Goethe, acutely aware of the threatening impossibility of all human relationships in emergent industrial society, sought to present tact in the Wilhelm Meister novels as the saving accommodation between alienated human beings.This accommodation seemed to him inseparable from renunciation, the relinquishment of total contact, passion and unalloyed happiness. The human consisted for him in a self-limitation which affirmatively espoused as its own cause the ineluctable course of history, the inhumanity of progress, the atrophy of the subject. But what has occurred since then makes Goethean renunciation look like fulfilment. Tact and humanity – to him the same – have in the mean time gone down precisely the road from which, as he believed, they were to save us. For tact, we now know, has its precise historical hour. It was the hour when the bourgeois individual rid himself of absolutist compulsion. Free and solitary, he answers for himself, while the forms of hierarchical respect and devotion developed by absolutism, divested of their economic basis and their menacing force, are still just sufficiently present to make living together within privileged groups bearable. This seemingly paradoxical interchange between absolutism and liberality is perceptible, not only in Wilhelm Meister, but in Beethoven’s attitude towards traditional patterns of composition, and even in logic, in Kant’s subjective reconstruction of objectively binding ideas. There is a sense in which Beethoven’s regular recapitulations following dynamic expositions, Kant’s deduction of scholastic categories from the unity of consciousness, are eminently ‘tactful’. The precondition of tact is convention no longer intact yet still present. Now fallen into irreparable ruin, it lives on only in the parody of forms, a capriciously dreamed up or recollected etiquette for the ignorant, of the kind preached by unsolicited advisers in newspapers, while the basis of agreement that carried those conventions in their human hour has given way to the blind conformity of car-owners and radio-listeners. The demise of the ceremonial moment seems at first glance to benefit tact. Emancipated from all that was heteronomous and harmfully external, tactful behavior would seem one guided solely by the specific nature of each human situation. Such emancipated tact, however, meets with the difficulties that confront nominalism in all contexts. Tact meant not simply subordination to ceremonial convention: it was precisely the latter all later humanists unstintingly ironized. Rather, the exercise of tact was as paradoxical as its historical location. It demanded the reconciliation – actually impossible – between the unauthorized claims of convention and the unruly one of the individual. Other than convention there was nothing by which tact could be measured. Convention represented, in however etiolated a form, the universal which comprises the very substance of the individual claim. Tact is the discrimination of difference(s). It consists in conscious deviations. Yet when, emancipated, it confronts the individual as an absolute, without anything universal from which to be differentiated, it fails to engage the individual and finally wrongs him. The question as to someone’s health, no longer required and expected by upbringing, becomes inquisitive or injurious, silence on touchy subjects empty indifference, as soon as there is no rule to indicate what is and what is not to be discussed. Thus individuals begin, not without reason, to react antagonistically to tact: a certain kind of politeness, for example, gives them less the feeling of being addressed as human beings, than an inkling of their inhumane conditions, and those who are polite run the risk of seeming impolite because they continue to exercise politeness, as a superseded privilege. Ultimately, emancipated, purely individual tact becomes mere lying. Its true principle in the individual today is what it earnestly keeps silent, the actual and still more the potential power embodied by each person. Beneath the demand that the individual be confronted as such, without preamble, absolutely as befits him, lies a covetous eagerness to ‘place’ him and his chances, through the tacit admissions contained in each of his words, amidst the ever more rigid hierarchy that encompasses everyone. The nominalism of tact helps what is most universal, naked external power, to triumph even in the most intimate constellations. To write off convention as an outmoded, useless and extraneous ornament is only to confirm the most extraneous of all things, a life of immediate domination. That the abolition of even this caricature of tact in the rib-digging camaraderie [banter] of our time, a mockery of freedom, nevertheless makes existence still more unbearable, is merely a further sign of how impossible it has become for human beings to co-exist under current conditions.
From Minima Moralia (1951).