Sohn-Rethel and the Liquidation of Kant’s Fetish: The Illusory Problem with Real Abstraction

FTC Manning


Alfred Sohn-Rethel is commonly named as a theorist of real abstraction. Real abstraction has come to be used as a conceptual resolution to the problem of how, in capitalism, things which seem abstract and immaterial nonetheless seem to have real, concrete, material effects. In this paper, I will argue that the term real abstraction is insufficient to address this issue, and occludes a lucid assessment of the role and meaning of "abstraction" and "logic" in capitalism. I will show how this can be apprehended through a close look at the emergence of the term in Sohn-Rethel's thought.

Sohn-Rethel attempts an ambitious re-conceptualization of cognition and science via a critique of Kant's dualist ontology. He argues that Kant's theory of science is "the classical manifestation of the bourgeois fetishism of intellectual labour." Sohn-Rethel aims to historicize the mind/body split, arguing that the split emerges only at a particular moment in history associated with commodity exchange. He writes, "The duality of sources of knowledge we accept as an incontrovertible fact. The question we ask is, what is the historical origin of our logical ability to construct mathematical hypotheses and the elements conributing to them." But why is this duality accepted as fact? This historicization of "real abstraction" comes at the expense of a deeper questioning of this split, in which we might argue that the mind/body divide is an appearance or a fetish.

The two Kantian spheres do not actually exist in reality as separated, just as Greek gods did not actually sit on clouds above Athens, and just as commodities do not really emerge smoothly and cleanly of their own volition onto the Walmart shelves. The oddity is that the two spheres /appear/ to “really” exist -- not, as Sohn-Rethel argues, that the two spheres are historically determinate. Their /fetish/ is historically determined.

Rubin writes that eventually, “Illusion and error in men's minds transform reified economic categories into "objective forms" (of thought) of production relations of a given, historically determined mode of production-commodity production (C., I, p. 72)”. Thus, with Kant, we observe one of the most fabulous examples of the increasingly reified categories of thought and matter incarnate into pure and purely separated realms. The problem is not, as Sohn-Rethel argues, that Kant neglects to account for the emergence of this division, but that Kant takes the division, which is an illusion, as real. Sohn-Rethel proceeds to accept and reify these illusions in a different way, preserving them from true liquidation, as “real abstractions”.

Sohn-Rethel - Kant - Real Abstraction - Fetish - Philosophy - Communism - Ontology - Logic