Article: Johann Arnason’s unanswered question by Peter Wagner

This article is a special prepublication forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal

by Peter Wagner (Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies – ICREA; University of Barcelona; Ural Federal University, Yekaterinburg)

Paul Nash, Wittenham Clumps (circa 1943-4) Tate, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Johann Arnason’s unanswered question: To what end does one combine historical-comparative sociology with social and political philosophy?[1]

A contemporay critique of historical materialism

During the Cold War, scholars in the USA created the sociology of “modern society” and of “modernization and development” as a full alternative to historical materialism, then the official interpretation of history and society in the countries of “existing socialism”, in the somewhat petrified form of Marxism-Leninism. Due to processes of specialization and professionalization, accompanied by excessive concern with what was called methodological rigour, the Western social sciences had largely abandoned the comprehensive analysis of large-scale, long-lasting social phenomena such as capitalism, state, democracy, money that had been in the centre of attention of earlier generations and had instead turned to quantifiable information, on the one hand, and to observable social interaction, on the other. Given the lack of any view on the global course of history, modernization theory was invented and quickly became hegemonic as guide, or at least general conceptual frame, for social research and as part of the “Western” societal self-understanding as well. Where the adversary saw class antagonism and struggle as the driver of socio-historical change, one could now point to the much more benign process of functional differentiation.

During the 1970s, the ice of the Cold War thawing, neo-Marxism arose in the West as a critique of modernization theory, but it was largely built on some of the same assumptions and tools – systemic reasoning, functional-evolutionist thinking – only turned them around to see conflict instead of harmony. From within this critical strand, though, scholars soon recognized that the significant issues in comprehensively understanding society and history could only be identified by going beyond this opposition and revealing the problematic features both approaches had in common. The term that arguably best expressed this emerging attitude was the one Anthony Giddens chose as title or sub-title for some of his books, “a contemporary critique of historical materialism”, while Jürgen Habermas opted for a “reconstruction of historical materialism”. The difference between the two expressions points to one of the themes under debate, namely as to what could be retrieved or revived from the historico-materialist tradition and in how far this tradition had to be straightforwardly rejected and overcome.

With hindsight, one can see here a whole intellectual movement, broadly defined but nevertheless with rather clear contours. Beyond Giddens and Habermas, one will certainly need to mention Alain Touraine, in some respects a forerunner with his focus on movements and subjects, and Pierre Bourdieu, whose position is distinct because the tradition he takes explicit distance from is not structural functionalism but anthropological structuralism, in particular as shaped by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The contributions of these scholars – to whom one can add more, such as Margaret Archer, Jeffrey Alexander, and Hans Joas – were for some time summarizingly referred to as the agency-structure debate, but this term limits their significance to a conceptual quarrel within sociology, whereas the original ambition was much broader. Coming with a political agenda and combining perspectives from philosophy and economics, Cornelius Castoriadis’s work should be seen as a crucial component of this movement in its wider meaning, having influenced many contributors but much less the internal academic debates. Where Castoriadis provided a link with philosophy, William Sewell jr. did so with history, for which other scholars had a surprisingly weak interest given that the aim was to criticize and revive comprehensive historical thinking.

This is neither the place nor is there a need for a full reconstruction of this debate, but two observations should be made. First, there is widespread consensus that the debate was won by the “agency” side, or to put it more cautiously, that the outcome of the debate was to re-emphasize the role of human agency and creativity in social life, with human beings having, in principle, the capacity to change “structures” and redefine “functions” both of which had before been seen as stable, inalterable and determining human action rather than vice versa. This shared insight should have generated a new and demanding research agenda, but, and this is the second observation, this did not at all happen. By the late 1990s, most key contributors had abandoned the issues they themselves had promoted just a few years before. Some moved away from the “social theory” agenda and turned or returned to philosophy or religion; others shifted from academic debate towards an almost exclusive focus on political interventions, be it as part of “official” centre-left politics or in the role of non-aligned, radical public intellectual. If I can be forgiven the military metaphor, this was clearly a pyrrhic victory. Having chased away the adversary, the victorious army stands alone on the battlefield and, after a short hesitation, it disbands in a disorderly way rather than conquering the territory ahead of them.

Johann Arnason is not only sufficiently close in time and space to be considered part of the “generation” that aimed to develop a comprehensive alternative to structural functionalism and modernization theory and to do so by critically reviewing the legacy of historical materialism. Furthermore, he can and should be considered a leading contributor to this intellectual “movement”, whose work stands out in a number of ways. First, it should be noted that Arnason is the only key scholar of this “group” who has first-hand experience of then-existing socialism, having lived in Czechoslovakia during a part of the 1960s. Second, unlike others, Arnason has persistently pursued the agenda opened during the 1970s up to the present day, constantly addressing new areas and questions within it. Third, Arnason keeps the ambition comprehensive, bringing together approaches and insights from philosophy, history, sociology and opening up to anthropology and political philosophy, rather than retreating to a focus on only one of these fields, as others have done. That his work is less known than those of some of the other scholars mentioned above says something about the state of scholarly communication in our time.

