Social Theory: Critical Theory

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The Frankfurt School is the original source of Critical Theory. The theory has far reaching influences in the academic and social sectors. Some of the main issues it addresses involve the critique of the capitalist society and modernity, the pathologies of society, and the issues to do with the social emancipation. It provides a specific understanding and interpretation of Marxist philosophy. Additionally, it reinterprets its central political and economic notions such as reification, critique of mass culture and ‘commodification’. Some of the critical theorists of the first generation include Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno among others. The theorists’second generation includes Jurgen Habermas, Claus Offe, and Ralf Dahrendorf while the third degeneration was represented by Axel Honneth. This paper tends to evaluate how Critical Theory deviates from its foundation in Weber and Marx and illustrate the gains or losses that the departure might have brought about.

Horkheimer (1993) alleged that Critical Theory was to provide a new and interdisciplinary theoretical strategy that would transform and supplement the dialectical philosophy of Marx and Hegel with the views from psychoanalysis, sociology and anthropology. The new approach was therefore interdisciplinary, dialectical, reflective, and critical. The traditional theory is mainly focused on the strict difference or coherency between the praxis and theory. In the Cartesian context, knowledge was grounded upon some self evident propositions or propositions that could be derived from the self-evident truth. Additionally, the traditional theory has explained facts which are based on the universal laws in that by scrutinizing an issue under the universal law, it could either be confirmed or disconfirmed. For an idea to be considered to be the scientific truth, it should pass the empirical confirmation test. This implies that that knowledge is a mirror of reality. However, the Critical Theory firmly disagrees with this point of view.

Horkheimer strongly objects the idea of objectivity in knowledge. He argues that knowledge is embedded in the social and historical processes. The ideas presented by our senses are socially preformed through the historical nature of the perceived object or the historical nature of the organ perceiving the ideas (Horkheimer, 1976 [1937], p.242). Similarly, he stressed that the phenomenal objectivity of an idea is a myth since it depends upon the existing technological conditions that are sensitive to the conditions of the production. Therefore, Critical Theory recommends that all the naïve concepts of knowledge should be abandoned impartially.

The Critical Theory has also extended Marx’s criticism of the capitalist society by the introducing patterns of the social emancipation. While Marx insisted that it was necessary to read about the development of rationality as a struggle of the social classes, Hegel argued that the introduction of the modern national state had brought rationality to the reality (Marx, 2007 [1844], p.72). The critical theorists on the other hand have rejected both the eschatological aspects of Marx’s theory and the metaphysical apparatus supported by Hegel. The critical theory’s analyses oriented to societal understanding suggest that the open systems of the analysis should be established and based on a forthcoming form of social criticism. Horkheimer and Adorno contended that the natural sciences are only the secret forms of means/ends kind of reasoning. From the anthropological point of view, science is an instrument that extends the fundamental need of the human beings to master and control their environment. Industry and technology are the application and extension of this instrument. The two theorists claim that the modern world in created by the rationalization process. To them, the current social world resulted from human actions based on the most efficient ways of the given end’s achievement.

While Marx alleged that the ideology was totally reasonable based on the essential system of production, the critical theorists insisted that the ideology had to be analyzed independently as a form of expression of a non-economical human rationality. This revised form of Marxism was very critical in the reinterpretation of capitalism as a form of exploitation. The critical theorists are of the opinion that the capitalism and industrialization subjected human beings to more pervasive administrative networks of control and discipline, and to the untamable economic systems. This process ends up imprisoning human beings instead of liberating them. Furthermore, Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the process results to the poverty and misery.

Critical Theory’s approach of interdisciplinary materialism differs from Weber’s concept of the interpretive sociology. Weber strongly rejects Marxism by arguing that it is never exhaustive to explain everything based on the economic causes alone (Weber, 1949). However, he alleges that analyzing history from an economic point of view is still useful. On the other hand, Horkheimer affirms that the main source of wretchedness is the economy. He insists that the main problem of the ‘economism’ results from a narrow understanding of the economic perspective and not from over-emphasizing its importance. He adds that criticizing ‘economism’ does not mean that we have to overlook the economic analysis process but we should consider part of its point of view as it is generally necessary.

