CCDS and Analyse & Kritik: A Conversation with Editor Anton Leist
In 2023, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies began a partnership with the philosophy and social theory journal Analyse & Kritik. Director Stephen Sawyer recently exchanged with one of the editors Anton Leist on the journal’s history, mission, and directions for the future.
Stephen W. Sawyer (SWS): The journal presents itself as a “forum for exchange between Anglo-American and Continental approaches to philosophy, social theory, and the social sciences.” Can you tell us about how the journal started and how this mission developed?
Anton Leist (AL): Analyse & Kritik was founded in 1979 by Michael Baurmann, Dieter Mans and myself. Planning and preparation took place mostly at Dieter’s office in the newly built tower housing the ‘societal sciences’ (Gesellschaftswissenschaften) at Frankfurt University (the tower has since been torn down again). At the time, we were all impressed by the development of analytic philosophy, which was streaming in from the UK and the US, and what we saw as its capacity to reframe all old-age topics and areas in philosophy through a new spirit of clarity and precision. To our minds, this promise might also be profitably extended to philosophy’s neighboring fields.
Traditionally, “the” field in Frankfurt has been social theory and research. The sociological “positivism dispute” of the 1960s had thrown a long shadow well into the 1970s. The dispute (started by Theodor Adorno and Karl Popper) had revealed that Critical Theory was badly in need of a new, non-Hegelian methodological foundation. And given the offers of the day, we thought this could best come from analytic philosophy, manifested then largely in conceptual analysis. The journal’s title was meant to signal this combination: a kind of research oriented at social criticism sharpened in thought by instruments and standards of the analytic philosophy bent. Even if some local fellow Marxists – remembering Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse’s offenses against “positivism” – were appalled by this planned combination, we could point to early inklings of “ideology critique” in Rudolf Carnap, and to the social reform ideas of Otto Neurath. “Analytic thinkers” and “critical theorists” seemed to be not so far away from each other in the end, regardless of Adorno or Marcuse’s claims to the contrary.
A deeper reason to hope for a new kind of marriage between these traditions also resulted also from frustrations experienced in each individually. We were repelled by the sectarian side of Marxist economics, annoyed by the inscrutable language of the Hegelian Marxists, and perplexed by the unexplained lack of normative argumentation in Marxism. Though the deficits of analytic philosophy were less apparent, its constraint to remain strictly ‘analytical’ in the narrow meaning of the term and its (again) lack, in pre-Rawlsian days, of normative posture was deeply unsatisfying. Mid-century analytic philosophy working without a normative framework that allowed differentiating between relevant and irrelevant issues was always in danger of getting bogged down in logical subtleties of no social importance whatsoever. It neither aspired to reforming society, nor did it feel the need to see its work within the larger social, political, or historical context – a very striking contrast to the Marxist perspective!
SWS: Both MacIntyre and Rorty contributed to the early pages of the journal. What was the aim of their contribution?
AL: Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty, both in their own ways, warned us of the attempt to make such a synthesis the program of a journal. MacIntyre wittily made that clear by the quip cited on the first page of the first volume of Analyse & Kritik: “I cannot resist remarking that to synthesize analytical philosophy with Frankfurt School Marxism seems to me to be an attempt to tie two sinking ships together. At least the splash as they submerge should be bigger!” And Rorty published one of his still Mirror of Nature-bound eulogies on analytic philosophy early in the journal (“On the State of Contemporary Philosophy in the USA”, Volume 3, Issue 1, 1981, pp. 3-22).
However, it is worth noting that despite these apprehensions, at the time both figures were considered philosophical outsiders in their own right, and hence were not perceived by us as the best advisers for aspiring young academics at the start of their careers. I especially shirked away from Rorty’s underestimation of analytic philosophy, and indeed his swansong on philosophy turned out to be partly right, and partly wrong. Philosophy is not to be killed once and for all, it only changes its shape.
SWS: How has the journal evolved since its founding?
AL: Hegel’s wisecrack of philosophy being ‘the present captured in thoughts’ – Die Zeit in Gedanken gefasst – manifests itself beautifully in the development of this journal, which was driven more by social and political concerns than by interests in metaphysical or otherwise esoteric writings. If you look at the issues over these 40 plus years – all of them, save the last two years, can be downloaded and read from our own internet archive (www.analyse-und-kritik.net) – you will see quite a change in topics and style. Up to around 2010 the journal was bilingual, taking German as well as English language articles, but since the turn of the century a tendency towards entirely English issues grew steadily. This speaks for itself and demonstrates the accelerated globalization in academia, starting already in the 1990s. As to content, 2001 is perhaps a crucial turning point as well. It is therefore helpful to divide the journal’s journey into two halves to understand its development.
The crucial difference is that up to September 11, 2001, there was still a dominance of theory building and academic self-involvement, both in the social sciences and in philosophy. With 2001 a radical turn towards the outside world set in, with all its crucial aspects flagged by the Al-Qaida attack: the intensified importance of religion, difference of cultures, intensified globalization, wars, rising immigration, and so on. Perhaps we could say that the journal had a conceptual period first, and a growingly political one later. The latter has intensified further over the last few years, driven most recently by the war against Ukraine.
SWS: Can you explain what you mean exactly by a more political orientation within the journal?
AL: Yes, let me add a bit more substance to this profile. Even prior to the journal’s founding in 1979, the social sciences in Germany had been experiencing something of an identity crisis. This crisis had generated a growing interest in debates about global theoretical approaches and in the methodological and normative side of the social sciences. By the beginning of the 1980s, however, the collapse of Marxism as an academic discipline was foreshadowed, parallel to the turnaround of the social sciences from theoretical and conceptual to empirical research. Supposedly “grand theories” with their all-embracing claims became suspicious. Rare exceptions in Germany were Niklas Luhmann’s “systems-theory” and Jürgen Habermas’s theory of “communicative action.” What was soon to become known as “rational choice theory,” i.e. the generalization of the basic behavioral model of micro-economics, began to intrude into areas occupied formerly by other social sciences. In contrast to earlier conflicts between competing research programs, these developments took place more in the form of night raids rather than battles in open fields. New theories displaced older ones, without philosophical reflection or inauguration speeches. Fundamental comparisons between different approaches in the social sciences became rare during this period of change, and are still today not very common, at least not in the philosophically pretentious style of the 1970s.
On the philosophical side, again connected with the breakdown of Marxism, the erosion of social philosophy in the 1980s and 1990s – which was previously a thriving enterprise – had yet another, different impact on the original program of Analyse & Kritik. Except for Habermas’s discourse theory, there was hardly a research tradition around any longer which was inspired by the idea of integrating the two aims pursued by the best versions of Marxism: explanation and normative orientation. In a sense this was not unexpected and, in a way, prophesized by the comment of our two sages cited earlier, MacIntyre and Rorty. Analytic philosophy too began to change its shape during the 1980s. Shockingly, it turned away from the quest of writing philosophy totally anew, stepping down from its positivist pedestal.
To return to the social sciences, after a period of approaching them in a rather rigid, normative way, the philosophy of science of the 1960s and 70s began to dissolve and most analytic philosophers returned smugly to “eternal” philosophical problems, including reading classic philosophers. As analytic philosophy lost confidence in its former programs, it began turning toward the open, variegated, technical, professionalized, even if somewhat disoriented kind of philosophy it is today. If there is an exception to these trends which started also in the 1980s, it applies to a part of philosophy little affected by the analytic program in the first place: moral and political philosophy. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice of 1971 was, as Rorty stated in his 1981 Analyse & Kritik article, the most reflective form of liberalism available at its time, and in accordance with the spirit of liberalism tried to free itself from every kind of philosophical foundation.
SWS: So how would you characterize A&K’s contribution in this context?
AL: In sum, within one or two decades the situation of philosophy and the social sciences in Germany had changed substantially in comparison to the time when Analyse & Kritik had started. The development of the journal turned out quite differently than its ‘parents’ had expected. The journal remained first and foremost an interdisciplinary journal with no scheduled convergence of the disciplines in sight, but maintained hope for the spontaneous emergence of a mosaic that would assemble a coherent picture even without a blueprint.
Also, once a streamlining agenda for several disciplines is lost – something which the early Frankfurt School or the Analytic Marxism group had emphasized – all the obstacles to connect different disciplines immediately rush in. Empirical scientists regard philosophical reflections on their work often as being too foundational and of little practical use. To what extent it may be considered value-free or partisan, scientistic, or hermeneutical does not cut as much ice with empirically-minded researchers as philosophers are inclined to think. On the other side, findings of scientists regularly need too much interpretation to elicit important insights for philosophers. If there have been, nevertheless, areas of common interest implied within the journal’s original program, they have been within those domains of the social sciences which are highly theoretical or philosophical in themselves, or among those philosophical topics which relate to our social existence as human beings. Most of the contributions during the first two decades of the journal fit into one of these two categories, or into an additional third one of a renewed moral and political philosophy. Social justice in the Rawls-tradition became indeed one of the most prominent topics among those that were listed in the editors’ original 1979 mission statement.
Highly theoretical approaches like ethnological functionalism, social systems theory or altruism research fall easily into the first of these categories, as some approaches like behavioral economics are in need of settling themselves in the philosophical or psychological context of their topics. In addition, conceptual analysts provided explications of things like ‘we-intentions,’ ‘psychoanalytic repression,’ ‘individualism,’ ‘health’ and ’disease,’ ‘rationality,’ ‘power’ or ‘human nature.’ These midwifery articles by philosophers died out in the second and third decade, perhaps also triggered by the impression that there was little response on the other side. What has been growing, by contrast, are more and more normatively guided articles making up what I called the increasingly political period of the journal since 2001.