In what follows, Johann Arnason’s specific contribution to such contemporary critique of historical materialism will first be briefly sketched, emphasizing the combined breadth and nuance of his historical-comparative sociology but also noticing a certain down-toning of the normative edge for which this kind of critical social theory used to be known. By looking at some examples, though, it can be shown, second, that Arnason has not shied away from taking a critical stand on political issues and, in general, on the socio-political constellation of our time. But the fact that this critical stand does not feature prominently in most of his scholarly works lets a question – maybe we can even call it: a suspicion – emerge. Before proceeding further, I want to underline that I find myself in profound agreement with Johann Arnason’s work, more than with those of most other scholars; that I am impressed by his erudition and the conciseness of his analyses; that indeed I look at his work with admiration. It is against this background of high appreciation that I will subsequently make two critical observations: First, I will argue that Arnason is excessively vague on the question of the applicability of civilizational analysis to socio-historical constellations. This vagueness creates a blind spot with regard to some world-regions, maybe even an in-built bias in Arnason’s use of the concept of civilization. Second, and partly as a consequence, the diagnosis of global historical transformations, which underlies Arnason’s work like that of every comprehensive historical-comparative sociology, suffers from lack of explicitness. The request to Arnason would be to be less vague and more explicit. But I will go a step further and conclude by formulating the suspicion that rather problematic features, possibly internal tensions, of Arnason’s approach would emerge, were he to become more clear and explicit on these matters.[2]

Nuance and subtlety at the expense of critique?

Within the above-described intellectual movement, a common denominator of the critique of historical materialism was the rejection of determinism and reductionism. With the former, the idea that society and history unfold according to a necessity that no human action could decisively alter, was addressed. With the latter, the more specific notion that it is the economic organization that determines all other aspects of society and history was criticized. Obviously, such criticism had already been raised much earlier, not least by Max Weber, to whom many of the late-twentieth-century critics also refer. But by the 1970s, not only had Max Weber’s insights been largely forgotten, furthermore, structural functionalism had revived the problematic features of historical materialism, then far too easily to be mirrored in neo-Marxism. Structural functionalism was determinist because it assumed a single line of historical change, called “modernization”, movement on which could only temporarily be halted by obstacles due to historical conditions. And even though economic reductionism in the strict sense was overcome, structural functionalism was reductionist by decreeing that fulfillment of functional requirements was the substantive core of its determinism, first of all in the form of achieving functional differentiation.

Significantly, then, the critique addressed both the “critical” and the “affirmative” versions of determinism and reductionism. And it did so not by returning to the gesture Weber made in the Protestantic Ethic, namely opposing ideational to material causes of social change. Such a mere reversal of the logic of determination would have left intact the idea that there is an object, “society”, that is exposed to forces that impact on its shape. In this respect, it should be underlined that the critique of materialism does not result in a “cultural turn”, if this notion meant giving primacy to “culture” over the “economy”. Instead, “society” is reconceptualized as networks of social relations, in which different substantive issues are addressed, which can have different spatial extensions, and which can more or less strongly and coherently cluster across spaces. As regards the nature of the substantive issues, a threefold distinction between economic, political, and cultural matters has become most widely accepted. The predominant form of the spatial cluster in recent history has been the nation-state, but widening of the approach now allows the comparison of national with imperial, civilizational and possibly other forms of such political clusters as well as “varieties of capitalism”. Most generally, “societies” are now seen as constellations or configurations of economic, political, and cultural sets of relations that need to be comparatively analyzed in their historical variability.

With these steps, reductionism is avoided because there is no longer any assumption of primacy of one kind of relation over others. Determinism is, at the very least, considerably weakened because of the multiplicity of empirical varieties social constellations can take, hardly even amenable to a notion of complex determination. However, there is a further step that some scholars, and most notably Arnason, take and that could be called “cultural” in the broader sense of the term, not as capturing a segment of human social life next to others but as expressing an approach to, if one wants to use this term, social ontology (Friese and Wagner 2000). One can – and Arnason has done so – relate this theoretical-philosophical attitude to Max Weber’s or later Charles Taylor’s focus on meaning and (self-)interpretation, to phenomenology and to hermeneutics; the question of the appropriate reconstruction of an intellectual lineage is not to be addressed here. Rather, what is of interest is the connection between ways of doing historical sociology and their underlying social philosophy.

Johann Arnason’s work is characterized by an almost obsessive elaboration of further nuances and subtleties in the analysis of often already rather well studied social phenomena. From this author’s pen this is no criticism at all; one always reads such differentiating reflections with great interest – the recent Blumenberg Lectures (Arnason 2019) are an excellent example. At a closer look, furthermore, Arnason’s insistence on ever more refining the historical-comparative lenses with which to look at world-historical events and constellations is informed by more than an obsession with detail. Certainly, he shares with Weber the view that historical occurrences are always unique. He would then also sustain that actions and events cannot completely be subsumed under concepts and categories; and that earlier actions and events may condition, but never completely determine later actions and events. More conventionally, such reasoning would be applied by “proper” historians against historical sociologists and the latter’s need for conceptualization. But this is not at all Arnason’s position, and this seems to me to be so for two quite distinct, though connected reasons.

First of all, Arnason always reasons in conceptual terms. Bringing in new evidence is for him a way of demonstrating the limits of existing conceptualizations and suggesting more adequate ones. Second, the demonstration of an existing variety of social constellations provides for him an argument for the human capacity for developing and sustaining a plurality of world-interpretations. In this respect, he is very close to Cornelius Castoriadis, even though the latter built his view on a very scant and schematic way of reading world-history. We can look at some key distinctions in world-history: Arnason was always sceptical of Castoriadis’s strict line drawn between the majority of heteronomous societies and the only two attempts at building autonomous societies, in ancient Greece and in eighteenth-century Europe. He was drawn for some time to the axial distinction of two main periods of world-history, the “axis” being built in the first millennium BCE, but he has increasingly taken a more cautious and nuanced view. As to the rise of “modernity” as a distinct civilization, he has taken some position but still reserves his judgement for further investigation and reflection. His view of plurality is much more open to identifying different world-interpretations in numerous spaces and times than Castoriadis’s.

Arguably, such openness marks itself a normative, namely critical stand, underlining the human capacity for agency and creativity, for transforming existing institutions by criticizing and reconceptualizing them. However, it makes it much more difficult to apply such broadly conceived normative position to any given social constellation. Clearly, the “institutionalist” reasoning for either the normative superiority of already-existing “modern society” or for underlining the need for one more revolution in historical materialism can no longer be upheld. Within the movement of scholars aiming to criticize and/or reconstruct historical materialism, Johann has been among those who have most adamantly argued that there is no way back to any easy and straightforward normative critique. He even used the term “anti-normativistic” next to “anti-functionalist” to describe the necessary renewal (or overcoming?) of critical theory (Arnason 2018a, 3). This reluctance does not only apply to attempts at identifying structural contradiction between spheres. More generally, the openness of any world-understanding to further interpretation and contestation lends itself to identifying fields of tensions – one of Arnason’s favourite expressions – rather than to distinguishing between entire social constellations on normative grounds. In his own words: “If you stress the importance or primacy of interpretation, that imposes limits on normative commitments” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 156). Or similarly more recently: “Imaginary significations are prone to invite rivalling interpretations, but also a perennial excess of meaning. It is obvious that limiting consequences for normative justifications follow from this insight” (Arnason 2018a, 3; orig. emph.)[3]

That is why readers of Arnason’s work may at the same time be impressed by the nuance and sophistication and at a loss with regard to what such further refinement of our socio-historical knowledge entails in terms of understanding our own time in its historical context. In other words, we may have gained a highly knowledgeable and subtle historical-comparative sociology but have left critical social theory behind. As we will see later, Johann Arnason himself has more to say on this. But let us take the next step by showing by different means that this cannot be the last word on the matter, namely by looking at Arnason as a critical observer of the present time, outspoken and radical.

The critical intellectual

To my knowledge, Arnason’s most striking “normative” intervention in public was provoked when a former co-editor of his at this journal, Peter Murphy, used a version of civilizational analysis to justify the Second Gulf War, in a text presented as a review essay of Bernard Lewis’s 2002 book What went wrong? on the history of Middle Eastern responses to Western impact. Arnason leaves no doubt about his critique of the foreign and military policy of the then US government, but particularly objects to Murphy’s display of “a clash-of-civilizations thesis, more extreme and caricatural than anything Samuel Huntington has ever come up with” (Arnason 2005a, 109; the following quotes are from this text). Subsequently, as one would expect, he develops, in due brevity, a nuanced portrait of reform attempts in the Ottoman Empire and their outcomes, in terms of a historical sociology of entangled civilizations. But he also adds a second layer of observations on Western “interventionist and exploitative” strategies into the Middle East, which have “lasting effect … on historical processes that are still unfolding” (110). This can be seen as a normative argument for collective self-determination, in particular as Arnason further emphasizes that it was the US that “put an end to the Iranian experiments with constitutional democracy” (110) and, in general, is “not in the business of exporting democracy” (111). Thus, a critique of imperial power is juxtaposed to Murphy’s attempt to “equate knowledge with power and productivity” (112). While Arnason does see the combination of quest for knowledge, state-building, and institutionalization of technological progress as the “infrastructure of modernity” (112) – we will come back to this – he underlines the openness of this combination to interpretation and rejects to consider the imperial US variety as a “paradigm of modernity” (112).

Arnason’s critique of the “informal empire” of the US that has taken a “regressive turn” (112) is not paralleled, as it often is for leftist critics, by an identification of the US as the core promotor of neoliberal capitalism. For him, it is crucial to develop “civilizational perspectives on capitalism” as a total socio-historical phenomenon (Arnason 2005b). For this purpose, it remains important to keep drawing on the comprehensive approaches elaborated by Marx, Weber and Simmel, but to avoid reductionist understandings it is also necessary to elaborate nuanced analyses of the variety of ways in which capitalist self-understandings (“spirits”) and practices can be embedded within social institutions. Looking for normative commitments, there is no clear evidence, or so it seems to this reader, that Arnason rejects the market organization of the economy or wage-labour tout court. Rather, he is concerned about the absolutization of material commitments, drawing on recently intensified debates about “capitalism as a religion”, entailing the absence of “limits and inherent counterweights” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 186). It is in this light that the global politico-economic transformations since the 1990s, which Karl Polanyi might have described as a second historical disembedding of the market from society, become highly problematic. “Neoliberalism” is, thus, more than an institutional transformation, describable as deregulation or de-institutionalization; it is a fundamental change in societal self-understanding. As Arnason has underlined, there is an “elective affinity of absolutized individual freedom and the promise of absolute wealth”, which is underpinned by the interpretation of the supposedly self-evident commitment of modernity to autonomy as a commitment to individual freedom, a move that has tempted even otherwise critical thinkers and that needs to be resisted. In contrast, the necessary “turn away from neoliberalism” is more fruitfully supported by a “rehabilitation of collective autonomy” (Arnason 2018a, 6).[4]

For a start, these observations on Johann Arnason’s normative commitments may suffice. They situate him clearly on the “left”, thus in proximity to most of the scholars who contributed to the critique and/or reconstruction of historical materialism. Even more precisely, they identify him as someone who aims at institutional reconstruction through shifts in the interpretation of key political concepts. We may call this leftist reformism and find confirmation in at least one statement in which Arnason distinguishes forms of politically leftist commitments today: “It is difficult to come up with any positive perspectives. The reformist left is everywhere on the defensive, if it exists at all; the global left is a fantasy; the ‘revolutionary’ left is irrelevant and sometimes off the planet” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 159). Between being a fantasy or off the planet, to be on the defensive is the least insignificant position to occupy.

