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Research focus of the Department of Practical Philosophy

The research focus on In terdisciplinaryMaterialism at the Department of Practical Philosophy of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Kassel aims to develop the main features of a materialist program that is oriented towards critical theory, but attempts to realign it with regard to the historical development and current constitution of its objects. In cooperation with academics from Kassel as well as from Germany and abroad, a research context that transcends disciplinary and national boundaries is to be created in which the "existential judgment" (Horkheimer) on contemporary capitalist society is to be redeveloped.


The fact that critical theory requires inter- or transdisciplinary cooperation has hardly been disputed since its inception. However, there is an astonishing discrepancy between the broad agreement on this and the actual implementation of interdisciplinary work. There is hardly any such work. Today, the interdisciplinarity of critical theory is often limited to supplementing its conceptual work with empirical findings. However, if it is already established on a normative level what is right and what is wrong, then dealing with social reality becomes a process of theoretical self-affirmation. Instead of seeking to engage with real objects and experiences and, by confronting them with the aid of the appropriate disciplinary approaches, developing those conceptual definitions that can be used to criticize global capitalism, which is now more worthy of criticism than ever, parts of contemporary critical theory too often behave like a political idealism that uses social reality more as an example to prove its already established convictions. The lack of interdisciplinarity thus turns out to be a deficit of materialism.


The history of an unfinished concept

Interdisciplinarity was never an end in itself for critical theory. The fact that Max Horkheimer wanted Critical Theory's materialism to be understood as interdisciplinary in the 1930s was due to a twofold crisis: that of society and that of research. As the sciences, and with them philosophy, increasingly lost their critical function due to their incorporation into the social division of labor, capitalism transformed itself in an authoritarian manner. Horkheimer's concept of interdisciplinary materialism was therefore intended to utilize the potential of psychology, economics, social sciences and philosophy in order to bundle the enlightening potential of the sciences with the intention of social criticism in order to gain insights into why the possibilities for a better society that could be found in capitalism were increasingly structurally blocked and therefore remained unused.


While Horkheimer was still relatively optimistic in the 1930s about the implementation of such a programme and its contribution to enlightenment and the progress of society, the Dialectic of Enlightenment documents the waning of this optimism and instead attempts to explain the entanglement of enlightening rationality with the barbarization that was asserting itself in society in the form of National Socialism. If the book is generally seen as thoroughly pessimistic, as one of the "darkest books" (Habermas) of the 20th century, it is overlooked that the interdisciplinary materialist program from the 1930s is not simply abandoned, but transformed. This transformation has its prehistory in an alternative understanding of materialism developed by Adorno.


In his inaugural lecture "The Actuality of Philosophy", also held in 1931, Adorno had also presented reflections on the relationship between philosophy, science and historical materialism at the same time as Horkheimer in his inaugural speech as the new director of the Institute for Social Research, "The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research". However, these did not focus on the organization of the scientific cognitive process in the coordination of interdisciplinary cooperation, but rather on the relationship between the cognizing subject and its socially mediated objects. For Adorno, the task of philosophy was to interpret the material investigated and processed by the sciences. If science conducts research, then philosophy interprets the results of this research. Philosophy can therefore not formulate its findings independently of the sciences, but rather only in confrontation with them. It is therefore not possible for philosophy to arrive at binding insights that are more than complexly formulated tautologies on its own, with its own conceptual means. Philosophy and the sciences thus enter into a relationship of dependence that forces them to divide their work. If philosophy without the other sciences were to remain meaningless in the sense that it would not be able to say anything about social reality, then the sciences without philosophy would not be able to know what their findings mean, at least according to Adorno's conviction. Adorno now introduces historical materialism into his discussion in such a way that it is ultimately the critical authority that philosophy has to face up to. If, for philosophy, scientific findings are transformed into enigmatic figures to be interpreted, whose meaning is yet to be discovered, Adorno, following Lukács, understands the commodity form as a figure that provides the key to the enigmatic social reality.


The materialism that Adorno proposes here, like that of Horkheimer, is also based on a social experience, but Adorno puts it in different words. Instead of aiming at a whole like German Idealism and systematically representing it, Adorno's materialism starts with the fragments that do not merge into the whole. Through interpretation, he uncovers the traces that the whole or society has left behind. These fragments are not understood as something immediate; they are always already shaped by social practice and by the scientific knowledge that is available from them.


If one now brings together the considerations developed by Horkheimer with those of Adorno, they prove to be complementary, without, however, resulting in a rounded unity, a quasi-finished concept of interdisciplinary materialist theory. Such a concept cannot be found in the Dialectic of Enlightenment either, although it is the first time that the two original materialist approaches are brought together. The interdisciplinary orientation that Horkheimer gave to his materialism can also be found here: Economics, psychoanalysis, philosophy and, to some extent, ethnological considerations are combined in the fragments, which are nevertheless understood as philosophical, that the book brings together. Adorno's model of the unraveling interpretation of certain material, on the other hand, provides the methodology, which is implemented particularly in the excursus on Ulysses and in the chapter on the culture industry. If we now look for a motif that can be used to understand the interlocking of the two materialist models, we will find it if we look at the "thinking of nature into the subject". If, on the one hand, such an incorporation is able to protect theory from submitting to the prevailing (ir)rationality and thus represents a means of protecting theory from being appropriated, it also makes it possible to visualize the impact of social domination on the subject and to reflect on the subject's own objectivity and naturalness. Because this reflection of nature in the subject simultaneously attempts to critically determine the function of domination of the subject, it is at the same time a reflection of the subject in nature, whereby the subject becomes comprehensible as both a material and spiritual mediating instance of inner and outer nature. The materialism of critical theory therefore has precisely this dual character of a reflection of nature in the subject and a reflection of the subject in nature. The primacy of the object, later explained by Adorno in Negative Dialectics and in the essay "On Subject and Object", only lends this materialism a further epistemological form.


Challenges for the present

From a contemporary perspective, the question arises as to how this materialism must be conceived if it is to be used to critically define the social present. This applies above all to the interdisciplinarity of such materialism. Today, we must therefore ask once again what interdisciplinarity actually means from a materialist or critical-theoretical perspective and what purpose it should serve. We must also ask whether there are objects for such a materialism with which it should primarily concern itself. Is there not only the priority of the object but also the priority of certain objects for the theory if it wants to criticize the present to a sufficient degree? In view of the crises of the present and the accompanying scientific conjunctures, a not exactly short list of such objects could be drawn up: Anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, the care crisis, the corona pandemic, global warming, religious fundamentalism, homophobia, climate change, war, nationalism, neoliberalism, sexism, racism, transphobia, etc. Finally, the relationship of such interdisciplinary materialism to the so-called new materialisms, how it positions itself in relation to intersectional approaches and finally - and this is its crucial question - how it relates to the relationship between theory and practice should be discussed.


  • Dr. Alexandra Colligs - A different history of the mind (habilitation project)
  • Prof. Dr. Philip Hogh and Prof. Dr. Dirk Stederoth - Critical Sustainability Science? (Cooperation project with the Kassel Institute for Sustainability)


  • January 2025 - Interdisciplinary Materialism III: Anti-Semitism today

Past events

  • October 27 and 28, 2023 - Interdisciplinary Materialism II: On Labor - With lectures by: Helen Akin (Jena), Alexandra Colligs (Kassel), Nikolas Lelle (Berlin), Robin Mohan (Frankfurt/Main), Dominik Novkovic (Kassel), Lea Ricarda Prix (Dortmund)