Theorizing Modernism Essays In Critical Theory In International Relations

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date: 11 March 2018

Critical Theory: International Relations' Engagement With the Frankfurt School and Marxism

Summary and Keywords

Critical international relations theory (CIRT) is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. What is crucial here is not only the social explanation, but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. Critical theory in international relations (IR) is part of the post-positivist turn or the so-called “fourth debate,” which followed the inter-paradigm debate of the 1970s. Post-positivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened up wide ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated IR theorizing since the beginning of 1980s. Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of IR, and has spurred the development of alternative forms of analysis and approaches. Moreover, since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of CIRT have become the main alternative to mainstream IR. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” A specific tradition of critical thought in IR, derived from Marx, comprises the normative Critical Theory (CT) of the Frankfurt School—termed the “structural critical theory”—since it focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

Keywords: critical theory, critical international relations theory, Frankfurt School, structural critical theory, Karl Marx, justice, equality, normative critical theory, capitalism


This article presents an analysis and evaluation of critical international relations theory (CIRT). Critical theory has challenged the mainstream understanding of international relations (IR) and analyzes the alternative forms of analysis/approaches that have developed under the banner of critical theory. Since the beginning of the 1980s, different types of critical international relations theory (CIRT) have been the main alternative to mainstream IR. After reviewing Critical International Relations Theory after 25 Years, Rengger and Thirkell-White conclude that “various forms of ‘critical theory’ . . . constitute the main theoretical alternatives within the discipline” (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007b, pp. 4–5). They argue that even “a robust, analytical and still heavily ‘scientific’ U.S. academy now has strong elements of critical theory of various sorts lodged within it” (p. 9).

Critical international relations theory is not only an academic approach but also an emancipatory project committed to the formation of a more equal and just world. It seeks to explain the reasons why the realization of this goal is difficult to achieve. Therefore, what is crucial is not only the social explanation but also politically motivated action to achieve an alternative set of social relations based on justice and equality. The general aim of CIRT can be summed up by Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1977b, p. 158). One of the most well-known definitions of CT in IR belongs to Robert Cox (1981) who defines critical theory in the context of his famous landmark distinction between problem-solving theories and critical theories. According to Cox, problem-solving theories are preoccupied with maintaining social power relationships and the reproduction of the existing system, attempting to ensure that “existing relationships and institutions work smoothly” (p. 129) Unlike ahistorical problem-solving theories which serve the existing social arrangements and support the interests of the hegemonic social forces, critical theory, according to Cox, is self-reflexive, criticizes the existing system of domination, and identifies processes and forces that will create an alternative world order (Cox, 1981, pp. 129–130). Linklater (2001), another key critical theorist in international relations, defines critical theory as a post-Marxist theory that “continues to evolve beyond the paradigm of production to a commitment to dialogic communities that are deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and exclusion-domestic, transnational and international” (p. 25). Similar definitions of critical theory emphasize one or more of its aspects. For instance, Steans et al. (2010) stress, “the express purpose of Critical Theory is to further the self-understanding of groups committed to transforming society” (p. 106). Alway (1995) defines critical theory as a “theory with practical intent” oriented to the emancipatory transformation of society. According to Neufeld, the defining feature of critical theory is its “negation of positivism” and “technical reason” dominant in mainstream IR (Neufeld, 1995, pp. 129–130). For Hutchings (2007), “[a]lthough critical theory takes many different forms, it always distinguishes itself from other forms of theorising in terms of its orientation towards change and the possibility of futures that do not reproduce the patterns of hegemonic power of the present” (p. 72). Levine (2012), who focuses on a more methodological reevaluation of critical theory, proposed the concept of sustainable critique, which he defines as “a practice, tied to a philosophical-normative sensibility” (p. 231) aimed at an “entente between positive theory building and critique” (p. 230), and a “practical and reflexive theory” (p. 211). Thus, critical theories constitute a very broad group of different approaches and are in a radical position vis-a-vis mainstream international relations theory.

In line with these different definitions, a heterogeneous group of theories has been labelled as critical in international relations, including feminism, poststructuralism, critical geopolitics, critical security studies, critical international political economy, postcolonialism, and international historical sociology. This article focuses on a more specific tradition of critical thought in international relations derived from Marx, which comprises the normative Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. This structural critical theory focuses more on the sociological features and dynamics of capitalism.

This article contains six sections. The first briefly locates critical theory in the context of the development of international relations and provides an overview of the main strands of CIRT. The following two sections discuss the origins of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School of Sociology and then present Habermas’ contribution. The fourth section outlines the main contributions from international relations scholars to the development of a normative CIRT in accordance with Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. This section particularly focuses on the contributions of Richard Ashley and Andrew Linklater to CIRT. The fifth section discusses some of the key strands of structural critical theory incorporating Neogramscianism and Marxist historical sociology counterposed with the idealist normative critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. The article concludes with an overview of the efforts to integrate critical theory into international relations and directions for future development.

The Critical Tradition and the Meaning of Critique

The idea of critique is a product of the heritage of Enlightenment. Basically, it involves the use of reason and critical insight in relation to the liberation of human beings. It expresses the opposition between reason and dogma, the rational and the revealed. As Shapcott (2008) summarizes it, “in the language of Kant, this is termed Enlightenment, in the language of Hegel, it is spirit or history (Geist) and in the language of Marx, it is emancipation” (p. 327). Kant claimed in 1781 in his Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that his era was the age of critique. Kant’s critique involved a reflection on the conditions and limits of knowledge. Later, Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, reflected on the constraints on human autonomy and how humans can liberate themselves from these constraints. In his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx developed a critique of the social conditions for thinking about social reality. He argued that the categories used by classical political economists were in fact propositions, which led to the legitimation of existing power structures within the liberal capitalist economy (Connerton, 1976, pp. 23–24). This ideology-critique offered a reinterpretation of these categories producing a critique of actual social conditions thus linking analysis with the forms of practice that correspond to it. This Enlightenment heritage later produced different forms of critical theory under changed historical circumstances revising and reinterpreting the insights of these key critical philosophers, adapting its categories to a new historical reality. The meaning of critique itself, therefore, has altered as the historical conditions that informed its categories.

Critical theory in international relations is part of the post-positivist turn or the “fourth debate,” which followed the interparadigm debate (Banks, 1985) of the 1970s. Postpositivism consists of a plurality of theoretical and epistemological positions that opened wide-ranging criticisms of the neo-realist “orthodoxy” that has dominated international relations theorizing since the beginning of 1980s (Ashley, 1986; Smith, 1996). However, a distinction needs to be made between different forms of critical theory. The term critical theory in lower case letters refers to postpositivist theories such as feminism, historical sociology, poststructuralism, constructivism, and postcolonialism, which are united in their critique of the mainstream, and particularly, of Neo-Realism. Critical Theory (CT) with capital letters refers more directly to the critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School and mainly particularly from the work of Jürgen Habermas, which is elaborated in the third section of this article. Although most critical theories draw their insights from Marxism, the failure of classical Marxist works to explicitly deal with the impact of the state system on emancipatory politics has relegated Marxist critical theory in international relations to a more isolated position compared with the more normative forms of critical theory originating from the Frankfurt School. On the other hand, not all the post-positivist theories utilize the theoretical apparatus of Critical Theory originating from the Frankfurt School. For instance, poststructural critical thinkers are influenced by French philosophers such as Derrida or Foucault, who base their work on the critiques of structuralism, which were popular in the 1970s. Also, in contrast to the normative critical theory of the Habermasians, more structural forms of critical theory based on historical materialism have developed more recently, first in Neo-Gramscianism and later in international historical sociology, especially through political Marxism. Thus, there is a rich variety of critical scholarship and theorizing that alters the framework and substance of mainstream International Relations.

Despite the occasional sometimes intricate differences between them, all critical theories are united in their critique of the main research agenda and the positivist orientations in international relations questioning, above all, the idea of value free theoretical and social inquiry. During the first wave of critical theory in the 1980s, the main concern of international relations theorists was to develop a critique of the dominant realist/neorealist orthodoxy, which had failed to explain the end of the Cold War (George, 1989; Lapid, 1989). Andrew Linklater (1992), for instance, characterizes the discussions originating from critical theory as constituting the “next stage in international relations theory” (see also Hoffmann, 1987). In particular, the idea of a structurally determined, immutable anarchical system adopted by the Neorealists was heavily criticized. The first task of a critical theory of international relations was to expose the assumptions that formed the basis of mainstream theoretical and empirical inquiry. Neorealism reified and naturalized the existing structure of the international system taking it as given and immutable. This inevitably gave neorealism a problem-solving quality that sustained the existing asymmetries of power and equality. According to Cox, “Critical theory has relativized neorealism so as to perceive it as an ideology of the Cold War” (Cox, 2001, p. 46).

The pursuit of scientism and the emphasis on scientific objectivity, for a long time, prevented any reflection on the moral and normative side of international relations. Post-positivist scholars “brought back” the critical and the normative into international relations. Thus, the development of critical theory enabled those who were “exiled” or “excluded” from international relations to start speaking their own language (Ashley & Walker, 1990, p. 259). Instead of trying to explain social reality in terms of transhistorical regularities and making predictions on that basis, these scholars instead emphasized the reflexive nature of theorizing underscoring the social, historical, and contingent nature of knowledge claims, posing both an epistemological and ontological challenge to positivist social science. Critical theorists reject the objectivist conception of truth as a correspondence to the real world. Objects of knowledge are not given as the positivists assume but are constituted by different powers and interests. This is summarized in Cox’s famous comment that “theories are for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1981). As Cox later argued “there is no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is the more important to examine it as ideology, and to lay bare its concealed perspective” (Cox, 1986, p. 207). Critical theorists also indicate how objects of knowledge are intimately linked to theoretical practice itself. Theoretical activity is not only a methodological pursuit but also closely associated with the construction of political reality. Therefore, from this perspective, it is not possible to assess different knowledge claims from an Archimedean viewpoint to say which is true; thus, the politico-normative content is as much a criterion of theory assessment as empirical adequacy (Neufeld, 2001, p. 138; Eckersley, 2008, pp. 347–348). Truth for critical theorists is, therefore, more “normative rather than objective and scientific” (Fluck, 2010, p. 266) than the positivists assume, and the commitment to normative progressive change is an essential part of critical theory.

