Axel Honneth | Early Critical Theory: Adorno versus Horkheimer

By Axel Honneth


The two articles that we will discuss (Adorno, „The Actuality of Philosophy“; Horkheimer, „Traditional and Critical Theory“) are very different with regard to substance as well as to method; the differences even reveal that Adorno and Horkheimer were not at all in philosophical tune with each other during the first years of the Institute for Social Research, so that later a lot of work was needed to adjust their programs – if they ever were synthesized at all.


1) Horkheimer is developing a functionalist interpretation of all sciences or theoretical undertakings by claiming that they have to be understood as the reflexive continuations of pre-theoretical problem-solving within and by human action: theory is fulfilling the function to increase by the production of knowledge, the efficiency of problem-solving as it is provided by actions that are basic for human reproduction. The kind of action in which science is rooted as being its reflexive organ and enhanced continuation, is work, the practical effort to get control over nature. “Traditional” is science (or the sciences) because it has no knowledge about its own practical rootedness; and since it has forgotten that it is the intellectual part of the permanent effort to control nature, it can be called “positivistic”. “Positivism” is for H. the name for a science or intellectual endeavor that has lost out of sight that it has a practical purpose inscribed in the kind of action of which it is the continuation. However, this “positivism” is not the fault of the individual researcher or scientist, it is the outcome of the fact that humankind as such within its own history has so far not yet realized that it is the “subject” of progress in the control over nature; this unawareness is the consequence of the fact that up until now the economy was not organized in a transparent way so that everyone would be able to understand that “humanity” is the real subject or agent of the permanently growing productivity of work   within history.

Given these functionalist (or instrumentalist/pragmatist) premises of his article  Horkheimer is forced in its second part to give such a functionalist account also for what he calls “critical theory”: he has to demonstrate that critical theory, well–understood, is also rooted in some kind of human activity that allows it to have the correct view on the fabric of human history, namely that it is human mankind that is behind all “progress” in the overcoming of natural determinations and limitations. It is my guess that Horkheimer offers in his article two very different answers to the question of how to understand the practical roots of critical theory: on the one side he seems to believe that such knowledge is embedded in the work-process itself, namely on a higher level as the insight in the “path” the organization of work has to take in order to be “fair” or “just (p. 212; p.213); on the other side he seems to conceive of this practical activity in which critical theory is embedded (as its intellectual or reflexive organ) as the struggles and conflicts the dominated classes have to fight in order to reach fairer, more just living-conditions and social structures (p.216; p. 218). In my view Horkheimer is undecided in his article about which of the two solutions to follow. Both answers are meant to explain why a critical theory (being the reflexive continuation of one or the other kind of pre-theoretical action) is allowed to have a correct view on the fabric of human history, but in two very different ways: either by being part of the work-process on a higher, second-order level, or by being the intellectual expression of ongoing struggles for emancipation from domination and oppression. But the premises of both solutions are philosophically exactly the same: human history is opaque and seems irrational only from the perspective of the participants – who are unable to understand that they are the real agents of all progress in overcoming the forces of nature -, whereas the philosophical observer has knowledge of this fact: for him or her, the critical theorist, human history is rational insofar, as it follows a path of progress rooted in the activity of human mankind to reduce natural forces. In Lukács’ History and Class-Consciousness from 1923 – a book of highest importance for the Frankfurt School – this liberating, emancipatory insight was still attributed to the proletariat; in Horkheimer we do not find such an attribution, instead he reserves the liberating knowledge to the critical theorist.


2) Adorno begins his inaugural lecture “The Actuality of Philosophy” with a statement that is clearly opposite to Horkheimer’s view regarding human history and the “hidden” rationality of all social reality: he, Adorno, claims right at the beginning  that all reality is not longer “rational” or “reasonable”, neither from the perspective of the participants nor from the perspective of the theoretical observer (p. 24). In some of his later writings he will say that reality became deprived of all rationality in the times of Hegel (which, in fact, is the time at which capitalism speeded up), who therefore was the last philosopher who could convincingly attempt to do what is philosophy’s highest purpose, namely to discursively capture the whole universe or reality as being rational. Adorno   continues by arguing that because of the vanishing of rationality from reality all philosophical ambitions have to fail today: be it transcendental idealism in the footsteps of Kant, be it phenomenology in the manner of Husserl or Scheler, these approaches all unsuccessfully attempt to find the methodological means to have access to some kind of rationality within reality – and these attempts end in Heidegger’s philosophy that is for Adorno here a kind of “vitalism” with its premise of a “being to death”. From all this results the question, if today philosophy is at all capable of answering its cardinal question, namely how to conceive of the relation of reality and reason. Surprisingly, Adorno at this point  attributes to the “Vienna Circle” the correct conclusion to abandon the search for reason in reality as such; it is by far more convincing to take empirical facts as they are, namely without being infused with some kind of reason, than to look for such reason in reality in vain.