Thus, we have identified some of Arnason’s key normative commitments, even though they are rarely explicit: collective autonomy; rejection of imperial usurpation; critique of absolutization of partial commitments, and all of those set into the broader framework of a modern self-understanding that is open to interpretative variation. In what follows we will not remain content with Arnason’s – valid – remark about the limits to normative commitments that emerge from the openness to interpretation. Rather, we will dig deeper into some key conceptual decisions to see whether some of those limits are not self-imposed instead of unavoidable, and if so, to understand why this may be so.

The spatial ordering of the world: the ambiguity of civilization

I have critically commented on Johann Arnason’s move to civilizational analysis before (Wagner 2011; see also already Friese and Wagner 2000) and will not repeat those observations here. For me, the easiest way to accept the civilizational paradigm would be to see it as a critique of the concept of “society”, as the latter had been promoted in sociology, with its focus on institutions and their supposed coherence as well as, even though often implicitly, on the primacy of the national form of society. “Civilizations” then would be more open to interpretation than “societies”, less predetermined by requirements of institutional coherence, and would tend to have a wider spatial and temporal reach. However, even though all of this may also be true, this is not how Arnason draws on and elaborates further the concept of civilization. He sees civilizations as a particular phenomenon in human history, limited to certain time-spaces, and not as a general concept for understanding organized social configurations.

Discussing “the historical boundaries of civilizational analysis“ (Adams and Arnason 2016, 169-170, for the following quotes), Arnason refers to the emergence of the concept with regard to “those early formations that you call Hochkulturen in German, where statehood, urbanisation and writing are understood as basic defining characteristics”. Conceptually, this refers to “a new kind of interplay of culture and power”. In other words, civilizations are marked by a relatively stable cultural-institutional complex that shapes world-interpretations and, consequently, action and behaviour. In this light, not all social configurations are civilizations, because not all of them have such a cultural-institutional complex.[5]

More specifically, this definition seems to limit civilizational analysis to a particular time-space of human history. In Arnason’s own words, “[i]t is true that the civilizational frame of reference emerged, first and foremost, as a way of understanding parallels, contrasts and connections between the macro-cultural formations in different Eurasian regions”. To which he immediately adds, though, that “[t]here is no a priori reason why the paradigm should not be applicable to other parts of the world, but each case will raise specific problems” (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 127).

Conceptually, indeed, the problem is recognized:

“I would admit that there is more to be discussed here. The alternative is the position that follows Mauss in extending the concept of civilization back into the interminable history of primitive societies. […]. I would not necessarily want to make the concept of civilization coextensive with human societies. But there is definitely a case for seeing the interplay of culture and power, more specifically of religion and the political, at work in pre-state societies. However, we need more discussion with anthropologists and archaeologists” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 170).

There is more than this “however”, though. Up to now, Arnason has never analyzed any social configuration outside of “Eurasian regions” in civilizational or other terms, and this despite the wide range of his analyses within those regions. When asked about Latin America, he refers to existing civilizational analyses, starting with writings by Shmuel Eisenstadt (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 127-8). But those analyses, anticipated most innovatively by Louis Hartz (1964; see Wagner 2014), regularly focus on the world-interpretations by European settler groups and tend to ignore the possibility of civilizational formation out of the encounter of indigenous societies, slaves, and European settlers, even though such encounter has at times been the core of self-interpretation (Ribeiro 1971). Furthermore, they also mostly give little significance to institutional structures, thus undermining the claim to analyze cultural-institutional complexes. As regards Africa, Johann Arnason rightly distinguishes African regions with different histories, but then also sees himself forced to conclude that “it is certainly true that Africa represents one of the less explored frontier areas of civilizational analysis” (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 127).

It seems clear that the main reason for maintaining the exclusion of non-Eurasian social configurations after 1500 from civilizational analysis – granting that “pre-state societies” might be included – is their lack of “crystallization” as a civilization (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 127). However, this decision sits uneasily with the argument about modernity as a new civilization, which Johann Arnason cautiously promotes, given that modernity, in most approaches, emerges after 1500, has potentially global reach, and is probably characterized by a considerable social dynamics and lack of crystallization. Let us, therefore, take a quick look at Johann Arnason’s reflections about modernity, considering jointly the understanding of modernity as a civilization and the normative assumptions that go with the concept of modernity.

Modernity as a civilization and the question of equality

It seems fair to say both that Arnason embraces the notion of modernity as a new civilization, which he traces to Jan Patočka, but that he has not fully spelt out the implications of this view in his own terms. The latter means, among other elements, that this notion of modernity is not firmly entered into his historico-comparative analyses. Arnason is not inclined to argue in general terms about the beginning or the end of modernity. But he does provide interpretative anchors for the concept, such as commitments to knowledge and freedom, following Patočka, or to autonomy, following Castoriadis, and he would refer to the Enlightenment, though less as a historico-intellectual event in Europe but instead as a way of thinking that can be encountered in different historical circumstances. This is fully acceptable from this reader’s point of view, but also somewhat too little to establish modernity as a civilization with a cultural-institutional complex comparable to Eurasian Hochkulturen. Arnason is rather fully aware of the problem, even though he arguably does not (yet) have a solution to it in hand.

