Critical Theory -- 2 opening statements

Perhaps we should begin with some general points outlining Critical Theory's basic stances:

 (a) A suspicion of ‘scientific rationality’ as the hallmark of capitalist thought, which involves not only the growth of positivism in science and social science, but the reification of social life.

( b) A celebration of the negative, the critical, the oppositional - e.g. the ‘negative side of the dialectic’, the suppressed alternative realisation, the human processes (including nasty things like domination of man and ‘nature’) which produce the supposedly neutral and objective world.

(c) The desire to do all this not just as philosophy but as a material practice, a politics.

(d) The search to find and establish a basis for such critique. The authors vary a good deal here, and Connerton (1976) provides a useful account of the different positions — in the Introduction. Authors like Marcuse will want to comb Hegel and even phenomenology for bits to be used in critiquing ‘positivism’, as we’ll see. Horkheimer will want to take Marx’s critique of political economy as his guide. The work of Lukacs is also influential here, especially in his approach to ‘bourgeois social science’ as in Weber — and the incorporation/ critique of Weber appears in Marcuse and Habermas too.

 (e) Specifically re Lukacs though, (i) Lukacs’ faith in a revolutionary working class to re-establish some actual totality in social life must be abandoned - the working class has lost its chance, it has been defeated, incorporated, ‘saturated’ with reified thought forms, massified’ as in ‘mass culture’ (ii) re-establishing totality, materialising purely ‘philosophical’ demands as politics is a task now for the theorist who occupies a ‘committed’ but ‘marginal’ position at the same time - lots of problems arise from this, of course.


  1. Critical Theory is a very odd and unusual project in its relentless pursuit of the critical and the negative,

  2. The critique it offers ranges from internal/immanent (where contradictory, often ironic possibilities are demonstrated by taking the claims of capitalist thought and practice seriously -e.g. musing about how you can be charged money for party tickets and then offered ‘free’ booze) to more familiar (?) external/material where bourgeois thought is shown to be inadequate by using non-bourgeois categories which are better,

  3. The basis of the critique and the targets of it are many and varied -- German fascism is critiqued by using even liberal concepts of freedom; then post-War popular culture is critiqued using classical philosophy, empirical research, Freudian theory, (well-disguised) Marxism; marxism is rebuked as ‘scientised’ and extra doses of Hegel are recommended --  and so on. For some critics this makes Critical Theory hopelessly eclectic, groundless, bitty. For Frankfurt fellow-travellers, this shifting is necessary since new threats to ‘liberation’ emerge and must be confronted anew. This, plus the awful pessimism of Frankfurt work leads even to accusations of ‘conservatism’ — as Marcuse says though, even this is better than modernism.

  4. Critical Theory is seen as the worst possible example of unconstructive, unhelpful and elitist theorising by a most odd amalgam of critics — from positivist sociologists, administrators and planners, to Althusserians and gramscians.

Now let us explore these themes in  2 famous opening statements, by Horkheimer and Marcuse, which try to explain the nature of Critical Theory..

M.Horkheimer  ‘Traditional & Critical Theory’ (Connerton 1976 ch. 10)

As with lots of good pieces, go to the Post Script at the back first to find the summary thus:

  1.  ‘Traditional theory’ is the classic mode of theory elaborated by Descartes (don’t panic — see below). ‘Critical theory’ is based on Marx’s critique of political economy. It. investigates problems which somehow just appear ‘naturally’. Critical Theory takes as its problem human activity and men as the producers of their own life. By contrast, it. studies ‘matter’ (facts, reality, etc.), Critical Theory studies the human processes of creating, interpreting, understanding the ‘material world’. Critical Theory is, thus, the heir of German Idealism, but rejects the notion of some abstract Ego or Subject as the agent of history, Critical Theory focuses on the real world or men and, especially their work. Since Marx shows that work in capitalism is a form of domination, Critical Theory must seek to expose hidden relations of domination, in order to achieve emancipation. Critical Theory is thus not just another specialism out to add knowledge - it is inherently political, as good philosophy always used to be (in the Greek Golden Age). Critical Theory is a demand for freedom for individuals to undertake a rational (re) construction of their social life, based on understanding themselves and their potentialities. Capitalist work, with its fetishism, alienation, and reification represents almost the exact opposite of freedom in this sense. The (Marxist) critique of political economy shows us the way to proceed.

The rest of the article spells it out a bit thus:

  1. Traditional theory. The goal here is the achievement of a set of self- contained, logically derived, non-contradictory propositions, ideally in a mathematical form. Science is supposedly like this. All social science tries to be like it — even seemingly non-positivist social sciences (Horkheimer has some very learned and critical things to say about Durkheim and Weber here). The search for logical rigour, conceptual control and order is very closely connected with the domination of the world by technology (see Marcuse in Reason and Revolution on this too). This connection occurs in 2 ways (a) traditonal theory openly embraces a desire just to study this world at the surface as it were, not bothering to enquire how the world has been affected by (produced by) technology (b) theory, like commodities, is also produced, it is the result of work — theory construction is but a ‘moment’ of the wider totality of social productions.

 Traditional theory has to operate with most unsatisfactory categories — like ‘subject’ and ‘object’, ‘individual’, and ‘society’, ‘fact’ and ‘value’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’. This produces awful tensions within it., manageable at the abstract level, but very tricky when approaching the actual world (c.f. the contortions and embarrassments when concepts are ‘operationalised’) Philosophers like Kant and Hegel tried to find a solution to these tensions -- but only in thought as it were, only by postulating some transcending world where all is calm, pure, and united.  What we really need is to understand the social processes which have produced this contradictory reality — we need to dereify reality, see it as produced by contradictory events and struggles, by processes of alienation and recovery.

