Kojin Karatani’s Concentric Worlds of Exchange Recurrences and Isonomic Associationism

Prasanta Chakravarty

Those in the English speaking world following Kojin Karatani’s formidable scholarly oeuvre, accumulating through the past three decades, shall appreciate the central threads of his argumentative universe. The threads appear and reappear in discrete yet familiar ways so that we are aware that each new work is yet another brick added to a prior edifice, which is also an intellectual commitment. And yet, true to his assertions, each work is also a singular insistence, an undertaking in some fresh direction.

Karatani is a political philosopher who looks closely at the history of social formations from the standpoint of modes of exchange. In an earlier incarnation, he was a literary critic and theorist of modernism; but even in his grappling with literary modernism in Japan, he has been consistently interested in questions involving nationalism, structures of world history, ecriture, conditions of time and space, and relations of exchange.


Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy is perhaps the most refined condensation of his long-term concerns. It is a systematic attempt to reclaim naturphilosophie from empiricism in order to firmly re-situate it within structures of rationalism, instead. Apart from its philosophical concerns, the book is also a direct justification of Karatani’s deep engagement with the political project of LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), a form of association in which individuals and groups can exchange goods and services outside the circuits of capital. But this latest work is more than just an augmentation of his earlier preoccupations. The radical claims of Karatani’s book lie elsewhere. One, we encounter a comprehensive way of politicising natural philosophy, especially in the context of a renewed and ongoing interest in the issues of matter, objectivity and physical movement in the social sciences. And second, Karatani’s book tries to provide us with a radical political social alternative to known social forms, including democracy.

An Advanced Primitive Communism

In The Structure of World History, Karatani had already delineated the basic framework of his argument. He starts with the assertion that Marx did not pay much heed to pre-capitalist societies because what was important to him were the stages of progressive history. But historical time can be unevenly distributed around the world at any given moment. Since Marcel Mauss, it has been generally accepted that the reciprocity of gift exchange is the dominant principle governing archaic societies. But this principle did not exist among the nomadic hunter-gatherers, the ‘band’ societies that had existed prior to the clan societies. In these societies, goods were distributed equally and it was impossible to hoard. This was a pure gift, one that did not require a reciprocal counter-gift. There was scant community pressure to regulate individuals in the groups and even marital ties were fluid. The idea of equality in such societies was derived from the free mobility of each member of the group. This is actually a primitive form of associationism. The clan society, based on reciprocity, arose only after nomadic bands moved into fixed settlements. Fixed settlements, which in turn led to an increase in population, also meant the possibility of warfare with outsiders. This shift also meant free accumulation of wealth, which inevitably led to disparities in wealth and power. Even as reciprocity had ensured a kind of equity it had in turn taken mobility away from members of the clan.

Karatani finds it necessary to make a clear distinction between itinerant, nomadic people as against those belonging to fixed settlements. This comes from his interest in recovering and projecting the idea of primitive communism as advanced by Marx. Karatani is refining that very idea in his own manner while considering the possibilities of reconstructing its premise after the eventual demise of capitalism/liberal democracy. But there is little discussion as to how such a transformation will happen. He is aware that there is no historical evidence about such a social formation actually existing— either in Marxist thought or in recent anthropological studies. Isonomia is a way to give us a sense of what an advanced form of primitive communism might look like and how it could forge a more egalitarian society than democracy. The very idea of an isonomic society is, therefore, a kind of construct, but it also has an implicit claim of historicity—that there did exist an actual form of social arrangement that was far more just and free than the Athenian forms of democracy or the Spartan form of centralised social system.

In this context, the crucial question that Karatani asks is about Marx’s overlooking of the difference between nomadic and clan societies. This, Karatani concludes, has to do with his viewing of the history of social formations in terms of modes of production. In other words, when seen from the perspective of their shared ownership of the means of production, there is no difference between nomadic and clan societies. But if one views societies from the perspective of modes of exchange, we see a deciding difference—say, the distinction between the pure gift and the gift based on reciprocity.

