The Critique of Instrumental Reason As Alienated Reason

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:45
Location: Seminar 34 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Gregory ZUCKER, Rutgers University, USA
At the start of his tenure as head of the Institute for Social Research, Max Horkheimer famously drew the distinction between traditional and critical theory. Horkheimer and subsequent members of the Frankfurt School recognized the tendency for traditional theory to lead to instrumental reasoning. In its uncritical relation to the world, instrumental reasoning was another manifestation of the alienation that the members of the Frankfurt School saw permeating society. Instrumental reason functions to foreclose access to a deeper understanding of social structural and psychological conditions that exacerbate exploitation. As such, the critique of instrumental reason remained a core component of critical theory as a form of critique. Moreover, contrary to current dismissals of critical theory, members of the Frankfurt School attempted to develop novel methodologies to give the critique of instrumental a social scientific basis.

But the critique of instrumental reason has gone into decline. On the one hand, this is due to the work of some Frankfurt theorists themselves, notably Theodor Adorno and the conception of thinking in “constellations” that he drew from Walter Benjamin and has influenced post-structuralist appropriators of critical theory. On the other, this is due to the devastating attacks launched on the concept by second and third generation Frankfurt theorists. This paper argues against contemporary critical theorists for the ongoing validity of the critique of instrumental reason and, more importantly, that this critique should be informed by a conception of instrumental reason as alienated reason. It also defends the notion that such a critique can be founded on stable social scientific grounds and need not take the form of the kind post-structualist tendencies embraced by some readers of the late writings of Adorno.