Reason and its Discontents

Martin Jay, Reason after Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory

University of Wisconsin Press, 272pp, $44.95, ISBN 9780299306502

reviewed by Simi Freund

The last few years have seen a renewed interest in the work of the Frankfurt School. With the ongoing political turbulence affecting the liberal societies of the Western world, people are seeking theoretical tools to lay bare the insidious underpinnings of Western modernity, the coercive tactics sewn into apparently emancipatory concepts like Enlightenment, progress, freedom, democracy, technology and capitalism. With an increasing awareness of the darker side of these concepts, and as the ideas of systemic corruption and coercion have become mainstream, who better to help make sense of things than the Frankfurt School? In the eyes of this seminal circle of thinkers, the rise of fascism in the 1930s, rather than a rebellion against enlightened liberal values, was in fact their most complete realisation.

Martin Jay, a legend in the field of German intellectual history, offers an interesting example of this resurgence of interest – perhaps fittingly since his most influential book, The Dialectical Imagination (1973), is a canonical history of this group of German thinkers. Although tackling one of the biggest concepts in the history of Western thought, Jay is not offering us a comprehensive history of the concept of reason. Instead, his book looks at the path the concept took on its way to being dismantled by the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists and how Habermas sought to re-establish the primacy of reason as a motor for social change.

Reason after Its Eclipse first appeared in the spring of 2016, on the eve of two of the most destabilising political events in the recent history of the Anglo-Saxon world. Finishing as it does with a qualified defence of reason (via Habermas), it would be easy to dismiss Jay’s history as a relic of a liberal order on the verge of collapse. Though aspects of Jay’s treatment can be challenged in the wake of the upheaval that came after the book’s publication, there is still much to admire in his reconstruction of the descent of reason and the struggle to redeem it.

The core of the book covers the Frankfurt School; however, Jay provides context through a condensed history detailing the shifting parameters of the concept of reason as it was encountered by the pre-Socratic and later Greek philosophers, and then by some of the more influential German thinkers, moving from Leibniz to Kant then on to Hegel, Marx and Heidegger. One of the key through-lines in Jay’s history of reason is its critical function. Jay shows how the critical theory made famous by the Frankfurt School was building on a tradition that started with Kant and his project of critical philosophy. Kant presented his critique of reason as a self-critique – an attempt to use reason to interrogate its own boundaries and capabilities. Unlike the sciences which tend to objectify, to separate the objects of study from the theory studying them, critical theories present themselves as ‘reflective’ or ‘self-referential’.

As Raymond Geuss has put it: ‘A critical theory is itself always a part of the object-domain which it describes; critical theories are always in part about themselves.’ And as Jay explains, with the shift from Kant’s critical philosophy to a critical theory of society, the critical project anchors itself in

‘suspicion of authority, tradition, self-evidence, and emotional appeal, demanding instead a reasoned exploration of the unacknowledged conditions of possibility, both epistemological and social, that underpinned conventional wisdom.’

The famous pessimism of the first generation of the Frankfurt School (particularly Adorno and Horkheimer) stems in part from their unbending attachment to self-critical reasoning, now directed at the social and historical context to which they belonged. For them the Enlightenment project of universal reason and the advanced Western societies which it inspired are irredeemably responsible for the exploitative conditions of Western modernity. Jay notes how Horkheimer speaks at times of reason as a ‘disease’ and for some of the first-generation Frankfurt School thinkers the disease is incurable. All that is left is to continually pull apart the veils of mystification which hide the disease from view.

It is this pessimistic account of reason (and, by extension, modernity) which Jürgen Habermas, the most prominent thinker of the Frankfurt School’s second generation, takes issue with. Jay’s history culminates with chapters describing the outlines of Habermas’s rehabilitation of reason and his ‘yearning for a viable concept of reason able to serve the cause of radical social change.’ Habermas focuses on presenting reason’s communicative and dialogical character: ‘Rather than a faculty of the individual mind representing an object external to it, reason should be understood more capaciously as an intersubjective procedure of validity testing.’ Reason, for Habermas, is not an abstract concept – it lives and breathes within everyday social relations. As Jay observes:

‘The question of reason was not a question for philosophy alone but also for social relations in the everyday lifeworld of pre-reflective practices and beliefs, and even more so in the specialized institutions and differentiated value spheres that emerged from it.’

