Desolation and Enlightenment

Desolation and Enlightenment

Political Knowledge After Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust

Ira Katznelson


  • Description
  • Author
  • Info
  • Reviews


During and especially after World War II, a group of leading scholars who had been perilously close to the war’s devastation joined others fortunate enough to have been protected by distance in an effort to redefine and reinvigorate liberal ideals for a radically new age. Treating evil as an analytical category, they sought to discover the sources of twentieth-century horror and the potentialities of the modern state in the wake of desolation. In the process, they devised strikingly new ways to understand politics, sociology, and history that reverberate still.

In this major intellectual history, Ira Katznelson examines the works of Hannah Arendt, Robert Dahl, Richard Hofstadter, Harold Lasswell, Charles Lindblom, Karl Polanyi, and David Truman, detailing their engagement with the larger project of reclaiming the West’s moral bearing. In light of their epoch’s calamities, these intellectuals insisted that the tradition of Enlightenment thought required a new realism, a good deal of renovation, and much recommitment. This array of historians, political philosophers, and social scientists understood that a simple reassertion of liberal modernism had been made radically insufficient by the enormities and moral catastrophes of war, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. Confronting dashed hopes for reason and knowledge, they asked not just whether the Enlightenment should define modernity but also which Enlightenment we should wish to have.


Ira Katznelson:
Ira Katznelson is interim provost, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, and deputy director of Columbia World Projects at Columbia University. He is the author of many acclaimed books, including When Affirmative Action Was White (2005) and Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013).