Critical theorists often claim to be clearing up mistaken, confused, distorted, or fragmented forms of thinking about and acting in society. One of the major tasks at hand for Critical Theory (CT), then, as it has come to be known in some strands of social theory, is at least implicitly to presuppose a model of society predicated on a certain conception of rightness or reason. Axel Honneth's Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory (Columbia, 2009) in this regard is no different from most of the major strands of CT in the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas, as well as others. The book is written in many ways as a treatise to today's 'younger generation' of critical theorists who, as he writes, wish to carry on 'the work of social criticism without having much more than a nostalgic memory of the heroic years of Western Marxism' (19). Thus, in the context of the current heterogeneity or 'market' of critical approaches, Honneth begins with a thorough and incisive interpretive reconstruction of Kant's critical project, discussed by Roger Whitson in a previous post. Honneth's reading of Kant links up with the later critique of the idea of social progress found in Walter Benjamin and other approaches influenced by the neo-Kantian critiques of historicism.
In Chapter 2, already discussed by Craig McFarlane, Honneth provides his clearest overall statement about how to rethink the possibilities of critical theory without remaining content to rest finally on Foucault's genealogical method (found in that of James Tully, for example (21)) that he complains implies many concepts that ‘can hardly be empirically measured’ (190). On the contrary, Honneth contends that CT find the steam move beyond that as well as other rival critical approaches to develop forms of social criticism that aim to transform public opinion. His point is that we take the time to discover what each of the critical perspectives hold in common ‘from a practical point of view’ (21). For Honneth, and whether ‘the youth’ know it or not, the critical project is united around what he calls ‘historically effective reason’ or rationality (20). He stresses, on this basis, the need to understand history in a practical way and to conceptually oppose 'socially effective rationality' to that of 'socially defective rationality' (as Craig mentioned). The former designates critical practices that should not necessarily be reduced to a positive form found in the theories of Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Habermas. But neither should CT necessarily be reduced to the negative dialectics of Benjamin or Adorno. Rather, according to Honneth, CT is united in an empirical or meta-theoretic project aimed to develop critical practices to oppose those 'social relationships [that] distort the historical process of development in a way that one can only practically remedy' (21). One of the most important words in this sentence is ‘practical’, which, as we shall see, borrowing from Adorno, Honneth will eventually call ‘preintellectual’ or ‘intramundane’.
Honneth suggests that we bring CT 'up to date' in the historical context of an increasingly hegemonic ‘liberal conception of justice’. This would be done by outlining a form of ethical action inspired by the ‘general thesis’ of Hegel, abstracted from its context, that should not be limited to the liberal 'tendency to reduce social criticism to a project of normative, situational, or local opinion' (20). Again, Honneth is not convinced that CT need to put forth a normative or positive project of individual interest contained in the ‘liberal tradition’ (27). He basically means his former teacher Habermas’ normative project. In fact, in his enduring fidelity to Hegel and Left Hegelianism – which includes the claim that ‘each successful form of society is possible only through the maintenance of its most highly developed standards of rationality’ (23) -- Honneth argues that the most convincing and lasting aspects of CT are found in the negative dialectics of Adorno and Benjamin, particularly as opposed to the other founding members of the so-called Frankfurt School. Honneth presents an impressively agile thesis that enables both a critique of historicist contextualism as well as abstract forms of theory that profess no need for foundation of any kind. The reader is informed again and again that it remains possible to unify the critical project by clarifying ‘the context in which social criticism stands side by side with the demands of a historically evolved reason' (21). The need for adherence to some form of a ‘rational universal’ or reason to clear up various defective rationalities is the overarching theme that unites the at times disjunctive chapters in Pathologies of Reason.
How to unify Critical Theory you ask? Diagnose socially defective rationality!
The main argument of the book revolves around the possibility of critiquing a 'deficit of social rationality'. This form of critique, the author argues, produces symptoms, and the debt to Freud is noted periodically (38; 126-145). Most importantly, Honneth argues that CT take the difficult step of outlining sociological explanations for the precise practical roots of defective symptoms in history, apathy, capitalism, positivism, fetishism, reification, and other recognizable objects of critique in the history of CT. One such arena is the 'consciousness of the proletariat' throughout the debates that now make up the foundation of critical theory (that is, before it became 'Critical Theory' after Adorno as Honneth contends). Honneth only reluctantly uses the term 'proletariat', which he considers to be an extremely ambiguous concept since Lukács. This is because it all-too-easily can become 'excessively historical' and it thus risks foreclosing the ‘possibility of orienting oneself in terms of a rational universal’ (35). Here, Honneth relativizes, and thus renders contingent, the historical role of the proletariat in what closely resembles a post-Marxist strategy (and which might also indicate some solidarity with the deconstructive likes of Badiou, Laclau and Mouffe, amongst others). He is ambivalent about whether capitalism as a concept can be ‘recovered today’ (and unfortunately he does not make note of its wide-spread use by various popular and academic critics today).
Contrary to various forms of determinism contained even in Left-Hegelianism—a tradition he otherwise wishes to preserve as an irreducible foundation of CT—Honneth argues that 'the working class does not automatically develop a revolutionary readiness to convert the critical content of theory into society-changing practice as a result of the consummation of the mechanized division of labour' (37). He cities Eric Fromm's The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study (Cambridge, 1984) as an example of the empirical as opposed to speculative aspirations of some important parts of CT. Honneth then moves on to one of his most important arguments: he contends that CT ground itself not in any necessary historical position or even speculative destiny for the proletariat but, rather, in a wide array of historically situated critiques that render the diagnosis of social pathology (in all of its varying forms) to be important to alleviate ‘social evils’ (40). But he opposes the view that a 'submerged rational capacity' contained in the premises of CT will necessarily reveal itself out of responses to social injustice(s). To the contrary, the author contends that a critical consciousness has to be arduously developed by reflecting on the history, theory, and sociological context of injustice and defective rationality. This is to be done without necessarily reifying the results of that study in the form of a new dogma or idealism (Adorno’s unrelenting critique of idealism is alive and well in Honneth’s book). Honneth’s concern is that once CT lost any recognizable ‘social place’ or sociological basis that has some reference point in pretheoretical understanding, it simultaneously risked becoming a ‘totalizing ideology’ or ‘elitist specialized knowledge’ (44-5). This point is fair enough (since it is apparent that CT has this problem) and Honneth discusses whether Habermas’ ‘classical model of critique’ even stands up to the challenge of this criteria. Yet he is unequivocal in the conviction that the so-called Frankfurt School’s ‘historical-philosophical and sociological assumptions’ cannot be seriously defended today as anything more than a historical artifact (as Craig mentioned). This seems to me to be one of Honneth’s most incisive but also controversial points of attack on the ‘tradition’ of CT.
Adorno’s Hermeneutics and the Ideal Type
Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to Adorno's diagnosis of capitalism and negative dialectics respectively. I will focus the remainder of my discussion on these chapters in some detail.
Chapter 4 “A Physiognomy of the Capitalist Form of Life” interprets Adorno as thinker with an especially unique intellectual trajectory to follow. As Brian O'Connor writes in the opening paragraph to his useful introduction to The Adorno Reader: 'With few exceptions his writings demand for the reader an unusual level of concentration in order to be able to stay with the vastness of detail, complexity of argument, nunaces of style' (O'Connor, 1). This probably rings true for anyone who has ever read Adorno. But, as Honneth points out in the chapter, Adorno's writings are clearly divided between a concern to describe the sociological dynamics of capitalism on the one hand, and, on the other, several philosophical ‘papers’ that are equally unwavering in the aim to pursue the socially mediated logic of the dialectic. According to Honneth, the latter demonstrated that the major philosophical schools of the early twentieth century were unable to adequately come to grips with 'historicity' and to oppose the devastating 'crisis of idealism' that followed in the wake Hegel and Marx (57).
analysis provided by Simmel’s ‘life philosophy’, Husserl’s ‘phenomenology’,
Heidegger’s ‘analysis of Dasein’ and Scheler’s ‘material analysis of values’
were inadequate in the task aimed to understand the real nature of 'social
events as they are: a blind ensemble of events that has become
incomprehensible' because of the dominance of private capital and the rise of
the fetishized commodity. Against the other philosophers mentioned above:
Benjamin and Adorno agreed that this initially meaningless "nature" of capitalism could only be decoded by a specific form of hermeneutics that shifts the given empirical material through possible constellations until figures emerge that reveal a cipher with objective, meaningful form (57).
Benjamin proposed a form of collective unconsciousness to lend a 'pictorial imagination' to criticism of capitalism, including the reconstruction of 'dreamlike pictures to detect the dark secret that commodity fetishism had caused in the social life of capitalism' (57). According to Honneth, however, Adorno disagreed with Benjamin’s form of hermeneutics that did not necessarily imply a specific materialist interpretation. Adorno, rather, tended to side with Weber’s sociology, which stressed that 'interpreting the meaningless, enigmatic reality was the theoretical business of the interpreter alone' (57). For Adorno’s specific hermeneutic reality was produced not in an organic manner and not as a pretheoretical given either (as he would repeat over and over in his early writings). Rather, reality is produced through the real activities of human beings in the context of their social world via irreducible mediation. However, these practical activities could only be known with reference to a philosophical form of criticism and interpretation, or what Honneth names ‘a materialistic hermeneutic of the capitalist form of life’ (59). In direct similarity with Weber’s work in this regard, for Adorno the ideal type provided by theoretical analysis is capable of detecting 'cultural significance' (in Weber's terms) of empirical reality. This accounts, then, for both sides of Adorno's work: the sociological concern with empirical trends (analysis of capitalism as a general phenomenon) and the philosophical account of negative dialectics and rejection of anything even resembling idealism.
But there is a larger story here. Honneth's earlier work in the article 'The Social Dynamics of Disrespect: On the Location of Critical Theory Today' (1994) already detected in Adorno's turn to negative dialectics in the 1940s a lack of any recognizable sociological basis or location for critique. Against Adorno's best intentions to the contrary, critique itself becomes abstract in his work, and thus not situated in any recognizable sociological location. And, so, Honneth’s own critique of Adorno begins with a consideration of how the project of 'Critical Theory', now as a proper noun once Adorno's project rose to prominence, was decisively rejected by the ‘68 student movement and eventually everyone else thereafter. In Honneth's view, this is why the classical project of the Frankfurt School cannot be continued today either: its foundations remain too abstract and dogmatic; it can’t account for practice nor distinguish itself clearly from the other critical projects (such as Foucault’s genealogy). Honneth provides a historical sketch for how this happened; because Horkheimer and 'his circle' could not escape 'a closed circle of capitalist domination and cultural manipulation' leading to extreme pessimism, the turn to Adorno and his:
historico-philosophical negativism finally marked the historical point at which the endeavor to link critique back to social history failed completely; in the reflections contained in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the only remaining place where something like an intramundane transcendence could occur was in the experience of modern art (Honneth 1994: 257).
So, put in different terms, as bad as things were with Western Marxism and its infatuation with the consciousness of the proletariat, matters get somewhat worse with Adorno. For Honneth, the ongoing debate today about whether Adorno and Horkheimer adhered to the earlier intervention accomplished in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), one of the most important texts in the history of CT, in their late works is not the crucial debate. It is basically irrelevant. Adorno's work in Negative Dialectics (1966) shortly before his death in 1969, and Horkheimer's later turn to ‘metaphysical pessimism late in life' via Schopenhauer make it apparent that a movement in thought had occurred and it was decisively for the worse according to Honneth. In the article Honneth writes:
Whatever the details may be, the fundamentally negativist orientation of their later writings bequeathed a problem that, ever since, has had to state at the head of every renewed attempt to link up with Critical Theory: if the Left Hegelian model of critique is at all to be retained, theoretical access to the social sphere in which an interest in emancipation can be anchored pretheoretically must be re-established at the outset. Without proof--however this may be provided--that the critical perspective is supported by a need or a movement within social reality, Critical Theory cannot be continued in any way today; for it no longer distinguishes itself from other models of social critique by claiming a superior sociological explanatory substance or in its philosophical procedures of justification, but solely by its attempt (which still has not been abandoned) to give standards of critique an objective foothold in pretheoretical praxis (257-8).
