Volume 56, Issue 2, June 2016
A Brilliant Failure
Hegel and Marx Assess the Enlightenment
Hegel and Marx both understand the Enlightenment as a failed project at liberation. For Hegel, the failure lies in the form of consciousness that he calls pure insight. For Marx, the failure lies in the commercial practices that perpetuate pure insight. Pure insight may win its battles with superstitious faith, but its view of human activity as purely subjective risks lapsing into skepticism. Pure insight cannot arrive at the truth that it seeks and ultimately reduces all things to utility. Utility is the pseudo-notion that imposes its own emptiness on things, thereby unleashing the violence of terror. Marx, too, regards utility as an imposter, one that offers a phony answer to the question “What gives commodities their value?” while disguising the exploitation inherent in capitalist society. The essay closes with a discussion of how Max Horkheimer’s account of instrumental reason presupposes the purist splits of the Enlightenment that it seeks to overcome.