WHAT WE CALL ‚MEANING‘ WILL DISAPPEAR
DER SPIEGEL interviews the philosopher Max Horkheimer
SPIEGEL: Herr Professor, you and your friend Adorno were the founders of Critical Theory, which for years has been considered to be the philosophy of Germany’s revolutionary youth. Recently you have addressed numerous questions in what has been interpreted as a conservative manner. In the controversy surrounding he birth control pill, you have somewhat defended Pope Paul. You have spoken of Stalin’s fascism. You have criticized the way theology is being liberalized and denounced the decline of conscience formation following the shaking of paternal authority. We’ll talk to you about each of those topics individually…
Horkheimer: Those are very serious questions. They are demanding of highly incisive thought. Surely, we’ll only be able to hint at answers in this talk.
SPIEGEL: It would be nice if it could be made clear how your most recent remarks, e.g. about Pope Paul or the new theology, stand in relation to the Critical Theory developed by you and your friend Adorno. Up to now, many people have considered Critical Theory to be Marxist and revolutionary; an assumption deemed to be confirmed by the fact that numerous leaders of the German student protest movement had some connection to your institute in Frankfurt.
Horkheimer: Critical Theory has always been faced with a dual task: designating that which is to be changed and conserving certain cultural moments. Furthermore it has to describe the process of change to which our world is subjected.
SPIEGEL: What kind of change is that? Might it be similar to the one you saw coming in Germany in the late twenties? Back then, you predicted Hitler. How do you view Germany’s future today?
Horkheimer: I have to admit that today I do not have a determinate prediction for the next years. In all likelihood, the history of Germany will run its course according to the same logic which today is immanent to the development of states everywhere.
SPIEGEL: And what does this logic indicate?
Horkheimer: That the states, including the Federal Republic, will be totally administrated on the inside. I’m not saying they will be administrated in a totalitarian way, i.e. by terror.
SPIEGEL: How does this perspective relate to the utopia of Karl Marx?
Horkheimer: Marx was of the opinion that the right society would come when the means of production are fully developed. Then – i.e. when all products necessary for the satisfaction of needs can be produced – domination would be obsolete, there would no longer be ruling and ruled classes, be it by revolution or by the force of immanent necessity.
SPIEGEL: But you do not believe that this would achieve the true, just society?
Horkheimer: Not anymore.
SPIEGEL: Since when?
Horkheimer: At the end of WWI I began concerning myself with Marx – because I realized, that I should take care of the problems of society. Then I became a follower of Marx. This intensified the closer we got to National Socialism. It increasingly dawned on me that there were only two possibilities, either the rule of the national socialists, or revolution. To me, Marxism seemed to be the answer to the right-wing totalitarian reign of terror. But over the course of WWII, I began drifting away from Marxism.
Horkheimer: Because I realized that National Socialism could also be defeated in another way, definitely so by war. Meanwhile, Stalin’s reign of terror became a symbol for the fact that revolution could also lead to terror.
SPIEGEL: Do you consider Stalin’s terror to be the necessary consequence of Marxism-Leninism?
Horkheimer: At least it is the consequence of the historical situation over there. Russia has largely skipped the important period of liberalism in the 19th century. That may not have caused any economic damage, since Russian society could acquire the achievements of liberalism, namely science and technology, as finished products from Western Europe. But what it didn’t really acquire were the motives which in the west made up the foundation of the achievements of Liberalism. I mean, the urge for liberty, for the development of man and the development of the person.
SPIEGEL: You mean to say that in Russia, science and technology weren’t a product of a spontaneous bottom up movement?
Horkheimer: Yes — and this has had consequences. In my opinion, sociology hasn’t nearly paid enough attention to the fact that the development of man is connected to competition, the most important element of the liberal economy. The mind is one of the beneficiaries of economic competition.
SPIEGEL: In a way, that’s an argument in favour of capitalism.
Horkheimer: It’s true that around the first half of the 19th century, in many countries well into the second one, the situation of the proletariat was dreadful; just think about child labour. Still, despite all historical dialectics it appears to me, the more I think about it, that Liberalism fulfils an extremely important purpose. The thought that the abolition of societal competition would advance the free man seems to me an optimistic misconception.
SPIEGEL: To what extent is it a misconception?
Horkheimer: Marx didn’t address the fact that justice and liberty are dialectical concepts. The more justice, the less liberty; the more liberty, the less justice. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – wonderful! But if you want equality, you have to restrict liberty, and if you want to allow people their liberty, there is no equality.
SPIEGEL: That’s a very pessimistic thing to say.
Horkheimer: Marx projected the universal development of the personality as a goal for the future. But this precise development was largely a consequence of the liberal age, which tends to disappear together with liberalism.
Horkheimer: Quite simple, because everything will be directed and the room for free initiative will constantly decrease. See, I’m thinking of my father. He had the waste product of weaving mills und cloth factories torn up by machines and worked into new materials for spinning mills. How would he have ended up doing this other than by the impulse of being able to become a rich man that way? Competition made him put up practical effort, not quite unlike how I myself developed my original philosophical interest according to the demands of an academic career, in order to nurture my beloved, recently deceased wife.
SPIEGEL: If the development of society itself is subject to an immanent logic, if the adjustment pressures for the individual people are getting constantly growing, what good can a social theory still do?
Horkheimer: I’ll start by saying modestly: We do not yet live in the fully automated society. And: Specifically, we still can do a whole load of things, even if they should eventually become outdated.
SPIEGEL: Are we able to resist what you call the immanent logic of societal development, thus preventing the emergence of totally administered world?
Horkheimer: No – but maybe help to preserve some positive achievements and prevent gruesome incidents.
SPIEGEL: Such as the reign of terror of Hitler and Stalin?
Horkheimer: Yes, even when I also have to be skeptical here. If Hitler had restrained himself to only killing people within Germany, then none of the major countries would have intervened against him. These would then have been considered internal affairs of the Reich. The major powers waged war against Hitler for the sake of power. Today, it’s the same. At present, the West is behaving towards eastern countries in the same manner as it used to towards Hitler. Internally, they can commit horrible things without anyone caring in the least about it. When Western ministers meet and greet the eastern ones: friendly expressions and speeches, even if the other man is a mass murderer. I do not want to discuss here about the apparent exceptions, such as Greece.
SPIEGEL: You demand a moral policy?
Horkheimer: I do not think it is right to behave towards terrorist states in a way that even resembles to how you behave towards others.
SPIEGEL: Cold War?
Horkheimer: No, cold peace!
SPIEGEL: But how are we supposed to determine morality in political circumstances. In the case of Hitler it was relatively simple, at least from the time when the murders Jews became known…
SPIEGEL: … but where would such a point be today, a point where a moral point of view becomes mandatory? Also, you have to consider that some moral end might be reached by negotiations. A minister just surely be allowed to consider that when he confronts someone in in a friendly way, despite probably considering him a bad person.
Horkheimer: I do not know at all whether he thinks that. I suspect that the moral integrity of the partner hardly matters. The other is just the Minister of a powerful country with which we have to live. Thinking about hundreds of thousands of people there languishing in prison or concentration camps, that doesn’t really occur to him. That’s why I think it is the task of intellectuals, to repeatedly point out that the representatives of states in which horrible injustices are committed every day, should be treated differently than the representatives of reasonably humane states.
SPIEGEL: Should their diplomats not be received?
Horkheimer: Imagine, for example, that fascism or terroristic communism breaks out in a country. Today, the relation of the so-called civilized countries to these countries hardly changes. The thinking people should therefore insist that the countries change their relationships with terrorist states decisively.
SPIEGEL: How do the thinking people know what is good?
Horkheimer: I have written that any policy, which doesn’t retain within itself theology or metaphysics, and therefore also morality, is ultimately nothing but business.
SPIEGEL: You mean that a good, moral policy is not possible without theology?
Horkheimer: At least not without the thought of a transcendent.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by this?
Horkheimer: First, I want to talk about the critics of theology, the positivists namely, and make it clear that from the position of positivism no moral policy can be derived. Scientifically speaking, hatred is not inferior to love, despite all socio-functional difference. There is no scientific reason why I should not hate, as long as there are no disadvantages for me in society. Everything connected with morality logically ultimately goes back to theology, at least not to secular grounds, no matter how cautious your grasp on theology is.
SPIEGEL: So, back to God?
Horkheimer: At least – in this I’m in agreement with Kant and Schopenhauer – I know that the world is appearance. The way we know it, it is not absolute, but the orderly product of our intellectual functions. Anyway, it is not the last.
SPIEGEL: And what is the last?
Horkheimer: Religion teaches that there is an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. A barely credible dogma in the face of terror that reigns on this earth for thousands of years!
Horkheimer: I would say that theology should be renewed. There is no certainty that there is an omnipotent God. Yes, we cannot even believe it in the face of this world and its horror.
SPIEGEL: What remains?
Horkheimer: The longing.
SPIEGEL: For what?
Horkheimer: The longing that the injustice that marks this world is not to remain. That injustice may not be the last word. This longing is part of the real thinking man.
SPIEGEL: So, a new religion?
Horkheimer: No, we cannot start a new religion. Let the old denominations continue to exist and act in the admission that they express a desire, not a dogma.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean liberalization of religion, as it is under way today?
Horkheimer: Not absolutely. Modern liberalization of religion leads, in my view, to the end of religion. Unconsciously or semi-consciously, everyone here becomes convinced that the liberalization of the theology corresponds to the common policy. There are concessions being made, compromises, it will come to an arrangement with the science – as if science could say more about it than that the earth was a micro atom, a little ball with a coating of mold, floating in the infinite universe.
SPIEGEL: And what shall religion say about such wretchedness of life, to the violence that happens to life?
Horkheimer: Give expression to the will that this injustice, that an innocent is tortured to death, the executioner triumphs, is not to be not the last word, but above all act accordingly to the theology that is based in longing.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that such a desire is sufficient to enable moral behavior, especially in a field such as politics? Six years ago, you wrote in an essay for your friend Adorno: “to save an unconditional meaning without God, is vanity.” This leads to the question: If there is no God, and if it consequently would be no unconditional meaning of life – what should the moralist appeal to in politics?
Horkheimer: Appeal to God? We cannot do that. At least that’s my opinion: We cannot say that there is a good and omnipotent God. But you’re quite right, then so one cannot appeal to God. One can only act upon the inner drive, that there shall be…
SPIEGEL: That there shall be a good God?
Horkheimer: Adorno and I – I no longer remember which of us said it first – and in any case we have both not spoken of God but of the “yearning for the other”.
SPIEGEL: This caution when dealing with God’s name is – as often stated – Jewish heritage.
Horkheimer: Yes. And even in such a way that this caution has become part of our social theory, which we called the Critical. “Thou shalt not make an image of God,” it says in the Bible. You cannot represent what is the absolute good. The observant Jew tries to avoid the word “God” as far as possible, so he does write it out, but makes an apostrophe. The same way, Critical Theory cautiously calls the absolute “the other”. What moves me is the theological idea, applied to a rational theory of society.
SPIEGEL: In about the same way, as was the case with Marx or in Ernst Bloch?
Horkheimer: For these two –to my sensibility – messianism has been decisive most of all, for me, the idea that God cannot be represented.
SPIEGEL: But Marx believed that he was predicting the advent, the beginning of the absolute good in the form of a classless society.
Horkheimer: In any case, this is how it has been interpreted. Furthermore, I could remark that the solidarity of the proletariat in the so-called developed countries has long been related to achieving a better lifestyle than the real sense of a radical change of society. Marx was a materialist.
SPIEGEL: Is the result of this the only kind of solidarity?
Horkheimer: No, a new solidarity could emerge beyond it, one which is necessarily a part of humanity. It arises from the fact that we are finite beings, that we have to suffer and die.
SPIEGEL: What effect shall this solidarity of all people in the consciousness of their abandonment have?
Horkheimer: First of all, the common element, the questionable nature of the world in suffering and death. Furthermore, the joint effort towards a better existence.
SPIEGEL: By speaking about the rivalry in the world, about the abandonment of the people, you are talking at the same time about the absolute, i.e. God. Is this not a proof of God?
Horkheimer: No, this is not a proof of God. I would say it is a theological postulate.
SPIEGEL: How do I know that I’m abandoned, if there is no god? How can I criticize the relative world, if I know nothing of the Absolute?
Horkheimer: The abandonment is only possible, you’re right, because of the thought of the Absolute. But the certainty of God is impossible.
SPIEGEL: But then how does the good come into the abandoned world?
Horkheimer: According to Jewish and Christian teaching the good only indirectly comes from God. He is said to have created man in his own image, and man therefore has free will. If he does good, he does so voluntarily and not merely out of fear of God, just as he does the bad, which certainly does not come from God.
SPIEGEL: This free will has – according to the Bible – led to the original sin, the expulsion from Eden, which explains the hope for the Messiah, who is to return mankind to paradise – or as is sometimes said : to Zion.
Horkheimer: We spoke earlier about how the messianic is problematic to me. I said that for me, the Absolute cannot be represented, as Kant teaches. In the creation of Israel arose, unless I am mistaken, the problem that it is said somewhere that the Messiah would lead the righteous of all nations to Zion. I still wonder today about how the State of Israel stands in connection with this prophecy. Is Israel the biblical Zion?
SPIEGEL: Where do you see the solution to the problem?
Horkheimer: The way things are, the solution seems to be in the fact that the persecution of the Jews – which is part of the prophecy – still continues despite Israel. Israel is an embattled country, as the Jews were always harassed. One cannot be opposed to the creation of the state, because too many people otherwise would not know where to turn. This is the key for me. Israel, the asylum for many people. Nevertheless, it does not seem easy for me today to match it with the predictions of the Old Testament.
SPIEGEL: On the one hand, so you think, the State of Israel is necessary as a refuge for millions of Jews, but on the other hand this state is supposed to realize a Jewish utopia, namely Zion, which is scarcely less problematic to describe or represent than the image of the Supreme Being. Here, too, parallels offer themselves to your Critical Theory.
Horkheimer: Certainly. It is true that according to Critical Theory the good as such, the absolute positive cannot be represented. On the other hand, we – I mean Adorno and me – have always said that what is to be changed, what is to be improved can be designated in various fields. Moreover, I have often emphasized that the right activity does not consist merely in the change, but also in the preservation of certain cultural moments, indeed, that the true conservative is a closer relative to the true revolutionary than he is to the fascist, as the true revolutionary is a closer relative to the true conservative than he is to the so-called communists today.
SPIEGEL: Can you give an example of such moments worth preserving?
Horkheimer: We already talked about the fact that theology, albeit in a different form, is worth preserving, that liberalism has produced positive forces that should be preserved preserve – even in an administrated world. Many cultural moments could be mentioned.
SPIEGEL: Why do you think actually that this total administration of man is inevitable?
Horkheimer: With science and technology, man has subjugated the immense forces of nature. If these forces – for example, the nuclear energy – are not to be destructive, they must be taken charge of by a truly rational central administration. Modern Pharmaceuticals has – to mention another example – made it possible to manipulate human reproduction with the pill. Will we not one day need the administration of birth?
SPIEGEL: Where do you see the danger?
Horkheimer: Certainly not merely a threat, but also something useful and necessary, which should not be prevented. I fear, however, that the people, once the administrated world is there, will not exercise their skills freely, but adapt to rationalist rules so much that they finally obey the rules instinctively. The people of the world to come are likely to act automatically: Red light, stand, green light, walk! They obey the signs!
SPIEGEL: And what about free will?
Horkheimer: Maybe it will be where it is with bees and ants and other creatures of this earth.
SPIEGEL: So, in the administrated world there will be no free will?
Horkheimer: An authoritative answer cannot be given. I just mean the immanent logic of the present historical development, unless it is interrupted by disasters, would point to such a sublation.
SPIEGEL: You spoke earlier of the pill and a year ago, when Pope Paul then banned the pill in an encyclical, you have attempted a half-defense of Paul. How did you get involved? Seriously you cannot assume that this means of birth control could ever be eliminated?
Horkheimer: That was, as you will remember, not the idea. I thought I should provide an example of Critical Theory. Therefore, I said to myself: No, now it is important to show what has to be sacrificed for this progress, true love. Of course, I couldn’t say back then and cannot say today what can be done against such a loss. But it is not already something if we raise awareness? The pill allows birth control. Good. But the deep and worrying changes it causes in society have to be addressed.
SPIEGEL: What changes?
Horkheimer: The whole literature of love, with its central motif of unrequited or even unrealizable longing for other people, is today a museum piece, “Romeo and Juliet” a museum piece, no longer of any concern to the advanced!
SPIEGEL: The administrated world, a loveless world?
Horkheimer: We must assume that the pill will change the family, not least based on sexual fidelity, so that elementary ethical structures of our society are questioned.
SPIEGEL: In what way?
Horkheimer: One example: Freud taught that the human conscience arises through the authority of the father. By son and daughter hearing daily from the father: “Be diligent! Tell the truth! Do the right thing!” – the demand enters the psyche. Finally, they hear the father’s voice as their own. During puberty, the son then holds against the father: “Do you always speak the truth? Do you always do what is right?” Until the son will understand that, in this world, you cannot always tell the truth or do as you should. This is a moment of maturity. But today the authority of the father is shaken by the many sociological, psychological and technological changes, one of which is the pill. What are the consequences? Does conscience play a different role, because the authority of the father is no longer the same as before? Or may it no longer even form?
SPIEGEL: And if it were so?
Horkheimer: Definitely it seems clear that the collapse of the father-myth puts the existence of conscience to question as a social phenomenon. The mother that pursues a profession has long since become a different kind of thing than the mother whose life’s work was essentially the education of children.
SPIEGEL: Because a portion of her energy is absorbed by the job?
Horkheimer: Not only that. The profession reified her thoughts, as is the case with the man. Add to that something else. She has equal rights. She no longer radiates love as she used to. The mother used to be the one that retained nature in the positive sense, in her speech and gestures. Her conscious and unconscious reactions played an important role in raising a child. They were perhaps more influential than the instructions.
SPIEGEL: Do you want to retrieve all this?
Horkheimer: Of course you cannot undo such processes. But you can try to preserve some of what has been handed down by making the change also visible in its negativity. This is an important task of Critical Theory.
SPIEGEL: But what benefit shall we get from the insight that the essential elements of previous education, for example, the maternal mode of expression, will lose their function in the future?
Horkheimer: A certain benefit could perhaps result from at least partially offsetting the incurred loss of education by the reorganization of schools. We must provide young people with more than just knowledge.
SPIEGEL: You mean something that opens up a way out of the administrated world?
Horkheimer: You could put it that way.
SPIEGEL: Many today are looking for such a solution in a pharmaceutically produced dream.
Horkheimer: The total management of the world will abolish intoxicants insofar as they can be injurious to health. Maybe they will introduce harmless means, because the world will indeed be boring, and boredom must also be abolished.
SPIEGEL: Why would the future be boring?
Horkheimer: The theological will be abolished. Thus, what we call “meaning” will disappear from the world. There will still be business, but it will be meaningless. One day you will also consider philosophy as a children’s matter of humanity. It will be said with positivism, it is foolish to speculate on the relationship of the relative and the transcendent.
SPIEGEL: But it could also be that the people – if their material needs are fully satisfied, including sexual – turn towards games.
Horkheimer: Even animals have those, yes. I can well imagine that that continues with humans.
SPIEGEL: Professor Horkheimer, thank you for this interview.