Andy Blunden June 2006

Critical Theory and Psychology

Critical Theorists such as Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth have all agreed on the need to appropriate practical theories of psychology to underpin their social theory, in particular, a social psychology and a developmental psychology. Accordingly, such thinkers as Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Hartmann, Winnicott and Mead, have been targets of appropriation.

According to Max Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School was founded around “the question of the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture” (Horkheimer 1982: 11, my emphasis).

To this end, Horkheimer proposed an interdisciplinary research program which would include survey methods adapted from American social research. Circumstances prevented the project of bringing such a range of specialists into a single collaborative effort, and Critical Theory has appropriated the psychological research of others. Horkheimer defined the question this way:

“[W]hich connections can be demonstrated between the economic role of a specific social group in a specific era in specific countries, the transformation of the psychic structure of its individual members, and the ideas and institutions as a whole that influence them and that they created?” (Horkheimer 1993: 12)

Outlining a variety of tasks that require psychological research, Horkheimer remarks:

“Psychology no longer has to do with human beings as such. Rather, it must differentiate within each epoch the total spiritual powers available within individuals - the strivings at the root of their physical and intellectual efforts, and the spiritual factors that enrich the social and individual life process - from those relatively static psychic characteristics of individuals, groups, classes, races, and nations that are determined by the overall social structure: in short, from their character.

“... Historical transformations are drenched with the mental and the intellectual; individuals in their groups and within various conditioned social antagonisms are mental entities, and history thus needs psychology” (Horkheimer 1993a: 119/127)

This is surely nothing less than a call for a Cultural Psychology. But how was this program implemented by later members of the Frankfurt School?

In Habermas’s appropriation of Piaget and Honneth’s appropriation of Winnicott and Mead, the reasoning seems to include the following idea: Take a theory which has (or had) a real basis in psychological research; transform this theory so that its subject is no longer an individual, but a social formation of some kind; thus we have a social theory, with an empirically verified basis in psychology. This move cannot be justified. Scientific theories can provide a source of inspiration, but they cannot provide metaphorical validity outside their own domain of research. This is pre-scientific speculation. In the case of efforts to appropriate Piaget, all we have is evidence for a series of biologically programmed stages of cognitive development in young children and a now-discredited theory of the underlying processes. The only use they have for social and historical development is as possible metaphors.

According to Thomas McCarthy:

“Habermas’s explication of the key notions of a developmental logic and of levels or stages of learning are adapted from the Piaget tradition in cognitive psychology. The idea underlying ontogenetic studies of this type is that the various abilities of the adult subject are the result of an integration of maturational and learning processes. ... Social evolution can then be thought of as a bidimensional learning process, the stages of which can be described structurally according to a developmental logic. ...

“Habermas’s explication of the key notion of a developmental logic and of levels or stages of learning are adapted from the Piaget tradition in cognitive psychology.” (McCarthy 1978: 246-7)

Nice idea, but the fact is that psychological development does not replicate the stages of cultural development, just as ontogenetic development does not replicate phylogenetic development or vice versa. Piaget’s own efforts to introduce these stages into historical development also failed. The positing of the identity of stages of development in these different domains is called the “biogenetic hypothesis” (Vygotsky 1997b) and it is a fallacy.

“The fundamental hypothesis of genetic epistemology is that there is a parallelism between the progress made in the logical and rational organization of knowledge and the corresponding formative psychological processes” (Piaget 1968).

This simply doesn’t hold up. Each line of development has to be theorized in its own right, including the interconnection between development on the microgenetic, ontogenetic, cultural-historical and phylogenetic planes.

Ontogenetic development rests on the fact that an infant is a completely helpless organism utterly reliant on the support and direction of its carers, whereas the adults of both our hominid ancestors and our hunter-gatherer predecessors were supremely competent individuals capable of surviving in the wild alone and unaided, and could reproduce their entire culture from their own resources. In other words, two structurally distinct processes of development are posed, each of which can be understood only by different methods, and exhibit at a basic level a quite different ‘logic’. Consequently, absolutely no conclusions can be drawn from the structure of ontogenetic development for the structure of cultural-historical development, other than those based on the actual relations between the two processes, as opposed to transposition of ideas from one domain to the other.

