Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Critical Theory and Religion

Date: September 22 - 24, 2003
Organizers: Raymond Geuss (Cambridge/UK), Margarete Kohlenbach (Brighton)

The references of Critical Theory to religious traditions are frequently understood as of only secondary importance to its political intentions. The conference examined the adequacy of this understanding with regard to the work of the First Generation of Critical Theorists (esp. ADORNO, BENJAMIN, HORKHEIMER, KIRCHHEIMER AND NEUMANN). Particular areas of interest were

  • the relationships between the Frankfurt School and the contemporary religious thought of FRANZ ROSENZWEIG and EUGEN ROSENSTOCK-HUESSY's 'New Thinking', as well as ERICH UNGER's philosophy of religion
  • the interrelations between early 20th century epistemological constructivism and neo Kantian functionalism on the one hand, and the Critical notions of religious experience and mythos on the other
  • the importance of religious traditions to the Critical understanding of political and juridical legitimacy
  • and the relevance of the Enlightenment critique of religion in view of the fact that religion widely serves as a model, in Critical Theory, for the conception of both political practice and / or art.
In its historical dimension, the conference contributed to a deepened understanding of the affinities between political and religious intentions in the early Frankfurt School. There was a vivid exchange on particular aspects, but little fundamental disagreement in these regards. Much more controversial was the question which theoretical conclusions ought to be drawn from those affinities. Here opinions ranged from support for the 'Frankfurt' view that a radical critique of liberalism requires the resort to religious traditions to an assessment of this very view as a sign of theoretical failure. Some participants argued that in spite of its negativism, religious contents were essential to Critical 'theory'. Others questioned both the religious and the secular theoretical substance of Critical Theory and suggested to think of it as an empty imitation of religious gestures.

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