TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

From Freiburg to Frankfurt: Rovatti on Critical Theory and Phenomenology

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Damien Booth looks at Pier Aldo Rovatti’s “Critical Theory and Phenomenology,” from Telos 15 (Spring 1973).

The relationship between phenomenology and critical theory is a complex one that deserves a great deal of attention. On the one hand, Marcuse, as a student of Heidegger, maintained a certain level of affiliation with his thought, while, on the other, Lukács and Adorno were critical of phenomenology, with Heidegger in particular coming under criticism. In “Critical Theory and Phenomenology,” Pier Aldo Rovatti attempts to show how these two modes of thought may have a meaningful encounter.

First, Rovatti notes how the two were united in their respective attempts to attack the emerging positivism and the radical rationalization of human activity. These notions were both charged with bringing about a crisis in modern thought. Rovatti notes how phenomenology and critical theory were also similar in their attempts to emancipate humans. Husserl was concerned with a radical refounding of science, while Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others were concerned with salvaging the humanism of Marx’s thought.

However, Rovatti raises Adorno’s criticism. Phenomenology’s concern with the purely given phenomena of experience prevents it from being truly critical. Adorno also adds that phenomenology, in its loyalty to this experience, leads to a situation where its descriptions merely describe the phenomena of advanced capitalist society. “Therefore, in Adorno’s eyes, phenomenology appears as a disguised positivism that implies (i.e. it hides) a theory of social control, or at least, of an a priori validation of such control” (26). As Rovatti explains:

[A]s a doctrine of the contemplation of essences, Husserlian phenomenology would be the base supporting Heidegger’s existential ontology. Adorno’s reasoning develops in the following way: Husserl is incriminated with the dominant scientificity beginning with the Logical Investigations until the very end. (27)

Husserlian phenomenology, according to Adorno, is still wrought with the symptoms of postwar rationalism, and so there is “no possibility that critical theory could have a positive encounter with phenomenology” (27).

With that in mind, Rovatti moves on to explain that critical theory has failed in pursuit of its primary goal: “to take advanced capitalist society as its object and to be its critical theory” (28). This, according to Rovatti, is due to the Hegelian-Marxism that underpinned critical theory, imbuing it with limited theoretical apparatus. As a “negative function of reason,” critique emerges as a

[n]egative dialectic which arises out of an ethical-utopian impulse, which presents itself as “irrationality” in front of the dominant reason of enlightenment. . . . Thus, the dialectic “without synthesis” of the Frankfurt School ends up as a critique without a foundation. (28)

Phenomenology on the other hand, particularly Husserlian phenomenology, managed to break away with some traditional notions (i.e., the subject-object dualism) while still remaining a traditional mode of thought. It also gave us fresh notions such as “intentionality” and the Lebenswelt (lifeworld). Phenomenology and Marxism “crossed paths” because of the stronger theoretical instruments that the former provided the latter. With critical theory being motivated purely by the “negative function of reason,” it became a critique without any theoretical basis. In phenomenology, we find the apparatus with which to form that basis.

It is at this level, I believe, that a meaningful confrontation between critical theory and phenomenology can be brought about: when both—each loaded with their respective autonomous development of thought—find themselves on the same side in the attempt to reinterpret Marxism’s critical element. (29)

Rovatti then switches attention to an early Marcuse essay “Contributions to a Phenomenology of Historical Materialism.” Here, Marcuse attempts to find the philosophical foundation of the concept of history by using phenomenology as his guide. Rovatti points out however that Marcuse does not separate phenomenology from Heidegger’s ontological context. As a result, Marcuse’s critique cannot be critical of Heidegger’s thought that Being is the proper philosophical foundation.

Thus, all of Marcuse’s critical efforts remain within the ontological horizon, in trying to pass from an abstract to a concrete, material ontology based on needs, labor, the factuality of the social, and on life as real movement. (37)

Rovatti identifies the concept of “need” as concealing something important about the encounter between phenomenology and critical theory. He thinks throughout Marcuse’s works, we can see attempts to “concretize” need as the phenomenological foundation of history. With Adorno, “ontological need” finds its realization in a state where men are unable to notice the “necessity” that they act in accordance with. So, according to Rovatti “ontology is a substitute for the actual behaviour induced by the requirements of capitalism and its cultural industry.” (39)

“Need” becomes that which requires critique. It can be the object of critical theory, but it has an intentional character; phenomenology gives critical theory its properly theoretical object.

Marx himself, in whose works a phenomenology of need can be found, must be liberated from a naturalistic and ontological notion of needs for an intentional, historically determined, yet subjectively constituted concept. (39)

So, according to Rovatti, phenomenology is attempting to instantiate a link between the precategorical and the categorical, whereas critical theory “either rejects the precategorical or makes it into an ontological-idealogical moment” (40).

The meeting of two modes of thought is rarely (if ever) accidental, and by referring to “need” in both Marcuse and Adorno, Rovatti highlights a Marxist symbiosis of phenomenology and critical theory:

If, as we have seen, Adorno’s position leads to the self-dissolution of the critique and if the previously made observations concerning the identification of Heidegger and Husserl on ontological need are valid, the unmasking of this type of need, which conceals capitalism’s constituted interests, goes in the right direction of a critique of ontology. (39)

Overall, Rovatti gives us an interesting glimpse into how two crucial schools of thought in modern European philosophy may compliment one another; by referring to Marcuse’s early work we are shown how critical theory can gain a theoretically sound object of critique in the form of “ontological need”—an object that is uncovered by Marcuse’s attempt at a phenomenology of history.

Read the full version of Pier Aldo Rovatti’s “Critical Theory and Phenomenology” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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