Jonathon Catlin, *24

Department of History





This dissertation is an intellectual history of the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century German thought. Bringing together the methods of Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) and Frankfurt School Critical Theory, it critically interrogates the conceptual architecture of contemporary discourse about catastrophe.

The term catastrophe, literally an over-turning or down-turn, comes from ancient Greek drama, where it referred to a sudden event or dénouement. In the “age of catastrophe” (1914–50), beginning with the First World War, the term began to reflect a longer temporality, referring not only to disastrous events but also to the “ongoing” conditions and even the “permanent” catastrophe of history itself that gave rise to them. After Germany’s defeat, mythic thinking about catastrophes centered on Jews and Bolsheviks animated the German right, while Marxists linked the endemic crises of Weimar Germany to the inherently catastrophic nature of capitalism. Through debates about the causes of these crises and the interpretation of history, catastrophe became one of the twentieth century’s “fundamental concepts” (Grundbegriffe)—an indispensable and contested social and political concept.

While conservative and liberal thinkers tended to externalize catastrophe, leftist thinkers tended to immanentize it as a contingent result of the late capitalist social form. The generation of German-Jewish thinkers including Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, and Günther Anders collectively and collaboratively developed the most sophisticated theories of catastrophe in modern thought, often through reflection on their own experiences of antisemitic persecution and exile.

This tradition culminates in the work of Adorno, whose philosophy of negative dialectics and writings on “Auschwitz” achieved a dialectical conception of catastrophe that encompasses both sudden catastrophic events and the historical structures that enabled them, ruptures and continuities. The final chapters trace the reception of these ideas by the Frankfurt School’s intellectual heirs, including Zygmunt Bauman, Nancy Fraser, Slavoj Žižek, and Cornel West. The intellectuals this dissertation brings together share a vision of “thinking against catastrophe” as the task of the public intellectual and collectively constitute an intellectual tradition of “critical catastrophism” whose ideas remain relevant for the contemporary conceptualization of climate change as a “slow catastrophe.”

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