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Jennifer Paloma Hyman

Philosophy
A Social Science of Logic: The Dialectic of Truth in Horkheimers Philosophy of Social Science
The reification or discursive naturalization of the historically contingent circumstances and products of
human action, is one of the main dimensions of ideology in social life Anthony Giddens, The Constitution
of Society

Introduction:
Dialectical thought has traps and pitfalls, but also contains a delayed promise of truth in a
complete view of its subject matter. Critical Theorists at the Frankfurt Institute for Social
Research not only examined the conditions of modern society, but evaluated the state of
knowledge about society. Both the conditions for that given society and the state of knowledge
about it were dynamic; their progress could only be completely understood in dialectical thought.
During the first generation of Critical Theorists, the two main competitors were the social
philosophers and the positive social scientists. Both disciplinary proponents presented an
incomplete view of knowledge about modern society. Members of the Frankfurt Institute
addressed this antagonism by uniting the two sets of disciplines under a single research program,
with the awareness that the practice of theorizing was a concrete historically embedded practice.
Focusing on the works of the philosopher and social scientist Max Horkheimer, I will
argue that in Critical Social Theory the relationship between social philosophy and empirical
social science is dialectical, but its aim is ultimately practical and liberatory. In Sections I-II, I
examine social philosophy and Horkheimers critique of it. In Sections III-IV, I examine positive
social science and Horkheimers critique of it. In Section V, I offer the Horkeimers positive
view in his attempt to synthesize philosophy and social science through the methods of dialectics
and historical materialism. In Section VI, I respond to an objection that critics brought against
the Frankfurt Institute, chiefly, that the first generations of Critical Theorists, including
Horkheimer, devolve into pessimism and forgo the possibility of liberation. This criticism fails, I
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suggest, because it ignores the progressive dialectical relationship between philosophy and social
science.
Section I: Thesis: The Dogmatism of Social Philosophy
Social philosophy refers to the views expounded by the generation of neo-Kantian and
Hegelian scholars in early-twentieth century Germany. Horkheimers contemporaries Herman
Cohen, Nicolai Hartmann, and Max Scheler continued the intellectual efforts of the German
Idealist tradition. Hegels Absolute Idealism was the model for social philosophy as the
philosophical understanding of the collective whole.1 This model exercised a pervasive
influence over the discipline of philosophy generally. Horkheimer wrote that social philosophy
is the focus of general philosophical concern and that social philosophy became in the
history of classical German Idealism the decisive philosophical task. 2 Though social philosophy
pertained to existing human beings, it began as a matter of philosophical importance, meaning
that its aim was complete truth about an essential quality of social relations.
Social philosophy pertains not to the individual and particular, but to the whole of
humanity. The objectivity of this approach rests not upon particular persons or their subjective
faculties, but to the place that human beings occupy in the objective movement of history.
Horkheimer writes for Hegel, the structure of objective spirit is not discerned any longer
from a critical analysis of personality, but rather from universal dialectical logic.3 The social
philosophers claim to immutable truth lay in the formal laws of dialectical logic rather than
anthropological observation or subjective psychology. He writes that philosophy transcends the
viewpoint of the empirical observer.4 In Hegelian philosophy, the universal category Reason is
1

Horkheimer, The State of Contemporary Social Philosophy, p. 26.


