Critical Theory and Practical Philosophy: On The Moral and Political Credentials of Frankfurt School Social Criticism



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Critical Theory and Practical Philosophy: On The Moral and Political Credentials of Frankfurt School Social Criticism
1. The ‘Frankfurt School’ and ‘Critical Theory’
The term “critical theory” is now part of the lingua franca of academic discourse in

literary and cultural studies, art history, intellectual history, sociology, political theory and not least in social and political philosophy. The term is sometimes used to designate almost any currently fashionable theorist, but is most closely associated with the approach to social theory taken by the members of the Frankfurt School. That is how the term will be understood here, as shorthand for the critical theory of society of the Frankfurt School.


The term “Frankfurt School” can itself mislead. It is the collective noun for the group of philosophers, sociologists, social psychologists and cultural theorists who worked under the aegis of the privately financed Frankfurt based Institut für Sozialforschung from about the 1930’s onwards, and who, (until it ceased publication in 1941), published in its journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Members of the School can be divided into an inner and an outer circle: The inner circle comprised figures such as Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal and Herbert Marcuse, and later Theodor W. Adorno. The outer circle included the social psychologist Erich Fromm, the legal and political theorists Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, and the cultural theorist Walther Benjamin. Jürgen Habermas was a researcher at the Institute in the latter half of the 1950’s, before being gently levered out by Horkheimer (who considered him to be a Marxist radical and thus a political liability) and later became Professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt, where the Institute is now based.1

Even if one uses the term ‘critical theory’ to cover only the social theory of the defining intellectual figures associated with the Frankfurt School - Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and, later, Habermas, the term is apt to mislead in two respects. First, it can appear to suggest that all these figures share a common approach, or a work within a common paradigm. This is only partly true. Adorno and Horkheimer did indeed work closely together, most obviously in their joint authored study Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944); and before the Second World War, Horkheimer wrote some important essays which later came to be viewed as programmatic for the entire school.2 However, Marcuse’s philosophy shows marked differences from Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s as does Habermas’s. The differences are even more pronounced in the case of Habermas, who is known for having located and addressed some deep theoretical problems in the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer. Indeed, when Habermas was Adorno’s research assistant, it did not seem to him that there was any such a thing as critical theory.3 Later, in the 1960s, when the original idea of a critical theory had retrospectively been made clear to him, Habermas began a systematic and far-reaching critique of critical theory, which in turn shaped his own, much more systematic and very different idea of social theory.4 Habermas’s mature conception of social theory as expounded in Theory of Communicative Action is such a radical reinterpretation of Horkheimer’s original idea that some commentators argue it marks a departure from, rather than a development of, the idea of critical theory.5



