Friday, August 26, 2011

Max Horkheimer, Montaigne, & bourgeois skepticism (1)

In re:

Horkheimer, Max. “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 265-311. Original publication: “Montaigne und die Funktion der Skepsis,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7, no. 1 (1938).

There are some choice quotes in this 1938 essay, few of which will be comprehensible out of context. Let me begin with my favorite:
There is no humanism without a clear position toward the historical problems of the epoch; it cannot exist as a mere profession of faith to itself. The humanism of the past consisted in the critique of the hierarchical feudal order, which had become a fetter on the development of humanity. The humanism of the present consists in the critique of the forms of life under which humanity now perishes, and in the effort to transform them in a rational manner. [p. 308]
Though written in 1938, this claim is applicable to today's humanism, which I intend to show has been intellectually stagnant for decades, esp. lacking in profound social, historical, and political analysis. I adduce this quote as an entry into a whole intellectual tradition excluded by the Anglo-American humanist movement.

Here's another interesting quote, the conclusion of the article. It is not readily decipherable out of context, however:
. . . skepticism in its liberal and authoritarian forms constitutes an aspect of the dominant bourgeois type of individual. The reason is that characterological structures are consolidated and transformed not by knowledge and enlightenment but by material conditions. The advances in weapons technology, by means of which entire peoples are held in check by a well-stocked army, are much more decisive for the persistence of skepticism as an anthropological characteristic than the arguments with which the skeptical attitude seeks to rationalize itself. One could counter that insights such as these constitute the very essence of skepticism. To be sure, it is typical of skepticism, as well as of the dominant character as such, to ascribe the vulgar motives—according to which alone the rulers of the world act—not to them and their principle, but to the idea of humanity itself. The difference here is that the critical theory which we espouse, in contrast to skepticism, does not make an antitheoretical absolutism of the insight into the inadequacy of things as they are and the transitoriness of cognition. Instead, even in the face of pessimistic assessments, critical theory is guided by the unswerving interest in a better future. [p. 311]
Now let's skip to what others have to say about Horkheimer's essay.

Young Horkheimer: Critical Theory Before the Dialectic of Enlightenment, And After It by Matthew Sharpe (2007).
For young Horkheimer, the re-emergence of scepticism in the modern age, first in Montaigne (MFS) and later in Hume’s ‘deconstructions’ of personal identity as “fictional” or consciousness as a “theatre” (MFS, Stirk), already reflect the material disempowerment underlying the bourgeois’ paeans to the autonomous “masters and possessors of nature”.
That's it for Montaigne, though the author places this in context of Horkheimer's overall project of the 1930s.
This analysis, however, is all about Montaigne:

Frankfurt School, 1938: Max Horkheimer on Montaigne by Bruce Miller, Old Hickory's Weblog, 29 January 2011.

For some background on Montaigne:

Michel de Montaigne by Marc Foglia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Note Richard H. Popkin on the conservative dimension of skepticism. It was from Popkin's work that I learned of the dual ideological role of skepticism 40 years ago.

Additional references on my web site:

No comments: