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Jay first chronicled this group in his 1973 book The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute for Social Research, 1923-50. He is still associated closely with that work, and with helping to introduce Frankfurt School critical theory to a broad Anglophone audience. But he has also written on a diverse array of other topics, from the critique of visuality in 20th-century French thought (in his 1993 book Downcast Eyes) to the phenomenon of lying in politics (in his 2010 book The Virtues of Mendacity). Nor is Immanent Critiques his only forthcoming volume: He’s already finished a study of what he calls “magical nominalism,” which will bring together figures as diverse as William of Ockham, Walter Benjamin, Hans Blumenberg, and Marcel Duchamp.
Intellectual history has been Jay’s particular path into the life of the mind, and he has helped to shape modern European intellectual history as a field. In the very first words of his recent book, Genesis and Validity: The Theory and Practice of Intellectual History (2021), Jay suggests that there is a tension at his field’s heart, sometimes productive and sometimes not: “There is no more contentious and perennial issue in the history of Western thought — and perhaps not it alone — than the vexed relationship between the genesis of an idea or value in a specific context, and its claim to validity beyond it.”
In other words, intellectual historians tend to believe that the ideas whose history they trace have a validity and value beyond their precincts of origin, but also that the full meaning of these ideas is comprehensible only in light of some exposition of their origin story. Does it matter where ideas come from? And, if it does matter, exactly how?
There are many ways to write intellectual history. We can address the institutions of intellectual life, be they universities, scientific societies, or journals; we can document the biographies (individual or collective) of intellectuals themselves, perhaps defining what we mean by “an intellectual.” We can also track the course of ideas themselves, in a genre also called “the history of ideas” and exemplified most famously (in the Anglophone world) by Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, one of whose virtues is to discuss the “metaphysical pathos” of an idea, the way ideas do not simply appeal to our reason, but also to our sentiments.
Whatever version of intellectual history one opts for, Jay argues, there remains a basic conflict between the transcendental side of intellectual life and the mundane side. Jay, who has contributed in various ways to all the versions of intellectual history I have listed above, knows the strengths and limitations of his field well. Whereas many philosophers have little trouble focusing on the validity claims of individual arguments and bracketing their genesis as irrelevant, intellectual historians are responsible to both genesis and validity, to where ideas come from and what they mean.
Some intellectual historians have written to prosecute cases against intellectual trends they dislike, or to promote intellectual movements they admire, but Jay is different. His longer books, such as the aforementioned Dialectical Imagination, but also Marxism and Totality (1984), Downcast Eyes, and Songs of Experience (2005), are perhaps best characterized as chronicles in which context gives thinkers and their ideas room to breathe, space to argue with one another, and of course, a chance to be wrong. Often characterized as “synoptic,” his method is to take in a vast array of characters and concepts, allowing them their tensions and contradictions, as if in recognition of the fact that history itself is not susceptible to the sense-making of a final synthesis. A story about the genesis of an idea never becomes a validity claim of its own.
I studied with Jay (whose students know him as “Marty”) at Berkeley, completing my doctorate under his supervision. Marty has been a friend of my parents ever since they met just before graduate school, and I’m very glad to now call him my friend, too. We conducted this interview via email, and it has been edited for length and clarity.
Your forthcoming essay collection, Immanent Critiques, is dedicated to “the Institut für Sozialforschung on the centenary of its founding.” Your 1973 book The Dialectical Imagination introduced the Frankfurt School to many readers, making this dedication a timely return to your early work. How did the Frankfurt School influence your development as an intellectual historian?
In 1967, when I was thrashing around for a dissertation topic, I had the great good fortune of stumbling upon the Frankfurt School, which was not yet on anyone’s radar in the Anglophone world as a major intellectual force. Luckily, my adviser, H. Stuart Hughes, himself doing research on the intellectual migration from Germany to America, personally knew many of the figures in the history of the Institut für Sozialforschung, including Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Fromm, and Paul Lazarsfeld. With his encouragement, I was emboldened to attempt an ambitious project involving many still productive, often politically embattled intellectuals, who had just reached the point in their careers when they were ready to consider themselves legitimate subjects of historical inquiry.
