Critical Theory’s Critique of Social Science: Episodes in a Changing Problematic from Adorno to Habermas — H. T. Wilson

Jurgen Habermas’s contribution to the ‘positivist dispute’, took the form of a critique of Popper which addressed itself specifically to Ralf Dahrendorf’s remarks on the original statement by Popper and Adorno’s ‘reply’. Dahrendorf had expressed considerable disappointment at the way the debate had turned out, claiming that Adorno’s failure to address himself specifically to Popper’s twenty-seven theses had given the proceedings the appearance of ‘sweet agreement’. Popper later admitted that he thought Dahrendorf was correct when he argued that Popper should have attacked the Frankfurt School vociferously rather than presenting his theses in point-by-point form. Dahrendorf wanted Popper to reassert the claims against essentialism and utopian approaches of the holist and historicist variety which he had earlier put forward in The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. It was Habermns’s characterisation of him as a positivist which caused Popper to point out that The Logic of Scientific Discovery was ‘a realist and anti-positivist point of view’ directed at the Vienna Circle and its ‘logical positivist’ approach to scientific discovery and activity.’

Habermas’s initial essay ‘The analytical theory of science and dialectics’ provides the strongest possible support for Adorno’s critique of ‘Society’, science and the social sciences. While recognising Popper’s ‘peculiar position’ as a positivist in the broadest sense who yet subjects inductivism, empiricism and logical positivism to the strongest criticism, Habermas addresses the more basic similarities already alluded to which make such ‘criticism’ part of what could only be called a family squabble. Popper may disagree with logical positivism on the one side and with inductivism and empiricism on the other, but their common assumptions about reality, knowledge and the relation between facts and theories, in short the correspondence theory and the idea of the facts as concrete particulars and theories as ‘abstract’ conceptualisations which attempt to capture them by way of structural decomposition, constitute agreements which are far more fundamental.’

Habermas concentrated initially on the insufficiency of a scientific posture in the social sciences. stressing the need for dialectical understanding and for an appreciation of this whole as concrete rather than abstract. As for the role of theory under critical rationalism: ‘A factual agreement between the derived law-like hypotheses and empirical uniformities is, in principle. fortuitous and as such remains external to theorv. Any reflection which is not satisfied with this state of affairs is inadmissible.‘” The obligation of theory, in short, is to its object. which is to say that the ‘method‘ it employs must ‘measure up’ to this object. something which no positivistic understanding. with its accompanying presuppositions, can do. The only totality honoured by traditional theory is abstract rather than concrete, and ‘empirical method’ is simply the ‘other side’ of positivism’s commitment to traditional theory. Analysis as such is always constrained by a world-view which abjures the dialectical momentousness of the whole. with the result that critical rationalism is only critical with science. Science is an historical and cultural forms of practice rather than the basis for judging it, according to Habermas. In the remainder of the essay Habermas shows what the postulate of value freedom requires in the form of social research presuppositions. and also addresses the fallacy of Weber’s attempt to preserve it through his assertion of the priority of value-relevance. Science cannot make sense of its own development or operative criteria by demanding that the social sciences adhere to a view of the world which takes its point of departure in the very conceptual distinctions that science takes for granted by empiricising the man/nature, mind/body and derived dichotomies. In this sense the social sciences, or rather social theory. must possess a dialectical component: instead of being ‘inside‘ science as institution and world-view, social theorv’s commitment to a dialectical whole puts it ‘outside’ science. This is really what enraged Popper and Albert in the positivist dispute. Habermas alludes to the phenomenon of the ‘methodological circle’ cited by Adorn0 as the unavoidable outcome of Popper’s attempt to defend science’s ‘distant model’ status. The upshot of Habermas’s effort is to defend the autonomy of both social theory and social practice against ‘scientism’.4

Habermas’s response to Hans Albert’s response to his essay criticising Popper affirms its ‘trust in the power of self-reflection’, then goes on to state that dialectics is not put forward as a ‘new method’ as Albert seems to think. Though Popper breaks through the first level of reflection in his critique of the Vienna Circle, he fails to break through those with which he is in fundamental agreement. Thus his critique of empiricism as well as logical positivism is correct, as far as it goes, yet implicit in its very correctness is the problem of consistency given in its adherence to a correspondence theory of truth. A defence of science predicated on its falsificationist bias as a collective institution and activity. as already noted, does not reach the constraints posed by the operation of critical rationalism as ‘a socially institutionalised regulatory system’, but rather goes on inside a scientific world-view.’ Thereafter Habermas concentrates on specific complaints put forward by Albert concerning the alleged difference between methodological and empirical statements and the fact-value distinction, pointing out the insufficiency of the ‘rational theorist’ as an individual whose ‘value relevance’ makes it possible for him to ignore, like both Weber and Wittgenstein. So much of ‘the world’ in his operative definition of it.

