Points of Departure:
Sketches for a Critical Theory
with Public Aims

Section One

By Stephen Bronner


Critical theory began with an emancipatory promise. It offered an an interdisciplinary perspective seeking to inform the struggle against oppression in all its guises; it rejected the priority accorded political economy by Marxism and subverted the "privileged position" of the proletariat. It called the domination of nature into question and any identification of the subject with existing institutional arrangements; it championed the reflexive subject against totalitarianism and the "happy consciousness." It defended hope and the concept of utopia.

The great proponents of critical theory produced works of enduring intellectual quality on a remarkable range of subjects and themes. They dared progressive intellectuals to reject the verities of positivism and teleology; they radicalized the use of psychology and anthropology; they linked Marx with Freud and Nietzsche; they proclaimed that "the whole is false" and transformed the debate over culture; they raised the banner of a "negative dialectic" and profoundly influenced the ideology of the 1960s in Europe as well as, in varying degrees, all over the world.

Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and others associated with the Institute for Social Research forged a radical tradition. Over the last decade, however, critical theory began to lose much of its allure. The triumph of conservativism was not alone to blame. Neither was the continuing lack of a universal "agent" for emancipatory change. The fact is that critical theory had become increasingly domesticated. The success of the enterprise, in good dialectical fashion, generated the conditions for its decline. Apolitical literati turned it into the subject of a deadening scholasticism and embraced its most elitist tendencies while social scientists partitioned its insights for mainstream research. Jurgen Habermas and other innovative thinkers of the "second generation" saw the warning signs. They tried to reinvigorate critical theory, place it on a new "positive" footing, and reaffirm its connection with the most progressive elements of the enlightenment legacy. Nevertheless, the "great refusal" withered.

Philosophical differences, shifting political allegiances, and personal conflicts, make it difficult to get an overall sense of what critical theory was originally meant to convey. Basically, however, it was a normative perspective generated from the traditions of philosophical idealism and historical materialism, which sought to inform empirical research and the struggles of the working class after the initial euphoria of the Russian Revolution had passed. Critical theory was a form of marxism without organizational attachments. It emphasized the question of consciousness and the manifold threats to individual autonomy. It also sought to restore the connection between theory and practice, which had been perverted by Stalinism. That purpose has eroded and, indeed, it is somewhat difficult to agree with the famous claim of Leo Lowenthal that it was not the critical theorists who abandoned praxis, but praxis which had abandoned them.

A metaphysical veil has fallen over critical theory. Negative dialectics and discourse theory both use it to hide from the reality of conflicting interests and institutions defined by structural imbalances of power. A new identification with the disempowered can help lift this veil. Providing critical theory with a new positive direction of this sort, however, is possible only by reaffirming its forgotten materialist component and reinvesting it with a practical interest in public affairs.

Critical theory was always based on a commitment to freedom and the need for ongoing revision in order to confront new questions posed by new historical circumstances. It was never a set of fixed claims or iron-clad proscriptions. Critical theory is perhaps best understood as what Theodor Adorno termed a "force-field," a problem complex, composed of certain intersecting concepts.

The future of critical theory depends upon their fate. This problem complex falls under a set of rough rubrics. The first speaks to the theoretical status of the enterprise and questions concerning its foundations, its view of society, and its conception of tradition. The second deals with immanence and the categories necessary for translating theory into meaningful forms of emancipatory practice: solidarity, accountability, and autonomy. The last involves transcendence and the emancipatory concern with aesthetics, nature, and utopia. Only sketches of these concepts and their implications will be given in the following sections. Nevertheless, should they provide an insight into the possibilities of the critical method, this undertaking will have fulfilled its aims.


Foundations were precisely what critical theory sought to deny. They smacked of "traditional theory" with its finished claims, fixed systems, and attempts to subsume the particular within the general. In rejecting the foundationalist impulse, however, critical theory found itself torn by competing impulses: the positive and the negative, the objective and the subjective, the anthropological and the historical, the sociological and the aesthetic, the material and the metaphysical. Innovative attempts to analyze phenomena from within a determinate historical context confronted the radical projection of freedom beyond any context.

