MARTIN SHUSTER | Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity | University of Chicago Press 2014


By Robert Hanna

In Autonomy After Auschwitz, Martin Shuster argues for five basic claims:

(i)  that in the hands of Adorno himself, Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ becomes the dialectic of autonomy,

(ii) that the classical Kantian concept of autonomy, as spelled out in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, under the historical and sociopolitical pressures of twentieth-century totalitarianism and post-World War II advanced capitalism, was tragically deformed into a deeply alienating and morally oppressive notion,

(iii) that Kant himself has a prescient reply to the real possibility of this kind of tragic deformation of human rationality, under the rubric of ‘radical evil’, in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, by way of his thesis that we all have a fundamental, innate religious commitment to the highest good, aka God, the rational Idea of a proportioning of moral virtue to happiness, spread out over all the members of a universal ethical community, each of them a person of good will, acting individually, but also in a mutually coordinated and socially-shaped way, for the sake of the Categorical Imperative—“a people of God under ethical laws” (RGV, AA 6:98), jointly constituting “a kingdom of God on earth” (RGV, AA 6:93), “which cannot be realized (by human organization) except in the form of a Church” (RGV, AA 6:100),


(iv) that this prescient reply fails, due to Kant’s problematic ontological commitment to the existence of God as a noumenal or supersensible moral ground of all value, via the first and second of the Postulates of Pure Practical Reason in the Second Critique, and his “moral proof of the existence of God” in §87 of the Critique of the Power of Judgement,

and finally

(v) that in the face of the tragic deformation of Kantian autonomy under twentieth-century totalitarianism and post-War advanced capitalism, with the near-satanically evil catastrophe of the Holocaust as a focal point, Adorno goes on to develop an original and important positive conception of autonomy.

Here is Shuster’s own summary, in  a nutshell:

[T]he book begins with an overview of Adorno’s critique of Kantian autonomy. In chapter 1, I provide a new reading of the first essay of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), demonstrating that its interpreters have failed to notice that Kant and his notion of autonomy constitute the centerpiece of this text […]. In chapter 2, following Adorno’s own estimation of Kant’s aspirations after the first Critique, I present Kant’s potential rejoinder to Horkheimer and Adorno […] [namely,] Kant’s rational theology (based on the highest good) […]. In Adorno’s view, our agency is intertwined with our capacities for action and expression […]. Furthermore, in that such capacities are ultimately “drawn out of us” by our environment, our understanding of freedom must be intimately concerned with social and historical configurations […]. Chapter 3 suggests that we can tease out Adorno’s philosophy of action (taken as an account about the mechanics of action) to see how those mechanics are tied to a theory of moral action (and thereby morality) […]. Chapter 4, in response to a worry encountered with Adorno’s own notion of freedom, presents Hegel as a necessary interlocutor, with a discussion of the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). In this way the favor between Adorno and the German philosophical tradition is returned when it is shown how Adorno’s account of agency can benefit from Hegel’s own. In the conclusion, I suggest that all of this presents us with a formal account of freedom while its actualization remains a practical task. And a crucial one at that. (pp. 5–6)

On the whole, I think that Autonomy after Auschwitz is an extremely interesting and highly suggestive book. Correspondingly, on the whole, I also buy the five basic claims of Shuster’s argument as I described them above, but with three Kant-interpretative critical twists.

First, I think that Shuster’s reading of Kant is heavily oriented towards what I shall call the Oxford-Harvard-Pittsburgh tradition, aka the OHP, of reading German philosophy in general and Kant in particular. The OHP is so called because it is mainly constituted by a long line of philosophical heavy-hitters based at Oxford, Harvard, and/or Pittsburgh, including Wilfrid Sellars, P.F. Strawson, Charles Taylor, Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell, Christine Korsgaard, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell, and their former students, and now also their former students’ students. According to the OHP, we must read Kant in a conceptualist, intellectualist, anti-metaphysical, mainstream-analytic-philosophy-oriented, Hegel-oriented, indeed neo-Hegelian, communitarian, and liberal democratic way.

Secondly, it seems to me that the OHP is not only dogmatic but also largely mistaken about Kant.

