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Self Test

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: October 9, 2000
Latest update: March 16, 2001

Critical Theory and Fellman's Paradigm

This self test is based on p. 13-17 of Contemporary Social Theory. Anthony Elliott, editor. Blackwell Publishers. 1999. This is hardcopy. You'll need to come by jeanne's office or Pat's office to read it.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where and when was critical theory founded? (p. 13)

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer

    Critical theory was founded by The Frankfurt School: a group of scholars who formed the Institute for Social Research, that tried to explain how the atrocities of the Second World War were possible. Both Horkheimer and Adorno were forced to flee Nazi Germany and to take up their work in the U.S., where they attempted to explain how and why the Second World War could and did happen. They, together with Marcuse, make up the first generation of critical theorists. Jurgen Habermas is the current leading exponent of the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

    Our site is founded on Jurgen Habermas' optimistic belief that humans can learn to live together in spite of the disillusionments to which Horkheimer and Adorno succumbed in their understanding that science and the Enlightenment did not in fact bring the Utopias for which humans had hoped. Marcuse, too, returned to his first love of literature, somewhat disillusioned over the seeming impossibility of enlightening the social and political world.

    Habermas has not given up so thoroughly on the Enlightenment. He acknowledges the dilemma, and he concedes that the metanarratives we were convinced would provide "the" answers did not do so, but led to this mess at the edge of the twenty-first century. But he holds at least to the Enlightenment standard of using reason and discourse as tools to hear each other in good faith, to respect each other, and move towards an affirmation of life, hope, and peace. His argument suggests that we must not simply counter-norm the twentieth century, but that we must build on the useful tools the last generations left us, to transform a new normative approach. Perhaps he would agree with Frances Cardona's suggestion that adversarialism, even though normative, is deviant.

  2. Who is the key exponent of critical theory, as led by the Frankfurt School, today? (p. 13)

    One Plausible Answer

    Jurgen Habermas.

  3. On what basic issues was the Frankfurt School founded?

    One Plausible Answer

    The Frankurt School was founded on trying to understand how nazism and fascism had thrived in the 20s and 30s, and trying to understand how not to permit them to thrive ever again.

    They explored the Enlightenment, the belief and the goal that humans would, through scientific, rational, and objective knowledge be able to shape a utopian world. They combined "Max Weber's analysis of bureaucracy" and "Marx' critique of political economy."

  4. What did Horkheimer and Adorno conclude about the Enlightenment?

    One Plausible Answer

    That the Enlightenment was a double-edged sword. "For Horkheimer and Adorno, the overall trend of development in western society is that of an expanding rationalization,, an instrumental ordering of life in which there is a loss of moral meaning at the levels of society, culture, and personality. In the analyses of the first generation of critical theorists, this loss of meaning is captured by the term 'totally administered society' - a term that Adorno gave further analytical clarity to when he spoke of socio-psychological process of fragmentation, or 'logics of disintegration'."

  5. How does the Frankfurt School link conceptually to Fellman's paradigms of adversarialism and mutuality?

    One Plausible Answer

    Horkheimer, Adorno, and to some extent, Marcuse in recent years, despaired over what Enlightenment had become. Unlike Durkheim, who saw the breakkdown between social facts and individual development as natural patterns, Horkheimer and Adorno saw the achievements of the Enlightenment and Science as bringing in their wake the destruction of the project of freedom and social justice.

    The early Frankfurt School leaders despaired over the instrumental rationality that resulted from the knowledge of the Enlightenment that was to have been to free all people. They saw that the knowledge gained could be used to enslave people more effectively and to accumulate wealth and power, and that the knowledge was so used more in this way than to free all people.

    Habermas has devoted his approach to finding hope through this despair. Although he agrees with the critical and postmodern rejection of metanarratives, themes that can apply universally to humans and their needs without relying on local narratives and motivations, Habermas believes that some knowledge may be salvaged from the Enlightenment movement: the knowledge, for example, of how one shall assess the validity claims of critical theory.

    Habermas, as I understand him, believes in rationality as a tool, a communicative tool, not an instrumental tool. By a switch to communicative action, to genuine public sphere consideration of our respective validity claims, as opposed to instrumental action aimed at getting others to do what we want them to, Habermas, again, as I understand him, claims that we can mend the fragmentation and find ways to honor valid claims to freedom from oppression.

    All of this sounds very much to me like what Fellman is saying: we need to come to some interim position from which we recognize the significance of both adversarialism and mutuality, or any other of the continuums our social philosophers have recognized as important, and choose balanced approaches to living together that take all people and communities into account as human and deserving of our mutual respect.

    To the extent that we pursue our own individual benefits we are operating adversarially. In late capitalism, that means that we use rationality instrumentally, to the end of our own gain. To the extent that we pursue communicative action, renewal of public sphere skills in discourse, and the honoring of all valid claims in the public sphere, we are using rationality tempered by an understanding of the interdependent role of the lifeworld. I think Fellman would consider that one of the seeds of mutuality he seeks to develop.

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.