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jay-reasonafteritseclipse-cLUMPENPROLETARIAT—Of all the philosophical strands touching upon political economy, which we might encounter at the university level, apart from Marxian economics and Marxian philosophy, one of the most interesting with respect to sociopolitical (or socioeconomic) emancipation is the Frankfurt School of social theory. [1]  Back at the heterodox economics department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) a few years ago, at least one friend always championed the Frankfurt School and other neo-Marxists. [2]  As I studied undergrad economics at UMKC, with an emphasis on Marxian economics and modern monetary theory (MMT), and sought to find their intersectionality or synthesis, my radical friend was praising the virtues of Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, and other theorists associated with the Frankfurt School.  Perhaps, we agreed that Dr. Karl Marx has contributed the most accurate description of the mechanics of capital, its nature, form, and dynamics, its circuital expansion.  But the Frankfurt School has presented compelling critiques of the various Marxian schools of thought, which have succeeded Marx.  Certainly, as Marxian scholar Dr. David Harvey reminds us:

I teach Marx.  And a question I always ask is:  What can we learn from Marx?  And what do we have to do for ourselves?  And I think that that’s a very important question to ask because very frequently, in the past, people have read their Marx and then sort of, I don’t know, plunked reality into it and, then, said:  Ah! Here’s the answer!  I don’t think you can do that.  I think there’s only a limited set of things we can learn from Marx.

Paradoxically, we can’t really learn that much about socialism or communism or the future from Marx.  We can learn a great deal about how capital works.

Marx will always be important for understanding capital, what it is and how it works.  But, as Dr. Harvey reminds us, and critical theory shows us, we must constantly grapple with the reality of capitalist relations in our own time and place.  So, it was a great joy to find today that free speech radio’s Against the Grain was featuring a discussion with Professor Martin Jay (Department of History, University of California-Berkeley) about his book, Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory.  The title evokes Max Horkheimer‘s important classic, The Eclipse of Reason (1947), a foundational text within critical theory.  Critical theory extends many of the important lines of theoretical inquiry elaborated by Dr. Marx and others since, who have sought to expand and build upon earlier work.  There is always so much for us to read.  But Professor Jay’s book On Late Critical Theory is an important read, which provides us with a philosophical study of reason and the foundations of intellectual inquiry.  And, of course, critical theory is required reading for all self-respecting intellectuals (assuming that’s not a contradiction in terms).

This is a fascinating discussion, which touches upon the ideas of Adorno and Habermas, of course, but also those of Marx, Weber, Hegel, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others, including topics ranging from Horkheimer’s views on art and aesthetics to argumentation; Marcuse’s structural transformation of the public sphere, valuing evidence and its centrality to a responsible press; Habermas’ view of communicative rationality; and persuasion.  Listen (and/or download) here. [3]



[Working draft transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Against the Grain]

AGAINST THE GRAIN—[24 JAN 2017]  [SF Bay Area Flamenco Festival announcement]  [KPFA station identification] 

[Against the Grain theme music]

“Today on Against the Grain, reasoning may be something we do.  But reason is an idea, whose content and fate have been debated and discussed over the course of two millennia.  I’m C.S. Soong.  U.C. Berkeley historian Martin Jay joins me to discuss his new book, Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory, after these news headlines.”  (c. 1:15)

[KPFA News Headlines (read by Christina Aanestad) omitted by scribe]  (c. 5:35)

“From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  My name is C.S. Soong.

“Many have been tempted to think, in times of relative peace and prosperity, that the world is moving toward ever greater rationality, that Reason, with a capital ‘R’, is in the process of becoming realised.  Notions like that take a hit when times turn dark, when, for example, fascism rears its ugly head.  And, then, people wonder:  What’s happened to reason?  What’s happened to rational thinking?  And:  How did this—you might call it—crisis of reason, how did it arise?  And what can we do about it?

“A collection of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, which was established in Germany in the 1920s and, then, relocated to the U.S. because of Nazism, a number of Frankfurt School thinkers grappled with what they saw as a kind of crisis of reason, with different thinkers taking different approaches to the question and coming up with different ways to address it.  (c. 6:53)

“The ideas of two Frankfurt philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, are among the many ideas investigated in a new book by Martin Jay, a book called Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory.  In the book, Martin Jay, a history professor at UC Berkeley, described how Adorno looked to aesthetics for answers.  (c. 7:17)

For Adorno, writes Jay, art was not the betrayer of reason, but rather its salvation.