As a result, I benefited from a number of informative interviews and access to a significant amount of unpublished work and correspondence, not yet deposited in archives. Leo Lowenthal’s collection in Berkeley was especially valuable, as he patiently helped me clarify obscurities in the record. Although we never actually met, Felix Weil wrote many detailed letters about the early years of the Institut, whose founding was made possible by his father’s financial generosity. Ironically, although I was blessed with an abundance of fresh primary sources, I was fortunately spared having to assimilate the huge mountain of materials later made public. As I said half jokingly at the ceremony marking the opening of Horkheimer’s digital archive in Frankfurt in 2014, if its 250,000 pages had been available earlier, I might still be writing my dissertation.
I came to the Frankfurt School, as it were, from the outside. I was not a prior devotee of critical theory who had studied with its surviving luminaries and was seeking to vindicate their legacy, but rather a novice intellectual historian trying to master, or at least make sense of, their wide-ranging and challenging ideas while situating them in their biographical and historical contexts. The results seemed to have pleased some of my protagonists, as evidenced by Horkheimer’s gracious epistolary preface to the book, but disappointed others, as Erich Fromm made clear to me in a long letter detailing his objections. Although I certainly grew sympathetic to many of their ideas, I remained unpersuaded by others. One of the first publications that came from the dissertation, “Metapolitics of Utopianism,” which first appeared in Dissent in 1970, was, in fact, a critique of the nonpluralist politics of Marcuse. When The Dialectical Imagination appeared three years later, more militant Frankfurt School partisans like Douglas Kellner, Russell Jacoby, and Gillian Rose lamented my ambivalences. But as I wrote in the preface to Immanent Critiques, an intellectual historian is not, after all, a press agent.
Rereading the preface you wrote for the 1996 edition of The Dialectical Imagination, I was struck by your account of the larger political surround as you conducted research for that book, originally your doctoral dissertation, in 1968. Certainly this was a volatile and complex political climate, and it seems clear that some members of the Frankfurt School were uneasy with the political reception of their work. Yet, as you put it in one essay in Immanent Critiques, the Frankfurt School “always struggled to bridge the gap between radical theory and transformative praxis.”
Decades later, in a wildly different, but also highly volatile, political climate, the meanings of “critical theory” seem to have become more multiple, and the term gets recruited by conservatives as materiel in the culture wars. What do you think made this possible?
The recent alt-right demonization of a caricatured version of the Frankfurt School in its campaign against “political correctness,” “cultural Marxism,” and “wokeness” derives from a conscious campaign to scapegoat the school, traceable to Lyndon LaRouche’s crackpot political movement in the 1990s, which often draws on antisemitic stereotypes, and has led to some very serious consequences. A sizeble chunk of the 1,500-page “2083: A European Declaration of Independence” manifesto written by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is devoted to denouncing the Frankfurt School and, much to my horror, liberally cites my first book. In 2011, I wrote one of my Salmagundi columns on the right-wing dissemination of the Frankfurt School meme, which was expanded a decade later into a longer analysis in Splinters in Your Eye, even tracing it to the circle around Trump. Unfortunately, it remains potent today, as shown by its frequent evocation as an explanation for critical race theory — as if Black people had to learn they were structurally oppressed by reading Dialectic of Enlightenment!
At the same time that “critical theory” has become a stalking horse for the right, we can also speak of the pop-cultural reception of the Frankfurt School on the left. For example, I once gave you a T-shirt with the slogan “Adorno Was Right” printed on it. What do you make of the place of the Frankfurt School in popular culture?
