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Dissecting Martin Jay’s “Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory”

  • Quas Lacrimas

  • April 19, 2019

Martin Jay’s most recent book, Reason After Its Eclipse, continues and represents the culmination of Jay’s many decades of research into the intellectual history of critical theory in general and the Frankfurt School in particular, beginning with his definitive 1973 study The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. Having made his name with his explorations of what the “Frankfurters” did and said, Jay is finally, in RAIE, ready to ask what they believed in.

What was the Frankfurt School? The Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) was a research center founded at Goethe-University Frankfurt in 1923 by a clique of Marxist sociologists,[1] financed by the Marxist son of the world’s richest grain dealer.[2] The original intention was for the Institut to defend and substantiate the theory Marx had advanced in “The Communist Manifesto” and developed in Das Kapital. But what started as a movement to create a Marxist sociology ultimately matured into what we now know as “cultural Marxism”: i.e., the extension of what in Marx was a claim about economic relations to all of human culture.

This “cultural turn” in Marxism which was the Frankfurt School’s legacy can be analyzed into two elements, namely an attitude towards social change (what Marxists sociologists study) and an attitude toward reason or logic (how they study it). Orthodox Marxism teaches that social change is fueled by technical advances in industrial production (the “base”) which govern the struggle for control of the state the legal system (the “superstructure”), and understanding society is a simple matter of stripping away mystical babble to get at the simple truths of political arithmetic. The Frankfurt School counters with a new emphasis on cultural mutations and the control of a complex web of institutions as drivers of social change… and with a peculiar taboo on any purely instrumental logic. This contrast between the orthodox Marxist and Frankfurt conceptual styles can be linked to Clifford Geertz’s distinction between “thin” (discrete, abstract) and “thick” (dense, embedded) concepts; briefly, the streamlined, practical character that Marx had associated with critical thought purged of all mystification was belittled by the Frankfurters as vulgar, naive, and simplistic.

The Frankfurt School’s social theory is, within Marxism, clear apostasy.[3] But their conceptual style, however much it differed from that of their orthodox opponents, was well-suited to a pre-established rhetorical convention within Marxism to the effect that one’s critics must always be dismissed as “one-sided” and unable to appreciate the nuanced balance of one’s own highly “dialectical” opinion.

In RAIE, Jay is not interested in the history of this cultural turn (the subject of his earlier books) but rather in the Frankfurt School’s underlying rejection of instrumental reason: what, exactly, was the nature of the alternative they saw, the “objective” or “substantive” reason which they championed but rarely deigned to define? What was it that the cultural Marxists (most notably, Max Horkheimer in his The Eclipse of Reason) thought had been eclipsed by the cancerous growth of its own “instrumental” aspects? This is the question Jay attempts to answer in RAIE, a question intelligible only in the context of the quest of post-Kantian “critical philosophers” to imitate what they took to be Kant’s method in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

Kant had identified a number of abuses of reason — degenerate cases, so to speak — where a (typically) useful rationalist principle was extrapolated beyond its proper domain of application. These abuses (and the “transcendental illusions” they inspire) are easiest to spot in pairs, where two principles each lead to the opposite result. For example, Kant demonstrates the abuse of two principles about causal sequences to “deduce” both that the universe is eternal and that it had an original beginning. In the critical turn, Kant’s successors increasingly applied the master’s framework to any sort of category error where they deemed reason to have been applied with more enthusiasm than judgment.

The critique of instrumental reason followed this general pattern. First, the target was absurd hypostases of means-end rationality; next, inappropriate means-ends considerations in general. But the impropriety of instrumental reason turned out to be highly elastic. What at first was a charge of logical impropriety (treating as means the things that could only be ends, the ultimate values for the sake of which we act) was diluted to mere accusation of uncouthness. This extension of “critique” certainly had its roots in Kant’s account of human dignity, and especially in his follower Friedrich Schiller’s account of the Spieltrieb. The human mind, Kant and Schiller concluded, must be allowed a certain playfulness, a certain space for freedom and imagination, lacking which it is neither useful nor accurate. But ironically the rote over-application of this concern by Feuerbach, Marx and their epigones fueled an illusion all of its own.

Ultimately not only the entirely Bolshevik movement, but even the kind of mainstream conservative apparatchiks who commute from Alexandria to their think-tank jobs in D.C. became intimately comfortable with a certain multi-pronged attack on “instrumental” reason. Fetishism, bad faith, and “unmasking” have become the bread and butter of mainstream social analysis. With any sort of consistent or systematic application, such rhetorical maneuvering soon amounts to a taboo on any grounds for abstraction, for impartiality, or for realism: in effect, a taboo on thought itself. Nothing is left of reason, once the supposedly “instrumental” part of it has been excised, but the sort of droning, cabalistic chant which has characterized the spiritless liturgy of progressive thought for the last century or more.

