If the identification of the normative sources of critique remains the most contested area of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, the focal object of its critical efforts has remained remarkably constant: the formation of capital domination and exploitation that is realized through the rationalization of social relations as a whole under the dominion of instrumental rationality. Although it will require modification, we can take instrumental rationality to mean simply means-end rationality, the form of reason required to calculate the necessary and potentially most efficient means for realizing stipulated ends. Critical Theory argues that capital recruits the whole of society to its end of wealth creation – increased capital – by implementing the demands of instrumental reason throughout all the major institutions of society while delegitimizing all competing forms of rational reflection, rational action, and rational interaction. Once we remind ourselves that wealth creation is only a means, an instrument for realizing the satisfaction of human needs, then the societal actualization of instrumental reason, and its virtual hegemony over competing models of rationality, projects a society in which all meaningful human ends disappear.
The names for instrumental reason and its other are multiple; a simple two-column chart makes the range of possibilities evident:
These terms for instrumental reason and its other could be multiplied. The purpose of stating the contrasts in these ways will become evident later.
We will begin by tracing some of the historical antecedents of the critique of instrumental reason (Section II). In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno provide a genealogy of instrumental reason, demonstrating that modern scientific rationality is, in fact, a version of instrumental rationality, making the idea of instrumental rationality more capacious than it originally appears (Section III). An effort to make good on Horkheimer and Adorno’s failure to explain how instrumental reason can effectively become total is made first by Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Section IV), then by Jürgen Habermas’s foundational essay “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology’” – an essay dedicated to “Herbert Marcuse on his seventieth birthday, July 19, 1968” (Habermas 1971: 81) (Section V). In Section VI, I argue that instrumental reason has now become total through the contemporary installation of neoliberal reason and rationality.
On the Irrationality of Instrumental Reason: Modern and Ancient Antecedents
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason stands unequivocally as the first modern critique of instrumental-scientific reason (Velkley 1989). Kant understood that if Newton’s new mathematical physics – uniting terrestrial and celestial mechanics under one uniform set of causal laws – was taken as total, then all human freedom and all moral norms would be dissolved within the determinism of mechanical nature. Kant’s effort to save practical-moral reason from the depredations of theoretical-scientific reason turned on arguing that theoretical reason was but one, albeit necessary, mode of encountering the world and that even the demandingness of causal necessity, invisible to Humean empiricism, came not from the world but from reason’s own conception of what constitutes the world as an object of knowledge. Because reason in part actively constitutes its object domain by imposing a rational form on the deliverances of the senses, then what we know under an all-too-human set of projected categories – space, time, substance, causality, and community – is the world as it appears to human subjects and not as it is in itself. Having limited the claims of theoretical knowing, Kant thereby left rational room for alternative modes of rational encounter. As opposed to the demands of theoretical reason, Kant argued that moral reason normatively governs the grounds on the basis of which it is rational to act: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant 1959: 421). Reason injects the norm of universality into the deliberative considerations through which reasons for action are formed. While theoretical and practical reason are both products of human spontaneity, theoretical reason involves a third-person, spectator point of view, while practical reason institutes a first-person, agent perspective; by itself, this provides a good reason for considering reason as at least dual – irreducibly theoretical and practical – if not plural in character.
Later idealists supported Kant’s heroic effort to salvage human freedom and morality from the ravages of mechanistic science, distinguishing the claims of instrumental-theoretical reason from moral-practical reason. However, beginning with Schiller and Hegel, they also argued that Kant’s construction of morality as requiring “universal law” was, appearances to the contrary, another version of scientific-instrumental reason (Bernstein 2001: 136–187). By requiring that agents disown their empathic identifications and sympathetic concerns, that they bracket and even repress immediate desires, loves, passions, needs, and orienting cares in the name of universal law, rational morality becomes a form of alienation and domination. Kant’s moral universalism, it is argued, is insufficiently distinct from the universalism of theoretical reason; it is theoretical reason dressed in practical terms. The simplest version of this critique is to say that Kant’s monological conception of reason, in requiring only that all others formally be counted in our moral deliberations – our maxims of action must be ones that all others could, in principle, share – effectively disqualifies the voices of actual dialogue partners from appearing and being heard.
In Kant’s own critique of instrumental reason, the fundamental contrast is between theoretical-scientific reason and practical reason: theoretical-scientific reason would become irrational if it vanquished all practical reason and claimed to be total; science, after all, cannot even explain the norms governing scientific reason itself. In the idealist critique of Kantian moral reason, two different fundamental contrasts are at stake: (i) universal/abstract/formal reason versus particular/situated/context-sensitive reason and (ii) monological reason versus dialogical-communicative reason. In these cases, the claim is that universalist moral reason becomes irrational, first, when it dissolves affectively charged claims of sensuous particularity – say, the suffering of another – or overrides contextually formed reasons for action and, second, when it places the demands of abstract rationality – “You must never lie!” – in place of the achievements of communicative interaction. While all versions of Critical Theory are concerned with the emergent authority of scientific-technological reason driving out the claims of practical reason, Horkheimer and Adorno’s genealogy of reason focuses primarily on the contrast between abstract universality and concrete sensuous particularity, while Habermas is primarily concerned with the duality between monological reason and communicative reason.
Yet these constructions of reason that have their origin in Kant’s engagement with Newtonian science and Hegel’s critique of Kantian moral reason seem remote from capital domination and the instrumental logic of wealth creation. In order to draw a bead on the logics of economic reason, we need to step back even further in history.
In Chapters VIII–XI of Book I of The Politics, Aristotle interrogates the art of acquisition, “chrematistic” or, as we might call it, economic reasoning. What quickly becomes evident is that Aristotle means his analysis to distinguish rational economic activity from irrational economic activity in a situation in which what he regards as irrational practices of wealth acquisition are fast becoming normalized and dominant (Aristotle 1962: I.ix.16). What is at stake in the debate is what counts as true wealth. Aristotle’s answer to this question is that true wealth is “the amount of household property which suffices for a good life” (Aristotle 1962: I.viii.14), that is, true wealth involves having all and only those goods that are “necessary for life and useful to the association of the polis or the household, which are capable of being stored” (Aristotle 1962: I.viii.13). The sudden lurch into “useful to the association of the polis” indicates the true end of wealth acquisition: fulfilling one’s ethical destiny as a zoon politikon. Which thus explains that final phrase – “which are capable of being stored”: true wealth is naturally limited and finite because what human living requires are only those goods that are themselves necessary for virtuous living. What is in excess of what is necessary is ethically and rationally superfluous, and hence irrational to pursue or acquire.
If true wealth involves having the ethically requisite goods, illusory or irrational wealth comes into play when the natural practice of exchanging goods, barter – exchanging a chair for three pairs of sandals, say – is replaced by exchange conducted through the medium of currency, money, for profit. While Aristotle agrees that retail trade, selling goods for a profit, can be convenient for a community, it becomes radically distorting and irrational when the endless accumulation of monetary wealth becomes the social measure of true wealth. Not only is monetary wealth useless in itself – you cannot eat a gold coin or live in one, which is the point of the Midas fable – but the idea of monetary wealth makes the art of acquisition unlimited, hence without end, so purposeless or meaningless in itself. If even goods and chattels are simply means for well-being, then money is solely a means for acquiring the means for well-being; money, we might say, is intrinsically instrumental, intrinsically without meaning or purpose in itself, and thus only a means for acquiring true wealth which, again, is also only a means. While anxiety about one’s livelihood and the desire for physical enjoyments that belong to human well-being (Aristotle 1962: I.ix.16) may lead to seeking a superfluity of means, the psychological explanation for this pursuit does not amount to a justification of it. Seeking unlimited monetary wealth is a paradigm of irrational conduct. Or so it seemed to Aristotle; yet we have come to accept it as natural, rational, and even collectively necessary.
In his incisive essay “Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber,” Marcuse outlines and extends Weber’s account of how capitalist rationality – which involves abstraction, the reduction of quality (use values) to quantity (exchange values), and universal functionalization, all enabling “the calculable and calculated domination of nature and man” (Marcuse 1968: 205) – turns what was once considered irrational, or merely instrumentally rational, into rationality itself.
