Bernard E. Harcourt | Concluding Thoughts on Critique 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In the end, there is a fundamental clash between these two early texts by Horkheimer and Adorno, which reveals dramatically different sensibilities. Horkheimer’s text aims for a perfectly rational society, organized reasonably around economic production. The goal is “the rational state of society.” (216-217) Adorno’s text, by contrast, does not have faith in the possibility of a fully rational society, and starts from the proposition that we need to give up on the very project of “philosophy’s pretensions to totality.” (Telos 25/Chapter at 120) The point for Adorno is not that the “current” state of society is “barbaric” but can be rendered rational, as Horkheimer writes. It is instead that philosophy is now past the ambition to render the world fully rational.

These differences produce two very different critical projects and methods. Horkheimer aims for a total theory of society. By contrast, Adorno looks for mid-level concepts and interpretations that can solve punctual problems. Mid-level in the sense that the conceptual tools lie somewhere between the minute factual analyses of the Vienna Circle and of positivism (which Adorno views as too small or low level) and the too large, systemic, comprehensive analyses of earlier philosophical approaches such as German Idealism. So for instance, in the case of class analysis (36/131), sociological approaches operate at too minute or small-bore a level, deconstructing class too much, and thereby losing the traction of the category. As a result, Adorno offers not a systematic theory of society, but rather experiments and essays in search of problem solving at the mid-level. Adorno extolls experimentation as a way of doing philosophy (38/133) – at times sounding almost Nietzschean when he writes about interpretation “without ever possessing a sure key to interpretation.” (31/126)

The only thing that these two texts have in common is Marx. In Horkheimer’s text, Marx is pervasive. I would say that his is a thoroughly Marxist text. Horkheimer explicitly follows Marx and Engels on a number of points. First, he expressly adopts Marx and Engels’s thesis that the proletariat is best situated to perceive the contradiction between capitalist modes of production and a just society.[1] Second, he specifically embraces the “Marxist categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, pauperization, and breakdown,” as well as “commodity, value, and money.”[2] Horkheimer implicitly follows Marx and Engels with regard to social classes, modes of production, and their philosophy of history[3]; and in believing that the objective of critical theorists form “a dynamic unity with the oppressed class.”[4] Or even more, that the thinking of critical theorists must “serve” the oppressed class.[5] And that a capitalist economy of commodity exchange “must necessarily lead to a heightening of those social tensions which in the present historical era lead in turn to wars and revolutions.”[6]

By contrast, Adorno only shows his hand, as Marxist, in the examples he uses: almost as a signaling mechanism, when he uses, as his first example, “the commodity structure” (33), or when he discusses the category of “class.” There, it is clear that he follows Marx, even though his philosophical method is hardly Marxist. It is more of a small-bore empiricism, aimed at getting interpretations that unlock puzzles. It is closer to Clifford Geertz than to Marx. Geertz had proposed that an interpretation is “better” than another when it serves to shed light on other situations. What recommends an interpretation, Geertz wrote, “is the further figures that issue from them: their capacity to lead on to extended accounts which, intersecting other accounts of other matters, widen their implications and deepen their hold.”[7] That captures well Adorno’s approach in 1931.

The differences produce a sharp distinction on the question of praxis. For Horkheimer, especially in this 1937 text, there is a strong “vanguard” role for the intellectual (this would change after the war). Here, Horkheimer argues that the proletariat, although in the best position to understand the contradictions of capitalism, cannot see its own interests, and thus that critical intellectuals need to show the proletariat the proper way forward. The proletariat, Horkheimer writes, is prevented from seeing because of ideological interference: “this awareness is prevented from becoming a social force by the differentiation of social structure which is still imposed on the proletariat from above and by the opposition between personal class interests which is transcended only at very special moments.”[8] The result is that the proletariat does not achieve “correct knowledge”: “Even to the proletariat the world superficially seems quite different than it really is.”[9] This then imposes an obligation on the critical theorist to become “a critical, promotive factor in the development of the masses.”[10] The critical theorist, on Horkheimer’s view, has a vanguard role, and “can find himself in opposition to views prevailing even among the proletariat.”[11] Horkheimer embraces almost a Leninist ideal: “The theoretician whose business it is to hasten developments which will lead to a society without injustice can find himself in opposition to views prevailing even among the proletariat.”[12] Critical intellectuals thus can play a pivotal role in helping the masses recognize and activate their interests. They are the ones who can pierce the veil of false consciousness. They have a “real function,” Horkheimer writes, to facilitate “the historical process of proletarian emancipation.”[13]

By contrast, Adorno is more sparing in his remarks about praxis. There is really only one passage, on page 34/129, where Adorno writes:

When Marx reproached the philosophers, saying that they had only variously interpreted the world, and contraposed to them that the point was to change it, then the sentence receives its legitimacy not only out of political praxis, but also out of philosophic theory. Only in the annihilation of the question is the authenticity of philosophic interpretation first successfully proven, and mere thought by itself cannot accomplish this [authenticity]: therefore the annihilation of the question compels praxis. It is superfluous to separate out explicitly a conception of pragmatism, in which theory and praxis entwine with each other as they do in the dialectic.

In other words, for Adorno, at least in 1931 (and this too would change after the war), it is only out of the solution to the riddle of social problems that there emerges praxis. Out of theory, comes praxis—almost directly. Correct theory enlightens and produces action.

Neither of these models of theory and praxis seem convincing today—but I would argue, and I do in my forthcoming book Critique & Praxis, that they can serve as a springboard to develop a better and more effectual approach to address our contemporary political crises.


[1] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 213.

[2] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 218, 225.

[3] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 234.

[4] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 215.

[5] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 215.

[6] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 226.

[7] Clifford Geertz, After The Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 19.

[8] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 214.

[9] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 213, 214.

[10] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 214.

[11] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 221.

[12] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 221.

[13] Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory, 215.