Critical theorists often claim to be clearing up mistaken, confused, distorted, or fragmented forms of thinking about and acting in society. One of the major tasks at hand for Critical Theory (CT), then, as it has come to be known in some strands of social theory, is at least implicitly to presuppose a model of society predicated on a certain conception of rightness or reason. Axel Honneth's Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory (Columbia, 2009) in this regard is no different from most of the major strands of CT in the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas, as well as others. The book is written in many ways as a treatise to today's 'younger generation' of critical theorists who, as he writes, wish to carry on 'the work of social criticism without having much more than a nostalgic memory of the heroic years of Western Marxism' (19). Thus, in the context of the current heterogeneity or 'market' of critical approaches, Honneth begins with a thorough and incisive interpretive reconstruction of Kant's critical project, discussed by Roger Whitson in a previous post. Honneth's reading of Kant links up with the later critique of the idea of social progress found in Walter Benjamin and other approaches influenced by the neo-Kantian critiques of historicism.
In Chapter 2, already discussed by Craig McFarlane, Honneth provides his clearest overall statement about how to rethink the possibilities of critical theory without remaining content to rest finally on Foucault's genealogical method (found in that of James Tully, for example (21)) that he complains implies many concepts that ‘can hardly be empirically measured’ (190). On the contrary, Honneth contends that CT find the steam move beyond that as well as other rival critical approaches to develop forms of social criticism that aim to transform public opinion. His point is that we take the time to discover what each of the critical perspectives hold in common ‘from a practical point of view’ (21). For Honneth, and whether ‘the youth’ know it or not, the critical project is united around what he calls ‘historically effective reason’ or rationality (20). He stresses, on this basis, the need to understand history in a practical way and to conceptually oppose 'socially effective rationality' to that of 'socially defective rationality' (as Craig mentioned). The former designates critical practices that should not necessarily be reduced to a positive form found in the theories of Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Habermas. But neither should CT necessarily be reduced to the negative dialectics of Benjamin or Adorno. Rather, according to Honneth, CT is united in an empirical or meta-theoretic project aimed to develop critical practices to oppose those 'social relationships [that] distort the historical process of development in a way that one can only practically remedy' (21). One of the most important words in this sentence is ‘practical’, which, as we shall see, borrowing from Adorno, Honneth will eventually call ‘preintellectual’ or ‘intramundane’.