Critical theory had originally inspired radical experiments in the sociology of knowledge. Gradually, however, its focus shifted. The "negation" of society was undertaken so that potentiality might explode actuality, and the integrative power of the culture industries seemed to justify this new preoccupation with transcendence against immanence. Emphasizing the "non-identity" between subject and object thus became a way of preserving freedom and reflection from necessity and instrumental rationality.

Every system and ideology assuming an identity between the subject and his or her world became open to critique. But the failure of the revolutionary proletariat generated concerns with its foundations. Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch, in keeping with the thrust of the original enterprise, sought to resist the use of analytic philosophy and traditional forms of ontology. Both the ontology of "false conditions" developed by the former and the utopian ontology of latter presupposed the existence of "latent" experiences and possibilities resisting definition by reified forms of instrumental thinking. Each called upon reflexivity to deal with "what is not." Each stressed the unfinished character of reality. Each provided an opening to the novum.

Categories were lacking in both cases, however, for making distinctions between traditions or translating the latent into the real. Mediations vanished, institutions too, as these critical forms of radical thought conflated the difference between utopia as an other and as a regulative idea. The philosophical attempt to define reality a priori became separated from the practical need for categories capable of dealing with contingent situations. Ontology rendered indeterminate the moment of resistance it promised to deliver. Distinguishing the "false" utopia or negation from the "true" thus became an ever more arbitrary exercise.

Supplanting a failed teleology and contesting the philosophical mainstream involved rejecting the positive moment of "synthesis" or the "negation of the negation" in favor of "negativity" and a new antinomial form of thinking. Antinomies, when properly set in motion, were seen as fueling the "dialectical" tension within phenomena thereby maintaining their "non-identity" and utopian potentiality. The new emphasis on negation, however, made the falsification of claims impossible and critical theory found itself simultaneously detached from the empirical sciences and in danger of creating its own form of dogmatism. Critical theory became content to identify its project with resistance to oppression. This purely negative formulation was seen as manifesting the materialist content latent within the idealist concept of reason. Nevertheless, interpreting the "materialist" impulse of idealism in this manner left justice without any historical or institutional points of reference.

The negation of injustice and the commitment to freedom became divorced from practical interests, institutions, and actual movements. Freedom and necessity, subjectivity and the objective world, no longer reciprocally defined one another. The negation was left to contemplate the world of positivity. The contestation of reality would take place without reference to the political implications of ideas. Emancipation became its own justification. But the problem was less a matter of "grounding" in the abstract than an inability to deal concretely with concepts like democracy and the rule of law, socialism and equality, internationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Critical theory had never been inspired by liberalism and social democracy was derided for its economic reductionism, cultural plebianism, and reformism. The new philosophy was influenced instead by the "dialectical" works of Karl Korsch and Gerog Lukacs whose "theory of praxis" reflected the "heroic phase" of the Russian Revolution. These thinkers were principally concerned with analyzing the mediations linking base and super-structure along with the various cultural and psychological impediments to radical change. Their followers in the Institute essentially saw the weakness of liberal and social democratic traditions as creating the preconditions for the rise of authoritarianism. Little speculation was wasted on their relevance for an emancipated social order. Indeed, with the exception of Erich Fromm, the "inner circle" never showed much support for the Weimar Republic.

History seemed to invalidate the original liberal vision of the bourgeoisie as well as that of its social democratic inheritors. And so, when the communist experiment turned sour, it only made sense that Horkheimer and Adorno should have placed a new emphasis on Nietzsche. Marx never vanished from critical theory. But criticism of the commodity form was now leveled in the name of an increasingly imperiled subjectivity and its incommensurability with any objective system. The "subject," once historical and determinate, now became philosophical and abstract. The attempt to explode all "systems" left it stranded beyond any particular institutional conditions capable of securing its existence.

Foundations are a matter for political and social theory rather than philosophy. Horkheimer already intuited in his youth that happiness requires no philosophical justification. But he never extended his insight to issues concerning reflection or the primacy of liberal values. It is now necessary to radicalize the original claim. Neither linguistic philosophy nor a scientific theory, neither epistemology nor a theory of moral evolution, is necessary or sufficient in order to justify accountability or the rule of law. It is enough to look back at real systems and see that, with few historical exceptions, the extent to the liberal rule of law is employed is the extent to which grievances are open to consistent forms of equitable redress. It is enough to note that the extent to which reciprocity is denied is the extent to which popular sovereignty is subverted, inequality is legitimated, and the security is lost. It is enough to know from the past that the arbitrary exercise of power is grounded in terror.