In short, critical theory has been very productive in developing alternative approaches and new areas of research in international relations. One of the most important theoretical starting points and sources of inspiration for this whole development has emanated from the views of the Frankfurt School adopted by international relations scholars.

Origins of Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School

Critical Theory is generally traced back to the Frankfurt School, whose origins lay in the establishment of the Institute for Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) at the University of Frankfurt in 1923 (Jay, 1973; Held, 1980; Alway, 1995). The members of the school were exiled to the United States during the Nazi Period and World War II but reestablished themselves in Germany in 1950. The Frankfurt School was part of the regeneration of critical thinking in social sciences due to the rise of fascism, the development of world economic crises, the New Deal, and the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinism. The most well-known thinkers of the Frankfurt School include philosophers such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and second-generation theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and a third-generation scholar, Axel Honneth.

The Frankfurt School theorists were concerned with “the dark side” of modernity and set themselves the task of understanding “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition” is sinking into a “new kind of barbarism” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). Reason, in which Enlightenment had placed all its hope for progress and emancipation, had become an instrument for dominating and destroying nature instead of liberating man.

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in his seminal 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972) outlined the main premises of critical theory. Horkheimer’s starting point was the inhibition of critical and independent thinking in contemporary society for which he blamed traditional Western thought and an instrumental understanding of reason inherent in the dominant positivist understanding of science and society. In his essay, Horkheimer contrasted traditional theory with critical theory. Traditional theory adopts the model of natural sciences and sees knowledge as an instrument of control rather than the basis for human happiness. Facts are separated from the activity of theorizing; science is separated from the world it studies. Traditional theory is not self-reflexive, as it does not question the social context of the activity of theorizing nor the social conditions with which it deals. By contrast, according to critical theory, theories and theoretical activity are socially conditioned. Therefore, inquiry into emancipation requires an immanent critique of social life to provide insight into existing social contradictions and act as a guide for the social conditions necessary for an emancipated future.

The Frankfurt School philosophers were particularly concerned with the proletariat’s declining and inhibited revolutionary consciousness and their support for right-wing movements in Germany. In different degrees, although still committed to Enlightenment ideals of emancipation, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas questioned the capacity of the proletariat to be the agent of revolution and placed the human species as the historical subject of emancipation. Reason had become an instrument of domination rather than critique and reflexivity, a situation, which Horkheimer described as the “eclipse of reason.” Horkheimer and Adorno emphasized how the instrumental rationality of positivism interested in the technical control of nature had been more successful than practical reason that was interested in the achievement of a good life. Their later work was tainted by a “politics of despair” and a “negativistic” social philosophy concerning emancipation with the Dialectic of Enlightenment “heralding the end of the emancipatory vision that had previously animated the [Frankfurt School]” (Brincat, 2011, p. 232). Thus, an immanent critique was necessary to understand the underlying social relations and the inner contradictions of society to explain why the proletariat consciousness was “limited and corrupted by ideology” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 242). Therefore, the “real social function of philosophy” was to develop a critique of itself and the prevailing social conditions not by a priori moral principles but by focusing on concrete relationships and contradictions in society for a “better order of things” (Horkheimer, 1972, p. 212).

Habermas and Critical Theory

Habermas (1972, 1979, 1984, 1985) is the most well-known of the second-generation critical theorists and his views have been the most influential in international relations. Habermas continues the critique of reason and rationality initiated by the Frankfurt School developing and remolding it into new dimensions. His theory of communicative action, discourse ethics, and analysis of the relation between knowledge and human interests have proven to be very productive in understanding and evolving alternative critical positions within international relations.

The ideas of Habermas center around the radical democratization of society. In line with his ultimate belief in the ideals of Enlightenment, he believes that universal moral principles can be the basis of the resolution of conflicting claims concerning social and political life (Griffiths, O’Callaghan, & Roach, 2008, p. 61). Unlike the negativistic philosophy of Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas treats modernity as an unfinished project and wishes to find a way that the promises of modernity could once again be realized. According to Habermas, although modernity has achieved technological progress, it has not yet brought freedom, solidarity, and human emancipation. Therefore, he seeks a path whereby freedom and progress can once again be united under modern conditions. He believes that historical materialism should also be reconstructed in a way that emphasizes on the potential for social communication and expansion of mutual understanding rather than labor as the rational guiding element of social and political organization. Classical Marxism elevated the importance of labor but ignored the significance of the symbolic reproduction of capitalism through communication. Accordingly, Habermas developed a paradigm communication to complement the paradigm of production, which is the focus of historical materialism.

One of the most significant contributions of Habermas in terms of developing his theory of communicative rationality was the move he made from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy of language, thus changing the focus of Western philosophy for the first time since Descartes (Habermas, 1984, 1985; Fluck, 2012). This implies a shift of emphasis from the subject, the main agent of Enlightenment philosophy, to intersubjectivity in which the communication between language users is the fundamental cognition (Fluck, 2012, p. 7; Alway, 1995, p. 107). Therefore, in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, it is not the “relation of a solitary subject” to an objective world but the subject-subject relation that primarily enables the conceptualization of a form of interaction which is communicative rather than instrumental (Alway, 1995, p. 129). This theory thus expands the conditions of rational decision making to form more inclusive and just communities not only within societies but, eventually, also between societies and states. The subject in this conceptualization is no longer concerned only with pursuing his own private interests but also interacts with other subjects to further common interests. Thus, communication itself becomes “a source of praxis, and therefore a means of emancipation” (Fluck, 2012, p. 1) and rational progress. Because it allows for the communication and understanding of diverse identities and interests, this conception also facilitates a pluralist understanding of social reality, therefore rendering Habermas’s position compatible with some of the ideas of post-modern thinkers without sacrificing reason as the basis of social organization.

Habermas bases his analysis on what he calls a “pure communicative sociation” defined as an Ideal Speech Situation, in which the actors can freely and truthfully communicate (Habermas, 1984, 1985). In this situation, the “force of the better argument” prevails. “The only regulations and ways of acting that can claim legitimacy are those to which all who are possibly affected could assent as participants in rational discourses” (Habermas, 1996, p. 458). Thus, rationality is formulated so that it does not solely imply a universality of norms but a discursive but nevertheless formal and procedural context of an ideal speech situation. History itself is reconceptualized as a collective learning process whereby the species not only acquires technical knowledge oriented to the instrumental domination of nature but also develops new norms of communication in the moral-practical sphere, avoiding the “asocial universalism of more traditional accounts of reason and progress” (Habermas, 1985, p. 148; Fluck, 2012, pp. 6–7).

Habermas links his views on communicative rationality to what he calls knowledge constitutive interests (Habermas, 1972), which pertains to the role of knowledge in achieving different forms of social arrangements. He argues that knowledge generated by positivism is not the only type of knowledge oriented to fulfill the needs of social life. Positivism conceives of social problems as technical problems that require technical solutions. However, knowledge of the social world should be based not only on social control but also on communication and human emancipation. Recognizing this problem, Habermas (1972) makes a distinction between different technical cognitive interests in which knowledge interests as the basis for controlling one’s environment, practical cognitive interests that seek to further intersubjective communication between different subjects, and emancipatory cognitive interests, a guiding communication that deals with the conditions of distorted communication and the conditions necessary to achieve autonomy and freedom.

Due to the limitation on the length of this work, a thorough critique of Habermas’ complex arguments cannot be presented; however, some of the criticisms from international relations scholars concerning the application of Habermas’ theory are presented below. One objection to his arguments has been whether his interpretation of Marx and historical materialism is a correct starting point from which to develop a critical theory of IR. Anievas for instance has argued that Habermas’ philosophy “reconceptualizes production relations as a dimension of consensual, norm-governed social interaction” and subsumes relations of production under the concept of communicative action (2010, p. 151). However, capitalist relations of production refer to underlying structures of inequality and irreconcilable social struggles that cannot be conceptualized as part of consensual relations (2010, p. 151; also see Callinicos, 1989, pp. 114–115). Indeed, other scholars have also joined this criticism in arguing that without altering the objective conditions underlying capitalism, it would be futile to expect changes in social reality as a result of intersubjective consensus or what Habermas would later call discourse ethics (Fluck, 2010, p. 264).

Habermasian Critical International Relations Theory: From Ashley to Linklater

Habermas’ theory of communicative action and his description of knowledge constitutive interests have been very influential in developing a normative/critical theory of international relations (Diez & Steans, 2005). In one of the first attempts to formulate a Habermasian inspired IR scholarship, Ashley in his Political Realism and Human Interests (1981) has used Habermas’ concept of knowledge constitutive interests to understand different traditions of IR. Following Habermas, Ashley starts with the assumption that “knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests” (Ashley, 1981, p. 207). Then he makes a distinction between technical realism, practical realism and what he calls a dialectical competence model as reflecting different interests embedded within different traditions. According to Ashley, technical realism is represented in international relations by Neorealism, and it is oriented to the control of the international system by the most powerful. Practical realism is associated with an interest in communication and cooperation and is best represented by classical Realism and the arguments of the English school. Ashley argues that although practical realism is an advance over structural realism, it still shares many of the assumptions of the realist understanding of IR. The dialectical competence model on the other hand incorporates both technical and practical realism but goes beyond them in favor of a more emancipated form of international relations. However, Ashley’s dialectical competence model has been criticized for not being well developed. As Hoffmann argues in his evaluation of Ashley’s alternative, “While it is possible to indicate to a dialectical element in Ashley’s model, it is questionable if there is a critical or emancipatory component” (Hoffmann, 1987, p. 233). However, this initial attempt to develop a CIRT did make a very important contribution to IR critical theory in general. As Brincat notes, “The work of CIRT . . . offer(s) a number of advances on the sociology of the early [Frankfurt School], which was problematically confined to the examination of Euro- and state centric possibilities for emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 218). “Ashley’s dialectical competence model,” Brincat argues, “overcame the tendency of the [Frankfurt School] towards an endogeneous, state focused and Euro-centric form of critical theorizing and offered a way for CT to revitalize the project of emancipation by taking into account global forces in the dialectic of oppression and emancipation” (Brincat, 2011, p. 237).

The most developed form of critical theory in international relations is the normative theory of Andrew Linklater (1990, 1998, 2001, 2007). The importance of critical theory for Linklater is to “facilitate the extension of moral and political community in international affairs” beyond the state and to “institutionalize cosmopolitan principles of morality” (Griffiths, 2007, p. 61). The existing system is based on ethical particularism and intersocietal estrangement (Devetak, 2013, pp. 171–173); therefore, it is necessary to form a more inclusive and just system based on new moral principles that advance the civilizing process in international relations. Based on, but extending Habermas’s concept of an ideal communication community, Linklater attempts to outline the conditions for the criticism that Marxism overemphasizes production, and he wants to develop a theory that is “beyond the paradigm of production,” one that is “deeply sensitive about all forms of inclusion and unjustified exclusion-domestic, transnational, and international” (Linklater, 2001, p. 25). For the realization of this project, Linklater envisages a “triple transformation” of the political community that is more universal, less unequal, and more sensitive to differences (Linklater, 2001, p. 25) and to human beings fears about injury, vulnerability and suffering (Linklater, 2006; Linklater & Suganami, 2006, p. 277). The realization of such a political community implies questioning the moral significance of national boundaries and developing a post national and postsovereign or post-Westphalian forms of life (Linklater, 2001).

Linklater utilizes the distinction that Wight (1991) made between realism, rationalism, and revolutionism to locate his arguments in the context of different Habermasian cognitive interests. For Linklater, and Ashley, realism is associated with technical interest, rationalism is associated with practical interest, and revolutionism is associated with emancipatory interests (Linklater, 1990, pp. 21–22; Linklater & Suganami, 2006; Devetak, 2013, p. 171). Linklater considers that globalization has significantly intensified the instances and possibilities of “transnational harm,” rendering nation states incapable of providing citizens with their basic needs of justice, social welfare, and physical security. Hence, there is an immanent possibility for the creation of a post- Westphalian community as represented by the European Union (Linklater, 1998).

Linklater’s critical project presents difficulties both at the theoretical and practical level, which are equally problematic in relation to the perspective taken by Habermas. One difficulty is the commitment to a form of rationality that assumes a universal subject committed to universal values. A central objection to this assumption is the totalizing nature of this reasoning bringing together diverse identities under one universal totality (Diez & Steans, 2005, pp. 134–136). This raises the issue of whether it is possible to conceive of a form of intersubjectivity that is sensitive to different voices leading to a common understanding.

A more crucial critique relates to the idealist conception of social change in Linklater’s normative project. The transformation of the political community toward more cosmopolitan forms of association is made possible through a learning process that has results, which are inevitably indeterminate (Linklater, 1998, p. 86). As Anievas indicates, “The material conditions necessary for any functioning dialogic community within and between political communities would necessitate some form of social struggle forcibly translating the existing social order. A forceless ‘force of the better argument’ is not much help achieving universal human emancipation” (Anievas, 2010, p. 154). Shilliam (2002, p. 3) also suggests that Linklater takes an “essentially metaphysical” conception of social struggle and resistance where the primary force for the resolution of conflicts is attributed to “moral capital.” These observations can be linked to an overall lack of sociological sensitivity in analyzing historical change in Linklater’s work. According to Avienas, Linklater’s arguments fail to specifically address the “material prerequisites” (e.g., the substantive levels of political, economic, racial, and gender equality) for “the force of the better argument” to be effective in a dialogic community and “detaches” emancipatory practices from the “material and social” relations of capitalism (2010, p. 154). In a similar vein, Norman Geras argues that social structures of capitalism do not make the participation of all classes possible in the discursive construction of norms (Geras, 1999, p. 163; Fluck, 2012, p. 11).

An unresolved tension exists between universality and difference in the foundation of the claims of discourse ethics. Theoretically, the arguments for communicative rationality aim to discover the universal conditions of communication to avoid the morally relativist posture of the postpositivist approaches. Poststructuralists have been particularly critical of attempts to reach consensus because they see this diversity as the basis of freedom and emancipation. Linklater has also been quite attentive to the way in which the standpoint of the “others” should be considered, arguing thus for a “historically self-conscious universalism” sensitive to differences (Diez & Steans, 2005, p. 135). However, as Shapcott argues, “The notion of emancipation is too culturally specific, reflecting only the values of the European enlightenment” and this leads “to a problematic universalism that threatens to assimilate and legislate out of existence all significant differences” (Shapcott, 2008, p. 336; see also Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004).

Another issue is the way different cultures or communities come to interact with each other to arrive at a common ground or consensus and how this interaction is to be conceptualized. Historical sociologists have for some time argued that this interaction is not between equal social circumstances but takes the form of an uneven and combined development. Furthermore, it is not possible to imagine a dialogue that does not take this structural unevenness as its initial premise. Allison and Anievas consider that concept—the uneven, multilinear, and interactive nature of social development—to have been neglected by Linklater (Allison & Anievas, 2010; see also Rosenberg, 2006). In other words, there is a Eurocentric bias in Linklater’s arguments, which “merely states a Euro-centric ‘inside-out’ bias by attributing the West’s development of higher levels of rationalization and morality to its own unique ability to learn and borrow from other cultures” (Anievas, 2010, p. 153). This results in a “rather ‘uncritical’ political project, often difficult to distinguish from ‘liberal’ IR analyses” (2010, p. 155).

Eckersley, in contrast, offers a critique on the Habermasian applications of Critical Theory from the perspective of green theory. Arguing that Habermas’ Critical Theory is “ultimately based on respect for the relative autonomy of the human subject,” she maintains that “the treatment of the other as moral subjects should be extended to nature, regardless of its level of communicative competence” (Eckersley, 1999, pp. 44–45).

At the practical level, the most obvious related difficulty is the various power differential in international society that makes negotiation and consensus difficult to achieve. In addition, the type of political activity required for the formation of a universal communication community is abstract and vague. Therefore, as Eckersley comments, it is not clear whether “the discourse ethic” is “always the best, or only, means for achieving transformation, or emancipation in general” (2008, p. 353).

Given the fact that historically universalistic discourses have been used as justifications for hegemonic projects, it is natural that universalistic aspirations are treated cautiously. As Shapcott states, “the necessity for state survival in an uncertain anarchic environment . . . provides a brake on universalizing forces that emerged from modernity, the Enlightenment and later globalization” (Shapcott, 2010, p. 66).

Structural Critical Theory

Structural critical theory is the other well-known line of critical thinking in IR that provides a more materialist and social-structural understanding of critical theory compared to those approaches influenced by the normative idealism of Habermasian critical theory. It is also different from other forms of critical IR approaches which define the social in intersubjective terms (such as constructivism). Structural critical theory in IR is generally associated with different forms of neo-Gramscian analysis (Cox, 1983; Burnham, 1991; Gill, 1993; Bieler, 2005; Bieler & Morton, 2003, p. 200; Morton, 2007) as well as with some recent historical sociological approaches that adopt different forms of Marxian historical materialism emphasizing the importance of production processes and of relations of production (van der Pijl, 1984; Rosenberg, 1994, 2006; van Apeldoorn, 2002, 2004; Teschke, 2003; Morton, 2013). Generally, these works are united in their critique of capitalism and the different forms of class, race, or gender inequality that it creates. Different works take different stances on the relation between structures and ideology and place different weights on the determinacy of structures versus ideas. What I call structural critical theory here is also particularly compatible with many of the assumptions of critical realism as a philosophy of science and differs in its assumptions both from the positivism of mainstream international relations as well as post positivist normative idealist positions such as those held by Linklater (Joseph, 2007; Joseph & Wight, 2010; Yalvaç, 2010; Apeldoorn, 2004).

The following two sections first outline neo-Gramscian theory and then consider the main issues involved in Marxist historical sociology. Viewed from the perspective of IR theory, the most important aspect of neo-Gramscianism is its understanding of state and hegemony. The way neo-Gramscians see these concepts provide alternative starting points for developing a CIRT (Cox, 1981, 1983, 1986; Joseph, 2000, 2008). In contrast to the mainstream, which has an abstract and ahistorical understanding of the state, the state is understood as a form of social (class) relation. In the mainstream, an ontological exteriority (Morton, 2013) is assumed in terms of its analysis of the relation of the state to the society ignoring the internal relation between the two. However, in the historical materialist analysis, the separation of the public from the private or the state from civil society is a structural aspect of the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, the state is not taken only in its institutional aspect but also in terms of its relations with other social forces in society and the way they influence the functioning of the state (Gramsci, 1971, p. 261). Thus, the class nature of the state can be understood from the way that the state maintains and supports the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. Gramsci labels this unity of the political and civil society as the integral state “through which ruling classes organize their hegemony and moral superiority” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 258, 271).

The Gramscian understanding of hegemony is also different from its use in the mainstream. In contrast to the accounts proffered by (neo) realists, which define hegemony as the concentration of material power in one dominant state, hegemony is defined with reference to the social relations of production and the way dominant social classes organize their domination. Furthermore, hegemony is conceived not only in terms of force but also as consenting to the legitimacy of existing institutions with respect to the reproduction of the existing social relations of production (see Joseph, 2000, 2008 for a critical realist interpretation).