SWS: How is this reflected in the articles published in the journal?
AL: If you move through the archive, you will find content which can be broadly sorted under three categories: ecology and climate change, social justice and rising inequality, the development and application of behavioral economics. The journal’s in-house history was also reflected by issues on the normative turn away from Marxism, on MacIntyre and his Aristotelianism, and on a look in hindsight on Rorty’s earlier predictions. Religion, the perhaps most important attention seeker of 2001, showed up only once in the form of puzzling over the existence of sacred values (2017). Immigration, the Ukraine war, and structural problems of democracy are among the most recent interests in the journal.
SWS: Based on its initial ambition, did the journal have a specific relationship to the post-structuralist tradition of philosophy?
AL: I see ‘post-structuralism’ as a label for all theoretical attempts that put conceptions of “the subject” into question, and thereby try to pull the rug from under rational arguments. What remains is a full-out skepticism towards all possible conditions from which to start. Often combined with this is an attempt to grasp the arbitrary conditions of the Zeitgeist, or even to introduce new sorts of metaphysics, which are more or less hidden and mostly unnoticed. Being ‘post-structural’ may be, by the way, an informative predicate in literary theory, but it is much less so in philosophy. If it means that any and every kind of logical structure is to be put in brackets, this obviously is an illusionary idea, obviously self-contradictory if it is formulated in language, i.e., by help of linguistic structure. You can see that the analytic tradition should not be forgotten in toto, as it protects us from jumping from one unfulfillable program (the verification criterion of logical positivism) to another extreme (anti-structuralism).
What the journal seeks to do, instead, is to provide a venue to bring the ‘philosophical’ aspirations down to empirically controllable ones. It is not philosophers who are competent about the universal properties of the self, but ethnologists, historians, and psychologists. And it is they who we should listen to and take on board for a criticism of essentialism. So, to answer the question, due to its start from analytic philosophy, the journal had for some time no particularly friendly expectation towards post-structuralism or post-modernism. What remained from the analytic culture in the journal, even once the earlier naiveté was cut away, was a trust in some sort of structure through discourse, that is, a conceptually disciplined kind of dispute and argument, something which easily gets lost if the transformation of ideas into psycho-social states is rolling over itself out of eagerness to destroy traditional structures.
There is a crucial point of contention here, whether the style of your argument can be separated from the content you want to deliver or try to bring down. If you have been brought up in the analytic tradition of philosophy, you cannot jump easily to the flexible ways argument is done in larger parts of what you might call post-structuralist philosophy. And this tradition of trust, I hope, will for some time still be the trademark of Analyse & Kritik. This journal still, lest this be misunderstood, sees itself in a link running back to Carnap. Often post-structuralism involves a new kind of metaphysics (or what meanwhile is called ‘essentialism’), as Nietzsche certainly did, and Foucault did as well. This is a hidden baggage we try to avoid.
As I see it, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex of 1949 had the right answer to post-structuralist radicals ahead of their existence, by trying to build bridges between extremes such as biology and culture, humanism and anti-humanism. Her work represents an important position which may have been forgotten somehow, including in France it seems. This is one of the reasons why we have been exploring her work at the moment.
SWS: What do you consider to be the journal’s central contribution to debates in philosophy and social theory in the years to come?
AL: Sticking to the trend of having become a forum for politically relevant topics, the topics themselves are easy to name: Threats to democracy, clashes of cultures, migration and Islamism, international relations and war. Less clear is the theoretical and normative perspective under which these topics – each of which is of course also the subject of many competing specialized journals – are to be negotiated — the naive reliance on the clarifying power of the analytical tradition now diminished and pure economism not to be trusted. Once again, a possible solution can be yet another marriage of contemporary philosophy and social theory, albeit involving the dissolution of earlier certainties.
As the journal’s development demonstrates, there is no such thing as ‘pure analysis,’ and the hope to achieve criticism by achieving clarity alone is misguided. If philosophy can achieve anything at all in society, it is either through its moral and political arguments, historic reminders, or through linguistic innovations, all of which are not based on descriptive conceptual analysis alone. Even philosophers from the analytic tradition meanwhile have come to accept the old wisdom that it is only through awareness of their being part of historically evolved societies that their analytical instruments can be applied to issues of common interest. Otherwise, they will be stuck in the narrow sphere of a small group of fellow philosophers. Only empirically substantially contextualized and normatively embedded ‘analysis,’ then, can provide the insights that are expected from philosophers. In conclusion, therefore, we think that a genuine interdisciplinary rather than a professionally specialized journal is an apt medium to support and foster such work.