Martin Jay, Reason After It’s Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

Martin Jay begins his reflections on the critique of reason by the first-generation Frankfurt school with the question: What did Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno mean by their notion of an emphatic conception of reason? Why was it necessary and what is its role? This is no doubt the right question to ask to begin an inquiry into what he calls late critical theory. While this book is an excellent introduction to the topic in the end I was not fully convinced he provided the best answer. The questions of truth and, as Habermas added, validity are central to problems of emancipatory social theory. Is there some ontological or epistemological baseline that we can ascertain that justifies the critical project? Contemporary radical theories such as those derived from Foucault, are skeptical of such attempts and question notions of emancipatory social theory.

Jay takes a broader historical approach and considers late critical theory via a survey of the concept of reason in western thought. His survey is necessarily selective. Jay emphasizes the way in which western reason constructs and sometime rejects the emphatic conception of reason. This emphatic concept of reason is the idea that there is something real, an ultimate truth or essence that cannot be transcended. Emphatic reason is also close to what Horkheimer came to call objective reason. The idea that truth inheres in the order of the world, the cosmos, the ideas, nature, or god, to name a few alleged sources independent of the knowing subject. Jay also introduces ideas that are relevant, such as the relation of reason and myth, and the notion of “sufficient reason.” This latter notion posits that everything must have a reason ground or cause. These notions are necessary background to understanding the Frankfurt School’s analyses of reason.

Jay holds that emphatic notions of truth are noetic. Simply put, noetic theories view truth as self-evident and validated through insight. Noesis is closely related to eidos, or inner vision, what Plato called the mind’s eye. Those familiar with contemporary philosophy can see its heritage in Husserl’s notion of eidetic intuition. Jay contrasts noetic with what he calls dianoetic, or discursive, reason for which it is not self-evident insight but discussion and reasoning in common that lead to agreement over proposed truth. As in Aristotle’s practical philosophy, deliberation is a temporal process focused on the capacities of reasoning subjects and not the supposedly objective order. Thus, it contained a critical measure of contingency. The tension between the two notions of reason continues into the present.

Jay follows the trajectory of emphatic reason from the Greeks, who see reason as inherent in the cosmos, though the rationalists, who see it as a product of the individual mind, up to its dissolution in Kantian critique. Hegel and Marx attempt, in contrast, to rescue an emphatic reason by recasting the relation of the real and the rational. Where Kant saves reason by making it a formal property of the mind, Hegel and Marx make it a historical process that comes into being and is realized in the practical life of subjects. Both Hegel and Marx begin with a dialogical and quasi-intersubjective view of reason as a democratic community in their early works only to take up a more noetic view in later work. This is especially true of Hegel who sees the development of noetic insight historically but culminating is in a complete and final view of reason.

The noetic view of reason undergoes serious challenge in the 19th and 20th century with the rise of vitalism and positivism, theories of special interest to the Frankfurt School. The former retains noetic insight into the real but it is not accessible through rationalist conceptions of analytic truth while the latter sees only empirically verified observation and logic as sources of knowledge. Positivism is incapable of discussing the proper ends of life. In strictly separating facts and values, it makes reason into a pure instrument of arbitrarily chosen ends.

With these considerations in mind Jay turns his critical gaze on the Frankfurt Schools analysis of the eclipse of reason. Jay lays a lot of the blame for the impasse of critical theory on Horkheimer. According to Jay’s interpretation, critical theory or, more precisely, Horkheimer’s formulation of it, unnecessarily comes to express deep skepticism and pessimism regarding the future of a self-liquidating reason. In The Eclipse of Reason and Dialectic of Enlightenment, critical theory simply comes to a dead end. The link between reason and emancipation is severed.

Jay views Horkheimer’s (and Marcuse’s) critique of reason as unsuccessful in providing an alternative to emphatic reason. He argues that Adorno and Habermas provide more productive leads. For Adorno, the notion of mimesis provides a viable notion of non-dominating reason, based in a negative dialectics that holds the reconciliation sought by reason can only be grasped negatively. Universal reason is in Adorno’s view subsumptive, that is, it absorbs the concrete individual into the whole. Art, in contrast, provided a concrete notion of human suffering. Art worked negatively by attending critically to the gap between an inhuman world and the problem of happiness. Against modern subjectivism Adorno always gave priority to the object over the subject.

