Konstantinos Kavoulakos, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis: From Neo-Kantianism to Marxism. London: Bloomsbury, 2018; 264 pages. ISBN: 978-1474267410. 

Reviewed by Saulius Jurga, University of Messina.

Over the last decade, Konstantinos Kavoulakos has established himself among the leading interpreters of Georg Lukács’s thought. With his previous German monograph, Ästhetizistische Kulturkritik und ethische Utopie: Georg Lukács’ neukantianisches Frühwerk (2014), he set a new standard for philologically rigorous research of Lukács’s pre-Marxist work. In the same spirit, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis: From Neo-Kantianism to Marxism, Kavoulakos’s first book in English, offers a major reconstruction of Lukács’s early-Marxist philosophy in History and Class Consciousness. After its publication in 1923, Lukács’s book was condemned by the Marxist orthodoxy and fell into lasting obscurity, interrupted only by brief, occasional rediscoveries. As a result, no solid ground was laid for a more systematic approach to researching Lukács’s early-Marxist œuvre. Recent years, however, have witnessed renewed scholarly interest in History and Class Consciousness; Kavoulakos’s study thus offers a timely contribution to the debate around Lukács’s philosophical legacy.

The book comprises three parts: “Method” (Part 1), “Theory” (Part 2), and “Praxis” (Part 3). It also includes a substantial preface by Andrew Feenberg; an introductory chapter, “The Need to Reconsider Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis”; and an epilogue, “The Significance of Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis Today.”

In his preface, Feenberg stresses the importance of reading Lukács’s early Marxism in light of his formative philosophical influences, which he believes makes it possible to challenge ungrounded attacks on the conceptual structure of Lukács’s theory of reification. What sets Kavoulakos’s reading apart is the attention paid to the neo-Kantian background of Lukács’s early Marxism, something Feenberg identifies as “a subject occasionally mentioned by critics but never deeply analyzed.” (xi) Feenberg’s comments on the matter are significant, since his own groundbreaking investigations of History and Class Consciousness pioneered a contextualized approach to Lukács’s allegedly puzzling appropriation of neo-Kantian conceptual apparatus. Feenberg can thus appreciate Kavoulakos’s insistence on the centrality of a neo-Kantian notion of the form of objectivity (Gegenständlichkeitsform) for understanding the thing (res) at stake in reification. Often interpreted as identical to objectification, the notion of reification has led some to criticize Lukács as an idealist or “a romantic, hostile to science and reason.” (xiii) However, Feenberg aptly notes that “[t]he implied concept of ‘thing’ does not refer to entity in general,” but to “the object corresponding to the capitalist form of objectivity” (xiii): the commodity form. This early-Marxist reconceptualization of the form of objectivity is thus at the core of Lukács’s transition from “neo-Kantianism to Marxism.”

In the introductory chapter, Kavoulakos contextualizes his interpretation of Lukács in relation to previous acclaimed criticisms of History and Class Consciousness, such as those of Adorno and Habermas. And while Kavoulakos considers “Adorno’s critique of Lukács’s alleged idealism as partly legitimate” (9)—albeit one that fails to grasp the essence of Lukács’s reification theory—he deems Habermas’s “communicative” take on Critical Theory to have been made impracticable by a social shift towards “global domination of a technocratic and authoritarian neoliberalism.” (8) This immediate refutation of established criticisms leads us directly to Kavoulakos’s larger strategy of providing a novel interpretation of Lukács’s thought, which gradually emerges from a meticulous disclosure of the contradictions and prejudices that dominate the literary sources he considers throughout the book. But Kavoulakos’s enterprise is motivated by more than a need to do justice to Lukács; he also believes that, if understood more charitably, Lukács’s social philosophy can still contribute to contemporary Critical Theory.

Part 1 presents an extensive reconstruction of the neo-Kantian philosophical background of Lukács’s early Marxism. This is the most theoretically substantial part of the book, and it might appear challenging to a reader accustomed to approaching History and Class Consciousness through the lens of Hegelian dialectics, Marxism, and early German sociology. However, it is necessary in order to get to the core of Lukács’s argument. Kavoulakos throws his reader directly into the neo-Kantian epistemological debate around “the central problem of modern philosophy: the problem of the content of knowledge.” (14) Drawing on his immense knowledge of neo-Kantianism, he lays out the essential features of the debate in a few chapters, as well as its pervasive influence on Lukács’s views on epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and history. The analysis is too rich and complex to reproduce here, but I will emphasize four aspects that stand out as the most relevant for Lukács’s theory of reification.