But this is to prejudge the question, nearly a century after the foundation of the Frankfurt School. The doctrine of the Frankfurters was that once they had ruled out all forms of reason infected by instrumental considerations, they would be left with a form of reason which would be free of the deformities of instrumental reason and suitable as a basis for a rational society. In RAIE, Jay goes to great lengths to recover this conception of reason.

Jay breaks up his narrative into chapters which tackle the debate over reason from the Greeks to 1776 (yes, in one chapter), in Kant, in Hegel and Marx, in the pessimistic tradition stretching from Schopenhauer to Weber and Spengler, and finally with chapters on the Frankfurt School as a whole, on Horkheimer, on Habermas, plus a conclusion that continues the focus on Habermas. As you can see, Jay attempts to cover an extraordinary amount of material in very few pages — far fewer than you might guess, because one-third of the book is devoted to endnotes.

Incidentally, Jay provides copious endnotes, and if you find a copy RAIE you might want to consider it as a 2-in-1: a conventional history of philosophy prefixed to an avant-garde experiment in the art of the citation bricolage. There are so many endnotes that you could read them continuously from the beginning without consulting the main text and get an impressionistic (or perhaps surrealistic) perspective on the development of the intellectual tradition of the West.

The purpose of Jay’s broad scope seems to have a doubled or reflexive aspect. On the one hand, the Frankfurters understood the viability of their conception of reason in contrast to what had gone before them; on the other hand, their conception of viability itself was founded on a historical theory about degeneration or enervation of reason in Western societies. The “viability” in question is neither a strictly logical unsoundness nor a strictly communal sickness unto death. Starting with ancient Greece allows us to enter into the critical theorists’ arguments about their philosophical predecessors (and their predecessors’ arguments about their predecessors) without getting lost, while also familiarizing us with the historical coordinates of the “eclipse of reason” Horkheimer and his allies claim to have observed.

That being said, it is unclear who is the intended audience of the early chapters of the book. At points it comes across as a literature review of every important or interesting intellectual history which has appeared in the last forty-plus years. Some people are in the market for a well-written analytic bibliography: if so, this is your book. But scholars who are already familiar with the outline of the “Democritus to Diderot” fairy tale will be dissatisfied by the breathlessness of Jay’s survey (he typically mentions the thesis, or only the subject matter, of several books without endorsement or analysis). Undergraduates and others who are trying to discover a new field will likely choke on the torrent of names, dates, theories, and scholarly interpretations Jay provides.

The breakneck pace of Jay’s narrative gradually relaxes in the second (Kant) and third (Hegel and Marx) chapters, but there is still a lot to take in. Jay’s style calls for manic levels of detail, although what overwhelms is not so much the volume of material as the difficulty of discerning any purpose in the assertions and asides Jay compiles. As a scrupulous reviewer, I attempted to unravel the exact significance of each of the details Jay insists on, to tease out what argument they advance. But consider the following example:

• On p. 48, “Idea for a Universal History is the most consequential” of Kant’s attempts to deal with one of the two “most urgent” of the “essential questions still open” after the publication of Kant’s First Critique.

• On p. 60, “Idea for a Universal History was only a marginal essay in Kant’s vast oeuvre.”

The flat inconsistency between these two statements is no crime (an academic of Jay’s stature is certainly entitled to use research assistants to assemble a book), but if Jay can assert both, neither description of the status of the essay in Kant’s oeuvre could have any serious role in an overall thesis about the relationship between Kant and Hegel (or between the German Idealists and the cultural Marxists). Perhaps Jay employs the stylistic conventions of the persuasive essay as a respectful nod towards a reader who might not enjoy a bullet-point list of factoids?

At any rate, it is safe to enjoy the energy of Jay’s prose without attempting to follow the twists and turns attentively. So for example when Jay attributes to Hegel a “fully non-dispositional notion of reason” and a paragraph later asserts that he imbued this notion “with the indulgent characteristics of an all-forgiving, merciful father,” Hegel-neophytes will probably wonder how something fully non-dispositional could conceivably be indulgent, forgiving, or merciful; Hegel-veterans will want some elaboration and defense of the claim, to understand Jay’s exact sense before moving on to the next step in the argument; but these are probably inappropriate instincts when dealing with the manic style in intellectual history.

