Realizing philosophy — Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School

Image: Matthias Groeneveld


The philosophy of praxis is significant today as the most developed attempt within Marxism to reflect on the consequences of the rationalization of society under capitalism.

This article explains the philosophy of praxis of four Marxist thinkers, the early Marx and Lukács, and the Frankfurt School philosophers Adorno and Marcuse. The philosophy of praxis holds that fundamental philosophical problems are, in reality, abstractly conceived social problems. This argument has two implications: on the one hand, philosophical problems are significant to the extent that they reflect real social contradictions; on the other hand, philosophy cannot solve the problems it identifies since only the social revolution can eliminate their social causes.

I call this the “metacritical” argument. I argue that metacriticism, in this sense, underlies the philosophy of praxis, and can also inform our thinking about social and philosophical transformation. The various projections of such transformations distinguish the four philosophers discussed in this article. They also differ in the path to social change. They developed the metacritical argument under the specific historical conditions in which they found themselves. The differences in these conditions explain a large part of the difference between the theses, especially because the philosophy of praxis is anchored in historical circumstances – hence the more or less plausible revolutionary resolution of problems when they are writing.

Introduction – metacriticism

In 1844, Marx wrote that “philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy” (MARX, 1963, p. 59). Adorno later commented: “philosophy, which previously seemed obsolete, remains alive because the moment to realize it has been lost” (ADORNO, 1973, p. 3). What is the meaning of this strange concept of “realization” in philosophy? The objective of this text is to outline an answer to this question, which is better developed in my book, entitled The philosophy of praxis: Marx, Lukács, and Frankfurt School (The philosophy of praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School)(2014).

Gramsci used the expression “philosophy of praxis” as a name for Marxism in his Prison Notebooks. And it has come to apply to interpretations of Marxism that follow its example of placing all knowledge in a cultural context, itself based on a class-specific worldview. Gramsci called this “absolute historicism,” thus characterizing the Hegelian Marxism of the early work of Marx, Lukács, Korsch, Bloch, and the Frankfurt School. I will refer to this tendency as the philosophy of praxis to distinguish it from other interpretations of Marxism.

The philosophy of praxis holds that fundamental philosophical problems are, in reality, abstractly conceived social contradictions. These contradictions appear as practical problems without solutions, reflected in cultural dilemmas. Philosophy treats them as theoretical antinomies, insoluble enigmas over which thinkers struggle without reaching a convincing solution or consensus. They include the antinomies between value and fact, freedom and necessity, individual and society and, ultimately, subject and object. Traditional philosophy therefore becomes a theory of culture that does not know itself as such. The philosophy of praxis is known as cultural theory and interprets antinomies as sublimated expressions of social contradictions.

This argument has two implications: on the one hand, philosophical problems are significant to the extent that they reflect real social contradictions; on the other, philosophy cannot solve the problems it identifies because only social revolution can eliminate their causes. As Marx says in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have only interpreted o world, in many ways; the question is to transform it (MARX, 1967, p. 402). But, as we will see, the change predicted by the philosophy of praxis encompasses both nature and society, and this creates new and intriguing problems.

The most developed version of this argument is Lukács's notion of the “antinomies of bourgeois thought”. Hegel stated that the fundamental task of philosophy is to overcome antinomies and reconcile their poles. Lukács accepted Hegel's view, but argued that it was not a speculative task. The antinomies arise from the limitations of capitalist practice, its individualistic bias and its technical orientation. Lukács called the world created by this practice “reified”. His antinomies, therefore, cannot be resolved theoretically, but only through a new form of practice that abolishes reification. His argument clarifies Marx's earlier contribution and explains the Frankfurt School's later attempt to create a “critical theory.”

Consider the “antinomy” between value and fact. Philosophy has struggled with this antinomy since scientific reason replaced Aristotelian teleology. Most modern philosophers have tried to rationally justify moral values, even if there is no longer a place for them in nature. Philosophers of praxis argue that this procedure is mistaken. The underlying problem is the dominant understanding of rationality and the corresponding concept of reality in capitalist society. Science presents these philosophical categories, but they have a social origin, that is, in the structure of market relations and the capitalist work process.

