‘Modern German Thought from Kant to Habermas: An Annotated German-Language Reader’ reviewed by Meade McCloughan

Reviewed by Meade McCloughan

About the reviewer

Meade McCloughan is on the organizing group of the Marx and Philosophy Society and teaches …


This book is an anthology of German theoretical texts, introduced and annotated for the English reader wanting to read them in the original language. The editors have selected sixteen pieces by thirteen writers, mainly philosophers (with Freud the outlier). If anything, there is a bias towards the non-academic and left-wing/critical strands in German thought. The collection starts with Kant (‘What is Enlightenment?’ and the second edition Preface to the first Critique), moves on to Hegel (the Preface to the Philosophy of Right), then has two extracts from Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, before arriving at Marx (the 1844 ‘Critique’, the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ and the bulk of the 1859 Preface). The Marxist/post-Marxist tradition is then represented by Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ essay, a 1946 piece by Lukács, extracts from Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and finally Habermas’s 1980 Adorno Prize lecture, ‘Modernity – an Unfinished Project’. Extracts from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger are also included. There is therefore much of interest here for students of Marx and Marxist philosophy.

The editors provide helpful introductions both to the thinkers and the texts and also comprehensive suggestions for further reading. But most useful are the annotations to the texts. These highlight significant German terms, explain archaisms, clarify the trickier bits of syntax and make connections with related passages in the other extracts, as well as dealing with historical and literary references. I found the notes on Marx’s 1844 ‘Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie: Einleitung’ – a richly rhetorical and allusive text – particularly helpful.

There is an interesting annotation concerning the famous characterization of ‘asiatische, antike, feudale und modern bürgerliche Produktionsweisen als progressive Epochen der ökonomischen Gesellschaftsformation’ in the 1859 Preface. The editors state that ‘progressive’ here means ‘consecutive’ (152). But this term seems too weak. To be sure, Marx doesn’t want to say that each of these epochs is intrinsically progressive (only the ‘modern bourgeois’ one is), but each is surely meant at least to be an advance on its predecessor. This is certainly the sense conveyed by the Collected Works translation: ‘epochs marking progress in the economic development of society’ (MECW 29:263).

The texts chosen primarily involve theoretical reflection on the social and cultural present (whether construed as ‘enlightenment’, ‘the capitalist mode of production’, ‘modernity’, etc.). The book therefore serves as a good introduction to the concerns of modern German thought, especially suitable for students of German language and culture (the editors both teach in British university German departments). The choice of texts is very good; in particular, the Hegel – Feuerbach – Marx sequence fits together very neatly. But it is a bit of a shame not to have something from Hegel in his more ‘speculative’ mode (e.g., an excerpt from the Preface to the Phenomenology). The most surprising inclusion is that of Lukács’s 1946 ‘Einführung in die ästhetischen Schriften von Marx und Engels’. The editors comment that this could perhaps be more appropriately titled ‘Einführung in die ästhetischen Schriften von Georg Lukács’ (283)! But it does have lots to say about Marx and Engels, as well as touching on key Lukácsian themes (e.g. Verdinglichung, romantischer Antikapitalismus). This essay is available in English, in the 1970 collection Writer and Critic, and Other Essays – not that you would know this from the volume under review!

Robert Pippin, in a pre-publication blurb cited on the back cover, states that this ‘collection can play an important role in helping the anglophone reader to break free from dependence on translations and to engage the original texts’. This is certainly a very laudable goal, one which any anglophone reader of Kant, Hegel, Marx etc should already have signed up to. But this volume represents but one way of moving towards such engagement, and is intended for a fairly specific readership. It already requires that one has at least basic German, and is aimed at German language students otherwise unfamiliar with philosophy. Another route is that provided by parallel German-English texts, such as the excellent edition of Kant’s Groundwork published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. Indeed, this is an endeavour which the Marx and Philosophy Society has contributed to, if in a modest way, with the production of rough and ready dual-language versions of texts by Marx and others for use in its seminars. The availability of texts on the internet, especially those of older philosophers, make these easy to produce (and disseminate).

All in all, this is a very worthwhile publication and one which I would recommend to readers of German philosophy.

12 August 2014

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *