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.