Reason and Utopia Reconsidering the Concept of Emancipation in Critical Theory
Sammanfattning: What does emancipation mean today? In political theory, the idea of emancipation has typically been understood as a process of rationalization involving the promotion of human rights or the historical overcoming of capitalism. However, in contemporary social criticism the earlier antagonism between liberalism and Marxism has largely been replaced by the conflict between Enlightenment thinking and Enlightenment critique. The tension between Enlightenment philosophy and Enlightenment skepticism can be taken as emblematic of the two main tendencies within contemporary critical thought. However, a similar ambivalence can be found in the classical critical theory of the so-called Frankfurt School. Given that we have to distinguish between two types of critical theoretical thought, is it even possible to answer the question about emancipation in an unambiguous way? The overall aim of this study is to examine the meaning of emancipation in contemporary critical thought. More specifically, the principal aim is to demonstrate that Jürgen Habermas’s critical theory can be understood as an attempt to overcome the opposition between the early and the late Frankfurt School in order subsequently to evaluate this attempt and thereby judge whether Habermas’s approach can serve as a key for combining the concepts of emancipation corresponding to these two types of critique. My main objection to Habermas’s reformulation of critical theory is that it is characterized by a lack of emancipatory potential and a lack of critical force. In trying to pave the way for an alternative approach, my strategy for accommodating the tensions between the two models of critical theory is to show that emancipation can be viewed as a process involving three disparate yet interconnected stages: an initial break in the continuity of history; a collective political struggle in order to realize the utopian vision thereby opened up; and, a possible understanding among the participants in a discourse.
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