Text: The guiding principle of Enlightenment is INDEPENDENT THOUGHT / Each person has to "look within oneself for the TOUCHSTONE of TRUTH" / That is the theme of Immanuel Kant’s 1786 text WHAT IS ORIENTATION IN THINKING? / Professor Dr. Oskar Negt reports - -


Alexander Kluge: Immanuel Kant’s "What Is Orientation in Thinking?" is included in this volume, "Writings About Metaphysics and Logic."

Oskar Negt: Yes. It’s a short text from 1796, that means it is a pre-revolutionary text, but it is still a work that follows his 1781 "Critique of Pure Reason," where he asks once more: What exactly is orientation? What can I use to orient myself? What are the coordinates for orientation?

Kluge: And he uses the word very literally. That is, to orient onself means: I’m not familiar with my surroundings, but now I see the sunrise to the East. Therefore I know where South, North, East, and West are.

Negt: There is always a sensory element, like the rising sun, that allows me to locate my position. Even if I’m moving within a speculative space, if I’m dealing with thoughts, I still need to – and that’s an important factor for him – ground it in the visual world, in an imagery that makes it possible to engage with sensible objects in space. For example, he thinks that I cannot orient myself in a dark room, even with a fixed star, if I’m not taking right and left into account, that means the left arm and the right arm.

Text: Oskar Negt, philosopher

Kluge: I incorporate this as an image of my body. Now I know the direction.

Negt: The self-perception of my body is important as well. That’s why he says, it’s not enough to have an objective relationship to the firmament. I need to add a subjective component, a self-perception in space and time.

Kluge: And both of these – on the one hand, the ability to use my mind and form concepts, that is to say: These are the limits of the object, the material, here are the limits of the thought, and I cannot know what’s beyond it; and on the other, tactile touch, perception – both are crucial elements that distinguish thought from enthusiasm. What’s his definition of enthusiasm?

Text: What’s the difference between thought and enthusiasm?

Negt: Enthusiasm is … to engage with the supersensible, to speculate, without being rooted in sensory perception. That means, enthusiasm is also part of speculative reason, and humans also have a kind of desire to dream, to fantasize, to engage with the exuberant.

Kluge: But this also entails a desire for omnipotence, that means the idea that man is all-powerful – that he can achieve something, as Kant says, even in the thick night of the supersensible. But that’s not possible, says Kant.

Negt: That’s not possible. No, it is presumptuous for reason to try and engage with the supersensible …

Kluge: And to say for example, here are God and the Devil, God has this or that characteristic, or even, God doesn’t exist. That, too, would be a step into the supersensible, a statement that humans cannot reasonably make.

Negt: Yes. The supersensible allows us to formulate arguments based on postulates, on demands. Reason has a need for an image of God, a concept of immortality and infinity. And he does not exclude these things from his system of concepts and orientation. But he says, they are not forms of cognition.

Kluge: They are needs.

Negt: They are needs.

Kluge: I can’t live without them.

Negt: He says the need for God is not proof of his existence.

Kluge: But he says, there is a kind of rational faith, and faith is something that is not for sale. Neither in disputation, that is in exchange for arguments, nor in exchange for money nor anything else.

Text: FAITH is not for sale!

Negt: The certitudes of faith have a different status. They have a different ... they are not forms of cognition, they are subjective certitudes, subjective certitudes.

Kluge: Or rather needs that I cannot or don’t want to live without.

Negt: Yes. And still, the limit is … after all, Kantian philosophy is all about the determination of limits. Determination of limits. What is the thing-in-itself? What is the phenomenon? The differentiation of concepts is a crucial element of the "Critique of Pure Reason." And here, in this short essay "What Is Orientation in Thinking?", he is trying again to determine limits by saying: This can be proven, that can be proven, these are postulates, those are certitudes that are more than mere postulates, they are rational postulates. So the topic of the essay is practically the limits and the ability of reason. And the certainty of orientation in regard to these certitudes of faith basically lies within the expectation that ultimately, I am going to use my own mind responsibly. The law of integrity means that I take into consideration: The things within the realm of enthusiasm, of artisteries and so on, can they be justified in the face of reason? Can they be justified without giving up the faculty of reason?

Kluge: And he says, there is a need for reason that lives within people. And they won’t let anyone talk them out of the idea that they can rely on their own mind; the belief that things can be tested by means of consideration and perception. And the fact that they don’t question this further is a certitude: I cannot live without my mind striving towards these things. That is ultimately the basic idea, what he considers the origin of thinking.