Neo-Gramscian thought entered international relations primarily through the work of Robert Cox (1981, 1983, 1986) who extended the Gramscian categories of analysis to international relations to develop an emancipatory approach to world politics. As opposed to the ‘deterministic and ahistorical’ analysis of the mainstream, the concern of Cox is to “provide . . . a non-deterministic yet structurally grounded explanation of change” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 5). Cox also shares the concerns of the CT held by the Frankfurt School theorists about the way knowledge has been conditioned by the social, political, and historical context. Knowledge of international relations has become instrumental to furthering the interests of the dominant states that reflect the interests of their hegemonic classes. Cox generalizes the Gramscian concept of hegemony to cover not only systems of domination in domestic societies but also those in the international. Similar to Gramsci, he is more interested in the “social basis of hegemony” and “its inherent points or moments of contradiction” (Germain & Kenny, 1998, p. 6). According to Cox, world hegemonies are based on the universalization of the state-society complexes of a hegemonic state. Hegemony at the international level links the dominant mode of production within the world economy with “subordinate modes of production” thus connecting “the social classes of different countries” (Cox & Sinclair, 1996, p. 137). Like the domestic hegemony of a social class, world hegemony of a state is not only based on force but also on consent and its acceptance as legitimate by those participating in the system. Hegemony within a world order is consequently “based on a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality” (Cox, 1981, p. 139).

Cox developed what he calls a world structures approach to analyze different world orders (1981, 1989). To overcome the limitations of a state centric approach, he applies this method to the following three levels or spheres of activity: (a) organization of production, more particularly with regard to the social forces engendered by the production process; (b) forms of states, which are derived from the study of different state/society complexes; and (c) world orders, that is, the particular configurations of forces. The dialectical relation between these three different levels of activity constitutes different historical structures. Each of these structures, in turn, is affected by a configuration between dominant ideas, institutions, and material capabilities. These elements are irreducible and dialectically related and concretized in each of the elements of the historical structures (social forces, forms of states and world orders) forming different world hegemonies.

At the core of these different world hegemonies is a dominant structure of accumulation, which is then projected outside state boundaries by a hegemonic class with the help of an increasingly internationalizing state apparatus. The hegemonic class disseminates and consolidates its ideology through different international organizations (e.g., the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G8, and United Nations), this leads to the formation of a nascent global civil society (also see van der Pijl, 1984; Gill & Law, 1988; Gill, 1993). Together, these transnational forces exert pressure on other states to adopt the accumulation strategies of the hegemonic state. These states become “transmission belts” (Cox, 1981, 1989) between the hegemon and their domestic societies and become part of the hegemonic structure of the world system. Modern world history is then periodized with respect to different hegemonies such as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The internationalization of production has led to the formation of a new class of transnational labor, thus creating new forces for antihegemonic struggles. However, according to Cox, as the working classes are still nationally organized, antihegemonic struggles are bound to begin within national societies.

Cox’s approach has attracted a variety of criticism. For example, Teschke (2008, p. 174) argues that there is a problem with Cox’s concept of structures of accumulation, which he uses instead of Marx’s concept of mode of production. These structures of accumulation, the starting point of Cox’s analysis, are actually “historical variations” within the capitalist mode of production but these are taken as given by Cox and not properly theorized. Teschke, therefore, criticizes Cox for taking the development of capitalism in a preconstituted state system without questioning its formation. Cox is also criticized for emphasizing interruling class relations and ideology formation rather than class conflict as the primary contradiction of capitalism leading to a lack of understanding of its main dynamics (Teschke, 2008, pp. 173–175). Another criticism is related to the presence of an inherent Eurocentrism in Cox’s approach in his explanation of the geographical expansion of capitalism from the West to the East (Hobson, 2007).

Marxist international historical sociology has revised some of the unfinished themes in Marx’s work and incorporated the dynamics of the interstate system in the analysis of the reproduction and contradictions of capitalism (Wallerstein, 1974; Lacher, 2002, 2006; Morton, 2007a, 2007b; Teschke & Lacher, 2007). Indeed, the relation between capitalism, the state, and the state system is an extremely dynamic topic for discussion in international historical sociology. This topic contains an echo of some of the controversies of 1970s concerning the connection between the economic and the political—Althusserian totality. The focus of the current discussions is, however, an expanded understanding of the concept of totality, which now covers the whole world system rather than one nation state or society. Inevitably, this raised the relative autonomy versus determinism discussion that had previously been analyzed in the context of one state or society and elevated this discussion to a new context of an internationalized capitalism and its relation with geographical multiplicity.

In his early work, Justin Rosenberg (1994) developed an alternative Marxist analysis that argues for a structural correspondence between different geopolitical systems and different modes of production and/or social structures. According to Rosenberg, despite the presence of anarchy in most geopolitical systems, there is a “structural discontinuity” between pre- and modern capitalist systems. Both sovereignty and anarchy are “social forms arising out of the distinctive configuration of capitalist social relations” (1994, p. 172). Following Wood (1981, 2003), Rosenberg argues that, whereas precapitalist modes of production are based on personalized domination, the capitalist mode of production is characterized by an impersonal form of sovereignty resulting from the separation between the economic and the political in capitalism. It is this generalized differentiation between these two spheres within capitalism that creates an abstract understanding of the state and a realist discourse and makes independent power politics possible.

In his later work, rather than a structural analysis of the development of different state systems, Rosenberg (2006, 2010) altered his focus, attempting to integrate the international into social theory by developing Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development (UCD). Rosenberg’s aim here is to develop an international dimension of social theorizing while at the same time advancing a social theory of the international (2006, p. 312, 313). Rosenberg utilizes UCD as a general transhistorical abstraction to explain the development of world history through the interactive dynamics of a multiplicity of political units and their uneven and combined development across time and space (2006, p. 312). The emphasis on “interactive multiplicity” allegedly avoids the universalist and essential assumptions of stadial conceptions of international development. Other scholars have joined Rosenberg in outlining different aspects of international development through the concept of UCD. For instance, Kamran Matin applied this concept to the process of state formation in premodern Iran (Matin, 2007) arguing that UCD provides “a deeper theoretical foundation for a non-Eurocentric international historical materialism . . . highlighting the constitutiveness of the international both to the emergence and the expansion of capitalism” (Matin, 2013, p. 370).

Political Marxists, in their effort to avoid accusations of developing transhistorical abstractions in their explanations of international relations, have advanced more historicist accounts of international development that focus on class and particularly on social property relations and the conflicts they create (Tecshke, 2014). The key thinker of Political Marxism in IR is Benno Teschke. In developing his views, Teschke starts from a philosophical divide within Marxist discussions between Critical Marxism and Scientific Marxism (Teschke, 2002, 2003, 2014). On one hand, the Scientific Marxists believe that Marxism is a science, and their paradigm is the mature political economy of Capital (Marx, 1977a

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School, known more appropriately as Critical Theory, is a philosophical and sociological movement spread across many universities around the world. It was originally located at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), an attached institute at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. The Institute was founded in 1923 thanks to a donation by Felix Weil with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. After 1933, the Nazis forced its closure, and the Institute was moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City.

The academic influence of the critical method is far reaching. Some of the key issues and philosophical preoccupations of the School involve the critique of modernity and capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation, as well as the detection of the pathologies of society. Critical Theory provides a specific interpretation of Marxist philosophy with regards to some of its central economic and political notions like commodification, reification, fetishization and critique of mass culture.

Some of the most prominent figures of the first generation of Critical Theorists were Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970), Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993), and Eric Fromm (1900-1980). Since the 1970s, a second generation began with Jürgen Habermas, who, among other merits, contributed to the opening of a dialogue between so-called continental and the analytic traditions. With Habermas, the Frankfurt School turned global, influencing methodological approaches in other European academic contexts and disciplines. It was during this phase that Richard Bernstein, a philosopher and contemporary of Habermas, embraced the research agenda of Critical Theory and significantly helped its development in American universities starting from the New School for Social Research in New York.

The third generation of critical theorists, therefore, arose either from Habermas’ research students in the United States and at Frankfurt am Main and Starnberg (1971-1982), or from a spontaneous convergence of independently educated scholars. Therefore, tthird generation of Critical Theory scholars consists of two groups. The first group spans a broad time—denying the possibility of establishing any sharp boundaries. It can be said to include also scholars such as Andrew Feenberg, even if he was a direct student of Marcuse, or people such as Albrecht Wellmer who became an assistant of Habermas due to the premature death of Adorno in 1969. Klaus Offe, Josef Früchtl, Hauke Brunkhorst, Klaus Günther, Axel Honneth, Alessandro Ferrara, Cristina Lafont, and Rainer Forst, among others, are also members of this group. The second group of the third generation is instead composed mostly of American scholars who were influenced by Habermas’ philosophy during his visits to the United States.

Table of Contents

  1. Critical Theory: Historical and Philosophical Background
  2. What is Critical Theory?
    1. Traditional and Critical Theory: Ideology and Critique
    2. The Theory/Practice Problem
    3. The Idea of Rationality: Critical Theory and its Discontents
  3. Concluding Thoughts
  4. References and Further Reading

1. Critical Theory: Historical and Philosophical Background

Felix Weil’s father, Herman, made his fortune by exporting grain from Argentina to Europe. In 1923, Felix decided to use his father’s money to found an institute specifically devoted to the study of German society in the light of a Marxist approach. The initial idea of an independently founded institute was conceived to provide for studies on the labor movement and the origins of anti-Semitism, which at the time were being ignored in German intellectual and academic life.

Not long after its inception, the Institute for Social Research was formally recognized by the Ministry of Education as an entity attached to Goethe University Frankfurt. Felix could not imagine that in the 1960s Goethe University Frankfurt would receive the epithet of “Karl Marx University”. The first officially appointed director was Carl Grünberg (1923-9), a Marxist professor at the University of Vienna. His contribution to the Institute was the creation of a historical archive mainly oriented to the study of the labor movement (also known as the GrünbergArchiv).

In 1930, Max Horkheimer succeeded to Grünberg. While continuing under a Marxist inspiration, Horkheimer interpreted the Institute’s mission to be more directed towards an interdisciplinary integration of the social sciences. Additionally, the GrünbergArchiv ceased to publish and an official organ was instead launched with a much greater impact: the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. While never officially supporting any party, the Institute entertained intensive research exchanges with the Soviet Union.