Thirdly, and in sharp opposition to the OHP, I also think that there is ample room in logical and Kant-textual space for a philosophically productive, highly progressive, alternative reading of Kant, aka Left-Kant. According to Left-Kant, Kant should be interpreted as an essentialist non-conceptualist, non-intellectualist, ‘sensibility first’-oriented, robustly metaphysical, embodied agency theorist,[1] and a radically agnostic, radically enlightened anarchist.[2]

Shocking as this might seem to OHP-ists, if Left-Kant is correct, then it implies

(i) that the Frankfurt School of Critical theory in general and Adorno in particular are the philosophical children of Kant,

(ii) that Adorno’s positive conception of autonomy is not so very, very original after all, but in fact richly predelineated in Kant’s writings themselves, and

(iii) that not only the Hegelian critique of Kant but also the neo-Hegelian critique of Adorno, alike, are predicated on misinterpretations of those two philosophers, and therefore pretty much irrelevant to Kant’s and Adorno’s conceptions of autonomy.

For my present purposes, however, I shall not attempt a further elaboration or defence of these ‘shocking’ Left-Kantian claims, because what I am actually most interested in, is claim (v) of Shuster’s argument, as a piece of systematic philosophy on its own.

That is to say, whatever the real intellectual origins and provenance of Adorno’s positive conception of autonomy, and whether or not we should attribute it principally to Adorno himself, independently of pro-Kantian influence, or instead attribute it to a usefully fictional, Janus-headed, Left-Kantian philosopher called kantadorno aka kantorno (which sounds like the Italian word for ‘side-dish’), that conception seems to me well worth developing and defending on its own.

Here are some of the most important Adorno-texts, as quoted by Shuster, plus his Adorno-text citations and corresponding annotations:

Hitler has forced […] a new categorical imperative upon humanity upon humans in the condition of their unfreedom: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will occur. […] This imperative is as rebellious toward its justification as the given one of Kant’s. To deal with it discursively would be an outrage […]: for it causes us to feel, bodily, the moment of the moral addendum […]. Bodily, because it is now the abhorrence, become practical, of the unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed, even as individuality, as a form of mental reflection, is about to vanish. It is only in the unvarnished materialistic […] motive that that morality […] lives on. (ND[3]365/6:358, translation modified) (p. 72)

I believe that this act of resistance—the fact that things may be so intolerable that you feel compelled to make the attempt to change them, regardless of the consequences for yourself, and in circumstances in which you may also predict the consequences for other people—is the precise point at which the irrationality, or better, the irrational aspect of moral action is to be sought, the point at which it may be located. (PMP[4] 9) (p. 73)

This moment, which I have called the addendum or irrational, survives as if it were the indestructible phase in which the separation between inner and outer had not yet been consolidated. (HF[5] 234, emphasis added […]) (p. 79)

The task of moral philosophy is above all else the production of consciousness. (PMP 9, emphasis added) (p. 74)

Not only is the self entwined in society; it owes society its existence in the most literal sense. All its content comes from society, or at any rate from its relation to the object. (MM[6] 154/4:173) (p. 76)

[Freedom] is grounded in the human subject’s urge to express itself, a precondition for all truth; in the need to lend a voice to suffering. (LND[7] 189–90, translation modified […]) (p. 107)

In a radically administered world […] the will would lose all its power. (HF 235) (p. 103)

That adaption of men to social relationships and processes which constitutes history […] has left its mark on them such that the very possibility of breaking free […[ even breaking free mentally—has come to seem a feeble and distant one. Men have come to be—triumph of integration!—identified in their innermost behavior patterns with their fate in modern society. Men must act in order to change the present petrified conditions of existence, but the latter have left their mark so deeply on people, have deprived them of so much of their life and individuation, that they scarcely seem capable of the spontaneity necessary to do so. (p. 108)[8]

Now I want to try and formulate, briefly but also fairly precisely, the positive conception of autonomy that flows from these texts.

For my purposes here, a social institution is any group of people whose subjective experiences, feelings and emotions, thoughts, and intentional actions are collectively guided and organised by shared principles or rules that function as norms—that is, evaluative standards, ideals, codes of conduct, and/or imperatives—for that group.