Jay describes how Habermas wants to move beyond a ‘consciousness-centred’ version of reason by emphasising the ‘illocutionary dimension of language, which moved its center of gravity away from the subject of enunciation and the object of reference to the intersubjective action intended pragmatically by every linguistic utterance.’ Reason here goes beyond the exchanging of arguments; it arrives in the elusive consensus which concludes the exchange.

Jay emphasises how reason serves as a ‘regulative ideal’ for Habermas. Like Kant, Habermas believes that a state of pure reason or full rationality is unattainable but that striving towards it is nevertheless the best way forward. Combined with his notion of communicative reason based on the superiority of the ‘better argument’ and his concept of the ‘ideal speech situation’, Habermas’s idealist tendencies come to the fore:

‘…an inborn, species-wide communicative competence – a variant of Chomsky’s theory of linguistic competence in grammatical terms – develops over time into the discursive skills that allow participants in discussions to proffer and weigh the better argument and reach an agreement based on reflection and persuasion, or at least inherently to strive toward that end, rather than merely reach agreement through coercion, seduction, or the compromise of still opposing positions and interests.’

The ideal speech situation is one in which all participants are free of any sort of coercion and can speak freely. It is at the heart of Habermas’s conception of the public sphere and serves as the condition of possibility for developing rational ideas – only ideas which would be agreed upon by a group of people thinking and speaking with absolute freedom can be considered rational. Jay highlights the great importance that the German thinker places on spaces like the bourgeois salons of the 17th and 18th centuries as approximations of the ideal speech situation, and how his belief in our innate capacity for rational communication provides the foundation for a further belief in the possibility of reaching a universal consensus among members of a society. Jay goes on to suggest that Habermas would welcome seemingly irrational arguments to enter the public sphere as tests for assumed rational positions:

‘…rather than itself dismissing these “others” as utterly heterogeneous to reason and inhabiting a realm that could only be damned as “irrational,” communicative rationality could include them in the discursive process itself, at least as producing alternative content worth arguing about. In principle, there was nothing that could not be grist for the process of discursive reasoning.’

Jay describes how in his own career Habermas has distinguished himself by his readiness to enter debates with critics and how seriously he takes alternative philosophical positions to his own, even as he disagrees with them. This type of ‘performative’ commitment to reason and his conception of reason as ever-changing and always open to challenge and critique feels refreshingly nuanced compared with the Neo-Enlightenment hysterics of the likes of Steven Pinker, who attempts to make reason into a sort of faith. Jay’s comments on the scientism of the early 20th century are no less valid for its contemporary manifestation: ‘Ironically, in debunking traditional metaphysics, scientism ended up replacing it with a system no less overweening in its pretensions.’

Bringing reason and rationalism back to the centre of proceedings was an attempt to break free of the ‘instrumental reason’ which had caused so much consternation to thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno. In Eclipse of Reason (1947), the book that informs the title of Jay’s book, Horkheimer laments how the Enlightenment started a process by which reason moved from being ‘objective’ to ‘subjective’. Whereas reason once offered ‘the conviction that an all-embracing or fundamental structure of being could be discovered and a conception of human destination derived from it’, the Enlightenment brought about a transformation which replaced discovery with manipulation. Echoing the arguments of his famous collaboration with Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Horkheimer describes how the Enlightenment ideology enacted a reversal in thinking, from nature and the objective world as the inspiration determining the goals of humanity to nature and the objective world as tools to be wielded and manipulated to better serve the needs and desires of humanity. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it: ‘Men have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self.’ With their evocation of the destructive relationship with nature which Enlightenment thinking introduced, we can see another reason why the Frankfurt School thinkers have come back into prominence.

Once subjectified, instrumentalised and commodified, Horkheimer notes that reason ‘takes on a kind of materiality and blindness, becomes a fetish, a magic entity that is accepted rather than intellectually experienced.’ With the industrial revolution, ‘concepts have become “streamlined”, rationalized, labor-saving devices. It is as if thinking itself has been reduced to the level of industrial processes, subjected to a close schedule – in short made part and parcel of production.’ Here the plight of reason clearly stems from its recasting as a facilitator for the better flow of capital.

