Critical Theory

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Christian Fuchs:

"Critical theory is a transdisciplinary project that at the epistemological level employs methods and theoretical categories that are employed for describing reality as dialectical contradictory field that poses risks and opportunities so that at the ontological level reality is grasped in terms that address ownership, private property, resource distribution, social struggles, power, resource control, exploitation, and domination so that at the axiological level dominative structures are judged as being undesirable and potential ways for alleviating suffering and establishing a co-operative, participatory society are identified that can enter as impulses into into political struggles and political transformations of society.

Two central texts of Critical Theory, Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory and Marcuse’s Philosophy and Critical Theory, can be interpreted for not being constitutive for Frankfurt School Critical Theory, but for critical theory in general. In these works, Horkheiemr and Marcuse on the one hand stress the limits and one-dimensionality of positivism that they consider as stabilizing forces that neglect potential alternatives to capitalism in their analyses. On the other hand, the most important uniting feature of the two works that makes them grounding works for critical theory in general is the axiological questioning of domination and the focus on the necessity of the establishment of a non-dominative society.

For Horkheimer, the goal of critical theory is the improvement of society: “In the interest of a rationally organized future society”, critical theory sheds “critical light on present-day society (…) under the hope of radically improving human existence” (Horkheimer 1937: 233). He specifies this improvement as the right kind of society that in negative terms is non-exploitative: “The Marxist categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, pauperization, and breakdown are elements in a conceptual whole, and the meaning of this whole is to be sought not in the preservation of contemporary society, but in its transformation into the right kind of society” (Horkheimer 1937: 218). Critical theory strives for “a state of affairs in which there will be no exploitation or oppression” (241), a “society without injustice” (221).

This emancipation in positive terms would bring happiness and self-determination for all: “Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (249) and “the happiness of all individuals” (248). Critical theory advances “the idea of self-determination for the human race, that is the idea of a state of affairs in which man’s actions no longer flow from a mechanism but from his own decision” (Horkheimer 1937: 229). Such a society is shaped by “reasonableness, and striving for peace, freedom, and happiness” (222) and the “the establishment of justice among men” (243). Mankind will then become conscious of its existence: “In the transition from the present form of society to a future one mankind will for the first time be a conscious subject and actively determine its own way of life” (233). Political transformation is a process of negation, the corresponding theoretical procedure in critical theory is the method of negation: “The method of negation, the denunciation of everything that mutilates mankind and impedes its free development, rests on confidence in man” (Horkheimer 1947/1974: 126)."

Source: Fuchs, Christian. Critical Theory of Information, Communication, Media, Technology. Heathwood Press (2013) [1]