Christian, I must react in such-and-such’ a way in this matter …’. This predicative use of ‘as’ signals a restricting of reason in line with the division of labour in which human beings find themselves involved; the restriction imposed on enlightenment here is in fact a matter of the division of labour. The purely theoretical human being – and that means quite concretely, the independent writer, in other words, the writer who is not paid for specific services and for propagating opinions that serve specific causes to a greater or lesser degree – the purely theoretical human being is free to be enlightened in a radical sense. The moment he has a particular function, the post of civil servant, for example, all reasoning is at an end. At that moment the unfettered use of reason becomes precisely what is concealed in the double meaning of ‘reasoning’, namely, a kind of unseemly grumbling, and hence to a kind of practical criticism of given institutions (63).

Adorno’s criticism goes to the heart of what Kant’s account of enlightenment but, pace Fleischacker, there is little here that can be viewed as particularly indebted to Nietzsche. Instead, the argument is recognizably Marxist in its provenance: because Kant simply takes the division of labor for granted, the critical use of reason is circumscribed to those who have the time and means to take up the position of “independent writers.”

It is possible to quibble with the way in which Adorno initially formulates the problem in his initial discussion of the “disastrous word ‘as’”: neither the use of reason that one might make “as a Christian” or “as a German” constitutes what Kant would see as a “private” use of reason. In Kant’s notoriously confusing account, the “private” use of reason is characterized as the “use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him.” He then proceeds to explain

a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to public ends, or at least restrain them from the destruction of these ends. Here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather, one must obey.5

Hence, a Lutheran clergyman (who would, in eighteenth-century Prussia, be viewed as the holder of what Kant characterizes as a “civil post”) would be required to speak — as Adorno would have it — “as a Lutheran.” Or, as Kant puts it,

what he teaches as a consequence of his office as an agent of his church, he presents as something about which he does not have free rein to teach according to his own discretion, but rather is engaged to expound according to another’s precept and in another’s name. He will say: our church teaches this or that; these are the arguments that it employs.

If we see Kant’s discussion of enlightenment as inspired primarily by the ongoing discussion of the role of religious oaths (a discussion in which Moses Mendelssohn had been engaged, which may help to explain the comment on Mendelssohn in the closing footnote of Kant’s article), there would seem to be little here that is particularly problematic: insofar as a Lutheran clergyman is discharging the obligations of his office, it would seem reasonable to expect him to transmit Lutheran doctrine and to restrict his own theological speculations to the “public” (i.e., “published”) use of reason in which he may be engaged when he is not in the pulpit.6

But things begin to fall apart when we move on to the cases of the soldier (who is supposed to dutifully obey orders by day and write critical articles by night) or the taxpayer (who is obligated to pay taxes, but free to criticize, in print, the uses to which they are put). The problems with this line of argument were apparent to Kant’s friend and critic Johann Georg Hamann (who, appropriately enough, held a civil post as a customs collector)

What good to me is the festive garment of freedom when I am in a slave’s smock at home? … the public use of reason & freedom is nothing but a dessert, a sumptuous dessert. The private use is the daily bread that we should give up for its sake.7

What Adorno find problematic, then, is Kant’s failure to reflect on the “genuine social situation” that this account presupposes.

On the one hand, the world with all the resources at its disposal is caught up in a constant process of rationalization: in the production process, in its shaping of individual human relations, in bourgeois society generally. It is permeated with science to a constantly increasing degree. At the same time, the irrationality of the whole, that is to say, the blindness of the forces at work, and with that the inability of the individual to determine his own life in accordance with reason, remains intact. This peculiar oscillation between rationality and irrationality characteristic of bourgeois society at its very core is reflected in the ambivalent attitude of philosophy, especially the great philosophy, towards reason (64).

Rescuing the Enlightenment with (and from) Kant

Where, then, does this leave Adorno vis a vis “enlightenment,” “Kantian enlightenment,” and “the Enlightenment”? With regard to the latter, his position could not be clearer:

In general, I believe that few concepts have been such a catastrophe for the history of German thought as the cliche that labels enlightenment ‘superficial’ or ‘facile’. It was perhaps the greatest curse of this development that the effect of the Romantic, and ultimately theological, belittling of enlightenment was to ensure that much of the enlightened thought that flourished in Germany actually assumed the shape imagined by the obscurantists (64).

And, he insists, it is in the context of this “European Enlightenment” that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason must be understood (64). But, as he goes on to note,

I must point out that I am taking the liberty of using the term ‘enlightenment’ in the comprehensive meaning given to it in our Dialectic of Enlightenment. We use it there to describe the general trend of Western demythologization that may be said to have begun in Greek philosophy with the fragments of Xenophanes that have come down to us. The broad thrust of this process of demythologization is, as has frequently been shown, to demonstrate the presence of anthropomorphism. This refers to a practice in which objectivity, existence and absolute dignity have been ascribed to a whole series of assertions, doctrines, concepts and ideas of whatever kind, which in reality can be reduced to the products of human beings. In other words, they can be seen to be what the language of psychology would call mere projections, and since it is merely man that has produced these concepts from within himself they are not entitled to any absolute dignity (65).

This “comprehensive” sense of enlightenment — an enlightenment that, as the Dialectic of Enlightenment would have it, reaches back into Greek antiquity — provides the project that the Critique of Pure Reason allegedly carries forward

We could say, then, putting it rather freely and at a distance from Kant’s own words, that the metaphysical ideas whose absolute validity he is challenging are nothing more than hypostatizations of human beings as rational creatures; they are nothing other than attempts to translate the forms inherent in reason into absolutes without reference to anything that is not identical with or inherent in them. In this sense we may say that Kant’s supreme critical intention is in tune with that of the Enlightenment (65).

As Adorno sees it, Kant’s project rests on what might be regarded as a fundamental contradiction.

On the one hand, we think of the Critique of Pure Reason as a kind of identity-thinking, This means that it wishes to reduce the synthetic a priori judgements and ultimately all organized experience, all objectively valid experience, to an analysis of the consciousness of the subject. … On the other hand, however, this way of thinking desires to rid itself of mythology, of the illusion that man can make certain ideas absolute and hold them to be the whole truth simply because he happens to have them within himself. In this sense Kantian philosophy is one that enshrines the validity of the non-identical in the most emphatic way possible. It is a mode of thought that is not satisfied by reducing everything that exists to itself. Instead, it regards the idea that all knowledge is contained in mankind as a superstition and, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, it wishes to criticize it as it would criticize any superstition. It wishes to say that to make an absolute of everything human is not significantly different from endorsing the customs of shamans who regard their own rites as objectively valid, even though in reality they are no more than subjective abracadabra (66).

For Adorno, the significance of the Critique of Pure Reason lay with Kant’s willingness to accept this contradiction and maintain that, on the one hand, “we know absolutely nothing about things-in-themselves” and, on the other,

that our affections arise from things-in-themselves, for only in that way can his theory of knowledge introduce the element that is more than just mind or reason. For it is only in this way that this element of non-identity makes its appearance in his thought (67).

Working out the role of the “non-identical” provided Adorno with the guiding thread for the lectures that would follow. It would also be the great theme of Negative Dialectic, a work that might be read as his attempt to provide the sequel to Dialectic of Enlightenment that he and Horkheimer had hoped to complete: a work that would explain how it might be possible to rescue enlightenment from what it had become.


  1. See the Lecture of June 9 in Theodor Adorno, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).  
  2. Theodor W Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: Verso, 1978) # 122.
  3. Samuel Fleischacker, What Is Enlightenment? (London; New York: Routledge, 2012) 102.
  4. Nor may it give an adequate picture of Foucault’s stance toward Heidegger. On that point, see Hans Sluga, “Foucault’s Encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche,” in Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 210–39.
  5. Kant, “An Answer to the Question:  What is Enlightenment?” in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 60. 
  6. I’ve discussed this in one of my older articles, “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochsgesellschaft,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50, no. 2 (June 1989): 269–91.  Since then, a lot of work has been done on the question of the relationship of Kant’s text to ongoing disputes about religion.  Among the more important contributions are Ian Hunter, “Kant’s Religion and Prussian Religious Policy,” Modern Intellectual History 2:1 (2005): 1–27 and Michael J Sauter, Visions of the Enlightenment: The Edict on Religion of 1788 and the Politics of the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century Prussia (Leiden: Brill, 2009).
  7. Johann Georg Hamann, Letter to Christian Jacob Kraus, in Schmidt, What is Enlightenment? 148 (I’ve taken the liberty of cutting this passage rather drastically in the interest of making Hamann a bit clearer;  I may have betrayed him in the process). 

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Adorno on Kant and Enlightenment (in 1959)

  1. noir-realism says:

    Reblogged this on alien ecologies and commented:
    James Schmidt, Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science
    Boston University, in this essay clears up some of the confusions and doubts that have for too long been cast of both Horkheimer, but especially Adorno’s work and their relation to Kant and the Enlightenment. Well worth the read… it may surprise you!
    I always get the feeling that people spend more time reading other people who have read other people and have such and such opinions… but that they never actually spend time reading the originals to see what they were truly up too. In this instance Schmidt brings clarity and insight in a way that sends you back to those originals to reread and rethink and re – see just what they were up too. I’m glad to see Adorno’s work being investigated again. He’s had a great influence on my own thinking (although I admit until recently I’d not reread his works ) over the years. I read him heavily for music theory and aesthetics years ago but have of late been spending more time on the political, sociology, and philosophical tracts. Either way… read Schmidt, he has a keen eye and is a closer reader of this tradition he terms the Persistent Enlightenment!

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