John Dewey would probably have agreed that these are "warranted assertions." Engaging in ontological, phenomenological, and epistemological forms of justification -- or using the "un-grounded" character of such philosophical approaches as to justify the most nihilistic implications of postmodernism -- is all nothing more than an academic exercise. The question over whether the public realm is really "better" or merely "differently" served by accountability and the rule of law as against the arbitrary exercise of power is more than a matter of abstract disputation. Refusing to make a practical judgment, in the name of resisting the "domination" supposedly implicit in such a choice, is merely an abdication of responsibility; judgment is then always exercised by others.

Critical theory is partisan, if not blindly so. It recognizes the existence of diverse constituencies with different ideological commitments. It does not speak only to the converted. But, in practical terms, it recognizes the idealism inherent in seeking to convince the oppressor about the exploitation of the oppressed or, in terms of pure theory, attempting to provide "neutral" justification of its claims before "society" as a whole. The interests of critical theory in justice and happiness are validated by those who suffer from their denial. They need not "justify" their experience of oppression, only the manner in which they seek to mitigate it -- and that because, in fact, they will assuredly bear the burden for its failure. Constraining the arbitrary exercise of power and emphasizing the universal constructs underpinning the rule of law is thus legitimated not simply from the the phenomenological standpoint of linguistic rules; its justification derives from a judgment concerning the practical needs of the disadvantaged for equitably adjudicating their grievances, overcoming their lack of unity, and developing a sensible view of the institutional conditions capable of fostering their public well-being.

Karl Mannheim liked to speak about "styles of thought" whose internal consistency and relevance for solving practical problems might provide ways of judging between them. Ontology, epistemology, and narrowly linguistic forms of validation become irrelevant from this perspective. The extent to which power is abused becomes the extent to which the "negation" retains its determinate validity. Justifying claims of this sort can occur by reflecting on the past and, from the standpoint of the present, speculating on the practical consequences for the future of a given idea. Controversy will obviously arise on the status of such claims; the counter-factual can confront the general and conflict among various generalizable interests, or rights, will also surely occur. Politics will prove primary in reaching a decision. Such, however, is the practical reality.

Immanent criticism remains sufficient for judging the conduct of any given order in relation to the ideas most consistent in the given context with social equality, democracy, and internationalism. A critical theory with practical commitments and a public purpose will recognize that values of this sort extend beyond the purely formal. Liberalism presupposes certain substantive judgments about the character of "human dignity" and individual responsibility, socialism holds certain substantive views on the value of competition, and internationalism makes certain assumptions concerning the value of "community" and ethnic forms of solidarity. Critical theory cannot ignore substance in the name of form; it must prove willing to confront power and offer criteria for judging how one response to exploitation or oppression might work better for the exploited and oppressed than another.

Old fashioned dualisms between truth and justice or knowledge and interest have grown stale. Critical theory must anchor itself in the structural imbalances of power defining the manifold contexts wherein subjectivity is put into practice. Only then will discussions regarding the grounding of values lose their metaphysical character. Illuminating and confronting the repressed possibilities for freedom defining particular forms of ideological and material production can alone provide the critical enterprise with concreteness and the ability to anticipate the practical concerns over which future struggles will take place. Seeking to expose the interests of the exploited and the institutional constraints inhibiting their articulation, can alone -- once again -- render critical theory relevant for the coming century.


"Society" remains the cornerstone of the critical enter-prise. Conceptualizing it meant overcoming the exclusive reliance on either the empirical or the formal and, for this reason, the method of critical theory was originally seen as resting on the concept of totality. Recently, however, this category has become the object of violent criticism, and much of it is legitimate. "Totality" resonates with absolutist ambitions; it threatens the particularity with subsumption; it has been compromised by association with outmoded forms of historical teleology; it even conjures up the image of totalitarianism. But the concept also militates against reification. It situates the particular and provides it with determination; it turns history into a mutable human product; it explodes paradoxical formulations and makes irrelevant rigid distinctions between facts and value or truth and justice. Totality, in short, illuminates the dynamism of reality and makes the perception of contradictions possible.

