How do you get past postmodern thinking?

Carola Häntsch. Kant and postmodern reason

Carola Häntsch

There is hardly any doubt that the philosophy of Immanuel Kant has influenced and shaped modern, enlightened reason in Europe to a decisive extent. The fact that his thinking could also be of fundamental importance for what we call “postmodern” philosophy today has so far been less of an object of research interest. The present article aims to pursue this thesis, however, and sketch some possible basic lines of the “postmodern Kant reception”, the more detailed presentation of which must be reserved for more extensive research on the subject.

To check the plausibility of this thesis, I begin in the first part with a brief presentation of the initial difference between modernity and postmodernism (1), ask about Kant's position in this difference and conclude an empirical-historical finding on the discussion of some of the French philosophers who counted as part of postmodern philosophy can be, with Kant at (2).

In a second part I show some systematic connections between Kant and "postmodern reason": the critical perspective (3), the examination of metaphysics (4), the primacy of the ethical (5) and the importance of judgment (6) .

1. On the difference between modernity and postmodernity in philosophy

As is well known, we understand the philosophy of modernity to be the philosophy of the modern age, which at least since Francis Bacon and René Descartes has placed the focus on people as rational beings and thinking subjects. Modern philosophy is thinking from identity and unity. Modern reason is rationality, whose norms of thought and criteria of truth apply equally to all people and are subsequently intended to justify universally valid maxims of action for morality and law, which in turn guarantee the peaceful coexistence of people in a state and between states. Modernity culminates in the Enlightenment. Our current thinking stands in the tradition of modernity and the Enlightenment and continues this.

On the other hand, enlightened reason has not been able to prevent the historical catastrophes of the 20th century and even at the beginning of the 21st century the world is far from offering the image of a cosmopolis living together peacefully, political and economic crises shape current events. This has led to a renewed critical questioning of human reason in its modern understanding as normative rationality, which has come into play especially in France since the 1980s and has been summarized under the term postmodernism.

The postmodern knowledge, which Jean-François Lyotard brought into play in 1979 under the slogan of the end of the “great stories” [13], has since differentiated itself into various designs and directions, so that one can hardly speak of “the” postmodern philosophy. What unites postmodern thinkers could perhaps best be described as thinking out of difference and heterogeneity, as a renunciation of models of explanation of the world that mean to grasp the whole and postulate a universally valid truth and as a questioning of the dominance of a philosophical discourse. Instead, it is about taking into account different perspectives of the world interpretation and emphasizing individual responsibility in dealing with the rules and maxims of thinking and acting.

So I do not use the term to characterize an epoch of thinking that follows modernity, but rather as a term to denote a different way of philosophizing, a way of thinking that critically questions the modern discourse about its prerequisites and its scientific and philosophical political motives . The postmodern critique of reason stands in a row with critical opposing positions that challenged the Enlightenment from the beginning, starting with the “enthusiasm” of the Sturm und Drang movement through the romantic to the “dialectic of the Enlightenment”.

Modern discourse has been sensitive to this critical attitude. The rigid polemics of Jürgen Habermas against postmodern thinking [9] appear particularly symptomatic of this. The massive accusations of “new confusion” and arbitrariness, relativism and conservatism, “anti-modernism” etc. put forward by Habermas are essentially directed against the abandonment of the autonomous subject and reason (beyond the criticism of the reduction to instrumental reason ). According to Habermas, postmodernism combines “the criticism of the philosophy of the subject with a criticism of reason in which reason appears only in the genitivus objectivus - and in which it remains paradoxically open who or what should take the place of the genitivus subjectivus (if so no longer reason itself) ”[9, p. 134]. According to Habermas, this “total criticism of reason” is also accompanied by the abandonment of modern virtues: “from methodical thinking, from theoretical responsibility and that egalitarianism of scientific thinking that broke with every privileged access to truth” [9, p. 134]. In his view, the postmodern philosophy rises from “that which was inherent in modernity from the beginning Againstdiscurs ”[9, p. 222] and offers“ the only affirmation of hopelessness ”[9, p. 223].

Habermas and his thinkers undoubtedly overlook the fact that postmodernism has opened up philosophical perspectives that enable new critical and at the same time productive approaches to thinking and acting in recent history, starting with the responsibility of the individual. Kant's philosophy provides decisive impulses for this approach.


2. Kant between modernity and postmodernism

Kant's philosophy is usually - and of course quite rightly - placed in the context of modernity and the Enlightenment[1]. He becomes multipleunder the influence of the traditional neo-Kantian epistemological influenced interpretations of Kant of the late 19th century - as Philosopher of reason understood, to which the foundation of a normative rationality is owed.[2]

On the other hand, we are faced with the phenomenon that postmodern thinkers refer not only to Nietzsche and his philosophical forefathers and successors, but also to Kant to an extent that, given his traditional (modern) reading, would not be expected. It is actually precisely the tension between Kant and Nietzsche that turns out to be a central frame of reference for postmodern philosophy. A few examples should be mentioned at this point - as an empirical-historical initial finding, so to speak.

For Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), both Kant and Nietzsche became reference points in his philosophizing because of their limitation of the theoretical and the general by the ethical. "Levinas referred to both, emphatically to Kant, more cautiously to Nietzsche" [17, p. 153][3].

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) also makes frequent references to Kant - especially in his texts on political philosophy, for example when he defines justice as a deconstruction [7] or discusses possibilities of hospitality based on the difference between what is self and what is foreign .

Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) published his Kant lessons under the title The analytics of the sublime 1991 as the result of many years of lectures. He analyzed in them referring to the whole Critique of Judgement and other central Kant works (KrV, KpV, orientation document, anthropology) Paragraphs 23-29 of Kant's third critique, which deal with the sublime [12]. Also in his central work The conflict [14] from 1983 Kant is a central reference variable alongside Aristotle, Hegel and Wittgenstein.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) dealt with Kant's philosophy in 1978 in a lecture entitled What is criticism? [8], published posthumously in 1990. He examined here the contribution of the “sublime Kantian enterprise” to the development of a “critical attitude as a virtue in general” [8; 9] and the question of the relationship between criticism and enlightenment.

Pierre Bourdieu's (1930–2002) thinking proves to be a very Kantian undertaking, right down to the titles of his writings; one only needs to think of titles such as The subtle differences. Critique of Social Judgment 1979 [1], Social sense. Critique of Theoretical Reason 1987 [2][4] or Practical reason. To the theory of action 1994 [4].

Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) wrote as early as 1963 Kant's critical philosophy. The doctrine of wealth. He wrote the book with a critical attitude, “as a book about an enemy that I tried to show how it works - what its gears are - tribunal of reason, proper use of wealth, submission, which is all the more hypocritical since one gives us the title of legislature ”[5].

At this point, these references may suffice as an empirical initial finding, which, however, does not claim to be complete and needs to be worked out in detail.

Serious philosophizing cannot get around Kant - that need not be emphasized especially here in Kaliningrad, at Kant's place of work. Nonetheless, the intensity with which postmodern thinkers repeatedly refer to the Königsberg philosopher exceeds the amount of duty owed to the usual academic discourse.

How can the astonishing intensity of the postmodern recourse to Kant be explained? Why is the philosophical way of thinking, which has even been accused of destroying European rationality, so oriented towards Kant, who is commonly read (in the traditional modern reading) as the “archphilosophist” of European rationality?


3. Systematic links: Kant as a critic of reason


At the end of the 20th century, European philosophy obviously became more aware of the fact that Kant was primarily as a Critic of Reason is to be understood. Kant's “classical reason” turns out to be above all critical reason, before whose judgment seat religion, state and reason itself have to answer. Kant is not the philosopher of (pure) reason, but its critic. Josef Simon made this very clear in his interpretation of Kant [15].

At first glance, it seems to be this critical perspective of Kant, including its radical consequences for ethical, aesthetic, and political thinking that, along with Nietzsche, makes him so attractive for French thinkers at the end of the 20th century and opens up systematic approaches for postmodern Kant reading .

Foucault defines this “critical attitude” as “virtue in general”, as “the art of not being governed in such a way” [8, p. 12]. For Foucault, criticism shifts towards the political dimensions of the use of reason, it becomes a “movement in which the subject takes out the right to question the truth with regard to its power effects and power with regard to its discourses of truth.” [8, p 15]. What he characterizes as criticism is what “Kant as enlightenment has described ”: an“ appeal to courage ”, a critical attitude towards the“ great historical process of making society governable ”[8, p. 16].

From this follows the question of how Kant defines “real criticism” in relation to the Enlightenment, which he answers as follows: “Criticism will say: our freedom is less about what we do with more or less courage undertake rather than in the idea that we make of our knowledge and its limits ”[8, p. 17]. Kant's plan is to show the limits of the reach of human reason, its limitations and its perspectives. The “knowledge of knowledge” precedes “as a prolegomenon to every present and future enlightenment” [8, p. 18]. This project is aimed first of all at reason in its theoretical use, metaphysics.

4. Dealing with metaphysics

Gilles Deleuze illustrated the main themes of the "Kantian Revolution" with the help of four poets' sayings, the first two of which refer to the Critique of Pure Reason, the third on the Critique of Practical Reason and the fourth to the Critique of Judgement Respectively. Here I am following the basic lines of his Kant reading [5, pp. 7-15].


