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Summary of Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory

April 25, 2012

Horkheimer, Max. Traditional and Critical Theory. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

In this essay, Horkheimer attempts to delineate the differences between traditional and critical theories. Traditional theory is the type of theory typically encountered in the natural sciences, though Horkheimer argues that it has actually permeated other fields as well. As a theory, its primary criterion is harmony: all of the constituent parts form a coherent whole, free of contradiction. Traditional theory is typically expressed through abstractions and is designed to accomplish the specific tasks set up for it – for example, how to make a certain machine run more efficiently using abstract mathematical concepts. Despite the apparent neutrality of such concepts, Horkheimer argues that they are actually a derivation of the society to which a scholar belongs. For example, a positivist or pragmatist may claim to “pay most attention to the connections between theoretical work and the social life-process,” but, in reality, they “integrate facts into conceptual frameworks to keep the [social division of labor] up to date so that he himself and all who use them may be masters of the widest possible range of facts” (196).  Traditional theory is a theory of the status quo, in that it is designed to increase the productivity and functioning of the world as it presently exists.

In contrast, critical theory is “dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life” (199). Instead of focusing on judges of what is “better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable,” critical theory rejects these notions because they only function within the present order. The critical theorist sees the world in a two-fold manner: the first world is the world that they have created it s culture and organization which mankind has constructed for itself. This is the world of reason and will. However, the theorist also sees a second world dominated by supposedly natural processes and pure mechanisms, which act in opposition to the world of reason and will. This world is the world of capital. The critical theorist therefore embraces tension as a constituent element of his theory: contra Kant, “reason cannot become transparent to itself as long as men act as members of an organism that lacks reason” (208). Moreover, if the true realm of man is governed by reason, then critical thought must oppose the world of capital which dictates all aspects of a human’s life for it.

Following from his emphasis on individual reasoning and rejection of abstract categories, the subject of critical theory is necessarily a “definite individual in his real relation to other individuals and groups, in his conflict with a particular class, and, finally in the resultant web of relationships with the social totality and with nature” (211). This subject is necessarily historical; in contrast to Kant and Descartes, Horkheimer stresses the social context of the reasoning subject, such that the subject should seek to align his thought with “a critical, promotive factor in the development of the masses” (214).  As such, the job of the theorist is to formulate a critique both against defenders of the status quo and the “distracting, conformist, or utopian tendencies within his own household” (216). Since the critical theorist is himself a member of the society which he critiques, he must still be able to perceive of his own existence as part of the social totality (selbst-Bewusstsein).

Since critical theory uses different criterions than traditional theory, it may appear that it is an arbitrary, useless theory – “critical theory has no material accomplishments to show for itself” (219). However, since it deals with the actual, present condition of mankind, it always starts with the exchange economy (225). To that end, it retains “a single existential judgment”: “the basic form of the historically given commodity economy on which modern history rests contains in itself the internal and external tensions of the modern era; it generates these tensions over and over again in an increasingly heightened form; and after a period of progress… it finally hinders further development and drives humanity into a new barbarism” (227). This quote, though lengthy, shows Horkheimer’s own reliance on dialectical thought – the dialectic of history contains within it its own contradiction. Here, though, it is important to distinguish Horkeheimer from Hegel: while Hegel would have argued that the dialectic would be transcended in an Aufhebung, Horkheimer maintains the negative dialectic, such that there is no utopian, teleological end-point.

Regardless, Horkheimer does imply the possibility of improving social relations: “unless there is continued theoretical effort… to critical light on present day society and to interpret it in the light of traditional theories…  the ground is taken from under the hope of radically improving human existence” (233). Thus, concern for social justice is critical theory’s raison d’être, and, as such, it can only be called affirmative in the sense that “the future of humanity depends on the existence today of the critical attitude” (242).

From → Political Theory

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