“The rational foundations of modernity are in crisis.”


The rational foundations of modernity are in crisis. After World War II, the liberal and communist blocs each espoused a version of rationalistic universalism, based on Enlightenment values variously interpreted. These universalisms overshadowed ethnic, national, and religious differences, and as universal each claimed to be the true path.

Andrew Feenberg

« Les fondements rationnels de la modernité sont en crise. Après la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, les blocs libéral et communiste ont chacun épousé une version d’universalisme rationaliste, basé sur les valeurs des Lumières diversement interprétées. Ces universalismes ont éclipsé les différences ethniques, nationales et religieuses, et en tant qu’universels chacun prétendit être le vrai chemin. »

                                            Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern.

Karl Marx – Thesen über Feuerbach (Thèses sur Feuerbach)

                                                       Les philosophes n’ont jusqu’ici qu’interprété le monde de diverses façons ; il importe de le changer.

The rational foundations of modernity are in crisis. After World War II, the liberal and communist blocs each espoused a version of rationalistic universalism, based on Enlightenment values variously interpreted. These universalisms overshadowed ethnic, national, and religious differences, and as universal each claimed to be the true path. The final triumph of liberalism seemed to many to signal the end of history, the ultimate resolution of conflicting ideologies in a rational framework of rights and values served by science, technology, and administrative expertise. But instead a rising tide of particularisms has placed liberalism on the defensive. The universalistic claim has itself been reduced to a particular in this new context. It is under attack from two quarters, from fundamentalist religious ideology and from post-modern skepticism. The latter attack has no armies but it is effective in a different way, challenging overconfidence in science and progress in the advanced countries and among global elites, just as much of the developing world seems poised to modernize in imitation of the West.

In this context, what has Marxist philosophy to offer? Clearly, one cannot simply return to the  thoroughly discredited positions of Soviet ideology, nor adopt a so-called “orthodoxy” based on the works of a nineteenth-century thinker of genius. Something fundamental has changed since 1989, not to mention 1847. But the question can be refined. Marxist thought is far from unified. In the period following World War I, a new interpretation of Marxism emerged in the West, enriched by the philosophy and sociology of the time. Throughout much of the last century this so-called “Western Marxism” played a significant role in philosophical debates. It has been eclipsed since the fall of the Soviet Union, but paradoxically so, since it elaborated some of the most trenchant criticisms of Soviet communism from an original Marxist standpoint. […] The early Lukács and the principal members of the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse—are the major figures in Western Marxism. Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 were immediately adopted as a founding text of this tradition after their publication in 1932. I describe the underlying doctrine of this whole tradition as “philosophy of praxis” … The essential claim of this philosophy is the significance of revolution, not just for political and social theory but for the ultimate questions of epistemology and ontology. The early Marx and Lukács argue that the basic “demands of reason” that emerge from classical German philosophy are fulfilled not by speculation but by revolution. This is the famous “realization of philosophy” for which Marx calls for in his early writings, and most notably in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. The pivotal text of philosophy of praxis is History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. The key to understanding this text is the concept of reification. With this concept Lukács signified the limits of a modern culture based on the model of scientific-technical rationality. The usual technocratic understanding of modern society is reified in precisely Lukács’s sense of the term. Bureaucratic administrations, markets, and technologies are all products of our scientific age; like science they are thought to be morally neutral tools beneficial to humanity as a whole when properly used. But in reality these institutions are social products, shaped by social forces and shaping the behavior of their users. They more nearly resemble legislation than mathematics or science. Thus their claim to universality is flawed at its basis. Like legislation, they are either good or bad, never neutral. Lukács argued that when societies become conscious of the social contingency of the rational institutions under which they live, they can then judge and change them. This implication of the theory of reification distinguishes society, including its technology, from the nature of natural science. Lukács believed that a revolution from below would overthrow reification and create a socialist alternative to capitalist modernity. That revolution would not reject reason and its fruits but would reconfigure rational institutions in response to the needs of the oppressed. The Frankfurt School applied the concept of reification in a very different time. Writing under the influence of the post–World War I revolutions, Lukács optimistically assumed that the working class would always retain an oppositional consciousness on the basis of the gap between its daily experience and needs and the rationalized economic and administrative forms imposed on it. Marcuse’s theory of the “one-dimensional society” is the culmination of the Frankfurt School’s critique of this optimistic assessment of revolutionary prospects. He recognized the extension of reification into the depths of social life. In advanced capitalism the working class is no longer even partially exempt as media propaganda and consumerism colonize everyday life and consciousness. Yet Marcuse did not give up hope in the emergence of a countertendency, first visible in the New Left. In his view, a “rational” organization of society through capitalist markets and administrations produced such irrational consequences—wars, economic and environmental crises, social pathologies—that new forms of opposition would emerge. With the decline of traditional forms of working-class revolutionary struggle, these new forms of opposition are increasingly focused on the irrationality of capitalism, the absurdity of its pretension to organize all of social life through the market, and the catastrophic environmental consequences of its frenetic pursuit of profit with the gigantic resources of modern technology. The philosophy of praxis placed questions of rationality and irrationality at the center of its political vision.

Andrew Feenberg – The philosophy of praxis : Marx, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School



“The “philosophy of praxis,” … is Feenberg’s attempt to recognize technology as self-alienated social practice, or to use Lukács’s term, “reified” action that engenders political irresponsibility, the false naturalization or hypostatization of activity that could be changed. Feenberg traces this problem back to the origins of social theory in Rousseau’s critique of civilization, the inherently ambivalent character of social “progress” in history. Feenberg locates in Rousseau what he calls the origins of the “deontological” approach to society: a new conception of freedom which is not merely a “right” but is indeed a “duty.” What Feenberg calls the “deontological grounds for revolution” in Marx, then, is the Rousseauian tradition that Marx inherited from Kant and Hegel, if however in a “metacritical approach.””

Chris Cutrone : Marx and Philosophy

“Students of Frankfurt School critical theory often are confronted with an approach to philosophy that is very alien to the mainstream but can be rendered intelligible, if its Marxist and Lukácsian background is brought to the fore. For example, consider the cryptic opening sentence of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on, because the moment of its realization was missed.”[2] It is with understanding sentences like these that Feenberg’s book really helps. Both the obsolescence of philosophy and its possible realization are problems that arise in Marx’s early writings and in Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, in the context of a philosophy of praxis that aims to overcome the antinomies identified by modern philosophy through collective social action and to realize the level of rationality that has been attained through theoretical reflection in social practices and institutions. For Marx and for Lukács (who didn’t know Marx’s early writings when he wrote History and Class Consciousness in 1923 but developed very similar arguments), the German idealist tradition had reached an impasse in Hegel, who thought that the antinomies of modern philosophy had to be resolved by speculative thought. In contrast, Marx and Lukács believed that these antinomies ultimately could not be resolved either critically, as Kant thought, or speculatively, as Hegel thought, but only metacritically. Such a metacritique of philosophy would amount to a “sociological desublimation of the concepts of philosophy” (12). It would demonstrate that seemingly philosophical problems are rooted in social reality, and that only social change will resolve the antinomies.”

Timo Jütten : Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews