Theodor Adorno On the Logic of the Social Sciences



Methods do not rest upon methodological ideals but rather upon reality. Popper implicitly acknowledges this in the thesis concerning the priority of the problem. When he establishes that the quality of social scientific achievement stands in an exact relationship to the significance or to the interest of its problems, then unquestionably one can detect here the awareness of an irrelevance to which countless sociological investigations are condemned in that they follow the primacy of the method and not that of the object. They either wish to develop methods further for their own sake or, from the outset, they so select objects that they can be treated with already available methods. When Popper talks about significance or interest one can sense the gravity of the matter to be dealt with. It would only have to be qualified by the fact that it is not always possible to judge a priori the relevance of objects. Where the categorical network is so closely woven that much of that which lies beneath is concealed by conventions of opinion, including scientific opinion, then eccentric phenomena which have not yet been incorporated by this network at times take on an unexpected gravity. Insight into their composition also throws light upon what counts as the core domain but which often is not. This scientific-theoretical motive was surely involved in Freud’s decision to concern himself with the ‘fragments of the world of appearance’ [Abhub der Urscheinungswelt]. Similarly, it proved to be fruitful in Simmel’s sociology when, mistrustful of the systematic totality, he immersed himself in such social specifics as the stranger or the actor. Nor would one be able to dogmatize about the demand for problem relevancy; to a large extent, the selection of research objects is legitimated by what the sociologist can read from the object which he has selected. This should not, however, provide an excuse for the countless projects merely carried out for the good of one’s academic career, in which the irrelevance of the object happily combines with the pedestrian mentality of the research technician.



Theodor W. Adorno. “On The Logic of the Social Sciences”, in Theodor W. Adorno, Hans Albert, Ralf Dahrendorf, etc. The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, trans. Glen Adey and David Frisby. London: Hermann Luchterhand Verlag; 1977, pp. 105-22.

From Walter Benjamin



The crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws; it is also the latest narcotic for people who have been abandoned. The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. He is thus in the same situation as the commodity. He is unaware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him; it permeates him blissfully, like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers.

“The pleasure of being in the crowd is a mysterious expression of the enjoyment of multiplication of number.” [Quoting Baudelaire]

…the web of the woods appear as the archetypes of mass existence.

A street, a conflagration, or a traffic accident assembles people who are not defined along class lines.

In the flâneur, the joy of watching prevails over all.

The hero is the true subject of la modernité. In other words, it takes heroic constitution to live modernity.

Modernity must stand under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will that makes no concession to a mentality inimical toward this will. Such a resignation is not resignation but heroic passion.

The black suit and the frock coat not only have their political beauty as an expression of general equality, but also their poetic beauty as an expression of public mentality… we are all attendants at some kind of funeral. — The unvarying livery of hopelessness testifies to equality…

“The majority of the writers who have concerned themselves with really modern subjects have contented themselves with the certified, official subjects… Yet there are subjects from private life which are heroic in quite another way…” [quoting Baudelaire] The apache abjures virtue and laws; he terminates contract social forever. Thus, he sees himself as a world away from the bourgeois and fails to recognize in him the features of the philistine accomplice which Hugo was soon to describe with such powerful effect in Les Châtiments.

The poets find the refuse of society on their streets and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse.



Walter Benjamin. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, BostonBelknap Press; 2006, pp. 3-92.

Traditional and Critical Theory According to Max Horkheimer

Horkheimer contrasts critical theory to traditional theory. He renders more negative rather then positive definitions of what critical theory is. It seems critical theory seeks everything traditional theory has failed to attain. It is not a binary opposition to traditional theory, even though it structures itself in opposition to traditional theory. Critical theory supplements traditional theory; yet, it is not a simple act of supplementation; it destroys and, at the same time, preserves traditional theory; it ‘annuls’ but simultaneously incorporates the truth of traditional theory with new forms and contents. Horkheimer believes that traditional theory contains a truth-content, which is limited; yet, traditional theory is not aware of its heteronomous character and the limitations it has. In fact, traditional theory has absolutized its relative truth, thus transforming its truth into its own opposite. Critical theory tries to preserve, extend and mutate this truth-content.