It is in this context that values ​​appear as opposed to a reality implicitly defined by obedience to economic laws that are indifferent to humanity. Lukács summarizes this dilemma: “Precisely in the classical and pure expression that it received in Kant's philosophy, it remains true that 'ought' presupposes a 'being' in relation to which the category 'ought' remains inapplicable in principle” (LUKÁCS, 1971, p. 160). So far the argument seems relativistic and reductionist, but Lukács reached the surprising conclusion that a transformation of social reality can alter the form of rationality and thus resolve the antinomy.

I call this the “metacritical” argument. Here it takes the abstract concepts of value and fact, bases them on their social origin and then resolves their contradiction at that level. The application of this approach to the fundamental antinomy of subject and object is fundamental to all versions of the philosophy of praxis. The discussion has three moments:

First, there is the sociological desublimation of the philosophical concept of the subject: from its idealistic definition as I think transcendental, the subject is redefined as a living, working human being. This movement stems from Feuerbach's original critique of the alienation of reason: “What, for religion, is in the other world, is in this world for philosophy”. (FEUERBACH, 1966, p. 70) To disalienate philosophical reason, the true subject must be discovered behind the theological veil.

Second, it is necessary to re-conceptualize the relationship of the desublimated subject to the objective world according to the structure of the cognitive subject-object relationship in idealist philosophy. This relationship comes down to the concept of identity of subject and object that guarantees the universality of reason. It reappears in many guises in the philosophy of praxis, from Marx's ontological interpretation of needs to Lukács's "identical subject-object of history" to the attenuated identity implicit in the Frankfurt School's notion of mutual participation of human beings and nature. later.

Third, resolve the antinomies that arise in this context by projecting a revolution in the relations between the now desublimated terms. Revolution appears, then, as a philosophical method in place of the speculative methods of modern philosophy since Descartes.

Metacriticism, in this sense, underlies the philosophy of praxis, and can also inform our thinking about social and philosophical transformation. The various projections of such transformations distinguish the four philosophers I discuss in this article. They develop the metacritical argument under the specific historical conditions in which they found themselves. Differences in these conditions explain much of the difference between their projects, since the philosophy of praxis depends on a historical circumstance – the revolutionary (more or less plausible) resolution of antinomies when they are writing about them.

Philosophy of praxis in Marx

Marx's early writings proposed for the first time a consistent version of the philosophy of praxis. He wrote at the beginning of the proletarian movement, in a backward society but with a sophisticated philosophical culture, conditions that favored a largely speculative conception of the future. He engineered a total revolution, transforming not only society but also experience and nature. He dismissed modern science as alienated and promised a new science uniting history and nature: “There will be,” he argued, “a single science” (MARX, 1963, p. 164). The rather fantastic quality of these speculations gave way to a sober scientific analysis of capitalism in later works, in which the metacritical argument was restricted to the critique of political economy.

The first Marx sought a resolution of antinomies through revolution. His conceptions of the subject as a natural being, the objectification of human faculties through work and the revolutionary overcoming of capitalist alienation correspond to the three moments of metacriticism. From this perspective, the Manuscripts de 1844 appear as a historicized ontology with a normative dimension. They promise the “realization” of philosophy in social reality.

Marx's argument begins with an analysis of the place of revolution in political philosophy. The revolution had been justified thus in modern times: a) with the argument that the existing State is an obstacle to human happiness or because it violates fundamental rights. These are described as “teleological” or “deontological” reasons for revolution. Marx introduced an original deontological foundation: the “demands of reason”. Idealism had originally formulated these demands as the resolution of the antinomies of thought and being, of subject and object.

The initial effort developed the argument in three steps. Marx started from the antinomy between moral citizenship in the bourgeois State and economic necessity in civil society. Citizen and man are moved by completely different and conflicting motives, one by universal laws, the other by individual advantage. In the first stage of the theory, he showed the importance of transcending this opposition, but did not explain how needs can be harmonized and universalized to overcome their competitive nature. He then argued that the proletariat is the agent of revolution and, as such, charged with resolving the antinomy of man and citizen.

But this argument creates a new antinomy in (Marxist) theory, also applied to (proletarian) practice. Does the existing proletarian movement have anything to do with Marx's project? What kind of practical and material motivation would correspond to Marx's philosophical goals? The third phase of the argument answered these questions with a metacritical deconstruction of the antinomy of reason and necessity.

