Sunday, 4 April 2004

From "Introduction: Criticism and/or Critique"

By Drew Milne.

Rather than providing a critique of knowledge claims so as to ground knowledge in a secure foundation by revealing the transcendental condition of all possible knowledge, Hegel retraces the experience of thought as a self-critical and sceptical journey which is both historical and logical. Critique in Hegel's thought combines immanent critique with metacritical reflection. This combination is constitutive of dialectics, but it is central to Hegel's thought that dialectics is not a method or some external "standpoint" or detached perspective. The knower and the known cannot be separated formally.

Marx's critique of Hegel's dialectical "method" nevertheless accuses Hegel of developing a dialectic of pure thought which idealizes the power of logic and its abstraction from the material conditions of thought. For Marx, thoguht does not develop immanently out of its contradictions but reflects social antagonistms. In this sense, Marx's dialectical method involves a version of Hegelian metacritique, showing how thought and consciousness cannot legislate for their relation to the historical and material conditions of social being. In effect, Marx and Marxism develop a metacritical conception of the social and political unconscious. Marx's practice as critical reader of the texts of political economy nevertheless puts less emphasis on the metacritique of knowledge, than on the immanent critique of scientific attempts to describe political economy. This practice of immanent critique works less as a critique of fundamental grounds than as a way of testing particular knowledge claims, probing the inconsistencies, contradictions and aporia within both texts and reality. The key difference is in the way Marx's reading seeks to tease out contradictions which are ideological, rooted in the social and political distortions of thought rather than in the pure conditions of thought's abstractions.

The tension between Hegelian metacritique and Marx's immanent critique of political economy is fundamental to the development of the Critical Theroy of the Frankfurt School and the work of Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas. This tension can be seen in Max Horkheimer's essay "Traditional and Critical Theory", a key essay in the definition of the critical programme of the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer defines critical activity as "human activity which has society itself for its object@, citing the dialectical critique of political economy as a model [...] The task is to develop the Marxist model into a theory of society which is critical of dogmatic forms of Marxism, revisiting aspects of philosophy Marx wrongly thought he had transcended, though the exact terms of the implicit critique of Marx remain somewhat obscure. Frankfurt School critical theory seeks to develop the emancipatory dimension of the Marxist project without regressing to dogmatic conceptions of science or retreating into foundational philosophy. As Habermas later puts it: "through its reflection of the conditions of its own appearance, critique is to be distinguished both from science and from philosophy. The sciences ignore the constitution of their objects and understand their subject matter in an objectivistic way. Philosophy, conversely, is too ontologically sure of its origin as a first principle." [...] Critique seeks to transcend modern divisions of thought by developing critical theories of society with practical consequences [...]

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