Autonomy After Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity

Autonomy After Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity

by Martin Shuster

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Ever since Kant and Hegel, the notion of autonomy—the idea that we are beholden to no law except one we impose upon ourselves—has been considered the truest philosophical expression of human freedom. But could our commitment to autonomy, as Theodor Adorno asked, be related to the extreme evils that we have witnessed in modernity? In Autonomy after Auschwitz, Martin Shuster explores this difficult question with astonishing theoretical acumen, examining the precise ways autonomy can lead us down a path of evil and how it might be prevented from doing so.

Shuster uncovers dangers in the notion of autonomy as it was originally conceived by Kant. Putting Adorno into dialogue with a range of European philosophers, notably Kant, Hegel, Horkheimer, and Habermas—as well as with a variety of contemporary Anglo-American thinkers such as Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell, and Robert Pippin—he illuminates Adorno’s important revisions to this fraught concept and how his different understanding of autonomous agency, fully articulated, might open up new and positive social and political possibilities. Altogether, Autonomy after Auschwitz is a meditation on modern evil and human agency, one that demonstrates the tremendous ethical stakes at the heart of philosophy. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226155517
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/12/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 622 KB

About the Author

Martin Shuster is chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Avila University in Kansas City, MO and is cofounder of the Association for Adorno Studies.

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Autonomy After Auschwitz

Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity

By Martin Shuster

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15551-7


I Against I:

Stressing the Dialectic in the Dialectic of Enlightenment

1. Introduction

The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno's cooperative effort with Max Horkheimer, serves as the backdrop to all of Adorno's subsequent thinking about freedom. For this reason it is essential to understand Horkheimer and Adorno's aspirations with this text, especially the critique of modernity found there. Unfortunately this is no easy task—the Dialectic of Enlightenment has been read alternatively as elaborating an "'excess' Enlightenment," as a "'retrogressive anthropogenesis,'" as approximating a "traditional form of cultural criticism," as a work that "is not a historical treatise but a collection of haphazardly chosen and unexplained examples to illustrate various forms of the debasement of 'enlightened' ideals," as an attack "essentially in line with the romantic tradition," as a "deliberately discontinuous work," as an attempt to "dismantle the myth of history as progress," as a "radical and sweeping critique of Western society and thought," as unmasking "as reification all attempts to demonstrate the possibility of the full realization of man's humanity," as "a bewildering book," as what looks "like a series of wild generalizations barely susceptible to empirical confirmation," as a "reconstruction of the prehistory of subjectivity as the dialectic of myth and enlightenment," as a "series of hit-or-miss aphorisms rather than a sustained argument," and as rejecting the "conceptual dualism of enlightenment and myth." In short, there is neither a scholarly consensus about the text nor a consensus about its alleged contents (and thereby about the actual nature of the critique).

My goal in this chapter will be to propose yet another reading of this text, with an eye to making sense of its critique of modernity. Crucial to such a task is understanding the centrality of the first essay, "The Concept of Enlightenment," to any reading of the book and recognizing the way a serious engagement with Kant animates the argument of the text (points I argue, respectively, in section 4 and sections 8–10 below). In my view, Kantian autonomy drives the dialectic of enlightenment and thereby, insofar as such autonomy constitutes human agency and potentially underwrites the fabric our lives, the scope of the argument is meant, ambitiously, to extend to the entirety of human life. All of this is still at a high level of generality and requires significant contextualization and elaboration, but in broad outline the story will turn out to be that, in Horkheimer and Adorno's view, and insofar as Kantian autonomous agency cannot allow for any standpoint that grounds its stance in something external to itself, this drive toward self- grounding will be what fuels the dialectic of enlightenment and underwrites their critique of modernity. My procedure comprises three steps: I will argue that the dialectic of enlightenment, in scope, can apply to every facet of human life (the claim to totality); then I will show that the dialectic of enlightenment does apply to every facet of human life (the claim of necessity); and finally it will become apparent that the dialectic of enlightenment dissolves the possibility of practical reason (the claim about practical reason). Furthermore, in that all these claims can be demonstrated, Dialectic of Enlightenment is shown to be not a bloated mess or merely an assemblage of possibly related, possibly unrelated non sequiturs, but rather an intentionally fragmentary but nonetheless philosophically sophisticated thesis about the possibility of autonomous reason.

