In order to clarify the use of the term critical theory, this chapter looks at some examples from mainstream International Relations. Neorealism is taken as the paradigmatic example of a problem-solving or traditional theory. The chapter will assess why that is so, and examine whether there are any grounds for challenging that view. A more hard test case would be Social Constructivism, and the chapter will assess the extent to which this approach could be considered a critical theory and on what grounds. The aim of the chapter is to indicate that a hard distinction between critical theory and problem-solving theory is hard to sustain and that perhaps all theory contains some mixture of critical and problem-solving elements – though in different combinations.
All critical theories raise epistemological questions; what is the basis of the claims that we make about the world? This chapter examines what three critical approaches (Critical Theory, Post-Structuralism and Complexity Thinking) have contributed to epistemological debates and how these perspectives have been construed in International Relations. For the ‘first generation’ Frankfurt School writers theory and practices of knowledge production could be considered to be historically and geographically specific. This is not to deny the possibility of making truth claims, but rather to say that these are context dependent. In their most famous work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno analysed the considerable constraints that are implied by living in a totally reified world. The pessimistic implications of that work led subsequent Frankfurt School writers to investigate alternative ways that an operationalization form of truth may be achieved, and the chapter assesses Habermas’ communicative action theory, which has been particularly influential in International Relations theory. For poststructuralist writers the question is not so much about knowledge, but more about how certain ‘truths’ come to be established as such. For complexity thinkers access to knowledge is made difficult by the multiple elements that can have an impact on an event, and the non-linear relationships between them. While we might be able to analyse how events came about, if the gold standard for knowledge production is the ability to predict the future then complexity thinking raises significant issues.
The operation of power has been a central concern within International Relations, and this is also true within critical thinking. The various critical approaches have contributed differing analyses of the operation of power. Amongst critical thinkers Foucault’s work on power is the most influential, and this chapter will focus on the way that his work on power developed over the course of his lifetime and how this has been taken on by writers in International Relations. One of the major concepts developed by Foucault was ‘governmentality’. This term has been used in International relation very widely, though some authors are not convinced by its utility. The chapter will also discuss how power has been conceived within Frankfurt School influenced Critical Theory, and Posthumanism drawing on the notion of fitness landscape.
Avoiding the ‘big hole with a lot of dead people in it’
This chapter the focuses on the political projects that emerge from the critical approaches discussed in the book. Frankfurt School inspired critical theorists within International Relations have focused on the notion of ‘emancipation’. However, this is a very problematic term – who gets to decide what emancipation is, and how do we move from the situation that we are in to an emancipated one? Poststructuralists have been particularly wary of the term ‘emancipation’ suggesting that emancipatory projects inevitably involve replacing one set of oppressive relations with another. The focus for poststructuralist thinkers is on revealing power relations and ‘resistance’. Does this however imply ultimately a nihilistic perspective and the abandonment of any hope of a more progressive world order? The priority for posthumanists is a rethinking of relations between human and non-human nature. This re-thinking can be viewed in a self-interested way; in order to maintain a survivable environment for humans on the planet. Alternatively it can be understood as an attempt to reduce the level of suffering that humans impose on the life with which we share the planet.
In this chapter, the political urgency of renewing critical theory is stressed. The importance of solid social-theoretical foundations is underscored and the limitations of the recognition-cognitivist paradigm restated. In contrast, the possibilities contained with a renewed Freudo-Marxian form of normative social research are enumerated, and the need for a timely change in course ‘beyond recognition’ is stressed.
Critical theory once offered a powerful, distinctive approach to social research, enabling sociologists to diagnose the irrationalities of the social world across institutions and forms of thought, even within the subject’s deepest desires. Yet, with the work of Axel Honneth, such analytical potency has been lost. The ‘domestication’ of critical theory stems from the programme’s embrace of Honneth’s ‘recognition-cognitivist’ understanding of social problems; where all social maladies are understood to lie, ultimately, within the head of social subjects and within the intersubjective relationships they enact. This book explores the manifold limitations of this dominant understanding of social pathologies and builds towards an alternate theoretical infrastructure, drawn from a marriage of insights from Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. While Honneth’s critical theory leads to researchers exploring all social problems as ‘pathologies of recognition’, a return to Fromm and Marcuse reminds critical theorists that power precedes subjectivation and that a wide range of pressing social problems exists which are invisible to the recognition framework. As such, this book urges critical theorists to once again think beyond recognition.
In this chapter, I subject Axel Honneth’s critical theory of recognition to an extended immanent critique. I argue that Honneth’s vision of critical theory fails on its own terms for social-theoretical, philosophical, and political reasons. The theory of power which the recognition paradigm depends upon is shown to be untenable. The monistic social-theoretical perspective Honneth supports is shown to obscure central social pathologies and impede critique. The political commitments of Honneth’s method are shown to be opposed to the founding aims of a critical theory of society, and the real-world impacts of a recognition politics are shown to be more amenable to neoliberal co-option than his supporters admit.
In this chapter, the merits of Erich Fromm’s account of social pathology are advanced. Fromm’s work is shown to avoid many of the pitfalls which beleaguer contemporary critical theory as he understands the very normalcy of the social conjuncture to be part of the social pathology itself. This is shown to be at clear variance from Honneth’s normative reconstructive method. Fromm’s framing of social pathology is held to offer an excellent foundation for social research today as he recentres market irrationalities with a humanist Marxism.
In this chapter, the importance of Hegelian-Marxism to social pathology diagnosis is charted. While Rousseau had stressed that human needs could be artificially induced, Hegelian-Marxists argue that the very form of thought, not merely thought contents, could be socially denatured. The distortion of the subject’s consciousness was held to be linked to pathologies of reason which emanate from a pathological system of production and distribution. The importance of such insights for the potency of pathology diagnosing social critique is presented through a critical engagement with the post-metaphysical standpoint of Habermas and Honneth.
In this chapter, I lay bare the fault lines within contemporary critical theory. That critical theory once offered a powerful and distinctive approach to social research is established, yet such diagnostic potency has been ‘domesticated’. The problems brought about by the recent foundational change in the research programme’s social-theoretical foundations are introduced, with Axel Honneth’s form of ‘recognition theory’ identified as a primary culprit. The possibility of an alternative social-theoretical foundation for critical theory is foregrounded, built upon a marriage of the work of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse.