On the very idea of normative foundations in critical social theory

Sage Publications Ltd: Philosophy and Social Criticism (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Philosophy & Social Criticism, Ahead of Print. I argue that the problem of normative foundations is insoluble. I discuss how and why the apparent problem arose, particularly within the Frankfurt School. Then, I describe various theories of normative foundations and the criticisms that such theories have faced, such as ethno- and andro-centrism, imperialism, and the failure to fulfill their own aims. I make my main argument by way of an analogy: theories of knowledge have wrestled with the question of whether a “given”’ could act as a certain foundation for knowledge. The conclusion is often that no given can function in that way, because the given, which supposedly does not require justification, is therefore necessarily unable to justify knowledge. For similar reasons, I argue, nothing can function as a normative foundation for a critical social theory, because any such normative foundation would have to both stand in no need of normative justification but also justify normative social criticism. I conclude by suggesting that more recent critical theory that does not focus on normative foundations can be understood as justifying their critique by appeal to what people do actually want, rather than what they should rationally want.

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