It was under Horkheimer’s leadership that members of the Institute were able to address a wide variety of economic, social, political and aesthetic topics, ranging from empirical analysis to philosophical theorization. Different interpretations of Marxism and its historical applications explain some of the hardest confrontations on economic themes within the Institute, such as the case of Pollock’s criticism of Grossman’s standard view on the pauperization of capitalism. This particular confrontation led Grossman to leave the Institute. Pollock’s critical reinterpretation of Marx received support also from intellectuals who greatly contributed to later developments of the School as, for instance, in the case of Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno and Erich Fromm. In particular, with Fromm’s development of a psychoanalytic trend at the Institute and with an influential philosophical contribution by Hokheimer, it became clear how under his directorship the Institute faced a drastic turning point which characterized all its future endeavors. The following sections, therefore, briefly introduce some of the main research patterns introduced by Fromm and Horkheimer, respectively.

Since the beginning, psychoanalysis in the Frankfurt School was conceived in terms of a reinterpretation of Freud and Marx. The consideration of psychoanalysis by the Frankfurt School was certainly due to Horkheimer’s encouragement. It was Fromm, nevertheless, who achieved a significant advancement of the discipline; his central aim was to provide, through a synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis, “the missing link between ideological superstructure and socio-economic base” (Jay 1966, p. 92). A radical shift though occurred in the late 1930s, when Adorno joined the School and Fromm decided, for independent reasons, to leave. Nevertheless, the School’s interest in psychoanalysis, particularly in Freud’s instinct theory, remained unaltered. This was manifest in Adorno’s paper Social Science and Sociological Tendencies in Psychoanalysis (1946), as well as in Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization (1955). The School’s interest in psychoanalysis coincided with a marginalization of Marxism, a growing interest into the interrelation between psychoanalysis and social change, as well as with Fromm’s insight into the psychic (or even psychotic) role of the family. This interest became crucial in empirical studies of the 40s that led, eventually, to Adorno’s co-authored work TheAuthoritarian Personality (1950). The goal of this work was to explore, on the basis of empirical research making use of questionnaires, to define a “new anthropological type”—the authoritarian personality (Adorno et. al. 1950, quoted in Jay 1996, p. 239). Such a character was found to have specific traits such as: compliance with conventional values, non-critical thinking, as well as absence of introspectiveness.

As pointed out by Jay: “Perhaps some of the confusion about this question was a product of terminological ambiguity. As a number of commentators have pointed out, there is an important distinction that should be drawn between authoritarianism and totalitarianism [emphasis added]. Wilhelminian and Nazi Germany, for example, were fundamentally dissimilar in their patterns of obedience. What The Authoritarian Personality was really studying was the character type of a totalitarian rather than an authoritarian society. Thus, it should have been no surprise to learn that this new syndrome was fostered by a familial crisis in which traditional paternal authority was under fire” (Jay 1996, p. 247). Horkheimer’s leadership provided a very distinct methodological direction and philosophical grounding to the research interests of the Institute. As an instance of Horkheimer’s aversion to so-called Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life), he criticized the fetishism of subjectivity and the lack of consideration for materialist conditions of living. Furthermore, arguing against Cartesian and Kantian philosophy, Horkheimer, by use of dialectical mediation, attempted to rejoin all dichotomies including the divide between consciousness and being, theory and practice, fact and value. Differently from Hegelianism or Marxism, dialectics amounted for Horkheimer to be neither a metaphysical principle nor a historical praxis; it was not intended as a methodological instrument. On the contrary, Horkheimer’s dialectics functioned as the battleground for overcoming overly rigid categorizations and unhelpful dichotomies and oppositions. It originated from criticism by Horkheimer of orthodox Marxism's dichotomy between productive structures and ideological superstructure, as well as positivism’s naïve separation of social facts and social interpretation.

In 1933, due to the Nazi takeover, the Institute was temporarily transferred, first to Geneva and then in 1935 to Columbia University, New York. Two years later Horkheimer published the ideological manifesto of the School in his Traditional and Critical Theory ([1937] 1976) where he readdressed some of the previously introduced topics concerning the practical and critical turn of theory. In 1938, Adorno joined the Institute after spending some time as an advanced student at Merton College, Oxford. He was invited by Horkheimer to join the Princeton Radio Research Project. Gradually, Adorno assumed a prominent intellectual leadership in the School and this led to co-authorship, with Horkheimer, of one of the milestones works of the School, the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947. During the time of Germany’s Nazi seizure, the Institute remained the only free voice publishing in German language. The backlash of this choice, though, was a prolonged isolation from American academic life and intellectual debate, a situation described by Adorno with the iconic expression “message in the bottle” to refer to the lack of a public American audience. According to Wiggershaus: “The Institute disorientation in the late 1930s made the balancing acts it had always had to perform, for example in relation to its academic environment, even more difficult. The seminars were virtually discussion groups for the Institute’s associates, and American students only rarely took part in them” (1995, p. 251).

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, one of the major topics of study was Nazism. This led to two different approaches in the School. One marshaled by Neumann, Gurland and Kirchheimer and oriented mainly to the analysis of legal and political issues by consideration of economic substructures; the other, instead, guided by Horkheimer and focusing on the notion of psychological irrationalism as a source of obedience and domination (see Jay 1996, p. 166).

In 1941, Horkheimer moved to Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles. He built himself a bungalow near other German intellectuals, among whom were Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann as well as with other people interested in working for the film industry (Wiggershaus 1995, p. 292). Other fellows like Marcuse, Pollock and Adorno followed shortly, whereas some remained in New York. Only Benjamin refused to leave Europe and in 1940, while attempting to cross the border between France and Spain at Port Bou, committed suicide. Some months later, Arendt also crossed the same border, passing on Adorno Benjamin’s last writing: Theses on the Philosophy of History.

The division of the School into two different premises, New York and California, was paralleled by the development of two autonomous research programs led, on the one hand, by Pollock and, on the other hand, by Horkheimer and Adorno. Pollock directed his research to study anti-Semitism. This research line culminated into an international conference organized in 1944 as well as a four-volume work titled Studies in Anti-Semitism; Horkheimer and Adorno, instead, developed studies on the reinterpretation of the Hegelian notion of dialectics as well as engaged into the study of anti-Semitic tendencies. The most relevant publication in this respect by the two was The Authoritarian Personality or Studies in Prejudice. After this period, only few devoted supporters remained faithful to the project of the School. These included Horkheimer himself, Pollock, Adorno, Lowenthal and Weil. In 1946, however, the Institute was officially invited to join Goethe University Frankfurt.

Upon return to West Germany, Horkheimer presented his inaugural speech for the reopening of the institute on 14 November 1951. One week later he inaugurated the academic year as a new Rector of the University. Yet, what was once a lively intellectual community became soon a small team of very busy people. Horkheimer was involved in the administration of the university, whereas Adorno was constantly occupied with different projects and teaching duties. In addition, in order to keep US citizenship, Adorno had to go back to California where he earned his living by conducting qualitative research analysis. Horkheimer, instead, attempted to attract back his former assistant Marcuse when the opportunity arose for a successor to Gadamer’s chair in Frankfurt, but neither this initiative nor further occasions were successful. Marcuse remained in the United States and was offered a full position at Brandeis University. Adorno returned to Germany in August 1953 and was soon involved again in empirical research, combining quantitative and qualitative methods in the analysis of industrial relations for the Mannesmann Company. In 1955, he took over Horkheimer position as director of the Institute for Social Research, and on 1 July 1957 he was appointed full professor in philosophy and sociology. Even though greatly influential in philosophy, Adorno’s most innovative contribution is unanimously thought to be in the field of music theory and aesthetics. Some of his significant works in this area included Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) and later Vers une Musique Informelle. In 1956, Horkheimer retired just when several important publications were appearing, such as Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and the essay’s collection Sociologica. These events marked the precise intellectual phase of maturity reached at that time by the Frankfurt School.

The sixties—which saw famous student protests across Europe—also saw the publication of Adorno’s fundamental work, Negative Dialectics (1966). This study, while far from either materialism or metaphysics, maintained important connections with an “open and non-systemic” notion of dialectics. It appeared only a few years later than One-Dimensional Man (1964), where Marcuse introduced the notion of “educational dictatorship”— a strategy intended for the advancement of material conditions aimed at the realization of a higher notion of the good. While Marcuse, quite ostensibly, sponsored the student upheavals, Adorno maintained a much moderate and skeptical profile.

In 1956, Habermas joined the Institute as Adorno’s assistant. He was soon involved in an empirical study titled Students and Politics. The text, though, was rejected by Horkheimer and it did not come out, as it should have, in the series of the Frankfurt Contributions to Sociology. Only later, in 1961, it appeared in the series Sociological Texts (see Wiggershaus 1995, p. 555). Horkheimer’s aversion towards Habermas was even more evident when he refused to supervise his Habilitation. Habermas obtained his Habilitation under the supervision of Abendroth at Marburg, where he addressed the topic of the bourgeois formation of public sphere. This study was published by Habermas in 1962 under the title of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, just before he handed in his Habilitation. With the support of Gadamer he was, then, appointed professor at Heidelberg. Besides his achievements, both in academia and as an activist, the young Habermas contributed towards the construction of a critical self-awareness of the socialist student groups around the country (the so-called SDS, Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund). It was in this context that Habermas reacted to the extremism of Rudi Dutschke, the radical leader of the students' association who criticized him for defending a non-effective emancipatory view. It was principally against Dutschke’s positions that Habermas, during a public assembly labeled such positions with the epitome of “left-wing fascism”. How representative this expression was of Habermas’ views on student protests has often been a matter of contention.

Discussions of the notion of emancipation had been at the center of the Frankfurt School political debate since the beginning. The concept of emancipation (Befreiung in German), covers indeed a wide semantic spectrum. Literarily it means “liberation from”. The notion spans, therefore, from a sense related to action-transformation to include also revolutionary action.

