Dissertation Abstract

The New Categorical Imperative:

Reevaluating the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory

“But if negative dialectics presents itself as the only possible path of reconstruction—a path that cannot be traversed discursively—how then can we explicate the idea of reconciliation […]? From the beginning, critical theory labored over the difficulty of giving an account of its own normative foundations.”

–Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1

I argue that Adorno’s new categorical imperative, or “never again Auschwitz [to anyone],” is the normative anchor we are left with out of the beginnings of Frankfurt School critical social theory as a solution to the problem of weak, ungrounded, or ahistorical normative foundations. I characterize the “grounding problem” as follows: social criticism must espouse valid normative claims by appealing to ethical prescription (e.g., do not murder, care for the worst off, the orphan and the widow) while at the same time recognizing how impure practical reasoning cannot offer guidelines prima facie, following critical theory's general acceptance of Hegel's criticisms of aprioristic moral philosophy. In other words, the social critic has to posit criticism immanently, with an eye to transforming the social reality that engenders it from within. However, social criticism is also in need of validating its own standards non-circularly such that its criticisms are binding. But how can social criticism attempt to ensure validity if it cannot proceed best from principles known a priori? I contend that the new categorical imperative leaves us a path out of nihilism, relativism, dogmatism, etc., all insufficient answers to the problem an insufficient normative foundation poses, as Habermas first pointed out.