“Jay also examines the very different approach taken by Habermas, a second-generation theorist of the Frankfurt SchoolJürgen Habermas, in his effort to restore a robust notion of reason, pointed to a rationality rooted in the give and take of communication, of giving reasons and persuading through logical arguments and listening to the arguments of others.

“When Martin Jay joined me in-studio to discuss Reason after its Eclipse, I began by asking what concept of reason he was claiming, or observing, had been eclipsed.”  (c. 8:00)

DR. MARTIN JAY:  “This an impossible question to answer.  And, in fact, I address precisely the impossibility in the introduction [to my book] to the extent that the defining of a concept, the limitational concept, the belief that you can create a single unilocal meaning of a concept is precisely what intellectual history, um, tries to avoid.  What intellectual history is most interested, I think, in doing is tracing the sometimes adventitious, sometimes meaningful—let’s call it—pilgrimage of a word or a term or a constellation of terms over a long period of time.

“So, reason—not only in English, but in all the various other languages going all the way back to the Greek logos, and Italian [ratio], and a lot in between, reason‘s had many, many different meanings over time.

“So, what the book tried to do is to be fair to the variety of meanings and not privilege one as the essential meaning.  Having said that, the Frankfurt School, itself—the people about whom I’m writing about in this book—did have an implicit normative notion of reason, which was, in their eyes, eclipsed in the modern world in favour of a debased version, which they saw as, essentially, instrumental.  (c. 9:26)

“So, even though I’m being a little reluctant to give you a definition, they, I think, implicitly, held on to a normative notion.

“Now, one of the arguments of the book is that they never fully, at least not in the first generation of critical theorists, never fully defended a viable notion of what that alternative to instrumental reason was.  They derived somewhat from Hegel, some from Kant, some from other metaphysical sources, maybe even theological sources, sometimes psychoanalytic sources, but there was never an absolutely coherent version.  (c. 9:29)

“So, the second generation of critical theorists, most notably Jürgen Habermas, had to provide a kind of paradigm shift, in which a different version of rationality became his normative standard against which instrumental reason was measured.  And, so, the book tries to tell the story, precisely, of that shift from the first to the second generation, with Habermas’ alternative—communicative rationality—being the new norm.”  (c. 10:27)

C.S. SOONG:  “And, by instrumental reason, you mean reason used as a means to some end?”

DR. MARTIN JAY:  “Uh, Max Weber was the first, really, to point this out, that there was a substantive notion of reason, one which emphasised values, one which emphasised ultimate, we might say, concerns, ethical as well as cognitive.  That, on one hand, and other types of reason, formal, and, most importantly for our purposes, instrumental, which emphasised the rationality of finding means, finding instruments to achieve ends, which are themselves arbitrarily and contingently given.  (c. 11:05)

“So, instrumental rationality was, basically, the rationality of a kind of efficiency, a kind of willingness to suspend a deeper question of why you’re doing something.  So, for example, you might have, during wartime, a situation, a goal of winning a battle, of winning a war, and you might use the most efficacious way of doing that, which would, perhaps, be to, uh, wipe out the population, civilian as well as military, against whom you were fighting.  But this doesn’t, of course, raise the difficult, ethical question of:  Who should, in fact, be seen as the enemy?  Who should not?  For what reason is the war being fought?  Is it possible to minimise collateral damage?  And all the other things, that are ethical questions.

“So, instrumental reason, essentially, brackets the ends, sees them as arbitrary and irrational, and reduces reason to merely its means-ends possibility.  (c. 12:01)

C.S. SOONG:  “Now, in the eyes of the Frankfurt School, the first generation, is there a way to generalise about what they saw instrumental reasoning coming out of, in other words, what they saw instrumental reason replacing?  What was the prior version of reason, that maybe they approved of, or maybe they felt was more benign than instrumental reason?”

DR. MARTIN JAY:  “The first generation, basically, held on to a notion of what might be called an emphatic or a metaphysical notion of reason, which was a notion prior to the reduction of philosophy to science and the triumph of modern technology, one which emphasised the role, that reason played in creating a nexus, we might say, of means and ends, in which the ends were themselves rationally chosen.