If it remains the case that the ultimate or final aim of economic activity is the provision of human needs, how does it come about that the means to this end, the seeking of unlimited monetary wealth, has itself become the driving force of economic life and the condition of societal reproduction? Two historical facts are sufficient to accomplish this transposition of means into end: (1) the pursuit of economic ends is “carried out in the framework of private enterprise and its calculable chances of gain, that is, within the framework of the profit of the individual entrepreneur or enterprise; and (2) consequently, the existence of those whose needs are to be satisfied depends on the profit opportunities of the capitalist enterprise” (Marcuse 1968: 206; italics JMB). Once private ownership over the means of production becomes effectively universal, it follows that all goods can be acquired only through market transactions, through exchange. Hence, need satisfaction is only available through the mechanisms that conduce to capitalist profit making. At the extreme, Marcuse underlines, this dependence of the existence of all on the profit-making opportunities of the capitalist is realized when humans have to sell their labor to entrepreneurs in order to survive.
Once money, the doubly instrumental means to well-being, the means for acquiring the other means for survival and more than survival, becomes universally required as a means, the once irrational proposition of acquiring unlimited wealth becomes the presumptive end of collective economic activity, hence rational in itself.
In the unfolding of capitalist rationality, irrationality becomes reason: reason as frantic development of productivity, conquest of nature, enlargement of the mass of goods (and their accessibility for broad strata of the population); irrational because higher productivity, domination of nature, and social wealth become destructive forces.
(Marcuse 1968: 207)
While the gist of the idea that capitalist reason unleashes “destructive forces” and is thereby irrational in itself is clear enough, in this setting, Marcuse does not say enough as to why capitalist reason should be regarded as irrational, the conversion of a means into an end that is end-destroying. It is just making precise this critique of instrumental reason that is the recurrent object of Critical Theory.
The Genealogy of Instrumental Reason
In offering a genealogy of instrumental reason, Horkheimer and Adorno explain why we should regard modern scientific reason as a form of instrumental reason and why that formation of reason is potentially irrational in itself unless it comes under the control of or is paired
off in relation to a reason that conduces to substantive human ends. Let me begin with the obvious; here is a list of twenty-seven acts, each of which has reasonable title to be thought of as cognitive or rational, works of human sapience (in whole or part), that in being rule- or norm-governed are thus rationally criticizable
– which is a fair criterion of what makes a practice cognitive: naming, reporting, narrating, describing, evaluating (either weighing options or on a determinate scale), measuring, deliberating, explaining, communicating, expressing, interpreting, understanding, imitating, representing, experimenting, determinative judging, reflective judging, translating, presenting, remembering, acts of deduction, induction and abduction, mapping, scanning, composing (e.g., a fugue), and so on. Whether the acts listed are fully distinct, or some are really species of another (explaining a species of the genus deduction, for example) can be left open. What is striking is that already in Kant’s anatomy of human reason, effectively only theoretical and practical reason (in its hypothetical and moral forms) are left standing as unequivocally authoritative and rational
, with reflective judging scrunched haplessly between them (Bernstein 1992: Chapter 1
). Even before the emergence of modern positivism, cognition had been effectively reduced to either scientific knowing or moral legislation – with morality precariously balanced, doomed to fall off the pedestal of rationality during the following century. The effective triumph of instrumental reason begins with the hegemony of modern science over human knowing – any claimed cognition that cannot be further translated into science is eliminated from the cognitive canon – leaving instrumental reason to practically install itself through capital’s insistent effort to recruit and regiment the whole of social practice to its ends.
The two gestures are united, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, because instrumental reason emerges from its very beginnings in a form in which abstract universality – the unchanging structure of a unitary natural world – devours sensuous particularity and concrete singularity. Genealogically, they perceive the idea of the unity of science as but a further version of mythic patterns of seasonal change: “The world as a gigantic analytic judgment, the only surviving dream of science, is of the same kind as the cosmic myth which linked the alternation of spring and autumn to the abduction of Persephone” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002: 20). Pressing this thought further, they argue that this model of knowledge, “the subsumption of the actual, whether under mythical prehistory or under mathematical formalism,” is one opposed to radically transformative human action and human invention because, in reducing the different to the same, or what is its equal, making “the new appear as something predetermined which therefore is really the old,” any future that is not repetition is occluded (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002: 21). Why is this structure, “the principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002: 8), so rationally powerful?
In order to answer that question, we need crude beginnings. Why do humans propose mythic accounts of the world in the first place? Horkheimer and Adorno propound fear of overwhelming and threatening nature as one motive engine behind efforts of human knowing.
The concept, usually defined as the unity of the features of what it subsumes, was rather, from the first, a product of dialectical thinking, in which each thing is what it is only by becoming what it is not. This was the primal form of the objectifying definition, in which c...