The power of theories

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890


Excerpt, selected by the author, from the newly released book

Critical theory is the expression commonly used to refer to the theoretical production of the group of intellectuals linked to the Institute of Social Research [Institut für Sozialforschung], from Frankfurt, Germany; and therefore also known as the Frankfurt School. The Institute for Social Research, conceived by Felix Weil, was officially created in 1923 and had Carl Grünberg as its first director.

Carl Grünberg directed the Institute until 1929, when he resigned for health reasons and was then replaced by Max Horkheimer. It was during the latter's management that the theoretical production of its members became known as critical theory. Among these intellectuals, in addition to Max Horkheimer himself, stand out Theodor Adorno, Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer and Walter Benjamin. Upon assuming the position of director, Max Horkheimer announces, in the text of his inaugural lecture, the intention to develop an interdisciplinary research program, inspired by the paradigm of political economy of Karl Marx.

Interdisciplinarity – already manifested in the composition of the Institute, which included, among its main members, philosophers, literary critics, sociologists, psychologists, economists and political scientists – meant, for Max Horkheimer, collaboration between various specialized disciplines, led by philosophy, in a joint and articulated effort of critical understanding of the social totality.

Still in the early 1930s, however, due to the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933, and the consequent migration of Max Horkheimer and his collaborators to the United States, the Institute was transferred to New York, where it remained until 1949, the date in which its director returned to Germany. It was, therefore, during the period of exile that the essence of what is known today as Critical Theory was elaborated.

The concept of critical theory

The expression critical theory was used by Max Horkheimer in the text “Traditional theory and critical theory”, published in 1937 in the journal Zeitschrift for Social Forschung, official magazine of the Institute. It is in it that Max Horkheimer defines Critical Theory.

The concept of critical theory is, however, older and derives from Kantian critical philosophy and the Marxist critique of ideology, thus combining the two meanings of the word critical [Criticism, in the German language]. That is, on the one hand, criticism means testing the legitimacy of knowledge, carried out by the force of reason (Kant), and, on the other hand, criticism is the intervention of reason in socio-historical reality, meaning negative reflection, denial (Young Hegelians ).

Max Horkheimer defines critical theory indirectly, as opposed to what he calls traditional theory. For him, the latter consists of a set of interconnected and formally specified general propositions, to be used in the explanation and prediction of phenomena in a given area of ​​study.

This conception of theory, formulated according to the model of the exact or natural sciences, stands out above all for its emphasis on the cognitive dimension, largely disregarding the context from which theories emerge, are tested and applied. Thus conceived, it appears as a general conceptual apparatus that, regardless of context, can be applied to any object, in any area of ​​knowledge, by anyone trained in its principles and methods. As human societies reproduce through a constant process of assimilation from nature, these cognitive activities can ensure that their self-reproduction is safer and more efficient.

But, for Max Horkheimer, there is another possible kind of cognitive activity that is not aimed at the mere reproduction of society in its present form or the more efficient assimilation of nature; that is, a cognitive activity that, on the contrary, turns to the radical change of the existing society, with the intention of making it substantively more rational.

This other form of cognitive activity is Critical Theory, defined as an inherently oppositional way of thinking whose interest is human emancipation. Historically specific and focused on a particular society that prevents this emancipation, critical theory is inherently negative of that society and depends on an objective and substantive conception of reason to oppose the traditional theory that rests on a subjective and formal concept of reason.

The method of immanent criticism

His method of analysis is that of internal or immanent criticism. This methodological option, of Hegelian origin,[I] it is perhaps the main distinguishing feature of critical theory from the traditional conception of theory. Armed with a concept of substantive reason with a strong normative component, critical theory is opposed to positivist thought, whose main postulates, instead of contributing to reveal the mechanisms of society's functioning, actually contribute to its reification.

One of the best examples of the application of this method of immanent criticism is the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno[ii]. Although this book is seen by many interpreters as a speculative exercise in the philosophy of history, it is nonetheless an immanent critique of enlightenment. Criticism is immanent or internal precisely because, for its authors, it is not a question purely and simply of rejecting enlightenment, but rather of introducing a dimension of self-criticism that can make it more enlightened, more rational.

It is not, therefore, an external criticism, made by someone who imagines himself to be outside the field of the Enlightenment; Rather, it is a criticism made by two thinkers who consider themselves an integral part of this tradition, but who are not satisfied with the paths taken by the Enlightenment due to its use by positivist science and by the established powers, which transformed it into instrument of domination of man and nature.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno read human history as the dialectic of enlightenment. But for them, enlightenment is as much a theory, specifying a set of principles and goals for society, as the society itself that results from the application of that theory. As a theory, its opposite is myth; as a social result of this theory, its opposite is barbarism. The object of the book by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno is, therefore, the relationship between enlightenment and its opposite; although, as they are exercises in the philosophy of history, their emphasis is on enlightenment as theory.

The development of critical theory

But critical theory, in the sense of the Frankfurtian theorists, is also distinguished from the more orthodox currents of Marxism mainly by its emphasis on cultural themes. Although its starting point is the critique of Marx's political economy, the theoretical production of the main members of the first generation of the Frankfurt School expresses, in a way, a reaction to the economic determinism of the more orthodox versions of Marxism that prevailed in the II and III Internationals.

Thus, in opposition to a supposed unilateral determination of the economic dimension over the social whole, the analyzes developed by the Frankfurtians suggest a relative autonomy of the cultural and political spheres. This does not mean, however, an abandonment of political economy, but rather a relativization of its determination and, consequently, an enrichment of the analysis of the social totality by incorporating contributions from other authors such as Weber and Freud into the theory, in addition to a return to Hegel.

This openness to other theoretical currents, which Max Horkheimer would call traditional, deepens, especially in the work of Jürgen Habermas, the main member of the second generation. The central point of Jürgen Habermas's criticism of the first generation of Frankfurtians resides in a supposed attachment of the latter to the so-called paradigm of work and/or the philosophy of the subject.

Despite the emphasis on cultural aspects and the enrichment of the approach by incorporating other theoretical currents, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno continued, in Jürgen Habermas' conception, tied to the Marxist philosophy of work and also to a narrow conception of rationality as instrumental rationality, a legacy by the writings of Max Weber. For Jürgen Habermas, this would have prevented his predecessors from finding a theoretically positive solution to the dilemmas of modernity, leading them to confuse modernity with capitalism tout court. It is in this sense that Jürgen Habermas' theory means a paradigm shift in critical theory.

Although starting from the same problem established by Horkheimer in the 1930s, Habermas elaborates a theory of communicative action based on the philosophy of language, thus promoting an intersubjectivist shift in critical theory. With that, his version of critical theory manages to distinguish two concepts of rationality (teleological and communicative), which allows him to reinterpret modern society from the tension between two distinct logics, one guided by teleological rationality and the other by communicative rationality.

From this two-dimensional conception of rationality, he elaborates both a new interpretation of modernity, characterized by the tension between the two forms of rationality, and a two-dimensional concept of society formed by two spheres: lifeworld and system. Equipped with this theory, the developed form of which is presented in his book Theory of Communicative Action,[iii] he can also elaborate a discursive theory of democracy, for which the concepts of law, civil society, public sphere are fundamental, which did not seem to be part of the concerns of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse.

His theory of modernity is therefore less pessimistic than that elaborated by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. But this, in addition to contributing to broaden the very concept of Critical Theory, also contributed to bringing Critical Theory even closer to what Horkheimer called traditional theory. For this reason, some contemporary authors even question the current pertinence of the distinction between critical theory and traditional theory.

The passage from the first to the second generation, or more precisely from Dialectic of Enlightenment to Theory of Communicative Action, can also be described as a shift from a conception of theory based on a philosophy of the subject to a conception based on a theory of intersubjectivity. For Axel Honneth, considered the main representative of a third generation of critical theory, if, on the one hand, the paradigm shift operated by Jürgen Habermas freed critical theory from the shackles of the paradigm of production, the transition from production to communication also meant a loss of anchorage of the theory in the experience of oppressed subjects, since language, the basis of Habermasian theory, manages to provide at most the formal means to negotiate conditions of possibility, but it does not constitute a point of reference from which one can initiate a conflict over substantive issues.

Therefore, although sharing with Jürgen Habermas the same conception of an intersubjectivist theory, Axel Honneth proposes, as an alternative to the Habermasian version, that critical social theory be rebuilt from a reappropriation of the Hegelian concept of “struggle for recognition”. Axel Honneth's theory of recognition, elaborated in the book Struggle for Recognition,[iv] it is based on a tripartite typology of intersubjective recognition formed by love, law and solidarity and starts from intuitive notions of justice, which is why it is considered by its author as more appropriate to deal with the grammar of social struggles.

* Joshua Pereira da Silva is a retired professor at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Critical Sociology and the Crisis of the Left (intermediate).


Joshua Pereira da Silva. The power of theories. São Paulo, Intermeios, 2023, 212 pages.


[I] On the Hegelian origin of the concept of immanent critique, see Seyla Benhabib, Critique, Norm, and Utopia. A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986).

[ii] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. philosophical fragments (Rio de Janeiro, Zahar Editor, 1985), translation by Guido Antonio de Almeida.

[iii] Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, 2 volumes (São Paulo, Martins Fontes, 2012), translated by Paulo Astor Soethe (v.1) and Flávio Beno Siebeneichler (v.2).

[iv] Axel Honnet, Struggle for recognition. The moral grammar of social conflicts (São Paulo, Editora 34, 2003), translation by Luiz Repa.

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