The Missed Encounter Between Critical Theory And American Pragmatism

My latest essay at The New Polis where I am a Contributing Editor.

The Missed Encounter Between Critical Theory And American Pragmatism

The German Frankfurt School theorist and philosopher Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1947) presents one of the most thorough and far-ranging critiques of American philosophy and of American thought ever written. But within months of the publication of this book its scathing critique would effectively terminate the spread of the Frankfurt School in American academic institutions.

It would take some two to three decades for the powerful ideas of critical theory invented by the Frankfurt School during the immediate postwar period, to reach American academic life.

Today, American pragmatist thought has turned to critical theory, fusing together a particular form of pragmatist critical theory. Yet Horkheimer’s early critique of pragmatism remains prescient today, as pragmatist thought has “domesticated” much of the original potency of Frankfurt School critical theory.

James Schmidt documents the reception American philosophers gave to the Eclipse of Reason in his essay, The Eclipse of Reason and the End of the Frankfurt School in America, where he notes that the book effectively banned Horkheimer’s ideas from spreading within American philosophy circles. Schmidt’s essay reveals an American philosophical establishment that was stubborn, idiosyncratic and defensive to criticism of its particular approach to philosophy.

A Form of Thinking Adjusted to Exploitation and the Status Quo

What was it about Horkheimer’s critique of American thought and American philosophy in particular that proved so intolerable to the American philosophical establishment? Attacking American philosophy head on, the great European Marxist saw in American philosophy a form of thinking that refused speculative thought and that presented a form of reason adjusted to exploitation of the status quo. The confluence of American philosophy produced a most insidious form of idealism.

The culprits of this mélange of pragmatist-oriented thinking were born from the confluence of Margaret Mead’s anthropology, John Dewey’s Hegelian pragmatism, a wider embrace of Darwinist naturalism, and a political theology guided by “neo-Thomism.” American philosophy had produced, according to Horkheimer, an “attitude of consciousness that adjusts itself without reservation to the alienation between subject and object out of fear that it may otherwise fall into irresponsibility, arbitrariness, and become a mere game of ideas..”

In a similar vein to Adorno’s critique of Heidegger and the effect of Heidegger’s thinking on philosophy in Jargon of Authenticity, American philosophy with its neo-Thomist and pragmatist orientation put forward a philosophical monism that abandoned dialectical thinking. American philosophy effectively produced a form of what Horkheimer and Adorno call ‘subjective reason’, which is to say that American pragmatist thought, which emphasized experience, habit and natural processes, produced a form of philosophy that is complicit in industrial capitalism and that elevates reality as such to an ideal of reason.

American philosophy fails to adopt a dialectical mode of thinking because it posits reason as identical with modern man’s “adjustive faculty” (97). Reason thus becomes the means by which the individual navigates the world in which they find themselves; it is not the means by which the individual breaks from this world.

For the pragmatist, reason is reduced to an instrument for exploring processes of better adaptation to the natural environment. But when the natural environment is one of relentless compulsory competition, exploitation and alienation, pragmatism lacks the philosophical means to pose a rupture with such an environment. As a philosophy of experience, pragmatism sees one of its central aims as the re-fashioning of man’s habitual apparatus; but without a critical philosophy, such an adaptation risks falling sway to an adaptation to the existing structures of domination and exploitation.

At the time of the publication of these lectures, Horkheimer had already developed a theory of domination of man under modern conditions that heavily relied on an account of nature that was at diametrical odds to the American pragmatist account of nature. For Horkheimer, exploitation and oppression in modern society must be considered beyond the orthodox Marxist class conflict analysis.

He rather thought that the Enlightenment had developed an objective reason and instrumental account of nature that was eroding man’s very capacity to engage in reason to produce independent thought. Furthermore, the orthodox Marxist account of exploitation under the capitalist modes of exchange and production must be expanded to account for a story of domination of nature that extended far further back into human history, before the advent of capitalism.

In much of the lectures Horkheimer takes aim at the “saint” of American philosophy, the pragmatist naturalist philosopher John Dewey for his marrying of Darwinism with Hegelianism. In Dewey’s thought we find a theory of the mind understood as a product of the world instead, when the reverse is what is needed – a dialectical theory that begins from the premise that the mind determines the world. What this results in is a philosophy that exalts raw nature as reason, a “debased Darwinism” (125 – 126). When reason disavows its commitment to speculative thought it becomes a servant of natural selection.