Now we arrive at Honneth’s main point in the chapters on Adorno in Pathologies of Reason. Adorno developed an analysis of capitalism as a form of life or objective physiognomy to express his deep conviction that ‘mental abilities are reflected in the corporeal nature of human beings’. Honneth continues: ‘Gestures, mimicry, modes of practical intercourse in and with the world – all are always as much an expression of the specific profile of rational activity as they, in turn, represent formation to the pressures of nature’ (63). With this reconstruction of Adorno’s complicated strategy of negative dialectics the social analyst can arrive at a concrete interpretation of social pathologies, and to search out justice.
Chapter 5 “Performing Justice: Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics” leads to Honneth’s reconstruction of the practical aspects of Adorno’s late thought in light of Negative Dialectics (1966). For Honneth, this text is basically part of Adorno’s philosophic papers, but he contends that the main thrust is to combine social historical and philosophical reason to ‘speak of the transformed role of the philosophy in the present’ (73). Honneth finds references to Marx everywhere in the incredibly challenging text, particularly involving the famous ‘realization of philosophy’ in social relations that Adorno contends must take on the task to ‘ruthlessly criticize itself’ in the style of Left Hegelianism (73-4).
Through a good deal of textual analysis the point eventually emerges that Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment and the idealism of absolute knowledge already put forth in Dialectic of Enlightenment is once again repeated in parts of Negative Dialectics (which perhaps represent a partial rethinking of the earlier position). The parts of Adorno’s project that Honneth would like to articulate in his reconstruction would claim that ‘a negative dialectic must, then, unlike its positive alternative, always attempt to bring to light the preintellectual, drivelike, or practical roots of all spiritual phenomena’ (78). This is the materialist, negative basis of Adorno’s project that Honneth valorizes for the purposes of the present. Honneth finds in the text, written in ‘the idiosyncratic form of an ellipse’ (85), a lingering normative commitment that at least implicitly implies that negative dialectics as a ‘self-criticism of philosophy’ holds the promise to include a ‘layer of argumentation on which the phenomenon to be dealt with is presented in light of its effects on the subjective sensibility of the individual researcher’ (82). As we saw, this is Adorno’s partial retention of the ideal type against hermeneutics.
The major difference from Weber that Honneth identifies is that Adorno rejects any sort of ‘schema’, such as that between an unmediated relation of subject/object. On the contrary, Adorno is said to include a sophisticated consideration of individual experiences that have some level of factual objectivity beyond researcher values. In an argument that reaches into the very heart of Adorno’s epistemology, implicit normative foundation (in the terms of ‘justice’, ‘stringency’, ‘exactitude’, etc), and we might even say metaphysics, Honneth argues that for the late Adorno:
the subject of knowledge necessarily belongs to an appropriate representation of a given object. Nevertheless, we have also seen that Adorno only grants such subjective experiences knowledge value when they are sufficiently differentiated, precise, and lucid. Accordingly, he can only ascribe the capacity for truthful, comprehensive knowledge, to those subjects who possess sensorium that corresponds to standards of this kind (83).
Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Maria Pia Lara. "Honneth's New Critical Theory of Recognition." New Left Review November-December (1996).
Honneth, Axel. Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.
———. "Postmodern Identity and Object-Relations Theory: On the Seeming Obsolescence of Psychoanalysis." Philosophical Explorations 2, no. 3 (1999): 225-42.
———. "The Social Dynamics of Disrespect: On the Location of Critical Theory Today." Constellations 1, no. 2 (1994): 255-69.
O'Connor, Brian, ed. The Adorno Reader, Blackwell Readers. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.