Drawing on Patočka, he suggests that modernity can be understood

“as a kind of civilizational paradox, being both more and less than civilizations in the traditional sense. More because of its unprecedented ability to problematize and undermine the presuppositions of older civilizations, which of course in turn is linked to the more positive characteristic that it develops universalizing orientations: the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. It is less than traditional civilizations because it gives a less defining, less determinate answer to basic questions about the world and the human condition; which of course in turn means it then has to draw on all the traditions to confront those questions” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 177).

Again, this understanding seems fully acceptable, but it has more repercussions on the concept of civilization than Arnason seems to recognize.

Most importantly, it appears appropriate to relate the “unprecedented ability to problematize” not only to the presuppositions of older civilizations, but also to those of preceding instituted forms of modernity, then referring to social transformations that generate “successive modernities”, one of Arnason’s felicitous conceptual innovations. If this is so, then modernity shows an internal dynamic that is likely to prevent it from ever “crystallizing”, thus failing to meet a core criterion for becoming a civilization. Seen like this, the “ability to problematize” is really not at all different from giving “a less defining, less determinate answer to basic questions”; rather, it is the other side of the coin. Who defines and determines less is more able to problematize everything that appears as defined and determined.

Returning from this end to the question of normativity, one may say that the cultural-institutional complex of “traditional civilizations” defines the norms of those social configurations. Does then the ability to problematize mean that modernity has no normative core? Arnason has a – I assume: tentative – answer to that question:

“[The] conception of modernity as a new civilization [..] is best seen as a meta-normative rather than a non-normative notion. The visions of human autonomy are, by nature and from the outset, too varied and divergent to add up to a unifying project. This does not mean that the new civilizational principle is normatively neutral. The horizons of autonomy impose their specific premises on normative arguments, and the irreducibly different versions of autonomy become entangled in normative debates, where commitments can be grounded in multiple considerations, rather than in ultimate and uncontestable presuppositions” (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 124).[6]

This statement takes up the above-mentioned tension in a new terminology, namely as the tension between asserting at the same time the existence of a “civilizational principle” and the absence of a “unifying project”. If modernity is to be considered as a civilization, therefore, it certainly is a civilization of a very particular kind. But the statement also goes further in elaborating on the way in which the commitment to autonomy, which defines – if I may use this word – modernity, opens up a space of interpretations.[7] The key subsequent question that emerges here is the one about the ways of mapping this interpretative space.

One may well agree with Johann Arnason – and many others – in seeing in autonomy the core principle of modernity. Much then depends, though, on the way the relation between autonomy and other adjacent concepts is treated. Arnason himself (Arnason 2018a) cricitized Axel Honneth for considering individual autonomy as the only corner-stone of our societal self-understanding and thus giving collective autonomy a mere secondary status, indeed deriving democracy and solidarity from the principle of autonomy (for an alternative, see Wagner 2007). A broader debate has been led about the relation between autonomy and mastery, sometimes treated as the two imaginary significations of modernity (Arnason 1989; Wagner 1994; Carleheden 2010), translating into a new conceptual language the Enlightenment commitment to freedom and reason. Here, too, it seems more fruitful to see the quest for mastery as already implied in the commitment to autonomy. After all, autonomy means giving oneself one’s own laws, and giving laws is a quest for mastery. The two concepts, thus, are intricately related.

In the context of the interview quoted above, Johann Arnason suddenly opens up a new, related question, namely the one of the relation between autonomy and equality: Referring to debates that are not named, he asks

“whether the recognition of equality should be seen as – at the most fundamental level – integral to the vision of human autonomy, as a distinct value-orientation with which the pursuit of autonomy has to establish an adaptable modus vivendi, or as a source of so fundamentally divergent imperatives that the interaction of the two principles becomes one of the antinomies – if not the antinomy – of modernity” (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 124).

A quick and brief proposal can be made to answer that question, which Arnason seems to see as open, by starting out from conceptual and then moving to historical considerations. In agreement with Johann Arnason, the notion of autonomy cannot be conceived of as purely individually. Giving a law that only applies to oneself makes little sense. Rather, the tension between individual and collective autonomy provides one of the key lines along which interpretations of modernity vary. If acting autonomously occurs within collectivities, then the relation between the members of such collectivities opens up. From ancient Greece onwards, certainly, these relations have often been conceptualized unequally and also hierarchically. Under conditions of collective autonomy, though, thus without heteronomously given law, inequality and hierarchy have been in need of justification. Aristotle’s reflections on slaves are a case in point. We may therefore conclude that, at the very least, the question of equality arises immediately when the principle of autonomy is evoked. Among the options Johann mentions, thus, the view that the recognition of equality is integral to the vision of human autonomy is the most persuasive.[8] This is not to deny that tensions arise, as they do between individual and collective autonomy or between autonomy and mastery. But these are tensions within the interpretative space of modernity.

In historical terms, with all due caution, an intrinsic connection between modernity and equality can also be observed. Eurasian civilizations have long known about each other; their way of seeing the other was recognizing them as human but as different from oneselves. The first encounter with native Americans, who were entirely unknown and unexpected, changed the perspective. Now one first needed to determine whether these beings were human. If so, then it would follow immediately that they needed to be treated on some basically equal terms to other human beings. This was the outcome of the Salamanca debates. Even though its impact on the actual treatment of the native Americans by the colonizers was limited, it marked an important step in moral-political thought. Paraphrasing John Locke, in the beginning everywhere was America. Furthermore, precisely because the impact was limited, the arising commitment to equality set off a historical dynamics that has significantly shaped world-history and modernity for half a millennium, including obviously the tensions that it inevitably provoked. This leads us to considering the question of a direction of history.

