The Crisis of the Critique of Knowledge
If we imagine the philosophical discussion of the modern period reconstructed as a judicial hearing, it would be deciding a single question: how is reliable knowledge (Erkenntnis)1
possible. The term “theory of knowledge,” or “epistemology,” was coined only in the 19th century; but the subject that it retrospectively denotes is the subject of modern philosophy in general, at least until the threshold of the 19th century. The characteristic endeavor of both rationalist and empiricist thought was directed likewise at the metaphysical demarcation of the realm of objects and the logical and psychological justification of the validity of a natural science characterized by formalized language and experiment. Yet no matter how much modern physics, which combined so effectively the rigor of mathematical form with the amplitude of controlled experience, was the model for clear and distinct knowledge, modern science did not coincide with knowledge as such. In this period what characterized philosophy’s position with regard to science was precisely that science was accorded its legitimate place only by unequivocally philosophical knowledge. Theories of knowledge did not limit themselves to the explication of scientific method—they did not merge with the philosophy of science.
This was still the case when modern metaphysics, which was already organized around the problem of possible knowledge, was itself subjected to doubt. Even Kant, through whose transcendental-logical (transzendentallogisch
perspective epistemology first became conscious of itself and thereby entered its own singular dimension, attributes to philosophy a sovereign role in relation to science. The critique of knowledge was still conceived in reference to a system of cognitive faculties that included practical reason and reflective judgment as naturally as critique itself, that is a theoretical reason that can dialectically ascertain not only its limits but also its own Idea. The comprehensive rationality of reason that becomes transparent to itself has not yet shrunk to a set of methodological principles.
It was with the elaboration of a metacritique that subjects the critique of knowledge to unyielding self-reflection, with Hegel’s
critique of Kant’s transcendental-logical inquiry, that philosophy was finally brought to the paradoxical point of not altering its position with regard to science but abandoning it completely. Hence I should like to put forth the thesis that since Kant science has no longer been seriously comprehended by philosophy. Science can only be comprehended epistemologically, which means as one category of possible knowledge, as long as knowledge is not equated either effusively with the absolute knowledge of a great philosophy or blindly with the scientistic self-understanding of the actual business of research (Forschung).3
Both equations close off the dimension in which an epistemological concept of science can be formed—in which, therefore, science can be made comprehensible within the horizon of possible knowledge and legitimated. Compared with “absolute knowledge” scientific knowledge necessarily appears narrow-minded, and the only task remaining is then the critical dissolution of the boundaries of positive knowledge. On the other hand, where a concept of knowing that transcends the prevailing sciences is totally lacking, the critique of knowledge resigns itself to the function of a philosophy of science, which restricts itself to the pseudo-normative regulation of established research.
Philosophy’s position with regard to science, which at one time could be designated with the name “theory of knowledge,” has been undermined by the movement of philosophical thought itself. Philosophy was dislodged from this position by philosophy. From then on, the theory of knowledge had to be replaced by a methodology emptied of philosophical thought. For the philosophy of science that has emerged since the mid-nineteenth century as the heir of the theory of knowledge is methodology pursued with a scientistic self-understanding of the sciences. “Scientism” means science’s belief in itself: that is, the conviction that we can no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science. The positivism that enters on the scene with Comte makes use of elements of both the empiricist and rationalist traditions in order to strengthen science’s belief in its exclusive validity after the fact, instead of to reflect (reflektieren)4
on it, and to account for the structure of the sciences on the basis of this belief. Modern positivism has solved this task with remarkable subtlety and indisputable success.
Every discussion of the conditions of possible knowledge today, therefore, must begin from the position worked out by analytic philosophy of science. We cannot return immediately to the dimension of epistemological investigation. Positivism has unreflectively leaped over this dimension, which is why it generally has regressed behind the level of reflection represented by Kant’s philosophy. To me it seems necessary to analyze the context in which positivist doctrines originated before we can take up the current discussion. For a future systematic investigation of the basis in human interests of scientific knowledge cannot abstractly restore epistemology. Instead it can only return to a dimension that was first opened up by Hegel through the radical self-critique of epistemology and then once again obstructed.
In opposition to Kant, Hegel was able to demonstrate the phenomenological self-reflection of knowledge as the necessary radicalization of the critique of reason. But he did not develop it logically, owing, I believe, to his preoccupation with the postulates of the philosophy of identity (Identitätsphilosophie
Marx, whose historical materialism really required the movement of Hegel’s self-reflection, misunderstood his own conception and hence completed the disintegration of the theory of knowledge. Thus positivism could forget that the methodology of the sciences was intertwined with the objective self-formative process (Bildungsprozess
of the human species and erect the absolutism of pure methodology on the basis of the forgotten and repressed.