Karatani has actually extended this way of reading Marx alongside Kant, in his earlier and original work Transcritique. At this juncture, we would do well to make a short detour through his critical reading of Marx, because that shall prove crucial in understanding why he now proposes a full scale associationist socio-economic model based on the idea of Isonomia.

In Transcritique, Karatani had tried to systematically elaborate his political commitments to associationist forms of Marxism by distancing himself from the question of modes of production while trying to explain pre-capitalist or Asiatic societies. We are aware how the production debate has always been an issue in explaining non-industrialised or partially industrialised societies. Karatani does not wish to split the economic from the political. Nor is he inclined to view the state and the nation as ideological superstructures since these institutions function as active agents on their own. These structures have proved their resilience so far without withering away. Karatani is not satisfied with the idea of relative autonomy of the superstructure proposed by some Marxist critics, that is to say, supplementing economic determinism with insights from psychoanalysis or sociology that results in underestimating the question of economic base altogether.

Karatani had then tried to work in the Kant/Marx intersection in order to recover the idea of critique that is common to both, by seeing them as being invested in progressive unfolding of historically constituted societies. The idea is to further radicalise the critical project. To that end, Karatani reads Kant in a unique fashion: by radicalising the idea of freedom itself (Kantian ‘kingdom of ends’ rather than means) and showing how close liberty is to equality. He believes that Kant’s eventual goal was to establish an association of independent small producers in opposition to the civil society dominated by merchant capitalism. Kant’s views are, in this respect, quite close to utopian socialists and anarchists (like Proudhon).

In the second half of Kant’s first Critique, the Antinomies of Reason arrive as antithetical propositions: the world is simultaneously bounded in time and space and the world is infinite with respect to time and space. These two possibilities cannot be simultaneously true. Kant does not sublate the two by bringing them into a clash, leading to any higher formulation. Kant shuttles between these two perspectives, calling it parallax view. This is what interests Karatani. He keeps the disjunction between these two perspectives unresolved. Kant’s critique is thus a transversal movement from one realm of existence to another. This Karatani christens as transcritique. Ideas of reason for Kant are heuristic and regulative rather than constitutive. He refuses to turn the limits of his critique into negativity but it does not negate negativity either. With this backdrop in mind, Karatani now posits this idea of parallax against Marx’s critique of political economy. He suggests that Marx repeats the Kantian antinomy between idealism and empiricism; that Marx undertakes a parallax vision keeping Hegelian dialects on one side and British empiricism on the other. Even as it is well regarded that Marx inherited the Ricardian labor theory of value, he is also indebted to the political economy of Samuel Bailey, who had critiqued Ricardo on the grounds that there is no intrinsic substance of value; that the idea of “labor time” is but a figment. Bailey argues instead that value is purely relational and it exists only to flag the fact that commodities are related to other commodities for which they can be exchanged. Neoclassical theories, of course, hailed this idea of value being in the margins. And with that the labour theory of value, and therefore class itself, was dismissed.

Karatani argues that Marx’s critique of political economy functions in this parallax, between the labour theory of value, on the one hand, and positivistic dismissal of value theory altogether on the other. Marx rejects the essentialist elements in the classical labour theory of value but also insists, against neoclassical nominalism, that a transcendental reflection on value is necessary in order to comprehensively explain the processes of capitalism. Karatani, in effect, argues, as both Slavoj Zizek and Steven Shaviro have shown, that “value and surplus value, as posited in Volume I of Capital, are the transcendental conditions of the possibility of capitalism.” Value and surplus value allow conceptually the very idea of extracting profit. But we do not encounter such abstractions in the real world. Rather, we encounter prices and profits in empirical situations. “Thus,” Karatani writes, “the insistence of neoclassical economists that the concepts of value and surplus value are false is in total accord with the everyday consciousness of the agents.” The “ideology” of prices and profits is itself an objective part of social reality. There is nothing fictitious about this objective reality while conceptually we are aware of the sleight of hand. These conclusions lead Karatani to lay particular stress on circulation, and on money, within the framework of Marxist analysis of the conditions of capital.