It is clear, then, that the stock phrase ‘Frankfurt School critical theory’ is a collective noun for the thought of various thinkers with distinctive, and in some cases, markedly different approaches. Furthermore, not only do the different members of the Frankfurt School have differing conceptions of ‘critical theory’, these conceptions themselves develop and change over time. Even in the case of Adorno, whose thought, among that of all figures mentioned, remained most stable and consistent over the course of his intellectual career, there are marked differences between his late and his early work.6 These difference between the late and the early work are even more pronounced in Marcuse, and Habermas.7 So it is difficult and dangerous to make general statements about something so multifaceted and dynamic as ‘critical theory’. This is not to say that it should not and cannot be done. It can and should, for the thinkers mentioned do share some important background assumptions and their respective work does bear some important resemblances. To generalise with sensitivity and without oversimplification, one must always bear in mind whose conception of critical theory one is discussing, and at what period of its development.8
With this caveat in mind we must turn to the question of what critical theory is. Critical theory is a particular kind of social and cultural criticism, one that understands itself as an immanent critique. To understand what makes a criticism immanent we have briefly to recall the origins of the term ‘critique’. Prior to Kant the term ‘Kritik’ (which in German just means criticism, and nothing very fancy) had been mainly used in the context of textual (e.g. biblical) criticism. Criticism referred to the practice of restoring, completing and where possible authenticating (usually) ancient texts manuscripts. Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) gave the term ‘critique’ its primary modern sense of theoretical self-reflection: a critique is a self-examination of reason by reason. Kant’s critique of pure reason set itself both negative and positive tasks: negatively it was to limit (and thus to suspend) the claims of transcendent dogmatic metaphysics, for example that of St. Anselm to be able to deduce the existence of God entirely a priori. Positively, it was to establish (contra Hume’s scepticism against induction) the a priori credentials of the synthetic propositions of natural science, to vindicate the principles of pure reason. The details of the Kantian project are not important here. However, it is crucial to note that this project had a political agenda that went far beyond the political and judicial metaphors in which Kant’s philosophy was couched, particularly in the prefaces and in the Transcendental Doctrine of Method.9 Kant’s first Critique declared brazenly that the only true authority was human reason, and thus issued a direct challenge to the dogmatic claims of religious and political authority.10 In this respect criticism is linked, albeit indirectly, to the political project of enlightenment, which Kant famously described in 1783 as the emancipation of a people from its state of Unmündigkeit (minority or tutelage).11
Critical theory as immanent social criticism continues to understand itself as a form of rational self-reflection, a reflection on reason by reason. However, unlike Kant, the Frankfurt School thinkers did not conceive reason as an individual faculty of mind and as a realm of pure, a priori ideas and principles. For them reason was not formal, it was substantial; not individual but social; and not theoretical, but practical. As for Hegel, for the Frankfurt School reason and rationality designated something more like a dynamic principle of development toward a good life or good society, that was historically inscribed into a society and culture, although of course they were more acutely aware than Hegel was that its development had been arrested.12 Still, in spite of the differences with Kant, the Frankfurt School notion of social criticism is a descendent of Kant’s notion of critique; it is still a form of self-reflection. Reason and society are at once critic and criticised object. Social criticism is itself rational; it is a form of argument that is sensitive to reasons and justifications, and it is equally a criticism directed toward the irrrational organisation of a society or culture, and guided by a vision, if an as yet unrealized one, of a good society. Similarly, to the extent that the critical theorists are a part of (and have been socialized within) the society they are criticising, their critical practice is itself social, it reflects a progressive and transformative tendency within that society towards a better or more rational one; and the object of the criticism is also social, for it is directed towards those regressive and negative forces that thwart or hinder the development of the rational society. One could say that, in the case of critical theory: rational self-reflection is socially mediated, and that social self-reflection is rationally articulated
Immanent social criticism [Gesellschaftskritik] as envisaged by the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School differs markedly from a kind of social criticism that became prevalent in English speaking countries where the traditions of analytic philosophy became dominant in the 20th Century. Social philosophy in the latter tradition is situated within the much narrower domain of normative ethics and political philosophy.13 In this tradition social criticism is understood as a kind of philosophical elaboration of moral criticism. To be sure, philosophers in this tradition have always been aware that their aim is not just to understand and explain, but also to offer ‘a diagnosis of, and a cure for, social ills’, however the medical metaphor here is just a way of speaking about the practical implications of the normative moral concepts such as justice, rights, obligation and duty. 14 For example, John Rawls famously wrote that, ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.’ He asks the question, is the ‘basic structure of society’ just? If the answer is no, this has practical implications because ‘laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.’15 The members of the Frankfurt School reject this kind of social criticism for a variety of reasons that we will examine more closely below. One reason is that as a matter of empirical and historical fact societies, political communities, and indeed large corporate organisations, seem to be rather good at making themselves immune from moral criticism, to judgments made on the basis of the moral standards and values that hold sway within them, by which moral agents hold one other to account. Human subjects apparently tolerate a high degree of social ills, from starvation, misery, oppression, to institutionalised injustice and discrimination, and the most unjust societies are often not characterised by widespread feelings of moral indignation and a clamour for reform. Frankfurt School critical theorists thought that this apparent ability of societies and institutions to immunise themselves from moral criticism is itself in need of explanation. The Hungarian Marxist philosopher Gyorgy Lukács explained this by way of his theory of reification, whereby under capitalism because of the domination of the commodity form and the exchange principle, social phenomena take on the illusory appearance of naturalness. At the same time atomised social subjects come to regard their relation to society and economy as a purely contemplative one.16 This explanation had enormous influence on Horkheimer and Adorno, who incorporate a sociological explanation of the function of morality into their social and cultural criticism. There are less audacious explanations.17 Brecht’s dictum: “first eating, then morals” contains the thought that in situations of extreme social injustice people have more basic things to worry about, than morality, such as food or survival. More pertinent still is that moral criticism is a first-order judgment of one person (his character or actions) by another person. This usually involves the attribution of blame, and it is a way in which moral persons/agents hold each other to account. It is much more difficult, due to a host of metaphysical and epistemological considerations concerning identity, agency and causality, to level such judgments against society, community, government or indeed any corporate organisation, and as a consequence more difficult and usually less satisfying to hold them to account. In any case, it is a fact that Frankfurt School critical theorists do not think of immanent social criticism as applied moral theory, and do not generally rely on moral arguments. Moreover, they leaven their account of what is wrong with society, (of why and in what respects it is not as it ought to be) with a large amount of sociological explanation, not to mention a fairly explosive mix of other ingredients including, Marxian social theory (filtered through Lukács) and psychoanalysis.
2. The aims of Critical Theory
Practical and normative aims of Critical Theory 1. diagnostic 2. remedial
It is relatively simple to state what the diagnostic aim is, namely to identify and to correctly describe what is wrong with a society or culture, or to state why that society or culture is not as it ought to be.
In addition to this various remedial aims have been attributed to critical theory

These have been both therapeutic, and aimed at individuals, and social and political aimed at the collective institutional life of the whole, and sometimes both at once
Therapeutic aims of social theory

Epistemic emancipation – disillusionment (especially of beliefs that unbeknownst to agents contribute to their oppression/lack of fulfilment.)

Practical emancipation – abolition of subjective states of unhaapiness unfulfillment and alienation
Social and political aims of social theory

Reform – improvement of social conditions, achievement of fair redistributions of goods and opportunities etc.

Revolution – in the pragmatic sense of seizing power and overthrowing the political establishment and eliminating the social, institutional and economic causes of oppression, misery etc.

Revolution – in the utopian sense of the total qualitative social transformation of individual and collective life
At various stages in its development critical theory has propose to remedy the current situation, by

1. disillusioning or undeceiving subjects about their condition and the social conditions under which they live.

2. offering an alternative picture of what that society of form of life could be like, thereby

3. unblocking the paths to social emancipation
In addition through

4. piecemeal practical reform (the gradual abolition of oppression and misery) or

5. revolution, in both sense described above
to abolish flawed institutions and practices

and to create new ones in their place
For various reasons all the critical theorists have rowed back from the remedial aims of critical theory. However all of them without exception have continued to embrace the

diagnostic aim
To identify or correctly describe what is wrong (in a suitably specified sense) with a society (ditto) or its members or to state why that society or culture is not as it ought to. Honneth diagnosis of social pathology
3. The problem of the moral ambivalence of critical theory
This attempt by the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists to distance critical theory, as immanent social criticism, from moral theory, and to give an account of what is wrong with society that does without moral and ethical concepts, gives rise to a problem that is frequently discussed in the literature. The problem concerns the normative and practical aspirations of critical theory and is peculiarly salient in the thought of Adorno and Horkheimer. I shall call it the problem of the moral ambivalence of critical theory. It can be described quite briefly as follows.
One important characteristic of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory of society that their criticisms are not morally or evaluatively innocuous. Their characterisation of contemporary social conditions, their diagnosis of what is wrong with the social world (both before and after the war) is in fact redolent with moral language. It states that the social world is bad, unjust, false, and even a ‘radically evil’ and, to that extent, is guided from the very beginning by a vision of a good society should be like. It is hard to see how such a characterisation of their contemporary social world can do without any moral and ethical concepts, and if it did it would surely be a lot more anodyne than it in fact is. The trouble is that, for a variety of different reasons, which I will examine more closely below, reasons which stem in part from the philosophies of Hegel and Marx, and which are pervasive throughout Hegelian-Marxism, Horkheimer and Adorno are prevented from embracing a moral theory, from endorsing moral principles, and from propounding a conception of the good. The difficulty that arises is that, absent these broadly moral and or ethical considerations, they cannot reach the conclusions that they do: their characterisation of what is wrong with the social world, ought to be, if not more anodyne than it is, then much less richly couched in moral and ethical terms.
The problem I have just sketched is sometimes known as the problem of the ‘normative foundations’ or ‘normative grounds’ of social criticism. However, these familiar labels are an inappropriate way of putting the problem. It is jumping the gun to assume generally that normative conclusions require normative grounds or premises, and that the problem here is the absence of adequate foundations or grounds. This would be a description of the problem that Adorno and Horkheiemer would reject, since they reject what is sometimes called ‘Hume’s law’ namely that one cannot validly infer a moral ‘ought’ from a non-moral ‘is’. At least if they don’t expressly repudiate Hume’s conjecture in the Treatise on Human Nature, they certainly reject the neo-Kantian interpretation of it, that no ethical or indeed evaluative conclusion may be validly inferred from any number of purely factual premises.18
To describe the problem as a “moral deficit” as is sometimes called, is also potentially misleading.19 The problem is much better understood as a surfeit of moral or evaluative assumptions and conclusions, than as a deficit of moral or evaluative justifying grounds or premises. These two familiar names for the problem, the problem the concerning the normative foundations or the moral deficit of critical theory, point to a solution that that the critical theorists in question reject, namely that they should bolster their conclusions with moral arguments or premises. Nonetheless there is a problem and it is due to the gap between Adorno and Horkheimer’s normatively and evaluatively rich conclusions and the empirical and dialectical arguments that are suppose to evince them.



  1. The Rejection of moral theory in Horkheimer and Adorno

Having briefly described the problem of the moral ambivalence of critical theory. But to demonstrate that this is a genuine problem for them, it needs to be demonstrated with examples from Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s work. Building on Helmut Dubiel’s division, I will provide examples from four phases of the development of Horkheimer and Adorno’s work.20

i. Horkheimer’s materialist period 1930-37

ii. Horkheimer’s original programme of critical theory 1937-40.

iii. Horkheimer and Adorno’s Critique of Instrumental Reason 1940-45.

iv. Adorno’s mature work 1952-1971.


4.1 Horkheimer’s ‘materialist’ critique of morality (1933-37)
In 1933 Max Horkheimer published two articles in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, entitled ‘Materialism and Metaphysics’ and ‘Materialism and Morality’ respectively. In that period ‘materialism’ was Horkheimer’s preferred term for what four years later he came to call ‘critical theory’. One thing to mention is that in these works morality is equated more or less exclusively with Kantianism. Frankfurt school theorists were not faced with anything like the current menu of moral theories, competing as it were on equal footing. Nor does there seem to have been any question but that Kant’s theory adequately captured the phenomena of what they called ‘bourgeois’ morality. To all intents and purposes Adorno and Horkheimer assumed that the really existing (bourgeois) morality of Weimar Germany was Kantian morality. Thus in criticising Kant’s moral theory, Horkheimer was criticising the moral self-understanding of the age: criticism of morality was a criticism of existing society.
Horkheimer’s criticisms in this period are directed towards the deontological, universalist and rationalist features of Kantian morality. There are two aspects to his criticisms of Kant’s deontology. First, he claims that Kant’s deontological insistence that the moral worth of an action depends exclusively on the conviction [Gesinnung] of the agent, no matter the consequences of the action, is a ‘regressive tendency’, and the idea that the good will is the sole source of moral value, an ‘idealistic delusion’ (BPSS 24/KT1 82). The worth of an action according to Horkheimer is determined consequentially by whether or not it actually conduces to the transformation of bourgeois capitalist society into a rationally organised society, to the elimination of human suffering and oppression, and to what he calls the ‘happiness [Glück] of life as a whole’. (BPSS30/KT1 88). Second, he rejects Kant’s central idea that one can explain the peculiar stringency of moral laws, the obligatoriness and overidingness of the moral ‘ought’, by showing that they were the manifestation of pure practical reason to a human nature that was both rational and sensible, and so not merely rational. That is why, according to Kant they appear as imperatives.21 However there are alternative explanations. Both Hegel and Schopenhauer argue that the command like nature of morality is a relic of Mosaic law within the Judeo Christian tradition. Nietzsche traces the severity of moral commands back to rather gruesome origins of contract law, whilst Freud puts it down to the internalisation of fear of the father figure. Horkheimer is with the dissenters. He attributes these features of Kantian morality to their religious origins. 22 He also portrays them as an internalisation of social compulsion and as a psychic consequence of the suppression of the instincts (BPSS 33/KT1 92).
Horkheimer’s rejection of both the rationalism and the universalism of Kant’s moral theory is related to the first criticism. As these articles make clear, Horkheimer has a historical understanding of morality: in the bourgeois era, he claims, the human psyche has been stamped with the features of possessive individualism. However, motives of individual self-interest, are not sufficient to cement society together. Hence, once religious traditions and hierarchies have ebbed away, other mechanisms are needed to provide the requisite repository of altruistic or non-prudential motives. Morality comes to fill the void, by trying to shore up an historically contingent set of behavioural norms and values with the illusory metaphysical backing of a ‘transcendent order of reality’.23 Horkheimer argues that the general attempt to ground moral prescriptions as requirements of pure practical reason, together with the widespread idea that moral actions stand in need of rational justification, is an illusion.

The materialist tries to replace the justification of action with an explanation routed through the historical understanding of the agent. He reveals this justification to be an illusion. Most human beings today manifest a very strong need for such justifications. Although, when they make important decisions they are not content to call upon their feelings of indignation, compassion, love and solidarity, but refer these instincts back to an absolute world order by calling them ‘moral’, but this by no means shows that this need [for metaphysical backing - GF] can reasonably be fulfilled. (CT 23 KT144)

Furthermore, Horkheimer brands this illusion “ideological” because it misrepresents what are in fact the contingent needs, interest and aspirations of a particular class as “universally binding postulates, anchored in transcendent authorities, as principles that correspond to the eternal essence of the world and of humanity.” (CT22/KT1 42-3 translation amended).
The upshot is that Horkheimer rejects what he sees as a ‘metaphysically grounded morality’ in favour of a rich conception of humanity, which foregrounds the moral feelings of love, compassion and solidarity, and the anthropological fact that humans desire happiness. These moral feelings, and the associated “claim to happiness” [Glück], Horkheimer thinks, do not stand in need of any “justification or grounding”24.
It would be wrong to suggest that Horkheimer simply repudiates Kant’s deontic conception of morality, and replaces it with a eudaemonist philosophy of moral feelings. His argument points to a more complex dialectical relation between the two. The main idea is that whilst Kant’s deontological, universalist and metaphysical theory of morality captures bourgeois morality accurately, a sociological account of this conception of morality can highlight its ideological function. Kant states that morality “is not properly the doctrine of how we are to make ourselves happy, but of how we are to become worthy of happiness.” i.e. by each person on his own, acting in accordance with and for the sake of duty, or by universalizing his maxims according to the categorical imperative.25 In Horkheimer’s view this procedure is necessary only because, in an antagonistic capitalist society in which atomised individuals blindly and chaotically pursue their self-interest, the possibility of happiness is foreclosed. Now for Horkheimer, happiness, as we have already seen, is a property of social harmony that belongs to life as a whole. It is the vision of a rationally organised social whole in which the individual interest harmonises with the common interest. This harmony has a political and a philosophical aspect. Politically it implies that the individual citizen is at one with (not alienated from) society and its institutions; philosophically it means that the particular is taken up into but not subsumed and absorbed within the universal. This vision of society as a kind of organic unity, is the relic of a long tradition of perfectionism stretching back, ultimately to Aristotle, different versions of which can be found in Rousseau, Kant, Schiller and of course Hegel. But Horkheimer gives his concept of happiness an distinctively Hegelian-Marxist twist insofar as labour is the vehicle of individual self-realization through which the individual’s self-conscious activity become integrated within the social whole (BPSS 20, 37/KT1 77, 98)

In the future society towards which the moral consciousness aspires, the life of the whole and of individuals alike is produced a not merely as a natural effect but as the consequence of rational designs that take account of the happiness of individuals…In place of the blind mechanism of economic struggles, which presently condition happiness and – for the greater part of humanity – unhappiness, the purposive application of the immeasurable wealth of human and material powers of production emerges. BPSS 29/KT1 88.

This somewhat fanciful proleptic vision of society as a harmonious social whole in which happiness is fully actualised is bound up with the view held by Horkheimer and Pollock at the time, that a rationally organised society would have a planned economy.26 In the absence of this rational, self-conscious, economically planned social harmony, morality functions as a socially integrative mechanism by suppressing the individual’s demand for a happiness that is denied to them anyway. Kantian morality is an internal psychic mechanism that compensates for the absence of a rationally organised society with a planned economy. (BPSS 20/KT1 77) Thus in these early texts Horkheimer ends up advancing a convoluted dialectical theory whereby the realisation of morality demands the abolition of the very circumstances that require its existence: “Bourgeois morality strives towards the sublation of the order which first made it possible and necessary.” 27
Among may questions that this view raises is the how the moral feelings of compassion and solidarity and the notion of humanity differ sufficiently from the universal moral principles and values Horkheimer exposes as ideological illusions, that they remain above all such suspicions? Moreover, assuming the diagnosis of the present situation is correct, it is equally unclear how an appeal to the moral feelings, and to the idea of humanity support the conclusion what is required is the transformation of bourgeois society into an organic, egalitarian society with a planned economy.


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