The key to understanding Marx's Manuscripts is their radical redefinition of necessity as an ontologically fundamental relation of reality. Marx writes: “Feelings, passions, etc. of man are not merely anthropological characteristics in the strict sense, but are true ontological statements of being (nature)” (MARX, 1963, p. 189). If necessity and not knowledge are fundamental, the claims of idealist philosophy to derive being from the thinking subject are overturned.

But Marx did not simply reject the idealist formulation. In his ontological explanation, need is not accidentally related to natural means of satisfaction, but is essentially correlated with nature. The correlation is experienced in work, which targets human faculties in nature while satisfying needs. This is the “true” unity of subject and object. And it bears similarity in form and function to the cognitive unity of subject and object in idealism.

The liberation of the subject from the need for market law thus satisfies the demands of reason and grounds Marx's revolutionary critique of the alienation of labor. Antinomies are overcome in history, and not only the antinomy of man and citizen that emerged from his first essays on politics, but also the ontologically fundamental antinomy between subject and object. “Thus, society becomes the realized union of man with nature, the true resurrection of nature, the realized naturalism of man and the realized humanism of nature” (MARX, 1963, p. 157)

But is this a plausible statement? The objective of idealist philosophy is to demonstrate the unity of subject and object, showing the constitution of the object by the subject. What happens to this ambition if subject and object are redefined as natural beings? In the context of the philosophy of praxis, this gives rise to a new antinomy between society and nature: can a living social subject constitute nature? Marx's Manuscripts answer that “yes”: nature is reduced to a human product through work; when work cannot do the job, through sensation, understood as socially informed and, therefore, constitutive of a specifically human dimension of the objective world: “Man himself becomes the object”. (MARX, 1963, p. 161)

But nature certainly existed before human beings and does not depend on them for its existence. Natural science studies this independent nature that appears to it as true reality. If so, history is an insignificant corner of the universe and the human being is a merely natural fact, with no ontological significance.

Therefore, from the beginning, naturalism is a central issue for the philosophy of praxis. Marx challenges naturalism, arguing that if one imagines the independent nature of human beings, one imagines oneself out of existence. In short, the independent nature of human beings is a meaningless postulate, not a concrete reality.

Marx thus rejects the “vision from nothing” as a remnant of the theological notion of a disembodied subject. He defends what he calls “epistemological atheism”. His idea of ​​nature is not that of modern natural science, which he rejects as an abstraction. He conceives of nature as it is lived in necessity, perceived by socialized senses and dominated by work. This lived nature has a historical dimension that the nature of natural science lacks. Hence Marx's call for the creation of a new science of lived nature.

The concept of a new science only makes sense if the very idea of ​​objective knowledge is transformed. Marx and later Lukács and the Frankfurt School defend a new conception of what Horkheimer calls the “finitude of thought”. “Since that extra-historical and therefore exaggerated concept of truth, which follows from the idea of ​​a pure and infinite mind and therefore ultimately from the concept of God, is impossible, it no longer makes sense to guide the knowledge we have to this impossibility and, in this sense, call it relative.” (HORKHEIMER, 1995, p. 244) Knowledge arises under a “finite horizon”. It is based on the socially situated involvement of the subject and not on detachment from the object.

Lukács' concept of reification

Although Lukács's version of the philosophy of praxis has similarities to that of the early Marx, he was mainly influenced by Marx's later works. The concept of reification is Lukács' most important theoretical innovation. This concept synthesizes Weber's idea of ​​rationalization with Marx's critique of commodity fetishism and his analysis of the worker's relationship with the machine.

Although Lukács generally avoids the word “culture”, with this concept he in fact proposes what we would call a critical approach to the culture of capitalism. The critique is articulated in terms drawn from neo-Kantianism and the logical writings of Hegel, but its most basic premise comes from the Marxist argument that capitalism cannot fully understand and manage its own conditions of existence. Thus, the concept of reification stands as the original basis for the theory of capitalist crisis.

There is a lot of confusion in the literature about the meaning of reification. According to its etymology, “reification” is the reduction of human relationships to relationships between things. The word “thing”, in this context, has a specific meaning: object of factual knowledge and technical control. Reification, as Lukács understands, generalizes the technical-scientific relationship with nature as a cultural principle for society as a whole. In this sense, society becomes constituted through a specific pattern of beliefs and practices. Reification is therefore not a mental state, but a cultural form that structures society and consciousness.