The temporal ordering of the world: the direction of history

There is no doubt that Arnason’s approach to social theory and historical-comparative sociology is not only anti-functionalist and anti-normativist but also anti-evolutionist. The insistence on creativity and contingency rules out any identification of a predetermined path of world-history. But does it also rule out reflections about comparing different socio-political constellations with regard to their normative achievements and, which is a related but not the same question, with regard to identifying any dynamics that leads from one constellation to another? It does not seem so.

Arnason himself agrees, despite his reluctance towards normative assessments:

“[t]here is nothing implausible about the idea that some civilizations can in some respects achieve a more adequate or more appealing grasp of the human condition than others. They may do more justice to its complexity, be more open to dispute about it, provide more scope for self-determination, etc.” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 158).[9]

And he does so, too, with regard to the question of the direction of history:

“[y]ou can allow for evolutionary trends in history. And there are long term trends. There is an evolutionary side to technological progress and to the growth of knowledge. So I don’t think we need to drive evolution out of history. And I don’t think we need to deny either that when you look at major transformations like the axial age, there’s a bit of evolution in it” (Adams and Arnason 2016, 166).[10]

In substantive terms, significantly, Arnason refers here to evolution with regard to autonomy and mastery, termed “self-determination” and “technological progress and .. growth of knowledge”. In other words, there is – possible – progress in the history of modernity. Indeed, after his discussion of modernity as a new civilization, Arnason even endeavours to explore “criteria” for normative assessments:

“The criteria that come into play have to do with internal consistency as well as with the capacity to respond to the problems and tensions arising from specific normative orientations, and with the sensitivity to the inescapable pluralism of such orientations under modern conditions” (Blokker and Delanty 2011, 124).

From here it is only a small step towards explicitly addressing the historical dynamics of modernity, but it is a step that Arnason shies away from taking. In this author’s view, this step would mean considering the “ability to problematize”, which Arnason attributes to modernity as a civilization, as the capacity, or at least the potential, of detecting a discrepancy between existing institutions and the principles of modernity.

More specifically, the commitment to mastery demands the increasing satisfaction of human material needs, which found variable historical expressions in the market-capitalist promise of enhancing the “wealth of nations”, in the welfare-state obsession with the gross domestic product, or in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The commitment to autonomy was translated into the striving for collective self-determination, on the one hand, and for personal self-realization, on the other. The former was historically concretized as the cultural-linguistically defined nation and, later, as colonized peoples liberating themselves from colonial domination. But it always will leave open the question of the nature and boundaries of the collectivities that aim at self-determining their way of life. The latter found concretion in the struggles for equal individual rights: for the propertyless, for women, for workers, for all “ethnicities” and minorities, and this mostly because equality was denied even though it had been placed on the horizon.

Even this brief list shows two key features of modernity: First, as suggested above, the principles of individual and collective autonomy, mastery and equality are closely connected. Together they give contours to the interpretative space within which struggles over the most appropriate interpretation of modernity takes place. Second, despite all openness to interpretation, it is evident that the enunciation of these commitments as “promissory notes” (Björn Wittrock), how ever one would want to date it, took place in a socio-political context that was far from having realized these commitments in any interpretation and, furthermore, provided considerable obstacles towards realizing them, again: in any possible interpretation, even though some interpretations may have been favoured over others. For this reason, it seems appropriate to speak of a socio-political imaginary of modernity that, in different ways at different times and places, exceeds the existing societal self-understanding and/or institutional arrangement. This excess of the imaginary over reality explains much of the historical dynamics of modernity.[11]

Underlining this dynamics is a way of introducing normative concerns into the historical analysis of modernity. However, this does not entail that modernity is seen as a project that can, in principle, be completed or realized (in contrast to what Arnason thinks about my approach, see Arnason 2018b, 184). The dynamics will always be worked out across the tensions within the principles of modernity and through their unending openness to interpretation. Furthermore, it will also be shaped by the kind of resistance that privileged elites oppose to more demanding interpretations of autonomy and equality.

Let us consider the historical time-space that arguably gave rise to the notion that modernity is a project that can be completed, may even be on the verge of completion: The Northwest European societies of the second half of the twentieth century, summarizingly labelled as liberal-democratic welfare and nation-states, came close to combining individual and collective autonomy, equality and mastery in a comprehensive way. That achievement is also why their subsequent transformations create a nostalgia for the recent past in many observers, including critical theorists (for a reflection, see Offe 2010). However, while it was not normally overlooked that this region was only a small part of a globe that elsewhere fell significantly short of such achievement, it was conveniently ignored that the Northwest European achievement was to a considerable degree based on a constellation that undermined similar achievements elsewhere by externalizing “costs”, reaching from social inequality to climate change (Lessenich 2016; Stråth and Wagner 2017; Mota and Wagner 2019; Wagner 2019b).

Scepticism about the possibility of modernity: critical social theory after the twentieth century

Arnason is critical of many socio-political developments since the 1990s, in the “West” and elsewhere, but he is not nostalgic; rather, he is sceptical, or has turned sceptical. For his discussion of my work on reconstructing the notion of progress he used as an epigraph Elias Canetti’s phrase “Would it be better if we had not left the cave?” (Arnason 2018b, 171). Another recent text by him carries three epigraphs that all go in the same direction, by Norbert Elias, Thomas Mann, and Albert Camus, most strongly the latter’s: “The human being sometimes seems to me a walking injustice” (Arnason 2018a, 1). Any closer look at recent global socio-political developments makes it easy to understand why one could become sceptical. However, the two texts that follow these epigraphs are not topical; they are reflections on ways of understanding the course of history. It is worth trying to understand the more profound, the more-than-topical reasons for his scepticism.

