Philosophy as Critique of the Mind

The Doctrinal Evolution of Critical Theory

by Stanisław Czerniak (Author) Rafał Michalski (Author)
©2016 Monographs 248 Pages


The authors trace the essential aspects of the evolution of critical theory from its classics Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno to its leading second- and third generation propagators Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. They defend the thesis about the «meandering», dialectical character of this evolution. In their polemic with Habermas, both Honneth and Gernot Böhme (who is close to critical theory) refer to the classics, and specially their mimesis concept. The author of the first part of this book argues in favour of this interpretative approach. The author of the second part adds a confrontation between critical theory, Michel Foucault’s philosophy of power and Arnold Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Bi – vocal Introduction
  • Part I – Stanisław Czerniak
  • The Philosophy of Gernot Böhme and Critical Theory. Doctrinal Positions and Interdisciplinary Mediations
  • 1. Horkheimer’s rationalistic materialism and Böhme’s finalisation of science concept
  • 2. Gernot Böhme versus Theodor W. Adorno. The mimesis category dispute
  • 3. Gernot Böhme – Jürgen Habermas. Gernot Böhme’s bodily existence ethics versus discursive ethics
  • 4. An attempted summary. Gernot Böhme’s critique of aesthetic capitalism
  • Max Horkheimer’s philosophy of religion
  • 1. Horkheimer’s idea of transcendence
  • 2. Eschatological longing as a category of the philosophy of religion
  • 3. Longing and the question of religion. The negative theology concept
  • 4. Transcendence and the solidarity of human beings
  • The anthropological – ethical fringes of the philosophy of religion in the approach of Jürgen Habermas
  • 1. Introductory remarks
  • 2. The general context of Habermas’s philosophy of religion
  • 3. The post-secular society concept within the structure of Habermas’s philosophical project
  • 4. Habermas’s post-secular society concept
  • 5. The concept of post-secular translation in the context of Habermas’s critique of liberal eugenics
  • 6. The role of Kantian themes in Habermas’s philosophy of religion. Overview of the research field
  • Appendix. Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas as Philosophers of Religion. Comparative Essay
  • Between Habermas and Adorno. The Social Philosophy of Axel Honneth
  • 1. Axel Honneth’s and Jürgen Habermas’s philosophical stands
  • 2. Axel Honneth and Theodor W. Adorno: the “mimesis” category
  • 3. Conclusions
  • Part II – Rafał Michalski
  • Theory of Power – Power of theory. Is a critical theory still possible?
  • 1. Introductory remarks
  • 2. Potentia versus Potestas
  • 3. Power and domination in the philosophy of Th. W. Adorno
  • 4. The Frankfurt School and Foucault
  • 5. Foucault and the Frankfurt School – in search for a common perspective
  • 6. Jürgen Habermas – towards a realistic concept of power
  • 7. Summary
  • The critical programme of the Frankfurt School in the light of Arnold Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology
  • 1. Adorno and Gehlen – the first approach
  • 2. Institutions in a society – a repressive system of alienation or a stabilizing order of relief?
  • 3. Adorno i Gehlen – coincidental diagnoses
  • 4. The end of history?
  • 5. Adorno-Gehlen: summary
  • 6. Gehlen – Habermas: The rehabilitation of instrumental reason
  • 7. In the search for solid foundations – around Habermas’ notion of Lebenswelt
  • 8. Summary
  • The transformation of critical theory in Axel Honneth’s concept of struggle for recognition
  • 1. Honneth and the Frankfurt School
  • 2. Critical theory of the struggle for recognition
  • 3. The society as an order of three spheres of recognition
  • A. Love
  • B. The Law
  • C. Solidarity based on the principle of individual achievements
  • 4. The concluding remarks – a critical commentary

← 8 | 9 →

Bi – vocal Introduction1


It is important to begin with an explanation of the historical-philosophical term “critical theory” which appears in the title of this book, which – in my mind – refers to the so-called Frankfurt School related to an interesting political and geographical history of The Institute for Social Research, established in 1923 in Frankfurt am Main. The term, however, could be, according to R. Michalski, understood in a much broader sense, and constitute a reference to an entire spectrum of stands stemming from the critical as well as the Kantian and Marxian philosophical tradition. In such an expanded context, also the social philosophy of M. Foucault2 becomes a legitimate object of comparative analysis.

