Tyler T. Jankauskas | On Re-reading First-Generation Critical Theory in 2019

By Tyler T. Jankauskas

The questions of scholarly intention, audience reception, and category definition are central to re-reading Horkheimer and Adorno’s early, somewhat “programmatic” texts. In this essay, I will treat these two methodological interventions in turn, considering insights and limitations of the ideas expressed, and then lastly turn to their relevance for some well-known issues of 2019.

Traditional and Critical Theory: Method, and Appropriation

Horkheimer characterizes traditional theory as manifesting an internal/external divide which drives both a practical naïveté and a methodological error. Horkheimer situates the work of such theorists in an industrial context: their “[b]ringing hypothesis to bear on facts is an activity that goes on, ultimately, not in the savant’s head but in industry” (Horkheimer 196). This naïveté of the traditional theorist may be overstated, I believe. In my experience, there is little “false consciousness of the bourgeois savant” (Id. 198). Pharmacologists know and embrace their work as a part of a pharmaceutical industry; computer scientists as part of a tech industry; and no one is surprised that competing experts retained in U.S. trials invariably provide expert testimony that supports the claims of the party retaining them. The scholar’s role in economic life is no secret. Moreover, few scholars conceptualize their work’s purpose as isolated from social life. It is not “the seeming self-sufficiency enjoyed by work processes” that motivate scholars, but the intervention on and efficacy in the social world (Id. 197). One becomes a medical researcher to cure cancer, not to study cells.[1]

The characterizations of traditional theory that have greater import are the methodologic ones in Horkheimer’s internal critique. While I do not agree that “bourgeois savants” attempt idle neutrality in scholarship aimed only for the sake of knowledge itself, traditional theorists may nevertheless make a categorization error in their theory: that there is a methodological separation of means and ends. One may characterize the study of cells instrumentally as a means in order to cure cancer, rather than studying cells itself as curing cancer. This distinction gains salience in social studies, for example, when one is writing a study of tax havens—the end of how one’s work effects society must necessarily affect the means of how that study is undertaken. Research questions are shaped by the goal. A research agenda oriented toward domestic political change, international governance, or investment how-to are necessarily going to differ in their way of studying tax havens.

This internal critique of traditional theory not only gestures towards a critique of instrumental reason, but also grants a foundational characteristic which separates critical theory from simply “good” or accurate social science that takes observer bias into account.

The collapsing of a means/end distinction does come at a price: the normative foundation of critical theory. Emancipation, freedom from oppression and injustice, the organization of society around a common good—these all are as fundamental to the Critical Theory tradition, but they are external to Horkheimer’s Critical Theory methodology. It is notable that Horkheimer took a leap that the philosopher Adorno avoided: a philosophical conception of humanity. While Adorno explicitly refuses to rely on such a conception, Horkheimer is unafraid: “If activity governed by reason is proper to man [sic], then existent social practice…is inhuman, and this inhumanity affects everything that goes on in the society” (Id. 210). This idea of propriety may gesture towards a normative ground, but it is ultimately unreliable. Horkheimer states it as a presupposition rather than developed argument, and he ultimately repudiates the idea of rationality grounding norms in his later work.

Problems familiar to Critique 13/13 result from the detachment of Critical Theory method from Critical Theory norms, such as those problems faced in questioning the “correct” reading of Foucault, and on alt-right appropriations of critical theory. As much as Horkheimer emphasizes political-moral justice as a norm of Critical Theory, these normative ends are not inextricable from the rest of his Critical Theory method. The paradox is painful: Horkheimer intended a program ultimately oriented toward anti-oppression, but developed a method at risk of appropriation.

The Actuality of Philosophy: Riddles, Interpretation, and Hegelian Baggage

Adorno’s lecture confronts two intellectual frameworks—philosophical idealism (as phenomenology) and scientism—against whose failures and shortcomings he presents a critical philosophy of dialectical interpretation. While science’s (Wissenschaft) role is research, philosophy’s is interpretation, Adorno writes (126). By interpretation, Adorno does not refer to addressing the problem of “meaning” or of looking beyond the world of appearance to a world-in-itself (a role that science fulfills). Rather, Adorno argues that philosophic interpretation is meant to negate and sublate (aufzuhaben) “riddles,” which Adorno describes, without defining, as “first findings” perceived by philosophy as something that needs unriddling (in contradistinction to science, which makes findings rather than negates them). Given Adorno’s use of Hegelian concepts in his interpretive dialectic, I tentatively take it to mean that “riddles” are the contradictions of the world that interpretive dialectic confronts through immanent critique. In this reading, the praxis granted to interpretation, a “change-causing gesture of the riddle process,” is then a powerful bridge of praxis and theory.

