Dialectic of Enlightenment: Critical Theory and the Messianic Light

Klapwijk, Jacob
Wipf & Stock Publishers,
9781608997015 (pb)

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Cover of book The belated advent of Jacob Klapwijk's minor classic—long since translated if not published in English—is fortuitous, rather than regrettable, as his critique has only acquired more poignancy since it was originally published. I use the word "poignancy" since anything more definitive presupposes the very perspective the author wishes to recommend. Klapwijk condemns both the dialectic of Enlightenment as metanarrative and immanent critique, as baseless superstition "capable of breaking human hearts" (p.91).

One of the problems inherent in critically assessing the work of the Frankfurt School is in doing so from within; whether from a radical or conservative perspective, Humanism is the point of departure and Klapwijk traces the dialectical odyssey taken by the Critical Theory in the name of the Enlightenment and in the anti-foundational reality of the postmodern predicament. The Frankfurt School is revealed at the time of writing as a failure, a negative critique as eschatological in its despair as Klapwijk's Reformational Philosophy is in its faith in the Christian gospel of the Messiah, the "messianic light" (p.97). What makes this an important critique is that the author is not constrained within an epistemological horizon, but adopts a vantage point of certainty in faith and divine redemption. Thus he is critical of the "infinite regress" the dialectics presupposes—a humanist critique adrift among the historicised tides of theory.

Klapwijk deals substantially only with Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Habermas, these are the main players and yet it's surprising that Benjamin wasn't used to further exemplify the problematics of non-dedicated thought, or taken to task for his conflation of messianism and Marxism, aphoristically espoused in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. Klapwijk's central criticism is of the ongoing "myth" of dialectics, and yet Benjamin's heretical messianism compromises both Marx and Messianism, dialectically resolving these antitheses in a genuinely bespoke faith that might have been usefully contrasted with the "personal faith" of Klapwijk's Reformation Theology. Yet there is little to hector in this consummate and succinct criticism of a school which remains adrift. Habermas is exposed as the optimistic re-visionary he was at the time, while since then his social technologies have been shown to be ineffective. Indeed, since then Habermas has embarked upon a "post-secular" phase that seeks to enrich his enlightenment by ideological contamination—to immanently democratise the totalitarian momentum of the liberal-rationalism that passes for humanism in the postmodern West. In the decades since the original publication of Klapwijk's book, the gloomy prognostications of Horkheimer and Adorno have been born out and Habermas has resorted to conventional diplomacy. The dialectic of enlightenment at the end of history seems as subject to eschatological interpretation as ever.

Indeed dialectical philosophy is Klapwijk's overarching target in the book, in which he pre-empts Lyotard in professing his own incredulity towards metanarratives: "I regard all the mega-constructions that dialectical thinkers put upon the universal history of human kind as speculative" (p.91). What Klapwijk recommends instead, and claims for his cohort is a hermeneutical destiny outside human confabulation, which he describes in a later formulation as "a protological-eschatological perspective of meaning-disclosure [that] guides but also transcends all theory. That perspective can neither be constructed theoretically (in terms of a speculative idea of cultural disclosure) nor be realized practically (in terms of a revolutionary program for societal change)" ("Reformational Philosophy" p. 38). Put simply, what the author proposes—and he infers considerable agonised support from the writings of the Frankfurt Schoolers—is Calvinism, though Reformational Philosophy, in the spirit of post-modernism, is today an ecumenical church (Klapwijk "Reformational Philosophy" pp. 34-37). Klapwijk regards all humanly-conceived and "dogmatic" dialectical "reconstructions" as both delusional and non-redemptive in their speculative apotheoses. This is a compelling critique and should be considered deeply by those who would prefer a humanist dénouement to the countless chapters of the history of (fallen) human suffering. And yet the messianic light, Christ's redemption, the pre-ordained apotheosis to come, remains an item of faith also yet to be realised.

Moreover it is possible to defend dialectical thought from charges of false idolatry. Historical Materialism for instance, was not conceived by Marx as a dialectical inevitability; it was naturalised in this way by Engels. Marx, like Hegel, put his faith in a priori conceptions of reality and its dynamics, but his sociological predictions were never in the order of predestination. Redemption for Marx resided in the hope of a communist order to come. It must be acknowledged that Marx's materialism offers little in expiation of the cost, in terms of human suffering, and yet hope for the future remains an albeit dim messianic light. Nor is hope in the future, in the fullness of time, and atonement, without consolation. Indeed in this sense Marxian hope can be argued to be outside or "exterritorial" (p.96) as Klapwijk insists it must be. According to Fredric Jameson (1979: 149-150), the "master code" of the Marxist hermeneutic "or transcendental signified, is precisely not given as a representation but as an absent cause, as that which can never know full representation".

The "myth" of dialectics has even gained some analytic respectability since Klapwijk's book was first published, most notably via the work of Roy Bhaskar, who distinguishes his post-Hegelian dialectics as fired by "transformative praxis or agency" (xiii). In the post-Marxist tradition, Bhaskar's redemption is founded in sublation, a blend of faith and aspiration guided by the weak messianic light of posterity. Indeed Bhaskar has even acquired some spiritual ascendency of late according to Alex Callinicos (2009: 584-5). By comparison, passive surrender to biblical prophecy is a hermeneutics that, to echo Nietzsche, offers no hope in this world. Klapwijk's book offers an oblique and incisive introduction to the Critical Theory and the postmodern crisis of Humanism that ever-yet shows precious little sign of transcending itself. Whether one wishes to persist in the hope of a hollow anthropocentric redemption, or holds to the promise of the messianic light, this minor classic vitally juxtaposes those perspectives and ought to be widely read with fear and hope.

References: Bhaskar, R. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso, 1993. Callinicos, A. "Critical Realism and Beyond: Roy Bhaskar's Dialectic." Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism. 2005. Eds. Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009. 587-604. Jameson, Fc. "Marxism and Historicism." The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. 1979. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. 148-77. Klapwijk, J. "Reformational Philosophy on the Boundary between the Past and the Future." Philosophia Reformata 52 (1987): 101-34.

Mark Dew
University of Southern Queensland, Australia