The Concept of Critique in Social Science

Mihailo Marković, Belgrade

I. Critique is not something external to social science knowledge, it is not something that may (but need not) coexist with description, analysis, explanation and understanding.

All social inquiry is incomplete, that is, reduced to a mere description, or to structural analysis without examination of the change of those structures. Equally incomplete is research that seeks merely to explain and understand actually given phenomena without exploring the alternative possibilities.

A paradigm of the completely developed social science involves the following necessary elements:

1) The researcher is aware of his basic theoretical and methodological assumptions, is ready to state them explicitly and defend them in a dialogue, but is also prepared to revise and improve them in light of new experiences and powerful counter-arguments.

2) These basic theoretical assumptions together with all relevant preceding knowledge give a definite a priori meaning to a selected research program.

3) Problems formulated in the research program determine the scope of relevant data that should be examined and described.

4) In order to understand the meaning of described social phenomena it is necessary to discover agents' motives, intentions, long-range aspirations.

5) In order to explain described phenomena it is necessary to establish laws and rules that govern them.

6) Objective determinants established by causal analysis and subjective determinants revealed by interpretation of phenomena determine the framework of historical possibilities of subsequent social development.

7) A fully developed social science does not exhaust its task by providing answers to questions about what exists, what is its meaning, why it is the way it is, what is its potential, and how it could change the future. It also tries to answer questions about what is negative (inadequate, irrational, unjust, inhuman) in the existing social reality, what are its basic limitations with respect to its own potential.

8) Discovery of the basic limitations of existing reality is the negative dimension of critique. The positive dimension of critique is the discovery of the optimal possibility of its future change. The optimal does not coincide with the most probable; on the other hand its probability must be greater than zero, otherwise it would not belong to the realm of objective possibilities.

9) Since in fully developed social science theory cannot be separated from practice, inquiry does not end with its limitations and future possibilities. Social

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science must mediate between existing reality and its optimal future possibility by examining specific phases of the process and possible practical steps which lead from the one to the other. 

II. Obviously critique plays the central role in all these specific phases and structural elements into which social research can be analysed: from building the theoretical standpoint to a rational selection of the research program, to interpretation and explanation, to discovery of the negative features of reality and finding ways to overcome them. The centrality of the notion of critique in social science follows from the fact that critique is not one among other forms of conscious activity, it is specifically human conscious activity.

First, consciousness of an object is consciousness of both its being and its non-being. To be aware of an object as a process means to be aware of the negative in it.

Second, identity of object involves the negation of everything that is different from it. As Spinoza said: Omnis determinatio negatio est. Projecting of real possibilities can be best understood as the progressive elimination of logical possibilities.

Third, while we observe an object as an actually existing phenomenon, we are also aware of those of its structural and dispositional properties that constitute its potential. Our consciousness of the object is thus polarised into consciousness of what the object is and what it could be.

Fourth, all perception is anything but disinterested. Selection of relevant data is at the same time the elimination of everything else. We immediately experience phenomena in the light of our tastes, needs, practical interests. We see them often as ugly, unpleasant, dangerous. Furthermore we judge them from the point of view of our moral, legal, political, aesthetic and other standards.

Fjfth, specifically human consciousness involves a negative attitude toward itself: this is critical self-consciousness.

Those social scholars who advocate value-free social science express their readiness to suspend their practical interests as well as moral and political norms of the cultural tradition to which they belong. Even if they could succeed in this (which is questionable) they cannot avoid constant selection and critical evaluation of observed data, nor permanent application of epistemologicai values which regulate various phases of inquiry, nor can they escape constant critical re-examination of their own research activity.

Critique in this general sense means discovery of the limitations and indication of the possibilities of their transcendence.

What limitations are we here talking about? These are first, limitations in the description and explanation of reality, second, limitations in the interpretation of the meaning of that reality, third, limitations in reality itself. 

III. Those who still defend the views of neutrality of social science would refuse to study negativity and would insist that description, explanation and understanding do not involve any critical evaluation. To this it could be replied: first that a social researcher cannot completely succeed in "putting himself into brackets" as a practical being, interested member of the community; second, that various kinds of values


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orient our research all the time, and that critique is implicit in all phases of inquiry.

Consider first the analytical-empirical paradigm of social study.

The starting point of research is not the collection of positive facts, nor even the laying down of hypotheses. Dewey was right in establishing that all inquiry starts with the explicit formulation of a problem. However, we become conscious of a problem in the conflict of new data and pre-existing theoretical views. Yet the problem is not only how to interpret and explain new data, but it could also be: how to improve our theoretical standpoint and revise some of our assumptions. A process of critical reexamination of one's basic methodological presuppositions is going on all the time: in actual research when some of them turn out to be inadequate, or in a dialogue with representatives of other orientations when lacunae in one's initial position become apparent.

The choice of a research program is anything but value-free, autonomous and purely rational. Without a constant critique of various pragmatic interests that determine the choice and direction of inquiry, social science would more or less become a victim of ideological mystification everywhere.

