Critical Theory as ‘Weberian Marxism’?

By Barbara Umrath

In his book Les Aventures de la Dialectique, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty coined the term ‘Weberian Marxism’ for “Western-Marxist thinkers who systematically used certain key ideas of Max Weber” (Löwy, 1996:431). This is certainly the case for the Frankfurt School. For example, the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment as well as the author of Theory of Communicative Action address the Weberian problem of rationalization – although in quite different ways. However, according to Löwy, the notion of ‘Weberian Marxism’ remains rather vague. It is “a proposition, a hypothesis, and a useful provocation, rather than an accomplished project” (Löwy, 1996:443).

The purpose of this paper is to contribute to this ‘unaccomplished project’ with a comparison between Weber and the first generation of the Frankfurt School, analyzing in what sense the latter can be described as a ‘Weberian Marxist’ approach. Usually, the notion of ‘Weberian Marxism’ is meant to indicate some kind of continuity in material concepts between the German sociologist and Marxist thinkers. However, rather than focusing on how the Frankfurt School takes over Weberian concepts and accentuates them, I argue that material concepts cannot neatly be separated from methodological questions. For this reason, I will compare Weber’s understanding of social science to that of Critical Theory. The central question of this paper is: regarding methodology, can the members of the Frankfurt School be designated as ‘Weberian Marxists’? By discussing the strengths and limits of the notion of ‘Weberian Marxism’ in this context, I will address the general differences between a science concerned with explaining what is and a theory committed to transcending the given order.

Weber’s Methodology and Critical Theory

The development of modern capitalist society is a central concern for both Critical Theory and Weber. However, whereas Critical Theory’s theoretical efforts are motivated by the interest of overcoming this societal constellation, Weber’s purpose is to understand the meaning of processes he takes as given. By the time Weber began to reflect about the methodology of the social sciences, theology had lost its monopoly for interpreting and reflecting both the natural and the social world and the development of science in a modern sense was in its prime. The especially rapid increase in knowledge of nature encouraged a further differentiation and specialization of scientific disciplines. In this context, the distinction between natural and social sciences became more and more pronounced.

In his 1904 essay on the “Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy”, Weber reflects this development when stating that “the rational analysis of society”, i.e. an analysis that is no longer bound by the Holy Scripture, “arose in close connection with the modern development of natural science” and “remained related to it in its whole method of approach” (Weber, 1904:42). This modern natural science is characterized by an empirical orientation that by way of induction allows for the construction of a unified and comprehensive system that then makes possible deducing singular events from general laws. Taking this as the scientific approach per se, social sciences necessarily have to appear as ‘less scientific.’

Against this view, cultural/social scientists began to argue that natural sciences and their own disciplines follow different cognitive interests (Erkenntnisinteressen). Weber’s essay can be read as one of these contributions by social scientists. He conceptualizes social science in a way that simultaneously relates and distinguishes it from natural science. It “is an empirical science of concrete reality. Our aim is the understanding of the characteristic uniqueness of the reality in which we move” (Weber, 1904:27). Thus defined, social science is not a philosophy that is situated in a realm above reality. Through its empirical orientation, social science is linked to natural sciences and their methods. However, in the natural sciences empirical analysis serves as a means for generating universal laws through a process of abstraction (Weber, 1904:42). In other words, the expectation is that by way of induction, eventually there can be identified laws which form a general system that allows for deducing the concrete phenomena of reality.

Weber does not deny the importance and fruitfulness of laws “in the exact natural sciences” (Weber, 1904:36). Rather, he argues that identifying laws is not the only way to knowledge that can claim to be scientifically valid (Weber, 1904:43). Since the object and purpose of the social sciences is fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences, the empirical approach necessarily has to assume a different form. Empirical reality becomes an object of the social sciences, i.e. culture, only to the extent that we relate it to value-ideas, i.e. that we “confer meaning and significance” to it (Weber, 1904:37).

According to Weber, there are even more reasons that make the approach of the natural sciences unsuitable for the social sciences. This is not so much because the phenomena social sciences are concerned with were “‘objectively’ less governed by laws” (Weber, 1904:36). Rather, the point is that social reality in its infinitude can never be understood with a finite number of social rules and, what is even more important, that “knowledge of cultural events is inconceivable except on the basis of the significance which the concrete constellations of reality have for us in certain individual concrete situations” (Weber, 1904:37). Consequently, the point of departure for Weber’s social scientist is “the real, i.e., concrete, individually-structured configuration of our cultural life in its universal relationships which are themselves no less individually-structured, and in its development out of other social cultural conditions, which themselves are obviously likewise individually structured“ (Weber, 1904:29). Unlike the natural sciences that are concerned with the quantitative and exact aspects of physical phenomena, the social sciences are interested in the qualitative dimension of objects they aim to understand emphatically (Weber, 1904:29). For this purpose, the usefulness of laws or rules is limited, but not without importance: Determining concrete causal factors of a phenomenon can sometimes require “estimating the effects which we generally expect from it and from the other components of the same complex which are relevant to the explanation” (Weber, 1904:35), but this ‘typological knowledge’, as Weber calls it, is then only a means, not an end in itself.

