Frankfurt School and Critical Theory Research Paper

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Critical theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in the history of the social sciences. ‘Critical theory’ in the narrow sense designates several generations of theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a ‘critical’ theory may be distinguished from a ‘traditional’ theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer 1982, p. 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave humans, many ‘critical theories’ in the broader sense have been developed. They emerge typically in connection with social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination and oppression of humans in modern societies. In both the broad and narrow senses, however, a critical theory is a form of social inquiry with a particular practical and normative intent.

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This critical and practical orientation gives rise to three questions about critical social inquiry. First, is critical theory a distinctive form of social inquiry? Second, what sort of knowledge does such inquiry provide in order to provide insight into social circumstances and justify social criticism? Finally, what sort of verification does critical inquiry require? The debates about theoretical uniqueness, the epistemic superiority of the critics, and the practical verification of criticism have produced different forms of critical inquiry with different political goals.

1. What Is A Critical Theory?

Although myriad in its forms, ‘critical theory’ (or more generally critical social inquiry) has a distinctive purpose and overall structure. Critical social theorists generally aim at constructing social theories that link explanation and criticism and thus have both normative and explanatory features. Furthermore, such theories must also be ‘practical.’ ‘Practical’ here does not simply mean useful or that critical theories are connected to practice generally, but rather to a particular purpose of human emancipation (Hork-heimer 1982, Habermas 1971). The philosophical problem of critical social inquiry is to identify precisely those features of its distinctive explanations that give them their distinctive normative character in under-writing social criticism. A closer examination of paradigmatic works across the whole tradition from Marx’s Capital (1871) to the Frankfurt School’s Studies in Authority and the Family (1939) and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987) reveals neither some distinctive form of explanation or a special methodology that provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for such inquiry. Rather, the best such works employ a variety of methods and styles of explanation and are often interdisciplinary in their mode of research (Horkh-eimer 1993). What then makes them works of critical social science?

There are two competing answers to this question. The first is that they employ a distinctive comprehensive theory that unifies such diverse approaches and explanations and underwrites the epistemic authority of the critic. The second is practical. According to this view, such theories are distinguished by the form of politics in which they are embedded and which also provides the method for practical verification. Even if critical social science is best unified practically and politically rather than theoretically or epistemically, it is not thereby reducible to democratic politics. It is rather the moment of social inquiry from within the normative perspective of a participant within such practices.

As evidenced by the turn to historical materialism in Marx and its constant reconstruction thereafter by critical theorists, the practical solution has not been the favored one in the history of critical social science. The theoretical solution provides the critic with an epistemically superior status over and above the limits of the participants’ perspective; it underwrites the claims that such criticisms are ‘scientifically justified.’ It also provides the basis for going beyond a ‘mere’ pluralism and for adjudicating among the contradictory claims of theories and explanations in the social sciences; those explanations that cannot be organized into the unity of the comprehensive social theory are rejected by theorists such as Marx as inadequate to justify criticism. This theoretical conception is not devoid of politics. Rather, corresponding to this single comprehensive theoretical framework is the comprehensive political goal of human emancipation. If we reject such theoretical and political convergence, where does critical social science begin amidst such theoretical and political pluralism? Such pluralism requires that we abandon what Marx saw as the criterion justifying the superiority of historical materialism: a unique fit between critical explanation and the goals of a particular political practice.

The alternative practical account links critical inquiry to cooperative and reflexive practices. Indeed, any cooperative practice demands ongoing inquiry into the social conditions and normative basis of its activities. As practices of inquiry embedded in other practices, all the social sciences establish specific relationships between inquirers and other social actors. Habermas and Marcuse consider such social inquiry that only develops strategic and instrumental solutions to be ‘technocratic’ (Habermas 1970, Marcuse 1964). It models the social scientist on the engineer, who masterfully chooses the optimal solution to a problem of design according to criteria of success as set by independent standards of rationality. Only the practical stance of the reflective participant is fully dialogical, giving inquirer and agent equal standing as agents in a shared practice (whatever the goals of that practice may be). It is this political relationship of equal agency that critical inquirers seek to establish, as they address their criticism to actors who will engage in public reflection on the nature and goals of the practices in which inquirer and actor both participate. As in Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science, second-order critical reflection considers whether or not the framework for cooperation itself needs to be changed. Such criticism is directed at the framework of current institutions as well as towards formulating new terms of political cooperation under which problems are solved.

