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’.
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"?
It is quite serendipitous to me that Axel Honneth begins his book Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory with a look at Immanuel Kant’s essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose.” As an undergraduate, I lived and breathed Kant’s transcendentalism. I kept my heavily underlined copies of the Meiklejohn translation of Critique of Pure Reason in my backpack. “As-if” was my mantra, as one professor or another listed their arguments against Kant. “You make ethical decisions as-if you could will them universally.” “Judgments of taste are subjective, they are only willed as-if everyone would agree.” The Kantian world I inhabited was a mystical place of uncanny “as-ifs” and sublime negative pleasures connecting harmoniously with scientific reason and synthetic a priori knowledge.