Ibid, p.25.
3
Ibid, p.26.
4
Ibid, p. 27.
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Philosophy
mediated through particular human interests. The task for social philosophy is to comprehend the
universal in the particular. Philosophy, using dialectical logic as its method, shows the rational
necessity in an apparently arbitrary reality.
Social philosophy at its inception and at the time of Horkheimers writing was
metaphysical; it was in metaphysics that its claim to objective truth rested. Horkheimer explains
that all of the projects of contemporary social philosophy seem to provide individual human
beings with access into a supra-personal sphere that is more invested with being, more
meaningful, more substantial than their own existence.5 He continues social philosophy
appears to be part of a the philosophical and religious efforts to plant the hopeless individual
existence back into the womb, or to put it, in Sombarts term, back into the golden ground of
meaningful totalities.6 Social philosophy continued in the same vein as Hegels Absolute
Idealism. In discerning the universal in the particular, social philosophy reconciles, it
transfigures, a reality that appears to be unjust, making it appear rational. 7 The social
philosopher aimed toward the distant goal of transfiguring social reality by comprehending it in
its totality.
Section II: Antithesis: The Relativism of Social Philosophy
Critics of social philosophy argued that this intellectual enterprise lost its claim to truth.
In its attempt to explain the truth of social whole metaphysically and in ignorance of facts, it was
self-negating. Horkheimers critique explained the state of contemporary social philosophy:
It is precisely in this dilemma of social philosophy, which speaks of the subject,
the cultural life of humanity, in terms of professions of faith, and which sees the
differences between the social theories as different acts of faith, rather than

Ibid, p. 29.
Ibid, p. 30.
7
Ibid, p. 27.
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distinguishing them in terms of true/false or, as of now, problematic theories
precisely in this dilemma do we perceive the deficiency that has to be overcome.8
Of Horkheimers contemporaries, Karl Mannheim was one who closely shared his criticisms of
social philosophy. Mannheim claimed that the totalizing tendencies of social philosophers
descended into fragmentation and relativism; their short-comings were both metaphysical and
epistemological in character. As a purely intellectual effort, social philosophers were susceptible
to erroneous metaphysical presuppositions. Proponents assumed that they made objective claims
without being able to account for the truth of their own positions. In Ideology and Utopia, he
argued for a different approach to studying social phenomena. This approach was the sociology
of knowledge, which he distinguished from preoccupations of social philosophers.
Mannheims approach, the sociology of knowledge, provided an alternative while
deeming the initial project of social philosophy to be ideological. In his criticism, he advanced a
total conception of ideology. The particular concept of ideology, inherited from Marxist
historical materialism, explains ideology as false doctrines that are mere expressions of
individual and class interest. The total concept of ideology grasps it as part of the structure of
consciousness; ideology is a socially and historically conditioned mode of knowledge and
experience. As such, ideology affects all claims to knowledge. The promise of the sociology of
knowledge was to offer the elaboration of a method which will enable us, on the basis of
increasingly precise criteria, to distinguish and isolate diverse styles of thinking and to relate
them to the groups from which they spring. 9 Horkheimer wrote in response that because not
only bourgeois consciousness but that of every social group is dependent upon social
circumstances in its content and form, not even Marxism may lay claim to unrestricted
8
9

Ibid, p. 30.
Mannheim, p. 45.

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validity.10 The sociology of knowledge was, like its idealist predecessor, primarily an
intellectual effort. The project constituted philosophy rather than social science.
Mannheims sociology of knowledge exemplified the flaws of social philosophy although
it was a competitor to this project. In the effort to give an account of the absolute truth of the
social whole through the category of ideology, the sociology of knowledge similarly resulted in
relativism. Horkheimer writes, Mannheims sociology of knowledge reveals itself as an heir of
classical idealist philosophy 11 and that he fails to reject the concepts of a metaphysics that
transfigures the overall movement of history; indeed, despite all the criticism, he retains them in
an unclear vague form.12 If all knowledge was ideology, then Mannheims approach was itself
ideological. He attempted to avoid this obvious self-contradiction by positing that there was a
single reality to which the sociology of knowledge, as the truest ideology referred. He claimed:
Only when we are aware of the limited scope of every point of view are we on the
road to the sought for comprehension of the whole. The crisis in thought is not a
crisis affecting merely a single intellectual position, but a crisis of a whole world
which has reached a certain stage in its intellectual development. To see more
clearly the confusion into which our social and intellectual life has fallen
represents enrichment rather than a loss.13
Mannheim argued that his project was broad in scope; one simply had to accept the fragmentary
nature of any of its claims. The flaws of his approach were not unique to it, but had to be
attributed to any attempt to gain a global understanding of society. His defense of this project
mirrored the ambitions of the social philosophers.
Like the social philosophy of the German Idealist tradition, the sociology of knowledge
was fundamentally flawed because it lacked any basis upon the material conditions of life. It
pertained to the structure of consciousness, rather than the structure of society, which includes
10

Horkheimer, A New Concept of Ideology?, p. 131.