Karatani thus expands on the notion of the value-form in Marx: “…all the enigmas of capital’s drive are inscribed in the theory of value form…. Value form is a kind of form that people are not aware of when they are placed within the monetary economy; this is the form that is discovered only transcendentally.” Value-form takes the dual nature of commodities seriously. If we read the idea of money through value-form it would seem like a Kantian transcendental illusion, but it seems to be impossible to discard financial speculation as a mere distraction from the modes of production. Its very illusiveness has the power to drive the entire process. Surplus value needs to be realised in circulation; hence we must give enough attention to this process rather than going back to production. The capitalist mode of circulation itself might fail since its success is contingent upon the power and circumstances of the speculation and the parallax view. The very idea of turnover itself is slow and subject to internal flaws. These conclusions on the part of Karatani rely on a certain powerful but severe revisionism and take away the fundamental force of the critique of political economy itself. More on this anon.

At this stage, we are in a position to return to Karatani’s idea of political association based on a society that runs on a radical notion of exchange. Clearly, he wishes to restore the conception of nomadic society as an alternative to democracy and even primitive communism. But as one has already noticed in The Structure of World History, Karatani uses a kind of universal religion as a regulative idea in his nomadic world (in contrast to shamanism, magic or reciprocity). But in his exposition of Ionia in Isonomia, there are no such trappings. This form of loose community structure he calls covenant communities. In order to describe this advanced mode of the socialist coming community (like Derrida’s New International, or Hardt and Negri’s multitude), Karatani takes us through the conception and history (trying to relate what he calls—capital-nation-state) of the Ionian world in his new book.

In order to highlight the Ionian social system, Karatani begins by contrasting it with Athens. He puts into question the vaunted notion of autonomous individual choice in Athenian society. Athens, he says, was primarily based on social strata that went from the household (oikos), to clan (genos) to brotherhood or kinship (phratry) to the tribe (phylai). So, the tribal traditions were well alive in Athens. The idea of democracy could, therefore, never transcend claims of kinship. Concomitantly, there were inequality and class antagonisms within the polis. This gets increasingly clear on the point of foreigners, who were systematically excluded from the system. Karatani compares this way of living with the original confederacy of Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon, though the Greeks never turned despotic.

By contrast, Ionia welcomed a large number of immigrants from Athens and the Greek mainland. The Ionians never placed great importance on ties with their place of origin. In Ionia there existed no democracy but only isonomia. These are two distinct entities. Isonomia is no rule (no notion of archy or cracy in isonomy, as Hannah Arendt had observed). Democracy, by contrast, is the rule of the many or majority rule. Equality was identical to isonomia. This notion of isonomia, Karatani reminds us, was not notional but an actually existing condition in the city-states of Ionia. This was a new type of covenant community.

Monetary economy was fairly well developed in Ionia, but disparities of wealth were non-existent. One of the reasons for such parity was that in Ionia a landless person could simply migrate to a new city, instead of being some kind of copyholder tenant in another person’s land. This fact made sure that there was not much room for landowners to emerge. Karatani deduces that this is how freedom gave rise to equality. In this he is true to his Kantian leanings. By contrast, in Athens equality came at the expense of freedom. Since modern democracy is an odd combination of liberalism and democracy, it fails to reconcile freedom with equality. It can only swing back and forth between the poles of libertarianism (neoliberalism) and social democracy (the welfare state). Moreover, Athenian democracy was required for the survival of the state and military matters. Athens scorned manual labour as the work of slaves. Ionian isonomia, on the other hand, burgeoned along with development in farming, trade and manufacture. This is the starkest difference between democracy and isonomia.