Adorno’s presents a philosophy with concerns distinct from science and with a method of immanent critique that carries with it an inherent mode of praxis. “The interpretation of given reality and its abolition are connected to each other, not…in the sense that reality is negated in the concept, but that out of the construction of a configuration of reality the demand for its [reality’s] real change always follows promptly” (Id. 129, emphasis added). Iain MacDonald provides an illustrative example of this through the story of Rosa Parks. In her social setting, when Rosa Park stated “I don’t think I should have to stand up,” Parks projected the possibility of a world where norms would preclude her being forced to move. Parks expressed to the police officer “though with the force of law you say I must [move], another organization of reality is both imaginable and realizable in which I would not have to” (MacDonald 44). In this projection, Park’s negated the false necessity of her given situation. The “riddle” here is how the predominant legal and cultural value of equality and fairness is able to co-exist with blatantly unequal and unfair legal and cultural practices.

If Park’s story is a story of Adorno’s proposal of aufgeheben, questions remain. Most prescient is Adorno’s unadulterated faith in his process—“out of the construction…real change always follows promptly” (Adorno 129, emphasis added). Continuing with the United States civil rights movement, one might ask how this statement would be heard by the thousands of activists giving blood, sweat, and tears in decades of political demonstrating. Such a statement either means that change would have come regardless of their efforts, or that they were not agents but rather responding to some historical will or necessity. The first breeds political quietism and is unlikely to be true; the second also breeds quietism, but is perhaps more interesting in that it implicates the teleological tendencies of Hegelian thinking. Is Adorno’s philosophy one in which oppressed people simply, inevitably, respond to the cunning of reason of the philosopher’s dialectical interpretation? I doubt this is a proper extrapolation, because it was this exact issue that motivated the first-generation Critical Theory thinkers.

Perhaps these implications take Adorno too literally. One reading may allow that “always follow promptly” is a phrase that, even if meant sincerely, can be cut without any collateral damage to Adorno’s proposal. In such a case, dialectical interpretation offers a ground for philosophical criticism of societal contradictions that functions as a mode of consciousness raising through revealing these contradiction and, in so doing, projecting alternative possibilities.


It is a rare impulse to find philosophy more efficacious, but I see a more present role in Adorno’s project compared with Horkheimer’s. As Horkheimer notes, “[u]nemployment, economic crises, militarization, terrorist regimes…are not due…to limited technological possibilities” (Horkheimer 213). Indeed, the crises in the United States—the neglectful ignoring of environmental cataclysm, mass incarceration, disinformation and propaganda campaigns in political discourse and other previously settled sites (i.e. the anti-vax movement), the resurgent popularity of white supremacy and domestic terrorism, daylight political corruption—these problems are not due to limited technology or even limited understanding. They are organizational and political problems.[2] Where Horkheimer sees a role for Ideologiekritik, Adorno’s proposal seeks to lay the situation bare. For example, an Adorno-inspired Sprachkritik exposing the contradiction in valuing freedom and autonomy while imprisoning 2.3 million people, working to get people to care, may do more than sociological inquiry on attitudes towards prisons.

This is not to say that Horkheimer’s project plays no role—it plays a pivotal role, as the mechanics of change require the machinists of change. However, in major spheres, the role of social science appears to have been exhausted. The question then is how to motivate practice—through targeted social research, or exposure and resolution of social contradictions.


Adorno, Theodor W. “The Actuality of Philosophy.” Telos, vol. 1977, no. 31, 1977, 120-133.

Horkheimer, Max. “Traditional and Critical Theory.” Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connel and others, Continuum, 1977.

Macdonald, Iain. “‘What Is, Is More than It Is’: Adorno and Heidegger on the Priority of Possibility.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 19:1, 2011, 31-57, DOI: 10.1080/09672559.2011.539357. Accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1080/09672559.2011.539357


[1] Maybe this perspective is uniquely American, or otherwise out of touch with the notion of leisurely scholé. In an interview, Zizek observed how arguments insisting on the productionist nature of scholarship—that scholarship must have “real world effect”—was a notable characteristic of Soviet academia. There is certainly a slight irony that one such as Horkheimer, writing on how productionist ideology pervades social research, places such focus on efficacy.

[2] To be clear, I do not attribute all crises to organizational or political roadblocks. For example, there is a global loneliness epidemic that remains under-studied and under-theorized. In this case, social research has much ground to cover. However, in many if not most cases, societal problems reflect an inconsistency of cultural values applied to the crisis at hand.