First part

Enlightenment does not begin with the question, “what is the truth?” It begins with a consideration of the interplay between two questions:

a. what is the truth?
b. and: what do we want the truth to be?

To understand the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, it is crucially important to keep this in mind.

LI’s experience of doing posts on philosophical topics is that it creates the sounds of people leaving the room. So we will not dwell on this too long. Don’t worry. We are going to confine ourselves to three or four more posts on Sade, Kant, and atrocity in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Tops. Promise.


The ‘excursus’ entitled “Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality” forged a conjunction between Sade and Kant that, while unheard of when the Dialectic was published in 1947, has become a standard trope in cultural studies. Partly it owes this fame to its shock value. While A and H diagnosed the fascist politics of shock, they were not immune to its allure. This is confusing for those who believe that distance and distinction is the hallmark of the relationship between criticism and its object. A and H, however, question the cost of maintaining that distance – a cost that is paid in granting to the object the seriousness of the untouchable. For A and H, the satyr play is part of the whole cycle – parody, mockery, quotation, and other forms of secret sharing can not only not be excluded from the philosopher’s repertoire, but gauge the philosopher’s willingness to confront the history of his categories.

So, in this chapter we have a seemingly puzzling reading of Kant. If we remember the interplay between the questions we began with – and if we don’t, peremptorily, treat them as opposites – we have a Leitfaden – a guiding thread – to what A and H are doing here.

Kant, for A and H, is the most systematically intelligent Enlightenment philosopher, which is why they take the critical philosophy to be a sort of canon of Enlightenment. For Kant, the scientific use of understanding – the posing of the question, what is true, without regard with what we want to be true – finds a systematic object: what Newton called “the system of the world.’ And what is the system of the world? Cause and effect, as far as the eye can see. Yet there is a problem. Insofar as the object of understanding is a total and materially determined system, the understanding itself, if part of this system, is itself determined. But insofar as the true is different from what we want to be true – insofar as that is the boast of the Enlightenment – we seem to be denying the understanding that freedom among alternatives that would make for a disinterested choice. If understanding does not have the freedom to choose its version of its object, the truth value of that object becomes suspect. Such is the systematic place of freedom in Kant’s metaphysical project. Notice what we require here: a primary instance of freedom to found a deterministic system. For Kant, this instance of freedom does find an embodiment in the “I” – but an I that has sacrificed all its object-hood. The transcendental I, as Kant says, is an accompanying “x” – a variable. In terms of Kant’s system, the transcendental I is coherent with the ethical instance of freedom, which also requires a sacrifice of object-hood. A and H point to this sacrifice, and point to the fact that it is elided – that its mediate nature, to use Hegelian terminology, remains hidden. The ethic of freedom demands, in fact, all of the personal characteristics of the I, for those characteristics hopelessly cling to object-hood.

So, in both the metaphysical and ethical realms, we establish what is true only by such a total sacrifice of what we want to be true that we expel want itself – desire – from the system of human knowledge and morality.

To put it in terms of the Freudian return of the repressed – when human desire is expelled from the social, it returns as inhuman desire.

At which point we might ask: isn’t this a little facile? There are those who feel that Adorno and the whole of Critical theory relies on a sort of scam. On the one hand, Kant is a philosopher, and we use his corpus of works to talk about “Kant.” On the other hand, he seems to be one of the emanations of history, a sort of representative in some unarticulated Phenomenology of the Spirit. How, one might ask, is Kant ‘representative’ of the society of Enlightenment – which includes Ben Franklin and his neighbor and the members of Parliament and all of these figures. Can we do intellectual history by sampling without having some justification for our samples?