Kit Wilson examines the state of western thought and belief:
Consider the main philosophical movements of the 20th century. The majority followed the fearsome footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche — the man who killed God and buried good and evil at His side. And though they grappled with his legacy in a variety of ways, they shared, more or less, the same key assumption: that the traditional pursuits of thought — truth, beauty, meaning — were fundamentally misguided. Philosophy, unable to comment on the world, turned instead to — and on — itself. “Having broken its pledge to be at one with reality,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “philosophy is obliged to ruthlessly criticise itself.”
At the same time, positivism — the belief that only empirical or logically deduced data have any real meaning — took hold among many of the West’s intellectual circles. A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell declared that, if we were ever to understand ourselves, it would be by scientific means alone. Cultural memory, which could not be reduced to testable propositions, was made entirely superfluous.
Wherever one looked, the West seemed to be in the midst of a curious experiment: can a civilisation survive on nothing but the impulse to debunk its own presuppositions?
Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer tried to tackle this question in Dialectic of Enlightenment. A bleak assessment of Western culture, it argued that modernism, nihilism and reductionism were symptoms of the same fundamental malady — the suicide of Enlightenment thinking. Our insatiable appetite for self-criticism, the monstrous alter ego of philosophical scepticism, was finally gnawing at the very foundations on which we stood.
Adorno and Horkheimer thought it unlikely we would survive, and predicted three historical steps that would see us collapse altogether. High culture — including art — would exhaust itself, taking with it any sense of a shared inheritance. Second, we would lapse into infantile solipsism, duped by the immediate gratifications of capitalism — in particular, cinema and popular music. Finally, society — stupefied by such pleasures — would topple at the first serious test of its walls. Adorno and Horkheimer saw a host of surrogate mythologies — most notably, Nazism — poised to flood into the vacuum left behind.
This final point seemed borne out by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. But then, as the war receded into the past, much of the West suddenly found itself reclining into an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. To the baby boomers, Adorno and Horkheimer’s stuffy pessimism seemed laughably outmoded. And today, we assume — having never known any different — that this good fortune is simply here to stay. At a time of such global instability — with Putin and Islamism openly challenging our values — we urgently need to reconsider our confidence. Were the last 70 years really the final disproof of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism, or did history merely postpone its judgment?
Let us begin with the charge of Western infantilism. Here, at least, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to have been rather prescient. The West is — for all its wealth today — far more childish than even they anticipated. This can be traced — I believe — to the reductionist narratives we adopted as our mantras during the last century.