In addition to this preliminary step, the production of knowledge in the social sciences demands the analysis of the particular ways in which general ‘factors’ or ‘laws’ interact in an “historically given individual configuration … and especially the rendering intelligible of the basis and type of this significance” (Weber, 1904:31). Moreover, cultural sciences have to trace back the aspects of contemporaneous configurations into the past, explain them in their respective configurations and, with this insight, try to predict potential constellations in the future (Weber 1904:31). According to Weber, social and natural sciences differ not only with regard to their respective objects, but consequently also in their purposes and methodologies.

Objectivity and Subjectivity in the Social Sciences

Weber follows Kant in categorically distinguishing between knowledge over empirical reality and the reality as such in both the natural sciences as well as the social sciences. In both cases, it “is not the ‘actual’ interconnections of ‘things’ but the conceptual interconnections of problems which define the scope of the various sciences” (Weber, 1904:22). Moreover, both types of science have to account for the fact that reality, in contrast to the human mind, is infinite, which is why scientific investigation always requires limiting the object of inquiry (Weber, 1904:27).

The natural sciences, as described above, solve this problem by concentrating on the regular or general aspects of a phenomenon – a solution Weber denies is adequate for the social sciences. Instead, the criteria by which we determine what part of reality should be analyzed must correspond to the object of the social sciences (Weber, 1904:27). This object is not social reality as such, but culture, i.e. that part of empirical social reality to which we relate by means of value-ideas (Weber, 1904:32). Consequently, in the cultural sciences value-ideas have to be part of the scientific process: “The number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite and there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention. A chaos of ‘empirical judgments’ about countless individual events would be the only result of a serious attempt to analyze reality ‘without presuppositions’“(Weber, 1904:34). In this sense, cultural sciences include a ‘subjective factor’: the object of the social sciences is not something ‘objectively’ given, there is no essential characteristic that makes something a sociological object, but the object of investigation is constituted by the way in which the scientist relates to it, i.e. by referring meaning or significance to it. From all of this follows that knowledge of social reality cannot be but knowledge from a particular point of view (Weber, 1904:38f.).

Weber accounts for this when presenting the ideal type as the adequate conceptual tool for social sciences. Ideal types are not an average of factors historically given, but are “formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of views and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse … concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged … into a unified thought construct” (Weber 1904:48). What is considered characteristic depends to a large extent on the social scientist’s particular research interest. Therefore, it is possible to elaborate a great number of different ideal types, each of which can claim to represent the idea of the phenomenon under investigation “to the extent that it has really taken certain traits, meaningful in their essential features, from the empirical reality … and brought them together into a unified ideal-construct” (Weber, 1904:49). Since ideal types emphasize the characteristic (not necessarily the most frequent) features of phenomena, they are not to be confounded with empirical reality, but represent the decisive tool with which the social scientist can compare and thus understand the social world (Weber, 1904:47f.).

‘Subjectivity’ thus plays not only an important role in the social sciences when it comes to determining the particular object of a concrete investigation, but is also contained in the methodical tool of these sciences. Hence, in the social sciences one finds a complex relation between subjectivity and objectivity: obtaining objectively valid knowledge requires ordering empirical reality according to subjective categories. These categories are subjective insofar as they reflect the presuppositions of our (particular) knowledge (Weber, 1904:64). In other words, value-ideas are important in that part of the scientific process that will later be called the ‘context of discovery’. However, in the mode of the use of subjectively informed conceptual schemes, the scientist is no longer guided by her ‘subjectivity’. She now seeks for scientific truth, i.e. the results of her investigation must be “valid for all who seek the truth” (Weber, 1904:40). This means, everybody who agrees with the general presuppositions of science, namely the validity of the rules of logic and the scientific method, must be able to recognize these results as valid, independently of her particular value-orientations (Weber, 1918:143).

For Weber, empirical knowledge refers to “knowledge of what ‘is’”, normative knowledge comprises “knowledge of what ‘should be’” (Weber, 1904:3f.). Empirical science, whether it is concerned with social or natural aspects of reality, can only produce empirical knowledge. The production of normative knowledge, i.e. of “generally valid ultimate value-judgments“ cannot be its task (Weber, 1904:10). Rather, in the last instance, these judgments always remain “a matter of faith” (Weber, 1904:8). As such, they may be discussed in philosophy but can never be decided based upon empirical analysis (Weber, 1917:463).

Consequently, we might say that there are two different ideas of validity (and truth) in Weber. The truth of normative knowledge cannot be proven. It is something that will be accepted or rejected in accordance with one’s own beliefs, i.e. one’s own presuppositions. Therefore, the validity of this knowledge necessarily has to remain object of dispute and discussion (Weber 1904:9f.). The truth and validity of empirical knowledge that can be produced by empirical science, however, is of a completely different character. Its only presuppositions are the above mentioned beliefs in the validity of the rules of logic and method and in the value of empirical scientific work. Like any kind of value-based decisions, these presuppositions cannot be proven empirically but have to be accepted or rejected. Hence, every empirical investigation now must be acknowledged as valid and true by those who consent to these basic presuppositions of empirical science (Weber, 1904:64). Thus, validity and truth assume a first and foremost formal character.