Idealism, with its commitment to reflexivity, introduced the category into the modern discourse. Western marxists like Lukacs and Korsch then rejected its neutral epistemological status; its objective character, they maintained, was comprehensible only from the standpoint of a proletarian class subject generated by the very society it was destined to transform. A value-laden and decisionist quality became inextricably linked with the concept. The neutral truth criteria of the natural sciences, for their part, were seen as excluding the "emancipatory interest" (Habermas) in changing existing social relations. Thus, totality was conceived as an inherently social category and the critical theory of society became defined as an interdisciplinary enterprise informed by revolutionary norms.

Conceiving of "society" is still possible only from an interdisciplinary stance. This was a fundamental contention of both western marxism and critical theory; indeed, even Jurgen Habermas can legitimately maintain that his theory of communicative action retains a thematic connection with the whole. But the justification for an interdisciplinary stance does not merely derive from the intellectual enrichment that can occur through the interchange between scholars in different fields. More important is the recognition that neither reflection nor ethical judgment can arbitrarily grind to a halt even disciplinary boundaries are "consensually" raised. Thus, whatever the necessary heuristic boundaries separating the various fields of scholarly endeavor, Theodor Adorno was correct in emphasizing that no social fact exists beyond the determinations of society as a whole.

The "whole" is opened to ethical judgment. Totality makes visible the structures of production and reproduction in which reification and commodification are generated. It makes thematizing the various contradictions of society possible and, insofar as they are always "mediated," the various factors inhibiting social transformation as well. Economic determinism is undermined and the theory of Marx becomes receptive to contributions by thinkers concerned with psychological, anthropological, cultural and a host of other issues. Inhibitions on revolutionary commitment receive articulation, ideology is recognized as a "lived experience," and repression assumes a manifold guise with the introduction of the mediated totality.

With the failure of the working class to fulfill its revolutionary mission, however, the category of totality lost its constitutive subject, its potential for transformation, and its dynamism. The integrity of distinct moments within it, no less than the contradictions defining their reproduction, became smothered by reification; the "whole" now confronted the individual it had originally subsumed. No longer could the subject receive its determination within a preformed construct. Theory and practice, subject and object, form and content, transcendence and immanence, fell asunder. It was now necessary to introduce a new category capable of recognizing this reality while keeping the subject "non-identical" with objective reality and all reified systems of thought.

The category of "constellations" sought to contest the "totalitarian" tendencies of the parent category. They would restore a sense of what had been forgotten, whether the sacrifices of the past or the repressed elements of subjectivity in the present, and dynamize the understanding of phenomena without reference to the teleological assumptions of hegelian dialectics. They would also confront reification by continuing to insist that society is a product of human action and that the particular receives its definition only within a context. Proponents of the new category like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno never relinquished the traditional concern of western marxism with thematizing a context. Both theorists rejected relativism and maintained a notion of truth. Indeed, the whole remained a point of reference for their respective notions of "negativity" as well as a category for analyzing history or the social reality being negated.

Systematically emphasizing the "non-identity" between subject and object, however, became the price for rejecting systematic thinking. The notion of constellations surrendered any historical or institutional referent for freedom. Solidarity lost its concreteness; it became anchored in art, theology, or anamnesis. Withdrawing from any positive relation to the empirical world undermined the ability of critical theory either to justify its status or provide determinations for what needs transformation and why. Immanently deriving the moments of the whole or the internal dynamics (Eigendynamik) animating them, in the same vein, became ever more difficult. Concern with reconstructing the relation between theory and practice faded and the use of constellations ever more surely became a self-referential and aesthetic exercise.

"Society" can no longer present itself either as preconstituted like the hegelian totality or as an arbitrary form of construction motivated by purely subjective concerns. Its constituent elements, its moments and their determinations, are not open to definition a priori. Reification is only reproduced when, for example, cultural inquiry is pursued through economic categories or when the mediations effecting the dynamics of international trade become the same as those influencing the development of modern painting. The point is to specify the constitution of the object under consideration and the hidden dynamics defining its potential for emancipatory transformation. The object, in short, must generate its categories of inquiry.

