Tag Archives: Critical Theory

Review: The Philosophy of Praxis

In this book, Feenburg connects Marx’s writing on alienation from his early “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” to the early work of Lukacs on totality and reification and then through to the work of the Frankfurt school, and in particular Marcuse.

The thread that Feenburg draws out is that of a common “Philosophy of Praxis” – hence the title of the book. This is founded on the connection between practical activity in the world (“praxis”) and how we think, understand, and analyse that world. He draws on Marx’s early work to describe this not as philosophy but as theory or “metacritique”, seeking the emphasise the break between classical German philosophy and the thinking of Marx and subsequent thinkers. The difference is that this metacritique does not take as its starting point the division between thought and reality used for example by Kant. Instead both the early Marx and the early Lukacs see a unity between the two, something Lukacs used the word “totality” to describe.

This means that the basis for our understanding of the world is at its core socially determined. Under capitalism the very structure of knowledge is based on individualism, market forces, and the separation of ownership of the means of production from living labour. It is this separation of people from each and particularly from the outcome of their labour that the early Marx describes as ‘alienation’. In Lukacs early work (in particular History and Class Consciousness) he develops this further in the theory of ‘reification’. Social relations between people under capitalism become static relations between things, leading to the assumption that social constructs (such as the ‘laws’ by which the economy operate) become fixed and immutable.

In fact this things are socially determined during the course of history, and our understanding of the world about us is inseparable from the history of society (a point not dissimilar from one made regularly by Zizek about historical subjects positing their own presuppositions). This raises a challenge for Lukacs’ view of science, and in particular natural science, as it implies that much of what we ‘know’ is in fact determined by how capitalism structures society. But if that is the case, how are we to restructure knowledge without returning to the absurdities of a Stalinist “science” driven by the political needs of a ruling party?

Feenburg does a good job of working through the intricacies of these theories and narrating its development from Marx to Lukacs to Marcuse. The end result is that he largely rehabilitates Lukacs in particular from the condemnation of writers such as Leszek Kolakowski whilst not shying away from the challenges and difficulties. A useful book to read for anyone with an interest in the Hegelian strand of Marxism.

See also my post on Jameson’s rehabilitation of Lukacs in “Valences of the Dialectic“.

Feenburg, Andrew The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukacs, and the Frankfurt School (Verso, London, 2014)


Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:

“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)

Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.

Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.

Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.

If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.

Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton & Company, London, 2008)