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Autonomy After Auschwitz

Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity

Ever since Kant and Hegel, the notion of autonomy—the idea that we are beholden to no law except one we impose upon ourselves—has been considered the truest philosophical expression of human freedom. But could our commitment to autonomy, as Theodor Adorno asked, be related to the extreme evils that we have witnessed in modernity? In Autonomy after Auschwitz, Martin Shuster explores this difficult question with astonishing theoretical acumen, examining the precise ways autonomy can lead us down a path of evil and how it might be prevented from doing so.

Shuster uncovers dangers in the notion of autonomy as it was originally conceived by Kant. Putting Adorno into dialogue with a range of European philosophers, notably Kant, Hegel, Horkheimer, and Habermas—as well as with a variety of contemporary Anglo-American thinkers such as Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell, and Robert Pippin—he illuminates Adorno’s important revisions to this fraught concept and how his different understanding of autonomous agency, fully articulated, might open up new and positive social and political possibilities. Altogether, Autonomy after Auschwitz is a meditation on modern evil and human agency, one that demonstrates the tremendous ethical stakes at the heart of philosophy.

Author Information

Martin Shuster is chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Avila University in Kansas City, MO and is cofounder of the Association for Adorno Studies.


Autonomy after Auschwitzis an exceptionally strong and interesting work. Shuster productively relates Adorno both to German idealism and to contemporary analytic philosophy, opening up Adorno’s work and engaging it from perspectives that reveal unexpected nuances and invite further reflection and exploration. The result is a highly original and pathbreaking work that will appeal not only to Adorno scholars but a range of readers in social theory and philosophy.”
— Espen Hammer, Temple University

“In this elegantly crafted book, Shuster demonstrates, compellingly, that the core of modern reason is a claim to be radically autonomous: fully detached from the natural world and fully self-determining. Such a reason, Adorno argues, will be self-defeating, leading to the dissolution of the very form of subjectivity it promises. Shuster thus shows what no one has argued previously: that at the center of Adorno’s critical enterprise is an argument about the nature of autonomy, agency, and practical reason. Shuster has provided an incisive addition to our understanding of these topics that confronts traditional accounts, especially in Kant and Hegel, with Adorno’s reflections on how human action must be shaped, motivated, and elicited from a world of suffering from which we cannot avert our eyes.”
— J. M. Bernstein, New School for Social Research

“Shuster offers us a fresh and interesting interpretation of the key elements in Adorno’s thought. He perceptively steers us through the tangle of Adorno’s attempt to combine classical German thought with contemporary social concerns.”
— Terry Pinkard, Georgetown University

“Shuster claims to have ‘reconstructed a formal model for understanding ourselves as agents.’ This reconstructed model replaces the traditional model of ethical action—in which intention and choice are paramount—with a jointly Adornian and Cavellian one, in which moral action is solicited from within interpersonally situated forms of life and experience. Shuster has developed this model with care and makes careful interventions into the reading of some major figures in developing it. Throughout, the claims advanced are convincingly and helpfully situated in relation to recent scholarship within both Anglophone philosophy and the European post-Kantian tradition. As the author himself notes, this reconstructed position stands in need of further elaboration. But Shuster does more than enough to suggest that this would be a task worth undertaking.”
— Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

“A series of intricate investigations of autonomy in modern and contemporary philosophy. The chapter on ‘negative dialectics,’ which forms the core of the book, is outstanding. . . . Shuster does excellent work in bringing Adorno into contemporary philosophical discussion.”
— Times Literary Supplement

Audience: Professional and scholarly;