Karatani argues how money economy of Athens forced others into strict labour conditions. It is only with the labour of the slave, or debt servitude that concentration of wealth and large landholdings in Athens could be established. In Ionia, everyone cultivated their own land, while those without land left for new locations. Class disparities, consequently, were completely absent in Ionia. The Ionian polis essentially was a council of manufacturers and merchants. The absence of a landowning nobility meant that the market economy did not give rise to disparities in Ionia. This situation in Ionia is comparable to modern Iceland and North America where early on there had to be enough frontier land available to enable free movement. The idea of the independent farmer was crucial for such societies too. Mobility and freedom bring about equality. Such a federated system depends on successful implementation of isonomia. Kantian freedom leads to Marxist equality.

Natura Naturans

At a fundamental level, Isonomia is largely the story of the Milesian school of philosophy and the Eastern Greek tradition: the physikoi or the physiologoi, as they were designated later. The way one thinks about natural philosophy shall depend on how one defines nature. Often, Ionian philosophy gets relegated through a misleading suggestion that though it was seriously invested in questions of nature, it could not relate these concerns with problems of ethics or the self. Karatani turns this argument on its head and proffers the case that it is only with the severance with one’s community that one turns into an individual. The self is discovered and the question of ethics arises. While Athens was never independent of clan affiliations, Ionia was the first in the Greek region to raise the question of ethics and self.

Karatani’s book stands or falls on this hypothesis that the Ionian natural philosophers were advocates of a cosmopolitan and universal ethics. They were, therefore, deeply political in their thinking about nature. Thales, for instance, claimed that all things derived from water. Anaximander finds this same arche in the boundless—or apeiron. Hecataeus, another geographer-historian of Miletus, conducted a critique of the mythological explanations of the Homeric tales. All these are part of natural philosophy. For Democritus, human beings are travellers who are independent of the polis. Each person is a microcosm unto himself. True ethics thus arises out of the cosmopolis rather than the polis.

Instead of arguing in a sustained fashion about the key philosophical threads in the school of isonomic natural philosophy, Karatani marshals the main features of individual philosophers and writers of that area in the middle section of his book. In the process, he tries to build a case for isonomia. Hippocrates rejects all heavenly explanations for disease: “It is thus with regard to the disease called Divine Affliction—it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases.” He calls out all false prophets, conjurers and mountebanks. Such falseness is more about impiety than piety. The gods only manifest themselves through the workings of physis. Not nomos. Not love of wisdom (philo-sophia) but craft (techne) is important for Hippocrates. Isonomia, therefore, depends on such a mode of natural philosophy, leading to the egalitarian relations of production. There are no systems of slavery or bonded labour since these modes run counter to nature or physis. After the fall of the Ionian city states, such an attitude spread to the diaspora. The sophists too were influenced by Ionian natural philosophy.

One of the reasons for such an unusually wide philosophical reach was simply because Ionia was a multi-ethnic cluster of colonies in Asia Minor, and, as such, could not be ethnocentric in any form. The natural philosophers lived in a fluid, nomadic and cosmopolitan world. The Histories of Herodotus displays a basic sympathy with Hippocrates and shows how the natural environment can affect human environment and social set-up. Ceaseless inquiry or elenchus must be the basis of nomos or physis, a life of constant survey and analysis.

One of the fundamental principles of natural philosophy is its severe critique of religion. That is the way one begins to counter a world of clan or mythified society, but the kernel of Ionian natural philosophy is the idea of self-moving matter. Matter is boundless and is eventually composed of a single element (stoicheion). But motion transforms matter and gradually internally opposed things — such as hot and cold, dry and moist — divide and generate all else. This is a way to naturalise Hesiod—particularly Hesiod’s notion of chaos giving rise to gaia (earth) and tartaros (the nether world). From their union is born uranus (sky), the mountains and pontos (sea). In Anaximander, water, air and earth are born of the boundless (apeiron).

