The immanence of criticism – the meanings of criticism in the Frankfurtian and post-Frankfurt tradition

Joan Miró, Moonbird, bronze, 2,28 mx 1,98 mx 1,45 m, 1944–1966.


Preface and Introduction of the recently published book by Luiz Philipe de Caux

Foreword [Eduardo Soares Neves Silva]

It is not new that the term review placed itself – perhaps against “its” will, if an act of self-reflection were will – at the center of the debate that juxtaposes, in a most often precarious way, a huge list of theories, from different generations, models, circles or traditions of critical theory frankfurtiana (terminological variations of enormous consequences) to the even more heterogeneous field of ways of thinking that take Kant, Hegel or Marx as reference, an arc of indecisive breadth that includes from Foucault to Brandom, from Spivak to Bhaskar, from Badiou to Nancy.

Louis Philippe de Caux's book, The immanence of criticism: Study on the meanings of criticism in the Frankfurtian and post-Frankfurtian tradition, focuses on this debate with an eye on the strict use of the term review as a referent of theories whose self-understanding refers to the founding moment of the self-appointed critical theory of society, which has Horkheimer and Adorno as two of its proponents and has its positions or redescriptions in Habermas, Honneth and subsequent people. I note, and thus I reiterate what I have just written, that the meaning of what is established in this field is already part of the problem faced in the thesis. How to name the collective of singular self-understandings that bring with them both the task of self-reflection and that of differentiation by overlap, a discreet and contained repeal?

Since the moment when Habermas, still in 1973, postulated the difference between reconstruction and self-criticism, or at least since Jay's seminal historiography in the same year, several ways have been proposed to distinguish either the meanings of criticism in these theoretical approaches, be it the degrees of kinship or distance between the diversity of proponents. Many of these efforts are directly conditioned by two positions that were understood, each at their own time, as distinctions linked, in terms of justification, to the diagnosis of deficits.

In Habermas, the inconsistent, deficient explicitation of the normative bases of criticism by Adorno and Horkheimer can be seen as a sufficient reason for replacing the task of theory: it should bring to light anticipated normative criteria in already existing institutional and social arrangements, rather than of merely indicted in the determined negation of a totalization as false as it is effective. In Honneth, the focus goes from one deficit to another: instead of just a normative one, there is also a sociological one. Thus, the reduction of the social to the imperative of domination under capitalist conditions not only places Adorno and Horkheimer short of presenting the interpretive capacities of subjects as moral beings, but also denotes a structural-functionalist amalgam blind to the specific agency that takes place in the dynamics of recognition .

In turn, the path of “concretist” separation operated by Habermas between the planes of material reproduction and symbolic production is entangled in a sociological obstacle, blind to the supervenience of social conflict over all interaction, a key factor of recognition as grammar. Rather than developing what I have just summarized, I am interested in noting that any self-understanding marked simultaneously by the pair diagnosis/deficit and by the act of singular or collective pardon will have as a consequence that differentiation by overlapping, that is, the invention of tradition intended there will be Always a step-changer, adopt the expression you adopt: generation, models, circles, traditions. What is peculiar, in this case, is that the critical theory of society replaces this risk, in each variant, based on the answer to the question: “what is criticism?”.

There are risks we must take, there are risks to avoid and there are rare ones that demand a different way of seeing things. When the research that resulted in this book began, still as a doctoral work carried out by Luiz Philipe de Caux under my guidance, what immediately seemed clear to its author is that there is no lack of critical theory as a theory of criticism. The self-referentiality in the treatment of the fundamental question that supposedly unites so many ways of thinking – namely, an orientation towards self-reflection, practical behavior in relation to theory – is therefore at the base of the endless series of debates that, ironically, constitute a metaphilosophical variant of the treatment of a question concerning the realization of philosophy.

But how to face the issue of the senses of criticism in the Frankfurtian tradition without falling into the same dilemmas? The way out found by de Caux is to shift the focus: instead of the meaning of the term criticism, which suddenly suggests a theory of criticism, the question is about the meanings assumed by criticism, that is, the apposition to the term. This displacement, marked by a very consistent interpretation of late Adorno, encounters a positive “immanent” critique, a negative immanent critique and an “in general” immanent critique, distinctions meticulously developed by the author, with great consequences for our position, that of people dealing with critical theory. That is, the open way of seeing includes us as part of the problem, part of the impasse, part of a possible solution. This course runs through the book and, from now on, I invite you to read it.

As a last comment, I observe that if the case is to conceive the act of a negative immanent critique or, in the terms proposed by de Caux, to point to the dialectic the limits of its nexus of immanence and, with that, understand itself as a denial of identity, negation of immanence, then the question repeats itself: if this negation requires moving to the object, as the author concludes, we can ask: which object?

It seems to me that there are two contemporary trends in response to that last question, not the one that Luiz Philipe de Caux asks himself, but the one that he poses so that, among so many people, I too can ask it. The first of these tendencies finds its object in the same place – in some cases, the same object – left by Marx. A critical tradition, above all a method, is outlined from the traces that go from Adorno to Marx, and from that to various heterodox Marxisms, and from those to the theories of crisis, and from that to the theory of value, and from there to analyzes of the reproduction of form of human life in the face of the logic of decomposition that marks our moment in the brief, yet infinite existence of capitalism. Another tendency, much more incipient, takes the same object, but by another method. With an eye on the problem of the meaning of immanent negative criticism, there are those who see a materialist method that is Marx's, but is also not. An immanent method aimed at what is residually the object of possible criticism, a minimal object, almost indiscernible in the whirlwind that takes the contemporary as its arrival point.

Such a method, which de Caux correctly identifies, is lately Adorno's method, always Benjamin's method. Elsewhere, I characterized this point of convergence between Benjamin's earlier traits and his fidelity to himself from the point of view of the problem of submersion in the object. In a book with so many concepts, arguments and enigmas, this being one of those in which Luiz Philipe de Caux agrees with what I think, well, that's what I call a happy encounter.

Introduction [Louis Philippe de Caux]

Reviewing, in the year of Adorno's death, a compilation of articles by Horkheimer and the then new book by Habermas, knowledge and interest, both published in the previous year (therefore, a remarkable moment for the retrospective constitution of Frankfurt's critical theory as a tradition of thought), Rüdiger Bubner diagnosed a kind of impasse inherent in the very concept of a critical theory. On the one hand, it is in its very concept that it cannot stop being critical of itself, it needs to include the “self-criticism of critical theory”; on the other hand, it is also a fundamental determination for it that it cannot, turned only to itself, empty itself of content, in a “dogmatism of pure criticism as such”.

The critical gesture par excellence is that of turning the theory towards itself, and yet it cannot, in this, lose sight of the object. It is worth giving the floor to Bubner: “The critical impulse, which retains in a modified form the ancient claim of philosophy to true rationality and proposes to realize it at least negatively together with all the ideological phenomena that no longer correspond to that claim, cannot under no circumstances stop before himself and allow, as an open exception to his own case, a reduction to the innocent status of a mere theory of a particular discipline alongside others; for precisely critical theory has as its essential content the reprobation, in every self-understanding thus isolated and restricted by the theory, of a shortened concept of rationality, and, with that, at the same time of the function of ideological concealment and that of the obstruction of human freedom. The critical concept of theory is only capable of convincing if it does not separate criticism and theory anywhere, even within itself. For the solidification is not only tangible in the theories considered by the critique of ideology, but also the infinite procedure of critical reflection in relation to such theories can become dogmatic. The process of reflection can become autonomous in such a way that theoretical explanations of this kind move to the margins as external comments, at the same time that there is a protection against the experiences actually carried out, even though critical theory claims precisely the praxis.[I]

If this is a risk inherent to critical theory, it is not a question, of course, of looking for a kind of middle ground between the Scylla of the lack of reflection (ie, of “traditional theory”) and the Charybdis of autonomized self-reflection: the theory criticism does not want to be a reflective theory ma non troppo. Recovering Bubner's consideration in part, Marc Sommer proposes the following determination for critical theory, in a formulation as simple as it is correct: “The adjective review means, in critical theory, self-reflection, the theory's critique of itself.[ii]

If self-reflexivity is constitutive of critical theory, it does not admit the demarcation of limits beyond which all reflection is harmful excess. And yet, it always threatens to become confused, especially when it becomes an institutionalized tradition, with a self-thematization that forgets what the thematized exists for. This risk crosses, until the present, the history of the so-called critical theory of Frankfurtian society, meaning that thread of continuity – of whatever nature it may be – that in some way connects the theorists who work and have worked with the Institute of Social Research . But even the indication of the impasse is nothing more than a movement of self-reflection of the theory. He can be considered successful if he is able to distinguish the self-reflection that preserves and improves the theory's relation to its content from that false self-reflection that, in fact, is nothing more than a form of self-referentiality that empties the theory.

What criticism means, for critical theory, self-reflection of theory, this is what Horkheimer already indicated with his formula that critical theory is criticism of traditional theory. Now, what Bubner warns of is precisely that, when the process of theory reflection becomes autonomous, reflection abolishes itself and what was critical theory becomes a “specific discipline alongside others”: a traditional theory. If this happens, by continuing to offer itself institutionally as a placeholder for the philosophical critique of society, this theory becomes, as a traditional theory, the privileged theory for criticism. For it is then a question of correcting, through reflection, the autonomization of reflection. Autonomized reflection is not an excess of reflection, but itself an interrupted reflection.

This book is dedicated to the examination and critique of the way in which a specific determination of criticism is reflexively treated within the mentioned Frankfurtian tradition: its determination as immanent criticism. Basically, he compares two great self-appointed models of immanent critique. At the outset, I associate myself with the more contemporary discussion on the determination of criticism based on three authors that I take to be representative of this scenario. As Adorno referred to Husserl in the book dedicated to him, it should be said that dealing with this group of authors “is the occasion, not the goal”.[iii] The gaps and contradictions of these, so to speak, “minor” theories, which probably tend to find little repercussion, explain something about this “destiny” of criticism.

The first chapter interprets the discussion context of these three philosophers, Celikates, Stahl and Jaeggi, each author of a recent book on the determination of criticism, as a point of exhaustion of a specific path of autonomous reflection of critical theory, a point in the which she loses all contact with the content of the critique. Its analysis is therefore an opportunity to retrospectively pursue that path of autonomous reflection. Pursuing this thread whose tip is uncovered, I explore in the second chapter how Axel Honneth (of whom those can be considered epigones, even when they are critical of him to a greater or lesser extent), reintroduced and synthesized, in a single gesture, the idea that critical theory is a tradition structured as a sequence of levels of reflection on itself, on the one hand, and, on the other, the claim that criticism needs and can be immanent to its object. In a way, therefore, the critical results achieved in the first chapter extend and affect certain founding philosophical operations of Honneth's notion of immanent criticism.

The first chapter advances an indication that will be followed in the following ones. The analysis of the critical theories of those three authors discovers in them a presupposed theory of the object of criticism. They indicate, therefore, the need for an inversion in the way of posing the question: not starting with the definition of what is immanent criticism, but rather what is the immanence of criticism. In fact, this new position of the problem is as it were deduced from the old one. It shows itself as the consistent way of dealing with what the previous problem leaves in the shade. Now, what is shown in the third chapter is that it corresponds to the way Adorno had originally thought about the question – and originally also because he is the first to thematize the concept of immanent critique of society as such.

That philosophy is "your time apprehended in thoughts",[iv] that it has a “temporal nucleus”,[v] this does not mean that the hegemonic philosophy of a time carries its truth. It can rightfully carry your untruth. To postulate otherwise would be to naively believe in its progress. “Neither is philosophy immune from relapse – either through a scientism of few lights, or by denying reason – in this type of retrogression that, without a doubt, is no better than the belief in progress, maliciously mocked”.[vi]

I try to show in this book, in fact, that there are two great self-appointed conceptions of immanent critique, one positive (represented in its most coherent form by Honneth) and a negative (by Adorno), but also that the latter, rejected by Honneth as just the first and most elementary “level of reflection” of critical theory, can be read rather as an immanent critique of the very notion of positive criticism – not as an unreflected theory , therefore, but rather as the highest degree of reflection.

*Eduardo Soares Neves Silva Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

*Louis Philippe de Caux Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN).



Louis Philippe de Caux. The immanence of criticism: the meanings of criticism in the Frankfurtian and post-Frankfurtian tradition. São Paulo, Loyola Editions, 2021, 480 pages.



[I] Bubner, Rudiger. Was ist Kritische Theorie? Philosophische Rundschau, 16 (3/4), 1969, pp. 215.

[ii] Sommer, Marc Nicolas. Was ist kritische Theory? Prolegomena zu einer negativen Dialektik. Zeitschrift for kritische Theorie, 21. Jg., H. 40/41, 2015, p. 171.

[iii] AGS 5, p. 9/ MTC, p. 29.

[iv] HW 7, p. 26.

[v] DA, p. 13 / DE, p. 9.

[vi] AGS 10.2, p. 636/PS, p. 59.

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