Ibid, p. 136.
12
Ibid, p. 138.
13
Mannheim, p. 105.
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real individuals. Horkheimer writes that according to Mannheim, it would be incorrect to
attempt to investigate the cognitive totality or its individual parts by reference to the social
situation conditioning its carriers because ones social situation is simply the condition for
adopting an ideology.14 Mannheims theory lacked any account of individuals psychological
mediation between their particular social situation and total worldviews. If real people are the
bearers of ideology, then the social theorist ought to account for how they develop an ideological
world-view in their particular circumstances. His theory of consciousness could not be verified.
The inability of the sociology of knowledge to account for the conditions for its own possibility,
while retaining an implicitly inflationary metaphysics, reflected the crisis of social philosophy
generally.
Section III: Thesis: The Dogmatism of Positive Social Science
Proponents of positive social science claimed that it held a greater claim to truth and
unity than social philosophy because its object has a sensory presence. Horkheimer argued that
the variegated approaches to social philosophy [do] not concern one and the same conceptual
field15 because they give accounts of metaphysical referents about which there can be little
consensus. The unity of scientific method and scientific accounts of reality were characteristics
in its favor. In The Scientific World Conception, Otto Neurath, one of Horkheimers
contemporaries in the Vienna Circle, claims the endeavor is to link and harmonise the
achievements of individual investigators in their various fields of science. From this aim follows
the emphasis on collective efforts, and also the emphasis on what can be grasped
intersubjectively; from this springs the search for a neutral system of formulae. 16 This concrete
investigation of empirical subject matter would prove to be a corrective against different
14

Horkheimer, A New Concept of Ideology? p. 143.


Horkheimer, The State of Contemporary Social Philosophy, p. 30.
16
Neurath, p. 31.
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Philosophy
conceptions of social reality found in philosophy. The presumption that positive social scientists
held was that social science could apprehend social phenomena just as natural scientists came to
know about natural phenomena, i.e., through experimentation and collecting observable facts
about its object.
The objectivity of positive science and its ability to account for the whole of social reality
systematically rests upon mathematized theory. Neurath wrote:
We have characterized the scientific world-conception essentially by two features.
First it is empiricist and positivist: there is knowledge only from experience,
which rests on what is immediately given. This sets the limits for the content of
legitimate science. Second, the scientific-world conception is marked by
application of a certain method, namely logical analysis. 17
Mathematized theoretical explanations account for the particular observation through stable laws
in logical form. A complete scientific explanation requires showing that any particular
phenomenon is an instance of a formal law. Horkheimer explains that theory for most
researchers is the sum-total of propositions about a subject, the propositions being so linked with
each other that few are basic and the rest derive from these The real validity of the theory
depends on the derived propositions being consonant with the actual facts.18 For the positive
scientist, social theory is a deductive-nomological explanation containing an economy of
principles that allow the scientist to predict observable phenomena. In order to deduce the
particular from formal laws, positive social scientists must presuppose that the object of their
investigation is a static given.
Due to positive social sciences emphasis on calculability, proponents of this approach
reify social phenomena into static objects, making their claims just as rife with erroneous
presuppositions as social philosophers. Positivists claimed to their credit that since science
17
18

Neurath, p. 33.
Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 188.

