Modern philosophical historiography has to constantly face some well-known problems. Julian Young’s book on the history of twentieth-century German philosophy is not only a precise, instructive and critical exposition of the work of Adorno, Husserl and Heidegger (among others). It is also a prime example of applied historiographical methodology with respect to some of these problems. Young’s original approach to philosophical historiography resonates throughout the text. His remarkable sensitivity for political and theoretical issues expresses itself through a brilliant and clear prose. This review will try to present a concise but complete exposition of the contents of the book. However, coherently with the author’s intent, it will attempt to do so while highlighting the critical choices that defined his work.
Roughly speaking, over the last two centuries the academization of philosophy resulted in two broad challenges for the historian of philosophy. The first issue concerns the technicalization of philosophy. The specialization of philosophers, along with the growth of productive interaction between philosophy and other sciences or disciplines, is responsible for the progressive blurring of the borders of philosophy as a specific praxis and as a distinct form of knowledge. With respect to philosophical historiography, this process culminated either in an inflation of the metaphilosophical question, or in various debates about the “end” of philosophy. The second general issue concerns the need for a canon of philosophy. It is true that this demand dates back at least to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the modern search for a canon had to deal specifically with an extensive increase of the material available to the historian. Today, a plurality of cultures is involved in the history of thought – a plurality so vast and articulated that the very possibility of a rigorous and neutral canon of philosophy is called into question.
In this broad context, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century stands out immediately by virtue of the author’s attentive and radical approach to the apparent opposition between “objective-historiographical” and “theoretical-philosophical” history of philosophy. Even without an explicit thematization of his own historiographical method, Young manages to deal with this antinomy both in its relation to the metaphilosophical problem and in its link to the idea of a philosophical canon. He does not attempt at neutralizing the ambiguity between historiographical exposition and theoretical framework. Rather, he elaborates it by presenting an accurate historical exposition, while at the same time defining this exposition by means of an original critical premise. This premise could sound, in the words of the author, like this:
“Crisis […] lies at the heart of modern German philosophy. And in spite of the personal, philosophical, and above all political animosities that marred relations between Frankfurt and Freiburg, that the modern world is in crisis is a point on which they agree. The thinker who […] provided the most signiﬁcant articulation of the nature of the crisis was the sociologist Max Weber” (2).
The reference to Weber gives a unitary frame to Young’s analysis, both internally and within the context of German philosophy as a whole. The proposed canon is defined by the concept of crisis: namely, German philosophy is a philosophy of crisis. But “in German thought, the conception of Western modernity as a ‘crisis of humanity’ reaches back”, in fact, “to the end of the eighteenth century, to the critique of the Industrial Revolution initiated by Goethe and the German Romantics” (2). Thus, “Weber’s primary signiﬁcance for philosophy is that he transmits this critique to the twentieth century” (2). According to Young, the twentieth century sees a separation of this heredity along two branches: the “Frankfurt” one (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse) and the “Freiburg” one (Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer). These two branches delineate the two parts of the book, while each chapter concerns an author. Interestingly, Young devotes two chapters to Heidegger: the early Heidegger (between Husserl and Gadamer) is markedly distinguished from the later Heidegger, protagonist of the book’s last chapter.
Even if the book is a complete and exhaustive reading in itself, it constitutes only the first part of a broader project about the history of German philosophy. A future instalment should deal with other relevant German thinkers such as Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, Scheler and Schmitt. It is left unclear if these philosophers will, in the end, all fit within the “Frankfurt-Freiburg” frame. If that will be the case, it seems that two main obstacles should be overcome. First, philosophers like Benjamin or Schmitt can hardly be defined as belonging to any school of thought. Second, the explanation of Bloch’s and Scheler’s work would require an extensive mention of German traditions that do not seem to be part of Young’s canon: psychologism (e. g., Külpe) and Lebensphilosophie (e. g., Simmel). On the other hand, it should be noted that, within Young’s narration, “Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are not properly names of cities, schools or traditions. They are names for two different critical approaches to Weber’s idea of a link between crisis and rationalization. Or rather, they are names for different theoretical positions within the long-lasting German debate about rationalization and loss of freedom.
“While the Frankfurt thinkers recognize loss of meaning as indeed a pathology, in practice, their attention is directed almost exclusively towards loss of freedom. […] The Freiburg thinkers, by contrast, while recognizing loss of freedom as an issue, attend far more closely to loss of meaning” (253).
“Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are indeed names of constellations within the same cosmos, rather than rigid titles. Thus, it should be possible to define intermediate and “heretical” positions, thanks to the fluid nature of these distinctions.
The main theoretical and political point that Young wants to prove is that “with respect to the task of understanding the communitarian need, liberal thinkers have […] a great deal to learn from the German phenomenological tradition” (254). This theoretical thesis is motivated by a political reason.
“What, since 2016, had become unmistakeable is the existence of a widespread revolt against the liberal hegemony, the appearance throughout the West of political movements that in every case represent, at least in part, the demand for fraternity: for the community that comes from sharing with one’s neighbours what, borrowing the term from the Roman Stoics, Gadamer calls a sensus communis […], an intuitive understanding of the good life. Often, the manifestations of this demand are cynically manipulated, distorted and ugly—white nationalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, illiberal democracy—but sometimes they evoke a greater or lesser degree of sympathy – the independence movements of Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, Corsica and Quebec, for example” (254).
Nowadays, this urge for a new Gemeinschaft is resurfacing despite a fifty-year-long association with conservative and right-wing values.
“The notions of ‘tradition’, ‘homeland’, ‘people’, and ‘community’ were hijacked by the Nazis. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in mainstream post-war political thought, in Germany and elsewhere, such notions have been anathematized. Liberal, cosmopolitan, Habermasian, anti-traditional, modernity-embracing thought has been in the ascendant” (253).
The theorist that blindly follows this anathema ends up neglecting the urge for a new Gemeinschaft. However, this urge exists, and the current forms of its expression are often violent and populistic. In fact, the danger for a liberal critical theory is to ignore these pulsations that run across society, rather than attempt at comprehending and redirecting them.
The political motivation sets the tone and the main intention of the book. It is the tone of a liberal historian of philosophy speaking to liberal philosophers and liberal humanities students. Coherently, the demonstration of the aforementioned thesis aims to help the liberal thinker in “the challenge […] of understanding the character of this need [for community] and of assimilating it into liberal thought” (254). This aim is perhaps the key to understand some of Young’s methodological choices, such as the stark distinction between a “early Heidegger” and a “later Heidegger”. The author means to remark an implicit influence of Weber’s work on Heidegger’s conception of “technology” (Technik). Thus, he needs to draw a dividing line between a more generic Weber – “early Heidegger” relation (mainly through Sein und Zeit and its position within the Zeitgeist) and the specific role that Weber allegedly has in relation to the “later Heidegger”.
In short, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century presents, more or less explicitly, each thinker’s work in its relation to Weber’s announcement of a crisis in modern European thought. Thus, Young’s exposition of Weber’s work is of pivotal importance for the internal economy of the book. Even so, it mainly concentrates on one short (and famous) lecture delivered by the old Weber to the students of Munich University in 1917: Wissenschaft als Beruf.
“The lecture is far from a celebration of science as a ‘vocation’. One reason for this, one can hypothesize, is the fact that the First World War, still in progress, had deployed the fruits of modern science to kill people on a hitherto unimaginable scale (38 million in total). […] Whatever the original intention that led to the delivery of the lecture, in the event, its central force is to place a serious question mark against the value of science, against, indeed the entire post-Enlightenment development of the West” (7).
The central equivalence of Weber’s lecture identifies modernity and rationalization. Modern science is, first and foremost, a vehicle of rationalization – i. e., of “control trough calculation”. Namely, control on nature and man is obtained trough the calculated manipulation of causes, in order to obtain certain consequences. The transformation of non-human nature in a series of causal relations generates a pathological “loss of meaning” (14). The transformation of human relationships in a series of causal relations, for its part, implies a “loss of freedom” (10). Disenchanted nature and organized work are, according to Weber, the main products of modern science. “We face, Weber tells us, a future denuded of both freedom and meaning. We stand in a moment of world-historical crisis, a crisis that can only be resolved by […] a ‘turning’ to a new, genuinely post-modern age” (15).
Young underlines how Weber’s solution to this crisis has already embraced a certain irrationalism. The only possibility for this revolutionary turning lies in the appearance of charismatics prophets: leaders that are capable form a new meaningful Gemeinschaft, defined by shared values. The nature of these values remains unspecified. But “Weber explicitly warns against ‘chiliastic prophets’ who believe that a noble end justiﬁes any means […]. Weber’s call is a call for charismatic leadership within the limits of liberal democracy—the charisma of a Churchill or a Martin Luther King Jr.—rather than for charismatic leadership instead of democracy” (16). Thus, Wissenschaft als Beruf can also be read as the mature self-critique of a social scientist. Weber recognizes that the European man lost more than it gained from modern science. “Weber’s belief that rationalization has been a disaster places him in the tradition not only of Wagner and the youthful Nietzsche’s neo-Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, but also of the critique of the Enlightenment conducted, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the German Romantics themselves. […] It is through the early Nietzsche’s neo-Romanticism that the Romantic critique of Enlightenment rationalization passes to Weber, and primarily through Weber that it passes into twentieth-century German philosophy” (17).
The idea of a nearly irrecoverable loss pervades most of the following philosophical debate, in Germany. Young presents Horkheimer and Adorno’s common work as the first attempt at dealing with this loss. They both “reject the ‘bourgeois’ conception of the task of thought in general, and social thought in particular, as that of providing a neutral analysis of the way things are. To be worth anything, thought must be an attempt to alleviate suﬀering, an act of ‘solidarity’ with a suﬀering humanity” (21). This therapeutic, political and praxis-oriented character is what makes critical theory stand out from traditional theory. It is the Marxist trait that, along with a dialectical conception of history, makes Horkeimer and Adorno’s theory “critical” of the status quo. “Critical theory, writes Horkheimer, thinks in the ‘service’ of an ‘oppressed humanity’ and seeks to eliminate ‘social injustice’. […] Whereas […] traditional theory thinks of itself as simply trying to understand the world, the critical theorist wants to change it, change it so as to bring about ‘a future society (Gesellschaft) as a community (Gemeinschaft) of free men’. The aim, then, is liberty, liberation, but also – a point often overlooked – that other battle cry of the French Revolution, fraternity, community” (25). The struggle of critical thinking addresses, at least in principle, both the loss of freedom and the loss of meaning. However, Young argues, while contributing to a better articulation of our loss of freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to provide a positive indication for action – a pars construens that is especially important with regards to the problem of meaning. Sure enough, the liberation that could amend our loss of freedom would consist in the negation of a condition we already know, inasmuch as we already are in it. On the other hand, the loss of meaning could be resolved only through the affirmation of new shared values: that is, by placing and constructing something that, at the moment, remains unknown. Horkheimer and Adorno “rouse us out of false consciousness to an explicit awareness of the suﬀering it causes, but that, it seems, is all they do. Yet is ‘negation’ enough, given that the aim is, with Marx, not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to engage in the ‘intellectual, and eventually practical, eﬀort’ to change the order of things for the better?” (40). Young implicitly argues that this inadequacy is a flaw of “Frankfurt” philosophy as a whole, and that, consequently, an actual and up-to-date critical theory would need the constructive help of “Freiburg” phenomenology.
An emblematic instance of the weakness of the “Frankfurt” approach with regards to the loss meaning can be found in Habermas’ idea that social solidarity can be supplied by communicative rationality. In this case, the appeal to feeling that characterizes charisma – both in religion and in politics – would be replaced by the binding force of rationally valid claims. These claims would be defined by rational deliberation and criticised within public debate. This would be the frame of a “deliberative” liberal democracy. But such a liberal democracy would be the very antithesis of an actual Gemeinschaft.
“For while a community is deﬁned by a sense of ‘belonging together’, a liberal democracy is deﬁned – ever increasingly, in multicultural modernity – by a sense of belonging apart. […] Political liberalism is the solution to a problem: the problem of how we can live together without harming each other, given that we no longer have a shared conception of the good life, a shared ethical substance. While community is based on both respect for and ‘fraternity’ with the other, liberal democratic society is based on respect alone” (56).
This discrepancy within classical liberalism and a radical, genuine idea of Gemeinschaft excludes the simple solution, so to speak: a true Gemeinschaft cannot, as such, be re-imposed by the same Enlightenment culture that dissolved it in the first place. In order to appropriate the very idea of Gemeinschaft, the contemporary liberal philosopher must rethink Enlightenment in its defining terms, rather than extrinsically “apply” it on the current social situation.