Clearly, Weber dismisses the idea that science can lead to scientifically valid ‘principles’ that can serve as a yardstick for solving political and ethical problems (Weber, 1904:9). However, this does not imply that Weber denies a political or an ethical standpoint to the scientist nor that scientists should not engage in ethical or political discussions. Rather, Weber’s point is that the scientist should make it explicit both to the audience and to herself when her statements are mere identifications of empirical facts and when they represent a practical judgment of these facts (Weber, 1904:7 a; Weber, 1917:462). Weber does not deny the right to take a political or ethical position to the scientist, but emphasizes that then she is no longer speaking from a scientific perspective. The scientist, Weber demands, should possess “the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts … while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture … and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations” (Weber, 1918:146).

Value-Judgments as Object of the Social Sciences

With these remarks, however, the problem of values in empirical social sciences is not fully treated. For since value-judgments are part of the reality the social sciences seek to understand, they must be objects of scientific investigation. Hence, value-ideas are treated as “empirically discoverable and analyzable… elements of meaningful human conduct” (Weber, 1904:65). In such investigation, the question of whether these value-ideas are ‘right’ or ‘valid’ is pushed aside and they are merely treated as something that is – not considering whether this something ought or ought not be (Weber, 1917:493). The empirical and historical analysis aims at nothing more or less than an ‘understanding explanation’ of particular value-standpoints. Scientific investigation allows for identifying the ultimate value-axioms on which different value-judgments are based – something often not made explicit in everyday processes – and thus enables us to take up a conscious position in favor or against particular values (Weber, 1904:7 a; Weber, 1917:465). In this respect, science can also contribute “a formal logical judgment of historically given value-judgments and ideas, a testing of the ideals according to the postulate of the internal consistency of the desired end” (Weber, 1904:7). Thus, the scientific critique of value-judgments does not aim at telling the (politically) acting person what to do, but make him/her “realize that all action and naturally, according to the the circumstances, inaction imply in their consequences the espousal of certain values, and herewith… the rejection of certain others” (Weber, 1904:6).

In summary, Weber remains consistent in his distinction between empirical and normative knowledge even when dealing with value-judgments as an object of the social sciences. Conceptualized as empirical sciences, in their treatment of value-ideas the social/cultural sciences refrain from pretending to be able to create normative knowledge about values, i.e. from pretending to be able to decide upon their validity. These normative decisions are left to acting persons. The scientist is not denied engagement in political discussions and processes of decision making, but insofar as she then takes a value-based attitude, her positions are no longer supported by the authority of scientific truth and validity, but as open to debate as any other’s opinion.

Science as a Moment of Bourgeois Society

Whereas Weber developed his notion of social sciences in a context in which natural sciences defined what was to be ‘scientific’ and argued for the specificly scientific character of the social sciences, by the early 1930s social sciences had successfully established themselves. As a result, the background against which Critical Theory was conceptualized differed from Weber’s: now it was the dominance of positive science and the recent revival of a transfiguring and mystifying (verklärend) social philosophy that pushed the Institute for Social Research to developing its particular approach – an approach that would be characterized neither by mere empirical orientation nor by pure philosophic theory, but rather by their “continuous, dialectical penetration and development” (Horkheimer, 1931:9).

In his “Notes on Science and the Crisis” from 1932, Max Horkheimer characterizes the overall relations between science and bourgeois society. These are the same for both the natural and the social sciences. Using Marxist terminology, Horkheimer describes science as part of the productive forces and, to the extent that science serves for creating value, as a means of production (Horkheimer, 1932:3). Scientific activity is comprehended as theoretical labor and as such represents “a moment in the continuous transformation and development of the material foundations of society” (Horkheimer, 1937:194). This means that science is taken as part of the social process of production. Its independence and self-sufficiency is a ‘socially necessary’ (gesellschaftlich notwendige) appearance, but appearance nonetheless (Horkheimer, 1937:197). Not reflecting about this relation between science and society implies an ideological, reified understanding of science (Horkheimer 1937:194).

This distorted view is that science is ‘socially necessary’, meaning that it is not primarily the result of a deficient understanding on part of scientists but is brought about by the general social conditions, namely by the division of labor within bourgeois society. Similarly, the deficiencies Horkheimer ascribes to traditional theory have their origins not so much within science, but are due to the social conditions that hinder science from developing the rational elements immanent in it (Horkheimer, 1932:6). Since science is part of the general social process, its development has to be understood in relation to the development of the economy: “The economy is in large measure dominated by monopolies, and yet on the world scale it is disorganized and chaotic, richer than ever yet unable to eliminate human wretchedness” (Horkheimer, 1932:8). Science, too, displays this simultaneity between conscious mastery and uncontrolled surrender: on the one hand, every step within the scientific process is carefully grounded, but at the same time the general tasks of science lack any theoretical explanation and are the result of rather arbitrary decisions. Moreover, science aims at a comprehensive understanding of relations, but is unable to develop a “realistic grasp of that comprehensive relationship upon which its own existence and the direction of its work depend, namely, society” (Horkheimer, 1932:8).