2. The Status Of The Critic: Theoretical And Methodological Pluralism

An examination of the history of critical theory shows that the shift away from the distinctiveness of some comprehensive theory to a more practical orientation leads to a pluralistic account of social inquiry. This shift has three phases. The first phase is the Frankfurt School’s 1930s program of an ‘interdisciplinary historical materialism.’ This phase is characterized by a pluralism of social scientific methods within a unified theory of historical materialism (Horkheimer 1993) and this synthesis proved unstable; the Frankfurt School gradually abandoned historical materialism (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, Wiggershaus 1994). As the leading theorist of the second generation, Habermas constructed a theory of communicative action for explanatory and normative purposes (Habermas 1984, 1987). While comprehensive, this theory actually unifies many different theories: a theory of rationality, of modernization as social and cultural rationalization, and so on. The final phase is the recognition by Habermas of the full implication of both methodological and theoretical pluralism. This thoroughgoing critical pluralism shifts normative weight to the role of the critic in the pluralist practice of democracy, and the public sphere as a social location in which social criticism can take place and have emancipatory effects (Habermas 1989).

The justification of this two-sided (pluralistic, yet comprehensive) approach is worked out in more detail in Habermas’s writings on the philosophy of social science and is the common thread that connects On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1988) to The Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987). The problem of pluralism is not new in the philosophy of social science. As Habermas sees it, Max Weber was among the first to recognize that the social sciences combine various cognitive operations: explanation as well as interpretation, historical comparison as well as trans-historical theoretical terms. This mixed status leads social scientists to combine seemingly contradictory and heterogeneous methods, aims, and theories into more or less coherent wholes. Just as in the analysis of forms of inquiry tied to distinct knowledge-constitutive interests (Habermas 1971), Habermas accepts that various theories and methods each have ‘a relative legitimacy.’ The most fruitful approach to social scientific knowledge is to bring all the various methods and theories into relation to each other: ‘Whereas the natural and the cultural or hermeneutic sciences are capable of living in mutually indifferent, albeit more hostile than peaceful coexistence, the social sciences must bear the tension of divergent approaches under one roof …’ (Habermas 1988, p. 3). In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas casts critical social theory in a similar pluralistic, yet unifying way. In discussing various accounts of societal modernization, critical theory takes on the task of critically unifying the various theories and their heterogeneous methods. ‘Critical theory does not relate to established lines of research as a competitor; starting from its concept of the rise of modern societies, it attempts to explain the specific limitations and relative rights of those approaches’ (Habermas 1987, p. 375).

Such a pluralist approach need not deny the possibility of fruitful large-scale theories, so long as their success is established by a wide range of empirical evidence and by the diversity of sub theories that they fruitfully integrate (Bohman 1991). Indeed, the mixed status of the social sciences as combining explanation and interpretation indicates that elaborating such combinations and connections is the proper goal of social theory. It suggests a theoretically modest, but practically robust pragmatism about critical inquiry. First of all, comprehensiveness does not ensure explanatory power. The second problem is that a close examination of standard critical explanations, such as the theory of ideology, shows that they typically appeal to many different social theories and methods at many different levels (Bohman 1991). Inquiry located in democratic practice suggests a different model: that criticism motivated by whatever theory or method must be verified by those participating in the practice and that this demand for practical verification is part of the process of inquiry itself.

Such a form of inquiry does not need to deny that there is an important role for general theories as ‘general interpretive frameworks’ in light of which it is possible to construct ‘critical histories of the present’ (McCarthy and Hoy 1994, pp. 229–30). Such interpretations are validated by the extent to which they open up new possibilities of action that are them-selves to be verified in public debate and democratic inquiry. General theories are then best seen as practical proposals whose critical purchase is not moral and epistemic independence but practical and public testing according to criteria of interpretive adequacy.

3. The Practical Verification Of Social Criticism

Merely to identify a number of different methods and a number of different theories connected with a variety of different purposes and interests leaves the pluralist critical theorist in a rather hopeless epistemological dilemma. Either the choice among theories, methods, and interests seems utterly arbitrary, or the critical theorist has some special epistemic claim to survey the domain and make the proper choice for the right reason. The former, more skeptical horn of the dilemma is one endorsed by ‘new pragmatists’ like Rorty (1991) who sees all knowledge as purpose-relative, and by Weber in more decisionistic moments in his methodological writings (1949). The latter demands objectivist claims for social science generally, and for the epistemic superiority of the critical theorist in particular, that Habermas and other critical theorists have been at pains to reject (Habermas 1973, p. 38).