Drawing from Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of values, Kavoulakos explores formalism as the key to understanding Lukács’s critique of the neo-Kantian version of the problem of content. Rickert viewed content as “irrational” due to its irreducibility to the rational forms (values) that alone guarantee knowledge for a transcendental epistemological subject: a “judging consciousness in general.” (17)

By way of Rickert and his disciple Emil Lask, Kavoulakos shows that a formalistic understanding of content lends Lukács a privileged standpoint for his critical reading of modern philosophy. For instance, connecting the problem of content with Kant’s view of the thing in itself—in its dual aspect of “the non-reducible, contingent content and the problem of the impossibility of knowing the totality” (33)—allows Lukács to puncture the formalist tendency within Kantian philosophy, a tendency that leads either to treating content as a product of rational forms (dogmatism) or relegating it to irrationality and thus making it inaccessible to the subject (skepticism). Both positions are, however, characterized by a dualistic chasm between form and content, subject and object; the aim of Lukács’s holistic theory of praxis, Kavoulakos’s argues, is to move beyond the necessity to choose between these positions. At the same time, from Rickert and Lask, Lukács inherited a suspicion of Hegel’s systematization of history. The idea of prioritizing materially adjusted forms of historical becoming over the principle of systematization is largely derived from Lask’s critique of the suppression of irrational content in Hegel’s emanatist logic (61–64) and Rickert’s idea of individuality as the object of historical knowledge. (7476)

Kavoulakos reminds us that, from the very beginning, Lukács’s reception of neo-Kantianism was mediated by Emil Lask’s objectivistic turn in the theory of values. For Lask, primordial meaning lies in the ontological realm of categories, understood as complexes of two interdependent and irreducible elements: categorial form and categorial material. (23) Importantly, Lask offers an epistemological model where the role of judging consciousness is substantially diminished, thus allowing Lukács to retain the constitutive function of material within the object. Nonetheless, Kavoulakos notes that Lask’s theory remains subject to formalism, since the harmonious relationship between form and material within objectivity is preserved only as long as it is separated from any subjective intervention.

In a metacritical fashion Lukács re-evaluates Lask’s “most general category of transcendental ontology” (90), the form of objectivity, to present an alternative to formalist dualism. One merit of Kavoulakos’s reading lies in revealing the interpenetration of the epistemological and ontological conceptual layers of the form of objectivity in Lukács’s thought, whereby “the logical structure of the theory of historical and/or natural reality” is intertwined with “the historically unique form of the mediation of man and world in a specific epoch.” (91) However, the most significant feature of Kavoulakos’s view of the relationship between neo-Kantianism and Lukács’s early Marxism is its demonstration that Lukács did not simply discard what he had acquired from his philosophical education prior to his turn to Marxism, but rather that he creatively reinterpreted or “sublated” these acquisitions.

Part 2 presents a careful reading of Lukács’s theory of “rationality and modern society” (10), in which Kavoulakos’s accomplishment is twofold. First, he traces the development of Lukács’s concept of reification in his early pre-Marxist work. He does this by first disclosing Lukács’s precocious interest in social rationalization in his earliest historico-methodological works on literature and modern drama, largely influenced by Simmel’s and Weber’s ideas on modernity, before then turning again to a critical re-examination of the neo-Kantian themes that prepared the ground for Lukács’s theory of reification. Whether it is the capitulation of modern subjectivity in front of nature-like laws of the “world of convention” (111) discussed in The Theory of the Novel (1916), or the constitutive passivity of an experiencing subject in front of the brute facts of experienced reality found in the Heidelberg Aesthetics (1916–1918), Lukács’s early Marxist philosophy, Kavoulakos argues, integrates these critical intuitions within his “dialectical theory of society and history.” (113)

