Friday 15 November 2013

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School (core members: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse) was a group of neo-Marxist theorists formed in the 1930s that introduced new levels of skepticism to philosophy with their invention of critical theory.

Critical theory differs from traditional theory by its self-conscious refusal to cling to truths dogmatically. The critical theorists were much more interested in critiquing the theories of other philosophers, trying to find the useful bits and throw out the rest. This is a kind of negative philosophy because it focuses not on discovering what is true, but only in pointing out how other philosophers got things wrong. This approach to thinking was influenced by Nietzsche’s idea that “a great idea ought to be criticized, not idolized.” (If you read Nietzsche, you’ll notice that he spends an unusual amount of time attacking other philosophers instead of developing his own philosophy – to the point, that you finish the book knowing everything that he doesn’t believe, but very little about what he does believe.)

These philosophers rejected all claims to absolute truth and were thus skeptical of theorists that claimed to have a theory with laws about how the world worked. As a result, they used what they called the dialectical method. They took this idea from Hegel, who thought philosophy should be a constant analyzing and synthesizing of different viewpoints, gradually weeding out the inconsistencies between them until finally, philosophy stumbles upon the right answers. The Frankfurt School thought Hegel’s view was too optimistic. It legitimized the present status quo as being some intermediate step in an upward escalation toward divinity. The critical theorists, however, like Marx, saw serious social problems in the world and wanted to solve them, not justify them. So they took Hegel’s dialectical method and made it self-conscious. Instead of just synthesizing everyone else’s theses and antitheses, they also used the method to critique past dialectical interpretations.

Why did the critical theorists feel the need to use a dialectical method? They were influenced by Max Weber’s thought that there was an important difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences. In the social sciences, it’s difficult to derive general laws from case studies. Weber attributed this to the historical and cultural positioning of perceived experiences. All laws derived from looking at experiences are bound only to reflect the researcher’s ideas, rather than reality’s contents.  A researcher cannot expect to discover the true nature of the universe through empirical methods. Max Horkheimer echoed this idea in “Traditional and Critical Theory.” In other words, Weber and the Frankfurt School fell for the red herring of seeing culture as epistemologically relevant. These are just a few of history’s philosophers that fell prey to their ignorance of probabilistic epistemology. The impossibility of absolute truth (which Bayesianism concedes) does not logically entail the impossibility of objectivity.

Strangely enough, the critical theorists did believe some political systems were better than others, did believe in solving social issues, and did believe in the existence of material reality, so it's difficult to see what, if any, rent their epistemological panic paid them. This, as far as I've seen, is standard among people that deny the possibility of "being objective."

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