In his effort to reformulate social practice in the guise of the social sciences as social technologies. Popper ignores what he needs from life as practice to accomplish this effort, as well as what is required to make clear precisely what he is doing when he does this – a social theory committed to the dialectical whole. Positivism sunders reason by bisecting the rationality of the world from statements about it. The critical theory of society refuses to subordinate itself to the preordained limits and protocols which Popper and Albert say are absolutely necessary for ‘rational’ discussion. They are but one short step away from the more stringent view which ascribes to all statements which fail to meet formal-logical criteria the status of non-sense. The final court of appeal must address the issue of unintelligibility itself, and it is here that no rational understanding of the real relation between theory and practice will permit either one to be subject to the standards and criteria of a science so dependent on the ongoing dialectical relation between them.6

Perhaps the most important upshot of this effort, as well as later work. by Habermas, lay in his formulation of specific knowledge – constitutive interests of a practical, technical and hermeneuticicritical kind. For its part science, he argues, has an overarching technical cognitive interest, which is to say that science and technology are structurally interrelated in the sense that the first as cause produces the second as effect. Though only fully developed in work after 1964, the germ of one of Habermas’s most significant arguments is to be discovered in this notion of an inherent technical interest on the part of science. Its importance lies in the fact of its resemblance to Popper’s arguments against essentialism and utopian postures of the holist or historicist type. Though Habermas brackets it as one particular kind of interest suspended between theory and practice, he differs from Popper in the main only in the fact that he applies this argument from inherency to science itself. Only after 1968 will he extend it to holism and historicism as well.’

Therefore the logical relation between theory and practice, which Wellmer cites as a rather unique property of Popper’s work since the very beginning in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, holds for Habermas on the matter of science and technology as a knowledge – constitutive relation expressing one particular cognitive interest – the technical interest. The difference between Popper and Habermas is thus that Popper’s assertion constitutes a claim about the outer boundaries of ‘knowledge’ itself whereas for Habermas it is only one, and perhaps the least worthy, type. I have elsewhere noted how the difficulties attending either of the two formulations are virtually insuperable. This because one need only point out how modern science and techniques premised on rule of thumb managed to exist independently for approximately three hundred years in the West before the ‘interests’ of capitalist economic organisation in producing technological progress by harnessing technology to science led it to first attempt to bring them together about a century ago.’

It is to a series of political events in West Germany, France and Italy that we must turn in order to make sense of Habermas’s subsequent revision of his original dialectical posture in support of holism and historicism. The student protest movements in West Germany mark a turning point in his theory of society. which now begins to favour incremental and reformist postures of the Popperian variety. however ‘radical’. One casuality of these events had been Theodor Adorno, whose unexpected death in 1969 was attributed by many to the stresses and strains of the student protest movement. in particular its resort to violence and intimidation. Habermas appeared in retrospect to have adopted Popper’s point of view associating holism and historicism with violent and irresponsible political actions. The extension of the view that a logical relation links science and technology is now extended from the other side by Habermas in order to account for the role of the critical theory of society in allegedly fomenting and sustaining the student protest movement.” Here is how Habermas first explained this shift in his thinking:

Under other historical conditions. the juxtaposition of the categories ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’ constituted a sharp line of demarcation. In industrially advanced societies it no longer discriminates between possible alternative strategies of change. The only way I see to bring about conscious structural change in a social system organised in an authoritarian welfare state is radical reformism. What Marx called critical-revolutionary activity must take this way today. This means that we must promote reforms for clear and publicly discussed goals, even and especially if they have consequences that are incompatible with the mode of production of the established system. The superiority of one mode of production to another cannot become visible under given structural conditions of military technology and strategy as long as economic growth. the production of consumer goods, and the reduction of average labour time – in short, technical progress and private welfare – are the only criteria for comparing competing social systems. However. if we do not deem insignificant the goals, forms, and contents of humane social and communal life, then the superiority of a mode of production can only be measured, in industrial societies, with regard to the scope it opens up for a democratisation of decision-making processes in all sectors of society.“’

This statement. let it be noted, lies somewhere between his original position in the positivist dispute in support of Adorno. and subsequent concerns about developing a critical social science.” It also reflects his belief that it is necessary, above all, to buffer the extremes of Marxist and fascist radicalism, never far from the surface, which erupted in West Germany in the form first of the student protest movement and thereafter of the public and governmental response to it.