Thus, Dewey’s thought did not lead to an end to dialectical thinking of experience. Since Plato, the task of dialectical thinking has always been set on the unshackling of independent thought (127). The unshackling of thought is the very task of reason. As Horkheimer notes, “the sole way of assisting nature is to unshackle its seeming opposite, independent thought” (127). What Dewey’s philosophy amounts to is a celebration of reality, but a reality under capitalism is a reality of social alienation (82).

Horkheimer pleads for American philosophy to introduce negation as the means of interrogating the material conditions which form the unexamined backdrop of social production that pragmatists ignore. Ironically, Horkheimer in fact predicts the very rejection of this very proposal when he notes that the form of philosophy he is advocating, namely one that aims to address this level of reality, will inevitably appear as “metaphysical nonsense” to the pragmatist (83). As Schmidt shows in citing various reviews of Eclipse of Reason by American philosophers, the majority of them saw Horkheimer as some sort of Platonist charlatan.

American philosophy presents what Horkheimer calls ‘philosophical monism’, a monism that entrenched the domain of spirit to the total domination of the market. By tethering the spirit to a naturalism of biological determinism (Darwinism) and existing material conditions, Dewey naturalized man’s position within the modes of production. Importantly, this monistic orientation of pragmatist philosophy had a stepsister in what Horkheimer names “Neo-Thomism,” which he defines as an anti-dialectical political theology pervasive in American philosophy.

In neo-Thomism, nothing remains outside the all-embracing concept; metaphysics is thus reduced to the necessity for preserving space for the supreme being or value, be it political or social, to emerge (69). In neo-Thomism, Horkheimer writes, “[e]ternal natural law was founded on the basic structure of being” (70). In this philosophy, the very idea of God becomes contradictory: God is somehow absolute yet impervious to change. Neo-Thomism produces the same effect as Heideggerianism as Adorno notes in the Jargon of Authenticity:

The unconscious expression of a dynamic social process whose dynamics it fails to reflect. This failure is constitutive of ontological discourse, whose preference for stasis over movement, ground over horizon, Being over becoming is but an expression of a human “desire” caused by a world that, in reality, never stands still” (54).

Neo-Thomism and American pragmatism form a philosophical monism that elevates an ontology out of the existing social relations into a static account of the supreme principle found which is conveniently found in the existing social order without an analysis of the social relations into account. This form of philosophizing produces mythical thinking as it tries uphold a theoretical harmony that is given the lie on every account that the absolute must somehow reside already within the existing order. This marriage of neo-Thomism and pragmatism resulted in a new form of idealism that “glorified the merely existent by representing it as nevertheless spiritual in essence.”

In glorifying the merely existent, American philosophy veiled the basic conflicts in society “behind the harmony of its conceptual constructions,” furthering “the lie that elevates the existing to the rank of God, by attributing to it a ‘meaning’ that it has lost in an antagonistic world.” Thomas Aquinas sought God by analogy, which means that the church accepted a division between reality and absolute truth – for Aquinas; God does not suffer or change. This means that there is a static reality in Thomism, but this reality has no negative element capable of shifting its absolute presence.

An outcome of this monistic form of philosophy is an inadequate theory of agency and of the self. American philosophy celebrates the intellect as an isolated and independent entity. But as a Marxist, Horkheimer is keen to note that within capitalism, it is the division of labor that determines the capacity for independent, or abstract thought.

“The major argument against ontology is that the principles man discovers in himself by meditation, the emancipating truths that he tries to find, cannot be those of society or of the universe, because neither of these is made in the image of man.”

American philosophy presents a ‘vulgar materialism’ that falls into cynical nihilism; promoting a subjective reason that can only have affinity with ideology and lies. The two concepts of reason do not represent two separate and independent ways of the mind, although their opposition expresses a real antinomy.

As an alternative to this vulgar materialism, reason must, “[by] its self-critique… recognize the limitations of the two opposite concepts of reason (subjective and objective); it must analyze the development of the cleavage between the two, perpetuated as it is by all the doctrines that tend to triumph ideologically over the philosophical antinomy in an antinomic world.” Without a proper dialectical analysis of the two forms of reason, American philosophy becomes centered on a project of self-preservation that can only be achieved in a supra-individual order.