After his nomination in 1971 as a director of the Max Planck Institutefor Research into the Conditions of Life in the Scientific-Technical World at Starnberg, Habermas left Frankfurt. He returned there only in 1981 after having completed The Theory of Communicative Action. This decade was crucial for the definition of the School’s research objectives. In TheTheory of Communicative Action (1984b [1981]), Habermas provided a model for social complexities and action coordination based upon the original interpretation of classical social theorists as well as the philosophy of Searle’s Speech Acts theory. Within this work, it also became evident how the large amount of empirical analysis conducted by Habermas’ research team on topics concerning pathologies of society, moral development and so on was elevated to a functionalistic model of society oriented to an emancipatory purpose. The assumption was that language itself embedded a normative force capable of realizing action co-ordination within society. In this respect, Habermas defined these as the “unavoidable pragmatic presuppositions of mutual understanding”. Social action whose coordination-function relies on the same pragmatic presuppositions was seen as connected to a justification discourse based on the satisfaction of specific validity-claims.

Habermas described discourse theory as relying on three types of validity-claims raised by communicative action. He claimed that it was only when the conditions of truth, rightness and sincerity were raised by speech-acts that social coordination could be obtained. As noticed in the opening sections, differently from the first generation of Frankfurt School intellectuals, Habermas contributed greatly to bridging the continental and analytical traditions, integrating aspects belonging to American Pragmatism, Anthropology and Semiotics with Marxism and Critical Social Theory.

Just one year before Habermas’ retirement in 1994, the directorship of the Institutfür Sozialforschung was assumed by Honneth. This inaugurated a new phase of research in Critical Theory. Honneth, indeed, revisited the Hegelian notion of recognition (Anerkennung) in terms of a new prolific paradigm in social and political enquiry. Honneth began his collaboration with Habermas in 1984, when he was hired as an assistant professor. After a period of academic appointments in Berlin and Konstanz, in 1996 he took Habermas’ chair in Frankfurt.

Honneth’s central tenet, the struggle for recognition, represents a leitmotiv in his research and preeminently in one of his most important books, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts ([1986]). This work represents a mature expansion of what was partially addressed in his dissertation, a work published under the title of Critique of Power: Stages of Reflection of a Critical Social Theory (1991 [1985]). One of the core themes addressed by Honneth consisted in the claim that, contrary to what Critical Theory initially emphasized, more attention should have been paid to the notion of conflict in society and among societal groups. Conflict represents the internal movement of historical advancement and human emancipation, falling therefore within the core theme of critical social theory. The so-called “struggle for recognition” is what best characterizes the fight for emancipation by social groups. This fight represents a subjective negative experience of domination—a form of domination attached to misrecognitions. To come to terms with negations of subjective forms of self-realization means to be able to transform social reality. Normatively, though, acts of social struggle activated by forms of misrecognition point to the role that recognition plays as a crucial criterion for grounding intersubjectivity.

Honneth inaugurated a new research phase in Critical Theory. Indeed, his communitarian turn has been paralleled by the work of some of his fellow scholars. Brunkhorst, for instance, in his Solidarity: From Civic Friendship to a Global Legal Community (2005 [2002]), canvasses a line of thought springing from the French Revolution of 1789 to contemporary times: the notion of fraternity. By the use of historical conceptual reconstruction and normative speculation, Brunkhorst presented the pathologies of the contemporary globalized world and the function that solidarity would play.

The confrontation with American debate, initiated systematically by the work of Habermas, became soon an obsolete issue in the third generation of critical theorists—not only because the group was truly international, merging European and American scholars. The work of Forst testifies, indeed, of the synthesis between analytical methodological rigor and classical themes of the Frankfurt School. Thanks to Habermas’ intellectual opening, the third generation of critical theorists engaged into dialogue with French post-modern philosophers like Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard and so forth, which according to Foucault are the legitimate interpreters of some central aspects of the Frankfurt School.

2. What is Critical Theory?

“What is ‘theory’?” asked Horkheimer in the opening of his essay Traditional and Critical Theory [1937]. The discussion about method has been always a constant topic for those critical theorists who have attempted since the beginning to clarify the specificity of what it means to be “critical”. A primary broad distinction that Horkheimer drew was that of the difference in method between social theories, scientific theories and critical social theories. While the first two categories had been treated as instances of traditional theories, the latter connoted the methodology the Frankfurt School adopted.

Traditional theory, whether deductive or analytical, has always focused on coherency and on the strict distinction between theory and praxis. Along Cartesian lines, knowledge has been treated as grounded upon self-evident propositions or, at least, upon propositions based on self-evident truths. Accordingly, traditional theory has proceeded to explain facts by application of universal laws, that is, by subsumption of a particular to a universal in order to either confirm or disconfirm this. A verificationist procedure of this kind was what positivism considered to be the best explicatory account for the notion of praxis in scientific investigation. If one were to defend the view according to which scientific truths should pass the test of empirical confirmation, then one would commit oneself to the idea of an objective world. Knowledge would be simply a mirrorof reality. This view is firmly rejected by critical theorists.

Under several aspects, what Critical Theory wants to reject in traditional theory is precisely this “picture theory” of language and knowledge as that defined by “the first” Wittgenstein in his Tractatus. According to such a view, later abandoned by “the second” Wittgenstein, the logical form of propositions consists in showing a possible fact and in saying whether this is true or false. For example, the proposition “it rains today” shows both the possibility of the fact that “it rains today” and it affirms that it is the case that “it rains today.” In order to check whether something is or is not the case, one must verify empirically whether the stated fact occurs or not. This implies that the condition of truth and falsehood presupposes an objective structure of the world.

Horkheimer and his followers rejected the notion of objectivity in knowledge by pointing, among other things, to the fact that the object of knowledge is itself embedded into a historical and social process: “The facts which our senses present to us are socially preformed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ” (Horkheimer [1937] in Ingram and Simon-Ingram 1992, p. 242). Further, with a rather Marxist twist, Horkheimer noticed also that phenomenological objectivity is a myth because it is dependent upon “technological conditions” and the latter are sensitive to the material conditions of production. Critical Theory aims thus to abandon naïve conceptions of knowledge-impartiality. Since intellectuals themselves are not disembodied entities observing from a God’s viewpoint, knowledge can be obtained only from a societal embedded perspective of interdependent individuals.

If traditional theory is evaluated by considering its practical implications, then no practical consequences can be actually inferred. Indeed, the finality of knowledge as a mirror of reality is mainly a theoretically-oriented tool aimed at separating knowledge from action, speculation from social transformative enterprise. Critical Theory, instead, characterizes itself as a method contrary to the “fetishization” of knowledge, one which considers knowledge as something rather functional to ideology critique and social emancipation. In the light of such finalities, knowledge becomes social criticism and the latter translates itself into social action, that is, into the transformation of reality.

Critical Theory has been strongly influenced by Hegel’s notion of dialectics for the conciliation of socio-historical oppositions as well as by Marx’s theory of economy and society and the limits of Hegel’s “bourgeois philosophy”. Critical Theory, indeed, has expanded Marxian criticisms of capitalist society by formulating patterns of social emancipatory strategies. Whereas Hegel found that Rationality had finally come to terms with Reality with the birth of the modern nation state (which in his eyes was the Prussian state), Marx insisted on the necessity of reading the development of rationality through history in terms of a class struggle. The final stage of this struggle would have seen the political and economic empowerment of the proletariat. Critical theorists, in their turn, rejected both the metaphysical apparatus of Hegel and the eschatological aspects connected to Marx’s theory. On the contrary, Critical Theory analyses were oriented to the understanding of society and pointed rather to the necessity of establishing open systems based on immanent forms of social criticism. The starting point was the Marxian view on the relation between a system of production paralleled by a system of beliefs. Ideology, which according to Marx was totally explicable through an underlying system of production, for critical theorists had to be analyzed in its own respect and as a non-economically reducible form of expression of human rationality. Such a revision of Marxian categories became extremely crucial, then, in the reinterpretation of the notion of dialectics for the analysis of capitalism. Dialectics, as a method of social criticism, was interpreted as following from the contradictory nature of capitalism as a system of exploitation. Indeed, it was on the basis of such inherent contradictions that capitalism was seen to open up to a collective form of ownership of the means of production, namely, socialism.

a. Traditional and Critical Theory: Ideology and Critique

From these conceptually rich implications one can observe some of the constant topics which have characterized critical social theory, that is, the normativity of social philosophy as something distinct from classical descriptive sociology, the everlasting crux on the theory/practice relation and, finally, ideology critique. These are the primary tasks that a critical social theory must accomplish in order to be defined as “critical”. Crucial in this sense is the understanding and the criticism of the notion of “ideology”.

In defining the senses to be assigned to the notion of ideology, within its descriptive-empirical sense “one might study the biological and quasi-biological properties of the group” or, alternatively, “the cultural or socio-cultural features of the group” (Geuss 1981, p. 4 ff). Ideology, in the descriptive sense, incorporates both “discursive” and “non-discursive” elements. That is, in addition to propositional contents or performatives, it includes gestures, ceremonies and so forth (Geuss 1981, pp. 6-8); also, it shows a systematic set of beliefs—a world-view—characterized by conceptual schemes. A variant of the descriptive sense is the “pejorative” version where a form of ideology is judged negatively in view of its epistemic, functional or genetic properties (Geuss 1981, p. 13). On the other hand, if one takes “ideology” according to a positive sense, then, reference is not with something empirically given, but rather with a “desideratum”, a “verité a faire” (Geuss 1981, p. 23). Critical Theory, distances itself from scientific theories because, while the latter understands knowledge as an objectified product, the former serves the purpose of human emancipation through consciousness and self-reflection.

If the task of critical social theory is to evaluate the degree of rationality of any system of social domination in accordance to standards of justice, then ideological criticism has the function of unmasking wrong rationalizations of present or past injustices—that is, ideology in the factual and negative sense—such as in the case of the belief that “women are inferior to men, or blacks to whites…”. Thus ideological criticism aims at proposing alternative practicable ways for constructing social bounds. Critical Theory moves precisely in between the contingency of objectified non-critical factual reality and the normativity of utopian idealizations, that is, in between the so-called “theory/practice” problem (see Ingram 1990, p. xxiii). Marcuse, for instance, in the essay Philosophie und Kritische Theorie (1937), defends the view that Critical Theory characterizes itself as being neither philosophy tout court nor pure science, as it claims to be instead an overly simplistic approach to Marxism. Critical Theory has the following tasks: to clarify the sociopolitical determinants that explain the limits of analysis of a certain philosophical view as well as to transcend the use of imagination—the actual limits of imagination. From all this, two notions of rationality result: the first attached to the dominant form of power and deprived of any normative force; the second characterized, on the contrary, by a liberating force based on a yet-to-come scenario. This difference in forms of rationality is what Habermas has later presented, mutatis mutandis, in terms of the distinction between instrumental and communicative rationality. While the first form of rationality is oriented to a means-ends understanding of human and environmental relations, the second form is oriented to subordinating human action to the respect of certain normative criteria of action validity. This latter point echoes quite distinctively Kant’s principle of morality according to which human beings must be always treated as “ends in themselves” and never as mere “means”. Critical Theory and Habermas, in particular, are no exception to these view on rationality, since they both see Ideologiekritik not just as a form of “moralizing criticism”, but as a form of knowledge, that is, as a cognitive operation for disclosing the falsity of conscience (Geuss 1981, p. 26).

This point is strictly connected to another conceptual category playing a great role within Critical Theory, the concept of interest and in particular the distinction between “true interests” and “false interests”. As Geuss has suggested, there are two possible ways to propose such separation: “the perfect-knowledge approach” and “the optimal conditions approach” (1981, p. 48). Were one to follow the first option, the outcome would be one of falling into the side of acritical utopianism. On the contrary, “the optimal conditions approach” is reinterpreted, at least for Habermas, in terms of an “ideal speech situation” that by virtually granting an all-encompassing exchange of arguments, it assumes the function of providing a counterfactual normative check on actual discursive contexts. Within such a model, epistemic knowledge and social critical reflection are attached to unavoidable pragmatic-transcendental conditions that are universally the same for all.

The universality of such epistemological status differs profoundly from Adorno’s contextualism where individual epistemic principles grounding cultural criticism and self-reflection are recognized to be legitimately different along time and history. Both versions are critical in that they remain faithful to the objective of clearing false consciousness from ignorance and domination; but whereas Habermas sets a high standard of validity/non-validity for discourse theory, Adorno’s historicism remains sensitive to degrees of rationality that are context-dependent. In one of his later writings of 1969 (republished in Adorno 2003, pp. 292 ff.), Adorno provides a short but dense interpretation in eight theses on the significance and the mission of Critical Theory. The central message is that Critical Theory, while drawing from Marxism, must avoid hypostatization and closure into a single Weltanschauung on the pain of losing its “critical” capacity. By interpreting rationality as a form of self-reflective activity, Critical Theory represents a particular form of rational enquiry that must remain capable of distinguishing, immanently, ideology from a Hegelian “Spirit”. The mission of Critical Theory, therefore, is not exhausted by a theoretical understanding of social reality; as a matter of fact, there is a strict interconnection between critical understanding and transformative action: theory and practice are interconnected.

b. The Theory/Practice Problem

During the entire course of its historical development, Critical Theory has always confronted itself with one crucial methodological concern: the “theory/practice” problem. To this puzzle critical theorists have provided different answers, such that it is not possible to regroup them into a homogeneous set of views. In order to understand what the significance of the theory/practice problem is, it is useful to refer back to David Hume’s “is/ought” question. What Hume demonstrated through the separation of the “is” from the “ought” was the non-derivability of prescriptive statements from descriptive ones. This separation has been at the basis of those ethical theories that have not recognized moral statements as a truth-property. In other words, alternative reading to the “is/ought” relation have defended either a cognitivist approach (truth-validity of moral statements) or, alternatively, a non-cognitivist approach (no truth-validity), as in the case of emotivism.

Even if characterized by several internal differences, what Critical Theory added to this debate was the consideration both of the anthropological as well as the psychological dynamics motivating masses and structuring ideologies.

As far as the anthropological determinants in closing up the gap of the “theory/practice” problem is concerned, it is possible to take into consideration Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interest ([1968] 1971). There Habermas combined a transcendental argument with an anthropological one by defending the view according to which humans have an interest in knowledge insofar as such interest is attached to the preservation of self-identity. Yet, to preserve one’s identity is to go beyond mere compliance with biological survival. As Habermas clarifies: “[…] human interests […] derive both from nature and from the cultural break with nature” (Habermas [1968], in Ingram and Simon-Ingram,1992, p. 263). On the contrary, to preserve one’s identity means to find in the emancipatory force of knowledge the fundamental interest of human beings. Indeed, the grounding of knowledge into the practical domain has quite far-reaching implications as, for instance, that interest and knowledge in Habermas find their unity in self-reflection, that is, in “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” (Habermas [1968], in Ingram and Simon-Ingram 1992, p. 264).

The Habermasian answer to the theory/practice problem comes from the criticism of non-cognitivist theories. If it is true, as non-cognitivists claim, that prescriptive claims are grounded on commands and do not have any cognitive content which can be justified through an exchange of public arguments, it follows that they cannot provide an answer to the difference between what is a “convergent behavior”, established through normative power on the basis, for example, of punishment and what is instead the notion of “following a valid rule”. In the latter case, there seems to be required an extra layer of justification, namely, a process through which a norm can be defined as valid. Such process is for Habermas conceived in terms of a counterfactual procedure for a discursive exchange of arguments. This procedure is aimed at justifying those generalizable interests that ought to be obeyed because they pass the test of moral validity.

The Habermasian answer to the is/ought question has several important implications. One implication, perhaps the most important one, is the criticism of positivism and of the epistemic status of knowledge. On the basis of Habermasian premises, indeed, there can be no objective knowledge, as positivists claim, detached from intersubjective forms of understanding. Since knowledge is strictly embedded in serving human interests, it follows that it cannot be considered value-neutral and objectively independent.

A further line of reflection on the theory/practice problem comes from psychoanalysis where a strict separation has been maintained between the “is” and “ought” and false “oughts” have been unmasked through the clarification of the psychological mechanisms constructing desires. Accordingly, critical theorists like Fromm referred to Freud’s notions of the unconscious which contributed defining ideologies in terms of “substitute gratifications”. Psychoanalysis represented such a strong component within the research of the Frankfurt School that even Adorno in his article Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda (1951) analyzed Fromm’s interconnection between sadomasochism and fascism. Adorno noticed how a parallel can be drawn between the loss of self-confidence and estimation in hierarchical domination, on the one hand, and compensation through self-confidence which can be re-obtained in active forms of dominations, on the other hand. Such mechanisms of sadomasochism, though, are not only proper of fascism. As Adorno noticed, they reappear under different clothes in modern cultural industry through the consumption of so-called “cultural commodities”.

Notwithstanding the previous discussions, the greatest philosophical role of psychoanalysis within Frankfurt School was exemplified by Marcuse’s thought. In his case, the central problem became that of interpreting the interest in the genealogical roots of capitalist ideology. How can one provide an account of class interests after the collapse of classes? How can one formulate, on the basis of the insights provided by psychoanalysis, the criteria through which it can be distinguished true from false interests? The way adopted by Marcuse was with a revisitation of Freud’s theory of instinctual needs. Differently from Freud’s tensions between nature and culture and Fromm’s total social shaping of natural instincts, Marcuse defended a third—median—perspective where instincts were considered only partially shaped by social relations (Ingram 1990, p. 93 ff). Through such a solution, Marcuse overcame the strict opposition between biological and historical rationality that was preventing the resolution of the theory/practice problem. He did so by recalling the annihilation of individual’s sexual energy laying at the basis of organized society and recalling, in its turn, the archetypical scenario of a total fulfillment of pleasure. Marcuse took imagination as a way to obtain individual reconciliation with social reality: a reconciliation, though, with an underlying unsolved tension. Marcuse conceived of overcoming such tensions through the aestheticization of basic instincts liberated by the work of imagination. The problem with Marcuse’s rationalization of basic instincts was that by relying excessively on human biology, it became impossible to distinguish between the truth and the falsity of socially dependent needs (see on this Ingram 1990, p. 103).

c. The Idea of Rationality: Critical Theory and its Discontents

For Critical Theory, rationality has always been a crucial theme in the analysis of modern society as well as of its pathologies. Whereas the early Frankfurt School and Habermas viewed rationality as a historical process whose unity was taken as a precondition for social criticism, later critical philosophies, influenced mainly by post-modernity, privileged a rather more fragmented notion of (ir)rationality manifested by social institutions. In the latter views, social criticism could not act as a self-reflective form of rationality, since rationality cannot be conceived as a process incorporated in history. One point shared by all critical theorists was that forms of social pathology were connected to deficits of rationality which, in their turn, manifested interconnections with the psychological status of the mind (see Honneth 2004, p. 339 ff.).

In non-pathological social aggregations, individuals were said to be capable of achieving cooperative forms of self-actualizations only if freed from coercive mechanisms of domination. Accordingly, for the Frankfurt School, modern processes of bureaucratic administration exemplified what Weber considered as an all-encompassing domination of formal rationality over substantive values. In Weber, rationality was to be interpreted as purposive rationality, that is, as a form of instrumental reason. Accordingly, the use of reason did not amount to formulating prescriptive models of society but aimed at achieving goals through the selection of the best possible means of action. If in Lukács the proletariat was to represent the only dialectical way out from the total control of formal rationality, Horkheimer and Adorno saw technological domination of human action as the negation of the inspiring purposes of Enlightenment. In the already mentioned work—>Dialectic of Enlightenment (1969 [1947])—Horkheimer and Adorno emphasized the role of knowledge and technology as a “means of exploitation” of labor and viewed the dialectic of reason as the archetypical movement of human self-liberation. Nevertheless, the repression by formal-instrumental rationality of natural chaos pointed to the possible resurgence of natural violence under a different vest, so that the liberation from nature through instrumental reason opened to the possibility of domination by a totalitarian state (see Ingram 1990, p. 63).