Although it was not fated from the beginning that an isolated group of esoteric intellectuals who lamented the ideological effects of mass culture would themselves become fodder for pop-cultural appropriation, signs were already present in the 1960s. During the student movement in Germany, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas were treated in the press as delegitimated father figures ripe to be knocked off their pedestals by Oedipally rebellious students who were impatient with their political caution. Marcuse, in contrast, earned unprecedented fame (or notoriety) as the “guru” of the New Left, and found himself, much to his astonishment, alongside Marx and Mao on the banners lofted by French students during the “events” of 1968. But whether denounced or lionized, they were now firmly in the public eye as more than just conventional academics. Even after the passing of the first generation of the School, its members were still available for cultural appropriation in a variety of ways. Frankfurt, for example, did its best to turn Horkheimer and Adorno into beloved favorite sons, rivaling Goethe as cultural icons of the city. They even erected a monument to Adorno (a glass enclosure designed by the Russian artist Vadim Zakharov with Adorno’s writing desk in the center) now at the Adorno-Platz on the university campus. A flood of tongue-in-cheek merchandise followed, with everything from mugs adorned with their best-known catchphrases to T-shirts of the kind you gave me. I was once even able to bestow a gag gift on my close friend Robert Hullot-Kentor, Adorno’s most distinguished translator into English, of a thong with “I ❤ Adorno” on it. All of this seems to me essentially harmless, and perhaps even healthy in puncturing a bit of the aura of solemn gravitas often surrounding critical theory.
The recent alt-right demonization of a caricatured version of the Frankfurt School in its campaign against “cultural Marxism” derives from a conscious campaign to scapegoat the school.
Dominick LaCapra once called your method “synoptic content analysis,” in response to which you wrote an essay, “Two Cheers for Paraphrase, or, Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” LaCapra insisted on the importance of the “worklike” character of texts, and suggested that your approach risked betraying those texts by paraphrasing their arguments. We could call this the problem of synopsis, which has always seemed to me to reflect the nature of intellectual history, since the field is constituted by a tension between ideas and their contexts, or between ideas and the worklike character of the texts we read. In your essay, you wrote about the inevitability of synopsis, even in ordinary reading, and about the connection between synopsis and communicative rationality itself. This was 35 years ago. Have your views on methodology changed since then? Do you still give two cheers for paraphrase?
I’ve learned an enormous amount from Dominick’s challenge to the prevailing model of intellectual history when we were graduate students, often called the “social history of ideas,” which sought to situate a paraphrased and condensed version of the legacy of a thinker or school or movement in a generative context. He correctly pointed out that “synoptic content analysis” often moved too quickly beyond the vehicle of transmission, textual or otherwise, to the content transmitted, and assumed the latter could always be coherently summarized without remainder. Instead, drawing on deconstruction, he argued that we should pay more attention to the interference of the vehicle, which often generates latent tensions and unintended subtexts in the paraphrased content. He also questioned the self-evident quality of contexts, which were themselves transmitted to us through texts, and were not always as coherent as historians made them out to be. And along with Hayden White, albeit with a less-formalist emphasis, Dominick alerted us to the inevitable dialogic quality of the historian’s reconstruction of the past, our often unacknowledged transferential entanglement with the figures and ideas we were treating.
I would still, however, want to defend both the inevitability and the value of some paraphrastic reduction of the texts we draw on in our attempts to reconstruct and interpret the ideas that can be derived from them, ideas that must be made meaningful to us in order to benefit from or criticize them. Not only do we synopsize and familiarize a variety of complex texts when we reconstruct a thinker’s legacy or characterize a cultural movement, but we are also doing it when we use a proper or generic name to indicate a way of thinking, for example, a neo-Kantian or Idealist philosophy. When a moment ago, I attempted to spell out the lessons learned from Dominick’s work, I reduced them to simplified formulae that surely do an injustice to the subtleties that a closer examination of his texts would reveal.
So, paraphrase may be inevitable in writing intellectual history, as it’s inevitable in our intellectual lives more generally — perhaps another way to approach the issue is to ask what kinds of intellectual tasks benefit most from paraphrase, and which benefit most from a closer relationship to texts themselves?
My short answer would be as follows. Paraphrase helps in the simplification and essentialization of complex ideas, enabling those without the time or patience to tackle a large number of often obscure texts and the accumulated interpretations generated by them to gain a certain measure of what might be called cultural literacy. It helps to fill in the territorial gaps as we map an intellectual force field and try to orient ourselves in it. It can also help us distinguish the ideas, thinkers, movements, debates, etc., we want to examine more closely from the ones we can happily ignore.
