Critical Theory

Host Institution
University of Groningen
This course introduces students to the critical social theory developed by the so-called “Frankfurt School” and its subsequent development. Building on the work of Marx, Weber, Freud and Lukács, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School was conceived in the 1920s as a research program that aimed to explain the persistence of authoritarianism and domination in modern societies by drawing on insights from ideology theory, cultural theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy. While deeply committed to the Enlightenment, its main representatives, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno developed a radical philosophical critique of modern society and modern thought which they see as fundamentally determined by an imperative of domination which encompasses social and personal relations as well as the relation of humans to nature. According to this view, the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century is essentially connected to the conceptions of subjectivity, nature and reason on which not only liberal societies draw but which are also part of modern philosophy. These premises entail considerable consequences not only for political thought, but also for moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. The claims of the Frankfurt School have subsequently been fundamentally revised by other theorists especially in regard to the normative foundations of critical theory. In the course, we will discuss in particular Jürgen Habermas’s proposal to describe the potential for non-oppressive social rationalization in terms of the practice of communication and Axel Honneth’s critical theory that is based on a reconstruction of intersubjective relations of recognition. The course will focus on getting a clear understanding of the main claims of historical and contemporary critical theories, on their normative impact on our contemporary thinking about justice and the good life and on whether they can contribute insights to current debates in philosophy.