The choice of hypotheses is another step in inquiry that is not regulated by any strict rules. Of course methodological rules determine derivation and testing of consequences. But there are no rules that lead us to decide how many hypotheses will be taken into consideration and when we shall decide that we have exhausted all possibilities and can stop further testing. In the absence of a critique that challenges early closing of a problem, most results of a hypothetical-deductive inquiry would have to be considered very problematic.

Another question is reliability and validity of empirical data. Before they can be accepted as true evidence they have to undergo extensive critical testing (comparing them, matching data obtained by one method with those obtained by another method, etc.).

A crucial issue in the analytical-empirical paradigm of social science is the status of a law. Laws are indispensable to explanation of phenomena. However, if they are only empirical generalisations lacking any necessity, all explanations are unreliable. On the other hand, they become dogmatic if we interpret social laws as expressions of natural necessity. An interesting alternative is a pragmatic strategy of justification. A statement that has the status of a law is so well theoretically entrenched and has so often been empirically confirmed that we decide to defend it in the conflict with new surprising data until we exhaust all the possibilities (that are offered to us by scientific method) of challenging the truly factual character of data and/or modifying without essentially transforming the statement of the law.

To conclude this section: critique is an immanent and indispensable element of all description, causal analysis and scientific explanation those phases of inquiry that deal with objective dimensions of examined social reality. 

IV. What is the role of critique in interpretation, in the study of subjective dimensions of social reality?

The task of social scholars is here to build up interpretative schemes which will help to understand what an act means for the agents and those persons who interact with


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them. Using the method of ideal types building the scholar attributes "typical" goals and purposes to fictitious, "typical" individuals in everyday life.

The most difficult problem for interpretative social science is the impossibility to make a distinction between adequate and false consciousness that people have about their own activity and the activity of others. Interpretative social science assumes that every individual is able to understand his acts and be aware of his motives. But what happens if the agent is wrong concerning his true motives, if he lacks true self-understanding? There is nothing in the phenomenological method that allows a critical attitude toward individual self-understanding, or toward subjective meaning. In this way are entirely ignored all such important insights as Hegel's analysis of "false consciousness", Marx's critique of ideology, Sartre's analysis of "bad faith", Freud's discovery of the mechanisms of repression, resistance, self-deceit.

The consequences for the interpretative approach are very serious. Schutz's postulate of adequacy required that the theoretical models of the social scientist be in agreement with the interpretative schemes of the agents themselves, in other words, with their self-understanding. If individuals in a society deceive themselves and live in illusions as to their own intentions and motives, all such rationalisations must come to expression in the interpretative model of the scientist. Then such a model is clearly ideological: instead of revealing truth about a social reality, the model would contribute to its mystification.

It follows, then, that interpretation must be critical all the time. It must be a critique of mythical and ideological consciousness. 

V. Critique of ideology cannot be separated from the critique of reality that produces ideological consciousness.

Critique of social reality is entirely missing in either the analytical-empirical or interpretative approaches to social science. When it is there in exceptional individual cases it lacks any theoretical foundation.

There is a plurality of philosophical positions that can serve as the theoretical foundation of a critique of reality. A simple typology would rest on two distinctions. One is between the static and the dynamic (historical). The other one is between the absolute and the relative. Thus we would have the following four positions.

First, a static relativism characteristic of pragmatism and structuralism. A critique of reality is possible form the standpoint of a set of moral rules which are characteristic for each particular society. There is no universal "good" and no sense in which one morality could be judged superior to the others.

Second, if we wish to overcome relativism we could accept absolutism in the sense of Kant or Scheler. There is a transcendental concept of man and his practical reason, there is an ahistorical autonomy of good will, universal moral law. In Scheler basic values are projected into a special realm of validity.

Third, for those who reject static conceptions of either a formalistic ethics of duty or of an axiology of values "in themselves", another open possibility is Hegel's historical absolutism. There it is possible to compare and criticise different moral systems and to interpret them as particular moments of development. However, the basic assumption of an absolute spirit ultimately denies history and possible creation


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of new values in the future.

The fourth possibility is a historical relativism in the spirit of official Marxism. Morality evolves in history but is always determined by the objective life conditions of a definite social class. This overemphasis on class character of human beings brings us back to relativism. Marx was himself responsible for this relativistic interpretation (for example Marx's sixth thesis on Feuerbach, "Man is the ensemble of social relationships", has clearly relativistic implications). On the other hand his critique of ideology helps to develop a humanistic value standpoint that would be objective and free from ideology.

The basic idea here is that there are in all individuals some universal, specifically human dispositions which are responsible for all spectacular development and ongoing emancipation in history. Such are rationality, creativity, communicative power, capacity to cultivate our senses and get an increasingly rich experience of the world. This is an evolving human identity that remains continuous in all historical transformations and which constitutes an only partially fulfilled potential of each individual. To preserve and further develop this identity, to create historical conditions for equally bringing to life this potential in all individuals constitutes the highest good, and the ground for critical evaluation of social reality.


SOURCE: Marković, Mihailo. "The Concept of Critique in Social Science", in: Philosophie et Culture: Actes du XVIIe Congrès Mondial de Philosophie / Philosophy and Culture: Proceedings of the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy, edited by Venant Cauchy (Montréal: Editions Montmorency, 1988), vol. 3, pp. 556-560. [Selected passages boldfaced by R. Dumain]


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