Department of Sociology, University of Alberta Honneth, A. (2009).
Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory, Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-14626-5 (Hardcover)
This book is welcome and needed; I highly recommend it to all those interested in social justice. It offers a sophisticated, exceptionally well-crafted answer to a highly pertinent question: what social scientific criteria are there for making normative judgments about why and how Western civilization should change? To stress “social science” means a commitment to thinking about what is concretely happening in the world and why as opposed to drawing on pre-given axioms as the basis for social criticism (e.g., human rights as an axiom, greater inclusion as an axiom, etc.). Honneth carefully explicates how the normative dimensions of doing Critical Theory (and hence a normative justification for an explanatory science of social totalities) have themselves been developed by the self-reflexive immanent critique of critical thought since Kant.
At the same time, theoretical critique provides an ontology for justifying the normative dimension of a research program, which is then extended to the practical goal of arguing for why, and how we should change the world. This is a book then, in which social scientists, whether they identify as “Critical Theorists” or not, will find themselves having to think through the old (but not passé) challenges of the ontological linkage between the “is” and the “ought”; between “fact” and “value”; freedom and determinism; history and politics. In this regard, the book functions as an explication of the metatheoretical commitments (and their supporting arguments) of a Critical Theoretic approach to social justice. The book is a timely reminder of the pertinence of this kind of theoretical work not least because of the relatively marginal status of Critical Theory in contemporary English speaking social science. Indeed, as Honneth puts it “Critical Theory appears to have become an intellectual artifact” (p. 19). A caveat should be added here: Zizek’s work has had a significant impact on contemporary critical social analysis, much indebted to Critical Theory. However, it is less likely to be classified as such since his main reference point is Lacan, even if he shares a left-Hegelianism with Critical Theory. An important consequence of this marginalization has been the difficulty of generating normative arguments for the task of social science and the 134 Ronjon Paul Datta Studies in Social Justice, Volume 3, Issue 1, 21-36, 2009 Studies in Social Justice, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2009 parallel development of a prevalent form of social criticism “that does without sociological explanation” (p. 29).
There has been a marked contemporary tendency to assume that inequality generates undesirable social outcomes without offering a clear justification of what counts as desirable, thus unwittingly endorsing already existing dominant conceptions. In a similar way, it is assumed that more inclusive social institutions are also desirable without, again, the examination of the questions of “include in what?” and crucially, in Nietzschean terms, “for what?” A further assumed criteria for making normative negative assessments of the present concerns the analysis and description of localized types of domination with the implicit proviso that “domination” is undesirable and hence, in as much as we can identify how dominations work, we should resist, challenge and struggle against them but without offering a program of how and why this should be done, or the program of viable and desirable alternative forms of social organization. This, however, is a non sequitur. A fourth type of critical advocacy excavates the criteria by which institutions and social programs claim that they should be judged, showing where they fall short and then suggesting how and why those objectives (or broader, more abstract and general norms active within a society) can be better met by adopting some changes. A main consequence of these approaches though is that they bracket why we should identify dominations (be it in the form of economic exploitation or varieties of exclusion, for example), and struggle for their abolition. An important legacy of Critical Theory is that it has avoided these pitfalls. Since the 1960’s,
Critical Theory played a significant role in challenging both positivist and structuralfunctionalist accounts of theoretical work and accounts of how societies, as totalities, worked. In doing so, it placed the role of reflexivity in all facets of social science and a rejection of the “micro-macro” dichotomy as a false one, firmly on the table. It is important to keep in mind that much of the impetus in the original development of Critical Theory was a concern with the circumstance that when faced with increased misery and exploitation in the 1930s, the masses decided to side with a racialized aristocracy rather than with the oppressed class (Neocleous, 1997, p. 41). Reich put the issue clearly when he posed the question about how the masses come to desire the conditions of their own domination and repression (cf. Deleuze and Guattari, 1994), surely a pertinent issue today in the current crises facing capitalist societies. The central aim of the book is to explicate and defend the project of Critical Theory as pertinent to the present and the future. It does so by attending to conceptions of the link between normative claims and explanatory social science as found in Kant, Adorno, Benjamin, Freud, Franz Neumann, Alexander Mitscherlich, and Albrecht Wellmer; as well as providing a compelling critique of Michael Walzer. The task of Critical Theory involves explaining how social conditions impede a rational understanding of the causes of the distortions of reason that in turn undermine the use of reason in democratic will-formation and hence also, to the concrete means for transforming dominations from which stem distortions of reason. Consequently, the possibilities for emancipation from those dominations are blocked.
Reason is held to be an inherent capacity of all humans, but defined precisely as the capacity of self-reflection and self-critique that drives people to improve their lives, their conditions, and indeed become freer. Pathologies of reason include capitalism and the pervasiveness of instrumental rationality (i.e., means-ends thinking, in which everything, including human life, becomes only a means to an end, reducing human Review Essay: Critical Theory and Social Justice 135 Studies in Social Justice, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2009 subjectivity to mere objectivity). Structural dominations undermine the resources for appealing to reason when advocating for transforming the conditions that impede freedom (and with it, the free use of reason). With a rational appeal for freedom impeded, the legitimacy of emancipatory political projects also takes a blow. Chapter 2 and the Appendix powerfully distill these main features of Critical Theory. Readers interested expressly in social justice will find Chapter 2 (“A Social Pathology of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory”) and the Appendix, “Idiosyncrasy as a Tool of Knowledge: Social Criticism in the Age of the Normalized Intellectual,” particularly stimulating. Both clearly explicate the methodological protocols of Critical Theory