I limit my remarks only to that narrowed interpretation which, in its initial point, includes some striking ambivalences in meaning. To begin with, what does the term “meander” mean? According to dictionaries, it refers to river turns appearing in large numbers in a particular area. Such a river does not flow straight to the sea, but “meanders.”3 It is, however, independently from the sheer number of its turns, “the same” river, and its meanders represent phases, or embodiments of certain homogenous, natural phenomena. But how does it look from the perspective of ideological coherence in the case of the Frankfurt School, or its terminological equivalent – “critical theory”? What is more, is the use of the term “equivalent” in any way legitimized in that context?

Albrecht Wellmer, for example, prefers to use the term “critical theory,” highlighting the fact that in the 1930s the Frankfurt School was not a “school” but a group research project interested in the renewal and development of at heart ← 9 | 10 → Marxist critical social theory.4 Max Horkheimer was a director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt and, to use contemporary jargon, a coordinator, as well as contractor of research grants, and not a creator of a school of philosophy in the sense of, for example, Husserl’s phenomenology. Also, in the post-war era, during the operation of Starnberg’s Institute in the seventies under the co-direction of Jürgen Habermas5, one could speak of an interdisciplinary research program rather than a school in the sense of the institutional coherence of education and research. On the other hand, after Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s return from exile to post-war Germany, a circle of researchers formed at the Frankfurt University, recognized these two thinkers as leaders of a “school of philosophy.” They have promoted many doctoral dissertations and attracted faculty around them. To limit the scope only to the authors of texts included in the collection Frankfurt School. Contemporary Perspective6: Habermas was Adorno’s assistant, and Herbert Schnädelbach wrote his dissertation under Adorno’s supervision. Wellmer, in turn, was a university assistant to Habermas, as well as – at the University of Konstanz – a supervisor of the doctoral dissertations of Martin Seel and Christoph Menke. As a result, we are dealing here with a certain continuity of influences, not only of a philosophical character, but also falling into the category of master-apprentice relationships. Wellmer will not hesitate to use the term “school of philosophy” with regard to the postwar Frankfurt period, and particularly with regard to Adorno who “[…] became the teacher of the entire generation of German intellectuals, writers and artists.”7

Regardless, however, whether we differentiate, or semantically approximate these two terms – of a particular “school” and “theory” – they suggest, as J. Habermas observes, a doctrinal “unity of research tradition,” which, if we were to omit the New York period of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s collaboration, “never ← 10 | 11 → took place.”8 Adorno himself was, according to his own opinion, influenced to a greater extent by Walter Benjamin, rather than Horkheimer. His late work, on the other hand, appears entirely independent. Habermas will look for the reasons of that philosophical autonomy in the fact that Horkheimer’s philosophy was not a source of “[…] any creative impulses”9 for Adorno at that point in time. These remarks refer, mutatis mutandis, to Herbert Marcuse as well. According to Habermas, he “approached with a reservation”10 Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), and assumed a different point of departure for his philosophical search from Horkheimer’s in Eros and Civilization (1955). Similarly, according to the already quoted Wellmer, the only vessel of the homogeneity of the critical theory in the 30s and the 40s was not so much a philosophical doctrine, as a critical approach towards the positivistic identity of the social sciences, which found expression in a program for interdisciplinary social research designed by Institut für Sozialforschung and its results11. Alfred Schmidt, on the other hand, believed that critical theory was not so much a philosophical doctrine, or a kind of worldview, but the intellectual transformation of historical experiences of a particular type ( the crisis of the European left in 1930s, the fascists winning in Germany).12 This could lead one to the conclusion that Schmidt would look for a certain “unity” of the Frankfurt School primarily in the dimension of generational experience, as well as in general direction of its conceptual transposition.13

From what has been said so far it seems that the term “meanders”, as used in the reflections above, has merely a metaphorical meaning and does not refer to any sharply defined stages of development of any homogenous philosophical ← 11 | 12 → tradition (or the “meanders” of just “one” river). It refers to specific differences of opinion between thinkers, who were otherwise ideologically close to one another. Their concepts, which I will attempt to prove in my interpretation, had the “meandering” or, so to speak, “around dialectic” character of mutual doctrinal reference. What do I have in mind specifically?

The main thesis I develop in my reflections below is that the youngest, “post-Habermasian” generation of critical theory representatives (Honneth), or its sympathizers (Böhme), situate themselves against the classical heritage of critical theory (Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s stands) on positions, which could be sensibly described by reference to Hegel’s dialectical category of Aufhebung. In short, one could state that, while being inspired more by the Kantian than the Marxian tradition, Habermas assumes an extremely polemical stand towards Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s paradigm of critical theory. Honneth and Böhme, on the other hand, go back to the philosophical concepts and achievements of Adorno which they consider important (Böhme moves also back to the philosophical concepts of Horkheimer ), while criticizing Habermas’s stand from often contradictory positions, particularly in the scope of social philosophy and ethics. However, that particular critique is not total in character, and (especially with Honneth) it enables us to see here certain shared doctrinal assumptions. The generational evolution of critical theory can be explained by means of the dialectical formula of “negating a negation.” It would constitute the reaffirmation – mediated by Habermas’s previous negation – of a certain starting point of historical-philosophical tradition (the stand of the young Horkheimer, and the Adorno-Horkheimer duet as authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment). In other words, in their critical assimilation of Habermas’s important polemical arguments directed at the views of the critical theory classics, Honneth discovers in Adorno, and Böhme simultaneously in Horkheimer, a heritage that is philosophically close to them.