Second, and Kavoulakos’s central achievement in Part 2, is his subtle distinction between the modern form of objectivity and reification. The former has its prototype in the commodity form, whose effects are both objective and subjective. According to Kavoulakos, “the universalization of the commodity form” entails both the establishment of a highly rationalized capitalist economic system and “the constitution and wide expansion of the human type of the ‘free’ worker, whose labor power has become an objectively measured ‘thing’ that she sells ‘freely’ in the labor market.” (119) In contrast, he identifies reification as a corollary of (and thus not identical to) this universal predominance of the commodity form. And like the universalization of the commodity form, the derivative phenomenon of reification comprises subjective and objective aspects. Objectively, reification implies that the socio-historical character of the universalization of the commodity form is obscured and that “the formalist rationality of commodity exchange” (134) thus appears as “the only valid form of rationality.” (134) Subjectively, this process of historical obfuscation constitutes the framework for the “cognitive and practical behavior” (138) involved in acknowledging the exclusiveness of formal-calculative rationality: the attitude Lukács defined as contemplation. This cannot be overstressed given the inclination of much of the secondary literature to identify reification with rationalization or objectification. In this respect, Kavoulakos not only distinguishes between the two but also refutes a series of unilateral understandings of reification, not least Lukács’s own later self-criticism, arguing that such critiques isolate some aspects of Lukács’s comprehensive theory while obscuring others. The best example of this strategy is his extensive critique of Axel Honneth’s normative re-examination of the concept of reification, which ignores Lukács insistence upon its other, socio-ontological meaning.

In Part 3, Kavoulakos fully develops his vision of Lukács’s philosophy of praxis, understood as a holistic “theory of social and political change.” (10) He can do this with exemplary precision because of the theoretical foundations for a non-reductionist theory of action laid in Parts 1 and 2. Thus, in this section, after briefly reviewing Lukács’s pre-Marxist ethical conception of praxis, Kavoulakos discusses a number of politically relevant topics, such as class consciousness, revolutionary action, and the political party. What stands out most, though, is the idea of the processes of “subjectification” (177) and “dereification” (194) being subject to a radical form of historicity. Against critiques that impute to Lukács an idealistic conception of revolutionary praxis, Kavoulakos sees dereification as “an open project that permanently needs adjustment,” possible only against a concrete horizon of lived reality in which “the dialectical process of revolutionary subjectification always presupposes what it negates, that is, capitalist reification.” (197)

Finally, Kavoulakos suggests that Lukács’s alternative to formalist treatments of the problem of content lies in a content-adjusted idea of praxis, where subject and object are always intertwined and political action can only be conceptualized in relation to the radical novelty of each historical constellation. Along the same lines, Kavoulakos examines the account of nature in Lukács’s dialectical theory of society, which is presented, against those who accuse Lukács of reducing nature to a social category, as “fundamentally negative and incomplete” (215), thereby resisting full social appropriation. More critical readers may object that Kavoulakos does not pay enough attention to political-economic analysis and critique of Lukács’s Marxist theory. But such objections overlook the strategy of Lukács’s philosophy of praxis, which is first preoccupied with exhibiting and critiquing the fundamental socio-ontological structure that determines the modes of being and interrelation of different social phenomena under capitalism, including the economy.

Overall, Kavoulakos’s book delivers on its promise to track the shift of Lukács’s thought “from neo-Kantianism to Marxism” without reducing this development to a linear scheme. It sheds new light on a thinker who had a major influence on the Frankfurt School and, more generally, Western Marxism. It is, therefore, a must-read for anyone interested in both traditional and contemporary Critical Theory.


Additional Works Cited

Konstantinos Kavoulakos (2014), Ästhetizistische Kulturkritik und ethische Utopie: Georg Lukács’ neukantianisches Frühwerk (Berlin: De Gruyter).

Georg Lukács (1971), History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, (tr.) R. Livingstone (London: Merlin Press).

Georg Lukács (1975), Heidelberger Ästhetik (1916-1918), in Georg Lukács Werke, vol. 17, (ed.) G. Márkus and F. Benseler (Darmstadt and Neuwird: Luchterhand).

Georg Lukács (1978), The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature (London: Merlin Press).