Traditional and Critical Theory – Max Horkheimer

Max Horkheimer says that in traditional theory,

“We are thus working with conditional propositions as applied to a given situation. If cir­cumstances a, b, c, and d are given, then event q must be ex­pected; if d is lacking, event r; if g is added, event s, and so on. This kind of calculation is a logical tool of history as it is of science. It is in this fashion that theory in the traditional sense is actually elaborated.

What scientists in various fields regard as the essence of theory thus corresponds, in fact, to the immediate tasks they set for themselves. The manipulation of physical nature and of specific economic and social mechanisms demand alike the amassing of a body of knowledge such as is supplied in an ordered set of hypotheses. The technological advances of the bourgeois period are inseparably linked to this function of the pursuit of science. On the one hand, it made the facts fruitful for the kind of scientific knowledge that would have practical application in the circumstances, and, on the other, it made possible the application of knowledge already possessed. Beyond doubt, such work is a moment in the continuous transformation and development of the material foundations of that society. But the conception of theory was absolutized, as though it were grounded in the inner nature of knowledge as such or justified in some other ahistorical way, and thus it became a reined, ideological category.”

(Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, p. 194)

In his Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time, Tim Maudlin makes an argument which goes along Horkheimer’s in some sort of ways. He writes,

“Philosophy of physics, as a discipline, is continuous with phys­ics proper. The sorts of questions we will ask are among the questions physicists ask, and among the questions physical theories historically have tried to answer. But an astonishing amount of physics can proceed without answers to these questions. For ex­ample, the science of thermodynamics, as its name suggests, ini­tially aimed at providing a precise mathematical account of how heat spreads through an object and from one object to another. But we can discover quite detailed equations governing heat ow and still not have an account of what heat is. Is it a sort of fluid (as caloric theory holds) that literally flows out of object and into another, or a sort of motion (as kinetic theory holds) that is com­municated by interaction from one body to the other? If all you care about is how long it will take a 20-pound iron rod at 200° F to cool to 100° F when it is immersed in a large vat of water at 50° F, the equations of heat flow can provide the answer. But you will be none the wiser, having calculated the answer, about the fundamental nature of heat. An ironworker may not give a fig about the nature of heat, and the philosopher of physics may care equally little about the exact time it takes for the iron to cool down. A practicing physicist will typically care about both but may focus more on one or the other at different times. It is characteristic of a contemporary physics education that much more time is spent learning how to solve the equation and get a practical answer for the ironworker than in discussing the more “philosophical” ques­tions about the nature of heat, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of matter. Physics students who are fascinated by these more foundational questions can find themselves frustrated by physics classes that refuse to address them.

…Here the difference between the ironworker and the philosopher of physics becomes acute. The ironworker (or the physicist in ironworker mode) doesn’t particularly care about the nature of the physical reality: it is enough to calculate how various experiments should come out. The philosopher of physics cares about the underlying reality and attends to the predictions only insofar as they can serve as evidence for which account of the un­derlying reality is correct.

…Unfortunately, physics has become infected with very low standards of clarity and precision on foundational questions, and physicists have become accustomed (and even en­couraged) to just “shut up and calculate,” to consciously refrain from asking for a clear understanding of the ontological import of their theories. This attitude has prevailed for so long that we can easily lose sight of what a clear and precise account of physi­cal reality even looks like.”

(from the Introduction in Tim Maudlin, Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time)


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