By democracy, I mean any social institution that is governed by the rule of the majority of people qualified to vote.[9]

By neoliberalism, I mean the political doctrine that combines

(i) classical Hobbesian liberalism, according to which people are essentially self-interested and mutually antagonistic, hence require a coercive central government, formed by a social contract, to ensure their mutual non-interference and individual pursuit of self-interested goals,


(ii) the valorisation of capitalism, especially global corporate capitalism,


(iii) technocracy, the scientifically-guided control and mastery of human nature and physical nature alike, for the sake of pursuing individually and collectively self-interested ends and large-scale capitalist ends.

By consciousness, I mean an animal’s capacity for subjective experience.

By free will, I mean a conscious human subject’s power to choose or do what he or she wants to, or to refrain from so choosing or so doing, without preventative constraints and without internal or external compulsion, with at least causal responsibility.

By practical agency, I mean a conscious human subject’s power to choose or do things freely in the light of principles or reasons, including moral principles or reasons, all of them, ultimately, falling under the Categorical Imperative, on the basis of self-conscious processes of deliberation and decision.

By deep moral responsibility[10] for any choice or action X, I mean that X flows from the practical agent herself, and that the normative value of X, especially any moral value of X or of some of X’s consequences that there might be, also attaches to the practical agent herself.

By individual autonomy, I mean a conscious human subject’s practical agency according to principles or reasons of her own choosing, aka self-legislated principles, all of them, ultimately, falling under the Categorical Imperative.

By a person, I mean a conscious human subject who is capable of  free will, practical agency, deep moral responsibility, and individual autonomy.

And finally, by relational autonomy, I mean the coordinated practical agency of each of the members of a group of persons, according to shared principles or reasons of their own choosing, aka multiply self-legislated principles or reasons, all of them, ultimately, falling under the Categorical Imperative.

In my opinion, it is relational autonomy that most fully captures the positive conception of autonomy articulated by Adorno or kantadorno aka kantorno.

More precisely, according to Adorno or kantadorno aka kantorno:

(i) consciousness, free will, and practical agency are all essentially embodied, passion-driven, and historically-embedded,

(ii) deep moral responsibility is an existentially authentic act,

(iii) a person’s individual autonomy must be mutually coordinated with the individual autonomy of other persons, and therefore, necessarily, it is socially shaped,

(iv) the full realisation of a person’s individual autonomy lies in the relational autonomy of the social institutions to which she belongs,

and finally

(v) the full realisation of relational autonomy, for the members of those social institutions, requires their self-conscious, reflective critique of all actual, existing social and political institutions, and leads them to an actively resistant critical consciousness, focused on totalitarian social institutions of all sorts, but especially on fascist versions, leading up to, through, and beyond World War II, and on the real possibility of near-satanic radical evil arising in such institutions, especially in the form of ‘administered’, ‘banal’ evil,[11] e.g. Auschwitz, and then on advanced capitalist states in the second half of the twentieth-century, but above all, nowadays, on contemporary neoliberal democratic states.

Therefore I say, forget Hegel and the OHP! and seriously consider Left-Kant!, and then let us concentrate on developing this rich, politically radical, Adorno-style, or kantadorno/kantorno-style, positive conception of relational autonomy, first and foremost in ourselves, as rational human animals, all of us living forever in the shadow of Auschwitz and the real possibility of near-satanic radical evil arising in our ‘human, all too human’ social institutions, but also in the philosophy of the future.

Invited: 17 August 2016. Received: 17 March 2017.


[1] See Hanna (2005), (2006), esp. chs 1, 2 and 8, (2008), (2009), (2011a, b), (2013), (2015), (2016a, b), and (2017a).

[2] See Hanna (2014), (2016c), (2017b) and Hanna, Chapman & Ellis (MS).

[3] Adorno (1973).

[4] Adorno (2000).

[5] Adorno (2006).

[6] Adorno (1974).

[7] Adorno (2008).

[8] Shuster quotes from Adorno (1969/70:152).