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concerns observables and only particulars are observable, in positive social science particular
individuals are what actually exist. Horkheimer writes positivism sees only the particular and
in the realm of society thus sees only the individual and the relations between individuals; all is
exhausted by facts.19 Scientists made no presumption to know the about abstract entities posited
by metaphysical social philosophers such as community or humanity. They regarded the
spiritual life of subjects and the meaningful totalities of social philosophers as fabrications.
These non-empirical referents were projections from subjective standpoints that must be
described empirically. A positivist understanding of reality Horkheimer writes has to deny the
existence of class, nation, humanity. 20 Yet in denying that social philosophers claims possessed
meaningful content, positivists attributed a fixity and immutability to the observable entities that
were in their domain. Horkheimer claimed that scientific method was oriented to being and not
becoming and the form of society at the time was regarded as a mechanism, which ran in
unvarying fashion.21 The flaw of positive social science was that it too held a pretension to offer
the complete truth about social phenomena.
Section IV: Antithesis: The Relativism of Positive Social Science
Horkheimer writes thatpraxis already organizes the material of which each individual
takes cognizance; the demand to establish theory-free facts is false, if this is to mean that
subjective factors are not already operative in the given objective facts. 22 Empirical science
depends on the presumption that facts are given in observation, but this belief is doubly
incorrect. As Horkheimer explains the facts which our senses present to us are socially
preformed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the
19

Horkheimer, The State of Contemporary Social Philosophy, p. 30.


Ibid, p. 30.
21
Horkheimer, Notes on Science and the Crisis, #5.
22
Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality, p. 46.
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historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by
human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of
perception.23 Firstly, sense data is mediated by particular human consciousness in particular
circumstances. Secondly, the material given to a particular consciousness in a particular
circumstance has been shaped by prior labor. The object changes due to prior conceptualizations
and changes in the material conditions under which observation takes place. The object of social
science cannot be theorized as if it were an ahistorical and completely empirical given.
The flawed conception of the object of social science is linked to a flawed conception of
the subjectivity of the scientist. The positive scientist assumes that what exist are particular
subjects and he assumes his own agency and independence in coming to know about his object.
What he overlooks, however, are the historical and material structural conditions for his own
activity and the activity of others. Horkheimer wrote:
The seeming self-sufficiency enjoyed by work processes whose course is
supposedly determined by the very nature of the object corresponds to the
seeming freedom of the economic subject in bourgeois society. The latter believe
they are acting according to personal determinations, whereas in fact in their most
complicated calculations they but exemplify the working of an incalculable social
mechanism.24
The knowledge work of the social scientist is socially necessary labor carried out under a
particular mode of production; as such it is not separable from the labor of others. This is not to
posit a reified social structure, but to suggest that there are conditions for agents labor and
practices that go ignored by the social scientist who assumes his independence from them.
Scientific theorizing does not account for the whole truth of its object because theorists
do not account for their work as a kind of social production. In Dialectic of Enlightenment,

23
24

Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 200.


Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 197.

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Horkheimer and Adorno famously and polemically argue that Enlightenment thought and
science is an outgrowth of the effort to control nature and human nature through myth. They
write the man of science knows things in so far as he can make them In the metamorphosis
the nature of things, as a substratum of domination, is revealed as always the same. 25 In this
assertion that the scientist makes what he knows is the argument that theory construction is not
merely the collection of isolated facts, but a kind of socially embedded practice, the structure of
which cannot be accounted for through its solely empirical methods. Horkheimer wrote:
The structure is not to be mastered by simply recording events as they occur,
which was the method practiced in old-style natural science. The refusal of
science to handle in an appropriate way the problems connected with the social
process has led to superficiality in method and content, and this superficiality, in
turn has found expression in the neglect of dynamic relationships between the
various areas with which science deals.26
Social science was relativized and fragmented because had forgone an account of the social
whole to which human practices itself included belong. It reified observables into entities
reflecting law-like regularities; but social life is dynamic and transformable under particular
historical circumstances.
Section V: The Aufheben of Social Philosophy and Positive Social Science
The dialectic between social philosophy and positive social science rests in each
positions attempt to convey the whole truth about its object: individual human beings and their
relations among each other in society. But neither can convey the whole truth because each
erroneously universalizes its limited position, consisting of either idealized metaphysics or
empirical observations. Horkheimer claimed that not only metaphysics but the science it

25
26

Horkheimer and Adorno, The Concept of Enlightenment, p. 9.


