I was reading Horkheimer’s essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” yesterday. Let me tell you, I’m pretty underwhelmed with it. I was at least expecting something like the Communist Manifesto, but Horkheimer seems completely ignorant of any philosophy before Descartes. He just axiomatically declares that science exists for the sake of capital without even bothering to acknowledge that he is contradicting what Aristotle says in the Metaphysics, that men begin to philosophize owing to their wonder. Then he rants about how nature is artificial and how Kant was a product of his time. There’s no logical connection between these things, not explicitly anyway; he just insinuates that they follow.
This sounds like the work of a loser undergrad who fancies himself a serious philosopher. However, Horkheimer was the most important member of the Frankfurt School. His ideas have completely pervaded every level of academia. This confirms my belief that the quality of one’s scholarship doesn’t figure into one’s success or failure as an academic anymore; it evidently hasn’t since at least the Second World War.
I was reading Horkheimer so that I could arrive at an accurate definition of the Frankfurt School. I had been discussing this with a friend earlier. I had heard it described as cultural Marxism, but when I used this term, he said that it was a white supremacist catch phrase. I said that I would endeavor to find out whether this name was only a term of propaganda and, after some searching, found that this particular essay was considered a kind of manifesto of the Frankfurt School.
Horkheimer is extremely Marxist though. And the specifier “cultural” is appropriate, because he applies the Marxist dialectic to Western cultural institutions, the arts and sciences. What he means by “traditional theory” is epistemology, the science of knowledge, which stands above and before the particular sciences and judges their results. He claims that epistemology aids the interests of capital by organizing man’s knowledge and making it useful (which incidentally is Google’s mission statement). But epistemology is false consciousness because it presumes itself to be separate from the oppressive socioeconomic factors that give rise to it, when in fact it acts because of them, for their sake, and would not exist without them.
He proposes therefore to replace or at least supplement epistemology by “critical theory,” which shows how knowledge is a social force and reappropriates it to aid the proletariat rather than bourgeois capitalism. Every cultural institution thus becomes either an enemy or an aid to the cause of social justice and loses any claim to an intrinsic raison d'etre that it formerly had.
I feel very sorry for Horkheimer, however, because it is evident from his thesis that he has either never experienced the feeling of wonder, or never had occasion to be grateful for the freedom to indulge it, or else is simply lying about the motives for science. It is evident to me as well as Aristotle that the only two things required for science to occur are the feeling of wonder and sufficient leisure time to conduct an investigation into nature.
I can remember, when I was a young boy, wondering how birds and airplanes stayed aloft in the air, when anything else that was heavier than air would fall to the ground. From a tender age, I spent years nurturing an interest in physics so that I could discover the answer to this question. Cultural Marxism would explain my behavior as merely the outcome of a blind historical process whereby young boys are conditioned to want to become scientists by a capitalist society that demands this service in order to produce ever more material for the purposes of maintaining private control over the means of production. Yet such an explanation alienates me from my own memories, from which I know with absolute certainty exactly what feeling motivated me to study physics.
Horkheimer and thinkers like him completely misunderstand the Socratic method. They get it wrong from the very start. Science is neither a question of entrenching or overthrowing oppressive traditions, nor is it something that presumes itself altogether detached from matters of social conscience. Rather, science is an inquiry into nature. It is a quest to discover, in general, intelligible terms, what there is. As such, ethics itself is a science, motivated like all sciences by human wonder. Hence, the motive to pursue social justice naturally arises from the motive to conduct science, in much the same way that Socrates' mission to discover the form of the Good was motivated by his tutelage by physicists such as Anaxagoras and their quest to discover the arche or first cause.
Ultimately, the quest for the first cause and the quest for justice have the same end in God. Marxism has inverted the order of discovery, sending the investigation in the opposite direction, away from God and toward the world, detaching science from its natural purpose of contemplating the truth and reordaining it to the domination of material. Once again we see a reflection of the Hermetist reorientation of the will that seems to have become the theme of my writings here.Arboretus