Categories engaged in the task of resurrecting "society" can thus claim neither "scientific" validity nor ontological status. They exist within a hermeneutic frame of reference. Just as social scientific inquiry will always retain an intepretive moment, however, hermeneutics cannot dispense with social scientific constructs. An exclusive reliance on either hermenutic formalism or empirical immediacy can only hinder serious analysis. Nevertheless, the explanatory status of the inter- pretive construct need not diminish so long as its particular knowledge-constituitive interests are made explicit.

"Society" will always elude the categories seeking to comprehend it. But the need to make sense of it still remains. Grand narratives remain necessary precisely because the economy and mass media are breaking down national barriers, transnational institutions are on the rise, and problems ranging from the environment to the economy are becoming planetary in character. History is taking a global form and, for this reason, thematizing society from a critical standpoint is less a theoretical issue than a practical one.

Traditional relations between theory and practice, of course, have broken down. But this does not justify withdrawing into what Goethe called the "small world" of the self. It merely involves recongizing that there is no philosophical or evolutionary trick with which to compensate for the collapse of teleology. There is nothing with which to cancel the cunning of history or overcome the contingency of progress. Critical theory, for this reason, needs to grasp freedom in the constraints and concrete alternatives making for its practical exercise; philosophy, in this way, remains its "epoch comprehended in thought" (Hegel) and critique the possibility of calling the age into question. Critical theory, whatever its commitment to transcendence, cannot escape immanence or the constraints of historical reality.


Struggle is always embedded in tradition; its presence is derived from injustices inherited from the past as well as anticipation regarding their amelioration in the future. Proponents of the new are always situated in time. Tradition is, for this reason, inescapable. It becomes manifest in the values inspiring their enterprise; it appears in the questions they ask and the assumptions they make. Communitarians and conservatives maintain that actions gain their moral value only in the context of lived traditions. But tradition is not simply handed down to the present in a one-dimensional manner. It needs construction and reconstruction in order to exploit the unrealized "surplus" of the past for emancipatory ends.

Tradition provides history with coherence. With the new power of the culture industry, however, the past is ever more surely becoming a buffet from which the gourmet can select a bit of this and a touch of that. The culture industry celebrates the fad, immediacy, cynicism, and the "happy consciousness;" it loosens the bonds of tradition and, in keeping with the claims of postmodern thinkers, creates juxtapositions whose arbitrariness is limited only by the dictates of profit. Liquidation of the past, or the inability to give it coherence, is a principal effect of the culture industry.

Critical theory must confront this situation with a more coherent and precise perspective capable of utilizing the seemingly limitless possibilities for signification without surrendering to relativism. Lukacs once warned against attempts to pursue left-wing politics with right-wing philosophy. A new understanding of this insight has become necessary. It does not suggest that conservative traditions, and their most outstanding representatives, have nothing to teach. Ideas obviously project beyond the historical context in which they originated and the simplistic reduction of transcendence to immmance impoverishes culture. Nevertheless, even in the greatest of works, a historical residue remains.

Walter Benjamin was aware how every document of progress retains an element of barbarism. Traces of repression from the past, whatever the forms of symbolic and institutional mediation, never completely disappear from an idea. The emancipatory appropriation of cultural artifacts thus cannot occur without recognizing and judging the social and political norms inherited from their contextual origin. Considering the fluctuating connection between theory and practice, transcendence and immanence, is thus imperative for a theory seeking to make sense of the past and employ it for realizing an emancipatory future.

Difficulties arise, however, insofar as not every impulse from the past is reactionary and not every document retains traces of barbarism to the same degree. Gradations exist, freedom and repression intermingle, and a pre-existing conceptual framework is necessary for making determinations. An arbitrary assemblage of objects is easy to create and opens the door to the exercise of the imagination. But cultural artifacts do not simply speak to the present. Their critical meaning is illuminated only from within a tradition, whose formation is itself a constituitive act inspired by norms and interests. The question is always how well they are made explicit.

