Immanent Criticism as Method in Social Philosophy: Avoiding the Risks of Arbitrariness and Authoritarianism

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Harwood, Brennen
critical theory , social philosophy , immanent critique , left-Hegelianism , social pathology
The subject of this dissertation is immanent critique as a critical methodology in social philosophy: what its core features are, what kind of claim to rational validity it can make, and how we should understand the processes of social change to which it aims to contribute. Drawing on the recent work of Axel Honneth and Rahel Jaeggi, I show how a wholly immanent approach to social criticism allows us to criticize society on explicitly ethical grounds, in terms of whether our social relations enable or obstruct the flourishing of participants. I argue this is possible because the norms against which we can measure social formations are said to be produced as an immanent part of their historical development and ongoing reproduction. This involves giving a social ontological account of what I call ethical norms: norms embedded in social practices that confer normative obligations on to participants in terms of their occupying specific social roles. Once we have an account of what a social formation is, we can evaluate whether a given institution or social formation is behaving as the kind of thing that it is, by asking whether it is successful in solving the problems it posits as worth solving, or whether it regularly comes into contradiction with and violates the normative expectations that participants have for it. Consequently, the immanent social critic can justify the judgment that their form of life is unhealthy by (i) reconstructing the norms which are already effective in establishing and regulating ethically significant social practices, (ii) explaining their (defeasible) authority in relation to the members of a particular ethical community, and (iii) explaining how or why they are inadequately realized. Ultimately, I argue that the principle of immanence not only best explains how social critics can acquire authority in addressing a particular audience without becoming dogmatic or authoritarian in their prescriptions but enables a wider account of the immanent normativity of social life than do modern neo-Kantian approaches to normative theory.
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