Matter and motion are inseparable. Matter moves by itself. Not by Gods or by anima or by the demiurges. You do not need a mythical or an abstract principle to move matter. Matter divides and moves on its own just like society ought to — it moves and migrates on its own. Becoming (warden) arises out of causes immanent in matter. The idea of free moving matter was preserved in the Islamic world and was again rediscovered in early modern Europe, until Cartesian dualism replaced that strain once again. Karatani particularly takes us through the works and ideas of Giordano Bruno and Spinoza in order to explain these ongoing moments of revival of the Ionian principles of matter-in-motion.

Karatani claims that when Aristotle praises productive work, he means poetics and agriculture and not manufacturing and technology. Improvement and generation, and not just cultivation and domestication, seems to be at the heart of Karatani’s idea of freedom. This he thinks to be the basis of natural philosophy—which advances through the recombination and division of arche. This absolute physical basis of the social constantly makes free enterprise and exchange-relation the basis of associationist thought. This creates a tension with the fundamentals of historical materialism. So much so that Karatani is eventually compelled to hail Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest as carrying forward thoughts of Empedocles—another of his favourite natural philosophers. This idea of natural mutation, exchange and advancement of technology is also common to the thoughts of Francis Bacon and Samuel Hartlib. In this context, Karatani refers to Marx’s doctoral dissertation which, as we know, was on the difference between the Democritean and the Epicurean philosophies of nature. He concludes that this is Marx’s way of critiquing Aristotelian teleological rationalism and mechanistic atomic swerve. While this goes to the heart of the matter — Karatani’s attempt to launch a critique at the recent upsurge in unhistorically championing Epicurean thought and its post-Humean variants in the anthropocene debate — , it is indeed doubtful whether Darwin and Marx could be brought together in such a mechanistic manner, which too is historically uninformed.

Isonomic thought gradually dissipated in the post-Ionian world. Karatani takes us through the writings and thought of particularly Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Zeno and Parmenides. He shows how dualism, division of labour and mystification entered the new discourse even as much of Ionian thought still imparted a great influence on such pre-Aristotelian philosophy. True to his inclinations, Karatani tries to relate such thinking with Kantian reason and his attempt to demystify sensibility-based illusion. Kantian critique is the critique of reason by reason itself. In Parmenides he sees a forerunner of Kant (and not Hume). Social philosophy cannot be reduced to atomism. Atomic theory cannot be purely naturalistic but must be made social. And the socius is cosmopolitan, not nativistic and clannish. The individual is placed in a wider space. It is through connecting modes of exchange with this kind of natural philosophy that Karatani wishes to bridge the gap between history and matter-in motion.

Karatani has, therefore, created and expanded a fourfold system of exchange relations in his last two works. This is, clearly, an ongoing project. At the first level is a world of exchange based on gift and reciprocity. Followed by a second mode that relies on domination and protection (like that of the ruler and the ruled). The third is the current system of commodity exchange. These have been the prevailing modes of exchange that human beings could think of since Athenian times. But the isonomic world would be different and egalitarian. To that end, Karatani posits a fourth state: a possible system that transcends all the above three modes and ushers us into a world of free associative relationship; a world that is fundamentally nomadic, rational and cosmopolitan. This mode of living he also calls by the name of universal religion, which is fundamentally based on a critique of all religions affiliated with the state and the community and their concomitant modes of exchange relations.