Hegel’s Critique of Kant: Radicalization or Abolition of the Theory of Knowledge
Hegel replaced the enterprise of epistemology with the phenomenological self-reflection of mind. He introduces the Phenomenology of Mind
with an argument that returns in later contexts.1
The critical philosophy (Kritizismus
demands that the knowing subject ascertain the conditions of the knowledge of which it is in principle capable before trusting its directly acquired cognitions. Only on the basis of reliable criteria of the validity of our judgments can we determine whether we may also be certain with regard to our knowledge. But if this critique itself must claim to be knowledge, how can we critically investigate the cognitive faculty prior to knowing?
What is demanded is thus the following: we should know the cognitive faculty before we know. It is like wanting to swim before going in the water. The investigation of the faculty of knowledge is itself knowledge, and cannot arrive at its goal because it is this goal already.3
Every consistent epistemology is caught in this circle from the beginning. This cannot be avoided by beginning the critique with presuppositions that remain provisionally unproblematic but that in principle can be taken as potential problems for subsequent investigation. This “problematic method,” originally adopted by Reinhold, is still recommended today by positivists for methodological investigations. It is argued that one cannot at the same time take all principles as problematic. The set of presuppositions that defines the frame of reference of a given investigation should be assumed as unproblematic for the course of the investigation. The manifold repetition of this procedure is supposed to provide an adequate guarantee that in principle all presuppositions can be called into question. However, the choice of the first frame of reference and the sequence of the additional stages of investigation remain arbitrary. Radical doubt is excluded, because the procedure rests on a conventionalism that precludes the logical foundation of its premises. But the theory of knowledge, according to its philosophical claim, is an enterprise directed at the whole. It is concerned with the critical justification of the conditions of possible knowledge in general. It cannot renounce radical, that is unconditional doubt. The methodical (methodisch
meaning of its approach would be inverted if it bound critique to conditions (that is if it allowed presuppositions) that are themselves the preconditions of the critique of knowledge without being subject to it. Because epistemology, in virtue of its claim to providing its own and the ultimate foundation, appears as the heir of First Philosophy (Ursprungsphilosophie
it cannot dispense with the strategy of beginning without presuppositions.6
This explains how Hegel can praise Reinhold, who clearly perceived the circular character of epistemology, while rejecting the problematic method that was to escape it. His “correct insight does not alter the character of such a method, but immediately expresses its inadequacy.”7
Hegel’s argument is conclusive. It is directed against the intention of First Philosophy. For the circle in which epistemology inevitably ensnares itself is a reminder that the critique of knowledge does not possess the spontaneity of an origin. As reflection it is instead dependent on something prior and given, which it takes as its object while simultaneously originating in it. Thus the critique of knowledge is condemned to being after the fact. It begins with data of consciousness that it first confronts empirically. But the choice of a starting point is not conventional. Sense-certainty is the name of the natural consciousness of a world of everyday life which we always find ourselves already inside, with inevitable contingency. Sense-certainty is objective in the sense that the recollecting power of reflection itself originates in this stratum of experience, whose dogmatic character it unmasks. In reflection consciousness cannot make anything transparent except the context of its own genesis. The circle that Hegel charges to epistemology as a bad contradiction is justified in phenomenological experience as the form of reflection itself. It pertains to the structure of self-knowledge that one must have known in order to know explicitly. Only something already known can be remembered as a result and comprehended in its genesis. This movement is the experience of reflection. Its goal is that knowledge which the critical philosophy asserted as an immediate possession.