However, Adorno’s decisive step is then to claim that these facts have to be taken as something non-understandable, something that misses any meaning and therefore forms a kind of “riddle” for us – a central notion in this text. To take social reality as a riddle implies for Adorno to use a method of interpretation in order to make it understandable; but such hermeneutics has to be of a different kind than that one offered by the tradition (I guess A. has Dilthey in view here): it does not operate with the pre-understanding that a text – the social reality – will gain any meaning after a long enough attempt of interpretation, it will instead remain without such meaning despite all hermeneutical efforts. Therefore the (critical) understanding is aiming at unraveling social reality by trying to bring its different segments so long into constantly new groupings until suddenly a certain sense is disclosed – like in solving a riddle. The notion Adorno is using for describing this method is “constellation”: the interpreter attempts (by applying imagination and knowledge of empirical facts) to disclose social reality by forming permanently new constellations of elements of that reality until “the solution springs forth” (p. 32). The example Adorno is giving in this text is Marx’ concept of “commodity structure” (p.33): this one notion as the result of solving the “riddle” of capitalist society is meant to explain at a single stroke the “truth” of capitalism” – or its “meaning” where meaning should not be confused with intentionality, reason or rational stuff like this. Adorno is summing up his description of what a “materialist” cognition or knowledge is supposed to be by saying: ”The point of interpretative philosophy is to construct keys, before which reality springs open” (p.35) – and he adds that such knowledge can initiate “praxis” (p. 34), obviously because it portrays reality in such a form or manner that it demands change or “abolition”.

I think one way to understand better what Adorno had in mind when proposing this method might be to look in later examples of what can count as results of such a form of  “constellative” or materialist interpretation; what comes to mind are then notions like “cultural industry” or “administrated world” which try to bring (with a certain exaggeration) diverse elements of our social world together in a new way such that we suddenly are able to perceive something in it that was inaccessible for us before. Another way to make this method more understandable would be to compare it with Max Weber’s idea of “ideal-type” that shares a lot of methodological features with Adorno’s “conceptual keys”.


3) Let me finally summarize the striking differences between Horkheimer and Adorno on the four levels of a) the concept of history, b) the concept of philosophy, c) the method, and d) the relation of theory to praxis:

a) Whereas Horkheimer takes social reality as being rational or reasonable when seen from the right angel, Adorno proceeds on the assumption that the social world is (today) without any reason and therefore regulated by blind, nature-like laws (human history as natural history).

b) Whereas for Horkheimer it is the task of a critical philosophy of history to demonstrate how reason as a human capacity operates within history as a driving force, for Adorno it is the only remaining task for a critical philosophy to create with imagination and acute knowledge “figures” or “constellations” that enable us to perceive true features of the given reality that were inaccessible for us before. The differences between these two concepts of philosophy result from the alternative views concerning the existence or non-existence of reason in history.

c) The best method for Horkheimer to analyze the given social reality is by interdisciplinary research under the guidance of the before-mentioned philosophy of history, whereas for Adorno the adequate method for critical theory under the given circumstances is the solving of the riddle of a non-understandable reality by constructing key-figures (as described under b).

d) Adorno believes that his “figures” might have the performative/esthetic force to motivate a move to practical change, whereas Horkheimer insists that critical theory has to be the intellectual organ of already ongoing struggles and fights for the better.



Theodor W. Adorno, “ The Actuality of Philosophy”, The Adorno Reader, ed. by Brian O’Connor, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2000, pp. 23 – 39

Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory”, in: M. Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, New York: Continuum 1981, pp. 188 – 242.