Critical theory

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

3. Critique of instrumental reason

Critical theorists argue that in the ancient world the concept of ‘reason’ was an objective and normative one. Reason was thought to refer to a structure or order of what ought to be which was inherent in reality itself and which prescribed a certain way of life as objectively rational. Human beings were thought to have a (subjective) faculty which allowed them to perceive and respond to this objective structure of the world; this faculty could then also be called reason in a derivative sense. Even when ancient philosophers spoke of reason as a human faculty (rather than as a structure of the world), their conception of it was ‘substantive’; humans were thought to be able to use reason to determine which goals or ends of human action were worthy of pursuit.

In the post-Enlightenment world the ‘objective’ conception of reason becomes increasingly implausible. Reason comes to be conceived as essentially a subjective ability to find efficient means to arbitrarily given ends; that is, to whatever ends the agent in question happens to have. The very idea that there could be inherently rational ends is abandoned. Reason becomes subjective, formal and instrumental.

The historical process by which reason is instrumentalized is in some sense inevitable and irreversible. The philosophical position called ‘positivism’ draws from this the conclusion that reason itself should simply be identified with the kind of reason used in natural science. Scientific reason, the critical theorists claim, is a particularly highly developed form of instrumental reason. The point of getting an exact depiction of reality as it is and of the causal laws that govern events is to allow humans to manipulate the world successfully so as to attain their ends. For this to be possible, the positivists believe, the terms that figure in significant scientific discourse must be clearly defined and their relation to possible confirming or disconfirming perceptual experience must be clearly specified. Reason, the positivists think, can be a guide to life only in a very limited sense. Its role is restricted to discharging three tasks: (1) it can criticize a set of beliefs and ends for failing to satisfy certain minimal principles of logical consistency; (2) it can criticize a given choice of means towards a given end on a variety of possible empirical grounds, such as that the means in question will not actually lead to the envisaged end or will have undesirable side effects, and it can propose more appropriate means; (3) it can unmask inherently non-cognitive beliefs, for instance value judgments, that are presenting themselves as if they had cognitive content. The role of reason in discharging the third of these tasks is especially important in the view of the positivists because any statements that do not belong to the descriptive and explanatory apparatus of science, and in particular any statement about what ought to be the case, stand wholly outside the domain of rational argumentation and can be nothing but the expression of arbitrary choice or personal preference (see Positivism in the social sciences).

Critical theorists think that this line of argument is seductive, but dangerous and false. Although it is true that reason cannot directly prescribe some set of ends as inherently rational and worthy of pursuit for their own sake, it retains an essential function that goes beyond those the positivists would allow it. This further function is that of ‘internal’ or ‘immanent’ criticism.

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

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