The Stakes

The tradition of Left Kantianism is not new. One can go back and look at the social democratic ways of Eduard Bernstein, Karl August Schramm, Sebastian Mercier, Hochberg and the scholarly relativism of Leszek Kolakowski. Such strands were often termed Duhringism, since many of those revisionists followed the eclectic thoughts of Eugene Duhring. Lenin and Paul Lafargue’s criticism of such purifications of Kantianism is well known. Such purifications were already evident both within German classicism (Schulze’s Aenesidemus) and subjective idealism (Fichte). Such critiques were against the revisionist tendency to validate a priori assumptions and the thing in itself. From the right, the charge was that Kant makes no clear distinction between subjectivism and idealism and from the left, that he makes none between materialism and idealism/agnosticism. Feuerbach, for instance, rebukes Kant for deviating from materialism and for inculcating sensationalism. Engels critiqued Kant for being an agnostic, but not for his deviation from consistent agnosticism. Here is Lafargue:

“The workingman who eats sausage and receives a hundred sous a day knows very well that he is robbed by the employer and is nourished by pork meat, that the employer is a robber and that the sausage is pleasant to the taste and nourishing to the body. Not at all, say the bourgeois sophists, whether they are called Pyrrho, Hume or Kant. His opinion is personal, an entirely subjective opinion; he might with equal reason maintain that the employer is his benefactor and that the sausage consists of chopped leather, for he cannot know things-in-themselves.”

The original issue, as is evident, is with liberal idealism itself. “Kant defends private property, makes economic independence a qualification for citizenship, condemns revolution, and argues for a Rechtsstaat that restricts itself by and large to the protection of individual rights.” Evidently, one approach within the structures of New Left is to politically project this relationship between Kant and Marx (like in Dick Howard’s works). So, characteristically, Howard urges “the `revolutionary praxis’ of the young Marx’s humanism” against “the historical economism of the mature Marx…”. What is necessary, according to Howard, is a theory that positively reconciles morality and nature, demonstrating both the “subjective necessity” and the “objective realisability” of human “ethical goals.” Harry van der Linden’s Kantian Ethics and Socialism argues that Kant’s account of the highest good “can be extrapolated to set forth the demand for the socialist ideal.” According to van der Linden, there are compelling reasons for understanding Kantian ethics as ‘social,’ rather than ‘private,’ ethics.

Karatani has naturalised this idea of the ethical commonwealth. But he has also brought back the economic question into the political, unlike his predecessors in this tradition. In that sense, as an associationist, his dogged pursuit of exchange relations is unique. The question is about the effectiveness of the isonomic solution he offers. Since Karatani begins with the idea of freedom in free enterprise and then takes it to justify equality, he finds the Marxist condemnation of workers being forced to sell their labour-power to be congruent with the importance Kantian ethics attaches to human freedom. Furthermore, Karatani feels that the Marxist criticism of the exploitation of workers is consistent with the ‘end in itself formula’ of the Categorical Imperatives.

Actually, Kant claimed that as the individual ego appropriates modes of sensation, so the social unity of human beings is constituted by an appropriation of the natural world. The right of each of us to any object presupposes a transcendental, but nonetheless necessary moment in which everyone, as members of the general will, appropriates the earth. This contractual communion or community gives private property its only conceivable justification and foundation. But simultaneously, such a community must be conceived in terms of the many individuals, each of whom wills to appropriate things for himself. Unlike Marx, who equated true community with communal property or communism, Kant argues that the general will appropriates in common only so that each member may possess in private. Both moral communalist and economic capitalist, Kant contends that our rights to property are at once individually and socially derived.

Kant interprets the traditional distinction between immovable and movable property in terms of his distinction between substance and accident. We do not make use of the world apart from its accidental ways of existing. Movables are these accidents, the objects and products of our individual labor. Human experience is particularised as well as common. To use things we must alter them for ourselves. As in theory, we define nature with respect both to the (material) substance that unites us and to the (material) accidents that separate us. Like liberal political economists before and after him, Kant was convinced of the necessity of private property, but without their sanguine belief in its happy consequences. The justification of property for Kant lies not in its utility, but in its logical necessity, as a condition of rational thought and action. These distinctions are completely absent in Karatani’s formulations. Instead, he hastens to an abstract idea of world-civil-society as a paradigm for a universal moment of singularity.

