Skip to main content
Intended for healthcare professionals
Restricted access
Research article
First published online July 1, 2008

Antinomies of transcritique and virtue ethics: An Adornian critique


In the wave of critical theory's recent turn to ethics, Karatani's transcritique and Eagleton's ethics of agape have emerged as two of the most outstanding attempts to reinstate morality at the centre of Marx's analysis of capitalist society. This article argues that, in spite of their merits in repositioning the normative generalizations of the moral discourse within the context of Marx's political economy, both theories share certain fundamental flaws which are inherent in the very meaning of the possibility of moral action in a wrong society. By taking Karatani's transcritique as a sample of what Christoph Menke names `rational morality' and Eagleton's revival of classical morality as a variant of `virtue ethics', it is shown that they are both amenable to Adorno's charge that wrong life cannot be lived rightly. Finally, it is contended that what Adorno's criticism indicates is that, when it most matters in real situations, morality always reveals its political overdetermination.

Get full access to this article

View all access and purchase options for this article.

1 Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin, 2004).
2 Alex Callinicos, The Resources of Critique (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), pp. 9—10.
3 Thus Eagleton claims that Marx, like Hegel, `conjured a powerfully historical critique' of Aristotle's ethics of virtue on the ground that modern capitalist societies are incapable of thinking in non-instrumental terms (cf. Eagleton, After Theory, p. 123). Callinicos, in turn, notices how Marx, in The German Ideology , develops a `withering critique' of moral philosophy (cf. Callinicos, The Resources of Critique, p. 218). Karatani's position is instead more nuanced. He acknowledges that in Capital `there is no subjectivity' and that individuals are treated as mere personifications of economic categories (cf. Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, p. 19). He then goes on to rescue Marx's humanism by arguing that Marx's critique of political economy in Capital does not imply a rejection of morality, but only its suspension or bracketing. However, a positive demonstration of Marx's communism as an ethical intervention on the world is never provided.
4 Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2002).
5 Quoted in Terry Eagleton, `Subjects and Truths', New Left Review 9 (2001): 155—60 (157). See also James D. Ingram, `Can Universalism Still Be Radical? Alain Badiou's Politics of Truth', Constellations 12(4) (2005): 561—73.
6 Callinicos, The Resources of Critique, p. 35.
7 Cf. Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, pp. 8—10.
8 Cf. Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, p. 129.
9 Callinicos, The Resources of Critique, p. 221. For a more detailed account of this argument see Alex Callinicos, Equality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
10 Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, pp. x—xii.
11 Cf. Terry Eagleton, `Self-Realization, Ethics, and Socialism', New Left Review I(237) (1999): 149—61 (155). It is striking to note the extent to which both Karatani's and Eagleton's arguments resemble G. A. Cohen's moral defense of egalitarian socialism. Cohen resorts to the moral case for equality following his rejection of the obstetric conception of political practice which, in his view, descends from Hegel's application of the dialectical idea to history. According to the obstetric conception of history, a more equal and just society is delivered from the womb of capitalist society through the development of its productive forces and the unfolding of its immanent contradictions. See G. A. Cohen, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
12 Here the notion of transcendence is to be understood not in a Christian, theological sense, but in a social, political and intellectual one. Cf. Callinicos, The Resources of Critique , p. 1. See also ch. 3 with its discussion of Badiou's ontology of the event, Žižek's Lacanian concept of the Real and Hardt's and Negri's vitalism.
13 Cf. Slavoj Žižek, `Against Human Rights', New Left Review 34 (2005): 115—31 (125). The politics of human rights is depoliticized in the sense that it is intended for a pre-political individual with no rights, an individual eerily reminiscent of Agamben's homo sacer, that is, the ultimate human being reduced to bare life.
14 Cf. Christoph Menke, `Virtue and Reflection: The “Antinomies of Moral Philosophy”', Constellations 12(1) (2005): 36—49.
15 Cf. Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, pp. 2—3.
16 ibid., p. 17.
17 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, Mx: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 92.
18 Cf. Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, p. 19.
19 ibid., p. 287.
20 ibid., p. 289.
21 ibid., p. 22. To further enhance his analogy between Kant and Marx, Karatani goes as far as to claim that money is `a transcendental apperception X of human exchange'.
22 ibid., p. 114.
23 Karatani's rather odd use of the term `transcendental' should not be allowed to go unnoticed. He claims that Marx's aim in Capital is `to conduct a transcendental scrutiny of the conditions with which the accumulation of capital is made possible' (ibid., p. 243). But in Kant `transcendental' refers to the subjective realm of a priori conditions that make knowledge of the world possible. On the contrary, Marx's conditions of capital's accumulation are historical and objective, not subjective. Things do not become clearer if, in accordance with the semantic continuity Karatani appears to establish between the transcendental and the methodological device of bracketing, Husserl's phenomenology is brought into the picture. The misunderstanding remains since, in Husserl too, the transcendental-phenomenological epoché is designed to isolate the subjective domain within which meanings are a priori constituted.
24 ibid., p. 115.
25 Karatani holds, for instance, that the views of Proudhon and the utopian socialists could have never been conceptualized without the moral moment inherent in Kant's thinking (see ibid., p. viii). He also argues that in pre-industrial capitalist Germany Kant probably envisaged that an association of independent small producers was the most suitable social form that enabled the moral law to be realized. However, the spread of unrestrained capitalism made this option obsolete. In the new context of generalized commodity production Kant's category of kingdom of ends came therefore to acquire a new meaning akin to communism.
26 Karl Marx, `A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction', in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), p. 182. Quoted in Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, p. 130.
27 ibid., p. 130.
28 Slavoj Žižek, `The Parallax View', New Left Review 25 (2004): 121—34 (121).
29 For a comprehensive account of Adorno's critique I draw heavily on J. M. Bernstein's study Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
30 Cf. ibid., p. 137.
31 ibid., p. 178.
32 T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1973), p. 285. See also Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, p. 179.
33 See Žižek, `Parallax View', p. 129.
34 ibid., p. 128.
35 ibid., p. 129.
36 See John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 5—8.
37 Cf. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, 3 vols (Moscow: 1963—72), p. 500. This passage is quoted and commented on by Callinicos, The Resources of Critique, p. 204.
38 Cf. T. W. Adorno, `On Subject and Object', in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 254. See also Deborah Cook, `From the Actual to the Possible: Nonidentity Thinking', Constellations 12(1) (2005): 21—35 (23). It is worth noticing that, in a recent book, Brian O'Connor argues that Adorno develops an account of critical theory that burdens it with a series of epistemological demands. Indeed, he claims that negative dialectics has a transcendental aspect that lies in its thrust to identify the conditions that make experience possible and in asserting that these conditions are rationally compelling. However, what O'Connor names `[Adorno's] transcendental critique of philosophy' is not a new epistemology, but a `metacritique of epistemology' which consists in exposing the inconsistencies of all modern accounts of experience. According to O'Connor, by way of a critical and negative enquiry Adorno establishes a form of subject—object relation that is the only way in which the structure of experience can be rationally articulated. Furthermore, any possible primacy of epistemology is undermined by the fact that Adorno rejects Kant's optimism about the power of reason to change the course of history. As O'Connor shows, the dominating forms of rationality in the modern world reflect for Adorno the economic structure of society. As a consequence, there is no guarantee that the truth pointed to by the metacritique of epistemology is capable of transforming the subject in its confrontation with objective reality. See Brian O'Connor, Adorno's Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
39 Cf. Cook, `From the Actual to the Possible: Nonidentity Thinking', 25.
40 For an analysis of Adorno's notion of emphatic truth in relation to the suffering of the Hegelian spirit in the face of a world that systematically denies the fulfilment of its promesse de bonheur, see Raymond Geuss, `Suffering and Knowledge in Adorno', in Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 111—30.
41 Cf. Cook, `From the Actual to the Possible: Nonidentity Thinking', 27—8.
42 Menke, `Virtue and Reflection', p. 45.
43 Cf. Eagleton, After Theory, p. 153.
44 ibid.
45 ibid., p. 148.
46 ibid., p. 154.
47 ibid., p. 160.
48 ibid., p. 161.
49 ibid., p. 143.
50 ibid.
51 Cf. Menke, `Virtue and Reflection', p. 42.
52 T. W. Adorno, `Marginalia to Theory and Practice', in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 268.
53 The question of whether the objective conditions for collective political action exist today transcends the scope of this article. Adorno believed they did not exist in his own time, thus leaving the moral agent wrestling between the danger of moral reversal and the need to compromise ethics with contingent tactical decisions.
54 Menke, `Virtue and Reflection', p. 48.
55 Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999), p. 223.
56 Cf. Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 118.
57 Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 143.
58 On the radical openness of the French Revolution, its unfinished character and dual nature as event and process, see Stathis Kouvelakis, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx (London: Verso, 2003).

Cite article

Cite article

Cite article


Download to reference manager

If you have citation software installed, you can download article citation data to the citation manager of your choice

Share options


Share this article

Share with email
Share on social media

Share access to this article

Sharing links are not relevant where the article is open access and not available if you do not have a subscription.

For more information view the SAGE Journals article sharing page.

Information, rights and permissions


Published In

Article first published online: July 1, 2008
Issue published: July 2008


  1. Theodor Adorno
  2. critical theory
  3. dialectics
  4. Terry Eagleton
  5. Kojin Karatani
  6. rational morality
  7. totality
  8. transcendental
  9. transcritique
  10. virtue ethics

Rights and permissions

Request permissions for this article.


Published online: July 1, 2008
Issue published: July 2008



Giuseppe Tassone
University of Balamand, Lebanon

Metrics and citations


Journals metrics

This article was published in Philosophy & Social Criticism.


Article usage*

Total views and downloads: 62

*Article usage tracking started in December 2016

Articles citing this one

Web of Science: 0

Crossref: 0

There are no citing articles to show.

Figures and tables

Figures & Media


View Options

Get access

Access options

If you have access to journal content via a personal subscription, university, library, employer or society, select from the options below:

Alternatively, view purchase options below:

Purchase 24 hour online access to view and download content.

Access journal content via a DeepDyve subscription or find out more about this option.

View options


View PDF/ePub