Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History and CES resident faculty, co-chairs the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History. CES spoke to him about the colloquium, his discipline, and the enduring legacy of Theodor Adorno.
In your introductory essay to the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History, you discuss the difficulty in finding any “single, globalized definition” for intellectual history. Would you be willing to summarize what intellectual history is – and what it is not?
Peter Gordon: Intellectual history is a hybrid discipline, which is one reason it can be so challenging to define. It borrows promiscuously from neighboring disciplines – political theory, philosophy, and sociology, to name only three. But its chief task is to explore the complex fortune of arguments and intellectuals in historical perspective. This task has been construed in various ways, but my own sense is that intellectual history operates in closest proximity to the history of philosophy. This is my own practice, though working at the boundary line between history and philosophy is today rather uncommon. “Ich sitze zwischen zwei Stühlen,” as the Germans say.
This year, the 50th anniversary of Theodor W. Adorno’s death, you delivered a series of lectures, the Adorno "Vorlesungen," at Goethe University Frankfurt. Would you explain the lasting significance of Adorno’s work?
Peter Gordon: Adorno ranks among the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, known for his distinctive style of thinking that he called “negative dialectics.” Inspired by currents in Western Marxism, Adorno directed his attention toward central questions in philosophy, aesthetics, sociology, and cultural criticism. It was a great honor for me to deliver the Adorno lectures. Typically the lectures address various topics and the lectures do not concern Adorno himself. But this year was the 50th anniversary of Adorno’s death (in late summer 1969), so it was decided to invite a speaker who might speak to Adorno’s own philosophical legacy. In the lectures I tried to address the central themes of Adorno’s work, dividing the themes into three topics – materialism, metaphysics, and aesthetics. My chief task was to develop a philosophical argument regarding what Adorno understood as the “sources of normativity” for his own critical efforts.
Adorno specifically addressed fascism, which you tackle in “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump.” What is Adorno’s relevance today?
Peter Gordon: You refer to an essay that appeared recently in a short book, Authoritarianism: Three Essays in Critical Theory (University of Chicago, 2018) which I co-authored with my colleagues, the political theorist Wendy Brown and the philosopher Max Pensky. All of us tried to speak to the phenomenon of authoritarianism, which for obvious reasons is of urgent concern today. My own essay speaks to Adorno’s participation in the landmark 1950 study in social psychology, The Authoritarian Personality. (In August 2019, a new edition of the book appeared with Verso Press.) Adorno and his co-authors tried to explain how an attraction to fascist or quasi-fascist politics correlates with, but is not reducible to, deep-seated tendencies in the modern character.
Do these issues have any particular relevance to Europe today?
Peter Gordon: Certainly. Much of what is discussed in that study has an unsettling relevance for what we are currently witnessing in various polities not only in Europe but around the globe. This is especially so when one considers the pronounced rise of appeals to xenophobia among far-right nationalist parties in, e.g., Hungary, Poland, Italy, France, and Germany, to name just a few. When one reads The Authoritarian Personality today one cannot help but notice rather striking similarities to the political culture today. There is, for instance, a similar attitude of “tough-mindedness,” of socio-cultural conventionalism allied with the most regressive attitudes regarding sexual, religious, and national identity. And of course there is a striking continuity in patterns of anti-Semitism. I would also mention the strange spectacle of crowds who seem to take pleasure in the theatricalized expression of hatred. Only the cramped optics of an historicism would deny such similarities.
The question one has to ask about such xenophobic trends is whether conventional explanations in social sciences can really suffice. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality were trained in sociology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis: their work offers a model for truly multidisciplinary explanation for a phenomenon that is no less multifaceted.