The characteristics of traditional and critical theory:

(In) Critical theory 

— embodies ‘the self-awareness of thought.’

— ‘the task of the critical theoretician is to reduce the tension between his own insight and oppressed humanity in whose service he thinks.’

— is, ‘in its totality, the unfolding of a single existential judgment.’

— is ‘an element in action leading to new social forms,’ and is not ‘a cog in an already existent mechanism.’

— ‘becomes a genuine force, consisting in the self-awareness of the subjects of a great historical revolution.’

— is ‘in contradiction to the formalistic concept of mind’

— is ‘beyond the grasp of a mentality typified by such a dualism’ [dualism of thought and action, of theory and practice]

— has its business as ‘to hasten developments which will lead to a society without injustice’

— ‘realities lose the character of pure factuality.’

—‘the critical acceptance of the categories which rule social life contains simultaneously their condemnation.’

— is ‘motivated today by the effort really to transcend the tension and to abolish the opposition between the individuals’s purposefulness, spontaneity, and rationality, and those work-process relationships on which society is built. Critical thought has a concept of man as in conflict with himself until this opposition is removed.’

— the subject ‘is no mathematical point like the ego of the bourgeois philosophy; his activity is the construction of the social present.’

— also shows the possibility of tension ‘between the theoretician and the class his thinking is to serve;’ the theorist exercises ‘an aggressive critique not only against the conscious defenders of the status quo but also against distracting, conformist, or Utopian tendencies within his own household.’

— the theorist’s profession is ‘the struggle of which his own thinking is a part and not something self-sufficient and separable from the struggle.’

— ‘receives no sanction from so-called healthy human understanding; it has no custom on its side, even when it promises success.’

— the state of affairs ‘upon which judgement is passed in this conception and the tendencies inciting men to build a rational society are not brought into existence outside thought by forces extrinsic to it.’

— has ‘no material accomplishment to show for itself. The change which it seeks to bring about is not effected gradually.’ Its first consequence is ‘only an intensification of the struggle with which the theory is connected.’

— constructive thinking plays ‘a more important role than empirical verification in theory as a whole.’

— ‘does not have one doctrinal substance today, another tomorrow.’

— since ‘the theory is a unified whole which has its proper meaning only in relation to the contemporary situation, the theory as a whole is caught up in an evolution. The evolution does not change the theory’s foundation, of course, any more than recent changes essentially alter the object which the theory reflects, namely contemporary society.’

— is ‘incompatible with the idealist belief that any theory is independent of men and even has a growth of its own.’

— it has ‘a historically changing object,’ which however, ‘remains identical amid all the changes. The theory is not a storehouse of hypotheses on the course of particular events in society. It constructs a developing picture of society as a whole, an existential judgement with a historical dimension.’


On the other hand, (in) traditional theory,

— ‘always remains a hypothesis.’

— is ‘consonant with the actual facts.’

— ‘is stored up knowledge, put in a form that makes it useful for the closest possible description of facts.’

— ‘anyone who has mastered the use of it… can use it at any time.’

— is “an enclosed system of propositions for the science as a whole.”

— all its parts ‘should intermesh thoroughly and without friction.’

— is ‘the same as theory in the natural sciences.’

— becomes ‘a matter of mathematical construction’

— provides  the ‘conceptual systems of classificatory understanding, the categories into which dead and living things, social, psychological, and physical phenomena have all been absorbed together, the division of objects and of judgements on them into the various pigeonholes of the social areas of knowledge’ which makes up the apparatus of thought which ‘has proved and redefined itself in connection with the real work process.’

— demands that ‘the scientist must certainly apply his more or less general propositions, as hypotheses, to ever new facts.’

— requires on one hand ‘the conceptually formulated knowledge,’ and on the other, ‘the facts to be subsumed under it.’

— has generated the paradigm whereby 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.’

— the conception of theory according to it 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.’

— considers ‘the prevision and the usefulness of results to be a scientific task.’

— the ‘scholar and his science are incorporated into the apparatus of society. His achievements are a factor in the conservation and continuous renewal of the existing state of affairs, no matter what fine name he gives to what he does.’

