Wouldn’t it to be an interesting question for a social media game among academic philosophers to ask them the first and last book read during their studies? I realised with some amazement that in my case both were classics of critical theory. In 1981, after a year of introductory courses which used textbooks and readers, I read ‘Erkenntnis und Interesse’ by Jürgen Habermas, and in 1987, for the final exam, I read Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’. Both books were suggested by Kees Bertels, who was the professor of Social Philosophy in the Sociology Department. I met him during the two years in which I tried to study Sociology (between 1978 and 1980). The only things that really interested me there were theoretical: symbolic interactionism, Weber, Critical Theory. So it was better that I moved on to Philosophy. I kept in contact with Bertels through my first job as an assistant teacher, which I have to thank him for, and I did my facultative courses with him. He was kind of a hippie-professor, with wild curly hair, and ethnic necklaces – at least that is how I remember him. I also remember that there was a small scandal when he didn’t want to wear the obligatory tie when at a PhD examination committee. He never gave me the high notes that the regular philosophy professors did, so I have grumbled for some years that studying with him cost me my ‘cum laude’. But I also knew that he offered me a lot, intellectually – not only with his suggestions for books and a theme for the paper which I never wrote in the end (it should have been about ‘freedom in the young Marx and in Hegel), but also in his brave example to work outside of the mainstream.
This month I had the opportunity to teach two courses with critical theory in them, one on the Prison as the flipside of modernity, and the other on ‘hermeneutics and critical theory’. While discussing Foucault and Angela Davis in the one course, and philosophers like Gadamer, Derrida and Habermas in the other, I noticed a lacuna in my preparations that I hadn’t thought of. I hadn’t realized that nobody knows the work by Adorno and Horkheimer anymore. All the same it is at the background of many later critical analyses. They were researchers at the famous Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, who fled nazi-Germany to transplant, with other famous colleagues like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the US. Characteristic for their work was that they opened up the rigid walls of method that still surround much academic philosophy, to find the focus for their research not in disciplinary presuppositions, but in the actual problems in society. The question at issue should lead the way to the approach chosen. A creative mixture of Freudian and Marxian ideas gave them the tools to analyse the blind spots of modern Europe, which had not succeeded to live up to its own Enlightenment ideals of freedom and dignity for all human beings. On the contrary – Europe had produced one of the most horrific and efficient totalitarian states known in modern times – in it’s philosopical heartlands so to speak.
Marxian analyses were useful to highlight the intertwined economic and political systems that worked to manipulate and produce docile individuals. Psychoanalysis helped to show the need to look into the cultural subconscious to find the roots for the acceptance, even the collective desire for such systems. After the war, Jürgen Habermas became the undisputed new man of the Frankfurt School on the continent – giving it a twist toward more ‘classical’ philosophy again – bringing a version of Kantian transcendental questioning back. Even when the possibility conditions he looked for were inspired by the interdisciplinary approach, the focus of the actual problems became, with Habermas, secondary once more to methodical questions. The more creative versions of Critical Theory developed in the US, with the Cold War as it’s backdrop. Marcuse came up with new and fascinating analyses of the relations between the military-industrial complex, the culture industry, and repressive desublimation. His pupil Angela Davis was part of a new generation of Critical Theorists, who put the interdisciplinary approach at work to study and contest social injustices based on race and gender – drawing too on a tradition of black thinkers who had been largely unnoticed in Academe.
In one of the more fundamental discussions in the course on the prison, my students and myself debated whether philosophy that was interdisciplinary could still be philosophical. My opinion was that it philosophy has to be interdisciplinary – to avoid being dead towards the world we live in. I cited Lewis Gordon’s book ‘Disciplinary Decadence’: ‘Where philosophy is treated as a closed affair that is simply “applied” to [x], it collapses into decadence. But where it is seen as an inexact activity, as the effort to think about the […] implications of [x], it transcends disciplinary decadence.’ The point being that a form of ‘transcendence’ is only reached when ‘a discipline suspends its own centering because of a commitment to questions greater than the discipline itself.’ The transcendance of disciplinary narrowness is taken to another level by a thinker who finds mind-bending deconstructions of racially oppresive thought patterns, Tommy J. Curry. While transcending the disciplinary, he urges his readers to move from understanding black art as transcending hardship, to submerging the viewer into things as they are: ‘For many philosophers interested in aesthetics, the beautiful has been transcending, and transformative to the extent that it provides the ideals through which truth and the good may be attained, but what if the philosophical relevation of “art” is not its ability to transcend, but its ability to submerge – to depict the suffering of the oppressed as eidetic glimmers cast upon the shadows of the colonial order?’ This quotation I used in the other course.
If I have only really reached the mind of one student, like Kees Bertels reached my mind in the late seventies talking about Marcuse and Horkheimer and Adorno, as a teacher I will be satisfied. For the discipline of philosophy it is however badly needed that the Interdisciplinary and the Critical is heard more often. I love philosophy too much to let it slumber away and not wake up to what should concern reflection nowadays. All the great problems of inhumanity in our time can and should still be analysed with the dedication that Adorno and Horkheimer showed towards those of their days. The Shadows of Enlightenment are still here.