Martin Jay, Reason After its Eclipse (2016) review by Brad Baranowski

Written by Brad Baranowski on Friday, January 06, 2017 at 8:06 AM















Martin Jay, Reason after its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). Professor Jay gave the George L. Mosse Lectures in Jerusalem in 2012. Those talks led to the publication of the book.

Brad Baranowski is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation, "America's Moral Conscience: John Rawls and the Making of Modern Liberalism," examines Rawls’s intellectual trajectory from first conceptualizing “justice as fairness” through publishing A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism."

As far as historical subjects go, reason is a tricky one. Too historical of a treatment and the basis of an author’s judgment is undercut. After all, how can you claim to provide cogent reasons about a subject if you’ve already shown reason to be a ruse? Not historical enough, and the treatment looks spooky: reason appears as a spirit that sometimes inspires, sometimes haunts, but always animates past events, ideas, and people, putting it beyond critique. Martin Jay traces how this tension came to define critical theory in his latest work, Reason After Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory (2016).

Originally delivered as the George L. Mosse Lectures at Hebrew University in 2012, Reason After Its Eclipse is the outcome of a lifelong immersion in critical theory. This erudition is present from the start. The book begins with the ancient Greeks, cataloguing various approaches to reason from Plato to the Enlightenment. Issues such as the relation of logos to myth, the senses to intuition, the particular to the universal, Jay shows, shaped thinkers as diverse as Aristotle in antiquity, Aquinas in the Middle Ages, and Machiavelli as each grappled with the nature of reason. When a rising cohort of European thinkers came to question received wisdom during the Enlightenment, some philosophers tried to strike a balance between reason and critique, hoping to update the former for an era obsessed with the latter.

Immanuel Kant looms large here. The sage from Königsberg’s innovation was to apply reason’s critical power to itself, probing the boundaries of knowledge and morals in the process. This project produced, Jay writes, “the most penetrating critical reconsideration of the foundation and limits of reason in the late Enlightenment (36).” Thanks to Kant’s transcendental subject, the concept both stood outside history and could be criticized within it, even if doing so meant relinquishing reason's ability to satisfactorily process topics like ontology and theology. Awed by Kant’s achievement, dissatisfied with the limits he identified, first Hegel, then Marx, would make expanding the concept’s power the hallmark of German philosophy. Their methods differed radically from Kant’s as they embedded reason within history, tracing its evolution in order to better understand its potential. Both, however, shared their predecessor’s hope that by finding some vantage point from which to critique reason, the concept’s emancipatory potential could be unleashed, not squashed.

Such optimistic treatments of reason, however, would flounder on the political and economic disasters of the early twentieth century. In one of Jay’s most incisive chapters, “Reason in Crisis,” he traces the breakdown of European intellectuals’ faith in reason. Vitalism, the belief that beneath all orderly appearance pulses irrational and chaotic energies, and positivism, the belief that all beliefs to be rational must be empirically verifiable, posed grave threats to previous tenants of reason. A wave of skepticism threatened reason as intellectuals and writers questioned the rationality of arguments by pointing to their biological, historical, and overall limited nature.

Enter the Frankfurt School. Their project, Jay argues, is best understood as a response both to this crisis of reason, and to the longer developments that precipitated it. Spearheaded by thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkeimer, the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists parsed the relation of reason to social domination. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) famously traced modern humanity’s domination of nature and penchant for totalitarianism to the instrumental reasoning of the Enlightenment. Marcuse, meanwhile, explored both capitalism’s and communism’s use of reason to shape—and deaden—the individual psyche in One-Dimensional Man (1964). Although propounded indebted to the insights of Hegel and Marx, especially in their advocacy for a creative, critical form of reasoning, the Frankfurt School appeared equally Kantian in temperament—searching for reason’s limitations as much as they sought its liberating potential.

Such inclinations, however, would shift with the rise to intellectual prominence of Jürgen Habermas and his communicative model of reason. “Rather than a faculty of the individual mind representing an object external to it,” writes Jay, Habermas holds that “reason should be understood more capaciously as an intersubjective procedure of validity testing (124).” Communication provides the realm in which this intersubjective verification unfolds, as people, conceived of as equals, debate and discuss in order to come to consensuses on various problems. While Jay provides critical readings of all his thinkers, and even dedicates a chapter to the philosopher’s critics, it is clear that he admires Habermas. This admiration, however, is most apparent not in the book’s treatment of Habermas per say, or even in any one chapter of the text, but in the work as a whole.

Reason After Its Eclipse is as personal as it is abstract. Jay has spent a lifetime tracing, cataloguing, evaluating, and defending the project of critical theory, beginning with his monumental The Dialectical Imagination (1973). Reason After Its Eclipse was born from a conversation Jay had while researching that earlier project with the philosopher Friedrich Pollock, one of the original members of the Frankfurt School. When Jay asked Pollock what was the normative alternative to the instrumental reason that Marcuse, Adorno, and others had criticized, the elder philosopher exclaimed: “Horkheimer has already devoted an entire book to addressing that question!” (x) The name of that book: Eclipse of Reason (1947).

Jay’s unanswered question lingers over Reason After Its Eclipse, a point he confirms in the introduction when he writes how the book ends with more “questions than answers, a performative affirmation of an important lesson of the exercise as a whole: that reason is as much critique as it is system-building, as open-ended as it is complete, as fallible in its conclusions as assertive in its premises (xii).” Ultimately, “performance” is the correct word to describe what Jay has staged, not only in the last chapter but in the book as a whole. At every turn he shows how to historicize reason as well as to hold out a higher hope in the concept.

Jay models, that is, the sort of communicative rationality that Habermas has theorized, complete with its aspiration that thorough, patient, erudite scholarship can make a difference in how we think. It is this kind of hope—qualified, informed, yet bold—that has sustained the endless, self-reflective production that is critical theory. And it is work like Jay’s that helps to assure that reason’s light continues to escape total eclipse.


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