While thoroughly criticizing these deficiencies of science, Horkheimer at the same time follows Marx’s ideas about historical transformation. Along these lines, he argues that what in the Marxist perspective holds for the productive forces in general is also true for science: the elements of the prevailing state of affairs, once freed from their present restrictive conditions, are already potentially those of a better state (Horkheimer, 1937:205). Fettered productive forces can be set free through historical change. This historical change, in turn, is not so much the product of theoretical insight, i.e. something that can be produced by scientific means, but of real historical activity. Overcoming the current deficiencies of science – deficiencies that have to be reflected upon, but not cannot altogether be eliminated – thus requires extra-scientific activities (Horkheimer, 1932:9). So one can say that, according to Horkheimer, science is not only not an independent sphere, but its fate is closely linked to, though not determined by, the general development of society.

The Distinction between Traditional and Critical Theory

This overall understanding of the relation between science and society holds for traditional as well as Critical Theory: both must be considered a moment of bourgeois society. Yet while Weber was motivated by asserting a particular methodology and therefore emphasized the contrast between natural and social sciences, this distinction is of little interest to Horkheimer. Rather, the important distinction for Horkheimer in his famous essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory”, is between what he calls ‘traditional theory’, i.e. a theory characterized – among other things – by the above criticized self-deception of science as an independent social sphere and its alternative, Critical Theory. Despite this contrast, Horkheimer also points out what both have in common.

Horkheimer and Weber agree on rejecting a understanding of theory that reduces it to some basic propositions that allow deduction of reality. However, where Weber’s argument is that a limited number of general propositions must fail to grasp the uniqueness of reality (Weber, 1904:27), Horkheimer’s criticism focuses on the failure of this model to deal adequately with contradictions between theory and experience. Whenever such contradictions emerge, they can only be taken as indicators for the deficiency of previous theoretical assumptions or as the scientist’s failure to observe correctly. The case that an object can change and simultaneously remain identical with itself must necessarily escape this type of theory. This, however, does not hinder but rather encourages an understanding of the development of theory as a steady progress, made possible by adding more and more accurate knowledge (Horkheimer, 1937:188 a. 224). Quite indifferent to the particular characteristics of its various objects, the general goal of this type of theory “is a universal systematic science, not limited to any particular subject matter but embracing all possible objects. The division of science is being broken down by deriving the principles for special areas from the same basic premises” (Horkheimer, 1937:188f.). The sole purpose of this science is determining, ordering and unifying ‘facts’, for which reason it is also called a ‘positivist science’ by the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, 1937:198). Briefly, Horkheimer’s critique of traditional theory is that it is a science “oriented to being and not to becoming” and its methods center on “simply recording events as they occur”(Horkheimer, 1932:5).

On Horkheimer’s materialist understanding of the relation between science and society, neither traditional nor Critical Theory exist detached from bourgeois society. However, what distinguishes the Critical Theory is that “its purpose is not, either in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element” of the given social structure (Horkheimer, 1937:207). Rather, it is “a theory dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life” (Horkheimer, 1937:199). Bourgeois society does not yet represent this reasonable organization of human life. To be sure, the world as it exists is the product of human labor and as such embodies consciousness and rationality. At the same time, however, it assumes the character of a natural force, since it is not the result of self-conscious activity on part of a unified mankind, but of men’s independent, unorganized activities and therefore confronts men as a power alien to them (Horkheimer, 1937:207). Consequently, bourgeois society must be considered a combination of will and reason with blind chance. Critical Theory, on the other hand, is committed to making society “the result of conscious spontaneity on the part of free individuals” (Horkheimer, 1937:200). For this reason, it exists neither detached from prevailing society nor does it affirm the given. Rather, Critical Theory’s relation to existing society consists in that its goal is forced upon it by the unsatisfactory character of the present (Horkheimer, 1937:216f.).

The Knowledge of Historical Tendencies

In the preface to the first issue of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research), Horkheimer expresses Critical Theory’s interest in knowing the tendencies of the historical process. According to Horkheimer, every scientific analysis of history has to presuppose that this very history is governed by laws or tendencies that can be known. If this was not the case, if history was nothing but an arbitrary sequence of contingent events, its analysis would not make any sense at all (Horkheimer, 1932b:36). And for Critical Theory especially knowing historical tendencies is important, since this theory is committed to transcending social reality in its given form.