While still being an important contribution to the German “philosophy of crisis”, critical theory remains wanting in its constructive aspect. An important exception, within the “Frankfurt” context, is represented by the work of Marcuse. His research constitutes not only a diagnosis of present-day social pathologies, but also of an audacious indication of possible remedies. It could be argued that it is actually Marcuse’s phenomenological education that mostly contributed in shaping the rich and lively idea of man that animates the future society he wishes for. Marcuse’s deep acquaintance with American society contributed to this vision too. One could say that Marcuse’s main distinctive trait, among “Frankfurt” theorists, consists in the importance he assigns to a positive description of man’s free desires: namely, the desires one harbours beyond the extrinsic conditioning imposed by advanced industrial society. “A true desire is a desire one would retain even after having become fully aware (through exposure to critical theory) of the degree to which advanced industrial society attempts to manipulate one in its own interests” (63). The very admission of the possibility of free desires opens a utopian space within Marcuse’s philosophy. And this space is positively characterized by means of a psychoanalytical (and partly phenomenological) anthropology.
“As a Marxist, Marcuse believes the point of all worthwhile theoretical activity is to change the world for the better, and so one might imagine that his engagement with Freud is generated by the need to refute his pessimism. […] The reason for the engagement is Marcuse’s belief that Freud got almost everything right. He believes, in particular, that Freud got the nature of happiness right. Freud’s belief that happiness within civilization is impossible is, however, a mistake. Perhaps it was once true, concedes Marcuse, but it is no longer so. Therefore, purged of this error, Freud’s theory can be developed in a way that provides the key to a happy civilization” (67).
Marcuse accepts Freud’s hedonism: he deems all human action motivated by the search for immediate libidinal pleasure. Thus, the inner pathology of civilization consists in the fact that it demands the sacrifice of this erotic impulse. But not all instances of rational civilizations are equal in their repressive aspect. There is a possible social organization within which repression would be reduced to its basic, “natural” contrast against the pleasure principle: socialism.
“If some repression is surplus, man-made rather than imposed by nature, then it is ‘artiﬁcial’, which means, contra Freud, that there is a […] [possibility of its] elimination by revolutionary action aimed at installing socialism as society’s reality principle. Given the current state of technology, a degree of repression will continue to be essential to any society’s survival. But, with the installation of the socialist reality principle, it will weigh on the individual in a greatly reduced, ‘basic’ form” (70).
Marcuse sees science as an historical process, rather than as a static aspect of civilization. This allows him to believe that modern science can, in fact, define a different distribution of work without altering its productivity; and his optimism regarding human nature prompts him to find the contents of a future, utopic Gemeinschaft in the creativity of human fantasy and in the free exercise of a polymorphous and sublimated sexuality.
Young makes a conscious effort in explicating the elements of phenomenological thought that could resonate with Marcuse’s attempt at a therapy for the crisis of meaning. Vice versa, he presents Husserl’s work under a specific perspective: the perspective that deems phenomenology essentially as a philosophy of crisis. After a concise summary of transcendental phenomenology’s main ideas, the author focuses on the late Husserl, and especially on Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. The early Heidegger is presented under the same light. Young’s discussion of Sein und Zeit is markedly characterized by a specific interest in the link between meaning and culture. However, this apparent one-sidedness is, in fact, an attempt at rethinking the relevance of classical phenomenology as a “political” philosophy – that is, as a philosophy that, even if not directly concerned with political issues, produces the idea of a possible human community.
The author finds this relevance in the common space sketched by Husserl’s idea of lifeworld and Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world.
“As Husserl puts it, the question that modern humanity finds ‘most pressing’ is that of ‘the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of human existence’ […]. What, however, is missing, according to both Nietzsche and Husserl, are ‘norms of absolute validation’, that is […] moral norms that are universally valid” (104).
The result of modern science is “the epistemological view that our only access to knowledge is through the natural-scientiﬁc method, together with its ontological consequence that nothing can be said to exist save the entities recognized as existing by natural science. An important fact about the natural sciences – and the social sciences, too, which ape the natural sciences in this regard – is that they are ‘value free’: among the entities recognized as existing by science, values (as distinct from valuings) are not to be found. Husserl’s claim […] is that it is the exclusion of values from the realm of the objectively real that results in the onset of nihilism, of ethical polytheism” (104). There is little doubt that both the late Husserl and the early Heidegger acknowledge the relation between modern rationalization and the pervasive sense of meaninglessness that characterizes present-day human life. To put it briefly, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century sees the phenomenological movement as the part of the rationalist enterprise that is capable of a rigorous self-critique – that is, of a critique of Enlightenment that is neither (critical) refusal nor (critical) acceptation, but radical reformulation instead.
