21 July 2013

Getting Critical Theory Right

"Today, the Frankfurt School is widely associated with hostility to empiricism and even to science. On university campuses, its aficionados are typically found in literature and cultural studies departments, but not in economics, law, or political science. It is true that the most prominent Frankfurt School figures, the social philosopher Theodor Adorno and the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, had little patience for the sort of hardheaded research featured in the OSS reports. But the publication of those reports should serve as a reminder of the Frankfurt School’s neglected face, as represented by the enigmatic Neumann and his OSS colleagues, for whom rigorous empirical inquiry always constituted a core component of what they called the “critical theory of society.”*
Among the blind-spots among political theorists that have driven me around the bend has been the more or less thoroughgoing hostility to social science. (Granted, social scientists typically reciprocate!) I recall being at a meeting of the Critical Theory Roundtable (CTR) years ago and listening to Seyla Benhabib go on and on about positivism this and positivism that as though all empirical social research (even quantitative or mathematical) were wedded to a single philosophical interpretation. When I made the seemingly obvious observation that the specific mathematical techniques are related only contingently to positivist interpretations, the response was uniformly hostile. What passes for "critical theory" these days takes place largely in ignorance of the best quantitative and formal research. So much the worse for the critical theorists and for their awareness of their own genealogy. I've not been back to the CTR since that meeting; critical theory was, from the beginning, meant to be social theory not philosophy. In current practice it just is a form of  the latter. The results are debilitating.
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* William Scheuerman. "Review of  Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, & Otto Kirchheimer. 2013. Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. Edited by Raffalle Laudani. Princeton University Press." [Foreign Affairs]

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