2. The Text of the Dialectic of Enlightenment

Before moving to this discussion, however, I want to get some historical details on the table. Doing so requires retreating from philosophical issues all the way to the most basic historical details about the text and its composition. A retreat at this point allows for a focus explicitly on the text, thereby raising these issues organically, from the ground up. In this way I hope to make the case for my proposed reading more forceful. I will defer the discussion of autonomy and Kant until we have a clear understanding of how these issues arise from the more explicit and traditionally discussed themes of the text, especially the notions of enlightenment and myth. But before we get there, a few textual points.

The most important, and obvious, point is that Dialectic of Enlightenment was written jointly. Its joint authorship might be accounted for in a variety of ways: we can examine the trajectory of both Adorno's and Horkheimer's later works for clues about how to understand Dialectic of Enlightenment, the various pieces of the work can be attributed to different authors, certain features of the text, whether positive or negative, can be explained as by-products of collaboration, or we can use some combination of these methods. By my lights, employing all these methods sparingly is appropriate. The final text is a single unit, and there is not sufficient reason to discard sections of it. Furthermore, the prospects for determining the authorship of "The Concept of Enlightenment" are not promising; arguments for joint authorship or for sole authorship by Horkheimer or by Adorno have equal currency. Short of new evidence, there is simply no good way to adjudicate such debates.

A few other details about composition are worth noting. First, as Gretel Adorno and Leo Löwenthal have pointed out, many passages were dictated together by Adorno and Horkheimer, so certain types of philological inquiry will not help with questions of authorship. Horkheimer and Adorno refer to something like this when they write in the preface to Dialectic of Enlightenment: "No one who was not involved in the writing could easily understand to what extent we both feel responsible for every sentence. We dictated long stretches together; the Dialectic derives its vital energy from the tension between the two intellectual temperaments which came together in writing it" (DE xi/5:13). Second, the text was originally "published" in 1944, in a limited mimeograph edition in honor of Friedrich Pollock's fiftieth birthday. The original title was simply "Philosophical Fragments." Then in 1947 the text was revised and reprinted by a professional publisher (Querido). The title of the original lead essay, "Dialectic of Enlightenment," became the new title, while the original title became a subtitle. Finally, note that in June 1941 Hannah Arendt delivered to Adorno a stack of papers by Walter Benjamin. This collection was Benjamin's last work, the "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 after unsuccessfully attempting to escape to Portugal through Spain. Both the manuscript and Benjamin's death had a profound effect on Horkheimer and Adorno, personally and philosophically.

3. Enlightenment as a Historical Category?

Indeed, Benjamin's influence is present in the opening words of the preface, where Horkheimer and Adorno write that they "had set out to ... explain why humanity, instead of arriving at a truly human condition, is sinking into a new type of barbarism" (DE xiv/5:16; translation modified). To avoid vacuity, such an inquiry must be tempered by Benjamin's claim in the Theses that "the current amazement that the things we are experiencing are "'still'" possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable (Thesis 8)."

And something like Benjamin's point is evident when Horkheimer and Adorno immediately reframe their intent as "merely" inquiring about the "self-destruction of enlightenment" (DE xvi/5:18). This raises the issue of how to understand the way Horkheimer and Adorno use "enlightenment." We are urged to see "enlightenment" as a process, not as designating a historical period (DE 1/5:25). A process, however, also has a history, and thereby a beginning and perhaps also a goal, or at least a conclusion. The distinction, then, between period and process, which is important and without which Dialectic of Enlightenment would become an assortment of "wild generalizations barely susceptible to empirical confirmation," is difficult to negotiate (DE 1/5:25).