In contrast, Weber denies that the identification of laws is of great importance for the social sciences. His point is that the infinitude of social reality can never be grasped by a limited number of social rules (Weber, 1904:37). The different importance which Horkheimer and Weber attribute to ‘laws’ is thus related to different purposes of interpretive sociology and Critical Theory: a science that first and foremost seeks to understand emphatically the qualitative dimension of objects cannot have the same interest in laws as a theory primarily concerned with society’s future development. In fact, Weber and Critical Theory refer to quite different things when talking about social ‘laws’, rules, or tendencies. Weber argues against an idea of science on the model of the natural sciences. Consequently, what he first and foremost denies is that finding laws that possess the same characteristics as laws in the natural sciences would be of help in the social sciences.

Horkheimer, on the other hand, when talking about historical laws and tendencies, refers to the Hegelian distinction between the forces immediately driving history, namely the particular interests of the individuals, and forces affecting historical development in a mediated way (Horkheimer, 1931:3). The laws or tendencies Critical Theory is interested in have a totally different character from those Weber rejects: “a set of historical tendencies becomes a law only if man comprehends and acts on them. Historical laws, in other words, originate and are actual only in man’s conscious practice” (Marcuse, 1966:231). They have no reality beyond the activity of conscious subjects making them real and true. Moreover, the interest in laws inspired by Hegelian philosophy is by no means a positivist interest: knowing the historical tendencies is important precisely for the reason that reality is not yet everything it can be potentially (Marcuse, 196:226). As long as this is the case, an investigation into these tendencies can give important guidance for a transformative practice. Thus, Critical Theory’s emphasis on knowing historical tendencies once again points to its commitment to social transformation.

Critical Theory as Interdisciplinary Materialism

As we have seen, Critical Theory is significantly influenced by Hegelian philosophy and Marxist social theory. Indeed, these influences account for the fundamental differences between Weber’s approach of an interpretive sociology and Critical Theory’s concept of an interdisciplinary materialism. In contrast to Critical Theory, Weber energetically rejects what he considers to be Marxism and stresses that “the explanation of everything by economic causes alone is never exhaustive in any sense whatsoever in any sphere of cultural phenomena” (Weber, 1904:26). Although rejecting the ‘materialist worldview’, Weber stresses that an analysis of history from an economic perspective is, just like other any other ‘one-sided’ analysis of cultural reality, nonetheless still useful (Weber, 1904:24).

Contrary to Weber, Horkheimer insists in that the economy is the primary origin of wretchedness and maintains that the problem of what is called economism does not consist in taking the economic as too important but comprehending it in a too narrow sense (Horkheimer, 1937:249). The problem is an abstract understanding of Marx, i.e. one that assumes that human beings as well as their cultural products can be completely and immediately derived from economic factors. In dismissing these interpretations as dogmatic convictions that withstand any control, Horkheimer agrees with Weber (Horkheimer, 1931:12). Horkheimer argues that a critique of ‘economism’ cannot consist “in turning away from economic analysis but in engaging in it more fully” (Horkheimer, 1937:250), echoing Weber’s assertion that economic analysis in general is necessary. What Horkheimer means by a ‘more fully’ economic analysis, is a less dogmatic interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy than that predominant in the Marxist movement of his days.

Regarding the phenomena that are to be investigated, there is on the surface little difference between Weber and Horkheimer. Describing immediately economic events or institutions as well as so-called economically relevant and economically conditioned phenomena as the subject-matter, the scope of the social sciences, according to Weber, encompasses the whole range of cultural life (Weber, 1904:18ff.). Horkheimer, for his part, outlines as major theme of work for his institute “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, 1931:11). Hence, the phenomena Horkheimer and Weber define as their respective subject-matters sound quite similar. However, since Horkheimer insists in analyzing these problems via a comprehensive materialist approach, the ways in which Weber and Critical Theory address their subject-matters again indicate fundamental disagreements.

Closely linked to their differing positions towards the materialist approach, there is another discrepancy to be found. For the 1930s, the Institute for Social Research’s program can be characterized as that of an interdisciplinary materialism, according to which philosophers as well as representatives of various specialized disciplines work together in developing a theory of contemporary society as a whole (Horkheimer, 1931:29f.). Thus, Critical Theory rejects Weber’s distinction between the problems of empirical science and those of philosophy. Where Weber holds that questions of the meaning and the validity of values cannot be investigated by empirical means and therefore assignes them to the non-empirical philosophical disciplines with their ‘tools of thought’ (Denkmittel) (Weber, 1917:463 a. 470), Horkheimer dismisses this division of labor. Rather, the “larger philosophical questions” have to be integrated into empirical research processes, so that the answers to these questions “lie in the advance of objective knowledge, which itself affects the form of the questions” (Horkheimer, 1931:9f.). Thus we can say that while Weber draws a picture of empirical sciences and philosophy as something strictly separated, in Critical Theory philosophical questions guide empirical research and research, in turn, leads back to philosophical theorizing.

The categories Critical Theory uses in both its empirical research and philosophical reflections stem from reality. It is this aspect that they share with Weber’s ideal type, which is equally grounded in empirical reality (Weber, 1904:49). Against Weber, however, the categories of Critical Theory imply a rejection of this reality. The “critical acceptance of the categories which rule social life contains simultaneously their condemnation” (Horkheimer, 1937:208). This means Critical Theory’s condemnation of this reality is not “based solely on ideas” (Horkheimer, 1937:250), as would be the case with an idealist or utopian criticism. The materialist approach judges not “by what is beyond time but by what is within time” (Horkheimer, 1937:250), i.e. by what is already potentially present within the given. Hence, in Horkheimer’s view, theory’s critique of society is not so much due to the theorist’s subjective judgment but to reality’s own ‘empirical’ character.

The Relation between Critical Theory and Politics
Weber’s distinction between empirical and normative knowledge did not lead him to deny a political or ethical position to the scientist. Instead, he demanded that scientists make clear when they are speaking in their role as scientists and when from a normative or political point of view, i.e. when they are stating facts and when they are taking a position on questions of cultural values (Weber, 1904:7, 1917:462a. 1918:146). Horkheimer rejects this distinction since it comprehends thinking merely as “detachedly departmentalized and therefore spiritualistic” (Horkheimer, 1937:212) activity as it appears under the present conditions of the division of labor. On Horkheimer’s view, traditional theorists indulge in self-delusions, ‘freely’ adopting an attitude of self-restriction towards ‘purely scientific’ questions and thus merely fancy themselves farsighted analysts. From them

the politician is to learn to use ‘such and such means’ when he takes ‘such and such a stand’; he must learn whether the practical position he adopts can be implemented with logical consistency. A division of labor is established between men who in social conflicts affect the course of history and the social theoreticians who assign them their standpoint (Horkheimer, 1937:222)

But if Weber’s understanding of ‘science as a vocation’ is rejected as “conformism of thought” of a “self-enclosed realm within society as a whole” (Horkheimer, 1937:243), how does Critical Theory comprehend its relation to the social process in general and politics in particular? The key for answering this question is to be found in that the Frankfurt School regards the separation of theory and practice as a thoroughly historical phenomenon (Horkheimer, 1932:4). Unlike traditional theory, Critical Theory therefore does not lose itself in self-deceptions about the role of thinking in present-day society, but is able to reflect its limited powers. At the same time, the separation of theory and practice does not appear as something set in stone. As a historically emerging phenomenon, it is necessarily open to change. Indeed, the given relation between thinking and practice is one moment of a society that in its whole structure is patterned by a combination of reason and arbitrariness. For this reason, the critical theorist’s activity is committed to transcending this state as a whole.

This commitment, in turn, makes the critical theorist an ally of that class that objectively represents the power of changing society: the proletariat. Although suffering most under the present conditions and thus embodying their negation, this class does not automatically and immediately possess an adequate analysis of its situation (Horkheimer, 1937:213f.). Therefore, the critical theorist’s role consists in being “a critical, promotive factor in the development of the masses” (Horkheimer, 1937:214). His activity is no more and no less than “the intellectual side of the historical process of proletarian emancipation” (Horkheimer, 1937:215).

By describing the critical theorist’s relation to societal transformation in this way, Horkheimer rejects the ‘positivist’ separation of science/theory and politics/practice as well as a position that claims the immediate unity of both. As a result, the unity between the critical theoretician and the class objectively able to transform society can only exist as a (potential) conflict (Horkheimer, 1937: 215f.). Horkheimer writes that, “the theoretician whose business it is to hasten developments which will lead to a society without injustice can find himself in opposition to views prevailing even among the proletariat… If such a conflict were not possible, there would be no need of a theory; those who need it would come upon it without help“ (Horkheimer, 1937:221). So we can say that where Weber’s politician takes up or discards scientific results at his very own discretion, Horkheimer’s conceptualization of the relation between practical agents of change and critical intellectuals is a different one: in order to transcend bourgeois society, the proletariat needs an adequate theory of this society. Moreover, while Weber’s scientist can claim objectivity and truth for his work regardless of the politician’s acting, the validity of the activity of the critical theorist depends on men taking it up in their speech and action (Horkheimer, 1937:220).

Critical Theory as Dialectical Theory

In comparing the Weberian conception of social sciences and Horkheimer’s understanding of Critical Theory, this paper has quarried notable differences as well as similarities. Yet attempting to account for the simultaneity of differences and agreements in a coherent way is a further task. Borrowing from Marx, we can attempt such an explanation as an answer to the ‘apparently formal, but really vital question’: how do Weberian sociology and Critical Theory stand as regards to dialectic? Indeed, every major disagreement between Weber and Horkheimer can be framed as a disagreement between a non-dialectical and a dialectical position. Since a clear-cut definition of dialectic contradicts the idea of dialectic, I will instead try to illustrate the difference between a dialectical and a non-dialectical understanding by means of concrete examples.

