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Fr. 421

October 24, 2013

In the conclusion of Jameson’s Late Marxism, the author touches for a time on Adorno’s relation to the predominant conceptions of reason both from the philosophical tradition and the contemporary field. Identifying those conceptions with Verstand, i.e. the analytic or instrumental reason of the understanding, Jameson goes on to suggest that a significant part of Adorno’s work consists in examining the means by which so-called modern or postmodern thought has sought to undermine this latent conception of reason. Indeed, Jameson maintains that, for Adorno, thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault must stand out as ways of reclaiming alternative conceptions of intentionality from the irrational camp to which these have been assigned. More specifically, as in Adorno’s own work, there is manifest in such authors “a widening of the terrain of a more supple conception of meaning, if not reason” in their attempts to make sense of economy, capitalism, advertising, the unconscious, sexuality, madness, and various locales of power in society (Late Marxism, p. 236).

For this reason, these thinkers are to be commended for the work done to (re)introduce alternative means of thinking society and of approaching the processes of discussion and identity-formation continuously at work in the latter.  Although Adorno and Jameson might be said to have in mind only those mentioned above, it is not hard to see how this reintroduction of the formerly irrational could be found at work in parallel fields and structures, such as that of religion or mysticism. Just as resistance to the inclusion in society of the irrationalities mentioned above has softened over time, so too has religion slowly found its way back to the public sphere in terms of individuals’ beliefs and convictions and the kind of reasons that they give for these.

Yet there remains considerable resistance of this kind in the field of political philosophy, insofar as some of the most prominent thinkers in contemporary philosophy (such as John Rawls and Peter Singer) can be seen as excluding precisely these “alternative” sources of reason. Rawls meets this description in that he seeks to exclude comprehensive doctrines from the make-up of public reason, concerned as it is with essential constitutional matters of justice and, thus, the merely political. Likewise, Singer falls into this camp in virtue of his consistent efforts to exclude religious considerations from the decision-making process in public policy. In both cases, the author considers that the person giving reasons for this or that policy or belief must conform to a certain model of reason, reasonableness or rationality that has been decided in advance and holds true for each and every speaker in that forum. In short, reasonableness or rationality here corresponds to the degree to which the speaker (or sender, as this term shall shortly be introduced) meets the standard put forth by reason.

Although Jameson nor Adorno (via Jameson) consider such cases directly, their joint account, as it were, does propose an interesting distinction for making sense of such conceptions of reason, as well as their attendant difficulties. Jameson notes that:

“It is with any newer concept of reason as with Saussure’s communicational loop: it makes  a difference whether we are talking about the sender or the receiver. In this case, reason does not mean the sender’s point of view, that is to say, always doing what is reasonable or rational; it means the receiver’s point of view – always understanding what the actor’s reasons were, why the thing was done in the first place (or why this or that position or value is defended). But after Freud (indeed, after Marx), after Nietzsche, after Foucault on madness, after a whole enormous enlargement in our sympathy with what people do […] our very notion of reason may be expected to have expanded well beyond its former boundaries and to include much that for strait-laced respectable burghers used to count as ‘irrational'” (Late Marxism, p. 236).

Leaving aside the legitimacy of a comparison between reason and the communicational loops, this passage proves essential for understanding the way in which the structure and paradigm of reason can be said to have shifted following this reclamation of the irrational. To frame it in terms of the political example above, it is no longer the speaker’s (or sender’s) meeting a certain rational threshold at the level of thought, speech and action that qualifies him or her as reasonable. On the contrary, the speaker (or sender) can be considered reasonable if and only if the listener (or receiver) understands or makes sense of the reasons (in the broad sense) for which the speaker or sender thinks, speaks or acts. In other words, it is a question of whether reasons cohere with the relevant thought, speech and action into a coherent position. In Rawls’ case, it would be illegitimate to banish comprehensive doctrines from the public sphere and political discussion precisely because those doctrines are comprehensive: coherent and comprehensible.

In this way, one passes from an understanding of reason in which the sender is to be measured according to some abstract, priorly agreed upon, objective standard to one in which the sender is deemed reasonable insofar as his or her audience understands the sender’s position and grants the former recognition as someone worthy of being reasonable. This is not the same as to say that they approve or endorse those reasons in virtue of recognizing the speaker’s reasonableness; rather, as Jameson makes clear, the receiver must stand in a relation of sympathy (some mutual feeling with) to the sender. Only thus can the receiver understand or make sense of the receiver’s reasons and recognize him or her as a being endowed with Reason.


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