The foregoing is not offered as evidence that Habermas is no longer a Marxian thinker; on the contrary. But it does suggest a new direction for the critical theory of society given its earlier retreat from Marx’s revolutionary solution into ‘negative dialectics’ as the basis for a theorerical materialism. Habermas’s titanic corpus must be understood as an attempt to bring the critical theory back into the business of social change, but on radically new foundations. What Adorn0 in particular, but Horkheimer and Marcuse as well, had done was to show how much of a totality the false whole of advanced industrial society had become as a result of the extension of norms of maximisation. technical rationality and scientism outward to encompass and effectively predefine the entire ‘structure’. Now Habermas was determined to use this as his point of departure for reviving an activist approach premised on the need for heightened critical consciousness amongst societal members. He did not. in other words, fundamentally dispute the analysis. but rather came eventually to the realisation that an interventionist posture was the only alternative to the sort of theoretically sophisticated versions of Weberian pessimism and resignation found in The Dialectic of Enlightenment.”

This realisation was doubtless aided substantially by the events of 1968-9 in West German universities. A revolutionary posture and orientation, however unfeasible an ‘successful’ revolution in present-day advanced societies might be.13 only succeeded in generating a ferocious counter-response. This meant that a middle way on the order of ‘radical reformism’ had to be found. More specifically, it underscores Habermas’s determination to build up a ‘tradition’ of social science and social technology in a country without a social history naturally conducive to either development. Thus any criticism (or critique) of Habermas directed in the main to his ideas since these events must take account of his imminent practical concerns as one of the more significant persons influencing West German state policy.

More broadly, the accuracy of the analysis in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and twenty years later in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, made it plain to Habermas that the only intellectually sensible response which would satisfy both theoretical and common-sense conceptions of reason would be to refuse the Wittgensteinian temptation to justify philosophy because it leaves ‘the world’ exactly as it finds it. Marx is thus revered by being subected to a critique which transforms his concept and methodology of change in order to render the objective need for change itself comprehensible given a false totality characterised by a high order of structural and systemic interrelation. The very reasons advanced by Horkheimer and Adorno, and later by Adorno, as well as by Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, for either retreating to a theoretical methodology (Horkheimer and Adorno), or eulogising revolutionary praxis, as was the case with Marcuse after 1965, led Habermas to opt for an interventionist posture whose ‘radical’ character would put it beyond the charge of acquiescence in Popperian social technology.“14

The writer’s difficulty on this score has always centred about the latent presumption that acknowledgement of the imminent demands of the first argument, regarding the need for a ‘middle way’ in West Germany, would be used to support the ‘logic’ of social science interventionism given the ‘critical’ claims of its ‘radical’ posture in all the advanced societies. I have elsewhere sought to draw out the implications of such a presumption, in order to show how ‘relevant’ to the United States in particular has been an argument like Marcuse’s in One Dimensional Man. Marcuse argued that the last thing the United States needed was more social science: it had become. in every sense of the Marxian understanding. a ‘force of (capitalist) production’. In contrast to West Germany, it was clearly not needed as a buffer for the sort of political extremes alluded to by Habermas in his writings. Indeed. its absorption into the ‘structure’ as a consequence of its central role in the ‘culture’ had effectively rendered it an ideology whose claim to neutrality served to reveal its auspices in the effort to conceal them.”

Three difficulties in particular suggest themselves to anyone anxious to find the ‘secret’ of contemporary industrial societies in Habermas’s vvork. First. there is the issue of how the critical component could possibly be preserved in the continuous effort to intervene in societal (and sub-societal) matters in a social-scientific way. The scope for distinctiveness here is restricted in the main to techniques and methods on the assumption that the basic epistemology ordaining correspondence, hypotheses and the abstract totality and concrete particular is in place and presumed valid. Such assumptions, as Adorn0 suggested, are indicative of a lack of openness on the issue of the role of social thought and theorising.

A related matter concerns whether there is thought to be a zero-sum relation between the critical theory as a ‘negative dialectics’, and the alleged ‘radical reformism’ of a ‘critical social science’ like that of Habermas committed to intervention and to the heightening of consciousness. It is all too easy, after all, to suggest that the new approach supercedes the old one, thus that the critical theory as conceived by both the first generation and the young Habermas is escessively ‘negative’ rather than ‘affirmative’ in its attitudes toward the culture and society as a whole. The view that the development of ‘society’ has rendered virtually obsolete the understandings and views of the critical theory would only make sense, in this new equation, if the parameters for both change and the knowledge of change were acknowledged to be determined by the social structure itself. That this understanding is not necessarily in the best tradition of Marxian thought only underscores the original point: there is no necessary zero-sum relation between a true theoretical posture takin g its point of departure in the concrete totality, and ‘social technology’ under the int‘luence of a radical or critical banner.