The idea of lifeworld gives Husserl the critical margin that such a self-critique presupposes. Lifeworld claims are, roughly said, the claims of everyday knowledge. They are the basis for the construction of every scientific knowledge. Sure enough, insofar as they define every self-evidence, they constitute the last ground of each complex scientific experience.
“What naturalism forgets is that the lifeworld is the ‘meaning-fundament’ of science, that what science is really talking about – ‘the only real world’ that is available to be talked about – is the lifeworld. […] Husserl uses ‘lifeworld’ sometimes to refer to culturally and historically speciﬁc lifeworlds and sometimes to refer to a structure that is common to them all, a structure that is partially deﬁnitive of what it is to be a human being. In Husserl’s language, ‘the’ lifeworld belongs to the ‘essence’ of human being. […] Transcending all culturally speciﬁc lifeworlds is the lifeworld together with the norms embedded in it, norms which are common to all cultures” (111-112).
Young presents Sein und Zeit’s project of a fundamental ontology as a deeper investigation in the ontological structure of this proper, more comprehensive lifeworld.
Heidegger’s approach to the question of being definitely refutes the idea of a phenomenology that deals exclusively with abstractions. His ontological analysis is, at the same time, a phenomenological description of the most primordial features of human existence.
“What explains the excitement surrounding Being and Time is not the fact that it chooses to interrogate Dasein but rather the manner of interrogation. […] We can only answer the question of the meaning of being by providing a ‘primordial’ account of Dasein, of us ourselves. […] Being and Time’s account of who we are portrays us as particularly fascinating, not to say troubling, beings. […] Suddenly, the seemingly dry investigation of what we mean when we say that something is has transmogriﬁed itself into ultimate Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian questions about the meaning of life. Ontology has become existentialism, phenomenology has become existential phenomenology” (119).
Young’s presentation of the young Heidegger remains within this frame. Heidegger’s existential determination are critically discussed as aspects of his (provisional) solution to the problem of the meaning of human life. The key to this problem would be, according to Young’s interpretation of Heidegger, in the concept of praxis. Praxis should be defined as the original source of meaning. But, if praxis is in fact the structural source of every meaning, present-day meaninglessness must be a result of some change within the context of human praxis. Thus, an ethical problem arises: what is the proper, most authentic praxis? How can we act in a way that makes our lives meaningful?
The author describes Gadamer’s and Arendt’s philosophical projects as attempts at answering these questions. They both write against the dehumanizing effects of rationalization. Gadamer adopts an approach that is both ontological and epistemological. His task consists in rehabilitating artistic expression as a form of knowledge in its own right and as a moment of a complete human Bildung, in opposition to the privilege that positivism accords to an education based on natural science. On the other hand, Arendt deals with the problem of the loss of meaning from a political point of view. She emphasizes the role of educators in transmitting and enriching a shared ethical tradition.
In Young’s eyes, Gadamer and Arendt partake in the history of German philosophy inasmuch as they take part in a debate started by Goethe, transmitted by Weber and concluded by the last great philosophy of the crisis: the philosophy of the later Heidegger. Considering that this moment of Heidegger’s thought paved the way for the so-called postmodern philosophy in Germany (Sloterdijk), France (Derrida), Italy (Vattimo) and America (Rorty), one could probably say that the course of the German “river” described by Young flows again into the European “sea” from which it gushed out in the first place, with the French revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment.
Young summarizes later Heidegger’s thought as a new appeal to the charismatic and unifying power of common “gods”. But this is not a repetition of Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The long phenomenological detour has shown that these “gods” are not specifically conservative forces. They represent the idea that every past meaning preserves a possibility for the future, but only inasmuch as the realization of any future simultaneously creates a new past – i. e., a new concealed possibility for yet another possible future.
“When we take into account the possibility that future generations will experience the world in ways that are unimaginable by us, not to mention the possibility of non-human knowers, we realize that there is no limit to the number of potential horizons of disclosure that are concealed by the horizon – the ‘being of beings’, as Being and Time calls it – that constitutes our life-world. This ‘unexperienced domain of being’ is the ‘non-essence of truth’ and is as inseparable from the essence of truth as is […] the dark side of the moon from its illuminated side. Heidegger calls this unexperienced domain simply ‘the mystery’. And since it is unlimited in extent it is, as with all things we cannot fathom, profoundly awesome” (233).
In this awesomeness appears the possibility of a rational, immanent salvation from the crisis. The search for this possibility – the search for a new rationalism – is, in the end, the story that German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century passionately narrates.