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Universality, Conflict, and Social Critique in Jean-Francois Lyotard and the Frankfurt School

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UCONCRI (Universality, Conflict, and Social Critique in Jean-Francois Lyotard and the Frankfurt School)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-12-31

UCONCIR addresses three problems of contemporary politics connected to growing plurality and diversity in Western societies: 1) The role of consensus and dissensus as orienting principles of political action and judgment; 2) The causes and relationship between different social conflicts; 3) The critique of totalitarianism and ideological extremism. It does so by developing a new theoretical framework based on the reconsideration of two of the main theoretical perspectives in the field of political philosophy: on the one hand, the work of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, and on the other, the Frankfurt School tradition of Critical Theory, in particular the work of Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Axel Honneth. While both perspectives have been usually interpreted as being antithetical to one another, the project traces a series of implicit and explicit contrasts between them, in order to show that they can be productively combined. On the basis of this theoretical framework, the project pursues three main objectives: 1) To assess the fruitfulness and limitations of Lyotard’s and Habermas’s approaches for articulating the tension between social heterogeneity and universal foundations for political action and judgment in contemporary politics; 2) To contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between critical theory and social struggles, and specifically, of the role of critical theory in their orientation and mutual articulation; 3) To examine the capacity of Lyotard’s and Adorno’s perspectives to explain and criticize phenomena such as intolerance, xenophobia, and ideological extremism more broadly. Each of these objectives overlaps with a pressing political problem that concerns contemporary societies. UCONCRI provides conceptual tools to better understand these issues and to develop responses to the challenges they pose.
UCONCRI involved the analysis of a broad body of literature in English, French and German, which was retrieved in multiple libraries across Europe. The project proceeded through the preparation of three research articles, corresponding to its three main objectives. For this, a series of discussions and exchanges with colleagues took place with the aim of refining each publication before submission. Work in progress was presented at several international conferences, and each article was improved on the basis of the feedback received. During the project, a book that contains some of its main results was completed and submitted to an academic publisher. These publications constitute the main theoretical results. In addition, UCONCRI produced an important collective publication connected to the research: an issue of Les Cahiers philosophiques de Strasbourg, a prestigious journal published by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Strasbourg, devoted to the topic "Transnational Critical Theory". The issue gathered articles by eight scholars in multiple fields from Europe, the United States, and Latin America, and included three translated articles. It is one of the first publications in French connecting critical theory to the issue of transnationalism, and it contributed to connect scholars and audiences from contexts that often remain separate. UCONCRI also involved the organization of an international online workshop on the topic "Critical Theories of History and Memory", which brought together scholars from multiple European institutions working on the ways in which critical theory can address questions of history and memory. As a result of these activities, the project: 1) Produced scholarly interventions that advanced knowledge in the area of political philosophy and contributed to address contemporary political problems; 2) Created a space for the generation and dissemination of knowledge in the area of critical theory across countries and fields; 3) Created new networks of scholars that serve as a basis for the development of collaborative projects in the area of critical theory.
UCONCRI broke with a longstanding tendency by scholars to read two important trends in contemporary political theory, the work of Jean-François Lyotard and that of the Frankfurt School, as antithetical, and showed that they can be productively combined to address a series of pressing questions in the field. The project had significant academic impact through a series of publications in well-regarded journals in multiple languages (English, German and French), which guarantees that it will reach multiple audiences. These publications call for scholars in different countries and fields working within the perspective of French philosophy, on the one hand, and within the perspective of the Frankfurt School, on the other, to consider how these perspectives overlap and can enter in dialogue with one another. UNCONCRI thus contributes to overomce longstanding scholarly divides that hinder productive exchanges. On the other hand, by means of the project's website and presentations at online conferences, UCONCRI reached a non-academic audience and provided conceptual tools with which to better understand some of the main challenges of contemporary societies. One potential impact of the project consists thus in influencing how journalists, activists, and citizens in general approach political issues, which is conductive to a political culture that is better equipped to respond to difficult social challenges.