This is how Lukács summarizes his theory. “The important thing is to clearly recognize that all human relationships (seen as objects of social activity) increasingly assume the form of objectivity of the abstract elements of the conceptual systems of natural sciences and the abstract substrates of the laws of nature. Furthermore, the subject of this 'action' also increasingly assumes the attitude of the pure observer of these – artificially abstract – processes, that is, the attitude of the experimenter” (LUKÁCS, 1971, p. 131). Reification is, therefore, the principle of intelligibility specific to capitalism. It is not a simple prejudice or belief, but the constructive basis of a social world.

Writing at a time when invasive social rationalization threatened to dominate Europe, Lukács interpreted Marx's analysis of capitalist economic rationality as the paradigm and source of the modern conception of science and technology. The economic limitations of capitalism appear as limitations of rationality in all spheres. These limitations have to do with what Lukács calls “formalism”. The problem, argues Lukács, is not in this formalistic scientific reason itself, but in its application beyond the limits of nature, to society as its appropriate object.

Reified economic rationality is formal in the sense that it abstracts from specific qualitative contents to quantitative determinations, for example, price. The form/content dialectic is exemplified by the contradiction between the abstract economic form of the worker as a seller of labor power and the concrete life process of the worker that goes beyond the boundaries of the economic concept.

“The quantitative differences of exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive and qualitative categories of his entire physical, mental and moral existence.” (LUKÁCS, 1971, p. 166)

The tension between form and content is not merely conceptual, but leads to crisis and revolution. Reification theory thus builds a bridge between Marx's crisis theory and the intensification of cultural and philosophical crises of early 20th century capitalist society, all of which Lukács attributes to the effects of the formal character of modern rationality.

Lukács developed this argument through a critical history of philosophy. Reified thought, as found in Kant, takes the technical-scientific relationship with nature as a model of the subject-object relationship in general. But scientific laws are abstracted from specific objects, times and places. If rationality as such is modeled in science, much is lost as a result.

With Kant the contradiction between form and content is generalized. Reified formal rationality gives rise to a related content that it cannot fully encompass. The content that does not enter formal concepts without a trace appears as the thing-in-itself. The antinomy of subject and object divides the knowing subject from ultimate reality.

Kant's three critiques of pure reason, practical reason and aesthetic judgment correspond to the three attempts of classical German philosophy to resolve the antinomies of a formalistic concept of rationality. Three demands of reason emerge from this “philosophical experience”: the principle of practice (only a practical subject can overcome the antinomy of form and content); history as reality (only in history is practice effective at the ontological level); dialectical method (dialectics overcomes the limitation of rational explanation to formal laws). Lukács organized his exposition of post-Kantian philosophy around the struggle to meet those demands that Marxism and only he ultimately meets.

Lukács argued that the metacritical desublimation of the concept of rationality in Marxism makes it possible to resolve the antinomies of classical German philosophy, social antinomies such as the conflict between value and fact, freedom and necessity, but also the ontological antinomy of subject and object exemplified by the thing -in itself. The contradictions are resolved by the revolution which, by overthrowing capitalism, puts an end to the reign of the reified form of objectivity in capitalist society. Revolution, as a practical critique of reification, is the third moment of metacriticism; satisfies the demands of reason.

But the meaning of this argument is obscure. Is the proletariat a metaphysical agent, a constituent subject in the mode of idealism, a version of the transcendental ego, postulating the existing world? The contemporary neo-Kantian philosopher, Emil Lask, proposed a theory of logic that helped Lukács avoid this absurd conclusion. Lukács drew on Lask's distinction between meaning and existence to elaborate his social dialectic of abstract form and concrete content.

The meanings provided by the structure of capitalism impose themselves on the contents of social existence. The proletariat mediates these meanings in an ongoing process of which it is a part. But in this case, Lukács starts from Emil Lask: action at the level of meaning has consequences at the level of existence. Form and content must be understood together in their relationship in a “totality”.

Lukács calls the proletariat an “identical subject-object” for whom knowledge and reality are one. In the awareness of your reified condition de exploited individuals, the proletariat rises above this condition and transforms itself and society through collective action: “The worker's self-knowledge causes an objective structural change in the object of knowledge (…). Under the mantle of the thing there was a relationship between men (…) beneath the quantifying crust there was a qualitative, living core.” (LUKÁCS, 1971, p. 169) I call this a “methodological” concept of revolution. It does not show the substance of the proletariat nor does it see dereification as the achievement of a final, non-reified state of affairs. On the contrary, reified institutions and social relations produce collective subjects that contest reified forms from within.

This theory is a permanent source of controversy. The disagreement is especially relevant to Lukács' considerations of nature and the natural sciences, because it is here that the metaphysical interpretation leads to the most dubious consequences. I argue that Lukács is betrayed by his rhetorical references to idealism, but in fact maintains a much more plausible dialectical view. In fact, he denied that nature “in itself” is constituted by historical practice. Is this an inconsistency? How, then, can the proletarian revolution resolve the antinomies if nature “itself” is beyond history?

Lukács lived in an advanced society in which science and technology played an essential role; he could not foresee its total overthrow like the first Marx. He had to find a more subtle version of the revolutionary resolution of the antinomy of subject and object. Reification is a form of objectivity, that is, an a priori condition of meaning. It is not exactly a Kantian a priori, since it is enacted in social reality by human beings, and not by an abstract subject who can never be an object. However, it operates at the level of intelligibility of the world, even though it plays a material role in the practical activities that constitute it. Transposing the antinomy of subject and object to this level makes their reconciliation into unity possible.

In these terms, the subject does not need to postulate the material existence of nature to overcome the antinomy. On the contrary, the question is reformulated in terms of the subject's relationship with the system of meanings in which the world is lived and enacted. This relationship takes two different forms that are, in fact, “methods”, both cognitive and practical. What Lukács confusingly called the “contemplative” method is that of natural science that postulates reified facts and laws. Science is contemplative not because it is passive, but in the sense that it constructs the world as a system of formal laws that cannot be changed by a decoding practice. The reification of nature is therefore insurmountable.

The case is different for social institutions that can be ontologically transformed by human action. The reification of society is not an inevitable destiny. Social institutions can be ontologically transformed by human action which, by modifying their meaning, alters their real functioning. The institutionalization of this “unity between theory and practice” would create a new type of society, which Lukács (very briefly) describes as follows:

The world that confronts man in theory and practice displays a type of objectivity that, if well understood, never needs to be tied to an immediacy similar to that of the forms encountered previously. This objectivity must, therefore, be understandable as a constant mediating factor between past and future and it must be possible to demonstrate that it is everywhere a product of man and the development of society. (LUKÁCS, 1971, p. 159). If he had developed this insight, he would have given us an original concept of socialism.

The methodological distinction between contemplative practice and transformative practice is central to Lukács's argument. Both are social, although in different ways. All forms of knowledge depend on historically specific a priori constructions of experience. The nature of natural science is a product of one of these cultural forms, the contemplative form, and thus belongs to history, even as it posits a world of facts and laws beyond the reach of historical practice.

His contemplative method produces truths about nature, but is ideological in its scientific application to society as such. Thus, Lukács incorporated science into history through its a priori form of objectivity and not through the constitution of its factual content. The dualism between nature and society is methodological, not metaphysical, and is situated within a broader social framework. It thus satisfies the demands of the philosophy of praxis.

The Frankfurt School

I now turn to the Frankfurt School. Both Adorno and Marcuse recognize the influence of Lukács' theory of reification. You Manuscripts from 1844, by Marx, freed Marcuse from Heidegger in 1932. The metacriticism of rationality is the most significant link between the Frankfurt School and the previous philosophy of praxis. Like the first Marx and the first Lukács, these philosophers subscribe to an absolute historicism that underlies a critical perspective on all aspects of capitalism's culture, including its science and technology.

This criticism is a direct descendant of Marx's concept of alienation and Lukács' theory of reification. These philosophers argue with Lukács that the capitalist construction of experience in modern times is exemplified in the scientific worldview. The limitations of this worldview are manifested in the forms of rationalization that characterize modern societies. However, they reject many of Lukács' key notions, such as the concept of totality and the unity between theory and practice. Thus, in the Frankfurt School, the historical thesis of the philosophy of praxis serves primarily to provide an independent point of view for social criticism.