But the greatest pragmatic point about Karatani is his assertion on the lines that “If workers can become subjects at all, it is only as consumers”. This is a remarkably bold claim, which has, in turn, gathered some votaries in the age of speculative capital. But at what price such subject-hood and agency? And do they fulfil the real conditions of existence? While this realisation allows for a higher order exchange relationship, it takes for granted that social set-up is primarily based on exchange rather than on other modes of interaction. In this context, one can ill afford to forget Marx’s Second Thesis on Feuerbach: “The question whether objective [gegenständliche] truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness [diesseitigkeit] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” The whole critique of political economy stands diluted if we take the parallax view in the descriptive sense rather than critique its very existence. It is also interesting that Karatani never brings his ideas of isonomic exchange relations in any conversation with any notion of real abstraction.

He does not even acknowledge the works of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, which would be an obvious expectation. One does not feel confident that the notion of parallax view can be mobilised to think the immanent negativity of capital in political terms, that is, negativity as its own thought—if that leads to a higher world of exchange relationships, by skirting the question of production. Instead of radicalising a dialectic, which still had certain possibilities in Transcritique, Isonomia mars a powerful idea of Utopia by seeking to articulate it in terms of a reformist notion of higher plane without much following up on the real conditions of capital. Here, Karatani seems to be short circuiting us into associationism without tackling the conditions of emancipatory economics in a speculative universe. This happens because he takes speculative capital for granted and hopes its inherent flaws will take us to an isonomic world as long as we can conceptually conceive that world. Capital has been much more resilient for that kind of leap.

On the other hand, Karatani has accomplished a redoubtable task by historicising nature. This he has achieved by placing the nomadic society between archaic and pre-anthropogenic times. By taking on exchange as the primary question in nature, he has kept questions of land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, geomorphology and species extinction at bay. He has also stayed away from all mourning and melancholia often prevalent in such forms of phenomenological primitivism. His idea of primitive communism is upbeat and posited at the hunter-gatherer stage itself, leading somewhat to the stage of agriculture and animal husbandry, but still not reaching the conditions of an archaic society. In this manner he historicises the debate on the anthropocene. And his descriptions of the natural philosophers are constantly analytical, in the best traditions of critical thinking. The real challenge that such an act might produce is to the nominalists and to the post-Humeans like Quentin Meillassuox. Alain Badiou has said this about the school of speculative nominalists in our times, headed by Meillassuox: “Like Kant, Meillassoux saves necessity, including logical necessity. But like Hume, he grants that there is no acceptable ground for the necessity of the laws of nature.” Karatani has tried to shift the fulcrum away from this axis to once again historically and collectively ground the Kantian notion of logical necessity and project an advanced stage of primitive communism. He gives an egalitarian direction to our ancestral inheritance rather than banking on contingency.

The question that a nominalist asks a Kantian associationist is simple: How does the unity of sensation arise from the plurality of impressions? Kant approaches the problem of experience from a logical side, Hume from the psychological. Kant’s realist conception of experience and his sense of order conflicts with the relativist/nominalist. Experience is the product of thought and all judgment must precede the impression before it becomes experience. This sense of wisdom actually is a given in Karatani’s explanation of the isonomic society. Experience follows understanding, it seems, for his associationist society. But Hume says experience follows the faculty of imagination. And from imagination Hume would move to synthesis. There is no surpassing notion of understanding in the nominalist scheme of things. “The form, in regard to the function which realises it, is the act of the union of matter; by its means the isolated states of the parts are overcome. That which is individual in the impression is connected in our consciousness…. Kant upholds the necessity of the laws of nature, whose mathematical form and conformity to empirical observation we have known since Newton, concluding that since this necessity cannot have arisen from our sensible receptivity, it must have another source: that of the constituting activity of a universal subject, which Kant calls ‘the transcendental subject’.” This latter position is Karatani’s point of departure with respect to a higher order of an exchange society by which he hopes to overcome the current order of speculative commodity exchange.

The author edits the web journal humanitiesunderground.org and teaches English literature in the University of Delhi.

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