Negt: Yes. And that means that each person shows integrity in their engagement with different enlivened powers, as he says, the different enlivened powers, the faculty of desire, the faculty of cognition, and so on, so that they don’t get mixed up. The faculty of cognition is …

Kluge: So that they don’t battle each other. So that the civil war of feelings is suspended in a balance that allows for spontaneity. Is that correct?

Negt: At least so that the powers are balanced to a degree that they ultimately achieve, in the

"Aesthetic Judgement," a kind of harmonious balance.

Kluge: A kind of constitution. In one important passage in this essay, Kant says that if you ban writing and speaking, but at the same time you say there are no legal restrictions on what one believes with their heart – kind of like Frederick II – that’s a completely nonsensical idea. Because if I cannot share my opinions, my private thoughts are not really worth anything. Thinking is a collective process, really the most social interaction humankind is capable of.

Negt: That is correct, and that’s of course why freedom of press is the sole palladium of the people’s rights, as he says in "The Contest of Faculties": Freedom of press is the necessity and the possibility to make public use of my mind. Only then thinking becomes a dimension that can be accounted for, and at the same time it gains a social, a communal element. Thinking is not monadic, like a monad that thinks for itself. The problem is not only that I cannot express my thoughts, Kant says, the problem is that I can’t even think properly.

Text: Oskar Negt, philosopher

Kluge: And because people have learned to think as humankind, that is by collecting the knowledge of their ancestors in the form of evolution, and as another link … thinking is an invisible link between people. It’s not located in the brain, but between people. And that is the sole precondition for Enlightenment and an enlightened humanity.

Text: Thinking, an evolutionary event

Negt: Exactly. Because Enlightenment in that sense always means to make use of the knowledge of previous generations. You don’t have to go back to the beginning. And that’s why he thinks it’s a problem that progress in regard to morality is basically unthinkable. The moral potentials of humankind remain constant over time. But he says that there is progress regarding external actions, in society, in legal culture, in legality. Progress not in morality, but in legality. That is a very important aspect of Enlightenment.

Kluge: And what did he write at the end? "Independent thought means to look within oneself for the supreme touchstone of truth." Which means, and he continues: "and the maxim of thinking for oneself at all times is Enlightenment." Of course, independent thought could also be understood as the practice of contrarians, of hermits, and include the production of singulary errors. But that’s not what he means. Independent thought is basically connected underground.

Negt: Thinking means autonomous thinking. That means, I have to exert control over my own norms of thinking. And in other passages he says, most importantly it means that I let others assess my thoughts.

Kluge: One person becomes the other’s mirror. And that basically leads to the sum of all autonomous thoughts. All humans have the ability to think for themselves. The moment they start doing this in larger groups and eventually as the entire collective, there won’t be any stopping the principle of independent thought, that means Enlightenment.

Text: Independent thinkers among themselves

Negt: He goes as far as to say: Since nature has given people the ability to think, and reason provides them with the possibility to reflect on their thinking, that means that nature clearly intends for people to think. That means there is an element of obligation in this concept of reason, of Enlightenment. If it’s true that nature has conferred on man this ability, an important ability, the ability to think, then he should better use it.

Kluge: It is part of human nature, that humans actually do the things they are capable of. But this is true for crimes as well. Once a crime has come into the world, it is repeated. What does he have to say about that?

Negt: About crime?

Kluge: He takes notice of it.

Negt: He takes notice, and it’s one of the reasons why he says that even a race of devils is capable of forming a society, as long as they have reason.

Kluge: It’s a question of … the autonomous devils establish laws as well.

Negt: They establish laws, and first of all, you need a constitution to fight autonomous devils. Even those who don’t follow the constitution are subject to the full potential of good and evil, crime and legality.

Kluge: He thinks that for example a republic of devils or extreme egocentrics, or robbers or exploiters – those exist, after all. After a while, when they begin to follow laws, and practice independent thought, and autonomy …

Negt: ... they would become civilized.

Kluge: They would automatically become civilized. They wouldn’t have a choice, because they would be bothered by the others’ selfishness.

Negt: They can only survive if they respect their own rules.

Kluge: So it’s really difficult to be devilish. As soon as there’s an established law, as soon as autonomous, independent thinking happens …

Negt: ... there will be a form of self-education.

Kluge: Devils don’t think independently.

Negt: They can think independently, but they get ...

Kluge: But they don’t talk to each other. They have to keep their ideas secret from each other, or they won’t be able to realize them.

Negt: It has to be a given that the devils also want to survive. If they don’t, it’s a completely different situation. But if they want to keep their lives, Kant would say, they have to start thinking about their own legislation. And that would lead to a certain pacification, to a peaceful order.

