FRAL - Programme franco-allemand en SHS

Criticisme Today. Theory of Society, Sociology and social critique in France and Germany – CActuS

Criticism Today and Society (CActuS)

Criticism Today. Theory of Society, Sociology and Social Critique in France and Germany.


The “Critical Theory of Society” represents a specific field of research in the German and French contemporary philosophical discussion but it cannot be subsumed under a unified paradigm of thinking. This ANR/DFG programme of research undertakes a systematic investigation about “criticism”. CActuS studies carefully the French and German philosophical approaches whose aim is to express a critical theory of society. This cross-disciplinary study takes into account the significant continuities and discontinuities we are confronted with in the methodological (what approach of “society”?), ontological (what reality for the object “society”?) and metaphysical (what is the status of the criteria of criticism?) dimensions and tries to find out how they structure the field of social critique.

Our research was articulated around three major directions: (I) an archeological study of the concept of critique in post-war philosophical discourse, both in France (with J.F. Lyotard in particular) and in Germany (with the Frankfurt “School”, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Benjamin) ; (II) an analysis of the methodological and ontological presuppositions underpinning the concepts of society and critique, followed by a confrontation of two critical perspectives on the “social phenomenon”, whether originating from theory (Adorno, Bourdieu) or from the practice of actors (Boltanski, Rancière, Habermas, Honneth) ; (III) the topicality of this critique, the political consequences of the social critique, and the potential uses of the social and political philosophy to understand social struggles. Aside from the confrontation of the various great models of critique in France and in Germany, the programme has carried out a reflection on their relationships not only to social and political philosophy, sociology and social ontology, but also to law, information science and communication, the latter encompassed in a broader reflection on cultural critique and in the perspective of actions of broadcasting.

The project's aim was to carry out a systematic study of the concept of critique: by reflecting on the heritage of the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory, but also on a whole network of thoughts, some branches claiming a direct affiliation to this school, some putting forward competing or complementary critical approaches in the German and French contemporary philosophical debates. This research's goal is both to stress the continuity of some of the issues raised by the Critical Theory and to acknowledge the tensions and disputes that structure the field of social critique, whether on methodological (approaches of society), ontological (the reality of “society”) or metaphysical grounds (status of the criteria governing the critique). What were the theoretical and practical response strategies to the disappearance of the “natural” subject of the critique in its original Marxian perspective, that is to say the proletariat? The purpose of reproducing the original Marxian impulse was to examine the variety of possible articulations between theory and practice, and to identify a starting point from which a genuine “criticism in a hand-to-hand fight” could take place, to counter the splitting of the various critical discourses and practices, while retaining its validity for the present days. What difficulties are we facing if we are to root this critique in modernity?
The programme has successfully identified a very comprehensive panel of critical theories of society and offered a few directions for the renewal of contemporary Critical Theory. The world as it is experienced is where concepts are elaborated, which theory must in turn encompass to avoid widening the gap with reality. Yet the splitting of critical practices on the one hand, and a form of critique that presents itself in a sub-discursive register on the other hand, are what constitutes the next challenges.

Rethinking the question of expressivity from an anthropological point of view is essential, and the reflection could be extended to the question of the body and the forms of reification.

The programme has originated a great number of publications.

The "Critical Theory of Society" represents a specific field of research in the contemporary German and French philosophical discussion which however cannot be subsumed under a unified paradigm of thinking. Taking as its point of departure the concept of "criticism", this project shall examine the divergences and convergences of different approaches aiming at formulating a critical theory of society in a historical, systematic and Franco-German perspective. This cross-disciplinary study shall take into account the significant continuities and discontinuities in the methodological (approach of the object "society"), ontological (reality of the object "society") and metaphysical (status of the criteria of criticism) dimensions to consider, and to show how they structure the field of social critique.
The study will address three issues: Firstly, it shall trace back the history of the concept "criticism" in political philosophy since 1945 in Germany and France (Project I); while in Germany this notion of "criticism" is clearly linked with the object of "society" and is assigned a narrow meaning (Frankfurt School), it is subject to various uses and interpretations in France (Althusser, Foucault, Lyotard, Rancière, Balibar). A comparative study shall be carried out, emphasizing on the one hand the differences between the two traditions in the use of the concept, and studying on the other hand the debates that took within the respective traditions the form of a "criticism of criticism". Secondly, shall be systematically discussed the methodological, ontological, and (post)metaphysical presuppositions of the concept of society and the concept of criticism (Project II). Two approaches of the criticism of the social are opposed: a conception of the criticism, which makes the possibility of criticizing the theory depend on the theory of society that grasps the social reality (Althusser, Adorno, Bourdieu), and a conception that draws the criticism of the social itself from an internal perspective, the theory remaining here the container of the critique (Foucault, Boltanski, Rancière, Habermas, Honneth). Thirdly, the project seeks to examine the actual relevance of the criticism (Project III). For this purpose, it shall establish a dialogue between the two tradition that have, in Germany and France, a philosophical and sociological approach to social reality: the Frankfurter critical theory (Habermas, Honneth) and the "sociology of criticism" (Boltanski, Thévenot), which was developed in response to the "critical sociology" of Bourdieu. The dialogue between the two approaches, that share the idea that social actors have the capacity of criticizing, shall be supplemented by the inclusion of conflicting approaches that do not accept these assumptions (Rancière, Balibar, the late work of Boltanski). This project shall also examine the relationship between critical theory and social practice (social movements) and explore the tension between the approach of the social philosophy and the political philosophy, at the point where their territory overlap obviously.

Project coordinator

Monsieur Gérard RAULET (FMSH/Groupe de recherche sur la culture de Weimar/IRICE) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Universität Frankfurt Institut für Philosophie
FMSH FMSH/Groupe de recherche sur la culture de Weimar/IRICE

Help of the ANR 154,721 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2013 - 36 Months

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