Kant Hegel Marx Adorno Horkheimer Habermas
Critical Theory and Society
Fall Semester 2006
45.342.201 MW 1:30PM 2:45PM  SO 402
(general education humanities and ethics)

Professor Eric S. Nelson 

Email: esnel at yahoo.com

Office: Olney 101b  

Telephone: 978-934-3996

Office Hours: MW 3-5pm and by appointment

Homepage: http://faculty.uml.edu/enelson/index.html

Course Description

This course will explore the social-political legacy of the Enlightenment. In 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote: "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Dare to know! 'Have courage to use your own reason!'- that is the motto of enlightenment." In this course, we will read and discuss significant philosophical works concerning issues of social criticism, the nature and legacy of the enlightenment, and possibilities for social change. The first part of the course will engage the origins, possibilities, and dangers of enlightenment and critical social theory in Kant's critical philosophy and Hegel's Idealism. We will investigate Kant's arguments in favor of enlightenment, progress, liberal republicanism, and political reform in contrast with Hegel's dialectic of recognition in the struggle between master and slave, individual and society, and the enlightenment with itself such that for Hegel liberation leads to its own negation in terror. In the second part of the course, we will turn to the romantic, left-Hegelian and humanistic socialism of the young Karl Marx (including the development of central concepts of alienation, reification, and praxis) and the mature Marx's "materialistic" critique of capitalism (including commodity fetishism, the self-reproduction of capital, and wage-slavery). In the third and fourth sections of the course, we investigate the nature, methods, and limits of social critique and possibilities for social transformation in two short works by Walter Benjamin and in the critical social theory of the Frankfurt School. We will focus in particular on Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment---written in response to failures of Marxism and the terrors of National Socialism and the Holocaust---in which they confront the aporias of modernity, the project of enlightened society, and the mastery of nature. The fifth part concerns Marcuse's synthesis of Freud and Humanistic/Hegelian Marxism, influential on the 1960's new left and counter-culture, and the recent attempts by Habermas to reconsider and defend the enlightenment project and Kantian liberal republicanism on the basis of a communicative account of action and rationality. In conclusion, we will examine questions of identity and difference, ethical recognition and redistribution in light of Nancy Fraser's contributions to a feminist critical social theory.

Some of the questions we will consider include: Have the promises of modernity been redeemed and are they still redeemable or should they be forgotten in a postmodern age or return to premodern faiths and traditions? Has the Enlightenment project of rational autonomy and human dignity realized itself in contemporary societies and global capitalism or has this project produced and legitimated its opposites? Why has modernity (especially beginning with the enlightenment and its hopeful declaration of the rights of man, democracy, and individual liberty as well as rationality, progress, and open scientific inquiry) seen the rise and recurrence of nationalism, racism, genocide, totalitarianism, religious fanaticism, terrorism, wars of mass destruction, and the potential manipulation of industrial and media-driven consumerist mass societies? Is there a "dialectic of enlightenment" in which specifically modern values, practices, and ideas produce ideologies justifying and blurring forms of power and domination? What prospects are there for socialism or other alternatives to capitalism today? We will confront these and other questions by considering the potential extent and limits of the various modes of rationalization involved in modernity such as democracy, bureaucracy, charismatic authority and the authoritarian personality; capitalism, socialism, and communism; science, industry, and technology; consumerism, media, and the social-political uses of pleasure and the instincts. We will also reflect on the idea of "critique" and the meaning and consequences of social criticism: Is there anything to hope for? Is social change possible or even worthwhile? Should one be socially engaged or devote oneself to one's own individuation and the aesthetics, spirituality, and/or prosperity of personal existence?


1. Attendance and active participation: 15% of final grade.

2. Short in-class (individual and group) writing assignments: 15% of final grade.

3. Three Take-Home Exams: 20% each = 60% of final grade.

Need help? Feel free to talk with me after class, during office hours, or by arrangement. Also see the following: Guide to the Study of Philosophy, http://www.philosophypages.com/sy.htm

Required Readings

1. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals (Hackett, ISBN: 0915145472)
2. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0198245971)
3. Karl Marx, Selected Writings (Hackett; 0872202186)
4. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford University Press; ISBN: 0804736332)
5. Julia Simon-Ingram (ed.), Critical Theory: The Essential Readings (Paragon House; ISBN: 1557783535)


1. September 6. Introduction: Critique, Enlightenment, and the Freedom of the Philosopher

I. Enlightenment and Ethical Life—Historical Prospects and Aporias

2. Sept. 11. Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (1784) and An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Read Kant, pages 29-46

                                        **Additional optional reading on the question of Kant and enlightenment: Michel Foucault, What is Enlightenment ? (Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?).