[9] There are, of course, other concepts of democracy, e.g. democracy as an open social process, or democracy as a commitment to certain moral values such human dignity, autonomy, and resistance to human oppression. And these concepts of democracy are each logically independent of one another, even if consistent. But democracy as the rule of the majority of those qualified to vote suffices as a minimalist conception.

[10] Deep moral responsibility should be carefully distinguished from ‘shallow moral responsibility’, by which I mean second-or-third-person attributions of responsibility, especially including ‘reactive attitudes’, or judgements, of blame, praise, resentment, punishment, etc., etc., made by other people, for whatever reason. Since second-or-third-person attributions are always only more-or-less warranted, and can even be completely mistaken, it is clear that someone can be deeply responsible for X, even if she is not shallowly responsible for X, and conversely. Deep moral responsibility is a metaphysical fact, whereas shallow moral responsibility, for all its everyday importance, is only an epistemic fact.

[11] See Arendt (1976) and (1963).


Adorno, Th. W. (1969/70), ‘Society’, Salmagundi 10/11: 144–53.

——— (1974), Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. Jephcott (London: Verso) (=MM).

——— (1973), Negative Dialectics, trans. E. Ashton (New York: Continuum) (=ND).

——— (2000), Problems of Moral Philosophy, ed. Thomas Schroder, trans. R. Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (=PMP).

——— (2006), History and Freedom: Lectures 1964–1965, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone (Malden, MA: Polity) (=HF).

——— (2008), Lectures on Negative Dialectics, ed. R. Tiedemann, trans. R. Livingstone (Malden, MA: Polity). (=LND)

H. Arendt (1976), The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

——— (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking).

Hanna R. (2005), ‘Kant and Nonconceptual Content’, European Journal of Philosophy 13: 247–90.

——— (2006), Kant, Science and Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

——— (2008), ‘Kantian Non-Conceptualism’, Philosophical Studies 137: 41–64.

——— (2009), ‘Freedom, Teleology, and Rational Causation’, Kant Yearbook 1: 99–142.

——— (2011a), ‘Kant’s Non-Conceptualism, Rogue Objects, and the Gap in the B Deduction’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 19: 397–413.

——— (2011b), ‘Beyond the Myth of the Myth: A Kantian Theory of Non-Conceptual Content’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 19: 321–96.

——— (2013), ‘Kant, Hegel, and the Fate of Non-Conceptual Content’, Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain (/Hegel Bulletin) 34: 1–32.

——— (2014), ‘If God’s Existence is Unprovable, then is Everything Permitted? Kant, Radical Agnosticism, and Morality‘, Diametros 39: 26–69.

——— (2015), Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

——— (2016a), ‘Kantian Madness: Blind Intuitions, Essentially Rogue Objects, Nomological Deviance, and Categorial Anarchy‘, Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 1: 44–64.

——— (2016b), ‘Directions in Space, Non-Conceptual Form, and the Foundations of Transcendental Idealism’, in D. Schulting (ed.), Kantian Nonconceptualism (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 99–115.

——— (2016c), ‘Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, With a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscipt’, in D. Heidemann & K. Stoppenbrink (eds), Join, Or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter), pp. 63–90.

——— (2017a), ‘Kant, Radical Agnosticism, and Methodological Eliminativism about Things-in-Themselves‘, Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 2: 38–54.

——— (2017b), ‘Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature‘, Con-Textos Kantianos 5: 167–89.

Hanna, R., A. Chapman, & A. Ellis (MS), Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise.

© Robert Hanna, 2017.

Robert Hanna is the Director of the CSKP & CKP projects, which form part of the Contemporary Kantian Philosophy online platform. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1989, and has held research or teaching positions at the University of Cambridge, the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, the University of Luxembourg, PUC-PR Brazil, Yale, and York University, Canada. His work has a broadly Kantian orientation, and he also has strong interests in the history of modern philosophy from Bacon/Hobbes/Descartes to contemporary philosophy, in the philosophy of nature and natural science, and in critical meta-philosophy. He has authored or co-authored six books and is currently working on a four-book series on the nature of human rationality, entitled The Rational Human Condition.