We have seen that in Weber, science/theory and politics/practice are opposed in a rather immediate (unvermittelt) way: the first deals with empirical knowledge whose truth and validity can be proven while the second involves normative positions, for which reason it always must remain a contested terrain. The fact that in reality both spheres cannot be separated so neatly, but are interwoven, is accounted for in that the scientist may ‘switch roles’ and engage in political debates and practical decisions as an ‘ordinary citizen’. Horkheimer’s description of the relation between theory and practice as well as science and society is a quite different one. While acknowledging that these aspects have become separated in a historical process, Horkheimer’s perspective at the same time emphasizes that – precisely as those separated moments – they are interrelated as parts of the same historical formation.

Another illustration of what a dialectical analysis means in contrast to a non-dialectical one is what can be called the value-problem. As we have seen, Weber does not pose the value-problem in a way that suggests values can be entirely excluded from the scientific process. Rather, they are essential for social sciences when it comes to determining a concrete object of investigation. However, in the process of scientific investigation in the narrower sense, these particular value-ideas have to recede behind the only ones allowed in an analysis that can claim to be objective: the belief in the value of scientific work and the validity of the rules of logic (Weber, 1904:40 a. 64).

These suggestions for dealing with the problem of values, as Horkheimer points out, are based on a doctrine according to which it is the subject that attributes value to objects: The differences in value of things are not comprehended as qualities of the object. Rather, the object appears to be something indifferent to value (Horkheimer, 1933:45). Since value is not taken as a characteristic inherent in the object but as posited by a subject’s activity, science cannot but become subjective if it were to aspire for deciding among different values (Horkheimer 1933:45). In fact, however, the opposite is the case and what holds for the object in general – that value is nothing completely alien to it – especially holds for the object of the social sciences: society. This particular object can simply not be understood as something merely existing, free from every ought. To be sure, the judgment on something always involves subjective spontaneity, but it is at the same time prescribed by the very object and is more than the subjective, irrational decision as which it is treated in Weber (Adorno, 1961:117). For example, the discrepancy between rational mastery and blind chance is a characteristic exhibited by bourgeois society itself, it is not just a subjective judgment on part of the critical theorist.

A last point that should serve as a means to illustrate what is meant by a dialectical as opposed to a non-dialectical analysis are the respective criteria for scientific objectivity we find in Critical Theory and Weberian sociology. Weber here emphasizes two aspects. Insofar as his conceptual tool the ideal type is concerned, the demand is that this ideal construction has to be grounded in empirical reality (Weber, 1904:48f.). At the same time, he lays particular stress on the logical coherence of an argument or concept (Weber, 1917:476). Thus, we may say that ‘objectivity’ in Weber is the result of an adequate relation between concepts and reality and the logical coherence of these concepts.

This emphasis on logical coherence is something Critical Theory regards with scepticism. In a passage referring to Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen, Horkheimer expresses his reservations about the idea that all parts of a theoretical system should have to “intermesh thoroughly and without friction” (Horkheimer, 1937:190). This requirement, like Weber’s logical coherence, suggests that contradictions within a theory necessarily have to indicate a lack within the theory. In contrast, Critical Theory stresses that contradictions within a theoretical system or its different parts can be due to the object of inquiry (Horkheimer, 1937:239). Adorno, years later in his response to Popper during the so-called positivist dispute, is even more clear about Critical Theory’s position on this question. He writes that the contradiction need not be a deficiency of judgment imputed to the subject but not to the object. Rather, the contradiction can, in very real terms, have its place in reality and can in no way be removed by increased knowledge and clearer formulation“ (Adorno, 1961:108). Frictions and contradictions within a theory can be characteristics inherent in the object of scientific investigation; therefore, a theory that adheres to an ideal of logical coherence and the absence of contradictions would fail to grasp this object (Adorno, 1961:106).

In light of these examples, it is clear that while a non-dialectical analysis like Weber’s repeatedly comes to a point where it calls for clear separations, though admitting that ‘in reality’ these dividing lines cannot be easily drawn, dialectical thinking relativises these separations (Horkheimer 1937:207). Thus, it is able to grasp simultaneously how politics/practice and science/theory are separate and interrelated, how ‘value’ is both something objective and subjective, and how contradiction can even be a requisite for a consistent theory.

Conclusion: ‘Weberian Marxism’
In light of this comparion, we may now address the central question of whether Critical Theory may be considered to be ’Weberian Marxism’. Clearly, a Critical Theory of bourgeois society need not disagree in every respect with a sociological approach that remains within the framework of this society. For example, we found that both Weber and Critical Theory reject the idea that the ultimate purpose of scientific activity is to develop a theoretical system consisting of a limited number of basic propositions that allows for deducing empirical reality. At the same time, however, we have seen that although Weber and Critical Theory agree on the point, the reasons they give for this rejection differ. Moreover, when it comes to the relation of science/theory and politics/practice or the understanding of value and value-judgments, Critical Theory clearly criticizes Weber. As a theory grounded in Hegelian philosophy and Marxian social theory, Critical Theory analyzes in a dialectical way where Weber calls for clear cuts. Thus, where Weber merely mirrors the apparent separations found in bourgeois society, Critical Theory sets these separations in motion and follows their mediations. Granted, science and politics are differentiated spheres in bourgeois society, but it is by their very separation that these spheres are part of the same historical formation. Weber’s call for separating the two must fail to comprehend their relation. The fundamental methodological difference between Critical Theory and Weberian sociology can therefore be described as one between a dialectical and a non-dialectical approach – a far-reaching difference that, when referring to methodology, makes the designation of Critical Theory as ‘Weberian Marxism’ inappropriate.