So when Thomas McCarthy says:

“... social evolution can be comprehended as a learning process, not in the sense of behavioristic psychology ... but in the sense of cognitive developmental psychology [i.e., Piaget]. Central to this approach is the notion of a developmental logic that incorporates a distinction between formally characterized levels of learning and the learning processes that are possible at each level.” (McCarthy 1978: 246)

we are using an unsupportable metaphor borrowed from Piaget to take a culturally bound, Kantian theory of child psychology as a schema of historical development.

The conception of history as a kind of learning process is not ruled out, only there is no basis for grounding such a conception on a metaphor, let alone one based on Piagetian cognitive psychology. However, it seems self-evident that a theory of cognitive psychology which dealt with the relationship between social knowledge (cultural artifacts, child-rearing practices, technology, languages, institutions, etc.) and the learning processes of the individuals who act out these processes, would be well placed to ground such a concept without recourse to metaphor. And this is exactly what is provided by CHAT.

This attempt at a biogenetic metaphor hardly represents the high-point of Habermas’s work, but the theory of communicative action plays the central role in Habermas’s theory. For Habermas, the lifeworld constitutes a resource or background to communicative action:

“Participants draw from this lifeworld not just consensual patterns of interpretation (the background knowledge from which propositional contents are fed), but also normatively reliable patterns of social relations (the tacitly presupposed solidarities on which illocutionary acts are based) and the competencies acquired in socialization processes (the background of the speaker’s intentions). ... the rational potential of speech is interwoven with the resources of any particular given lifeworld.” (Habermas 1987b: 314/326; my bold)

When concretely investigated, the role of cultural ‘resources’ is seen to be far deeper than Habermas’s metaphors. Further, a concrete consideration of the process of growing up in a lifeworld unpacks the notion of socialization to disclose the fact that individuals re-invent, appropriate and to a greater or lesser extent, reconstruct and transform the lifeworld, in the process of making themselves. Such a notion is self-evidently beyond the horizon of ‘genetic structuralism’, but ought to be of great interest to an emancipatory social theory.

What is missed by the intersubjective standpoint, whether in Mead or Habermas, or in any of the philosophical systems derived from the Kojèvean master-servant dialectic is that intersubjectivity is always a mediated process. This notion cannot be adequately grasped with the notions of ‘resource’ and ‘background’. This question was dealt with earlier, suffice it to note that Critical Theory seems to have been captured by the atomistic master-slave vision of social life.

Habermas claims that there are three functions of language: communicating facts about the world, communicating facts about our subjective state and interacting with others. But in his work, Vygotsky (1987) shows that these communicative functions arise only at a certain point in the development of language, and by no means exhaust the function of language in the human psyche. Is it possible to build a theory of communicative action without consideration of the ontogenesis of language-use? But more importantly, what the theory of communicative action omits is that discourse depends on people having something to talk about, on there being some common project in which they either collaborate or struggle against one another (See Chapter 26 above).

In the Introduction to “Theory and Practice” Habermas claims: “It is certainly meaningful to conceive social systems as entities which solve objectively posed problems by means of supra-subjective learning processes” (Habermas, 1974: 12). It seems to me that there is a clear opening here for Cultural Psychology, rather than relying on metaphors and out-dated theories of learning.

Moving on to Axel Honneth’s “Struggle for Recognition”:

“I attempt to develop, on the basis of Hegel’s model of a ‘struggle for recognition’, the foundations for a social theory with a normative content. ... The systematic reconstruction of the Hegelian line of argumentation ... leads to a distinction between three forms of recognition.” (Honneth 1996: 1)

That is, we are to have a general notion which has three forms, each of which are to be instantiated in quite different domains of social action: infancy, personal development and political action. This project constitutes another exercise in pre-scientific metaphors connecting relations in distinct levels of activity.