One way to cope with this difficulty is to read Dialectic of Enlightenment as a cultural critique akin to other writings from the period (for example, those of Huxley, Jaspers, Jung, Klages, and others). In this way, if one is sympathetic to the argument, "enlightenment" might refer to something like "a linear historical narrative of enlightenment," taken broadly to designate either disenchantment with the world, instrumental thinking, scientistic rationalism, or some combination of these. If one is unsympathetic to the argument, then "enlightenment" might just be an essentially "fanciful, unhistorical hybrid composed of everything" that Adorno and Horkheimer "dislike." Neither reading need imply conservatism, since either is compatible with seeing Dialectic of Enlightenment's chief task as revealing the pitfalls of particular practices, without also insisting on a return to some real or imagined past.

While I am sympathetic to these approaches, I think they minimize an important feature of the text. Such readings frequently forget that Dialectic of Enlightenment's impulse was not solely negative, and thereby pessimistic in nature. While the text's bleakness is undeniable, Horkheimer and Adorno also refer to a "secret utopia harbored within the concept of reason" (DE 66/5:107) and explicitly claim that the "critique of enlightenment given ... is intended to prepare a positive concept of enlightenment" (DE xviii/5:21). At the same time, they do not help themselves here, since such a positive program never appears. Nonetheless, this aspiration is important not only for understanding the aims of their critique (which is meant to be part of a larger project), but especially for a proper understanding of the trajectory of Adorno's later thinking. Such an aspiration also suggests that the critique is philosophical in nature, concerned neither merely with a historical process, nor with any particular cultural failing. Some cultural critiques, of course, call into question the whole gamut of Western civilization; in this sense they overlap with Horkheimer and Adorno's approach. Their differences lie in something like the level at which the critique is pitched. To put my cards on the table, I do not take Horkheimer and Adorno to aspire "just" to comment on some ill-defined "Enlightenment project," even one that stretches across multiple historical periods. Their aspiration is rather to comment on the status of reason itself. To the extent that they view reason itself as an achievement, any such commentary will have a historical component. Everything hinges, however, on where the historical details enter the account, whether they serve as the justification for the critique (for example, crassly, as in "had this not happened, we would not be in this mess"), or whether they instead serve as its historical basis (as in "because this happened, we now cannot but understand that so-and-so"; i.e., because we have certain concepts, we must deal with certain issues). Stanley Cavell's suggestion about how to understand the difference between Spengler and Wittgenstein is relevant in this context. He proposes that Wittgenstein's uniqueness "comes from the sense that he is joining the fate of philosophy as such with that of the philosophy or criticism of culture, thus displacing both" (UA 73). I think the same can be said of Horkheimer and Adorno (however, it is not my aim to analyze contemporaneous cultural critiques with this point in mind, nor do I think much hinges philosophically on such a task). Horkheimer and Adorno—in this sense, like Wittgenstein—are concerned with more than "just" a critique of culture. At the same time, they refuse to criticize "reason" (taken here as our practice of "giving and taking reasons") without a sensitivity to historical detail, or without insight into the origins of reason as well as possible alternatives.

4. The Concept of Enlightenment, and Enlightenment and Myth

Dialectic of Enlightenment, then, is a philosophical critique, dealing with the most basic elements of any thinking that aims to enlighten, where such thinking is taken in the broadest possible terms. As Horkheimer and Adorno write, "Enlightenment understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters" (DE 1/5:25). "Enlightenment," then, designates an outlook that spans temporal and spatial boundaries. As Adorno will later write, "As far back as we can trace it, the history of thought has been a dialectic of enlightenment" (ND 118/6:124; emphasis added). In this spirit I want to highlight an important change between the two editions of Dialectic of Enlightenment. In the original 1944 printing, the first was titled "Dialectic of Enlightenment." In subsequent printings, however, the same chapter appears as "Concept [Begriff] of Enlightenment." This revision is important and gives us two clues for reading the text. First, most of the revisions to Dialectic of Enlightenment primarily toned down the Marxist language of the first edition (in part, surely, to avoid censorship and in part perhaps because of the changing political orientation of the authors themselves). Revisions that do not serve this goal, then, should be carefully examined. Second, although Dialectic of Enlightenment is fragmentary, this revision highlights an obvious organizational scheme, making it explicit that "The Concept of Enlightenment" somehow anchors the essays following it. As Horkheimer and Adorno clearly point out in the preface, this essay is the "theoretical basis of those which follow" (DE xviii/5:21). Designating the first essay as the "concept" of enlightenment expressly invites speculation about the nature of this concept, especially its coherency and actualization. Not shying away from such a task, the remaining chapters serve as applications, extensions, or implications of the concept of enlightenment thinking, focusing on its various elements (so, "Myth and Enlightenment," "Enlightenment and Morality," "Enlightenment as Mass Deception," and "Limits of Enlightenment"). Therefore, though it is a collection of "philosophical fragments," the 1947 version of Dialectic of Enlightenment is quite unitary. In fact "enlightenment" is here exactly a conceptual category as opposed to a historical one.

