In the introduction to Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write:
When public opinion has reached a state in which thought inevitably (emphasis mine) becomes a commodity, and language the means of promoting that commodity, then the attempt to trace the course of such depravation has to deny any allegiance to current linguistic and conceptual conventions, lest their world-historical consequences thwart it entirely.
The Dialectic is arguably the signature work of the Frankfurt School. Influenced by Karl Marx, Frankfurt School philosophers such as Adorno and Horkheimer were alarmed at how industrial capitalism had undermined the Enlightenment. In developing critical theory, they insisted that blind allegiance to public opinion must be forbidden if thought is to transcend its mimetic function of maintaining the status quo.
Karl Marx argues that it “is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Thought is mimetic in that it reproduces the social existence which determines consciousness. For Marx, social existence in the age of industrial capitalism can be reduced to a division between capital and labor. This permits the commodification of labor, in pursuit of capital. Commodification is the engine of capitalist society. It underlies everything.
Even thought is commodified. Disciples of Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer diagnosed the failure of Enlightenment, evidenced by the dark events of the twentieth century, as stemming from a division of reason into objective and instrumental reason. Objective reason involves an autonomous assessment of the intrinsic value of the ends we pursue. Instrumental reason involves figuring out the most effective means to achieve those ends. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that instrumental reason eclipsed objective reason in the age of industrial capitalism. People no longer asked themselves whether the ends they were pursuing were intrinsically valuable.
Thought, when concerned with means rather than ends, is mimetic. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on scientific examination and fact-finding, overlooked the extent to which thought can become a commodity. The elementary logic that a statement and its negation cannot both be true is one of the linguistic and conceptual conventions of analytic philosophy. But thought can merge into its opposite: a commodity. Alarmed as they were by logical positivism, Adorno and Horkheimer insisted that a logical positivist (empiricist) theory of knowledge is inadequate to our struggle with skepticism.
I write with and not against because skepticism is part of a critical theory of knowledge. Knowledge is a link between the self and the reality in which the self is embedded. To engage in skepticism is to reflect on the social impact of knowledge. This societal skepticism is dialectical. It expresses a tension between the knowing subject, the self, and her socio-historical circumstances. It is from within this position of skepticism—one might call it suspicion—that the critical theorist of knowledge forms a judgment about how knowledge acquisition assimilates her into society. It is a judgment that scientific thought is mimetic. It is conducted within a consensus regime, or what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm.
The logical empiricist struggle against traditional Cartesian skepticism disclaims any such judgment. The logical empiricist exists wholly within the status quo. The critical theorist assumes a skeptical position in which, as the knowing subject, he is aware of an intimate relationship between his knowledge investigations and his social circumstances. He has the nagging suspicion that knowledge has been reified, i.e. made into a real thing—a fixed, unhistorical object—that persists in the service of social interests. The critical theorist is skeptical, or suspicious, that knowledge acquisition, the link between subject and object, assimilates the unwitting individual into an inhumane social order. The critical theorist of knowledge is engaged in a struggle with skepticism, not against skepticism. In this sense, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School foreshadows the political overtones of postmodern epistemic skepticism.
The Frankfurt School bridges the Marxist critique of class structure and the postmodern critique of all structures that underlie oppression and marginalization. Marxism is concerned with grand narratives, while postmodernism is not, but both promote a critical skepticism. Critical theory came to be skeptical of science, as a potential source of oppression and marginalization.
Critical theory emerged partly in reaction to Cartesian skepticism, and partly in response to logical positivist critiques of Cartesian skepticism. Both critical theory and logical positivism were skeptical of the Cartesian subject, in different ways. For the Frankfurt School, logical positivism was emblematic of the problems with science and the mechanistic, or mimetic, thinking to which it allegedly gives rise.
The overriding concern with epistemological ventures in modern philosophy begins with Cartesian doubt. As W. V. Quine writes in The Nature of Natural Knowledge, “[d]oubt has oft been said to be the mother of philosophy.” The precise nature of doubt, however, became subject to doubt.