1. Hamlet: The time is out of joint! Time is off its hinges.

The “first major Kantian reversal in the KrV” is “the reversal of the relationship between movement and time” [5, p. 12]. As long as time remains on its hinges, it is the measure of movement. Now, however, time no longer relates to movement; instead, movement subordinates itself to time, "movement relates to the time that it conditions." Time becomes the "form of everything that changes and moves", but does not change itself, it becomes an “unchangeable form of change” [5, pp. 8-9].

2. Rimbaud: I am someone else.

Deleuze uses this sentence to clarify "another aspect of the Kantian revolution, again in the KrV": the entry of time into the interior of the subject (as Shape of the interior, inner sense), “in order to I and the I to distinguish ”[5, p. 11]. The Ithat is "in time", changing, passive, receptive, phenomenal and that I as an act of “the synthesis of time and that which happens in time” are separated and at the same time entangled by the timeline; the constantly shifting difference between I and I constitutes time.

For Kant, the thinking ego was, as is well known, “an idea entirely empty of its content: […], of which one cannot even say that it is a concept, but a mere consciousness that accompanies all concepts. Through this I, or He, or It (the thing) that thinks, nothing more is presented than a transcendental subject of thoughts = x, which is only known through the thoughts, which are its predicates, and from which we are separated , can never have the least concept; ”[AA 346]. So with Kant we are not dealing with a transcendental subject in the sense of some ontological entity, but rather in the sense of a presupposition that I have to make if I want to think thinking. I can say no more about it than about freedom, which I must presuppose if I want to think of man as a moral being. This would correspond to Deleuze's “subject of thoughts = x” I as an act of synthesis.

Beyond that and accessible only the appearance, the ego “in time”, an “infinite change (modulation)” [5, p. 11], whose thinking and acting is tied to the time and to the location and always off the “private horizon”, the perspective of “own reason”, which is always confronted by a different, “foreign reason” that is not readily accessible. This I “In time” imagines the activity of his own thinking as I, “Another who affects it” [5, p. 10].

Deleuze thus refers to the temporality of thinking on the one hand, the thinking of thinking and being, of the subject and substance, from the point of view of time, and on the other hand to the individuality of thinking. The often lamented loss of the subject turns out to be the regaining of the individual as an inescapable starting point for philosophizing (thinking of thinking); an individual, however, whose identity is constantly being reconstituted in a continuous process of self-perception and perception of others, self-identifications and the attribution of identities. This brings the ethical and political implications of thinking into focus and at the same time the emphasis on individual responsibility in dealing with the rules of thought and action (in contrast to the emphasis on a universal normative rationality that could prescribe universal maxims of action).

Thinking out of the difference takes this into account. Here one can see the starting point for Foucault's critical questioning of the traditional concept of the subject, Lyotard's incommensurability of discourses or Derrida's analyzes of the foreign.Bourdieu also follows this orientation with his relational conception of the (social) world, which includes the social condition of forms of perception, cognition and knowledge, and with the thesis about the identity of man as the result of a social construction.


5. Primacy of Practical Philosophy -
Ethics as "first philosophy"


The ethical and political motives turn out to be the final starting point for the critical analysis of Western metaphysics to date by postmodernity and distinguish them from earlier attempts at metaphysics criticism in the 20th century, which start with questions of the theory of science. The primacy of the ethical and the thematization of the political and ethical dimensions of the theoretical use of reason form at the same time a further accent of the Kantian philosophy, which Deleuze indicates with a third poet, with the "Kafkaesque sentence" [5, p. 12] namely:

3. The good is what the law says.

This third aspect of the Kantian revolution concerns reason in its practical use. For Plato the laws are an “imitation of the good”, the good serves them as the highest principle. "Kant introduces the inversion of the relationship between the law and the good, which is just as important as the inversion of the relationship between motion and time." With Kant, the law is the "highest authority", the good depends on the law. [5, p. 12] The moral law is defined as a pure (“empty”) form of generality; it says "what form it [the will] must take in order to be moral" [5, p. 13].

Deleuze reminds us here of the categorical imperative as a reference to the responsibility of the individual. For Kant, as is well known, it was a matter of limiting knowledge in order to get space for faith [B XXX], not primarily for faith in the religious sense, but for the belief in action, the belief on which man bases his actions. This holding-to-be-true is never based on a complete overview, the knowledge of all conditions - it is always a holding-to-be-true in the flow of time and in a complex set of conditions. And yet man must make his practical decisions based on this and be responsible for these decisions, also at the risk of not doing justice to his counterpart in every case. "Guilt is something like the thread of morality that doubles the thread of time." [5, p. 14]

Man alone must decide whether the maxim of his actions is conceivable as a general law. And he has to take into account that these decisions can only be made from one's own horizon, which is opposed to the horizon of the other, the horizon of a "foreign reason". No general contents (norms of action) can be derived from the categorical imperative - it is the “empty” form of generality [5, p. 13] - and it is precisely not a question of dictating how the other person should act. “What is specifically moral can only be shown to everyone, and it can change for him under certain circumstances. Certain actions may be moral from one point of view and not another point of view. According to Kant, it can therefore only be a matter of law to prohibit or allow certain actions in general. ”[16, p. 70].