The problems of a critical pluralism cannot be avoided simply by shifting the debate to practical criteria. Not only are there many distinct practical interests or purposes, the social sciences may also be practical in many different senses. To the extent that we can identify the epistemological basis of the social sciences in forms of practical knowledge, the dilemma of pluralism becomes more tractable as a problem: identifying the type of knowledge required by the specific social context of inquiry. The analysis of interests takes us some of the way toward a solution (Habermas 1971). Technical knowledge does not only represent a particular interest, say the interest in controlling outcomes; in the case of the social sciences, it also presupposes a particular practical relation between the social scientists and the subjects of their inquiry. In order to gain democratic control over certain social processes, a particular context of inquiry must be created: emancipation as the regulative control of institutions over certain kinds of practices or processes. As second-order reflection, critical social inquiry addresses the subjects of inquiry as equal reflective participants, as knowledgeable social agents. In this way, the asymmetries of the context of technical control are suspended; this means that critical social inquiry must be judged by a different set of practical consequences, appealing to increasing the ‘reflective knowledge’ that agents already possess to a greater or lesser degree. As themselves agents in the social world, social scientists participate in the creation of the sort of contexts in which their theories are publicly verified or rejected as critical proposals.

The goal of critical inquiry is not to control social processes or even to influence the sorts of decisions that agents might make in any determinate sort of way. Instead, its goal is to initiate public processes of self-reflection (Habermas 1973). Thus, critical social science can measure its success against the standard of attaining such a practical goal. In most cases, the goal may be attained only through a functioning public sphere; hence, the success of critical social inquiry may be measured by its practical consequences for the quality of discussion and debate in the public sphere. Such a standard is the same measure of success for the contributions of any reflective participant in the public sphere. But it may not always be the case that a well-functioning public sphere exists; and even if one exists it may be difficult to initiate reflection on various social themes or self-reflection on aspects of the public sphere. Such cases are the subject matter of most standard critical theories, such as the theory of ideology, leaving the critic once again in a position of epistemic superiority. This problem, too, is less in-tractable from a pragmatic point of view: no such strong claims are required, since the critic’s theory does not provide the practical warrant independent of a public process of verification and reflection.

On the practical view of critical theory, social scientific knowledge helps agents to see their circumstances differently, especially at that point when mounting problems indicate that some change is practically necessary. Habermas argues that participant-critics cannot employ reflexive theories in an ‘objectivating fashion.’ The fact that agents do not now accept some proffered interpretation of their practices does not refute such a criticism; the practical conception of verification allows that agents could be mistaken about the character of their practices. Just as technical knowledge depends on creating the social conditions of a community based on free and open critical examination in order to validate its predictions, so too critical inquiry aims at creating the appropriate social conditions under which agents themselves may verify or falsify the criticism offered. Agents in this new social context can retrospectively judge their past knowledge as reflectively inadequate; but apart from undertaking this process of practical verification that involves taking into account many different perspectives on problematic situations, there is no way of knowing the truth or falsity of a criticism as a ‘fact of the matter.’ Rather, a criticism is verified if it is acceptable to those to whom it is addressed under the appropriate reflective conditions in a public process of judgment and validation.

A further advantage of the practical account is that it makes it easier to see why there are many different critical theories in different historical contexts. When criticisms are justified solely on the basis of the superiority of theoretical knowledge, the critic has no foothold in the social world and no way to choose among the many competing approaches and methods. On a practical account, critical inquiry aims at creating the reflective conditions necessary for its own practical verification. In practical verification, agents may not in the end find these insights acceptable and thus may not change their second-order self-understandings. The publicity of such a process of practical verification entails its own particular standards of critical success or failure. This sort of critical success also helps explain the political pluralism of the many social movements, all of which employ critical social theories and methods as the moment of inquiry of their democratic politics. As new forms of critical theory emerge related to racism, sexism, and colonialism, reflective social agents have transformed these same democratic ideals and practices in the interest of emancipation.


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