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12.1 Enlightenment Social Theory

Enlightenment thinkers proposed that human reason, coupled with empirical study of the physical world, would lead to progress—the advancement of science and the improvement of the human condition. Kant proposed that reason alone could guide individuals to identify ethical codes. The application of reason, in this way, would usher the human race toward a moral society in which each individual could enjoy the greatest freedom. However, this work of reasoning out the moral code could not be carried out by individuals but societies over a period of generations. Comte proposed the establishment of a science of society, which he called sociology. He believed that society, like an organism in nature, could be studied empirically. In this way, social problems could be addressed, and the human race could progress.

12.2 The Marxist Solution

Unlike Enlightenment social theorists, Marxist theorists did not try to solve social problems that arose from industrialization and urbanization. Rather, they worked toward removing the economic system that they felt caused these problems, capitalism. Marx proposed an alternative to the Hegelian dialectic, called dialectical materialism. He looked to the contradictions within material, real-world phenomena as the driving force of change. Marx regarded alienation and the clash of economic interests between the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and the proletariat (workers) as the contradiction that would bring down capitalism and give rise to a classless society.

12.3 Continental Philosophy’s Challenge to Enlightenment Theories

In the section dedicated to hermeneutics, or the exploration of meaning as it flows from interpreting written texts, critical theory’s stressing of context was continued. The section examined the notion of historicity or the claim that meaning is not somehow prior to reading a text (perhaps in the mind of the writer) but that meaning is somehow related to and generated from both the introduction of a text and the maintenance of that same text. Meaning may indeed by plural. Ricoeur went so far as to assert that the text does not say anything in and of itself. The text articulates what we as the interpreter generate. Thus, interpretation results in endless possibilities.

12.4 The Frankfurt School

While critical theory encompasses multiple perspectives, the origin of the approach is traced to Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923. There were several commonalities among Frankfurt School thinkers. Most adopted tenets from Karl Marx’s philosophy. Critical theorists sought to build upon Marx’s call to free humanity from oppressive economic and cultural forces. As noted by Max Horkheimer, a plausible critical theory must explain the ills of society, identify the means by which change can occur, and give a rubric for critique and articulate reasonable goals.

Equally as important to critical theory was the liberating of philosophy itself from what was perceived as the limiting boundaries as set by the key thinkers during the Enlightenment. Critical theory dethroned the prioritization of reason and replaced it with a reciprocal acknowledgment of the importance of context and reason. Hegel’s core concept of dialectical movement was also revised from an inevitable forecasting of predetermined events to a tool used to gain insight into specific historical contexts. Habermas’s notion of communicative action illustrates how critical theory has stressed context over objective reasoning when searching for meaning.

12.5 Postmodernism

Within the postmodernism perspective, there is no absolute truth, and there are multiple right ways of belief. The postmodern view challenges the intellectual faith born in modernity that humanity might someday come closer to discovering universal truths.

The tension between structuralism and post-structuralism parallels the tension between modernity and postmodernity. Ferdinand de Saussure advanced a theory in which meaning was embedded within a linguistic structure but the meaning itself is expressed through multiple mechanisms. With the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy, a challenge to the existence of universal systems (structures) was launched. As noted, three post-structuralist themes were: 1) the self itself is not static but a confluence of various forces, 2) the meaning of the author was secondary to the meaning derived from the audience, and 3) interpretations, even if conflicting, were necessarily plural. Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, of the need to consider the meaning accepted and the meaning obscured, followed intellectually from post-structuralism. If we deconstruct meaning, we work toward understanding the greater reasons surrounding why some interpretations were privileged and others rejected.

A “genealogy” is the historical map that traces the past origins of present meanings. Nietzsche and his radical historicism used genealogies to draw meanings in a world thought of a void of objective meanings. Michel Foucault argued that tracing genealogies can help us expose shameful origins of practices and ideologies that foster oppression. Foucault sought to expose when power was used to oppress and when it was used to harm. Knowledge, argued Foucault, once freed from oppressive conventions, ought to be used to develop the self.

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