Text: Against the backdrop of a party convention, Oskar Negt elaborates on Immanuel Kant’s CURRENTLY RELEVANT KNOWLEDGE / What is METAPHYSICS? / What is the METAPHYSICS OF MORALS? / What is ENLIGHTENMENT - - ?


Text: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Oskar Negt: Well, “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” is a rather abstract text, but in the “Metaphysics of Morals,” he zooms in on specific cases. And so he does …

Alexander Kluge: What is the metaphysics of morals? What does that mean?

Negt: Metaphysics of morals means that he elaborates on the reasons for the state of morals. It goes beyond a mere observation of morals, of the state of morals.

Kluge: The state of morals ... that means, the state of ethics. It’s not about customs, not about folk dance.

Negt: But folk dance is part of it – it’s what primitive peoples do. The “Groundwork” also discusses monetary currency, those kinds of things. That’s why he calls it “Metaphysics of Morals,“ not simply “Analysis of Morals” or something.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Kluge: What is metaphysics? The things that transcend the physical, the world of appearances? Or what does it mean?

Negt: Originally, the term stems from the order of Aristotle’s writings. Andronicus of Rhodes catalogued his texts, and he labeled the writings dealing with metaphysics and theology “after the tà physiká,“ that is “metà tà physiká” …

Kluge: Oh, so they are simply the volumes that come after the ones on the natural sciences.

Negt: Exactly. It’s simply their order. Over time that developed into everything that transcends the physical. But originally it has this double meaning. The mere order, and that which transcends the physical conditions. That means, logic and Aristotle’s Categories are part of metaphysics.

Kluge: And Kant applies it to morals, which according to his understanding includes both a moral constitution and how to eat properly with utensils. The social norms, as we would say.

Negt: Exactly. That’s the empirical side. In Kant’s work, there is a very strict dualism of intelligible character and empirical character. The intelligible character is everything that cannot be observed by the senses. The inside. Dignity, integrity, conscience. Non-visible concepts which nonetheless provide the foundation of the visible world. That’s what describes the intelligible character, human nature. Just like he distinguishes between noumena and phenomena. Noumena are the essences of the things that constitute what we see, which is how the manifold world of appearances constitutes tangible objects. In the “Metaphysics of Morals” he discusses both sides. More the empirical side, where he tries to use examples to elaborate on moral conditions. For example, he talks about conscience as an internalized court of law in the “Metaphysics of Morals.”

Kluge: There is also a chapter on money. A theory of monetary currency. What does he have to say about that?

Negt: His definition of money is actually pretty similar to how Marx understands it – a manifestation of human labor. He speaks about … Marx would say that living human labor constitutes the objects’ potential for exchange.

Kluge: This clock contains six hours of time, work time, six hours of a highly qualified expert’s life time, but also the time of his ancestors who taught him. And that’s why this clock is worth more than a shoddily made clock that required only four hours of labor. That’s how Marx would think. And other classical economists think similarly.

Negt: Interesting is that he says that money in itself is worthless. You cannot eat it, you really cannot ... except by exchanging it. It has a high value as universal means of exchange, but a low use value. Even if you take gold and silver, the use value of these metals is still very limited. You can’t really do all that much with them. You can use them to make jewelry, to create certain things that require stainless conditions, like dental fillings … but their use is limited.

Text: Nuggets

Kluge: Gold lasts for a good 2000 years. That would be a value – its preservation value. But certain woods, certain metals could do the same, and so on.

Negt: When he says: “On this basis a preliminary real definition of money can be given: it is the universal means by which men exchange their industriousness with each other.” What he means is to exchange it with each other. An alternative way to phrase it would be: to exchange one’s product of labor with someone else’s.

Kluge: His idea is that all Austrian, French, Prussians, Englishmen compete through their industriousness, and thus their currencies become connected.

Negt: Of course he uses the original term, the Latin concept of industrius, of industriousness. Effort, industriousness, literally speaking. That’s exactly what Marx refers to as living labor.

Kluge: Kant’s philosophy is basically the project of an education of the human race through philosophy. Could you say that?

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Negt: Kantian philosophy is aimed at decreasing human error. That’s how he describes the purpose of his great “Critique of Pure Reason.” It’s not just about positive knowledge. In his own words, it’s also about creating a community of thinkers that is preventing a civil war of thought. A civil war of thought. This war is always connected to the dogmatism of religious beliefs, which may be legitimized by knowledge. The dogmatism of religious beliefs destroys tolerance and therefore the peaceful state of human society. In that sense, this aspect of education, the effect of Enlightenment, is always taken into account. But less in the sense of an education of the human race as Schiller or Lessing would imagine it. Kant is much more skeptical than those two. For Kant, it would be unthinkable to say that the aesthetic state of the reconciliation of form and meaning, the drive towards form and the drive towards meaning – or rather, the drive towards the senses – leads to a peaceful state. Kant is more skeptical, in that he says that this needs to be regulated. It needs to be regulated by a sanctioned power.

Kluge: But it is really a strange situation, if you look at it more closely. Here we have a university professor in Königsberg who addresses private literate citizens. The participants of a republic of letters. He does not address them as civil servants, as kings, as entrepreneurs, but as people with a private interest in self-improvement, in escaping ignorance. In personal enlightenment. As if there was a secondary level of production in society, namely the production of the self.

Negt: That is a thing. The production of the self in the sense of an emergence from immaturity is an educational ideal. In that sense it is about the expectation that man should have the courage to emerge from his own immaturity. The courage to use our minds – that is an expectation regarding this secondary process of production inside us that is directed at self-education.

Kluge: As a citizen of the state, you need to obey. As a soldier, you need to obey. Even as an entrepreneur, you need to obey the laws of the market, the competition, the economy. Would he say that? At the same time you are something else as well, you are a human being, member of a universal humanity. And as human being, you have the potential for emancipation, and that is going to have consequences.

Negt: Every person has a right to the public use of reason. As soldier, you don’t have the right to step outside the boundaries and rules that come with your profession. But beyond that, Kant says you are also a citoyen, a citizen.

Text: Königsberg 1944

Kluge: If you imagine 500 years of development after these kinds of processes. Would they actually leave a trace on us humans, would they change ‘the old Adam’?

Negt: I don’t know. But it’s not a coincidence that I keep returning to these texts. And when I cite Kant in a public lecture, almost everyone in the audience expresses enormous interest. From these experiences I conclude that these questions still have a certain relevance today, because they practically also document this element of the human capability for freedom. He does not say: Man is free. But he is capable of freedom. And he says that since everything in nature has a purpose, man ought to be free, and he should act in an ethical manner. This pathos of ‘ought to’ still speaks to many people today.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Kluge: If he returned to Kaliningrad, to Königsberg today, or as a spirit-seer. Where would he encounter himself? Is there a Kant Museum? Is his house being honored? Or was it bombed?

Text: Kant’s tomb

Negt: I think he would be very pleased with the fact that it is probably the only grave in Königsberg that is always covered in fresh flowers.  

Kluge: Who puts them there?

Negt: Citizens, Russian citizens.

Kluge: Immigrants from Kazakhstan, teachers, officers …?

Negt: Many people, especially younger people who are slowly realizing that their own identity in this city depends on their knowledge of the past. It was not the Russians who destroyed the city; it was almost completely destroyed during two British bomb raids. In that sense it is also a new city. But the devotion to Hamann and Kant, especially Kant, among younger Russians, who are aware of the cultural potential of their role as intermediaries … Kant is really important to them. And I think Kant would be very happy about that.