Still Horkheimer and Adorno, remain tethered to the noetic version of reason even as they express doubts about it. Jay cites the transcript of a 1956 discussion “Towards a New Manifesto,” where Adorno, agreeing with Horkheimer notes that argument is essentially bourgeois. Jay, like others, is not convinced that the attempt to rescue noesis by Horkheimer or Adorno is successful He agrees with critics that Adorno’s attempt to use aesthetic experience as a placeholder for noetic intuition is latently metaphysical and that it is very hard to draw any connection to emancipatory movements in this formulation.

The last two chapters of Jay’s book are devoted to a discussion of Habermas’ response to the cul-de-sac of earlier critical theories. Habermas communicative theory stands on the side of the dialogical view. Habermas’ post-metaphysical theory sees insight into truth and validity as a matter of discourse and communication rather than self-evident insight. Jay gives a fine overview of the main elements of Habermas’ criticism of emphatic reason and Habermas’ own program. Habermas, in Jay’s view, brings reason down to earth. Reason and truth are detached from their objective, transcendental roots. Reason is a situated social and intersubjective process which is fallible and open to correction. This project to devise an emeanipatory non-emphatic notion of reason is closely linked to Habermas’ critical democratic theory. He sought to identify a sphere of free and equal deliberation that existed within modern liberalism (and republicanism) and which is not liquidated in late capitalism. There remain crisis potentials which can be the subject and means of struggles for freedom. Whereas the earlier generation of the Frankfurt school equated liberalism with subjective reason, Habermas sought an intersubjective conception of reason which uncovered possibilities for a fuller democracy that Horkheimer and Adorno did not think possible. He rejected the unity of a reconciled reason that overcomes the separation of value spheres in modern society. The plurality of forms of knowledge is an unavoidable fact. A new science, as Habermas always has argued, that reconciles us with nature is not possible. Thus, communicative reason is emancipatory in a more limited way, as in enabling increases in freedom and autonomy without any final reconciliation.

While Jay provides a good guide to the problem of emphatic reason in the Frankfurt school, I think his reading of Horkheimer is unsatisfactory. Jay rejects readings of Horkheimer’s work that find elements of a post-metaphysical outlook. Not only did Horkheimer develop elements of a post-metaphysical notion of truth he also developed a practically oriented social theory. In the essay “On the Concept of truth” Horkheimer rejects the notion that truth is eternal and fixed beyond human modification and the idea that truth is simply subjective or in other cases relative. Denying Kant’s solution Horkheimer suggests a dialectical approach in which elements are arranged unto unities that amount to successive approximations of reality. Hegel’s notion of a final end or absolute truth is rejected as impossibly idealistic. The central conflict in philosophy for Horkheimer is materialism versus idealism, and he accepts Marx’s view that the material takes priority. The material world, which includes the social, is always changing and never capable of a final transtemporal or definitive truth. Jay needed to pay more attention to this dynamic.

Thus I disagree with Jay’s claim that Horkheimer (or Adorno) is nostalgic for objective reason. For Horkheimer reason is a practical force rooted in the life processes of a society. It realizes a better society not through the actualization of an ideal but by the transformation of the organization of social and material life. Although Horkheimer saw these along the model of purposive reason and a sometimes productivist view of the social world, nonetheless he did not endorse or revive emphatic reason. Horkheimer attempts, if unsuccessfully, to find a way between objective and subjective reason. There is considerable continuity between Horkheimer’s earlier critical theory and Habermas’ project. Like Horkheimer, Habermas certainly emphasized the practical character of reason

In the final chapter Jay provides a thoughtful overview of debates around Habermas’ theory, although he is here more a historian than a critic. This is most evident when he considers the questions of truth in Habermas. He deals with epistemological questions without taking up implicit ontological features contained in Habermas’ notion of reconstructive social sciences, Truth and validity are features of social action and practice. Jay’s analysis raises a problem concerning Habermas’ adoption of a modified version of realism regarding the natural world. He sees that as the basis for an Adorno-like priority of the object world. Yet Habermas argues that in social inquiry there is no independent object world. What we can find is a model of non-identity inherent in intersubjectivity where participants are both identical and non-identical in their interaction with others. Understanding is thus created and renewed in interaction, an open-ended process without final terminus. Jay could have identified some elements of the participants’ perspective on knowledge that might have lead his analysis in a very different direction.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Aidan J. Beatty: Stuart Jeffries. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016)

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