“Now, what makes it particularly difficult to figure out exactly where this notion of objective and non-instrumental reason can be located is that there was a metaphysical residue, which said that somehow it existed in history, it existed out there, it existed in social relations, rather than, uh, human interaction, understood as the process of giving reasons, or the process of reasoning.  So that, there was what might be called an inherent reason in the world, which was a residue of a sort of metaphysical idea that the world, itself, was the creation of a rational god, could—even though we may not fully understand it—could be, at the deepest level, inherently rational.  (c. 13:37)

“Now, there are two versions of this, we might say.  One is what’s called a conservative versionThe world is, with all its apparent, let’s say, surface or, let’s say, contingent irrationalities, on the deepest level, is reasonable, is rational, is somehow meaningful.  And, one might argue, this was best expressed in the work of the 17th-century philosopher Leibniz, who contended that there was a principle of sufficient reason underlying all the happenings, that occurred, even those, that seemed most basically irrational or unethical.  So, he came up with theodicy, which said that partial evils were part of a general good.  This is one version.

“The second version, we might call it, more or less Hegelian and, certainly, Marxist, was that reason exists, but not yet in a rational form, that the world is potentially rationalThe world has the tendency to become rationalThe world is, in complicated ways, moving through an historical process, which has as its goal the realisation in the institutions and practices of humankind a version of reason(c. 14:43)

“But, here, too, it happens, if not automatically, at least on a level, that is almost like providence, in the religious sense, that happens behind the backs and even against the wills of individuals.  And this was a version, that Marxism emphasised as an automatic process of, you know, basically, social revolution-producing outcomes, that would be beneficial to humankind.

“So, the Frankfurt School, to some extent depended on this latter version, but, basically, became disillusioned with the Marxist notion that this was inherently happening in a meta-narrative of historical progress, which left them with a dilemma because, if reason was not already in the world and reason was not, in a way, the talus of the world inevitably happening in a future, then it left it, in a way, hanging in the air.  There was no, what you might call, human agent or a social agent bringing about reason.  It had to be done by will.  It had to be done by practice.  It was not yet in place.  And there was a kind of, we might say, loss of faith in the possibility of rationality finally being achieved.

“So, to some extent, the Frankfurt School fell back on a rather desperate utopianism, in which, although the present was growing increasingly problematic—and remember they were writing, many of them, during the period of fascism—and the enlightenment, instead of being a progressive, upwardly mobile, we might say, phenomenon, was dialectically going also in a negative direction.  This is the idea of dialectic of enlightenment.

“They were left with, really, no hope beyond a kind of—we might call it—faith and prefigurative ciphers of utopian, maybe, art, maybe in other aspects of human imagination, but certainly not sufficient to create much confidence that reason would be achieved in the near or even in the far future.” (c. 16:39)

C.S. SOONG:  “So, you focus part of the book on what Max Horkheimer, a prominent, a leading member of the Frankfurt School, thought about reason and what had happened to it, what the future might bring.  What did Horkheimer contend is the disease of reason?”

DR. MARTIN JAY:  “Well, this is a very troubling question because, if you have a notion that there was once a robust positive—let’s call it—objective or emphatic notion of reason, which is then replaced by a diminished instrumental version, then, it’s a fairly simple narrative of decline.  If your replace that with the notion that, from the very beginning, from the origins of human logos, of human use of reason, to survive in a hostile world there’s always already a kind of negative fatality, in which reason is used for self-preservation.  And self-preservation involves, basically, dominating a hostile environment, which creates a kind of technological instrumentality, which becomes inherently anti-human and certainly hostile to nature in its more benign forms.  (c. 17:49)  [snip]  “

[additional notes/transcription pending]

[snip] (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.


Reason After Its Eclipse: A Conversation With Martin Jay, posted to Vimeo


The Dictator Decides” (2016), posted on YouTube by Pet Shop Boys on 1 APR 2016.

Pazzo!” (2016), posted on YouTube by Pet Shop Boys on 1 APR 2016.


[1]  About the Frankfurt School of social theory:

The Frankfurt School (German: Frankfurter Schule) is a school of social theory and philosophy associated in part with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded during the interwar period, the School consisted of dissidents who felt at home neither in the existent capitalist, fascist, nor communist systems that had formed at the time. Many of these theorists believed that traditional theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century. Critical of both capitalism and Soviet socialism, their writings pointed to the possibility of an alternative path to social development.[1]

Although sometimes only loosely affiliated, Frankfurt School theorists spoke with a common paradigm in mind; they shared the Marxist Hegelian premises and were preoccupied with similar questions.[2] To fill in the perceived omissions of classical Marxism, they sought to draw answers from other schools of thought, hence using the insights of antipositivist sociology, psychoanalysis, existential philosophy, and other disciplines.[3] The school’s main figures sought to learn from and synthesize the works of such varied thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Lukács.[4]

Following Marx, they were concerned with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions.[5] Their emphasis on the “critical” component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, materialism, and determinism by returning to Kant’s critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel’s philosophy, with its emphasis on dialectic and contradiction as inherent properties of human reality.

