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Continental Philosophy - Habermas And The Frankfurt School

theory critical social society

Retrieving some of Marx's early humanistic writings, the original Frankfurt School of the 1920s and 1930s applied critical neo-Marxism to the analysis of the eventual transformation of modern society. The Frankfurt School was also known for its critical neo-Hegelianism, which resembled the phenomenological existentialism of certain neo-Marxist Italian philosophers such as Enzo Paci, the Polish neo-Marxists Adam Schaff and Leszlek Kolakowski, and the Yugoslavian existential-phenomenological Marxists associated with the journal Praxis. Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) expressed the Frankfurt School's critical theory in various ways. Their theory was based on a synthesis between critical theory and social "practice" according to Marx's famous statement that appears as the eleventh of his "Theses on Feuerbach": "Philosophers have always interpreted the world, the point is to change it."

In contrast to orthodox Soviet Marxism and to the literary critic Fredric Jameson's economic interpretation of "late capitalism" and postmodernism, the Frankfurt School increasingly emphasized the importance of the society's "super-structure," including culture and ideology rather than its material "infrastructure." Furthermore, the Frankfurt School combined Marxist theory with Freudian psychoanalysis as important for the emancipation from social domination and from the repression of the individual mind.

Some members of the Frankfurt School, especially Horkheimer and Adorno in their collaborative work Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment), stressed the importance of the arts, fantasy, and imagination because of their potential to subvert and emancipate society from its dependence on the one-sided, instrumental rationality of the Enlightenment and on modern science and technology. Yet, because of the failure of Soviet Marxism and the integration of its nonrevolutionary working class into the capitalist system after World War II, some members of the Frankfurt School lost confidence in a future Marxist revolution. Their initial revolutionary fervor gave way to political and cultural pessimism.

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), the German philosopher and social theorist, developed a new version of "critical theory" and a partially optimistic view of modernity as an "unfinished project of Enlightenment." Opposed to dogmatic Marxism, to positivist, empirical sociology, to uncritical elements in Gadamer's "universal hermeneutics," and to anti-Enlightenment post-modernism, Habermas attempted to harmonize the best of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Wittgenstein with the scientific, explanatory systems of modern social science. In his early work Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968; Knowledge and Human Interests), he argued against the prevailing positivism of the social sciences, distinguishing three basic, human, cognitive interests: (1) technical; that is, control of nature; (2) practical; that is, communication with the goal of an "ideal speech situation"; and (3) emancipatory; that is, the removal of limits to freedom and causes of alienation, oppression, and suffering, with the goal of building an open, liberal-democratic society.

In his book Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns (1981; The Theory of Communicative Action), Habermas developed a "critical theory of modernity," which was founded on the difference between "instrumental" and "communicative" rationality. Habermas also critiqued modern society's systems of rationalization, which increasingly "colonize" and destroy the "life world." Habermas's later "discourse ethics," which provided the linguistic background for communicative action, elaborated an intersubjective ethics of practical reason. This ethics too was directed against the modern, one-sided philosophy of the "subject."

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