Critical theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2019, from

4. Internal or immanent criticism

To understand the Frankfurt School’s doctrine of internal criticism it is necessary to see it in the context of their general conception of society. Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse reject all four components of the positivist approach to the study of human society:

  1. the view that human societies are just bundles of separate facts, events and institutions (‘atomism’);

  2. the view that social facts and institutions are what they are regardless of what people think of them (‘objectivism’);

  3. the view that the concepts we use to give an account of a society are just tools which we are free to define in whatever way seems convenient (‘nominalism’);

  4. the view that the concepts we form should be purely descriptive, that is, defined exclusively in terms of purely observable properties with no evaluative component (‘the fact/value distinction’).

Contrary to this, members of the Frankfurt School hold that every society is a ‘totality’ in which each feature is essentially connected with all others and that social reality is partly constituted by the forms of belief, understanding and evaluation that exist in the society in question. Thus atomism and objectivism are false. Furthermore, the actual practices and institutions in a society would make no sense unless they were seen as inherently oriented towards the realization of some socially specified conception of the good life. Thus the more naïve versions of the fact/value distinction are problematic for the study of societies. To use the favoured Hegelian terminology: each institution in a society must be seen in relation to its (objective) ‘concept’, an ideal form of itself which it aspires to approximate, thereby playing its assigned role in the realization of the good life. The concept of an institution is objective in that the agents who participate in the institution need not be fully and explicitly aware of it – it cannot be determined by simply reading off the contents of their beliefs. It is also objective in that if we as researchers fail to formulate the concept correctly, we will have misunderstood the institution in question fundamentally. Thus ‘nominalism’ in the study of society is wrong, too. Although the concept of a social institution is objective in this sense, it is not, of course, objective in the sense in which a natural phenomenon is; it is finally constituted by human subjects and their activities, although this process of ‘constitution’ may be a very highly mediated one, lasting through a long historical time. To discover the concept is a very complex, constructive, theoretical activity requiring the social philosopher to enter into the history of the institution and study the ways in which people in the past understood it, the hopes, aspirations and values that were associated with it and their consequences.

A critical theory elicits the concept of a given institution in a given society, formulates it and confronts the actual reality of the institution with this ideal concept. There will be a discrepancy which the critical theory will point out and analyse. This analysis can be called internal or immanent criticism because the standards used in it are derived from the concept of the institution itself. Use of this internal method allows criticism to proceed without it being necessary for the critic to have an unconditional commitment to or to give an independent justification of the standards of criticism used. The common view held by all the critical theorists until 1969 (the year of Adorno’s death) was that substantive reason in the modern world must remain relentlessly negative: one cannot extract from reason the image of a good society or indeed any unconditional set of positive ideals. Reason cannot describe utopia, but can at best specify a ‘determinate negation’ of some particular feature of contemporary society that has been subject to internal criticism. Just as Marx does not describe the socio-economic formation he believes will succeed capitalism in positive and detailed terms, but only in negative terms as a ‘class-less society’, so similarly the most Adorno is ever willing to assert is that it would be desirable to be able ‘to be different without angst (1951: 656). In 1969 Marcuse announced (in the ‘Introduction’ to An Essay on Liberation) that he was breaking with the prohibition on utopian speculation that had been an integral part of the original critical theory; his post-1969 views will be discussed below (see §7) (see Utopianism).

Citing this article:
Geuss, Raymond. Internal or immanent criticism. Critical theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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