Meander-like reception can assume an intra-doctrinal character as well, and be the effect of, as it does in the case of the evolution of Böhme’s philosophical views, the changed perception of classical heritage in different phases of individual philosophical development. As we attempt to show, the early Böhme refers to the stands and views of a young Horkheimer, and in his late works (in his philosophy of technology, but also in the “aesthetic capitalism” concept), and after the intensive philosophical reception of Adorno’s concept of mimesis, goes back to the earlier doctrinal themes of critical theory from the late 1930s.

Here are several observations on the realization of the above-mentioned, initial interpretative thesis throughout this book, as well as certain methodological questions that might emerge in its context: ← 12 | 13 →

a) these reflections will not constitute an attempt to create an exhaustive monograph on the subject, or a broad, comparative data base for the above hypothesis. It would require composing a detailed history of critical theory, and would go beyond the editorial horizon of this undertaking. This book involves only case studies – cases concerning entire systems of thought by selected philosophers (Honneth, Böhme), or selected themes from the philosophical heritage of critical theory’s representatives ( the philosophy of religion of Horkheimer and Habermas). Of course, this kind of selection, and the narrow comparative base weakens the conclusions formulated here. However, this does not appear to undermine their heuristic sense, which is to mark out the directions of further important search.

b) The Hypothesis of “meandering” auto-reception within the limits of critical theory required simultaneous focus on the ideological relationships between the classics of this school of thought (Horkheimer, Adorno) and their students (Habermas), as well as on an attempt to evaluate the importance of the assumption that critical theory, after Habermas, was closer to stand of Adorno than of the former. That is the goal I set out for myself in five texts I have authored in the first part of the book. In two articles: Max Horkheimer’s philosophy of religion, The anthropological-ethical fringes of the philosophy of religion in Jürgen Habermas’s approach, and in the comparative essay Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas as philosophers of religion, I try to highlight – using that particular sub-discipline of philosophy as an example – some important differences between these two philosophers. They are interesting, since both thinkers referred back to the Kantian tradition in their philosophy of religion. However, their stands are separated by multiple doctrinal assumptions (e.g. evident traces of Schopenhauer’s influence in the late philosophy of Horkheimer), which reveal a gap between the argumentative lines of such works as Dialectic of Enlightenment and Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen by Horkheimer, and numerous assumptions of the social philosophy of Habermas. One could speak here of a particular stage of negation of a certain philosophical tradition. Habermas, in his philosophy of religion, does not develop the Horkheimerian ideas he refers to. What is more, he silently opposes them, following his own path of reasoning marked by theories of communicative action, and a concept of deliberative democracy, which – in turn – separated his position -from main philosophical premises of the above-mentioned works of Horkheimer and Adorno. The remaining two essays: The Philosophy of Gernot Böhme and critical theory. Doctrinal positions and interdisciplinary mediations and Between Habermas and Adorno. The social ← 13 | 14 → philosophy of Axel Honneth refer, as has been mentioned, to a tri-elemental relationship: the first generation ( the classics of critical theory), the second – Habermas, and the third – the contemporary creators and sympathizers of critical theory (Honneth, Böhme). These essays aim to verify the thesis about the said philosophers’ comeback to Adorno’s sources of critical theory, which has been inspired by the critique of Habermas’s positions. Although detailed remarks have been dedicated to Honneth, similar conclusions can be reached by analysing the stands of Wellmer and his students – Seel and Menke. Or so it seems. The inclusion of the philosophical stands of Gernot Böhme in the .scope of these reflections, as well as the usefulness of the conclusions that arise on their grounds for the main interpretative narration presented here, require an additional commentary.