Adorno and Marcuse write in the wake of the revolutionary tide that led Lukács to communism. They still believe in the need for a practical resolution of the antinomies of philosophy at a time when it has become elusive. This shifted its focus from the specific consequences of capitalism to the more general problem of the structure of modern experience, which no longer supports the emergence of class consciousness. Analysis of the distorted experience provides only a glimpse of what would be revealed by its undistorted counterpart. As Adorno writes, “the true thing is determined through the false thing” (BLOCH, 1988, p. 12).

Frankfurt School philosophers still believe that only the proletariat can resolve antinomies, but they also claim that it is no longer a revolutionary subject. With the Dialectic of enlightenment, the focus shifts from class issues to the domination of nature and the power of mass media. The concept of instrumental reason in this book resembles Lukács's concept of reification, but is detached from its original Marxist roots. This text criticizes instrumental rationality in its capitalist form as unbridled power over nature and human beings.

The authors invoke the potential of reflective reason to overcome reification and reconcile humanity and nature. They call for “mindfulness (mindfulness in english or Eingedenken in German) of nature in the subject” for a point of view opposed to the dystopian instrumentality that now penetrates even the inner life (ADORNO; HORKHEIMER, 1972, p. 40). We realize what we miss by reflecting on our own belonging to nature as natural beings.

In doing so, we break with the forced imposition of capitalist forms on experience and the reduction of the subject to a mere cog in the social machine. The point is not to reject rationality and, with it, modernity itself, but to free it from the arrogance of domination. This will release the potential for “agreement between human beings and things”, that is, peace, which Adorno defines as “the state of differentiation without domination, with the differentiated participating in each other” (ADORNO, 1998, p. 247). This is the closest Adorno comes to affirming the unity between subject and object. However, the prospects for this to occur appear bleak.

Adorno's later concepts of identity and non-identity recapitulate the form/content dialectic of reification. Identity thinking is formal and loses the content that is recaptured by the dialectics of concrete experience. Modern culture impoverishes experience by “identifying” the lived object with abstract concepts that subsume it in thought and erase more complex connections and potentialities. Dialectics reveals the “constellation” of contexts and concepts that allow thought to reach the truth of the object.

Adorno proposed a “rational critique of reason” (ADORNO, 1973, p. 85). He recognized the essential role of instrumental reason while resisting the exorbitant form it takes under capitalism. For example, he argued that the machine is at once an oppressive instrument of capitalist domination and holds a promise of good service to all humanity through its objective form. “The quality of the means, which makes the means universally available, their 'objective validity' for all, itself implies a critique of the domination from which thought emerged as its means.” (ADORNO; HORKHEIMER, 1972, pp. 29-30) He presented similar arguments in relation to the market and other modern institutions.

This interesting critical approach is never developed beyond brief aphorisms. The concept of “formal bias” that I introduced in my critical theory of technology develops this aspect of Adorno's argument as a critical method (FEENBERG, 2014). The issue is to preserve the emancipatory content of modern institutions, while at the same time criticizing their biased implementation under capitalism. But by rejecting all revolutionary perspectives, Adorno's version of the philosophy of praxis leads to a dead end. And this is evident in his and Horkheimer's dialogue about theory and practice in 1956 and in Adorno's lack of understanding of the New Left.

Marcuse's version of the philosophy of praxis is influenced by the phenomenological concept of experience and the promise of the New Left. He sees the social movements of the 1960s and 70s not as a new agent of revolution, but as prefiguring an emancipatory mode of experience. Revolution in an advanced society is at least possible, in principle, from a generalization of this new way of experiencing the world. This is enough for Marcuse to construct a final version of the philosophy of praxis in which the transformation of science and technology plays a central role.

Liberation from the domination of nature and human beings is, at the very least, a real possibility in Hegel's sense. Thus he reaches more positive conclusions than Adorno, although he too cannot find any effective agent of change.

Marcuse's “two-dimensional” ontology is close to Adorno's critique of instrumental reason. Just like Adorno's concept of non-identity, Marcuse's second dimension contains the potentialities blocked by existing society. But Marcuse also draws on Husserl and Heidegger's phenomenological concept of the lifeworld and the existentialist concept of “project” to elaborate his critique of technology. These phenomenological concepts are invoked to explain the flawed heritage of science and technology and the promise of the New Left. The civilizational project of capitalism is committed to technological domination. It increasingly restricts experience and knowledge to its instrumental aspects.

The revolution requires a transformation of the “a priori” conditions arising from historical experience. Experience must reveal intrinsic potentialities of its objects. Marcuse refers to an “existential truth” of experience that resembles Adorno’s concept of constellation. This truth is “a synthesis, reassembling the pieces and fragments that can be found in distorted humanity and nature. This collected material became the domain of the imagination, it was sanctioned by repressive societies in art” (MARCUSE, 1972, pp. 69-70). With the New Left and its “new sensitivity” a new form of experience emerges that foreshadows such a priori transformation.

Marcuse's metacriticism of science and technology linked them to their source in the capitalist exploitation of human beings and the earth. “The projection of nature as quantifiable matter… would be the horizon of a concrete social practice that would be preserved in the development of the scientific project”. (MARCUSE, 1964, p. 160) He related the Frankfurt School's critique of reified instrumental rationality to the new mode of experience that appears in the New Left and, later, in the environmental movement. Just as reified “technological rationality” is derived from the lifeworld of capitalism, so a radically different rationality is promised by this new mode of experience. A dialectical rationality will incorporate imagination as the faculty through which the reified form of things is transcended.

If this new form of experience were generalized, nature and other human beings would be perceived, not instrumentally, but as subjects. Contrary to Habermas' famous critique, this does not imply conversational familiarity, but rather the recognition of the integrity of the object as a substance with its own potentialities. Marcuse proposes a “liberation of nature”, “the recovery of the life-enhancing forces in nature, the sensual aesthetic qualities that are alien to a life wasted in endless competitive performance” (MARCUSE, 1972, p. 60). Subject and object would be united not in an idealistic identity, but through shared participation in a community of nature.

But there is an ambiguity: how does this vision apply to science and technology? Does Marcuse intend to “re-enchant” nature or does his theory aim to reform technological formatting? Like previous philosophers of praxis, Marcuse rejects naturalism; science belongs to history: “The two layers or aspects of objectivity (physical and historical) are interrelated in such a way that they cannot be isolated from each other; the historical aspect can never be eliminated so radically that only the 'absolute' physical layer remains.” (MARCUSE, 1964, p. 218) The historical “a priori” underlying modern science can thus evolve and change in a future socialist society under the impact of a new mode of experience.

But Marcuse's main political concern is not with science, but with technology. Science cannot be successfully changed by new laws or social arrangements, such as the means of technological transformation. Socialism will introduce new technological ends that, “as technical ends, would operate in the design and construction of the machine, and not just in its use.” Marcuse calls this the “translation of values ​​into technical tasks – the materialization of values” (MARCUSE, 1964, p. 234).

Revolution can resolve antinomies through technological transformation, leaving the transformation of science to the internal evolution of scientific disciplines in a new social context. Marcuse thus constructed a final version of the philosophy of praxis that I tried to develop further into a critical theory of technology.

Philosophy of praxis today

Much of Marcuse's thinking applies to contemporary social movements, such as the environmental movement, which emerged from the New Left. These movements address the limitations of technical disciplines and projects in terms of lessons from experience. Often, these lessons are reformulated based on “knowledge against” criticisms of dominant approaches. Ordinary people – workers, consumers, victims of pollution – are often the first to notice and protest dangers and abuses. In other cases, users can identify untapped potential in the systems they use and open them through the hacking method. This is how the Internet began to function again as a means of communication.

All these cases practically exemplify the basic structure of metacriticism. The desublimation of rationality takes the form of a social critique of rational technical disciplines. The place of necessity in Marx, of consciousness in Lukács and of the “new sensitivity” in Marcuse is now occupied by the practical-critical experience with technology in the world of life. Work and class, although they continue to be important, are no longer theoretically central. Work is a lifeworld domain in which people have meaningful experiences that are brought into relationship with the rational forms of technology through various types of social engagement and struggle. But there are other ways of approaching technology that place themselves in a critical relationship with technical disciplines and projects.

