TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Popper, Adorno, and the Methodology Dispute

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, Lukas Szrot looks at Robert D’Amico’s “Karl Popper and the Frankfurt School” from Telos 86 (Winter 1990).

As Popper has written in several articles and his autobiography, he encountered Marxism as a young man in Austria around 1919. For two or three months he called himself a communist, but soon turned against the doctrine after the deaths of pro-communist demonstrators was justified with what Popper considered pseudo-scientific jargon. These events made him a fallibilist acutely aware of the distinction between dogmatic and critical thinking. (34)

This emotionally powerful and philosophically significant experience colored Popper’s views of Marxism, the call for revolutionary social change, and the utopianism that foments it. In light of this, it is not difficult to see why Popper and (in particular early) Critical Theorists might have found much about which to disagree. Robert D’Amico discusses myriad points of contrast between Karl Popper and the Frankfurt School, though from the outset he acknowledges that the “infamous ‘methodology dispute’ in German sociology that occurred primarily between Popper and Adorno . . . is best described as a misfire” (33). Despite this alleged “misfire,” D’Amico’s analysis raises profound questions that continue to gain attention and prod ongoing debate in terms of the philosophy, theory, and methodology of the social sciences.

D’Amico turns a critical eye to Popper’s influential work The Poverty of Historicism, at once an extensive criticism of Marxist thought, a central forbearer of Critical Theory, and one of two works to “provide a systematic argument which links problems of epistemology with social theory” (35). Critiques of this work are problematized by Popper’s apparent equivocation of the word “historicism,” which in the social sciences is taken to mean a methodology patterned after the natural sciences that is concerned with uncovering historical laws in order to write the future history based on the past (what D’Amico calls Historicism 1, and the facet of historicism that Popper considers “impoverished”). A second meaning of the word “historicism” seems to impose a limitation on knowledge as a product of time, place, and society sans the teleological faux grandeur of Historicism 1.

A discussion of what D’Amico calls Historicism 2, what Popper allegedly called “historism,” inaugurates a discussion best described as a series of compromises. Historicism 2 in its most extreme form looks like relativism, but Popper is no relativist—at least not insofar as acknowledging the historical and social embeddedness of all knowledge renders one subject to this often pejorative label. A moderate species of historism sounds vaguely Weberian, antipositivist yet empirical, an explicit acknowledgment of the theoretical and methodological conundrum of the social sciences as performing a balancing act between the natural sciences and the humanities.

The crux of this misfired debate, however, is the aforementioned tension between utopianism and fallibilism. Popper points out that it is “a disturbing fact that even an abstract study like pure epistemology is not as pure as one might think . . . but that its ideas may, to a large extent, be motivated and unconsciously inspired by political hopes and utopian dreams” (36). In his connection of social theory to epistemology, Popper delineates a theoretical program for the social sciences that seems at odds with Critical Theory, most readily elicited by contrasting Popper with Adorno. D’Amico explains:

Theory can help carve out limited areas of social change. But utopian transformations must entail hidden or unintended consequences whose impact cannot be foreseen and thus counteract any good intended by such a project. Popper understands Critical Theory as making possible an unmasking of these hidden agendas. Adorno, on the other hand, sees Critical Theory as constantly at war with instrumentalization. Thus the utopian demand, in Adorno, is treated as emancipatory in relation to the demand for practical problem solving. (37)

One cannot help but be reminded of the ubiquitous debate between the liberal and the radical, between the reformer and the revolutionary. While both Popper and Adorno, via D’Amico’s lens, view social theory as performing a transformative role, Popper is decidedly opposed to the sort of large-scale structural change championed by Marx and embraced by first-generation Critical Theorists on the grounds that change precipitates unforeseen consequences. In short, for Popper, and against the liberation instincts of the Frankfurt School, “large scale social transformation is a cure that is worse than the disease” (37).

Yet it gets worse. For Popper, utopianism, rather than paving the way to liberation, becomes an iron cage of totalitarianism. The instinct toward the transcendent is for Popper rendered suspect, tantamount to an abdication of rationality and critical thinking.

Thus the utopian possibility actually removes the role of critical thinking since in the words of Popper, “truth is manifest.” Thus the fundamental contrast between Adorno and Popper is that Adorno takes Critical Theory as an historical “curse,” as a burden from which humanity will eventually be freed once a utopian social transformation succeeds, whereas Popper sees critical thinking as the single invariant of human rationality and especially our only reliable weapon against the continual appeal of utopianism, dogmatism, and certainty. (47)

This raises anew the point about historicism, and why social theorists cannot be viewed as prophets of a certain future or specific end of history. A willingness to sacrifice lives in the name of historical laws adhered to uncritically elicits the very image of human misery and destruction, carried out with mechanical precision and scientific rationale, that left its own indelible psychic stamp upon the Frankfurt School.

D’Amico discusses a notion that is still salient in modern methodological debates in the social sciences, an idea encapsulated in a phrase from Charles Sanders Pierce: “It is the belief men betray and not that which they parade which has to be studied” (44). Adorno’s concept of ideology is reminiscent of Marx’s concept of false consciousness—a powerful tool in most any social theorist’s arsenal. Second-generation critical theorists, and their project of rational reconstruction, can benefit from a theory of ideology in two ways: “first, ideology can be understood as ‘hypocrisy,’ wherein the beliefs or attitudes that explain and thus bring about the action are not the set that the agent acknowledges or professes to have . . .” (44). Sociological methodologists and theorists might rightly wonder the extent to which the beliefs one professes when filling out a survey or answering questions in a recorded interview reflect the beliefs upon which one acts. A second aspect of ideology has become the defining characteristic of Critical Theory, the analysis of the culture industry, a conceptualization of modern industrial society both reminiscent of Weberian rationality and a neo-Marxist perspective that culture is a superstructural entity erected upon the economic base of capitalism. Here Critical Theory is situated roughly between more overtly Marxist “oppression” studies and their tendency to tilt toward conspiracy theory and Popper’s more epistemically conservative (for lack of a better word) fallibilist stance.

There is a wistful strand woven among discussions of Critical Theory, connected implicitly to a distinction (or lack thereof) between moral commitments and factual standards. Though D’Amico’s erudite analysis digs deep into complex epistemic issues, there are profound moral and political implications for a discussion of this sort. D’Amico seems to opt ultimately for a more middle-of-the-road position: “To collapse problems of social explanation with a moral commitment to struggle against oppression is just as misguided as to erect an unbridgeable gulf between these attitudes. Explanation requires a flexibility and adaptation to data that moral commitment precludes” (41). Thus the role of theory as a tool for liberation can be overplayed if the line between fact and value (D’Amico discusses facts and standards) is sufficiently blurred, and the specters of epistemic relativism and, more disturbingly, knowledge as a function of political expediency, a hallmark of totalitarianism, can threaten once more.

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