The moment of individual responsibility in morality - following on from Kant's distinction between one's own reason and that of others - is the subject of Derrida, for example, time and again in his smaller political writings, for example when he asks about the possibility of a European identity based on the antinomy between capitalization and dispersion. “To dispose in advance of the generality of a rule [...], such as a (pre) given ability or an existing knowledge, such as a Knowledge or one Makes to dispose which precede the particularity of every decision, every judgment, every experience, in order to regulate them with norms and to relate to them as to individual cases - that would be the safest, most reassuring determination of Responsibility as irresponsibility given, confused morality with juridical calculation, set up politics in the form of a techno-science ”[6, p. 53]. Acting morally here would rather mean checking the contents of decisions (action maxims) over and over again to see whether they would be conceivable as a general law to always decide anew for a rule.


6. Power of judgment - aesthetic difference


The fourth poet's saying that Deleuze resorts to to describe Kant's revolution in philosophy concerns the Critique of Judgement, an “extraordinary undertaking” by a “deeply romantic Kant”, to which he allowed himself to be carried away “when he had reached an age in which the great authors seldom renew themselves” [5, pp. 14, 15].


4. Rimbaud: "A delimitation of all senses"

Just as for Rimbaud the "delimitation of all senses" should determine future poetry, the "unregulated", "unregulated exercise of all faculties" would determine future philosophy [5, p. 17]. The disharmonious harmony of the faculties is no longer dominated by one faculty, they are capable of “free relationships without rules“[5, p. 15], on free play and combat [5, p. 16]. Deleuze regards the critique of judgment as the "foundation of romanticism" [5, p. 15].


The significance of this Kant reading from the point of view of the power of judgment can only be briefly pointed out at this point; its full scope is far from being explored. However, this perspective changes the view of Kant's entire company decisively.

Josef Simon summarizes this in the thesis that the “aesthetic difference” between people becomes the main point of philosophy: “The (aesthetic) difference the persons below the lowest concept of ´the´ man thus becomes the thing and the actual main thing of philosophy ”[15, p. VII]. According to this, philosophy is primarily concerned with the relationship between individuals beyond a concept of the transcendental subject and a definitive determination of “the” human being, whose reason cannot be understood independently of the respective place and time of their thinking and acting. The individual in his particular peculiarity as well as his communication and his coexistence with other individuals in religiously, culturally, politically and legally differently constituted communities and in different time horizons move into the focus of philosophy.

A much more detailed analysis of the systematic connections of the postmodern philosophers to Kant than was possible here could open up new perspectives on Kant's thinking himself, which have so far become little visible under the influence of the traditional neo-Kantian Kantian interpretations.



1. Bourdieu P. La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement. Paris, 1979.

2. Bourdieu P. Le sens pratique. Esquisse d'une theory de la pratique. Paris, 1980.

3. Bourdieu P. Meditations. On the Critique of Scholastic Reason. FaM: Suhrkamp, ​​2001.

4. Bourdieu P. Raisons pratiques. On the theory of action. Paris, 1994.

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6. Derrida J. The other chap. The postponed democracy. Two essays. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1992.

7. Derrida J. Force de loi. The "fondement mystique de l´autorité". New York, 1990.

8. Foucault M. What is criticism? Berlin: Merve, 1992.

9. Habermas J. The new confusion. Small Political Writings V. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1985.

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13. Lyotard J-F. La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir. Paris, 1979.

14. Lyotard J-F. Le Différend. Paris, 1983.

15. Simon J. Kant. The foreign reason and the language of philosophy, Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 2003.

16. Stegmaier W. Major works of philosophy. From Kant to Nietzsche. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1997.

17. Stegmaier W. Levinas, Freiburg, Basel. Vienna: Herder, 2002.


The first publication of the article:


Häntsch, Carola. Kant and Postmodern Reason // 10th International Kant Conference. Classical reason and the challenges of modern civilization: Materials of the international conference: in 2 vol. Ed. W.N. Bryushinkin. - Kaliningrad: Publishing House of the Immanuel Kant University of Kaliningrad, 2010. Volume. 1, pp. 429-441.

[1] See e.g. the conference Kant and the future of the European Enlightenment at the Krupp-Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald in October 2007.

[2] This Kant understanding is also reflected, for example, in the topic of our Kaliningrad conference, which Kant's conception of reason as an "example of the classical conception of reason, with which the era of the Enlightenment came to an end ”, contrasts with the“ challenges of modern civilization ”.

[3] Cf. et al. [11, pp. 67-77].