In conclusion, I will try to do so by assembling the pieces from the preceding observations on Johann Arnason’s work. I have identified three features of his work that are striking at a closer look: because they do not immediately follow from his general stand on social theory and historical-comparative sociology; because they generate lacunae that are surprising in a comprehensive approach like his; and because they beg questions with regard to the notion of critique that remains available. These three features are: Arnason’s reluctance to analyze non-Western societies that emerged from the “colonial encounter”; his caution with regard to expressing normative assessments of modernity, to a degree that goes beyond the limits to normative assessments that follow from an interpretative approach; and his hint at considering the interaction between the principles of equality and autonomy as the core antinomy of modernity.

In my reading, these features have been generated by an internal dynamics of the civilizational approach that Arnason developed. In this perspective, civilizations are defined by the cultural-institutional complex at its core. The rise of modernity creates a problem for this approach because it needs to be seen as both having such a core but also showing a pronounced “ability to problematize” that touches upon and potentially alters even this core; this is the paradox of modernity as a civilization. Furthermore, in historical terms, numerous “new societies” (Louis Hartz) were created under conditions of modernity that escape the civilizational approach for other reasons: they are composed of members – analyzable both as “groups” and societies or as individual human beings – with highly different experiences and cultural repertoires of interpretation; and they are highly inegalitarian because of the asymmetry of the colonial encounter, while at the same time living with the imaginary of modernity that includes a commitment to equality. For these reasons, they do not “crystallize”. Arnason has shied away from analyzing any of these “new societies” because of the difficulties they pose for a civilizational approach. However, given that they are arch-modern, as one might want to say given that they were created under the auspices of modernity, it would be more adequate to consider them as accentuating even further the paradox of modernity as a civilization and, thus, see them as central for the understanding of modernity.

What would this entail? Modernity may not have a cultural-institutional complex like the classic civilizations. Instead it operates within a rather widely, but not endlessly, open interpretative space, which includes the commitment to individual and collective autonomy, mastery, and equality. Even accepting the limits to normative assessment, probably Arnason would agree that interpretative options that absolutize any of the partial commitments become normatively problematic: mastery may turn into hubris; collective autonomy may turn into totalitarianism; individual autonomy may turn into anomie; and something analogous may hold for partial combinations, such as individual autonomy-cum-mastery, which may characterize the “Western” take on modernity after the fall of socialism and the rise of neo-liberalism. If this is true, though, we have some kind of normative guidance, namely in the search for the appropriate balance between the partial commitments. Appropriateness, in turn, may be defined in the light of given material capacities and limits but also of socio-political conditions.

Under this angle, the Northwest European societies of the first post-Second World War decades may be seen as by and large having found such a balance of normative commitments, as hinted at above. But their arrangements have not only been shown to be not globalizable; they were even built on relations with the other regions of the globe that made such balance unreachable elsewhere. And they themselves have been unbalanced in recent developments. In other words, modernity may have found temporary expression in a cultural-instutional complex that balances normative commitments, but this expression was limited to a small region of the globe, reaching it had adverse consequences for other world-regions, and it has turned out to be unstable.

My suspicion is that Arnason, were he to become more precise and more explicit on these matters, would need to agree with the following: The arising commitment to modern principles enhanced humanity’s ability to problematize. Thus, it has tended to widen the cultural-institutional complex of any civilization so as to form larger interpretative spaces with a certain degree of normative pluralism. As a consequence, even a widened concept of civilization becomes difficult to apply to socio-political constellations of the present and the recent past. Furthermore, the commitment to modernity has tended to make any exclusion of parts of humankind from modern institutions difficult to justify, first within the boundaries of instituted political orders, and in the recent past also globally. With this double widening, it has also become increasingly difficult to achieve any balance between commitments to partial principles of modernity that can be considered appropriate. Any reachable such compromise will tend to be regarded as inappropriate for at least one of three reasons: either because a superior balance had already been reached in some world-region at some moment; or because the reachable compromise falls overall far short of promises of modernity, how ever interpreted; or because the compromise unacceptably favours some partial principles over others.

If this is so, one can hardly avoid a certain scepticism in one’s diagnosis of the present. Arnason’s most pronounced disagreement with historical materialism may, therefore, be with the inherent optimism of its “classical” version. It is difficult to still sustain Marx’s expectation that “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation” (Marx 1859). Rather, we will be forced to conclude that humankind has taken on issues that appear to exceed its capacity; indeed, that the attempt at solving certain problems may have created other problems that are more intractable and have wider-reaching consequences than those problems that could effectively be dealt with. I think Arnason’s scepticism is of this kind, and one cannot but share it.

But to assess what can be done nevertheless one needs to be clear about the reasons for scepticism. And to achieve greater clarity, one needs to spell out the limits of civilizational analysis when confronted with modernity; one needs to explore what normative assessment one can make under conditions of interpretative openness of societal self-understandings; and one needs to analyze the imaginary signification of modernity in its full complexity, which means with all its ambiguities rather than antinomies. Whether he agrees with it or not, this is what Johann Arnason has helped me to see.


Adams, Suzi, and Johann P. Arnason, “Sociology, philosophy, history: a dialogue”, Social Imaginaries, Vol 2, No 1, May, 2016, 151-190.

Arnason, Johann P., “The imaginary constitution of modernity”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, vol. 27, 1989, no. 86, 323-337.

Arnason, Johann P., “Romancing the empire: a rejoinder to Peter Murphy”, Thesis Eleven, Number 80, February 2005a, 108–113.