In his First Meditation, Descartes claims to be sitting by the fire writing his essay. He is wearing a gentle silk robe and feels the warmth of the fire. He raises the possibility that he is sleeping under a warm blanket and merely dreaming that he is sitting by the fire writing an essay while clothed in a gentle silk robe. He has no grounds for rejecting the claim that he is writing an essay while sitting by the fire. He may be dreaming, but it still appears to his sensory apparatus that he is writing an essay while sitting by the fire. But the dream is a sensory illusion. Though he dreams of this experience, he does not know that he has this experience.
Knowledge of the external world is not verifiable through sense experience because what appears to the senses may not be the result of stimulation by objects in a world external to the perceiving apparatus. The objects that appear to stimulate the sensory apparatus may be floating images in a realm of dreams.
The solution that Descartes offered—mind-body dualism—has proved unconvincing to subsequent philosophers and scientists, including the logical positivists. But the logical positivists did not try to find an alternative solution to the problem. C. I. Lewis, Moritz Schlick, and W. V. Quine did not try to disprove Cartesian dualism. They simply redefined the problem.
Lewis and Schlick avoid the assumption of a noumenal world—containing things-in-themselves out there, existing independently of the perceptual apparatus of the mind—by concerning themselves with the given and the protocol statement. Their strategy implicitly belittles the Cartesian dilemma. Quine argues that one can talk of illusion only with respect to something that is not illusory. Doubt arises only in the context of a theoretical system that provides the conceptual tools for doubting. One develops theory as he learns about the external world. This learning occurs as the construction of observation statements from sensory stimulations by objects in the external world. As Quine writes in The Nature of Natural Knowledge:
Epistemology is best looked upon … as an enterprise within natural science. Cartesian doubt is not the way to begin. Retaining our present beliefs about nature, we can still ask how we can have arrived at them. Science tells us that our only source of information about the external world is through the impact of light rays and molecules upon our sensory surfaces. Stimulated in these ways, we somehow evolve an elaborate and useful science. How do we do this, and why does the resulting science work so well? These are genuine questions.
For Quine, scientific theory is the beginning of investigation, after the learning of observation statements, which itself depends on the “interim acceptances of objects.” Lewis and Schlick point to the given—the objects and events that occur to our sensory apparatus in experience—as the foundation of knowledge because only the given can verify a statement we make about reality. Schlick criticizes Descartes for trying to ascribe predication to reality, rather than understanding reality as the realm in which claims of knowledge, or statements, are verified.
Lewis, Schlick, and Epistemological Pragmatism
For C. I. Lewis, epistemological endeavors are pragmatic. Knowledge begins with apprehension of the given in experience. Something stimulates the sensory apparatus and thereby gives the cognitive apparatus a bedrock supply of facts that can be arranged temporally or logically in order to make predictions. Facts are utilized for future action.
As Lewis writes in Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, “sense-apprehension is the indispensable ground … and is basic.” Sense data are the source of facts about the world. Knowledge arises from the effort to use these facts to make predictions about the consequences of a particular course of action. Knowledge stems from the meaning of statements, understood as the verifiability of a predictive statement.
Technically, statements that express a rudimentary immediate experience converge into a terminating judgment that describes a wholly constituted experience. A collection of expressive statements about the taste of an apple gives rise to a terminating judgment about the taste of an apple. A person emits various reactive sounds about the sweetness and moisture of the apple and claims that the apple is sweet and moist. These expressive statements together delineate a series of experiences formalized by the terminating judgment that specifies the conditions under which a course of action (eating an apple) may be taken with the expected aim of experiencing a particular taste of the apple. The terminating judgment states that a course of action A, with a certain probability, is followed by a certain experience E, given the conditional circumstance(s) E’. An infinite number of terminating judgments together constitute an objective statement about the existence of a thing external to the being that perceives. Terminating judgments about the taste, smell, and tactile qualities of an apple give rise to the claim that an apple sits before me.
When the observer predicts a certain taste or smell, he expects to experience the taste or smell with a certain probability. The probability factor indicates the significance of meaning in the radical empiricism of Lewis. Meaning is verifiability with a degree of probability. In the formation of a terminating judgment, one makes a prediction, but expects the prediction to be realized only with a certain probability. Absolute certainty about the predicted event is denied. It is not only implausible. It is insignificant. Knowledge is significant because its predictions are possible and probable, not actual and inevitable. The cognitive being can thus hope to affect the eventual consequence of a course of action. Knowledge, meaningful because it serves as a basis of prediction and thus action, is pragmatic. As Lewis writes in Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation:
Whatever metaphysical significance of an ultimate and independent reality our perceptual apprehensions may have or may lack, this significance which they have for the guidance of our actions and anticipation of their consequences, identifies a function of cognition in the absence of which we could not live.