A negation of this static absolute that claims the prevailing ideology and its brash claims of reality is what philosophy must become. Without a commitment to the negative and to dialectics, philosophy risks falling into a form of Stoicism, which promoted a ‘supra-individualism’ in its own time as it posited a pure inwardness that allowed society to become a jungle of power interests destructive of all the material conditions prerequisite for the security of the very inner principle it sought to preserve. A supra-individualist philosophy cannot address the question of revolution or social change other than by turning to the question of the agency of individual feelings (81).

Pragmatism Discovers Critical Theory – A Missed Encounter

Much of Horkheimer’s critique of American philosophy back in the late 1940’s still rings true today. Although there is an added irony that must be noted, which is that despite the Eclipse of Reason effectively barring the spread of the Frankfurt School in American philosophy, the project of critical theory that the Frankfurt School invented was eventually embraced by contemporary pragmatism in the 1990’s onward. Critical theory has been adapted to the project of American philosophy more generally. It has been given an opening but has been largely re-purposed critical theory on the grounds of its own philosophical orientation.

This careful embrace of critical theory is not widely adopted and it has unfortunately resulted in a new form of idealism, what Michael Thompson calls the “neo-idealist” turn in critical theory in his excellent book The Domestication of Critical Theory. Thompson calls into question contemporary Hegelians such as Robert Pippin and Axel Honneth, and neo-Kantians such as Habermas who present a revamped form of pragmatist practical reason that misses the very structure of social domination within contemporary capitalism.

This is a philosophy that serves the liberal order and its emphasis on diversity, adaptation and sociation processes. Neo-idealism, like the pragmatism Horkheimer critiqued, remains powerless to combat social power rooted in material resources and institutions that reinforce entrenched power dynamics.

Similar to Horkheimer’s argument that the pragmatism of his own day overlooked the deleterious effects of objective reason, Thompson argues that today’s neo-idealists ignore what he calls “constitutive power,” or the means by which a subject has their means of validity already fused within them (Thompson, 30). Constitutive power latches onto what Thompson calls “extractive power” and this combination leads to contemporary “pathologies of consciousness”, namely alienation, reification etc. (Thompson, 34). Social domination takes place when there is a level of shared consensus around a value that justifies social power and social domination.

For neo-idealism, it is by a theory of sociation to existing social practices, rather than the Marxist idea of social domination that becomes the central way in which the subject is thought in neo-idealism. With its emphasis on generating norms based in consensus, discourse and modes of dialogue, neo-idealism abandons a dialectical conception of norms and instead develops a functionalist account of the properties of hierarchical social systems and goals (36).

The pragmatist emphasis on social practices – communication, discourse, recognition, justification, etc. – detached from a dialectical understanding of material power configurations, simply cannot present a philosophy that achieves what pragmatism sets out to achieve, which is the freedom of subjects to create the requisite capacities for critical consciousness. Thompson, like Horkheimer before him, does not see how neo-idealism can achieve the form of freedom it espouses without a more critical analysis of how values are generated by constitutive modes of power.  As he notes, “[a]uthority and social power is about the inculcation of certain values and symbols that certain individuals absorb in order for the systemic operations of modern institutions to operate” (130).

We can hold our breath for a new form of pragmatism to emerge, one that might offer the type of dialectical analysis of objective reason and constitutive power that Horkheimer and Thompson call for, but we’ll likely suffocate in waiting.

Daniel Tutt is a philosopher, interfaith activist and documentary film producer. Daniel is a Lecturer in philosophy at George Washington University and Marymount University, and he received a Ph.D. from the European Graduate School, where he studied under the supervision of the French philosopher Alain Badiou; one of today’s most important living philosophers. He is the co-editor of a new book, Theologies and Ethics of Justice: New Directions in 21st Century Islamic Thought, and his writing has been published in Philosophy Now, The Islamic Monthly, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and he has essays in three different books of philosophy.  Finally, he is a contributing editor of  The New Polis.

2 Replies to “The Missed Encounter Between Critical Theory And American Pragmatism”

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