A closer textual reading serves, we might say, to complexify ideas that initially may have appeared simple. It forces us to attend to the tensions within seemingly coherent ideas, systems of thought, and the oeuvre of thinkers. It makes us aware of the ways in which the vehicles through which ideas are expressed, linguistic and otherwise, may unintentionally clash with the content they transmit. As I tried to argue, however, in “The Textual Approach to Intellectual History” over 30 years ago, there are many ways to conceptualize “texts” and “intertextuality.” So ironically, the desire to move from the macro level of paraphrased ideas to the micro level of specific texts may well lead us out to more general theories of language and textuality, which tacitly underpin our close readings.
In a London Review of Books review of your 2005 book Songs of Experience, the literary scholar Terry Eagleton wrote “Jay prefers questions to solutions. It will take more than that to send Donald Rumsfeld packing.” While Eagleton probably intended his comment as an offhand joke, it seems to express a fairly common attitude towardsthe relationship between academic writing and political life. What do you make of the implied idea that academic work — or intellectual life more broadly — should be judged by its political efficacy? Or the idea that our scholarship ought to flow from our political concerns?
The review was, in fact, very generous, and that throwaway line always seemed to me a projection of Terry’s own frustrations. He has written more than 40 books, and as far as I can tell, capitalism is still going strong. As for the larger question of the connection between academic work and political efficacy, there is no one-answer-fits-all formula that I can offer. Value neutrality may be a scholarly ideal, at least for those persuaded by Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation,” but it is hard to achieve in practice and in certain circumstances harder to defend in principle. But we all know how advocacy scholarship, which sets out to prove an already assumed conclusion, can be counter-productive. It seems to me more constructive to pose questions that may be politically inspired rather than merely arise from curiosity for its own sake, but to conduct research with an open-minded attitude that forestalls preordained results. I was always impressed by the Frankfurt School’s desire to learn from its empirical research rather than following the maxim, often dubiously attributed to Hegel, that if the facts contradict a theory, “so much the worse for the facts.”
A few years back, a portrait was painted of you, for a series of paintings of contemporary thinkers. If I remember correctly, it was based on a photograph that your daughter Rebecca took, a photo that we also used for the poster of your retirement conference in 2016. What was that experience like?
The portrait was painted in oils by the remarkable Italian artist Luca Del Baldo for a series of 96 comparable images he painstakingly prepared over a decade for a collection called The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality: Atlas of the Iconic Turn, which De Gruyter published in 2020.
The project, initially suggested by the philosopher Arthur Danto, included accompanying texts by the subjects of the paintings, an international array of eminent art historians and contributors to visual-culture studies. Del Baldo painted us not from life — I only met him in the flesh a few years later when he graciously showed my wife, Catherine Gallagher, and me around Como, where he now lives — but from photographs supplied by the “sitters.” Many of the texts, mine included, pondered the implications of what is often called “remediation,” in which an instantaneous image caught photographically is then mimetically reproduced (and also subtly transfigured) in the temporally extensive medium of painting.
There is, in fact, a lively industry churning out cheesy, idealized portraits from photos, but Del Baldo is a genuinely talented artist, whom Danto once called the premier portraitist of our times. His carefully rendered images, which approach hyperrealism in their fidelity to every wrinkle or blemish captured by the camera, trouble the smooth passage from one to the other. They raise fascinating questions about the alleged differences between paintings and photographs, the former expressing the creative sovereignty of an artist, the latter dependent on the indexical trace of the object captured on film, or digitally. The portraits also invite reflection on Roland Barthes’s famous claim that “death is the eidos of the photograph,” by infusing them with the revivifying power of the painter’s brush. As W.J.T. Mitchell says in his introduction to the book, “if photography drained what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ from the faces of the academicians, Del Baldo brings it back in the precious, lovingly applied brushwork of these painted portraits.”