Lewis’s theory of knowledge does not reduce knowledge to mere exposition. Nor does it amount simply to an ever-growing contribution to an already existing body of knowledge, as is the case for Quine. Rather, knowledge is necessarily normative. There is a value in knowing because knowledge consists of the awareness of a predictable series of experiences that an individual can influence and change with the aim of improving his condition. There is a metaphysical component to knowledge. As he argues in Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation:
Knowledge is not a descriptive but a normative category: it claims correctness; mental states are classified as genuine knowing only on assumption of such correctness. Epistemology is not psychological description of such mental states, but is critique of their cognitive claim [emphasis mine].
Of course, Lewis acknowledges the cognitive claim is not “non-descriptive.” But the content of knowledge is significant not merely for what it can explain, but for the range of options for action to which it gives rise.
Schlick also makes use of the notion of a given in experience. In his analysis of the various schools of positivism, he dismisses the definition of the given as simply the “contents of consciousness,” deflecting any attribution of Berkeley’s idealism. The given is something that can be shown to exist in experience. The given is revealed when one points to what is ostensibly given. A word is meaningful because it signifies an object that can be pointed to. In other words, it can be verified by experience. As Schlick writes in Positivism and Realism: “the meaning of a word must in the end be shown, it must be given. This is done by an act of indication, of pointing; and what is pointed at must be given, otherwise cannot be referred to it.” Under this criterion, the truth of a statement is a function of the conditions of its verifiability in experience. One can point to the conditions under which the claim is true.
As he writes in Positivism and Realism: “The statement of the conditions under which a proposition is true is the same as the statement of its meaning, and not something different.” Verifiability is a criterion of conceivability. The realm of the given is what we can point to. It consists of all somethings to which a person may refer in order to verify a statement. The meaning of a statement consists in the conceivability of circumstances under which a statement can be verified by pointing to a given experience.
The given is the foundation of knowledge. Statements, or claims of knowledge, are beliefs about the world that we take to be meaningful because they can be shown to correspond with phenomena in the world.
No statement is meaningful that cannot be tested by pointing to something that is given in experience. Under this criterion, the Cartesian dilemma is empty and irrelevant. The so-called problem of the external world is misleading because it treats reality as a predicate. To make a statement about a physical object is not to ascribe reality to it. To speak of reality is speak of a Kantian connection according to a rule. An object is real if one can point to it in experience in order to verify a statement of characterization about the object. The question of the reality of an object is a question about the verifiability of the object in experience. The Cartesian mistake is to treat existence as a predicate. As Schlick writes in Positivism and Realism:
It is an old, very important logical or philosophical insight, that the proposition ‘x is real’ is of quite a different sort from a proposition which ascribes some property to x (e.g. ‘x is hard’). In other words: reality or existence is not a predicate … When we say of any object or event … that it is real this means that there exists a very definite connection between perceptions or other experiences, that under certain conditions certain data appear. Such a statement is verified in this manner alone, and therefore it has only this communicable meaning.
The “I am” professed by Descartes is thus meaningless and irrelevant to a theory of knowledge. It posits nothing that can be tested in experience. It is a mere name, an existential proposition that is impossible to interpret because it contains no claim about some feature of itself that can be tested.
We must attain the insight that Descartes’ statement “I am” … is simply meaningless; it expresses nothing and contains no knowledge. This is because “contents of consciousness” occurs in this context simply as a name for the given: no characteristic is expressed whose presence could be tested … No matter how we twist and turn: it is impossible to interpret an existential proposition except as a statement regarding a connection of perceptions.
