First generation anti-positivism: Wellmer

In Critical Theory Of Society (1969) Albrecht Wellmer announced a critique of positivist assumptions in the study of society. Proceeding from the perspective of critical theory and especially Horkheimer and Adorno, Wellmer denounced the embrace of positivism by “bourgeois” social science. But perhaps more surprisingly, he addresses this critique to Marx’s system as well.

Probably Horkheimer himself offered the most impressive statement of the Frankfurt school’s estimate of its own function and importance when, in his article on traditional and “critical” theory, he joined issue with bourgeois science and its objectivist misconception of its own nature. The essay shows clearly that the confrontation between critical, Marxist and traditional “bourgeois” science had hardly moved by then into the vague realm of methodological abstractions; to the extent that the debate was concerned with methodology, critical theory was more inclined to view it as the mere reflection of actual social conflicts. (10)

The main thrusts against positivism consist of the claim that positivists look at social arrangements as purely objective and factual; whereas they require interpretation.

Apart from strict behaviorists, social scientists would in general no longer dispute the fact that access to the measured or observed


of their field of study is obtained through the medium of communication. but, they opine, the role of interpretations finishes with its provision of a means of access to the data, and perhaps also of a heuristic value for the discovery of explanations; in addition, they would claim for their science the methodological status of a natural science, and therefor of a science entitled, with the aid of universal laws, to explain and predict unusual phenomena. (35)

And positivism assumes that value perspectives can be filtered out in the perception of facts; whereas critical theorists maintain that perspective is inseparable from perception. (Proletarians see the social world differently from the bourgeois.)

So what is “critical social science”? To start, it is hermeneutic, according to Wellmer: it has to do with the interpretation of meanings in social action.

It has already been shown that explanatory sociology is always interpretative sociology as well; and that an interpretative sociology cannot be merely a subjective sociology of the interpretation of meaning. It is also clear now that the empirical content of social scientific theories is peculiarly proportional to the historical concretion to which they attain. (38)

Further, critical social science is fundamentally responsive to historical context. So hermeneutic interpretation cannot be extracted from its historical context.

So much of the specific content of a certain historical period enters into the basic theoretical assumptions and the framework of reference used for categorization, that its hypotheses cannot be transferred without violence to more distant socio-historical situations. (36)

This point parallels the post-positivist view that observation is theory-laden; but it goes beyond that by postulating that social observations are framed by conceptual systems that are themselves historically specific.

Third, critical social science rests on a recognition (even more explicit in Habermas) that knowledge and interest are interwoven:

Already apparent is the changed relation of theory and practice that exists for a critical social theory derived form a practical interest in cognition. Critical theory is derivable from a notion of the “good life” already available to it as part of the socio-historical situation it subjects to analysis; which, as the notion of an acknowledgement of each individual as a person by each other individual, and as the idea of a non-coercive communal human life of dialogue, is a draft meaning of history already fragmentarily embodied in a society’s traditions and institutions. (41)

The tension between the Frankfurt School and orthodox Marxist theory is evident here, because Wellmer’s critique of “bourgeois social science” is extended to Marx himself.

The critique of the objectivism of Marx’s philosophy of history was directed at a latently positivistic misconception, which, according to Habermas’s thesis, arises from the part played by the concept of labor. (67)

“Objectivism” here means the stance of the social researcher to regard the social as “given”, not subject to interpretation. And Wellmer argues that there is a strand of Marx’s thought that does precisely that. Marx’s materialist theory of history — “history consists of a dialectic of change driven by conflict between the forces and relations of production” — leaves no room for the radical interpretivism that Wellmer favors. Crudely, Marx in the German Ideology and Capital is not at all interested in the ideas that men and women have, but rather the objective system of social relations that underlies their actions and interactions. Even arguments that Marx makes about ideology, false consciousness, and fetishism of commodities takes the form of demystification — dissolution of the system of false consciousness rather than interpretation of how these representations relate to the workings of the social order. Consciousness plays no role in the dynamics of history. And in fact Wellmer believes that this stance plays a self-defeating role in Marx’s system:

The union of historical materialism and the criticism of political economy in Marx’s social theory is inherently contradictory. (74)

What Wellmer favors for social theory is expressed here:

This means that critical theory does not wish to replace an ideological consciousness with a scientific consciousness, but — of course by means of empirical and historical analyses — to assist the practical reason existing in the for of ideological consciousness to “call to mind” its distorted form, and at the same time to get control of its practical-utopian contents. Ultimately, therefore, critical theory can prove itself only by initiating a reflective dissolution of false consciousness resulting in liberating praxis: the successful dissolution of false consciousness as an integrative aspect of emancipatory practice is the proper touchstone for its truth. (72)

So Wellmer’s “critical theory of society” is criticism all the way down: critique of the assumptions about knowledge, action, and social relations that underlie both bourgeois social science and large swathes of Marx’s own theoretical framework. In place of orthodox “empiricist” ideas about empirical confirmation and “hypothetico-deductive method”, he advocates the “hypothetico-practical model of validation. Those theories which unfold into a basis for human liberation are for that reason rationally preferable to those that do not. Rather than theory and observation, Wellmer’s philosophy of science rests on a view of theory and praxis, or theory and liberation.

However, it is difficult today to interpret this series of observations as a serious and credible approach to social science epistemology. It offers suggestive ideas about what is involved in making sense of a given historical-social reality. But it gives little guidance about how to evaluate various theories and interpretations.

(The choice of Millet’s painting “Peasants planting potatoes” is apt for a discussion of Wellmer’s philosophy of social science. The painting represents a set of “facts”; but we cannot say what facts these are without substantial interpretation, and various interpretations are possible. The painting might be regarded as a small piece of critical social theory all by itself, with a gesture towards social reality, a depiction that can be understood as a system of domination, and a call for liberation.)

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