Rethinking Critique: Dialectic of Enlightenment and Models of Cultural Evolution. Benjamin Morgan

March 9, 2023 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Wolff Conference Room/D1103
6 E 16th St
New York, NY 10003

In 1931, Max Horkheimer proposed a model of interdisciplinary research that remains a benchmark for understanding how cultures function and might function better. He imagined an institute “in which philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians, and psychologists are brought together in permanent collaboration” (Horkheimer 1993, 9). The institute would not work with a single theory but would let data lead to new hypotheses (Horkheimer 1993, 10). But the work of Horkheimer and colleagues rarely lived up to the 1931 vision of an interdisciplinary, empirically grounded approach to culture. To understand why, my paper will juxtapose Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s history of humanity, as it is set out in Dialectic of Enlightenment, with current research on the development of early human cultures by Richard Wrangham, Sarah Blaffer Hardy, Kim Sterelny, Joseph Henrich and Cecilia Heyes. The comparison with recent research in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and cognitive science reveals some of the deep conceptual commitments that limit Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s focus on instrumental reason and conceptual violence. By contrast, current approaches jointly suggest that human subjectivity is scaffolded and embedded; that cooperation is the necessary default for cultural transmission; that learning occurs in context through imitation; and that customs and institutions develop contingently and by accident through processes of cooperation and collaboration. These new insights invite a radical re-thinking of the phenomena Horkheimer and Adorno grouped together as ‘mimesis.’ The resulting picture of environmentally embedded process of cultural evolution is a first step towards revitalizing the interdisciplinary potential of the early Frankfurt School, and suggesting new, practical, productive, and sustainable routes such critique can take in the 21st century.





Benjamin Morgan is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Worcester College. In 2019, and 2020/21 he was also Visiting Associate Professor of German at Harvard University. He is author of On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self (Fordham UP, 2013), and numerous articles on modernist literature, film, and philosophy. He edited, with Carolin Duttlinger and Anthony Phelan, Walter Benjamins Anthropologisches Denken (Rombach, 2012), and with Sowon Park and Ellen Spolsky a Special Issue of Poetics Today on “Situated Cognition and the Study of Culture” (2017).

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