Different traditions of theory and practice will prove useful in different ways for different forms of inquiry. Each forwards a certain relation between the transcendent imperatives of theory and the historical limitations of practice on which progressive philosophical and political undertakings can build. Each also generates a multitiude of contradictions in search of resolutions. A single tradition, such as that stemming from Baudelaire and Nietzsche, can simultaneously prove progressive for modern art and regressive for dealing with social or political issues. Differentiating investigative domains, establishing the connections between knowledge-constituitve interests and unique forms of creative activity, articulating the hermeneutical framework within which a given inquiry is situated, thus become matters of paramount concern.

Clarifying the positive purposes and practical interests generated by any given tradition is a complicated undertaking. Its utopian "surplus," borrowing a term from Ernst Bloch, is never reducible to the ways in which it was employed. Other interpretations and forms of appropriation are always possible. Recognizing the "elective affinity" (Weber) harbored by any given tradition with certain modes of political or cultural practice, however, is a matter of importance.

Dialectic of Enlightenment never took this into account and, consequently, its authors were never able to deal coherently with the historical residue, the political values, and social implications of the enlightenment. Their critique created an image of enlightenment to suit their purposes. It was, of course, undertaken from the standpoint of enlightenment itself just as the critique of marxian orthodoxy was undertaken by Korsch from the standpoint of historical materialism itself. But there was one crucial difference. He sought to maintain the connection between theory and practice or ideas and the political context in which they took shape. Horkheimer and Adorno, in bringing legitimate representatives of the enlightenment and its critics under one roof, broke that connection and innovatively employed a questionable form of historical juxtaposition. They simply ignored the political trajectory of enlightenment philosophy along with the historical connection between republicanism and socialism.

Critical theory, for this reason, became content to elaborate a ratio of resistance by grafting the utopian element within its views on theology and aesthetics upon its theory of society and historical development. Refusing to recognize any disciplinary boundaries, unable to provide its emancipatory concerns with any institutional referents, critical theory ever more surely began to conflate philosophical with political and aesthetic with social forms of resistance. And this is where the problem arises. Critical theory can contribute further to developing a theory of modernism or a "negative" philosophy of history; it can inquire more deeply into the commodity form, deepen the critique of technology, and illuminate new forms of discourse theory. Its possibilities are unlimited. But it cannot do everything at the same time or ignore the distinctions between the manifold spheres of social action. Only in this way can it take what Douglas Kellner and Steven Best have called a "multi-perspectival" form.

The negation only appears all powerful. The "inversion" of concepts and their connotations, with which critical theory began to preoccupy itself, is satisfying to the spirit of neither Marx nor Nietzsche. A new commitment to determinacy on the part of critical theory has become necessary. This means situating itself in relation to the past, identifying what it wishes to transform in the present, and making sense of its aims in the future. It means, in short, identifying critical theory with a reconstructive project grounded in concrete forms of solidarity.


Max Horkheimer once wrote that "the anonymous martyrs of the concentration camps are the symbols of a humanity that is striving to be born. The task of philosophy is to translate what they have done into language that will be heard." But, of course, there are other martyrs as well. Solidarity is just a word unless anchored in a worldview. These take different forms. The most dangerous, however, is one which breaks the connection between the universal and the particular. Indeed, solidarity is too easily manipulated when delimited in terms of purely racial or sexual as well as ethnic or national feelings and experiences.

Andre Schwarz-Bart recognizes this. The Last of the Just, for which he used the loss of his family and his own experiences in the camps, is among the greatest evocations of the holocaust and its connection with the fabric of jewish history. After moving to Guadaloupe, however, he wrote A Woman Named Solitude in which he reconstructed a lost part of Caribbean history through the story of a slave who becomes a revolutionary. A recurrence of images and motifs takes place, and the novel ends with a modern tourist walking near the unmarked grave of the rebels. Thus, the author is able to note that: "If he is in the mood to salute a memory, his imagination will people the environing space, and human figures will rise up around him, just as the phantoms that wander about the humiliated ruins of the Warsaw ghetto are said to rise up before the eyes of other travelers."