Lewis and Schlick share Quine’s strategy for addressing skepticism. Philosophy ought to overcome its fixation on Cartesian doubt. A theory of knowledge ought to concern objects of knowledge that can be talked about in meaningful ways. Lewis and Schlick share the conviction that statements must appeal to the given in experience as a means of their verification. It is only meaningful to discuss verifiable statements. For Lewis, verifiability has practical significance. The person verifies in order to predict. He predicts in order to effect change. For Schlick, verifiability has communicative significance. He does not deny the truth of a metaphysical statement. He simply ignores it as something that cannot be communicated in any meaningful way. In Positivism and Realism, he writes: “The empiricist does not say to the metaphysician ‘what you say is false,’ but, ‘what you say asserts nothing at all!’ He does not contradict him, but says ‘I don’t understand you.’”
Schlick differs from Quine by asserting the given as the bedrock of knowledge. Quine argues that nothing can be asserted without reference to a theoretical framework from which an observation statement may derive its meaning. Schlick implies that the given precedes theory, not vice versa.
The human being is beholden to her language.
A child learns her language by paying attention to the adults that surround her. Language acquisition is the process of learning to assent to observation statements. The parent and child see red, assuming each is equipped with the appropriate ocular apparatus. The redness is inter-subjectively observable. The parent teaches the child to say red when the red object appears before her. The child incorporates an observation statement into her ever growing collection of statements about the world before her.
The child learns observation statements, and these form the basis of her understanding of reality. The sensory stimulation by a putatively red object has been accompanied by the assent of a parent when the child asks if the object before her is red. The child thus posits the existence of a red object before her. As Quine writes in The Nature of Natural Knowledge, “[m]astery of the term ‘red’ is acquisition of the habit of assenting when the term is queried in the presence of red, and only in the presence of red.”
The child may one day become a scientist. As the newly trained scientist engages in her professional practice, she depends on every observation statement obtained during the course of her life, all of them dependent upon an initially blind acceptance of the existence of physical objects. She improves her understanding of the world she investigates, adding new terms, theories and questions. But the conceptual backdrop of her language limits her. Her toolbox of methodological procedures is dependent upon the language she uses to understand how to apply these procedures. The questions she asks about the world stem from the understanding of the world that she obtained when she learned her language. As Quine writes in Word and Object:
since our questioning of objects can coherently begin only in relation to a system of theory which is itself predicated on our interim acceptances of objects. We are limited in how we can start even if not in where we may end up. To vary Neurath’s figure with Wittgenstein’s, we may kick away our ladder only after we have climbed it.
The system of theory is formulated via language. It is the set of systematic relations between statements that she forms in her learning of observation statements. In this way, Quine agrees with Wittgenstein that one cannot go beyond language.
Philosophy, according to Quine, is the effort to devise a comprehensive theory of knowledge. The relevant philosophical investigation is the examination of the influence of language on our ability to understand the world. Cartesian skepticism is a non sequitur.
One possesses knowledge about objects. One obtains this knowledge by learning a language of observation statements, which are learned, as Quine writes in Posits and Reality, “primarily with reference to inter-subjectively conspicuous objects.” In other words, one speaks of objects only because one can refer to them and verify their existence inter-subjectively. This speech phenomenon has conceptual importance. It is a necessary condition of the investigations that take place within a conceptual scheme of scientific theory. As Quine explains in Posits and Reality: “Common-sense bodies, finally, are conceptually fundamental: it is by reference to them that the very notions of reality and evidence are acquired, and that the concepts which have to do with physical particles or even with sense data tend to be framed and phrased.”
Knowledge as a theoretical framework is like an open field in which a particular quality of soil, weather conditions, wildlife and anything else that might affect the output of a crop prevails. It is on this field that crops grow. Similarly, it is on the field of an overall conceptual scheme that scientific investigations take place and scientific discoveries germinate. The scope of the investigations, or the size and quality of the crop, depends on the pre-existing qualities of the conceptual scheme (or field) in which the investigations (or crop harvestings) take place. As he argues in Posits and Reality: “Our one serious conceptual scheme is the inclusive, evolving one of science, which we inherit and, in our several small ways, help to improve.”
It is only by reference to previously acquired observation statements that Descartes was able to question whether he was sitting by a fire writing an essay. Scientific theory—in this case the common-sense assumption of the existence of physical objects external to the perceiving mind—lays the groundwork for questioning the existence of the same physical objects. “Skeptical doubts are scientific doubts,” Quine writes in The Nature of Natural Knowledge.