3. Sept. 13. Immanuel Kant, On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But is of No Practical Use (1793). Read Kant, pages 61-89

4. Sept. 18. Lordship and Bondage. Read G. W. F. Hegel, 111-119

5. Sept. 20. Command, Law and Freedom. Read G. W. F. Hegel, 252--266

6. Sept. 25. Spirit as Ethical Life. Read G. W. F. Hegel, 266-294, especially note role of Antigone

7.-8.  Sept. 27 and Oct. 2. Enlightenment, Freedom, and Terror. Read G. W. F. Hegel, 328-363

                                        **Additional optional reading: Axel Honneth, Crime and Ethical Life: Hegel’s Intersubjectivist Innovation

II. Alienation, Ideology, and the Logic of Capitalism

9. Oct. 4. The young Marx and Left-Hegelian thought 1: Marx's Early Critique and Transformation of Hegel. Read Marx, 27-39, 79-97.

Assignment One (Take-Home Exam on Kant, Hegel and early Marx) due on Oct. 11

Oct. 9: Columbus Day (University Closed)

10. Oct. 11. The young Marx and Left-Hegelian thought 2: Alienated Labor. Read Marx, 41-53, 58-79. Assignment One due.

11.-12. Oct. 16 and 18. Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology: Ideology and History. Read Marx, 99-101, 103-156

13. Oct. 23. Selections from Capital: Commodification and Commodity Fetishism. Read Marx, 209-216, 220-225, 230-243

14. Oct. 25. Selections from Capital: Exchange, Capital and Labor. Read Marx, 264-273 and 294-300

                                        **Additional optional reading:  Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, pages 157-186.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

III. The Angel of History and the Promise of Liberation

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.  Walter Benjamin

15. Oct. 30. Read Walter Benjamin, Theses on History and The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility. Texts available at: http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/ThesesonHistory.html and http://www.efn.org/~dredmond/ReproducibilityTrans.html

IV. Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Culture Industry

16. Nov. 1. A new critical paradigm. Max Horkheimer, Selections from “Traditional and Critical Theory.” Read Critical Theory, pages 239-253

17-21. Nov. 6, 8, 13, 15, 20: The Enlightenment Betrayed? Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pages 1-214

 22. Nov. 22. The Culture Industry: Theodor W. Adorno, “Society” and “How to Look at Television.” Read Critical Theory, pages 61-82

                                        **Additional optional reading: Theodor W. Adorno, Culture Industry Reconsidered (pdf)

Assignment Two (Take-Home Exam on Marx, Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno) due on Nov. 22


V.  Happiness and Communicative Rationality

23-24. Nov. 27-29. Domination and Desire: Herbert Marcuse, “The Catastrophe of Liberation” and “Freedom and Freud’s Theory of Instincts.” Read Critical Theory, pages 103-115, 221-238

25. Dec. 4. Contemporary Capitalism and Crisis? Jürgen Habermas, Selections from Legitimation Crisis and “What Does a Legitimation Crisis Mean Today? Legitimation Problems in Late Capitalism.” Read Critical Theory, pages 203-214, 282-298

26. Dec. 6. Rethinking Modernity via Communicative Reason? Jürgen Habermas, Selections from “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject” and “Modernity: An Unfinished Project.” Read Critical Theory, pages 273-280, 342-355

                                        **Additional optional reading:  America and the World - A Conversation with Jürgen Habermas

                                                                                     Jürgen Habermas, Public Space and Political Public Sphere - The Biographical Roots of Two Motifs in My Thought (pdf)

VI. Ethical Recognition or Social Redistribution?

27-28 . Dec. 11 and 13. Feminism and Critical Theory: Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical about Critical Theory?” Read Critical Theory, pages 357-380

                                        **Additional optional reading: Nancy Fraser, Rethinking Recognition and A Future for Marxism?

Assignment Three (Take-Home Exam on Marcuse, Habermas, and Fraser) due by 5pm on Dec. 19.