A quick inventory: critical race theory, critical discourse analysis, critical food studies, critical animal studies, critical security studies, critical legal studies, critical social theory. Some more: Critical Studies, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Critical Studies in Education, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Critical Studies in Television. There are even departments of critical studies (for instance, at UBC Okanagan, which is the first to show up in Google). You can't go on a campus (or, for that matter, read an academic or political blog) without being confronted by critique and criticism. Originally connected to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, around the works of Adorno, Horkeimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, Lowenthal, Fromm, Neumann, Oppenheimer, and its successors--such as Habermas and Honneth--the "critical" in "critical theory" has achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy from its origin and, now, we can all be critical without having allegiance whatsoever to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School or its proponents. Indeed, I was even able to write a doctoral comprehensive exam in "critical social theory" a few years back with only having a couple of pieces from Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas on the list.
What is it, then, that we mean by critical when we say "critical whatever studies"? This isn't always clear, if it ever is. More often than not the word "critical" appears to function more as an indicator of club membership than with any actual critical activity (whatever that may mean). The club, in this case, seems to mean something like "theoretically sophisticated" and "holding the right political opinions," opinions which tend, for the most part, towards wishy-washy liberalism and can't-we-all-just-get-along cosmopolitanism. Even though we are critical, we don't want to be too critical, because, if we are sufficiently critical and achieve the social change we strive after (or at least advocate), we could very well be out of our jobs! Afterall, who needs a critical theorist in utopia? Better an employed critical theorist in a liberal capitalist regime than a useless critical theorist in paradise. When I was in the first year of my doctoral program, a tenure-track line opened and we, in the doctoral program, would get to select our priorities with respect to hiring. We elected to search for a social theorist. But not just any social theorist: a critical social theorist. It was never clear what we meant by that and it was never clear what the interviewed candidates understood it to mean (one candidate spoke about Durkheim and Tarde and another spoke about his deep desire to anthologize and translate critical theory from Africa as part of his commitment to cosmopolitanism). Aren't we all critical now? (Except, of course, for those naive positivists and empiricists who can't help themselves and who are lost to the flow of history--even if they get far more research funding than we do.)
So, again, what do we mean by critical? A vulgar sense of critical meaning something like "questioning received opinion" is not unique to any form of critical theory. Take the criminological school of left realism--thoroughly empiricist and positivist (bad! bad!) but also critical of mainstream criminology. (Left realism usually advances, among other things, a program of decarceration.) It would seem that you can be critical without being critical.
For these reasons, it is refreshing to read the second, "A Social Pathology of Reason: On the Intellectual Legacy of Critical Theory", and third, "Reconstructive Social Criticism with a Genealogical Proviso: On the Idea of "Critique" in the Frankfurt School," chapters of Alex Honneth's recently published collected, Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory. In these two chapters, Honneth lays out what he takes to be two core concepts in Critical Theory: the idea of a social pathology of reason and, of course, the idea of critique. Honneth clearly recognizes these problems, "With the turn of the new century, Critical Theory appears to have become an intellectual artifact." We can be critical without being critical. This critical-without-being critical fully demonstrates the "intellectual gap separating us from the theoretical beginnings of the Frankfurt School. [...] Today a younger generation carries on the work of social criticism without having much more than a nostalgic memory of the heroic years of Western Marxism" (19). The gap is so great--between us and the Frankfurt School style of social criticism--that is has been more than thirty years since Marcus and Horkheimer have been read as contemporaries. As discussed by Roger in his post on the first chapter, and in ensuing discussion, history as a progressive movement guided by reason is a concept very foreign to us, especially to those of us who (such as myself) who view Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida as our nearest ancestors. I confess: reading Honneth's essays makes me feel rather uneasy. How could he believe in historical progress? How could he believe in reason? Afterall, as I like to point out, we kill and abuse more animals absolutely and relatively now, at the start of the twenty-first century, than we did a hundred and twenty years ago when the doctrines of "animal welfare" were first created. How can anyone seriously suggest that reason and progress and are both operative in history without sounding as crass as someone like Richard Dawkins who assures us that historical-moral progress is real despite the temporary setback of the Holocaust? How can we take Honneth's suggestion that capitalism blocks the development of historical progress and reason seriously? How can this be anything other than naive belief and ideology in the face of all facts? When was the last time history progressed? Kojeve-Fukuyama has won; Horkheimer-Honneth have lost. Why does Honneth persist in his belief of a "socially effective rationality"?
This brings us to the central concept of the second chapter, social pathology of reason. Honneth, in his own words:
Critical Theory, in contrast--and in a way that may be unique to it--insists on a mediation of theory and history in a concept of socially effective rationality. That is, the historical past should be understood from a practical point of view: as a process of development whose pathological deformation by capitalism may be overcome only by initiating a process of enlightenment among those involved. It is this working model of the intertwining of theory and history that grounds the unity of Critical Theory, despite its variety of voices. [...] Designating the legacy of Critical Theory for the new century would necessarily involve recovering from the idea of a social pathology of reason an explosive charge that can still be touched off today.
What follows the development of his concept of social pathology is an explanation of how capitalism can be understood as a cause of deformed rationality and, then, an attempt to connect Critical Theory to overcoming social suffering caused by social pathologies of reason. According to Honneth, "social pathology" can be found as an operative concept in many of the core members of the Frankfurt School: Horkheimer's "irrational organization," Adorno's "administered world," Marcuse's "one-dimensional society" and "repressive tolerance," and Habermas's "colonization of the social life-world." Each of these thinkers also offer a corrective to social pathology. For instance, Horkheimer's "human work," Marcuse's "aesthetic life" and Habermas's "communicative action." The standard, then, for identifying social pathology is through reference to the corrective or normative social rationality which is the highest developed form of rationality possible at that historical moment: society is pathological insofar as it does not live up to the highest possible form of social rationality. The normative concept is then both the means of diagnosis--the departure point of criticism--and the cure. The more societies tend toward the normative ideal, the more able are subjects able to "co-operatively self-actualize" and thus lead themselves to freedom in the context of a free society.
At times, this idea of "co-operative self-actualization" sounds a bit like Michael Jackson ethics: "if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change." However, Honneth argues that this impression is false by playing off Critical Theory against both liberalism and communitarianism. The simple view of liberalism is that the individual's good takes preference over the community's good meanwhile the simple view of communitarianism is that the community's good takes preference over the individual's good. For Honneth, it is the case that in order to take part in other-actualization, it is often the case that narrow self-interest will have to be set aside. But this does not imply that the other's actualization leads to a communitarianism whereby all others take precedence over the self. Rather, in Honneth's view, self-actualization and other-actualization are closely connected to one another. In fact, the self cannot be free if the other is not also free. Critical Theory, then, at once advocates the liberation of the self and the other, of the individual and the community.
The final section of the essay attempts to connect the concepts of social pathology to liberation through comparison to psychoanalysis. This is the least developed and least convincing part of the essay. It is likely unconvincing because it is underdeveloped. The basic argument here is that social pathology produces social disorders in much the same way as neurosis produces individual suffering. The point of the psychoanalytic cure is to either learn the cause of the neurosis and then develop strategies to enable the patient to live with it. The problem seems to be that individuals are more willing to admit their own personal problems than societies are willing to admit their social problems: the public might complain, but the public doesn't want to change or even recognize its own complicity in the problems. This is why capitalism operates as a social pathology: it creates the conditions under which the effects and the cause are separated from one another. People can easily perceive the effects, but cannot perceive the cause and, thus, cannot work to stop the cause.
The Idea of "Critique"
The third chapter attempts to articulate the specific meaning of "critique" in Critical Theory in an ideal sense. The chapter attempts this articulation or retrieval largely in the face of criticism of the standpoint of critique offered by thinkers such as Michael Walzer and Richard Rorty. These two distinguish between what could be a called a "strong" and "weak" sense of criticism, the latter of which they favour. The weak sense of critique is "internal" to the society being criticized and, to a certain extent, identifies with the prevailing values: it "always already presupposes a certain affirmation of the prevailing moral culture in the society concerned." The strong sense of critique is "external" or transcendent to the society being criticized and tends to refuse identification with prevailing values. The problem with the latter approach to critique is that its appeal to external and universal moral principles "necessarily takes too distanced a perspective to be understood by its addressess." Hence, it "runs the risk of claiming an elitist specialized knowledge." Given these two alternatives, thinkers such as Rorty and Walzer advocate the weak, or context-bound, rather than the strong, or context-transcending, form of social criticism.
This, admits Honneth, is a serious charge to the legacy of Critical Theory. One-Dimensional Man and the Dialectic of Enlightenment are readily provided by Rorty and Walzer as examples of context-transcending forms of criticism. Similarly, there is an admitted distance between the central texts of Critical Theory and the institutional order of society leading to the impression that Critical Theory has lost--if it ever had--its normative reference points and tends towards a totalizing ideology. Despite these obstacles, Honneth sets for himself the task of reconstructing the meaning of critique for Critical Theory. His point here is to develop an ideal-type (not his language) of critique for Critical Theory while recognizing that many, if not most, of the core texts of the school do not come close to exemplifying this ideal-type. Indeed, "I am among those who want to leave no doubt that the basic historical-philosophical and sociological assumptions of the Frankfurt School can no longer be defended." Honneth's potentially surprising solution to this problem is the injection of Nietzschean genealogy into the generally left-Hegelian approach of the Frankfurt School (hence the subtitle to the chapter).
Drawing upon Walzer again, Honneth lays three senses of critique:
- Constructive - this refers to a procedure of justification readily and reasonably agreed to by members of the society in question (potentially under fictive conditions, such as a "veil of ignorance") that have the ability to attain normative status which can then be used to criticize the existing social institutions.
- Reconstructive - this refers to the attempt to uncover the normative ideals of social institutions and social practice that are suitable to be used as instruments of critique in the existing society.
- Genealogical - this refers to the attempt to demonstrate how normative ideals become transformed into their opposite, practices of domination.
With this paradigm in place, what conclusions does Honneth come to regarding the meaning of critique in Critical Theory? His argument is Critical Theory originally began being solely concerned with reconstructive forms of critique (which were admittedly occasionally simple and vulgar), but, in response to Nazism, "Critical Theory underwent a systematic convergence with Nietzsche's geneaology." The lesson to be drawn from this is that social rationality appears to produce normative ideals, however these normative ideals are subject to historical change. Their existence in the present may have little relation to their genesis. That is, what was once normative may have over time come to be instruments of domination. (We can think of a totally administered society or the irrational consequences of rationalization.) Thus, previously normative ideals could lose "the normative kernel" over time. As a result, genealogy and reconstructive criticism must be aligned with one another. Indeed, the form of critique practiced by Critical Theory could conceivably involve all three forms of criticism:
- a critical standpoint that develops a concept of rationality that "establishes a systematic connection between social rationality and moral validity"
- this connection between social rationality and moral validity determines social reality in the form of ideals
- however, these moral ideals must be analyzed in light of the "genealogical proviso" that their original meaning may have been lost or have become unrecognizable.
Honneth's ultimate conclusion is that he "fear[s] that what Critical Theory once meant by the idea social criticism cannot be defended today, short of this extremely high standard." For my part, I see this extremely high standard as falling into the trap of the "strong" sense of criticism whereby social criticism becomes the domain of rarefied expert knowledge with little or no connection to the society as a whole. Indeed, there appears to be a striking disconnect between the two chapters under discussion on this point. The first chapter advocates a close connection between theory and practice, the second chapter advocates an impossibly high concept of critique that is not only inaccessible to most academics, but especially to society at large.