Jay’s treatment of Kant ends with the questions that Kant’s resolution of the transcendental illusions raised about the unity of reason: first, about the unity of reason as a faculty (the unity of inductive and deductive reason, aesthetic and classificatory judgements, and especially theoretical and practical reason) and second, the unity of reason conceived as “timeless and irreducible to ephemera” with reason as “an ongoing project in the world”.[4] Hegel’s great contribution to these questions, according to orthodox Marxists, is contained in the maxim “What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational.”[5] Friedrich Engels popularized an interpretation of this principle according to which what we see in the world around us can, if it is no longer necessitated by the entire network of social and historical forces which act on it, be logically unnecessary, i.e. non-rational, and thus “unreal”. But Lukács, Adorno and Horkheimer were to develop a sharply different understanding of the logical holism at work in Hegel’s system. Jay amply documents their contempt for Engel’s rough-and-ready interpretation of the dia- in diamat, a contempt which links critical theory’s reinvention of Marx (as “the young Marx,” a philosophically subtle Young Hegelian) to its drift away from mainstream Marxist socialism. Yet under the influence of Weber and Freud, the Frankfurt School took Engel’s question and laundered it as a question concerning our subjective feelings about the necessity/unreality of the social world.[6]

Standing above the fray, Jay presents a Marx equally attached to “scientificity” and to the Hegelian hypothesis that reason was embedded in practices and institutions.[7] There is a tension here, to the extent that Marx feels equally entitled to criticize capitalist industries (from an abstract standpoint of arithmetic efficiency) and to attribute to them laws of development (from a functional perspective). Likewise the self-emancipation of human reason and the “cunning of reason” whereby historical agents continuously produce effects they had not themselves intended, interrelated but distinct themes in German idealism, are conflated by Marx in the construct of a historical agent (the working class) which peeks from under its world-historical blindfold and produces exactly the effect it intends to. Or rationally ought to intend to. Or something.

Surprisingly, Jay skirts around Marx’s own contributions to the spirit of irrationalism which began to grow within the West in the nineteenth century. After offering us a glimpse of the terrible mind-virus incubating in the pages of Das Kapital, Jay quickly hurries on to the really fearsome opponents of reason, Lebensphilosophie and positivism. These schools of thought were the villains in Horkheimer’s account of the “eclipse of reason”, and Jay helpfully sketches out profiles of both. “Helpful,” I mean, in the sense that they help the reader follow and sympathize with (but not question) Horkheimer’s argument.

In its preface RAIE opens on a strong note, with Jay recalling an episode where, as a young man, he had pressed one of the still-surviving members of the original Frankfurt School (Friedrich Pollock) to explain what alternative, exactly, they had been defending when they attacked the supposedly instrumental rationality of their opponents. The original motivation for the research that became RAIE was apparently that Jay could never get any direct or satisfactory reply. But RAIE does not contain a direct and satisfactory explanation, either. Jay could perhaps plead “guilty by reason of disciplinary specialization”: he is an intellectual historian, is he not? And while a philosopher can expound the concept of rationality, perhaps a historian must limit himself to tracing out the genealogy of particular philosophers’ conception of rationality, in hopes of illuminating within its proper context what would be obscure in itself.

Perhaps. But I do not think disciplinary specialization can shield Jay, because Reason After Its Eclipse is in effect not a genealogy of the eclipse of reason, but rather a genealogy within the world of Horkheimer’sThe Eclipse of Reason. That is to say, Jay does not attempt to offer a historical account of how the civilization which produced Scaliger, Newton, and Kant declined into its current boring incoherence (to describe the culture decline of the West as “madness” would not properly convey the ennui most people feel in 2017 as they attempt to navigate the taboos of intellectual life), but only a set of annotations to Horkheimer’s account of that same decline. And while the Frankfurt School was alway happy to cement its position within global Marxism by “diagnosing” rival Marxists as infected with corrupt forms of reason, this openness did not extend to asking whether Karl Marx himself might have been the most toxic of all the bacilli the nineteenth century spawned.

Jay’s later chapters are less interesting than the early ones because this restricted scope prevents him from addressing the questions his narrative raises. That cultural Marxists blamed their enemiesfor the intellectual darkness of their era is no surprise. Nor would it be particularly disappointing if Jay, whose sympathy for the Frankfurters comes through clearly, merely turned a blind eye to their intellectual deformities. But because his investigation is a genealogy of the crisis they imagined rather than the crisis they lived through, his account of the genesis of the protagonists of their books (the plucky philosopher-heroes who witness the eclipse) is not truly a genealogy of the Frankfurters themselves, or of their ideas.

What would help us understand the Frankfurt School’s ideal of reason would be an account of how they came to hold the views that they held: the good, the bad, and the ugly. An accurate account of their opponents would certainly be helpful, but not essential. It would be interesting to know, given its deep engagement with ongoing biological discoveries, whether the Lebensphilosophie-school developed any insights into natural teleology which remained inaccessible to Adorno, Horkheimer and the other “philosophers” who smeared them as “misologists” (haters of reason); the positivists might have a few sharp insights into the likely fate of “public reasoning” in the age of hate-speech laws. Yet it is possible to know very little about a school’s opponents, and still know enough about what the school itself believed about its opponents to interpret its arguments in light of the enemy it imagined it had to overcome.