Arnason, Johann P. “Varieties of accumulation: civilizational perspectives on capitalism”, in Christian Joerges, Bo Stråth, and Peter Wagner, eds, The economy as a polity, London: UCL Press, 2005b.

Arnason, Johann P., Selbstaufhebungen der kritischen Theorie: Aufklärungsbilanzen, Fortschrittskonstruktionen, Relativierungen, unpublished paper, 2018a.

Arnason, Johann P. “Questioning progress: retreat, revision or revival?” Social Imaginaries, vol 4, 2018b, no. 1, 171-89.

Arnason, Johann Pall, Weltliche Autonomie und Religion in der Konstitution der Moderne (Blumenberg Vorlesungen 3), Freiburg: Herder, 2019.

Arnason, Johann P., The labyrinth of modernity. Horizons, pathways, and mutations, London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2020.

Blokker, Paul, and Gerard Delanty, “An interview with Johann P. Arnason: critical theory, modernity, civilizations and democracy”, European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 14, no. 1, 2011, 119-32.

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Friese, Heidrun, and Peter Wagner, “When ‘the Light of the Great Cultural Problems Moves on’: On the Possibility of a Cultural Theory of Modernity”, Thesis Eleven, no. 61, 2000, 25-40.

Hartz, Louis, The foundation of new societies. Studies in the history of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1964

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Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977,, accessed on 11 March 2020.

Mota, Aurea, and Peter Wagner, Collective action and political transformations: the entangled experiences of Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

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Wagner, Peter, “From interpretation to civilization – and back: analyzing the trajectories of non-European modernities”, European Journal of Social Theory, 14 (1) 2011.

Wagner, Peter, “World-sociology beyond the fragments: oblivion and advance in the comparative sociology of modernities”, in Said Arjomand, ed., Social theory and regional studies in the global age, Binghampton,  NY: State University of New York Press, 2014.

Wagner, Peter, “Max Weber und die Moderne des einundzwanzigsten Jahrhunderts” (in Russian), Russian Sociological Review, December 2019a.

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[1]   Research for this article has been supported by the Russian Science Foundation for the project “Varieties of modernity in the current global context: the role of BRICS and the Global South” (grant no. 18-18-00236), which was based at Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg from 2018 to 2020. The article was partly written during a stay at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities “Futures of sustainability” at the University of Hamburg in 2019/20.

[2]   My reading of Arnason’s work is guided by Claude Lefort’s insight that great philosophers (as well as historians and sociologists) are never quite master of their words and cannot control their effects (Lefort 1992, 12). In explicit form, I will mostly draw on recent and relatively informal statements such as interviews, short interventions or draft papers because it appears that Arnason is willing to go further in these kinds of statements than in his scholarly books and articles. To the best of my knowledge, though, there is no strong contradiction between these two kinds of expression in Arnason’s œuvre, merely a shift of emphasis and explicitness the underlining of which here will hopefully lead the discussion further. After finishing work on this article, I was provided with an occasion to look at Johann Arnason’s most recent book manuscript The Labyrinth of Modernity (2020), by now published. He addresses there some of the issues I raise here, but I would claim that the questions remain open nevertheless. Cornelius Castoriadis’s “crossroads through the labyrinth” tended to be motorways that flattened the landscape, whereas Johann Arnason designs a network of small paths that offer more enlightening views. However, one would still want to find a way out of the labyrinth.

[3]   German original: “Mit imaginären Bedeutungen verbinden sich rivalisierende Interpretationen, aber auch ein perennierender sinnhafter Überschuss. Dass sich daraus limitierende Konsequenzen für normative Begründungen ergeben, liegt auf der Hand.”

[4]   German original of the quoted expressions: “Wahlverwandtschaft der verabsolutierten individuellen Freiheit und der Verheissung des absoluten Reichtums, “Abkehr vom Neoliberalismus”, “Rehabilitation der kollektiven Autonomie”.

[5]   This is the term I will use in the following for “the interplay of culture and power”, the “religio-political nexus” and related concepts.

[6]   Arnason provides this characterization descriptively as a “fourth” conception of modernity, but it is rather clear that he embraces this one and discards the other three.

[7]   Let us recall here that, as stated above, Arnason relates openness to interpretation closely to the limits that are imposed on normative judgements. Here the question arises whether this is characteristic of modernity only, or in a more prononunced way, or whether we should assume that all ways of world-making are open to contestation.

[8]   Separating equality from autonomy would mean making an analogous mistake to separating individual from collective autonomy, the one which Arnason rightly criticizes in Honneth.

[9]   The statement continues: “But the ambiguity of such criteria should also be kept in mind; when Weber argued that the Occident had taken rationalization further and into more varied areas than other civilizations, he was not formulating an unequivocally positive value judgment – he was well aware of destructive and oppressive consequences of rationalization.“ Arnason here not only adopts a suitably wide reading of Weber (see also Wagner 2019a), he also shows that a non-Eurocentric reading of sociological classics is possible, in contrast to all facile rejection by post/decolonial authors.

[10] Again, the continuation should also be quoted: “The important point of course is that this is never the whole story. There are always creative elaborations and openings that transcend those trends and contextualize them in a specific way.” The first sentence is meant to rule out any evolutionist conclusions from what precedes. The second sentence is non-objectionable, but also quite enigmatic.

[11] As shown above, Arnason does connect imaginary significations with “excess of meaning” (Arnason 2018, 3). But he seems to see this excess only in terms of widening the interpretative space and, by implication, limiting normative assessments. He does not seem to consider the excess of the imaginary over the self-understanding sedimented in existing institutions.

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