  1. Critical Theory gets to the real solutions to contradictions in reality. This isn’t going to be at all ‘useful’, you understand, to those who don’t want reality understood, demystified, exposed as contradictory, etc. We’ve got to be critical of reality (and of categories like ‘useful’). The constitution of reality, facts, events, constraints, etc. is our interest, not just gathering knowledge about reality, and definitely not just finding out what will work and be jolly helpful, etc. Horkheimer. pokes fun at bourgeois sociology of knowledge here. It is not enough just to establish a connection between social conditions and conceptions or ideas, he says: we’ve got to grasp these connections, control them, do something about them to assist emancipation. Investigations and politics are united. If this means sociology of knowledge loses some abstract objective value-free ‘ground’ for its investigations — that’s too bad! There are no ‘grounds’, no taken-for-granted ‘facts’ like individuals or ‘social structures’. What we have is a process, a dialectic which constitutes humans as individuals and as members/victims of social structures. We want to clarify and understand this process of alienation or reification, totally, so that all is transparently the result of (past) human activity, never just ‘things’, ‘events’, ‘forces’. (What of ‘constructive alienation’ you might be asking. Isn’t this to make Lukacs’ mistake of confusing ‘alienation’ with ‘objectification’?)

H. Marcuse  ‘Philosophy and Critical Theory’ (in Marcuse H (1972, ch. IV)

  1.  The history of the concept of Reason in philosophy shows an original marked separation from immediate reality (back to these splits and dualisms in classic philosophy — essence v. appearance, freedom v. necessity, etc.). This separation is what helped classic philosophy to be critical of reality. Actual reality was to be compared critically with abstract, universal categories to reveal the limits and deformities of actual existing current notions of ‘freedom’, ‘truth’, etc.

  2. However, traditional philosophy could not maintain this critical separation. We know, for example, the fate of Hegel’s theory of the State and its unfortunate compromise with the ‘bad present’ of Prussian monarchy. For other strands (Kantianism, phenomenology) the flaw was to focus upon the individual and his private consciousness as the source and seat of Reason. Critique then became a personal, private matter. The necessity separation of critical consciousness from social reality turned into a split between ‘individual’ and ‘society’, ‘private’ and ‘public’ — this leaves social, public reality as an unanalysed ‘necessity’ which individuals can only retreat from or speculate about in private as it were. With these flaws, traditional philosophy loses its critical potential: it can not be used as a substitute for new critical theory.

  3. ‘Materialist analysis’ (‘science’) seemed much more promising — it does address social reality, criticises it as unliberating, and demands concrete social changes. However, it faces the danger of becoming too absorbed in the world, too infatuated with and saturated by the existing material conditions, losing that crucial separation and distance which is necessary for qualitative changes of social reality. This is exhibited best in the conservative fate of positivist social science, but there are also clear dangers here for marxism. Marxism can become too closely committed to mundane and immediate analyses and politics, too concerned with organising the immediate demands of the working class, allowed to drift away from general analysis and critique. Why is this bad?...

  4. Because material concrete struggles can fail and be defeated, and, if marxism is identified with these struggles, it can be defeated too. Even worse, struggles to emancipate the working class from the immediate processes of poverty, disenfranchisement, etc. can succeed, be achieved within capitalism, especially advanced capitalism. The abolition of private property, rises in the standard of living, increases in personal freedoms, a general tolerance of private activities, etc. can all be achieved within a society which is still unjust, still founded on domination. (later, in One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse (1968), argues that these ‘freedoms’ have not only been achieved but have become integrated into domination). Thus concrete demands only can lead to redundancy for Marxism – and to a general case of missing the point.

  5. So: pure and simple philosophy, or pure and simple ‘concrete’ marxism, or pure and simple positivist can not be used. Critical theory hopes to use the re-awakened critical bits of these traditions. This produces some seemingly odd, eclectic, conservative, etc. conclusions — e.g.

(a)We find Marcuse stressing the correctness of Idealism (told you so, say the Althusserians), welcoming its emphasis on pure, universal, uncontaminated categories which can not be simply assimilated into existing reality. The negative side of Hegel is to be celebrated, Weber is to be criticised here for not being ‘value-free’ enough!

(b)Marcuse admires the achievements of bourgeois culture (before fascism arrived). Again, the admiration is directed at bourgeois philosophy (but also ‘high culture’ generally). There are truths in such philosophy —they are not just ‘foggy ideas’ hiding class interests. What bourgeois philosophy does is to attempt to critique ideas and concepts, not simply account for them as in some mere sociology of knowledge. (Bourgeois philosophy also serves to remind us that ‘science’ isn’t quite such an easy or trouble-free concept as Althusserians would have us believe?).

(c) Critical theory is, and must be, utopian (whatever Engels says about utopian socialism), reviving and stressing human potential, holding out hope for the achievement of justice, freedom, etc. These utopian demands must be grounded in material analyses which locate and explain domination, but they can not be turned directly into ‘realistic’, ‘practical’ policies and demands —that would be to risk distortion, incorporation (‘goal-displacement’?).

(d) Nevertheless, Critical Theory doesn’t just preach a ‘social theology’. The task is to do critique, show how utopian demands could be realised, what blocks their attainment. Here, Marcuse still sees the revolutionary proletariat as the only possible bearer of a programme of realisation — although he knows you have to do far more to activate them than just re-design a programme for the Communist Party and expect rational persuasion and French rhetoric to carry the day!


Connerton P (ed) (1976)  Critical Sociology, London: Penguin Books Ltd

Marcuse H (1968), One-Dimensional Man, London; Sphere Books

Marcuse, H ( 1972) Negations, London: Penguin University Books