Skepticism, Nihilism and the Crisis of Rationality

  • Philip Walsh
Part of the Renewing Philosophy book series (REP)


If the question of skepticism is crucial to understanding the key epistemological problems affecting the development of German idealism, it must also affect our understanding of the project of critical theory. For critical theory is, in key respects, an adaptation of the concerns of German idealism to the crises of rationality that came to light in the twentieth century, but which could then no longer be contained within strictly philosophical discourse. In Part III of this book, I am concerned with the implications of the interpretation of the problem of skepticism within German idealism for the critique of modernity carried out by the Frankfurt School of critical theory. However this requires an initial significant clarification of the concerns of critical theory in general, including its conception of reason and its crises, and the role of the critique of philosophy within the critical theory of modernity. That is the purpose of this chapter.


Critical Theory German Idealism Homo Oeconomicus Liberal Modernity Negative Dialectic 
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  1. 2.
    See Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, p. 121. Adorno here describes skeptical empiricism as a “naked, supposedly ideology-free hegemony of mere facts which human beings are expected to accept supinely.” In this section, Adorno opposes skeptical empiricism to two further, rather loosely constructed conceptions of skepticism, which are related to the alternatives posed by Hegel in the Phenomenology. One, associated with Montaigne, is humanist, liberal and progressive; the other, associated with Vilfredo Pareto, is relativist, nihilist and — as Adorno suggests in his “Contribution to the Theory of Ideology” — proto-fascist. For reasons discussed in Chapter 1, however, Pareto’s thought could hardly be described as skeptical. Rather, it is relativist, and belongs to a tradition of conservatism opposed, above all, to the universalist claims of the Enlightenment (Cf. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 90). Similarly, Montaigne’s humanism, I would argue, is less skeptical than it is an historically particular counter-reactionary response to Scholasticism.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    This is not to suggest that Weber was the first to generalize crises of rationality into crises of society, but he was the first to cast the problem of reason in explicitly sociological terms and thus, arguably, lay the groundwork for the more general problem of ‘modernity’. For an explicitly philosophical contextualization of Weber’s role in the emergence of that problem, see Robert Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 7.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    In this respect, Dialectic of Enlightenment remains perhaps even more timely today, in the ‘age of globalization’, than at the time of its publication, inasmuch as the institutions and principles with which it takes issue have only now come to be seen in their full-fledged global form. For a discussion of the relationship between early critical theory and globalization, see Douglas Kellner, “Theorizing Globalization,” in Sociological Theory, November 2002, p. 290.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    There is disagreement both between the first generation of critical theorists themselves on the interpretation of Marx’s theories of value, and between commentators on how to understand those differences. One of the most lucid accounts appears in Rose A, The Melancholy Science, pp. 30–1, where she insists that the notion is central to the theories propagated by Adorno, Lukács and Benjamin, in the sense that each depends on the contrast between use-value and exchange-value as a core component of their analyses. Similarly, Held has insisted on the importance of the universalization of exchange-value as the core component of Adorno’s critique of identity. Neither Held nor Rose, however, draw out the importance of the ‘self-expanding’ quality that underpins capitalist production, that is, that capitalism as an economic system requires ever-increasing quantities of surplus value. This component of Marx’s theory has been thought to be fatally dependent on the ‘labor theory of value’, and to have been effectively dropped by the critical theorists. Nevertheless, the fact that Adorno (and others) reject Marx’s idea that ‘labor is the source of all value’ in no way commits them to the claim that the depression of wages below the level of their value in production is not one key systematic component of capitalist accumulation. In recent years, theories of globalization have given something of a new lease of life to the labor theory of value which is quite compatible with critical theory. The most sophisticated version is to be found in the work of Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory of ‘deru-ralization’. See Wallerstein The End of the World as we Know It: Social Science for the End of the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
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    Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 377. Adorno’s point is placed in dramatic contemporary relief if we consider the sociologist Alan Wolfe’s observations on the Chicago School of Economics view of economics as a total science, insisting that “the tools of economic analysis can be used not just to decide whether production should be increased or decreased, but in every kind of decision making situation. Thus we have been told … that a man commits suicide ‘when the total discounted lifetime utility remaining to him reaches zero’.” (Alan Wolfe, Whose Keeper: Social Science and Moral Obligation (Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 36–8.)Google Scholar