The final difficulty which presents itself to the reader of Habermas’s work is more fundamental because it addresses the ‘logic’ of his strategy regarding the relation between communication, consciousness and social transformation. One could make a strong case for the claim that societal members who are allegedly going to benefit from the heightened consciousness generated by a critical social science as an academic version of ‘radical reformism’ would need to already possess the consciousness that the efforts of this interventionism is intended to produce. The claim by Habermas and his supporters that they have finally escaped the dilemma of Marx’s ‘feedback’ conception of revolutionary consciousness by realising the focus of such consciousness in ‘need dispositions’ falls flat when it is realised that the ‘success’ of such an undertaking, by Habermas’s own admission, is far more likely in those countries which have ‘institutionalised’ the social sciences than in those that have not. I6

What remains of enduring significance about the work of Habermas. however, is the way he has acceded to the basic tenets of a ‘positivism’ he once found problematic and controversial in Popper. The result is a theoretical reconciliation of theory and practice. analytic and remedial. concept and object, premised on reductionism and an acquiescence in the false concreteness given in the empirical bias. Further, his interventionist posture reveals itself in a Popperian commitment to affirming incrementalism or social technology in and through his writings, something I shall take up in more detail shortly. Finally, there is a heavy dependence. unacknovvledged for the most part, on Weber’s understanding of ‘rationalisation’ and de-enchantment, which Habermas employs as a basis for updating the Marxian distinction between the sub and superstructure in his essay ‘Technology and science as ideology’, a response to Marcuse’s critique of Weber at the centenary of his birth in 1964.”

Endorsing incrementalism, however ‘radical’ and ‘critical’ its claims, is problematic because it presupposes something of a zero-sum game between such a posture and the view held initially by critical theorists whose Hegelian Marxism was gradually transfigured into negative dialectics and one- dimensionality. Since practical conditions always require some form of ‘piecemeal social engineering’, a recommendation to social scientists which favours a ‘success’ or problem-solving orientation simply constitutes a request that they view progress in their disciplines strictly in terms of the way their efforts are received by those who really define their ‘problems’ for them – the various ‘users’ in business, government, the professions, unions, etc. Habermas may not intend to put social theorists in an either/or position on the issue of reflexivity versus intervention, but his thinking since 1969 definitely favours this impression. Such a posture, which is given to systems builders committed to theoretical reconciliations of the sort noted, fails to take account of the fact that here we are not dealing with two ‘options’ given a basic consensus on the nature of reality and knowledge about it. In effect, one ‘side’ does not accept the ground rules which view negativity of the sort counselled by Adorn0 and Marcuse as being incompatible with reformism, whether of the liberal or radical variety.

The point here is that the critical theorist does not ‘support’ such reforms in the practical realm by turning away from negativity. He rather engages these reforms as constructive changes which are at one and the same time an effort to make the social whole more human than it presently is and a part of this social whole by dint of the very effort to improve it in a way which (necessarily) begins by taking its structure as a (false, incomplete) whole as essentially ‘given’. He neither disputes the ‘good will’ of participants to these efforts, nor does he reify society by acceding to its alleged monolithic character as a totality in which dialectical movement in the direction of becoming has ceased or become meaningless. But he knows the difference between such efforts, as well as the social science which stands behind and effectively legitimises them, and critique as a negative dialectics. In a certain sense, then, intervention in the interests of the sort of change which can be realised by and through such efforts tells us as much about the advanced societies as social structures as it does about the social sciences as ‘disciplines’ which simultaneously encounter and produce their reality. Sociological theory, by inverting its relation to ‘research’ in the act of acceding to the academic division of labour. reflects its real role as the light infantry of a technological social science required to prove its claims to professional status and governmental’corporate ‘support’ by its capacity to produce with a fair efficiency ‘vvorks’ valued as relevant by those who direct the dominant institutions of society. 18

[to be continued]

2 Responses to “Critical Theory’s Critique of Social Science: Episodes in a Changing Problematic from Adorno to Habermas — H. T. Wilson”


  1. Great article. I’d like to see the sequel. Also, where was this originally published?


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