Kluge: Just like Adam Smith would describe it as well. But if you take the stars. What is the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s relationship to the stars? In the beginning, he says ...

Negt: Yes, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. The metaphor, the stars, they play an important role for him.

Kluge: For orientation.

Negt: Yes, and also general astronomic theory, and the engagement with the nature of the firmament, what it means, not to forget the reference to the Copernican Revolution. He is fascinated by the expansiveness of the universe, and that’s why it plays an important role in his text about orientation. They sky is the original system of coordinates, which humans use for orientation by directing their gaze upwards.

Kluge: He also says here: Even if the starry sky started to move in a different direction, my right, left hand would still show me that this is the case. But I wouldn’t be able to see it in the stars and their constellation.

Negt: That’s the problem of the first Copernican Revolution. What does it mean when we ourselves move within the universe? What are the options for orientation? And Kant says that such markers of orientation don’t only exist on the firmament, but also in moral law and sensory perception.

Kluge: How does the moral law become a part of human nature? It’s difficult to show empirically that they follow the balancing force of morality.

Negt: That’s why he says that morality is not an effect of natural drives, but a result of reason.

Kluge: Of mutual recognition.

Text: Oskar Negt, philosopher

Negt: Yes, of mutual recognition and of course of an autonomous legislation. If the drives remain the way nature created them, that means the side of mankind’s animalistic nature. Kant’s anthropological theory consists of two elements: the side of reason and the animalistic side. If the animalistic side stays the same, then peaceful coexistence between humans isn’t possible. They would only have their selfish desires and live according to them. Somehow Kant thinks that nature made sure to keep humankind from going extinct by providing humans with a faculty he calls reason. And this faculty of reason is not the same as cognition or intelligence, but it is also the faculty that determines moral law.

Kluge: What would be a different expression for morality? When we hear morality, we mostly think of an element of education or etiquette, which also comes with a black market where people don’t act ethically, but genuinely.

Negt: Well, I mean, it has to do with responsibility … what am I supposed to do? What is my duty and … it’s related to the idea of duty and such things, to commandments and rules of conduct.

Kluge: Even though he doesn’t talk about commandments in regard to the bible or God, not even in regard to tradition.

Negt: Yes, but he also says that the categorical imperative certainly overlaps with the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not commit adultery, honour thy father and thy mother …

Kluge: What does that mean ... the categorical imperative means ...?

Negt: There are different forms. Among others, one form of the categorical imperative is: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. That’s a question of considering your own motives. Is it right to want?

Kluge: And at the same time it’s a form of thinking things through to the end. It’s really not that normative.

Negt: No, it’s rigorous thinking, that’s what he says too.

Kluge: Rigorous thinking. If I operate based on the single principle that I respect the other like myself. That I show respect. If I respect others like this, it becomes impossible for me to want what’s amoral. But this has nothing to do with morals in the sense of whether to wear long skirts or hats. And it’s also not about striving for goodness because it is in my nature. I’m not good-natured.

Negt: No, it is very much about independent thought and thinking in categories of the other, which is related to rigorous thinking. Kant would say: If I think things through to the end, I will reach a point where it’s impossible for me to want robbery becoming a universal law. I would destroy myself.

Kluge: And I can try to be clever and commit robbery while avoiding it myself. But that is an endeavor that won’t ever withstand actual experience. It doesn’t happen.

Negt: And one aspect of the categorical imperative, or a different formulation is also: Don’t treat other people simply as means, but also at the same time as end in itself.

Kluge: Because you don’t want to be treated as a means to an end yourself.

Negt: And of course that would lead to the expectation of treating other people by giving them more than they would have if you didn’t exist.

Kluge: So that you are valuable to them. That’s the only way to protect yourself. And that is not a matter of economically weighing your own advantages, but a principle. It’s a human ability, and in this way all humans are connected. Today they are connected globally via stock markets and money, but he argues that … for him, the currency is independent thought.

Negt: Independent thought. Whereas people connected though money and stock markets treat each other primarily as means. He doesn’t say that that’s not allowed. But he says to treat them both as means and as an end in itself. And that’s how we acknowledge the other’s personhood and dignity. That’s how we build something like a peaceful community. Even with those who step out of line, because they are also subject to the law that they would have approved themselves, if they had used their rationality rigorously.

Kluge: So that, as Kant describes it without any reference to psychology, someone who commits a crime condemns himself. Like the Prince of Homburg who stands before his electoral prince and says: I am signing my own death sentence and I won’t accept a pardon. And that’s precisely when he can be pardoned. That’s Kantian.

Negt: Very much so.