Theory & Science (2001)

ISSN: 1527-5558

A Note On Critical Theory

Gaurav Rajen
Department of Civil Engineering
University of New Mexico

Introduction: Two Views of Theory Production

In Theory and Practice, Jurgen Habermas makes a keen observation: “In the functional sphere of instrumental action we encounter objects of the type of moving bodies; here we experience things, events and conditions which are, in principle, capable of being manipulated. In interactions (or at the level of possible intersubjective communication) we encounter objects of the type of speaking and acting subjects; here we experience persons, utterances, and conditions which in principle are structured and to be understood symbolically.... Empirical analytic knowledge can assume the form of causal explanations or conditional predictions, which also refer to the observed phenomena; hermeneutic knowledge as a rule has the form of interpretations of traditional complexes of meaning. There is a systematic relationship between the logical structure of a science and the pragmatic structure of the possible applications of the information generated within its framework” (Habermas, 1974; p. 8). Habermas’ framework conceptualizes a system-world made up of technical knowledge and the life-world of interpretive understanding, with pathology emanating from the colonization of the life-world by the system-world.

Another view of theory production, exemplified by Jonathan Turner in his book, The Structure of Sociological Theory (Turner, 1991), is that we start the process of theory production with “definitions” and “concepts”. According to Turner, definitions are a system of terms, such as the “sentences of a language, the symbols of logic, or the notation of mathematics” describing “concepts”; and “concepts” are a grouping of some of the phenomena of the universe for a specific analytical purpose. A concrete example comes from Euclidean geometry, in which “points” and “lines” are defined and an elaborate system of theorems is derived from these basic definitions and concepts of “lines” and “points”. Turner then classifies “concepts”, the “basic building blocks of theory”, by their level of abstractness, an opposing tendency to their level of concreteness (with operational definitions required to link more abstract concepts to empirical processes); and the ability of concepts to label or to measure phenomena (variables). Concepts, Turner believes, get connected into theoretical statements that explain how and why the events denoted by concepts are connected.

However, beginning the story of social theory production with concepts and definitions begs the question of how we create definitions, and what is “meaning”, the more fundamental building block of theory production. Language and words, that are the symbols that constitute definitions for Turner, create the interacting human subjects that simultaneously use these symbols. Meaning emerges from the interaction of subjects. Even a single subject obtains meaning for a symbol, a gesture, because the subject has addressed the symbol, the gesture, to another, predicted the response of the other, and understood the shared meaning that would elicit the predicted response. It is possible now, of course, to be surprised by the response of another subject--but meaning has emerged, nonetheless, out of the symbolic interaction, and the prediction of the response.1

Consciousness precedes self-consciousness, the word emerges from the sentence, and concepts emerge from theories. We are born into a multitude of discourses the meanings of which stem from past and existing theories and practices. The process of theory production starts with existing theories, many false and known to be crude approximations. Borrowing concepts from related and unrelated fields, concepts that are at first more metaphors than explanatory constructs, we strive towards the new concepts that will give us greater insight. Concepts emerge from theories.

Consider Newton: the concepts of “mass” and “force” emerge out of Newton’s theories of the interactions of moving objects. After having developed his theories, he is able to define “mass” in a way he could not at the start of the theory-building process.

Consider Freud: the unconscious emerges as a concept out of Freud’s theories of repression. At first, Freud (1964) borrows liberally from fields as far removed from psychology as thermodynamics, using working metaphors of energy to try and explain aspects of human behaviors, dreams, slips of language, the Fort and Da of childhood. He cannot begin with the concept and a definition of the unconscious. The unconscious emerges out of his theories, its language explicated first as logical though seemingly illogical and then as mythological. Again, the defining concept of a theory emerges from the theory. It could not have been known in advance.

Making Critical Theory Self-Critical

Critical theory recognizes that science is not the simple recording and prediction of facts. The role of critical theory is to enter the world of objects and illuminate the human dimensions of social relations that influence the way human subjects strive to understand the objective world. But can the critical theorist be critical enough to be self-illuminating?

Instances of the lack of self-reflexivity of critical theory can be found in the works of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, among the founders of critical theory who struggled against fascism, yet used racist and fascist metaphors in their discussions of other non-European cultures. For example, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, [1948] 1991), they talk of the “unpretentious preserves of the happy hunting-grounds” - an odious reference for anyone even slightly sensitive to the world-views of Native Americans to whose idea of heaven the phrase supposedly refers. Or, consider the references in by Horkheimer and Adorno ([1948] 1991) to the times of the “savage nomads”--nomads were the cohesive forces between geographically displaced agricultural communities, certainly no more savage than the settled communities of their times, and often far more “civilized” being privy to the innovations of disparate societies and incorporating into their lives the most elegant styles of foods and clothing, and advanced knowledge of science, technology and skills of warfare (which explains, for example, the prowess of Mongol armies on the battle fields of Europe). Or, consider this sentence from the Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Men hunted game, while women did the work which could be produced without strict command” (Horkheimer and Adorno, [1948] 1991). This is clearly an uncritical fallacy imbibed from an anthropology generated by male priests laid well to rest by scores of feminist women anthropologists. Consider also this sentence in the Dialectic of Enlightenment that refers to India and that is replete with racist ideologies having little foundation in the archaeological record (see, for example, the eminent historian Romila Thapar’s . History of Indian Civilization, Volume 1, Penguin Press): “...the hymns of the Rig-Veda date from the time of territorial dominion and the secure locations in which a dominant warlike race established themselves over the mass of vanquished natives” (Horkheimer and Adorno, [1948] 1991)! This is a laughable assertion (if not for its incredibly racist content) that could have stemmed from the pages of a Hitlerian pamphlet. Yet, Horkheimer and Adorno advance this assertion as a fact buttressing their polemic against fascism. Finally, the most damning indictment of the uncritical nature of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is that it fails to raise the question at the very beginning of why a disenchantment with the project of Enlightenment had to wait for the rise of Nazism in Europe when the British and the French, for example, had committed equally horrendous crimes against humanity in Africa, the Americas and Asia continuously for several centuries before.

Combining Approaches: Moving Forward With Practice Theory

What is needed is to combine the approaches of Critical Theory with that of formal theorizing that “contains abstract concepts that are linked with sufficient precision so as to be testable” (Turner, 1991). I am proposing in this combination of meta-theories nothing less than William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (presided over by the pagan priests of post-modernism). The empirical-analytic framework creates a knowledge structure within which competing theories can be tested and the simpler theories selected as guides for further exploration. The hermeneutic framework allows us to understand how the knowledge generated by empirically based analyses is used to legitimize existing social orders. And the post-modernist framework allows us to include non-scientific modes of human inquiry as valid constructs of human knowledge that help us critique science from positions outside science. In combination, these approaches hold the promise of much fecundity, interdisciplinary research and the birth of new and holistic strategies of communication.

Breiger (2000) provides mathematical insights into the analysis of correspondences that investigates “the co-constitution of elements at one level and relations at another (higher or lower) level of social action.” He calls this concept of co-constitution ‘duality’. Breiger treats James S. Coleman’s work and that of Pierre Bourdieu as frameworks implementing in innovative ways the concept of duality; and finds at the level of formal practices a remarkable mathematical homology between the quantitative approaches of Bourdieu (1977) and Coleman (1990). In what Breiger calls ‘practice theory’, “the material world (the world of action) and the cultural world (the world of symbols) interpenetrate, and are built up through the immediate association of each with the other”. This approach analyzes an ever-expanding enumeration of the properties of the social units under consideration at differing levels; and quantitative studies of the relations between the properties of the social units. This analytical methodology synthesizes two conflicting approaches in modern social theory: it allows for the investigation of social structures that condition the relations between the differing levels under study, and it also allows for the possibility of the discursive creation of these structures through dialogue and communication between competing subjects interacting with and creating a field of social action and power.

A major advantage of this approach is that it allows for progressively more complex descriptions of the relations between differing levels of social units. The approach is amenable to being formulated into computer-based algorithms that can study the relations among vast amounts of data on the properties of social units. These computational analyses can find patterns of relations and provide new insights into the structures that link the social units of differing levels. Furthermore, the insights can subsequently be empirically tested. The computational models (recognized as partial and conceptual conveniences) can be used to study the stability of changes in the social units and how the changes propagate within the social fields of power.

This enterprise holds considerable promise in our quests for understanding social life. That this promise will forever remain unfulfilled for the multiplicities of understandings that construct human lives is the curse and the benediction of the post-modernists that we must heed as we embark upon our quests. Just as W.H. Auden’s unsuccessful seeker of Atlantis makes “the terrible trek” and dies “with all Atlantis shining” below him, so, too, must we seek the poetic visions of fuller understandings of social life realizing that our quests will remain unfulfilled.


Breiger, Ronald L., 2000, “A Tool Kit for Practice Theory.” Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Culture, the Media and the Arts Volume 27, pp 91-115.

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977, Outline of a theory of practice translated by Richard Rice Cambridge University Press.

Coleman, James. S., 1990, Foundations of Social Theory, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Freud, Sigmund, 1964, Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey and Anna Freud, Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London.

Habermas, Jurgen, 1974, Theory and Practice, p. 8, translated by John Viertel, Beacon Press, Boston

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno, 1991, Dialectic of Enlightenment [1944]. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum.

Turner, Jonathan, 1991, The Structure of Sociological Theory, pp. 350-351, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California, USA.