c) It is hard to consider Böhme to be the primary representative of a third generation of critical theorists – there is too much that differentiates him from critical theory doctrinally, particularly the influences of the phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz. On the other hand, however, Böhme collaborated with Habermas, and similarly to Honneth refers to the paradigms of Adorno’s philosophy from Dialectic of Enlightenment and Aesthetic Theory. Böhme differs from Honneth in his more critical approach towards philosophy of Habermas, especially concerning ethical views, which he approximates, nota bene – on a meta-philosophical level – with the approach of Honneth. He also adapts the philosophical categories of Adorno to a different philosophical problem area ( the concept of atmospheres, aesthetics) than Honneth’s. Characteristic for Böhme would be, however, the positive reception of many themes in Horkheimer’s philosophy, including his classical 1937 text, entitled Traditional and Critical Theory, which, from the perspective of Habermas’s theory of communicative action – or even Honneth’s philosophy of recognition – was a doctrinally dead heritage. With all of these strictures in place, however, Böhme’s thought also becomes part of the proposed model of the meandering auto-reception of critical theory. This conclusion is especially accurate in the context of the internal, developmental dialectic of Böhme’s philosophy itself. This is why situating an essay devoted to his philosophy at the very top of the table of contents seems highly instructive, providing an insight into all the following phases of development of critical theory and the stands of its creators, including Habermas. Against that background it shall be easier to follow both the ideological tensions between Horkheimer’s and Habermas’s philosophy of religion, as well as the nuances of reception of Adorno’s concept ← 14 | 15 → of mimesis in the social philosophy of Honneth, whose reconstruction ends the first volume.

Stanisław Czerniak


Initially reserved for philosophers focused around a research center in Frankfurt am Main the term “critical theory” became, in time, a label encompassing diverse philosophical projects devoted to the analysis and diagnosis of the ideological, or discursive, conditioning of social life, cultural industry, structures of power, and the institutionalized sphere of techno-science. Within this extended understanding, the term ‘critical theory’ refers to such varied philosophers as Louis Althusser, Cornelius Castoradis, Guy Debord, Terry Eagleton, Michael Hardt, David Harvey, or feminist theoreticians such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray or Martha Nussbaum, but also Jean Baudrillard, Michael Foucault, and Slavoj Żiżek. However, the head-spinning multitude of branches of critical theory’s branches appears to grow out from a single, solid trunk, which – on a very general plane of reference – combines otherwise seemingly incompatible standpoints. From a meta-philosophical perspective one could say that the representatives of broadly understood critical theory accomplish, each in his or her own way and driven by different inspirations, a particular form of radicalization and reinterpretation of the Kantian critique of reason. Its intermediary stages are marked by the concepts of Hegel and Marx. Defended in the Enlightenment, ahistorical reason undergoes historisation in Hegel’s philosophy, and assumes the form of a spirit of the age (Zeitgeist – trans.), while Marx translates that category onto society. From that point on, philosophy which recognizes itself as critical will focus its reflections on the “unclean” aspect of reason, or the other, vague side of “enlightening” rationality, which creates different pathologies in the social sphere, rather than on a priori, ratio structures, which are responsible for generating knowledge and the moral development of humanity.

Critical theory in a narrower sense constitutes a middle stage of the intellectual evolution which took its beginnings in Marx’s philosophy, if not – as has been suggested above – in the critical approach of Kant. It led to a particular proliferation of critical theory-like stands, which can be observed in modern philosophy. In that sense, we could treat the researchers from the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, who were active in the 30s of the previous century, as the proper fathers of critical theory and the direct predecessors of a broad current of contemporary, critical social philosophy. ← 15 | 16 →

All representatives of classical critical theory, including Max Horkheimer (director of the Institute), Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, and Erich Fromm, who collaborated with the Institute on a part-time basis, as well as Walter Benjamin, have referred to Marx and Weber’s theory of rationalization (interpreted in the spirit of Lukács), while employing psychoanalytical methods. Their main goal was to detect the mechanisms of social oppression, uncover ideologies hidden under the cloak of the civic society concept, and find the explanation for anti-Semitism. In his programmatic essay, Horkheimer expressed the main focus of the critical project when he stated that critical theory attempts to free human beings from circumstances which enslave them. As planned, the theory was supposed to create a negative space for constituting historical change and creating an urge for emancipation. Similarly to Marx, the Frankfurters were convinced that man is both a creator and a product of history, and that is why a change for the better is possible; a change leading towards rational society in which the social causes of suffering will be eliminated.14


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Habermas Adorno Frankfurter Schule Horkheimer
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Stanisław Czerniak (Author) Rafał Michalski (Author)

Stanisław Czerniak is Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He has authored numerous publications on philosophical anthropology and contemporary German philosophy. Rafał Michalski is Assistant Professor at the Chair of Philosophical Anthropology of the Institute of Philosophy at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. His main research fields are contemporary German philosophy and philosophical anthropology.


Title: Philosophy as Critique of the Mind
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