Broadly, what Honneth does in “The Struggle for Recognition” is to demonstrate that a schema of recognition fits Winnicott’s description of the process of personal development which an infant goes through in gaining independence from the support of its mother (to which Honneth adds nothing). He then shows that the same general schema also fits Mead’s concept of the development of self-consciousness through the development of successful interpersonal relations with other people (which Mead modeled on Hegel’s Phenomenology). He then further proposes that the same schema of recognition can be stretched to describe the successful formation of a citizen through the gaining of key elements of social status in society. Thus, he claims, his schema of recognition has a global scope, describing the requirements for and the process of successful personal development at the three key levels of social action.

But this fails to substantiate a true concept of recognition, for what we have is an abstract comparison of a general philosophical schema with three more or less defensible notions in different domains of research. Whether or not one accepts a thesis that these three processes follow the same ‘logic’ (along the lines of a biogenetic hypothesis) is neither here nor there. What is actually required is a notion which unifies the three ‘levels’ of social existence concretely. The only psychology we can draw upon for this is CHAT.

Honneth treats social movements and labor struggles as phenomena of ‘mass psychology’, but he fails to distinguish between a mass of people having the same psychological condition (such as lack of recognition) and an organized group of people making a collective claim (such as recognition) and sharing a common conception of the good - the difference between a movement ‘in itself’ and a movement ‘for itself’. In other words, what he lacks is a genuine theory of cultural psychology, and substitutes for this lack with abstract speculation.

The point about CHAT is that is a theory with a very substantial empirical base in how individuals appropriate or fail to appropriate or challenge the culture in which they participate. The question of bridging a gap between the individual and the social does not arise for Cultural Psychology because that gap is precisely its home territory - it is the bridge.

Mead engaged in some brilliant speculation but did not do any empirical work in psychology, and never published his work, but his students collected his lecture notes and other unpublished work and published them; they went on to found a school of psychology called Symbolic Interactionism, a tendency which does continue to this day. Mead was one of Vygotsky’s sources in the 1920s and 30s, and Symbolic Interactionism is one of the contributing currents to Cultural Psychology as it grew up in the US. If we are going to appropriate Mead’s speculations in the 1930s, then it is hard to understand why you would overlook a fully developed school of practical psychology, with broader theoretical foundations and research experience, which had already appropriated Mead, and continues up to the present day, unless one is simply trying to avoid the taint of Marxism.

Isn’t it time for Critical Theory to drop the blinkers, stop playing with metaphors and look to a living current of psychological research which continues to grow in strength and significance to this day? Can’t we implement Horkheimer’s original program? Isn’t it time to take a break from Freud, Winnicott and Mead and take an interest instead in a really existing program of psychological research which has emancipatory interest inscribed in its foundations, is growing almost unnoticed, with its aficionados, not in the departments of Social Theory and Philosophy, but teaching in your local elementary schools.


Habermas, J., (1974) Theory and Practice, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J., (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 volumes, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J., (1987a) Knowledge and Human Interest, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Habermas, J., (1987b) ‘Communicative versus Subject-Centered Reason’, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Habermas, J., (1992) Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Habermas, J., (2001) The Inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory, Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Honneth, A., (1996) The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Horkheimer, M, (1993/[1931]) ‘The present Situation in Social Philosophy’, in Between Philosophy and Social Science, ed., G F Hunter, Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Horkheimer, M, (1993a/[1932]) ‘History and Psychology’, in Between Philosophy and Social Science, ed., G F Hunter, Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Horkheimer, M, (1982/[1939]) ‘The Social Function of Philosophy’, in Critical Theory. Selected Essays, London, UK: Continuum.

McCarthy, T. (1978) ‘The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas’, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.