The motivation of Cartesian epistemology—the fear of illusion—depends on the idea of an object that is not an illusion. Illusion has meaning only by reference to its opposite, and vice versa. The linguistic scheme in which the idea of this relation between opposites is formed is inescapable. Language, learned from outside mentors who indoctrinate the meaning of observation statements into the mind of a growing child, is the backdrop of every skeptical doubt about the existence of physical objects. In order to have doubts about the status of a posited object, one must be clear about what and how he doubts. Quine elaborates in Word and Object:
there is a certain verbal perversity in the idea that ordinary talk of familiar physical things is not in large part understood as it stands, or that the familiar physical things are not real, or that evidence for their reality needs to be uncovered. For surely the key words “understood,” “real,” and “evidence” here are too ill-defined to stand up under such punishment.
Theory consists of the systematic relations between posits about the world, derived from scientific investigation and leading to further scientific investigation and prediction. Knowledge is what we already possess, as well as the advance we make over existing theory. As he argues in Word and Object:
Unlike Descartes, we own and use our beliefs of the moment, even in the midst of philosophizing, until by what is vaguely called scientific method we change them here and there for the better. Within our own total evolving doctrine, we can judge truth as earnestly and absolutely as can be; subject to correction, but that goes without saying.
Horkheimer on Logical Empiricism
For Max Horkheimer, the fundamental problem with logical empiricism is that it leads to the reification of science in society. Knowledge is a fixed body of scientific discoveries and clarifications. Science is a highly respected institution within a society that continues to make steady progress. Metaphysical reflection, and thus its dialectical import, makes no serious contribution to our body of knowledge. As Horkheimer writes in his book of essays on Critical Theory:
Logical empiricism was designated at the outset of this study as an attempt to bring unity and harmony into the inconsistencies of the modern consciousness. While neuromantic philosophers strove to obtain this end by disparaging science, the latest branch of positivism seeks to carry it out by hypostatizing the special sciences.
It is difficult to speak of metaphysical reflection because our understanding of metaphysics appears ambiguous and even empty. It is a credit to logical empiricism to have subjected previous metaphysical abstractions to a careful analysis of their meaning.
Logical empiricism is the view that logical and empirical verifiability is the criterion by which one ought to judge the meaning of a statement. A viable theory of knowledge is wholly positivist. Metaphysical speculation is the idle play of silent thinkers. That is, as Schlick writes in Positivism and Realism: “Even to speak of any other world is logically impossible. There can be no discussion concerning it, for a non-verifiable existence cannot enter meaningfully into any possible proposition. Whoever still believes … in it must do so only silently. Arguments can relate only to what can be said.”
Horkheimer claims that “with this peace in their hearts, the savants placidly witness the destruction of the human race.” Positivist philosophy does not provide us with sufficient cognitive tools to engage in a critical struggle with an extant social order. The operative idea is false consciousness. Logic and science provide us with powerful tools of clarification and investigation. But there is no motivation within logical or scientific investigation to reflect on the manipulative expropriation of logical and scientific thinking by dominant interests in the status quo. “Hence,” Horkheimer writes in Eclipse of Reason, “it is impossible to determine a priori what role science plays in the actual advancement or retrogression of society.”
Consider an economist talking about an equilibrium level of carbon emissions. In mastering economic theory, he has acquired the habit of finding the point at which a firm’s demand curve is equal to the marginal social cost of production. He then declares the resulting output level to be efficient because it accounts for no more than the tolerable level of air pollution. It is the point of production at which all costs to society are accounted for, not merely the private cost of production by the firm.
This lesson allows for no objection that carbon emissions should not be tolerated at all, because we would not wish to completely sacrifice the output of a socially necessary good. Economic science can only denote an efficient equilibrium point. Assessment of the desirability of such a point, perhaps in the context of an analysis of climate change, is not within the scope of the business plan. Normative appraisals of the value of the particular good, the production of which leads to pollution, lie in the domain of philosophy.
The crisis penetrates even deeper. Efficiency is our criterion of well being, but efficiency also defines a structure of relationships between various interested parties within the institutional set-up of society. The competing interests of society are production on the one hand and reduced air pollution on the other. But what if climate change ought not to be tolerated at all? The student appeals to philosophy. Quine has nothing to offer but confirmation of the observation sentence that climate change has undesirable consequences that must be balanced against the vested interests of industry and job creation. Quine only appeals to the inter-subjectively observable and verifiable status of the statement that society desires an efficient tradeoff between the production and carbon emission.