Since the Critical Theory emphasizes on interdisciplinary materialism, it differs from Weber’s theory of distinguishing between the philosophical problems and those of the empirical science. While Weber argues that the validity and meaning of values cannot be investigated through the empirical means, Horkheimer objects to the division of labor. He suggests that the larger philosophical questions should be integrated into the processes of the empirical research since the answers to these questions lie in an objective knowledge. Critical Theory therefore guides the empirical research. It also rejects reality as evident by Horkheimer’s claims that the critical acceptances of processes that rule social life also contain their condemnation. The materialist approach judges by what is already in existence and not what is likely to happen in future (Horkheimer, 1976 [1937], p.250).

Weber’s does not deny an ethical or political point of view by the scientists. He has suggested that the scientists should make it clear whether they are speaking from a political or scientific point of view. This would make it possible to differentiate between the situations when they are taking sides on the cultural issues and when they are giving facts as the scientists (Weber, 1949). However, Horkheimer disagrees with such a distinction because it would comprehend thinking as a departmentalized process and a conformism of thought.

Every disagreement between Horkheimer and Weber can be interpreted as a difference between a dialectical and a non-dialectical position. For instance for Weber, science and politics differ in a major way: Science deals with the empirical knowledge and its validity and truth can be proven while politics involves normative positions that can be contested. In Horkheimer’s view, science and politics have been separated by the historical processes but they are still interrelated by the fact that they share the same historical formation. It is therefore clear that while Weber calls for a definite separation of facts but still admits that it is impossible to draw clear lines in reality, dialectical thinking in critical theory brings together these separations. It makes it easier to understand how politics and science are separated but still interrelated.

Through Marcuse, the Critical Theory called for the “Great Refusal”. This was a rejection of the sexual liberalization, basic Western concepts, and the merits of a black revolution and feminism. His major idea was that everyone, including the alienated and the third word citizens, could replace the masses in the Communist Revolution. In addressing the issue of the racial conflict, Marcus alleged that the blacks were naturally rebellious while the whites were guilty of racism.

The departure of Critical Theory resulted to the theoretical gains in various ways. First, it is open to change because it is an emerging practice. It proposed that the patriarchal social structure was replaced with the matriarchy; the belief that different social orientations were normal; and that women and men are not different and could perform any role in the society. Marcuse’ objective was clear that an individual had the right to speak of ‘Cultural Revolution’ because the protests were directed towards an entire cultural establishment; including the morality of the society. He therefore fought to liberate the primeval and powerful force of sex from the civilized restraints. In 1960, he was part of the adolescent sexual revolution: He came up with the expression “Make love, not war” (Horkheimer, 1993, p.202).

Through Horkheimer, the Critical Theory criticized the omission of materialism in life and the fetishism of subjectivity. Furthermore, it argues against Kantian and Cartesian philosophy. Critical Theory therefore strived to join all the dichotomies including theory and practice, consciousness and being, as well as fact and value by employing the dialectical mediation strategy. Such a line of thinking has broadened the theoretical frameworks. Differently from Marxism though, Horkheimer has considered dialectics neither as a historical praxis nor a metaphysical principle; for him, it was never intended to be a methodological instrument (Horkheimer, 1993).

In conclusion, the Critical Theory is developed by the Frankfort School and provided a reinterpretation of the political, scientific and economic nations. It transformed the ideas of Marx by becoming an interdisciplinary theory that considered the sociological, anthropological, and physiological analysis of the issues. The theory supports empirical research and dialectical thinking which brings together the separate lines of facts unlike Weber who supports the idea of the facts’ separate lines. It also calls for the inclusion of materialism in the judgment of life and supported the “Great Refusal”. 

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