Progress, Regression and Social Change

From July 17th to 21th 2017

Berlin, Humboldt University

Summer School

Is there such a thing as moral or social progress? How do we understand phenomena that might be seen as instances of social regression? And how, after all, are we to conceptualize social change?
While some Critical Theorists hold that we need a notion of progressive social change (and its counterpart) in order to understand and evaluate the dynamics of the transformations we undergo, the very notion of progress (as it is entrenched in the self-understanding of western modernity) seems to be ambivalent and is strongly contested.
So, while it is not easy to see how progress – as a certain kind of “learning process” that has played a central role in Critical Theory from its very beginning – could be dispensed with, our understanding of it certainly needs to be reconstructed.
It is not only the normative question in the narrower sense, though, that is at stake here. By asking how we can possibly conceive of social transformations as “change for the better”, we are not only addressing the issue of normative standards for evaluation of “the good society”. If we want to rely on immanent rather than freestanding normative standards, we also have to re-investigate our concepts of history and social transformation. That means: we should take seriously the notion that “progress” as well as “regression” are bound up with some account of social change as a result of the erosion of institutions and social practices that have been outlived or de-legitimized. Whether this amounts to an accumulative process, as the terms “regression” and “progress” seem to suggest, is one of a variety of questions that we addressed at our summer school.

Welcome to the final session of the inaugural year of the Humboldt University
Critical Theory Summer School. WeAlice Crary and Anna Katsmanhave been
tasked with a very brief résumé of the weeks panels, papers and discussions. Before
getting started, we wanted to take a moment to mention the enormous amount of work
required for a project like this one and to acknowledge the time and energy of Rahel,
Eva, Isette, Lea, Amira, Selana, Marvin and alsohugely, on the administrative side
Anja Mayer.
The unifying theme of the summer school is the cluster of philosophical and political
themes that are placed under the rubric of a critical theory of society, that is, at the
most basic level, a theory that aims to promote an emancipatory politics by offering a
special kind of theoretical image of society. Suppose we add that contributions to critical
theorizing have traditionally been understood as aspiring to guide action by revealing to
us something about what our true interests are and thereby playing a liberating role. Its
not difficult to appreciate why these commitments seem to raise questions aboutto list
our specific topicsprogress, regression, and social change. Even though, as we
have seen, there is room for dispute about how these things are best understood and,
indeed, about whether we need new terms for discussing them. We considered these
topics in reference to Kants and Hegels philosophies of history, Adornos and
Benjamins conceptions of what can be called the dialectics of progress, the disruptive
power of Foucauldian genealogy, the dynamics of social change andlastly, today
Habermas reconstructive account of historical materialism and social evolution.
When we chatted yesterday afternoon about what was most arresting and helpful
about treatments of these topics throughout the week, it struck both of us that there had
been a great deal of agreementagreement notable given the range of theoretical
approaches represented by participants in the summer school. The impression of
agreement has to some extent been countered by our livelyand helpfuldiscussions
last night and today. Still it seems worth reviewing the ground we covered by returning
to some very fundamental sources of difference and, for a moment, trying to highlight
Heres a place to start in thinking about our umbrella topic progress. There seems to
be general agreement that what is at stake is movement toward emancipation, but how
to understand these terms, and how (or whether) to link the concept progress to them,
have been questions for dispute.
One imperfect but arguably helpful way of approaching divergences as well as
convergences is to isolate several broad approaches to the idea of Critical Theory that
were discernible at different times in our sessions:

  1. roughly Kantian or neoKantian approaches with which some of Habermas
    signature contributions are sometimes classed (though as we saw today there is
    room for debate about the extent and nature of Habermas Kantianism)
  2.  roughly Left Hegelian approaches in the arguably very different styles of Jaeggi and Honneth and Pinkard
  3. roughly genealogyfocused Foucauldian approaches in the styles of Saar and Allen

