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Understanding the nature of historical transformation

Moishe Postone, SB'63, AM'67, studies the large-scale historical patterns of the 20th century-and the philosophers who tried to explain them. Sleeves rolled up, Moishe Postone paces back and forth along one side of a Cobb Hall classroom, asking the 20 or so students enrolled in a summer quarter session of the Core course Self, Culture, and Society about The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. "Why is Weber writing this book?" he inquires. Several answers are ventured, considered, and turned into new versions of the same question, many of which use phrases like "major shift," "fundamental break," and "dramatic transformation."

Outside of the classroom, Postone, SB'63, AM'67, an associate professor in history, the Committee on Jewish studies, and the College, is also tenaciously engaged with issues of historical transformation. This fall, he is at work on a collection of interrelated essays, "Critical Theory and the Twentieth Century," that examines, from a post-20th century vantage point, the self-reflexive theory that a group of social scientists and philosophers known as the Frankfurt School developed in an attempt "to grapple with the massive transformation of Western capitalist society in the first half of the 20th century."

The Frankfurt School was associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and, then, in exile during the years between the two World Wars; its director, Max Horkheimer, first used the term "Critical Theory" to describe its members' attempts to illuminate the great historical changes of the century while locating their own theories within the context of these changes.

The Frankfurt School's belief that theory cannot-and should not try to-escape its historical context has long struck a responsive chord with Postone. Although he earned his Dr.Phil. in 1983 from J. W. Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, he began his studies at Chicago as a biochemistry major. "When I first switched over from science, I decided I wanted to understand a little better what I had been doing. I did a good deal of reading in the history and philosophy of science-at that time Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had a great impact, but it wasn't the only work that suggested that science itself could be historicized and that called into question the self-understanding of scientists that the development of science had been linear." This position "characterized social theories to which I became attracted." Decades later, he notes, he came across a series of articles published in the Institute of Social Research's journal in the 1930s, debating the issue of how the development of modern science could be historicized. In his set of essays on key Critical Theorists-including Horkheimer, philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and Jurgen Habermas-Postone is "focusing on select works as paradigmatic." His goal for the project, begun during a 1999-2000 term as a fellow at the University's Franke Institute for the Humanities, is "to contexualize these sophisticated theories of context with reference to large-scale historical patterns that have become increasingly evident in recent decades."

The focus on how Critical Theory dealt with historical transformation, he says, in effect makes the essay collection "an exercise" for his next book project, exploring the nature of global transformation since 1973.

"For a while," he explains, "I've been struck by the strong possibility of periodizing the 20th century, as Eric Hobsbawm did in The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. To periodize in the 20th century in this way is to imply that there are real processes of transformation that have occurred-and that periodization of this sort is not merely a superimposition by the historian." Such profound transformations, he believes, deserve deep description and analysis, but don't always receive it.

"All too often," he says by way of example, "globalization is conceived of spatially, a matter of extending beyond national spaces to supranational space-rather than temporally, a transformation of relations between state political institutions and capitalist economies."

While everyone agrees a shift has occurred, he says, there is considerable disagreement on how to describe and analyze it. He lists a few examples: a shift to a post-modern information society, a shift to a global economy, a shift to a postmodern universe. "All sorts of different theoretical presuppositions are bound up in these different descriptions," Postone points out. "Many of them do grasp important features of the changes that have occurred-but in a one-sided manner. Moreover, they're very weak on what sort of mechanisms have driven these changes.

"For every prophet of the wired world, you have someone emphasizing the spread of sweatshops. Both positions describe real phenomena. But an adequate theory has to come up with an understanding of processes that include these apparently opposed phenomena rather than treating one as the exception to the other."

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