Philosopher Stephen Eric Bronner on the ancient Greek understanding of the concept of “critique”, the Marxist influence on it, and the relations between critique, knowledge and power

faq | May 14, 2018

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. Serious Science has asked Prof. Bronner to speak on the origins of the concept “critique” and the Frankfurt School approach to it.

How would you define “critique”?

“Critique” is a word that totalitarians would like to strike from the dictionary. It connotes not simply “criticism” but a questioning of assumptions, a skeptical attitude, an open discourse, and the limits of different methodological approaches to knowledge. Critique demands that we justify our claims and reflect upon why we are making them. There is no more important concept in making sense of ideology and battling against dogma.

Could you say a bit about the origins of the concept?

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Immanuel Kant “The Critique of Pure Reasoning”, First Edition

Critique reaches back to Socrates and his interrogation of establishmentarian claims and arguments; that this should have led to his trial and condemnation for questioning the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens is only logical. Critique has an immanent dynamic that, once unleashed, is difficult to stop —- except by outright repression. Cicero and Seneca employed it against the arbitrary power exercised by the Roman state and critique played an important role in the tensions between Christian heretics and the Catholic church. That is also the case with Islam and Judaism when considering major figures like Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, and al-Farabi. Nevertheless, critique entered the modern philosophical lexicon with Immanuel Kant’s three great works: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of Judgment.

He noted that philosophy essentially came down to four questions: 1) What can I know? (science) 2) What should I do? (ethics) 3) For what can I hope? (faith) and 4) What is man? (ontology). Kant’s three major treatises speak to the first three questions – he wrote a weak anthropological treatise but fourth critique — and exhibited diverse methods for answering them: science, metaphysics, faith – and, presumably, ontology. No single method or narrative can answer all of these questions and dealing with each requires a different epistemological approach. Each has its integrity, domain, and practical limits. The scientific method cannot help a woman decide whether to have an abortion or what moral choice to make in a particular, contingent, circumstance. Neither science nor metaphysics, by the same token, has much to offer when dealing with matters of aesthetic taste, experience, or existential determination such as the character of beauty, the soul, etc. And, finally, only an ontological argument can tie everything together and confront the question: what is man?

But Kant never wrote that fourth critique. What were the consequences of that?

Critique generated tolerance (and even a certain humility) as science, metaphysics, and belief came to co-exist in Kant’s three classics. At the same time, however, his students and followers saw the need for an ontological or anthropological foundation so that these different methodological expressions of reason would not simply hang in the abstract. Fichte introduced an “absolute ego;” Herder looked to cultural history as the unifying element of humanity; Schelling introduced a metaphysical motion of “nature;” and Hegel highlighted an “absolute idea” that revealed itself over time in different institutional forms. Kant would have none of it; he feared (rightly) that any such grounding would result in philosophical absolutism.

Does “critique” have any impact on human practice? Or is it just another product of a dead metaphysics?

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Questioning assumptions has always been intimately connected with illuminating hidden interests and undermining ideological claims that serve the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Illusions concerning the beyond — God as the ultimate grounding —led Ludwig Feuerbach to illuminate the alienation underpinning religious claims. God was, he maintained, nothing but the unconscious extrapolation of human powers on a non-existent entity that humanity would then worship as the almighty. His argument exemplified the ahistorical materialist critique of alienation that Marx would contest in his “Eleven Theses on Feuerbach” – an encounter that would provide what Engels termed “the germs of a new (historical) materialism.”

Critique of the old led Marx to a new interpretation of materialism that was both normative and oriented towards practice. Ideology seemed to dissolve in the face of critique. Its deconstructive intentions were also propelled by a reconstructive purpose. Das Kapital was not intended as a simple description of capitalist accumulation, for example, but rather (as the subtitle suggests) a “Critique of Political Economy.” Marx employed the critical method to empower working people and point to economic conditions in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. The concern with an alternative to capitalism would influence not only the Marxist canon but the socialist (and even certain communist) practices that were carried on in its name.

You claim that critique attacks ideology. But isn’t it ideological in its own way? If no then what is its connection to truth?

Marx identified being methodologically “radical” with going to the “root” of a claim or an argument by exposing its presuppositions and the material interests that it served. This suggests a critical, reflexive, and practical engagement with reality. Understood as a critical method, Marxism will necessarily and immanently call into question the organizationally self-serving activities carried on its name. Such was the position of those like Karl Korsch and Georg Lukacs who in the early 1920s identified Marxism with a critical method rather than a fixed system—known as “Western Marxists”—and then later the Frankfurt School. I would contend that the extent to which critique illuminates the interests and assumptions informing historical practice is the extent to which it differs from ideology (in any meaningful sense of the term). To claim that critique l is somehow really no less ideological than dogma is absurd. Hegel would have said that the person supporting this position is inhabiting the night in which all cows are black. In my opinion, at least, it is necessary to distinguish between knowledge and power, persuasion and coercion, truth and falsehood – particularly given Trump and the reactionary dangers of our time.

Critique or, at least, “critical theory” is usually associated with the Frankfurt School: What exactly is the connection between them?

The Frankfurt School is another name for the inner circle of the Institute for Social Research that was formed in 1923. But the Institute only became famous once Max Horkheimer took over as director in 1930. He brought together a remarkable set of intellectuals from a variety of fields including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. Horkheimer sought to develop an interdisciplinary enterprise that would bridge the gap between empirical and normative inquiry. When he first coined the term “critical theory” in 1937, it was understood as an alternative to establishmentarian forms of “traditional theory” – that is to say a philosophical outlook that (wittingly or unwittingly) harbored establishmentarian values and impaired the prospects of liberation.

Critical theory was forged in the crucible of Marxism, but it was preoccupied less with the economic “base” than the ideological “superstructure” of society. ”Consciousness” was its primary concern and the studies undertaken by the Frankfurt School were fueled by the institutional dangers threatening the moral autonomy of the individual. Thus, its critique of the authoritarian family, instrumental rationality, the commodity form and bureaucracy, alienation and reification, consumerism and the “culture industry.”

Totalitarianism left a deep scar and the Holocaust became, if not an obsession then a basic point of reference. Critique was increasingly employed in order to preserve the “non-identity” between subject and object –or, more colloquially, the tension between individuality and the collectivist encroachments of society. This concern would ultimately prove inspirational for postmodern or poststructuralist thinkers like Judtih Butler, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-luc Lyotard and others.

Image source: Wikipedia
The founders of the Frankfurt School Max Horkheimer (front left) and Theodor Adorno (front right) in 1965 at Heidelberg

How is that the case? Could you elaborate? What is the relationship between critique, knowledge and power?

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Critique can take many forms. Nietzsche gave it a unique twist that influenced both the Frankfurt School as well as post-structuralism. Horkheimer and Adorno were probably the first to integrate him into the Marxian tradition and there is probably no thinker who had a greater impact on poststructuralism. Nietzsche spoke to both trends by championing genuine individuality, contempt for the conventional, and commitment to the “new.” His bohemian stance and his condemnation of moralism was also congenial to critical theory and postmodernism. So was his rejection of idealism and materialism. In his view, fueling all theory and practice, lies the will to power. Knowledge does not exist in the abstract nor can it be neutral; it is instead the product of a will that focuses on existential or material self-interest. The question is only, yet crucially, whether the person is conscious of the will he is exercising and the purpose his actions serve.

Nietzsche’s concern was far less political than cultural and existential. His watchword was “God is dead—and you have killed him!” His critique extended to all fixed philosophical systems and he anticipated postmodernists and poststructuralists in their assault on “grand narratives,” “essentialism,” and “foundations.” Critical of all universalist doctrines from Christianity to liberalism and socialism, he believed that they inhibited the exceptional individual, fostered a “herd mentality,” and indulged cultural mediocrity. Articulating a “perspectivalist” position, understanding that any “signifier” can have multiple “significations,” Nietzsche shattered the concept of ‘essence” and left only a world of appearances manipulated by the individual will to power. Adorno did not go quite this far, and his later work explicitly defended metaphysics, but postmodernists built on his outlook. Disregarding Nietzsche’s reactionary politics, and certain of his utopian ideas, the target of their critique was the same as his: not the political system, and its leaders, but the cultural philistine (Bildungsphilister).

And so, what is the status of “critique” today?

Critique has flowered. Even the scientific method has been rocked by Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism,” which highlights “falsifiability” and considers all truth claims provisional. Then, too, Thomas Kuhn’s saw scientific progress not as unilinear but in terms of “paradigm shifts” whereby new theories arise because old ones are led to engage new problems that they cannot solve. Semiotics and deconstruction are taught in every university and there is not an educator or student who does not wish to think “critically.” Yet, increasing popularity has stripped the concept of meaning. Critique and its interpreters have become the subject of endless textual exegesis, countless dissertations, and the like. Critique has been domesticated by its purely insular preoccupations and inability to make positive judgments about real world conflicts between participants with opposing principles and interests.

Critique must critically confront its own historical development. There must be a reason why its obsession with “non-identity,” its jettisoning of universal ideals, and its retreat from judgment occurred when it did in the late 1970s and 1980s, at least in the United States. With an eye on a more old-fashioned understanding of critique, perhaps this has something to do with the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of the New Left. Perhaps not—but surely this is a debate worth having. Rather than simply confront injustice and the exercise of arbitrary power, it has become sufficient for contemporary critique to focus on uthe relative character of all “justice” and claims to “authority.” In what is rapidly becoming a “post-truth” society, critique can reassert its radical quality only by highlighting its intrinsic connection with ethical judgment and political purpose. Or, to put it another way, critique needs to reclaim the values and ideals that animated it in the first place —-tolerance, secularism, and the vision of a more decent world. Without a new appreciation of its positive aims, indeed, critique will become just another word. And that is a fate that I hope we can avoid.

Could you recommend 5 books (and if possible – comment on them) that can help an average reader a) to get deeper into the topic of critique; b) to develop critical thinking.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason is perhaps the clearest exposition of the original concept and the boundaries of different methodological claims. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy explains the development of historical materialism through the critique of philosophical idealism; it includes as an appendix Karl Marx’s previously unpublished “Eleven Theses on Feuerbach.” As for the employment of critique for existentialist purposes, in my opinion, there is no better introduction than Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. A work that I edited with Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory and Society, anthologizes some of the seminal writings of the Frankfurt School, while Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition is perhaps the most readable introduction to a complex trend.

Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University
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