Schlick has nothing to offer either. Surely, one can meaningfully say that climate change is harmful to society. But to make a judgment about the bourgeois interests that must be accounted for, as society decides an efficient level of production, and thus carbon emissions, is meaningless, because it is not verifiable. To say that the bourgeois interests reproduce an inhumane status quo that destroys the environment is meaningless because it cannot be verified. How are we to verify the normative statement—the value judgment—that an efficient tradeoff is a morally repugnant instance of an inhumane bourgeois status quo? How do we verify a normative claim about the moral status of an individual in a particular set of historical circumstances?
One can construct verifiable statements because they are positions that can be logically correlated to the given in experience. The practice of logical empiricism depends on an already existing system. Schlick cannot construct a meaningful statement unless his statement can be verified by appeal to the given in experience. But, if nothing is given, nothing can be said, because no criterion of verifiability exists. For Quine, speech would be impossible without, first, the “interim acceptances of objects” and the system of theory that is developed from the observation statements derived from such “interim acceptances of objects.” Something must exist in order for us to think about it. But the logical empiricist school of philosophy effectively closes off all evaluation of this already existing something except what amounts to clarification and scientific discovery.
Logical empiricism affords us no tools for the critical task of evaluating how the logic of relationships within an inhumane status quo co-opts the logic of individual aspirations. Basic game theory analyzes the breakdown of cooperative solutions due to utility-maximizing decision-making by individuals. In a game-theoretical model of decision-making, the knowing subject is co-opted by the logic of the payoff matrix. To be rational is to be uncooperative.
Economists focus on creating incentives that achieve the cooperative solution because of its implications for social efficiency. But the desirability of the efficient solution per se, in terms of the social relationships that are thus retained within the extant social order, is left unquestioned. One can only make an instrumental judgment about how to achieve an efficient solution. Verifiability, or reliance on the linguistic scheme, is not a sufficient cognitive tool for the necessarily normative, or metaphysical, analysis of the desirability of the efficient outcome. The logical empiricist ignores any normative claim about the efficient outcome. He is concerned with the science of discovery and explanation. As Quine writes in Word and Object:
Everything to which we concede existence is a posit from the standpoint of a description of the theory-building process, and simultaneously real from the standpoint of the theory that is being built. Nor let us look down on the standpoint of the theory as make-believe; for we can never do better than occupy the standpoint of some theory or other, the best we can muster at the time … What reality is like is the business of scientists, in the broadest sense, painstakingly to surmise [emphasis mine]; and what there is, what is real, is part of that question.
Philosophy is the attempt to obtain more clarity about things, to understand the relationship between theory and scientific investigation and between the conceptual scheme of language and scientific investigation. Theory is expository. It is not proactive. But this limited conception of theory leaves us empty-handed in the struggle to combat the manipulation of scientific thinking and enterprise by interested social parties. Theory is not proactive, its development does not reflect the precarious intellectual relationship between the critical skeptic and his society, a relationship driven by his subversive suspicion of the ideological manipulation of science within a potentially oppressive status quo. The conversion of philosophy into a science stunts the normative intellect.
The consequence, as Horkheimer argues in Critical Theory, is that
Thought relinquishes its claim to exercise criticism or to set tasks. Its purely recording and calculatory functions become detached from its spontaneity. Decision and praxis are held to be something opposed to thought—they are “value judgments,” private caprices, and uncontrollable feelings. The intellect is declared to be connected only externally, if at all, with the conscious interest and course it may follow … Thought and will, the parts of the mental process, are severed conceptually … In view of the fact that the ruling economic powers use science as well as the whole of society for their special ends, this ideology, this identification of thought with the special sciences, must lead to the perpetuation of the status quo.