Horkheimer, Notes on Science and the Crisis, p. 54.

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criticizes is ideological.27 In Horkeimers essay Traditional and Critical Theory, both positive
social science and social philosophy are folded into the ideological category of traditional
theory; both were intended together in his criticism that the conception of theory was
absolutized, as though it were grounded in the inner nature of knowledge as such or justified in
some other ahistorical way, and thus it became a reined ideological category.28 For Horkheimer,
the antagonism and partiality of the two views did not entail that both were wrong, but that both
together must be preserved in a fully truthful account of social reality.
Horkheimers Critical Theory retained both social philosophy and positive social science.
As a Marxist, versed in dialectical logic and historical materialism, his philosophy of social
science defended both methodologies as indispensable to gaining knowledge of the social world.
The first method required the dialectician to treat antagonistic claims as dual moments in a
progressive narrative. The historical materialist method distinguished his approach from that of
both the social philosophers and the positive social scientists because it required him to regard
both proponents as engaging in a historically conditioned activity. In his inaugural address to the
Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Horkheimer states:

This view, according to which the empirical scientist has to regard philosophy as
a beautiful yet scientifically fruitless enterprise, and the philosopher in contrast
emancipates himself from the empirical scientist because the former assumes that
he cannot wait for the latter in his far reaching quest is presently being superseded
by the thought of an ongoing dialectical permeation and evolution of
philosophical theory and empirical scientific praxis.29
The efforts of traditional theory were merely to explain the social world either through
transfiguration or deductive-nomological formalization; both presumed that truth lay merely in

27

Horkheimer, Notes on Science and the Crisis, p.54.


Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 194.
29
Horkheimer, The State of Contemporary Social Philosophy, p. 31.
28

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correspondence between theory and reality. But theories not only establish correspondence with
the world they describe, they have a role in shaping it. Horkheimer argued that an accurate
account of social reality had to be dialectical because it must show the inadequacies and
partiality in the most advanced state of knowledge. The weaknesses of traditional theory were
expected and explicable. A fully truthful account must be aware of its role in shaping the society
that it described.
Horkheimer was cognizant of Critical Theorys productive role in transforming the
society in which he lived. It was a tacit acceptance of the current mode and relation of production
to assume the givenness of the objects of social science and social philosophy. Traditional
theory reproduces the conditions that make it possible when it assumes the static truth of its
object. He writes that a positive social function is exercised by theory in its traditional form
In this intellectual work the needs and goals, the experiences and skills, the customs and
tendencies of the contemporary form of human existence have all played their part. 30 Critical
Theory, however, subjects the given categories of social objects to criticism and opposes social
conditions as they are given even as it comes to know them. The duality of philosophy and social
science yields a libratory praxis. Concerning the practical attitude of the critical theorist,
Horkheimer wrote:

[his] profession is the struggle of which his own thinking is a part and not
something self-sufficient and separable from the struggle. Of course, many
elements of theory in the usual sense enter into his work: the knowledge and
prognosis of relatively isolated facts, scientific judgments, the elaboration of
problems which differ from those of other theoreticians because of his specific
interests but nonetheless manifest the same logical form.31

30
31

Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 205.


Ibid, p. 216.