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    Cf. J.M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The is/ought distinction that arises from Hume’s Fork has been restated and redescribed in various ways. In modern positivism, it is expressed in the view that value judgments are incapable of being expressed in the language of science. Therefore, they cannot be candidates for truth or falsehood. A more reflexive view, clearly expressed in one of Carl Hempel’s seminal articles, is that truth, as science, involves a commitment to value that may be, and clearly often is, in conflict with other values. To choose truth over alternative possible ends is to value a particular end, or particular vocabulary type, over others. See Carl Hempel, “Science and Human Values,” in Social Control in a Free Society, ed. by R.E. Spiller (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960), pp. 39–64. The degree to which Hempel’s insight is acknowledged and actualized within the scientific community is an open question.Google Scholar
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    The theme is repeated in Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” in Robert Paul Wolff (ed.), A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965), pp. 81–123.Google Scholar
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    Horkheimer , Eclipse of Reason (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), p. 19.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    Horkheimer’s conception of the irrationality of modern society is that it presents a mismatch between self-conception and reality. This view captures only one dimension of what Adorno dubs identity-thinking. For a perceptive discusison of how Adorno takes up Horkheimer’s critique of identity, see Susan Buck Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics (New York: Free Press, 1977), p. 189.Google Scholar
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    Indeed, as Adorno and Horkheimer argue in “The Elements of Anti-Semitism” section of Dialectic of Enlightenment, fanaticism and instrumental reason have to be understood as mutually supportive. A similar argument has been made recently by, among others, Benjamin Barber, whose Jihad Vs. McWorld (New York: Ballantine, 1996) replays the analyses of the culture industry and antisemitism in Dialectic of Enlightenment from a global perspective.Google Scholar
  13. 45.
    MacIntyre’s solution to that problem — recovering the language of Aristotelian virtues as an adequate vehicle for understanding moral action -has exerted influence over Habermas’s evolving interest in teleological ethics in general (e.g., Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, trans. by William Rehg, Max Bensky and Hella Beister (Oxford: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 44–7). For a variety of reasons, I believe that that turn should be regarded as reactionary. First, MacIntyre’s account depends on an impoverished conception of agency, and while it is certainly true that morality and ethical life depend on shared traditions and practices that are historically ‘given’, it is also the case that they can be oriented to ‘real’ ideals that are not institutionalized in any group practice or tradition per se, but are still meaningful as moral practices. Second, MacIntyre offers no compelling reason why the only alternative to Nietzsche is Aristotle, and his conception depends, as others have pointed out, on an insufficiently critical account of the ethical shortcomings of the ancient Greek polis. Google Scholar
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    Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, trans. and ed., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 141.Google Scholar
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    I owe this general interpretation of Weber’s position to Robert Hollinger’s essay, “From Weber to Habermas,” in E.D. Klemke, R. Hollinger and D.W. Rudge, eds., Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), pp. 539–49.Google Scholar
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    Liah Greenfeld, in The Spirit of Capitalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), argues that in this respect the content of Weber’s argument has been widely misunderstood. However, she then also argues that the form of Weber’s argument (which could be construed as a kind of transcendental argument) has also been completely misconstrued, revealingly enough, by economists. “Economists and economic historians argue endlessly the reasons for the relative prosperity of nations, for their success or failure in the industrial race, but they do not ask why such a race exists at all and why nations should want to enter it. This they regard as self-evident. But there is nothing self-evident about it. In most historical societies, economic activities held the place occupied by classes which participated in them — the bottom of the social ladder and value hierarchy” (p. 5). It is the valuation of formal rationality that is itself in need of explanation, and to which Weber had addressed his essays on the Protestant ethic.Google Scholar
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    Raymond Aron, German Sociology (New York: Free Press, 1964), p. 83.Google Scholar
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    Nietzsche , Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1966), §11.Google Scholar
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    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989), III, §11.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Aaron Ridley, “Science in the Service of Life: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism,” in The Proper Ambition of Science, ed. by M.W.F. Stone and J. Wolff (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 95.Google Scholar
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    See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Press, 1972), pp. 36–7.Google Scholar
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    Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1972), pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
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    Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a thorough refutation of this reading, see Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 41–2.Google Scholar
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    As Simmel remarks, “In the whole history of economic activity, the stranger makes his appearance everywhere as a trader, and the trader makes his as a stranger” (Georg Simmel, trans. and ed. by Donald Levine, On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 144).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Philip Walsh 2005

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