Critical theory

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

7. Conclusion

The philosophy of art had always played an important part in Adorno’s thinking. Art and philosophical reflection on it form one of the few remaining oases for the play of free, spontaneous, human subjectivity in an increasingly regimented world. By the end of the 1960s, however, it had become hard to see how such reflection on high art, negative dialectics or the meditative essays on religion, pessimism and the philosophy of Schopenhauer Horkheimer had begun writing could be seen as part of the ‘self consciousness of a revolutionary process of social change’, or indeed how the late form of critical theory could be connected with any kind of action at all.

Toward the end of the 1960s Marcuse tried to break out of this impasse by giving up the traditional self-imposed ban among the members of the Frankfurt School on giving a ‘positive’ theory of any kind or engaging in utopian speculation (see §4). In An Essay on Liberation (1969) and Counter-Revolution and Revolt (1972) Marcuse claimed that the modern world had brought into existence a ‘new sensibility’ which he saw expressed most clearly in the emerging student counter-culture. This ‘new sensibility’, with its demand for aesthetically satisfying forms of immediate experience and its refusal to participate in consumer society, represented a significant new political force in the world. The social change necessary to accommodate the ‘new sensibility’ had become a vital individual need, and so one could even speak of a ‘biological foundation for socialism’.

Since the mid-1960s a group of younger philosophers, most notably Jürgen Habermas, have tried to develop further some of the central components of critical theory. Although there are many similarities between the work of this second-generation of Frankfurt philosophers and the programme of critical theory, there are also some striking and important differences. In a sense the second generation marks a return to the kind of Neo-Kantian philosophy the critical theorists of the 1930s were reacting against. Adorno in particular was uncompromising in his opposition to the idea that philosophy should consist of a closed system of interconnected propositions that rested on a purportedly firm foundation and claimed universal validity. In the work of Habermas and his associates, however, the Kantian themes of finding a fixed universal framework for theorizing, giving firm foundations for knowledge claims of various sorts, and investigating the conditions of the possibility of various human activities, structure much of the discussion.

In retrospect the most important contribution of critical theory to philosophy in the late twentieth century would seem to be their criticism of positivism and their demand that social theory be reflective; that is, that theorists try to be as aware as possible of their own position, the origin of their beliefs and attitudes, and the possible consequences their theorizing might have on what they are studying.

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

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