If this is so, then the critique of knowledge can no longer claim to fulfill the intention of First Philosophy. But it is not at all clear why abandoning this intention should entail abandoning the critique of knowledge itself. The latter has only to cast off its false consciousness by being turned against itself in metacritique. Hegel, however, believes that his argument affects not only this false consciousness but the epistemological approach as such:
Meanwhile, if concern with falling into error creates mistrust in science, which goes to work without such misgivings and attains real knowledge, then it is not clear why conversely there should not be mistrust of this mistrust and why there should not be concern that this fear of erring is not error itself. In fact this fear presupposes many beliefs as true and bases its misgivings and conclusions on them. It is these presuppositions themselves that first need to be examined as to their truth.8
Hegel rightly criticizes the unacknowledged presuppositions of epistemology. However his demand that these, too, be subjected to critique accords with the strategy of unconditional doubt. Thus his argument cannot limit the mistrust expressed by the critical philosophy, which is the modern form of skepticism. Instead, it can only radicalize it. Phenomenology would have to reconstruct the standpoint of doubt (Zweifel) adopted by epistemology as the beaten path of despair (Verzweiflung). Hegel sees this; yet he asserts in the same breath that the fear of erring is error itself. Hence what starts out as immanent critique covertly turns into abstract negation. It is through the epistemological circle that the theory of knowledge can cure its false consciousness and be brought to consciousness of itself as reflection. Hegel, however, takes this circle as a sign of the untruth of the critical philosophy as such. He sees through the absolutism of an epistemology based on unreflected presuppositions, demonstrates the mediation of reflection by what precedes it, and thus destroys the renewal of First Philosophy on the basis of transcendentalism. Yet in so doing he imagines himself to be overcoming the critique of knowledge as such. This opinion insinuates itself because from the very beginning Hegel presumes as given a knowledge of the Absolute while indeed the possibility of just this knowledge would have to be demonstrated according to the criteria of a radicalized critique of knowledge.
Accordingly there is something half-hearted about the Phenomenology of Mind. The standpoint of absolute knowledge is to proceed with immanent necessity from phenomenological experience. But because it is absolute, it does not really need to be justified by the phenomenological self-reflection of mind; and, strictly speaking, it is not even capable of such justification. This equivocation of the phenomenology of mind deprives Hegel’s critique of Kant of the force that it would have needed in order to put forward a reflected theory of knowledge. The theory of transcendental philosophy itself has not held its ground against its positivist opponents.
Hegel directs himself against the Organon9
theory of knowledge. Those who conceive of the enterprise of the critique of knowledge as an examination of the means of knowledge start with a model of knowledge that emphasizes either the activity of the knowing subject or the receptivity of the cognitive process. Knowledge appears mediated either by an instrument with whose help we form objects or as a medium through which the light of the world enters the subject.10
Both versions accord in viewing knowledge as transcendentally determined by the means of possible knowledge. The model of knowing as a medium through which the state of fact, which is true in itself, manifests itself in refraction makes clear that even the contemplative self-understanding of theory, when examined from the viewpoint of the critique of knowledge, must be re-interpreted along the lines of an organon theory of knowledge. For Hegel the task of the critical philosophy appears as one of ascertaining the functions of the instrument or medium in order to be able to distinguish the inevitable contributions of the subject from the authentic objective content in the judgment that is the result of the cognitive process. The objection to this then lies at hand:
If we remove from a formed thing what the instrument has done to it, then the thing—in this case the Absolute—is once again just what it was before this exertion, which thus was superfluous. . . . Or if the examination of knowing, which we represent to ourselves as a medium [instead of as the functioning of an instrument—Jürgen Habermas], makes us acquainted with the law of its refraction, it is just as useless to us to deduct it from the result. For knowing is not the refraction of the ray, but the ray itself through which truth reaches us.11
This objection is obviously valid only presupposing that there can be something like knowledge in itself or absolute knowledge independent of the subjective conditions of possible knowledge. Hegel imputes to epistemology a privative concept of subjectively tinged knowledge that can in fact only arise in confrontation with Hegel’s own concept of absolute knowledge. However, for a critical philosophy that does not fear its own implications, there can be no concept of knowledge that can be explicated independently of the subjective conditions of the objectivity of possible knowledge: this is shown by Kant’s principle of the synthetic unity of apperception as the highest principle of all employment of the understanding. Of course, we can feign the idea of a mode of knowledge that is not “ours,” but we associate a meaning with this idea only to the extent that we derive it as a limiting concept from a variation of knowledge that is possible “for us.” It remains derivative and cannot itself serve as a standard according to which we could relativize that from which it is derived. Transcendental philosophy’s conception of knowledge mediated by an Organon implies that the frame of reference within which the objects of knowledge are at all possible is first constituted by the functions of the instrument. The idea that Hegel imputes to transcendental philosophy, namely “that the Absolute is located on one side and knowing, located on the other, is still something real by itself and in separation from the Absolute,”—this idea belongs rather to Hegel’s own frame of reference. For Hegel is referring to the absolute relation of subject and object. In this relation a mediating Organon of knowledge can in fact be thought of only as the cause of subjective interference and not as the condition of the possible objectivity of knowledge. For critical philosophy it is otherwise. The Organon produces the world within which reality can appear at all; thus under these conditions of its functioning it can always only disclose reality and not obscure it. Only presupposing that reality as such simply appears can this or that individual real element be obscured—unless we presume an absolute relation between reality and the cognitive process that is independent of that ...