— demands the ‘reception, transformation and rationalization of factual knowledge’ as ‘the scholar’s special form of spontaneity,’ which includes ‘the synthesis of masses of data and the attainment of general rules.’

— the ‘traditional idea of theory is based on scientific activity as carried on within the division of labor at a particular stage in the latter’s development’ which ‘takes place alongside all the other activities of a society but in no immediately clear connection with them.’

— the ‘seeming self-sufficiency enjoyed by work processes whose course is supposedly determined by the very nature of the object corresponds to the seeming freedom of the economic subject in bourgeois society.’

— the scholars believe they are acting according to personal determinations, whereas in fact even in their most complicated calculations they but exemplify the working of an incalculable social mechanism.’

— for any datum ‘it must be possible to deduce all its determinations from theoretical systems and ultimately form mathematics.’

— to the extent that it ‘conceives of reason as actually determining the course of events in a future society, such a hypostatization of Logos as reality is also a camouflaged Utopia.’

— the whole ‘perceptible world… is seen… as a sum-total of facts; it is there and must be accepted.’

— the ’scholarly specialist “as” scientist regards social reality and its products as extrinsic to him, and “as” citizen exercises his interest in them through political articles, membership in political parties or social service organizations, and participation in elections.’

— the real task would be ‘the registering and classifying of facts with the help of the most suitable conceptual apparatus, and the theoretician’s ultimate goal would be the prediction of future socio-psychological phenomena. Thought and the formation of theory would be one thing and its object… another.’

— the theoretician ‘is also at times an enemy and criminal, at times a solitary Utopian; even after his death the question of what he really was doing is not decided.’

— the primary propositions ‘define universal concepts under which all facts in the field in question are to subsumed.’


Critical and traditional theories intersect at points:

— the ‘critical theory of society also begins with abstract determinations; in dealing with the present era, it begins with the characterization of an economy based on exchange.’

— in both types of theory ’there is a strict deduction if the claim of validity for general definitions is shown to include a claim that certain factual relations will occur.’

— both deal with the concept of ‘necessity,’ although in different senses and modes.

— even critical theory, ‘which stands in opposition to other theories, derives its statements about real relationships from basic universal concepts… and therefore, presents the relationships as necessary.

— It may be ‘of systematic interest and not entirely useless to classify and juxtapose the various kinds of dependency, com­modity, class, entrepreneur, and so forth, as they occur in the logical and historical phases of the theory. But the sense of these concepts ultimately becomes clear only when we grasp the whole conceptual structure with its demands for adaptation to ever new situations. Consequently such systems of classes and sub­classes, of definitions and specifications of concepts, which are extracted from the critical theory do not have even the value of the conceptual inventories found in other specialized science, for the latter are at least applied in the relatively uniform practice of daily life. To transform the critical theory of society into a sociology is, on the whole, an undertaking beset with serious difficulties.’


For Horkheimer, the plea for a critical theory of society is preceded by a defence of theory and of theoretical thought in the face of present attacks on theory from the side of positivism, pragmatism, and the prevailing machinery of capitalist production, which emphasizes utility, profit and practical outcomes. As he puts it,

‘The hostility to theory as such which prevails in contemporary public life is really directed against the transformative activity associated with critical thinking. Opposition starts as soon as theorists fail to limit themselves to verification and classification by means of categories which are as neutral as possible, that is, categories which are indispensable to inherited ways of life. Among the vast majority of the ruled there is the unconscious fear that theoretical thinking might show their painfully won adaptation to reality to be perverse and unnecessary. Those who profit from the status quo entertain a general suspicion of any intellectual independence. The tendency to conceive theory as the opposite of a positive outlook is so strong that even the in­offensive traditional type of theory suffers from it at times. Since the most advanced form of thought at present is the critical theory of society and every consistent intellectual movement that cares about man converges upon it by its own inner logic, theory in general falls into disrepute. Every other kind of sci­entific statement which does not offer a deposit of facts in the most familiar categories and, if possible, in the most neutral form, the mathematical, is already accused of being theoretical.’



Horkheimer, Max. Traditional and Critical Theory. In Critical Theory: Selected Essays, 188-243. New York: Herder and Herder, Inc, 1972.

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)