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Similarly to Mannheim, Horkheimer viewed the theorist as being engaged in the very kind of
activity he was trying to conceptualize. What distinguished the critical theorist as more effectual
was regard for the material conditions that make his activity possible and a practical interest in
their transformation. The effect of the dialectic between social philosophy and social science was
to bring knowledge, and with it, society, to a progressive stage through resistance.
Section VI: The Charge of Pessimism and Irrationality
Critics looked to Dialectic of Enlightenment as the consummation of Horkheimers
views, and consequently charged the project of Critical Theory with hopelessness on the prospect
of human liberation from forms of domination in late capitalist society and irrationalism for its
seeming self-contradictions. In his introduction to Horkheimers Between Philosophy and Social
Science, Hunter wrote that the Frankfurt Institute entered a second phase, exemplified by
Dialectic of Enlightenment, wherein it abandoned its original aims of a combined social
philosophy and empirical social science with a libratory intent.32 Moishe Postone and Barbara
Brick claimed that an attitude of resignation was inherent to the project of Critical Theory: that
pessimism served to confirm what many had begun to think: something was amiss with the
society as a whole, not simply with some aspects that could be improved by a program of
reformist tinkering33 For critics of Critical Theory, the approach offered little more than a
rejection of bourgeois ideology and the capitalist mode of production, with some refinements to
Marxist theory. They judged that the currently popular one-sided rejection of reason as an
instrument of domination, has become a contributing factor to the latest version of the (by now
chronic) crisis of Marxism.34 Dialectic of Enlightenment was primarily a critique of the

32

Horkheimer and Adorno, Introduction, p. ix.


Postone and Brick, Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism, p.617.
34
Postone and Brick, Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism, p.618.
33

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influence of instrumental rationality on contemporary society. The authors supposed pessimism
and hopelessness is engendered by a monistic view of rationality. They offered no alternative
conception of rationality, only a striking criticism of the instrumental form of rationality
functioning under a totally administered society with a capitalist mode of production.
The criticisms were misleading because they overlook the dialectical historicized view on
truth and theorizing that I have argued for above. The critics assumed that participants in the
Frankfurt Institute purported to convey an unqualified truth about social relations. But rather,
Dialectic of Enlightenment, subtitled Philosophical Fragments was a determinate negation of the
prevailing, misguided evaluation of enlightenment thought. In their introduction, Horkheimer, in
collaboration with Theodor Adorno, wrote, the accompanying critique of enlightenment is
intended to prepare the way to positive notion of enlightenment which will release it from
entanglement in blind domination.35 Horkheimers notion that the critical theorist maintained a
practical interest in libratory praxis had only a nascent influence on Dialectic of Enlightenment;
it cannot be considered a summation of his views, which he more adeptly stated as:
To strive for a state of affairs in which there will be no exploitation or
oppression it not to bring it to pass. The transmission of critical theory in as
rigorous a fashion as possible is a condition of its historical success. That
transmission does not, however, take place via established practices and fixed
procedures but via an interest in social change. This interest is aroused ever anew
by prevailing injustices, but it must be stopped and guided by the theory and in
turn react back upon it.36

The authors applied the tool of instrumental rationality against itself, only to show its inadequacy
and incompleteness. The limited scope of Horkheimer and Adornos criticism did not capture the
propounded aims of the Frankfurt Institute. This work constituted not a summation of their

35
36

Horkheimer and Adorno, p. xvi.


Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory, p. 241.

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critical project, but a demonstration that the partial notions of rationality, knowledge, and truth
that had been dogmatically received would exhaust themselves.
Conclusion:
Max Horkheimers contribution to the philosophy of social science through his work at
the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was substantial. He conscientiously examined social
philosophy and positive social science, exposing the shortcoming in both approaches and
offering a resolution. Horkheimer surveyed the work of social philosophers in the German
Idealist tradition and identified their inadequacies. He subjected social philosophy to criticism in
discussing how its inflationary metaphysics was indefensible. He upheld ideology critique in the
form of the sociology of knowledge, while exposing that it also had epistemic flaws. Horkheimer
examined positive social science as the rival alternative to social philosophy. He identified flaws
in this approach, which seemed to demand a greater claim to authority because of the potential
for scientists to observationally verify their claims. Horkheimer showed that scientists had
insufficiently accounted for the validity of their positions by ignoring the material conditions that
made their work possible. In each approach, the social theorists claim to total, objective
knowledge of the social world was presumptuous. What Horkheimer offered as a resolution was
the retention of both approaches; his legacy is the affirmation of the methods of dialectics and
historical materialism in the project of Critical Theory.

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