Traditional and Critical Theory

Andy Isaacson
Traditional and Critical Theory
Max Horkheimer
Why-question: Why are social scientists and people stuck within a traditional conception of
theory and not taking a critical approach to theory?
Motivational mechanism: People are motivated…
 by the idea of individual freedom (230)
 and by the prevailing injustice in society to take a critical stance that looks toward social
transformation (241),
 but “those that have [traditional] theory [, which was developed from the economic apparatus
of the current society,] in their heads have it there in its totality and act according to that
totality” (240).
Key concepts:
Harmony: The “basic requirement with any theoretical system must satisfy” is that there is a
logical consistent argument. (190)
Traditional Theory
Goal: Created to represent society
in a determinative, ordered, and
unifying method that can account
for all human effort (198). For the
benefit of the industrial magnets
Essential law: The most
fundamental characteristics for
classification which are established
to guide the observer and spare
many steps (192)
Causal Nexus: How historical
events must be explained (193)
Individual: seen as passive and
independent (200)
Scientist: Independent of theory
and social action
Ahistorical (194)
Critical Theory
Goal: The reasonable organization
of society that will the needs of the
whole community.
Exchange Value: The economy,
based upon exchange value (227),
generates the whole culture as well as
the organization which man sees
Individual: Organized around effort,
activity, and will power to create
social change, but at the same time
connected to society through the
content of mass belief (230; 237).
Scientist: To intervene with society,
via critical theory to be an actor in the
future that is created.
Future: There will always be a
critical viewpoint of the current
“…in regard to the essential kind of
change at which the critical theory
aims, there can be no corresponding
concrete perception of it until it
actually comes about” (220).