What is not possible is to interpret a school of thought knowing only the story it tells about itself.[8] This story typically illuminates the school’s writings much less than the writings themselves; it even obscures them, to the extent that their own work may broadcast affinities and implications that they are at pains to avoid stating explicitly. If intellectual history can aspire to be anything more than the type of philosophy book one find in an airport, the historian must bring additionalconsiderations to bear which are not in his subject’s polemical autobiography.

Had Jay suspended judgment about the dogma of critical theory for long enough to examine how the dogma arose, he might well have ended RAIE with the lucid exposition of emphatic reason which had long eluded the original critical theorists. Instead he concludes with a twenty-page synopsis of Habermas’s theory of the public sphere. It’s a solid synopsis; perhaps Jay will consider it a worthy capstone to his career. Had his approach to the roots of critical theory and its own account of “the eclipse of reason” remained open, he would have faced the challenge of groping about for a definition the “eclipse” of reason, in the abstract, independent of Frankfurter-orthodoxy; he would have needed to determine whether in fact reason was suffering eclipse, and over what time period. He would need to give testimony about what aspects of this culture of ours are objectively blanketed in twilight. And he would need to tell us — without citing the authoritative judgment of Adorno, Horkheimer, or even Lukács — what dark object had eclipsed reason, and how, and why.

These answers might not have been healthy for Jay’s confidence in the Frankfurt school; but they might have restored his confidence that there is still something like an emphatic reason, distinct from rationalization by the forces of progress, which will re-emerge some day. Perhaps he is satisfied with the Habermasian alternative (speech-codes and nagging lectures) which he summarizes so ably. The eclipse continues.

Meanwhile, we wait. As the inky black disc of Bolshevism slips over the radiance of the logos, the crown of faith pours forth from the hidden sun, arching across the stillness of the universe. Reason has been eclipsed so that we might witness its corona; we have been chosen to live in a dark century to treasure this sight in our hearts and to share with our descendants this memory of the sun and the other stars.


1. The Frankfurt School’s most influential members are no doubt Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Other affiliates and hangers-on include Georg Lukács (whose defense of “totalized”, integrated knowledge directly inspired the Institute’s interdisciplinary focus), Walter Benjamin and (in the postwar generation) Jürgen Habermas.

2. Why did Hermann Weil, a Weimar plutocrats, consent to fund such a project? In his earlier research Jay highlighted two possibilities: either his son, Felix Weil, gave him the impression that the researchers would be “devoted to the dispassionate study of the worker’s movement and anti-semitism,” or else “the senior Weil was cynically hoping for access to the Soviet grain market.” (Force Fields, p. 14) Meanwhile Goethe-University Frankfurt, founded in 1913, was itself “funded by private contributors, often from the Jewish community, rather than by the state. The philanthropist Wilhelm Merton, an assimilated Jewish director of a giant metallurgical concern, was the major benefactor.” (Ibid., p. 13) — Incidentally, the reader who is curious about the Frankfurt School but daunted by The Dialectical Imagination will find the purely historical information about the school presented succinctly in the second chapter of: Martin Jay, Force Fields (1993).

3. As the reader might surmise from the peculiarity of their brand of Marxism, the Frankfurters were hardly typical Marxists. While in RAIE Jay focuses largely on the dialogue between the critical theorists and Marx, his work on the formation of the school led him to identify six “major forces operating to constitute the intellectual field of both the Institute [for Social Research] and the [Frankfurt] School”: “Hegelian Marxism, aesthetic modernism, cultural mandarinism, and a certain Jewish self-awareness” plus “psychoanalysis and a nuanced appreciation of Max Weber’s critique of rationalization.” (Force Fields, p. 11) Nor was this versatility restricted to the corridors of the Institut für Sozialforschung: “Frankfurt’s Jews were noted for their innovative response to the challenges of modernity.” (Ibid., p. 12)

4. Only after Kant could we find ourselves asking the question, “What has Athens to do with Yudkowsky?”

5. “Was vernünftig ist, das ist Wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig.” Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820/1), “Preface”.

6. The mélange of Freud and Weber in the psycho-social reinterpretation of the question about the reality of the world is most clearly on display in Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

7. One wonders when the antifa will start using the slogan “I fucking love totality!”

8. Cf. Jay’s earlier statement: “I have never felt comfortable with the [Frankfurt] School’s reticence about exploring its own origin.” (Force Fields, p. 10)

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