The work of Schwarz-Bart, with its internationalist commitments and cosmopolitan sentiments, turns solidarity into more than an anthropological abstraction. This, however, was precisely the way in which the proponents of critical theory defined it. Following Schopenhauer, for example, the young Horkheimer rooted solidarity in empathy for human suffering. An instinctual conception of solidarity underpins Herbert Marcuse's notion of the "new sensibility," Ernst Bloch's utopian category of the "we," and the subjectivity seen by Adorno as inherent within an artwork. Empathy also plays a role in the anamnestic view of history developed by Walter Benjamin, the humanism of Erich Fromm, and all forms of "negative theology." Even Jurgen Habermas presupposes it in his theory of moral evolution and communicative action.

Empathy serves all these thinkers as a basis for moral experience. Much like the notion of "care" elaborated by Martin Heidegger, however, it is incapable of generating derivative categories for coordinating action. The point for contemporary critical theory is thus to begin contesting the variants of what Richard Rorty termed "ethno-solidarity" and finding forms of persuasion for furthering the material interests of particular groups with the universalist precepts underpinning social equality, civil liberties, and internationalism. Solidarity or empathy become matters of practical concern only when they inform a public judgment concerning conflicting interests. Anthropology no more than ontology or phenomenology, for this reason, can use purely private sentiments to generate the logical categories demanded by a public philosophy with progressive aims.

Habermas has tried. Communicative action presupposes empathy or solidarity while justifying claims discursively serves as a precondition for overcoming injustice and curbing reification. Empathy appears in the willingness of each to place himself or herself in the position of others in the communicative discourse. Solidarity is rendered equivalent with the "generalisable interests" and universalist assumptions located in the structure of language. The "moral point of view" is predicated only on what is common to all.

Certain rules for communicative competence obviously exist; language may presuppose intersubjectivity and make reflection possible. Simply denying this en toto leads only to obscurantism and irrationalism. The critique must take a different form. The problem is that the salience of these rules is dependent upon prior commitment to an equitable resolution of differences and, in the same vein, the issue is not whether people can put themselves in the place of others, but whether they will. The "communicative" use of language can convey little when faced with intransigent interests. The proponents of rational choice have noted, in fact, how the concern for public goods and private interests diverge in notions like the "free rider" problem. They see the invalidation of empathy, without too much exaggeration, as part of the very logic informing collective action. Simply divorcing communication from such instrumental concerns, or positing formal equality as a precondition for discourse, is insufficient for challenging their argument concretely.

No "phenomenology of moral intuition" can make reference to the ways in which substantive issues of exploitation and the imbalances of institutional power impinge upon contingent discourses. None have been able to deal with the fact that adhering to the normative implications of discourse is a matter of political and existential choice. None have much to say about the possibilities for translating solidarity or reciprocity into empirical reality. Indeed, even if generalisable interests have informed every movement of the oppressed, the need to choose between often mutually exclusive universalizable demands will not disappear by simply making reference to the rules of communicative action.

Injunctions pertaining to the reciprocal identification of the other in discourse no less than concepts like what John Rawls termed the "veil of ignorance" undercut the ability to thematize the clash of interests and their effects. Idealistic categories of this sort always rest on the idealistic assumption, so sharply contested by Pierre Bourdieu and his followers, that the exploited is somehow merely the exploiter without riches or advantages. Uncritical preoccupation with what Nietzche termed the "all too human" can easily create a situation in which, identifying with the suffering of all, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the suffering of each. Reciprocity and solidarity thus become lifeless assumptions rather than material interests in their own right capable of being denied or advanced. Indeed, this is what creates the nagging thought that perhaps the emancipatory implications residing within communicative interaction are seriously pursued only in the breach and that discourse ethics must quietly presuppose the very institutions in which its assumptions gain validity.

Solidarity is, of course, not simply reducible to matters of social or historical interests. It always harbors an element of transcendence. Were this not the case then, according to Erich Fromm, people could never have confronted the values embedded in the dominant personality patterns of an epoch and united for radical aims. From the standpoint of critical anthropology or discourse theory, however, solidarity loses its connection with reality. The concrete is either subsumed within the covering category or defined by the freedom it denies. Solidarity is left either hanging in the realm of metaphysical abstractions or drowning in empirical immediacy. It lacks reference to the choices informing action and, in this way, the public recedes before the private aspect of the sentiment. Critical theory must oppose this trend in the future. Solidarity becomes material only when consideration is given is given to competing views, policies, interests, and ideas, on ending misery. That is why it cannot be imposed by philosophical fiat.