According to this view, reason had been seen essentially as a form of control over nature characterizing humanity since its inception, that is, since those attempts aimed at providing a mythological explanation of cosmic forces. The purpose served by instrumental rationality was essentially that of promoting self-preservation, even if this goal turned paradoxically into the fragmentation of bourgeois individuality that, once deprived of any substantive value, became merely formal and thus determined by external influences of mass-identity in a context of cultural industry.

Rationality, thus, began assuming a double significance: on the one hand, as traditionally recognized by German idealism, it was conceived as the primary source of human emancipation; on the other, it was conceived as the premise of totalitarianism. If, as Weber believed, modern rationalization of society came to a formal reduction of the power of rationality, it followed that hyper-bureaucratization of society led not just to a complete separation between facts and values but also to a total disinterest in the latter forms. Nevertheless, for Critical Theory it remained essential to defend the validity of social criticism on the basis of the idea that humanity is embedded in a historical learning process where clash is due to the actualization of reason re-establishing power-balances and struggles for group domination.

Given such a general framework on rationality, it can be said that Critical Theory has undergone several paradigm revolutions, both internally and externally. First of all, Habermas himself has suggested a further pre-linguistic line of enquiry by making appeal to the notion of “authenticity” and “imagination”. This suggests a radical reformulation of the same notion of “truth” and “reason” in the light of its metaphorical capacities of signification (see Habermas 1984a). Secondly, the commitment of Critical Theory to universal validity and universal pragmatics has been widely criticized by post-structuralists and post-modernists who have instead insisted respectively on the hyper-contextualism of the forms of linguistic rationality, as well as on the substitution of a criticism of ideology with genealogical criticism. While Derrida’s deconstructive method has shown how binary opposition collapses when applied to the semantic level, so that meaning can only be contextually constructed, Foucault has oriented his criticisms to the supposedly emancipatory power of universal reason by showing how forms of domination permeate micro-levels of power-control such as in sanatoriums, educational and religious bodies and so on. The control of life—known as bio-power—manifests itself in the attempt of normalizing and constraining individuals’ behaviors and psychic lives. For Foucault, reason is embedded into such practices which display the multiple layers of un-rationalized force. The activity of the analyst in this sense is not far from the same activity of the participant: there is no objective perspective which can be defended. Derrida, for instance, while pointing to the Habermasian idea of pragmatic of communication, still maintained a distinct thesis of a restless deconstructive potential of any constructing activity, so that no unavoidable pragmatic presuppositions nor idealizing conditions of communication could survive deconstruction. On the other hand, Habermasian theory of communicative action and discourse ethics, while remaining sensitive to contexts, pretended to defend transcendental conditions of discourse which, if violated, were seen to lead to performative contradictions. Last but not least, to the Habermasian role of consensus or agreement in discursive models, Foucault objected that rather than a regulatory principle, a true critical approach would simply enact a command in case of “nonconsensuality” (see Rabinow, ed. 1984, p. 379 ff).

3. Concluding Thoughts

The debate between Foucault and Critical Theory—in particular with Habermas—is quite illuminating of the common critical-universalist orientations of the first phase of the Frankfurt School versus the diverging methodologies defended starting from the Habermasian interpretation of modernity. For Foucault it was not correct to propose a second-order theory for defining what rationality is. Rationality is not to be found in abstract forms. On the contrary, what social criticism can only aim to achieve is the unmasking of deeply enmeshed forms of irrationality deposited in contingent and historical institutional embeddings. Genealogical methods, though, do not reject the idea that (ir)-rationality is part of history; on the contrary, they rather pretend to illuminate abstract and procedural rational models by dissecting and analyzing concrete institutional social practices through immanent criticism. To this views, Habermas has objected that any activity of rational criticism presupposes unavoidable conditions in order to justify the pretence of validity of its same exercise. This rebuttal reopened the demands of transcendental conditions for immanent criticism revealed along the same pragmatic conditions of social criticism. For Habermas, criticism is possible only if universal standards of validity are recognized and only if understanding (Verständigung) and agreement (Einverständnis) are seen as interconnected practices.

A further line of criticism against Habermas, one which included also a target to Critical Theory as a whole, came from scholars like Chantal Mouffe (2005). What she noticed is that in the notion of consensus it nested a surrendering to a genuine engagement into “political agonism”. If, as Mouffe claimed, the model of discursive action is bound to the achievement of consensus, then, what rolecan be left to politics once agreement is obtained? The charge of eliminating the consideration of political action from “the political” has been extended by Mouffe also to previous critical theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Criticism concerned the non-availability of context-specific political guidance answering the question “What is to be done?” (see Chambers 2004, p. 219 ff.). What has been noticed is that whereas Critical Theory has aimed at fostering human emancipation, it has remained incapable of specifying a political action-strategy for social change. For the opponents to the Critical Theory paradigm, a clear indication in this sense was exemplified by Marcuse’s idea of “the Great Refusal”, one predicating abstention from real political engagement and pretences of transformation of the capitalist economy and the democratic institutions (Marcuse 1964). It was indeed in view of the reformulation of the Critical Theory ambition of presenting “realistic utopias”, that some of the representatives of the third generation directed their attention. Axel Honneth, for instance, starting from a revisitation of the Hegelian notion of (mis)-recognition and through a research phase addressing social pathologies, has proposed in one of his latest studies  a revisited version of socialism, as in The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (2017). Nancy Fraser, instead, by focusing on the notion of redistribution has provided key elements in understanding how it is possible to overcome economic inequalities and power-imbalances in post-industrial societies where cultural affiliations are no longer significant sources of power. In his turn, Alessandro Ferrara along his recent monograph The Democratic Horizon (2014), has revived the paradigm of political liberalism by addressing the significance of democracy and tackled next the problem of hypepluralism and multiple democracies. For Ferrara, what is inherent to democratic thinking is innovation and openness. This notion bears conceptual similarities with what Kant and Arendt understood in terms of “broad mindedness”. Seyla Benhabib, along similar lines, has seeked to clarify the significance of the Habermasian dual-track model of democracy, as one based on the distinction between moral issues that are proper of the institutional level (universalism) and ethical issues characterizing, instead, informal public deliberations (pluralism). Whereas the requirement of a universal consensus pertains only to the institutional sphere, the ethical domain is instead characterized by a plurality of views confronting each other across different life-systems. Benhabib’s views, by making explicit several Habermasian assumptions, aim to countervail both post-structuralist worries as well as post-modern charges of political action ineffectiveness of Critical Theory models. Finally, Forst’s philosophical preoccupation has been that of addressing the American philosophical debate with the specific aim of constructing an alternative paradigm to that of liberalism and communitarianism. Forst’s attempt has integrated analytic and continental traditions by radicalizing along transcendental lines some core Habermasian intuitions on rights and constitutional democracy. In his collections of essays, The Right to Justification, Forst suggests a transformation of the Habermasian “co-originality thesis” into a monistic “right to justification”. This move is aimed at suggesting an alternative and hopefully more coherent route of explanation for the understanding of the liberal constitutional experience (Forst, [2007] 2014, see also Forst, [2010] 2011).

4. References and Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. et al. The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. Eine Bildmonographie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951), in Arato, Andrew and Eike Gebhardt (eds.). The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Continuum: New York, 1982.
  • Brunkhorst, Hauke. Solidarity: From Civic Friendship to a Global Legal Community, trans. by J. Flynn, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, [2002] 2005.
  • Chambers, Simone. “The Politics of Critical Theory”, in Fred Rush Fred (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Couzens, David and Thomas McCarthy. Critical Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
  • Ferrara, Alessandro. The Democratic Horizon. Hyperpluralism and the Renewal of Political Liberalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Forst, Rainer. “The Justification of Human Rights and the Basic Right to Justification. A Reflexive Approach”, Ethics 120:4 (2010), 711-40, reprinted in Claudio Claudio (ed.). Philosophical Dimensions of Human Rights. Some Contemporary Views, Dordrecht: Springer 2011.
  • Forst, Rainer. The Right to Justification. Elements of a Constructivist Theory of Justice, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Habermas & the Frankfurt School, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press, [1968] 1971.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. “Questions and Counter-Questions”, Praxis International 4:3 (1984a).
  • Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action, vols. 1 and 2, Boston: Beacon Press, [1981] 1984b.
  • Honneth, Axel. Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory, trans. by Kenneth Baynes. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, [1985] 1991.
  • Honneth, Axel. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. by Joel Anderson. Cambridge: Polity Press, [1986] 1995.
  • Honneth, Axel. “The Intellectual legacy of Critical Theory”, in Fred Rush (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Honneth, Axel. The Idea of Socialism: towards a Renewal, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017.
  • Horkheimer, Max. “Traditional and Critical Theory”, in Paul Connerton (ed.). Critical Sociology: Selected Readings, Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1937] 1976.
  • Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment, New York: Continuum, [1947] 1969.
  • Ingram, David. Critical Theory and Philosophy, St. Paul: Paragon House, 1990.
  • Ingram, David and Julia Simon-Ingram. Critical Theory: The Essential Readings, St. Paul: Paragon House, 1992.
  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, [1968], 1971.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. “Philosophie und Kritische Theorie”, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung VI:3 (1937).
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
  • Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox, London: Verso, 2005.
  • Rabinow, Paul (ed.). “Politics and Ethics: An Interview”, in The Foucault Reader, New York: Pantheon, 1984.
  • Rush, Fred. Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge, 2001 [1st English edition 1922].


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Claudio Corradetti
University of Rome Tor Vergata

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