Since the 1960s, Frankfurt School critical theory has increasingly been guided by Jürgen Habermas‘s work on communicative reason, linguistic intersubjectivity and what Habermas calls “the philosophical discourse of modernity“.[6] Critical theorists such as Raymond Geuss and Nikolas Kompridis have voiced opposition to Habermas, claiming that he has undermined the aspirations for social change that originally gave purpose to critical theory’s various projects—for example the problem of what reason should mean, the analysis and enlargement of “conditions of possibility” for social emancipation, and the critique of modern capitalism.[7]

[2]  About neo-Marxism:

Neo-Marxism is a loose term for various twentieth-century approaches that amend or extend Marxism and Marxist theory, usually by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions, such as critical theory, psychoanalysis, or existentialism (in the case of Sartre).

Erik Olin Wright‘s theory of contradictory class locations, which incorporates Weberian sociology, critical criminology, and anarchism, is an example of the syncretism in neo-Marxist theory.[1] As with many uses of the prefix neo-, many theorists and groups designated as neo-Marxist have attempted to supplement the perceived deficiencies of orthodox Marxism or dialectical materialism. Many prominent neo-Marxists, such as Herbert Marcuse and other members of the Frankfurt School, were sociologists and psychologists.

Neo-Marxism comes under the broader framework of the New Left. In a sociological sense, neo-Marxism adds Max Weber‘s broader understanding of social inequality, such as status and power, to Marxist philosophy. Strains of neo-Marxism include: critical theory, analytical Marxism and French structural Marxism.

The concept arose as a way to explain questions which were not explained in Karl Marx’s works. There are many different “branches” of Neo-Marxism often not in agreement with each other and their theories.

[3]  Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving:  Against the Grain, this one-hour broadcast hosted by C.S. Soong, Tuesday, 24 JAN 2017, 12:00 PST.

Broadcast summary at kfpa.org (accessed 24 JAN 2017):

What happens when “reason” is in decline, when the world appears to be moving in the direction of irrationality and political pathology?  Martin Jay discusses how two Frankfurt School thinkers, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, tried to salvage a critical version of reason.  Whereas Adorno looked to art and aesthetics, Habermas appealed to practices of interpersonal communication and argumentation.

Martin Jay, Reason after Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory University of Wisconsin Press, 2016

A note on Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory by University of Wisconsin Press:

George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History
Steven E. Aschheim, Stanley G. Payne, Mary Louise Roberts, and David J. Sorkin, Series Editors

“Martin Jay is one of the most respected intellectual historians now working, and any book by him is an important event.  His subject here could hardly be bigger: the idea of reason in Western thought over two millennia.”
—Michael Rosen, Harvard University

Martin Jay tackles a question as old as Plato and still pressing today: what is reason, and what roles does and should it have in human endeavor?  Applying the tools of intellectual history, he examines the overlapping, but not fully compatible, meanings that have accrued to the term “reason” over two millennia, homing in on moments of crisis, critique, and defense of reason.

After surveying Western ideas of reason from the ancient Greeks through Kant, Hegel, and Marx, Jay engages at length with the ways leading theorists of the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, and most extensively Habermas—sought to salvage a viable concept of reason after its apparent eclipse.  They despaired, in particular, over the decay in the modern world of reason into mere instrumental rationality.  When reason becomes a technical tool of calculation separated from the values and norms central to daily life, then choices become grounded not in careful thought but in emotion and will—a mode of thinking embraced by fascist movements in the twentieth century.

Is there a more robust idea of reason that can be defended as at once a philosophical concept, a ground of critique, and a norm for human emancipation?  Jay explores at length the communicative rationality advocated by Habermas and considers the range of arguments, both pro and con, that have greeted his work.

A brief bio of Dr. Martin Jay by University of Wisconsin Press:

Author. Photo credit, NameMartin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the author of fourteen previous books, including The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50, which has been translated into thirteen languages; Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas; Adorno; Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America; Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French Thought; Songs of Experience: Modern European and American Variations on a Universal Theme; and The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.


[25 JAN 2017]

[Last modified at 15:24 PST on 26 JAN 2017]