Photo of Karl Kraus. He sits at the table in a suit and glasses and looks into the camera. On the table lies an open book and a closed notebook next to it. Kraus rests one elbow on the table, his hand on his temple.

Language Criticism as a Critique of Morals. The Unclaimed Legacy of Karl Kraus

Language criticism forms the basis of Karl Kraus’ works and his critique of fin-de-siècle Viennese society, its legal system, and its press. For Kraus, language and morals are inseparably intertwined: “Was there ever a stronger moral safeguard than linguistic doubt?”

This project was based on the idea that the connection between language criticism and morals is the key to a meaningful understanding of Kraus’ work as a whole. Having accepted this thesis, a contrast emerges that counters common impressions of Kraus as an astute satirist on one hand, and a conservative liberal or outright provocateur, on the other. Such a revised interpretation of Kraus provides a deeper understanding of his influence on thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht, and Kafka—an influence that has all too often been dismissed by literary critics as anecdotal or merely stylistic.

The aforementioned thinkers have commonly been perceived as being anti-moralists, moral sceptics, or advocates for exclusively negative criticism: All they can do is tear down existing theories, but they refuse to propose solutions of their own. A fresh examination of these thinkers, therefore, had to take into account the linguistic character of morality. This coupling of language criticism with moral critique presented an alternative to the liberal discourse on morals centered predominantly on human rights. It lent Adorno’s ‘negative moral philosophy’ renewed relevance for thoroughly comprehending Kraus’ “productivity of critical destruction.”


Fig. above: Portrait of Karl Kraus. Photo reproduced in a light print (detail). Photo: Charlotte Joel. Source: Austrian National Library, Picture Archives Austria, Stock number [Inventarnummer] Pf 7289:C (2) via Wikimedia

Funded by the Minerva Foundation 2014–2016
Associate Researcher(s): Gal Hertz


Gal Hertz

  • Liberal Nomos, National Narrative: Karl Kraus’s Critique of Law, in: arcadia 54.2 (2019), 167–195
  • Spiegelmenschen – Karl Kraus und Franz Werfel über Sprache und Identität, in: Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 14 (2015), 449–476
  • Karl Kraus Citationality – Between War Experience and Poetic Language, in: Galili Shahar (ed.): Texturen des Krieges. Körper, Schrift und der Erste Weltkrieg. Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für Deutsche Geschichte vol. 43. Göttingen: Wallstein 2015, 145–164
  • Die Sprengkraft des Kommentars. Die satirischen Glossen von Karl Kraus (translated by Dirk Naguschewski), in: Trajekte 31 (2015), 39–42


Workshop in the BBAW Berlin
13 Oct 2016 – 14 Oct 2016

Klage, Theatralität und Gerechtigkeit. Karl Kraus und die Grundlagen des Rechts

Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jägerstr. 22, 10117 Berlin, Raum 230; ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum

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Gershom Scholem Today. The Current Significance of His Work (Workshop)
10 Feb 2016 · 10.00 am

Middat ha-din and middat ha-rahamim in Scholem’s Poetics. Sources and Implications

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Seminarraum 303

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Gershom Scholem Today. The Current Significance of His Work (Lecture)
09 Feb 2016 · 7.00 pm

Menachem Lorberbaum (Tel Aviv): To Knowingly Sin. Sabbatianism and Hasidism Revisited

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum

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