In short, in addition to all of the narcissistic rewards of being included in such distinguished company and having a portrait by a gifted artist now hanging in my library, it was especially exciting to become practically enmeshed in the issues in visual culture I had examined from the external perspective of an intellectual historian, in Downcast Eyes and elsewhere.
Do you have thoughts about what the field of intellectual history will look like in the medium-term future, say over the next 20 years or so?
When I’m asked to speculate on the future, my knee-jerk reaction is to say that I’m an historian, and I have enough trouble making sense of the past. But it is always tempting to imagine what is still to come.
Your question can be answered on two levels: What might the internal development of the field look like and what will its professional status be in a world in which the humanities in general are under such pressure?
To take the latter first, I am concerned that it may become increasingly marginalized in downsized history departments, where other worthy fields are given priority. If you add pressures to reduce the European footprint in general, it is clear that the institutional future of my particular specialty is not rosy. Berkeley had a very robust presence in intellectual history well before I arrived — Carl Schorske, Martin Malia, William Bouwsma, Joseph Levenson, and Henry May were all giants in the field — and trained several generations of students who became eminent practitioners in their own right. But it has replaced neither me nor David Hollinger, who is considered by many the leading American intellectual historian of his generation. This may have only anecdotal importance, but it does suggest an ominous trend.
When I’m asked to speculate on the future, my knee-jerk reaction is to say that I have enough trouble making sense of the past.
Still, I’m encouraged by the quality and ambition of scholars who continue to populate the field and who produce excellent work, often in new or renewed journals that specialize in intellectual history. If I had to speculate on the type of work they are likely to do in the next few decades, I would point to the growing interest in “global intellectual history” (although the mastery of relevant languages will be a limitation) and the revival of what David Armitage calls “big ideas” traced over long periods of time. The lessons of the Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) of Reinhart Koselleck and his colleagues, and the metaphorology of Hans Blumenberg, have informed what I’ve called elsewhere “cultural semantics.” And of course, the contextualism of Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School continues to stimulate lively methodological discussion and inspire exceptional research.
What perhaps is most striking to me about the development of our field is the way in which it has taken on board many of the cutting-edge insights of the humanities in general and joined the general conversation that has ensued. We’ve already mentioned the impact of Dominick LaCapra and alluded in passing to the provocations of Hayden White, both of whose influence extended well beyond the boundaries of intellectual history. If you add other examples — such as James Clifford, who also began as a student of H. Stuart Hughes and became a powerful voice in contemporary anthropological discourse; Peter Gordon, now a respected participant in the international debates surrounding philosophers like Heidegger, Adorno and Habermas; or Samuel Moyn and A. Dirk Moses, both of whom contribute incisively to contemporary political discussions — it is clear that scholars trained as intellectual historians have found ways to leverage their training in our field into powerful interventions into others.
In short, intellectual history has increasingly emerged as a mediating, inherently interdisciplinary force in the humanities, not merely reconstructing the origins, elaboration and dissemination of ideas in the past, but also contributing to their current and future development. As a result, I remain cautiously optimistic about the critical role it is likely to play in helping the humanities meet the daunting challenges they face in our rapidly changing world.
Are we, perhaps, eventually headed for a world with intellectual history, but without intellectual historians, in the sense of people who’ve earned doctorates in the field and hold tenured positions in history departments?
The ways in which disciplines carve up their territory is always in flux, so there is no guarantee that traditional subfields will endure forever. The relative decline of “diplomatic history” in recent decades is a telling example. Intellectual history was for a while on the defensive, attacked as elitist because of its focus on “high” ideas and in danger of being swallowed up by a broader, more inclusive “cultural history.” It seems now to have recovered as a robust research field with the interdisciplinary impact I mentioned a few moments ago. Whether or not it will remain an essential teaching field and a hiring priority in departments with diminishing enrollments of majors is another thing. In an environment in which various pressures exist to train students in “useful” occupations and discourage the alleged luxury of a liberal-arts education, intellectual history may well suffer. Still, I think the demand for courses that provide access to the broad intellectual traditions of Western culture and satisfy increasing curiosity about those beyond it is still robust enough to forestall the disappearance of the field in most serious history departments. Fingers crossed.