Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

2. Conception of ‘theory’

Members of the Frankfurt School agreed in rejecting a widely held view about what a ‘theory’ is. In normal parlance a ‘theory’ is a set of formally specified and interconnected general propositions that can be used for the successful explanation and prediction of the phenomena in some object domain. This conception of theory, the members of the Frankfurt School argued, is extremely misleading because it directs attention away from the social context within which theories necessarily arise, are tested and are applied, and within which alone they are fully comprehensible. The term ‘theory’ should be used in the first instance to designate a form of (ideally social) activity with an especially salient cognitive component, and only derivatively for the propositions that might be formulated in the course of such activity. Human societies are engaged in a constant process of assimilating nature through labour in order to reproduce themselves; they develop forms of cognitive activity in order to make this self-reproduction more secure and more efficient. Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse call such cognitive activity ‘traditional theory’. Virtually everything we would in normal parlance call a theory (including all scientific theories) is what the members of the Frankfurt School would call a derivative form of traditional theory. However, they would claim there is another possible kind of cognitive activity, one which is not directed at reproducing society in its present form or making its assimilation of nature more efficient, but rather is directed at changing the existing society radically so as to make it more substantively rational. Essentially it is an attempt to do away with those fundamental features of the society that prevent agents from being able to lead a good life. ‘Critical theory’ is the name given to such inherently oppositional forms of thinking. In a derivative sense the propositions or specific theses brought forward by agents engaged in such oppositional thinking at some particular time may also be called critical theory. A critical theory thus is historically specific, being directed at a particular society that stunts the possible realization of the good life. It is inherently negative, and it depends on a conception of substantive reason.

Citing this article:
Geuss, Raymond. Conception of ‘theory’. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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