Critical technology theory therefore rejects the restriction of much Marxist theory to political economy, critically addressing the full range of reifications in modern society. These include not only the reification of the economy, but administrative and technological reifications, as well as consumption and the capitalist aestheticization of everyday life. Admittedly, administration, technology, and consumption have been shaped by economic forces, but they are not reducible to economics, nor is resistance in these domains any less significant for a contemporary radical movement than the labor struggle.

Contemporary social movements offer nothing more than prefigurations of a more democratic structure of modernity. Marcuse's caution in assessing the promise of the New Left is equally appropriate today. The social struggle can teach us something about a possible transformation of the relationship between reason and experience, but this is far from predicting a revolution by simple extrapolation. However, we can go beyond Adorno's systematic pessimism on this basis.

The question of whether the philosophy of praxis in this new form can resolve the “antinomies of bourgeois thought” appears to be more difficult. The ambitious claims of early Marx, Lukács and Marcuse presupposed that the metacritical desublimation of philosophical categories permitted a social resolution of antinomies. Subject and object, which were conceptually subjugated by idealism, could be reunited when redefined in sociological terms. Although problematic, the application of this scheme to nature has always been essential to this program.

A social exposition of nature and natural science seems more plausible today than at any time in the past. A generation of work in Science and Technology Studies refuted the positivist assumptions that separated rationality from its social context. But if rationality is conceived differently in this context, then the philosophy of praxis can be grounded in empirical research. The move from a general critique of reason as such to a critique of its diverse achievements in technologies and technical disciplines renews the philosophy of praxis.

The philosophy of praxis is significant to us today as the most developed attempt within Marxism to reflect on the consequences of the rationalization of society under capitalism. He was the first to raise fundamental philosophical questions about science and technology from a critical and dialectical point of view.

He attacked capitalism not on its weak points, such as inequality and poverty, but on its strongest points: the rationality of its markets and management techniques, its idea of ​​progress, its technological efficiency. But it does not reject rationality as such. On the contrary, the philosophy of praxis dared to formulate a “rational critique of reason” that identifies the flaws in the achievements of modernity and proposes a rational alternative on new bases.

*Andrew Feenberg is professor of Philosophy of Technology at the Communication School of Simon Fraser University, in Canada. Author, among other books, of Technology, modernity and democracy (Independently Published). []

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.


ADORNO, T. Negative dialectics. Trans. EB Ashton. New York: Seabury, 1973.

__________ “On subject and object”. In: Critical models: interventions and catchwords. Trans. HW Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

ADORNO, T.; HORKHEIMER, M. Dialectic of enlightenment. Trans. J. Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

BLOCH, E. “Something's missing: a discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno on the contradictions of utopian longing”. In: The utopian function of art and literature. Trans. J. Zipes and F. Mecklenburg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

FEENBERG, A. Lukács, Marx and the sources of critical theory. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

___________. The philosophy of praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School. London: Verso, 2014.

FEUERBACH, L. Principles of the philosophy of the future. Trans. M. Vogel. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

HORKHEIMER, M. “On the problem of truth”. In: Between philosophy and social science. Trans. GF

Hunter, M. S. Kramer and J. Torpey. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

LUKACS, G. History and class consciousness. Trans. R. Livingstone. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971.

MARCUSE, H. One-dimensional man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

________- “Nature and revolution”. In: Counterrevolution and revolt. Boston: Beacon, 1972.

MARX, K. “Economic and philosophical manuscripts”. In: Karl Marx: early writings. Trans. and ed. TB Bottomore. London: CA Watts, 1963.

_________ “Theses on Feuerbach”. In: Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society. Trans. and ed. L. Guddat and K. Guddat. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

the earth is round there is thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Return to the path of hopelate afternoon 21/06/2024 By JUAREZ GUIMARÃES & MARILANE TEIXEIRA: Five initiatives that can allow the Brazilian left and center-left to resume dialogue with the majority hope of Brazilians
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • Theological manual of neoliberal neo-PentecostalismJesus saves 22/06/2024 By LEONARDO SACRAMENTO: Theology has become coaching or encouraging disputes between workers in the world of work
  • Ordocapitalism and anarchocapitalismELEUTERIO2 19/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: The State began to be seen to a certain extent as an enemy, as in Javier Milei's speech that vociferates against its protective and redistributive activity