At the same time, as Löwy and others have indicated, first generation Critical Theory was able to integrate various of Weber’s material concepts into its own theoretical framework. For example, Horkheimer’s concepts of subjective and objective reason reformulate the Weberian distinction between functional and substantive rationality (Löwy, 1996:435). The notion of ‘Weberian Marxism’ is in general used in this way: as a means to indicate that Marxist thinkers are indebted to Weber when it comes to a number of their central concepts. It is in this respect only that we may call the members of the Frankfurt School ‘Weberian Marxists’. However, we also designate their approach as ‘Hegelian Marxist’ and ‘Freudian Marxist’. But, in contrast to Weber’s methodology, a comparison between the methodology of psychoanalysis and Critical Theory would reveal that, in addition to conceptual affinities, there are also fundamental methodological convergences. With regards to Hegel, on the other hand, we are rather referring to methodological similarities than to conceptual ones (Marcuse, 1966:257).

To be sure, ‘-ian Marxisms’ (‘Bindestrich-Marxismen’) come in handy if we want to draw attention to affinities between Marxist and other thinkers without engaging in lengthy explanations. Yet, as the examples of a ‘Freudian’ and ‘Hegelian Marxism’ should have demonstrated, we need at least briefly to specify in what sense we designate them in this way. For the first generation of the Frankfurt School this means we may describe their members as ‘Weberian Marxists’ when making clear that hereby we refer to conceptual similarities that have been possible despite fundamental methodological differences and that these differences, in turn, imply important transformations in the concepts.


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As we are discussing the period when social sciences began to differentiate themselves from natural sciences, there is not yet to be found a clear-cut distinction between different fields within social/cultural sciences. Weber himself accounts for this in using ‘cultural sciences/scientist’ and ‘social sciences/scientist’ synonymously and I will follow him in this. The terms ‘cultural science’ and ‘social science’ in this paper should therefore not to be taken in their current meaning, when both refer to scientific disciplines that – though to a debatable extent – are clearly differentiated.

If not stated otherwise, all italics within quotes are found in the original texts

A first and foremost, but not entirely formal character, since Weber’s conceptual tool of the ideal-type brings back the ‘substantive’ aspect into his methodology. This ideal type is empirically grounded: it is a deliberate pronunciation and grouping of features on part of the social scientist, but of features that are found in social reality (Weber, 1904:48f.). Thus, the social scientist’s constructions and results not only have to stand the test of logical coherence, but also of adequateness with regard to the social world they are referring to.

In the German Ideology, Marx points to the division between manual and mental labor as the precondition for ideas appearing as something independent (Marx, 1845:31 a. 45ff.). This separation, to be sure, dates farther back than bourgeois society. However, it is still present in the particular form the division of labor assumes in bourgeois society and as such has to be considered fundamental for explaining how science can appear as a separate realm detached from the processes of ordinary material life.

This remark is particularly interesting, since it allows for comparing Weber’s and Horkheimer’s explanations. As we remember, Weber had argued that the purpose of the social sciences with its emphasis on the particularity and uniqueness of reality is completely contrary to that of the natural sciences (Weber, 1904:29). Horkheimer, on the other hand, suggests in this passage that the natural and social science’s of his time concur in their idea of theory. This could be interpreted as that the Weberian conceptualization of social sciences – confronted with the well-established, dominant model of the natural sciences – had not been able to gain ground. Along these lines, Horkheimer could be understood as merely trying to defend social science’s particular purpose and methodology in the Weberian sense. However, as I will try to demonstrate in the following, this would be a fundamental misreading.

This simultaneity of conscious control and blind arbitrariness is a continuous characteristic of bourgeois society.

In the German text, this is even more clear. Here, Horkheimer says: “die Kritik des Ökonomismus liegt nicht in der Abkehr von ökonomischer Analyse, sondern darin, auf ihre Vollständigkeit … zu dringen”. Economism, i.e. a dogmatic reading that transforms Marx’s critique of bourgeois society in a doctrine with a certain number of rigid principles, has to be confronted by an economic analysis that insists on the integrity/completeness of Marxian theory.

This, at least, holds true for Critical Theory in the 1930s and its program of an interdisciplinary materialism. When Critical Theory later would become a ‘message in a bottle’ (Adorno), this also implies certain modifications in how the relation between Critical Theory and political emancipation is comprehended.

To be sure, Weber, whose vast material works deal with processes of rationalization that at the same time are processes of differentiation, cannot be blamed for not comprehending the separation of theory and practice as a historical phenomenon. However, his interpretation of how the both relate in social reality, only accounts for their separation.