The original promise of ‘objective reason’ as the key to unlock human potential descends, with the rapacious march of capitalist modernity, into reason as complicit in a wide-ranging process of dehumanisation. Rather than offering a standard for thought and action, reason has lost its autonomy and been mobilised by dominant power structures to accelerate their programmes and tighten their control. This is the understanding of reason which Habermas tries so hard to transcend, and yet it is one of the most influential lines of thinking to have come out of the Frankfurt School. One example among many is the line of critique that grew out of Foucault’s work, from his own analysis of the rationality of the disciplinary society to more recent thinkers like Wendy Brown and her interrogation of neoliberalism as instating a particular form of reasoning – a regime of truth which ‘transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic.’

The critique of instrumental reason has proven crucial in making sense of how reason is so often contorted by power, how what is deemed true is only truthful in so far as it serves a particular set of interests. By extension, it has also helped to understand how dominant ideologies fail to serve particular sets of interests, offering a starting point for developing emancipatory strategies. There is some irony here given how many in the Frankfurt School’s first generation had abandoned the orthodox Marxist faith in the proletariat’s potential as a revolutionary force, not to mention their overwhelmingly male, white, Eurocentric perspective, which they rarely called into question.

Does Habermas offer a superior alternative? The final chapter on Habermas’s critics gives an overview of the impressive quantity and variety of attacks which he has endured, and his equally impressive consistency in responding to them or, at times, reconfiguring his system to accommodate them. Yet in the wake of this book’s original publication, a number of tensions in Habermas’s account of reason are particularly apparent. In particular, his system is deeply reliant on liberal democratic ideology. With his openness to a potentially infinite remodelling of our rational ideas, he avoids falling into the Rawlsian, liberal normativity trap, but his commitment to the idea of rational consensus, even as a regulative ideal, imbricates him in political idealism.

As many critics of modern liberal thinking have pointed out, the diversity and value-pluralism of liberal society means it is much more orientated towards dissensus and the incommensurability of conflicting positions. Take the Brexit debate: was a rational case put forward by either camp? Certainly, the sovereignty/identity argument of the Leave camp played more to emotion and sentiment, but the economic arguments for Remain were far from pure reason: though they presented themselves as rational, their reasoning legitimated a worldview that prioritised economics and business above all else – not to mention the uncritical love that many Remain supporters displayed towards the EU, making it a utopian symbol of diversity and intercultural exchange, and eliding its specific organisational and ideological tensions. Habermas himself has been one of the most outspoken advocates of the idea of Europe and the European Union over several decades. And yet his own position, which sees a deeper level of EU co-operation as the only way to deliver democracy across Europe and to keep unfettered capitalism under control, seems increasingly idealist given the continuing rise of right-wing populism or ‘illiberalism’. Is his reasoning following his faith in Europe, or would he argue that rational deliberation has produced this faith? Setting the Brexit debate up as rational creates a false standard for reaching a decision, opening the door to an array of irrational justifications with no control over which might carry the most weight in the final instance. Rather than offering common ground, the appeal to reason seems to guarantee division.

Events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are a reminder of the incommensurability of conflicting positions within liberal democratic culture, as well as the frailty of the political mainstream when confronted with genuinely divergent or challenging positions. They also reveal how individual interests are at the forefront of decision-making and how appeals to common or collective reason rarely have the power to change this. In this sense, Habermas’s notion of a discursive space in which individual interests are suppressed so that everyone can participate as equal, rational partners feels particularly far-fetched. Even as a guiding principle, it makes light of the very real differences between people and communities which have flourished in liberal democratic societies. What is more, the ‘communicative’ model of reason places enormous faith in the power of communication, the capacity of people to articulate their thoughts clearly, their ability to see beyond prejudice and manipulation, and their willingness to listen to others and accept compromise. Habermas’s great positivity towards Emmanuel Macron has often been rooted in the latter’s abilities as speaker, which seems to over-invest in communication as a criterion of judgement. Compelling though Jay’s defence of Habermas is, with everything that has happened since this book was originally published it is very hard to accept that reason has indeed re-emerged from its eclipse. Instead we are left contemplating a better way to instrumentalise it.