Horkheimer describes several hundred men incarcerated for life in “one large hall.” They are supplied with the necessities of life, but there is always not enough to go around. Similarly, there are not enough cots for all the men to sleep on at once. Some men possess musical instruments, which they play several times during the day. “An almost continuous uproar prevails as a result,” he writes in Critical Theory. The intelligent prisoner must employ this knowledge of his affairs to improve his lot. He must observe and study his fellow prisoners and devise strategies for obtaining adequate food. He must decide when to find a vacant lot and when he will be able to sleep:
He will have to engage in psychology and sociology in fact, in every empirical science which can be of use to him. Factions may be formed, fights develop, and compromises be arranged. Individuals will join or break away from one or the other of these factions according to their strength or interests … Their characteristic intellectual traits will be shrewdness, empirical rationality, and calculation; but, however brilliantly these faculties may develop, they represent only a special kind of thinking. In respect to human affairs, calculation is a poor expedient.
There is a decisive difference between critical skepticism and the logical empiricist attempt to overcome the shortcomings of Cartesian skepticism. Lewis speaks optimistically of knowledge as relevant to action and the improvement of the human lot. He writes in Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation: “The obvious use of knowledge is for the amelioration of our human lot; for the realization in experience of what is good and the avoidance of what is bad.”
The critical theorist agrees. The prisoner employs his knowledge of psychology, sociology, and all other facts obtained from his study of his fellow prisoners in order to construct the appropriate strategies for maximizing his well-being in his given circumstances. He can speak meaningfully of his strategies because he makes predictions about the consequences of his actions based on his ability to test his hypothetical statements by appeal to the given in experience. He can attempt to sleep during the afternoon, testing the hypothesis that the prison hall will be relatively silent. The hypothesis may or may not prove right, but either way it is verified or not verified by the given, i.e. the experience in which the other prisoners are silent or loud.
The prisoner speculates on the normative status of his circumstances and concludes that they are inhumane. He may come to understand that such inhumane circumstances are preserved because of the false consciousness of the prisoners. They falsely judge their experiences to be the ultimate truth about the reality in which they live. They falsely believe that the world in which they live is the only reality, and that rationality is an instrument to be employed in the service of their interest in self-preservation. Instrumental reason eclipses objective reason.
Lewis falls short because he discusses the amelioration of the human lot within the given scheme of experience. Meaningful statements are made about the empirical consequences of a course of action. The future is changeable, but it is merely a means of verifiability. Quine discusses the advances we can make over an existing body of theory, but he is emphatic in his insistence that knowledge is scientific, i.e. we can only concern ourselves with the fact. Knowledge has meaning only in reference to an existing system of theory derived from a collection of observation statements that correspond to the facts of empirical existence. Schlick declares all metaphysical claims as empty simply because have no relationship with the given. They cannot be verified.
Lewis, Schlick, and Quine are united by their faith in science. Their exaltation of science, however, comes at the expense of reifying science, affording us few if any cognitive tools for the kind of metaphysical speculation that allows for a normative evaluation of the existing social order and its impact on the happiness and well being of the individual.
One ought not to address skepticism about the nature of reality by relying exclusively on a particular understanding of science. One ought also to be skeptical about the dependence of individual happiness on one’s assimilation into a status quo. If this critical skepticism is not encouraged, thought becomes instrumental. Science serves a social interest because it affords no cognitive predisposition for making judgments about interests within a social order. Science is a fixed body of knowledge, employed by general social parties for the advancement of their interests, even as they witness their overall retrogression and destruction.
Quine writes in Word and Object: “At any rate scientific method, whatever its details, produces theory whose connection with all possible surface irritation consists solely in scientific method itself, unsupported by ulterior controls [emphasis mine]. This is the sense in which it is the last arbiter of truth.”
The practice of science is supposed to be the disinterested investigation of the world using an existing body of theory and facts, to which the scientist hopes to contribute. Quine views philosophy as the effort to clarify and understand this general scientific endeavor. Lewis and Schlick similarly profess their faith in science when they emphasize the given as a tool for verifying statements about the world. Quine, Schlick and Lewis are united by their faith in science.
Each has different motivations and goals, but all fall within the school of logical positivism and its aftermath. They are less interested in, if not dismissive of, metaphysical speculation. For the critical theory of Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, science is thus reified into a fixed body of objective knowledge to which we can only contribute. We are left with a deficiency in our epistemology. Any cognitive disposition towards critical skepticism remains uncultivated. False consciousness becomes a possibility. Dialectical insight, i.e. awareness that knowledge is an institutional support of society and thus inevitably serves social interests in some way, is excluded from our body of knowledge.