To understand enlightenment in this way, we must understand the relation between enlightenment and myth. Adorno and Horkheimer write: "Enlightenment has always regarded anthropomorphism, the projection of subjective properties onto nature, as the basis of myth. The supernatural, spirits and demons, are taken to be reflections of human beings who allow themselves to be frightened by natural phenomena. According to enlightened thinking, the multiplicity of mythical figures can be reduced to a single common denominator, the subject" (DE 4/5:28).


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Table of Contents


1. I Against I: Stressing the Dialectic in the Dialectic of Enlightenment
1. Introduction
2. The Text of the
Dialectic of Enlightenment
3. Enlightenment as a Historical Category?
4. The
Concept of Enlightenment, and Enlightenment and Myth
5. Images and Signs
6. The Dissolution of Subjectivity
7. The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Kant’s Dialectic of Reason
8. Adorno on Kant’s Dialectic
9. The Necessity of the Dialectic of Enlightenment
10. The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Practical Reason
11. Conclusion

2. Beyond the Bounds of Sense: Kant and the Highest Good
1. Introduction
2. Morality and the Highest Good
3. The Highest Good in the
Critique of Pure Reason
4. The Garve Review
5. The Highest Good in the Critique of Practical Reason
6. The Highest Good in the Critique of Judgment
7. Conclusion

3. Adorno’s Negative Dialectic as a Form of Life: Expression, Suffering, and Freedom
1. Introduction
2. Toward an Understanding of the Moral Addendum
3. Natural and Normative: Some Variations
4. The Addendum
5. The Background to Adorno’s Moral Thought
6. Speculative Surplus and Depth as Freedom
7. Freedom and Expression, Happiness and Suffering
8. Expressivity, Language, and Truth
9. Morality and the Nonidentical
10. Conclusion: Kant and Freedom

4. Reflections on Universal Reason: Adorno, Hegel, and the Wounds of Spirit
1. Introduction
2. The Methodology of the
Phenomenology of Spirit
3. From the Science of the Experience of Consciousness to the Phenomenology of Spirit
4. Spirit
5. Universal Reason and Forgiveness
6. Conclusion

Model: Conclusion
Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

J. M. Bernstein

“In this elegantly crafted book, Shuster demonstrates, compellingly, that the core of modern reason is a claim to be radically autonomous: fully detached from the natural world and fully self-determining. Such a reason, Adorno argues, will be self-defeating, leading to the dissolution of the very form of subjectivity it promises. Shuster thus shows what no one has argued previously: that at the center of Adorno’s critical enterprise is an argument about the nature of autonomy, agency, and practical reason. Shuster has provided an incisive addition to our understanding of these topics that confronts traditional accounts, especially in Kant and Hegel, with Adorno’s reflections on how human action must be shaped, motivated, and elicited from a world of suffering from which we cannot avert our eyes.”

Terry Pinkard

“Shuster offers us a fresh and interesting interpretation of the key elements in Adorno’s thought. He perceptively steers us through the tangle of Adorno’s attempt to combine classical German thought with contemporary social concerns.”

Espen Hammer

Autonomy after Auschwitz is an exceptionally strong and interesting work. Shuster productively relates Adorno both to German idealism and to contemporary analytic philosophy, opening up Adorno’s work and engaging it from perspectives that reveal unexpected nuances and invite further reflection and exploration. The result is a highly original and pathbreaking work that will appeal not only to Adorno scholars but a range of readers in social theory and philosophy.”

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