An innovative approach to critical theory

The 21st century has experienced a less than perfect start. Environmental catastrophe, wars and social ills have left many feeling overwhelmed.

"There’s a sense of cultural exhaustion in the air," says Nikolas Kompridis (right), a professor of philosophy in the Atkinson School of Arts & Letters. "So much of what we had hoped to see transpire in the modern world turned out to be either much less than what we had expected or worse, a horrible and frightening prospect."

Solutions to complicated current global problems often demand innovative approaches. Yet, in the critical theory of the German philosophic tradition, often called the Frankfurt School, which has traditionally explored problems of modernity, there has been a contraction in imaginative thinking says Kompridis. In response, he wrote Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory Between Past and Future. In his book, Kompridis presents a new blueprint that encourages critical theorists to think beyond the limitations he sees in the approach of the leading contemporary critical theorist, Juergen Habermas (left).

In addition to Critique and Disclosure, a volume of essays edited by Kompridis titled, Philosophical Romanticism, will be launched April 2 at Founders College. Philosophical Romanticism is thematically linked to Critique and Disclosure. It includes contributions from some of today’s leading philosophers, including Professor Emeritus Stanley Cavell, Philosophy Department, Harvard University; Hubert Dreyfus, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley; and Professor Robert Pippin, Philosophy Department, University of Chicago.

Both publications make a claim for the importance of incorporating romanticism into philosophy and critical theory in particular. "I’ve always thought of critical theory as part of German romanticism and German idealism," says Kompridis.

The emphasis on retrieving critical theory’s romanticism, a philosophical movement that originated in the late 18th century, is just one way in which Kompridis breaks away from the theories of Habermas. Kompridis worked under Habermas, his one-time mentor, to complete his PhD dissertation. He continued his affiliation with the philosopher as a Post-Doctoral Fellow.

"I am advocating a very strong break from Habermas’ conception of critical theory," says Kompridis. In particular, he believes that Habermas’s proceduralism – a concern with the normative procedures used to justify or legitimate social practices and political institutions – has made critical theory narrower in its focus and more akin to theories of liberalism.

If critical theory is to continue to exist as a compelling alternative to mainstream liberal theory "we need to recapture what it is about critical theory that is distinct and different," he says.

The framework Kompridis presents in his book is future-oriented. "My reformulation of critical theory returns it to the task of reopening the future by disclosing other possibilities. It’s not just social criticism that shows how things failed in light of current ideals but how things might look different tomorrow," says Kompridis.

Critique and Disclosure is published by The MIT Press; Philosophical Romanticism is published by Routledge. The York event to launch both books is presented by the York University Bookstore; the Dean of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies; and the Atkinson School of Arts & Letters. It takes place April 2, from 3 to 5pm, in the Senior Common Room, 305 Founders College.

This article was written by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.