Western Civilization, Modernity and Reason: An Unavoidable Conflict?

Marie-Josée Lavallée

Review of Jay, Martin. 2016. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Reading Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung for the first time may be a rather disconcerting experience. The authors seem to support without qualification the claim, widely popular since the time of the Great War, that Western Civilization was then experiencing a crisis which could take her straight to her intellectual, spiritual, and even physical destruction. This pessimistic prognosis was only boosted by the catastrophes of the Second World War and Nazism, which were the background of the composition of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s book.

Let’s remind briefly a part of their argument. Enlightenment thinkers had had a strong confidence in the potential of reason to liberate and emancipate human beings. Reason, however, can turn against the latter, and sink into barbarism if its regressive tendencies surface and become dominant. The roots of this regressive process are to be sought in Ancient Greece, where the split between reason and myth occurred. What was happened in the Enlightenment’s century has been a renewal of the struggle between those henceforth old adversaries, but this fight reached new highs.

If the concept of reason was to become central to Critical Theory, reflection on the perplexing multiplicity of reason was current in German thought in these times. The conservative thinkers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, also distinguished between “instrumental reason”, which imposed itself at the same pace as modernity, and “sound reason”, which has been repressed by its instrumental counterpart. This process underlies the surprising affirmation to the effect that reason may have a corrosive effect on human autonomy and freedom.

This type of discussion, however, often lacks theoretical clarification. The distinctions between instrumental reason and sound or critical reason, and universal and subjective reason are often taken for granted and put forward without much explanation. This is precisely the task renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay has set himself in his last book. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory guides the reader throughout the theoretical ambiguities surrounding the concept and its kindred terms (for example, rationality, rationalization, reasonable) by painting a broad history of its philosophical appearances and uses over time. It sheds light in particular on German thought between the end of the 18th century to the last quarter of the 20th century.

Martin_Jay,_Graduate_Center,_November_2016

Martin Jay (left), in conversation with Richard Wolin. Photo by Joseph van der Naald (licence C BY-SA 4.0).

The author begins his study by exploring the first “Age of Reason” which runs from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment, before considering Kant in a separate chapter. The next one, devoted to Hegel and Marx, introduces a couple of notions which prepare the analysis of discussions of reason by thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter skims over late modernity’s crisis of reason which, having started in the late 18th century reached a high point between 1848 and the unleashing of the Great War, before transforming itself into the “embrace of unreason” from 1914 to the 1940s. These two phases characterized themselves by a decisive “erosion of confidence in reason”.

At each step of his study, Jay distinguishes various layers of meaning tied the concept and underlines the impacts of reason’s coexistence with religion or science. He does not try to build a homogenous history of reason but rather fully confronts the reader to the full range of complexities and contradictions surrounding this notion. While Jay’s perspective is wide, he does not lose himself into subtleties. His synthesis is highly efficient, and will benefit anyone who has an interest in the concept of reason. This is why the book’s appeal does not restrict itself to Frankfurt School’s thinkers’ readers. The latter’s criticisms have attracted a great deal of attention, but one should not read them as their “last word” on reason.

In the chapters of the second part of the book, “Reason’s Eclipse and Return”, Jay analyzes the attempts of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas to “rescue” reason and “defend a viable concept” of the latter. This part, however, lacks balance. The reader could be disappointed by the too synthetic treatment of the first three thinkers, which are grouped together in a single chapter, in spite of the fact that Marcuse would have deserved a full chapter, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas’ thought is treated more in depth, since two chapters are devoted to him.

Besides its contribution to the understanding of the various meanings of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School’s thinkers, and throughout intellectual history, Jay’s book also contribute to reopening wider paths of historical-philosophical investigation, for example on the topic of the modern project’s failure. It also helps to open new research avenues pertaining to our own time, since we must suspect that the conflict between reason and material progress has not come to a close yet.

The author is a Lecturer of History at Université de Montréal, Canada.

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