Notice that the inheritance of the writings of (or portions of the writings of) many of our
historical figurese.g., Marx, Hegel, Adorno, Benjamin, etc. are up for grabs among
these different approaches, and that weve also been discussing some critical projects
that dont fit easily in any of these categories. For instance, Hauke Brunkhorsts
approach to social and legal evolution arguably has partial alliances in each of the three
categories, and Eva von Redeckers work on revolution seems to find inspiration in both
neoHegelian and genealogical approaches. Indeed, it seems clear that each of our
speakers draws in subtle ways on more than one of these traditions, so the point of the
schematizing is not to invite formulaic thinking but to bring out very elementary sources
of divergence.
Heres a barebones philosophical sketch of core features of recognizable Kantian
or neoKantian positions. Broadly they suggest that we need progress in order to
establish a perspective for critique we need to be able to justify why we consider certain
developments progressive while others regressive. The basic idea is that what might be
called a freestanding normative criteria grounded in the rational subject will do.
Progress, thus conceived, is a methodological instrumenta construction for bringing
history into view in the right way. And, if we recall correctly, there was significant
agreement here on a point that Pinzani made about how the mechanisms Kant uses
(competition) are not satisfying. For our leftHegelians, progress emerges from an
account of progressive social change. For Hegel himself, progress is not just the result
of a certain construction but explains actual historical processes. Selfdetermination is
the fundamental horizon within which all progressive change happens. No more
revolutions; just getting the structure of selfdetermination more correct.
Our Foucauldian genealogists broadly suggest that selfdetermination is not the full and
final horizon, but instead is one moment in the historical experiment of what it means to
be human. This is a good place to draw attention to the fluidity and complexity of our
classification since Jay Bernstein, not obviously a Foucauldian, is the person who said
this most clearly in discussing what he takes from Adorno and Benjamin. Indeed,
Bernstein went on to suggest that a concept of universal humanity that would be
sufficiently ethical to avoid oppression has not yet come on the scene. What is ethically
required is far from clear, making the distinction between reform and revolution
unstable/undecidable. The point isand here were back to some themes of
Foucauldiansthat the idea of universality which underwrites the historical accounts of
Kant and Hegel is not a genuine universality and construing history in this way blocks
consciousness of oppression. Rather than perpetuate oppression through this
construction of historyand this is a theme we heard sounded in reference to Adorno,
Benjamin and Foucaultprogress would require a different notion of reason altogether.
For Adorno progress requires a revolution in the structure of reason, especially acknowledging us as natural beings. Benjamin urges us into a different ethical relation to the past, especially thinking about the victims of the past and what it would mean to
acknowledge their suffering. For Foucault, we have to tell different histories in order to
bring the present into view differently, to open up unforeseeable emancipatory
possibilities. For these thinkers, logic as given is potentially pernicious ally, because we
always have to work within specific historical constellations that may require logical
Each of the three very general classes of approaches to critique weve isolated
as featuring in our discussions looks problematic to other two, so we want to sketch the
kinds of tensions and pressures that each confronts:

  1. Consider first the class of roughly neoKantian approaches:

Very roughly, from the perspective of familiar neoHegelians and Foucauldians the
normative standards with which neoKantians operate are overly acontextual.
Sometimes this is traced to an alleged ontological poverty that doesnt allow world
guided thought to be as such normatively rich and seems to force us to look for formal
criteria for practical thought. The fundamental charge that gets levelled here is that neo
Kantianism, thus construed, misses out on the messy of humanity of reason, failing to
fully register its essential social situatedness. A cluster of questions arises in this
connection for the neoKantian critical enterprise. Assuming a roughly formal approach
to the practical, where does that leave us in trying to account for the way in which
material effects on experience put internal pressure on social understanding. Further, is
there room here for an adequate explanation of the mechanisms of social change?

2. Next lets turn to the left Hegelians:

Whereas a common motif of left Hegelian thought is that social phenomena are
irreducibly normative, neoKantians tend to be skeptical about this kind of social
ontology, denying that it can be a source of practical authority. Whereas left Hegelians
see immanent perspectives as opening onto social reality, neoKantians tend to
assume that such perspectival thought must as such be practicerelative. If we conceive
of the immanence of social critique in this manner, how can we lay claim to an
authoritative critical perspective on, for instance, late capitalism? Turning now to how
left Hegelians can look to advocates of various Adornoian, Benjaminian, and
Foucauldian approaches, it is sometimes suggested that here mistrust in the cunning of
reason doesnt go deep enough. Their thought is that we need to construe the past as
multilayered and discontinuous so that a new order of reason can emerge. Logic is
integral to our ethnocentric problem, so we need a creative form of remembrance that
would reach beyond our current logical formations. If we our stance toward history isnt
more radical, how can we avoid reproducing structures of domination and veering
toward imperialist or colonialist thinking? Moreover, if reason is really historical and
social, why are we looking for criteria or fixed pivots for progress anyway.

3. Last, how might other thinkers put pressure on members of the loose family of
Foucauldian genealogists:

The first point here is straightforward. Just as members of the rough group of thinkers
we are calling neoKantians regard leftHegelians as sliding into relativism in virtue of
their embrace of the immanent and perspectival, they regard genealogists as incurring
the same form of criticism. The kinds of genealogical projects at issue here look
different to left Hegelians. At least some who identify with this label will take themselves
to be, in virtue of their social ontologies, flexible enough about the social and historical
character of reason to sanction the kind of disruptive rereadings of history that are here
being called forand will accordingly regard any insistence that something more radical
is called for as a confused attempt to project ourselves outside reason altogether.
Further, some neoHegelians will want to insist that it is an illusion to think that we can
somehow treat different strands of history as completely separable threads, even for the
purposes of needed disruption. To the extent that genealogists succumb to this
illusionsome neoHegelians will want to protestarent they unable to adequately
account for the mechanisms of social transformation?

Rahel Jaeggi, Eva von Redecker, Isette Schuhmacher (Humboldt University Berlin) in cooperation with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and the New School for Social Research (Alice Crary)

Amy Allen, Jay Bernstein, Hauke Brunkhorst, Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, Terry Pinkard, Allessandro Pinzani, Martin Saar.

Progress, Regression and Social Change