Skip to main content

The critical theory of science


The meta-scientific investigation of the various kinds of influence which determine both the establishment of the cultural institution of science and criteria governing its internal operations, including criteria of the concepts of cognition has been termed by Professor Jürgen Habermas as the critical theory of science. The five-fold thesis of his theory treats of what he considers to be the extrascientific interests which determine and accompany our traditional concepts of knowledge as characterized by science. The development of the theses is preceded by his analysis of the faults of “positivist methodology” in which, he argues, distinctions such as that between facts and values are based upon fundamental confusions concerning inerradicable and pervasive practical concerns in terms of which the concepts of cognition are ultimately founded. He identifies the three all-embracing knowledge-guiding interests or concerns as the cognitive interest which determines logical and empirical categories, the practical interest which determines the character of human understanding within the cultural sciences, and the emancipatory interest which determines our concept for freedom and autonomy. The arguments for the critical theory are here analyzed and criticized in terms of their logical shortcomings, while the claims made in favor of the critical theory are found to be based upon inerradicable and pervaisive confusions concerning logical consistency in argumentation. The final section summarizes, moralizes, and speculates upon the criticalness of the critical theory.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. J. Habermas, “Knowledge and Interest”, reprinted inSociological Theory and Philosophical Analysis, D. Emmet and A. MacIntyre eds., London, Macmillan, 1970, p. 41. All references to Habermas' article hereafter will be to this edition, which as the author himself notes, formed the basis of his Inaugural lecture at the University of Frankfurt. It appeared originally inInquiry ix, 1966, translated from the German by G. Flöistad.

  2. Cf. R. Rudner,Philosophy of Social Science, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1966; and also S. Silvers, “Methodological Approaches to Sociological Theory”,Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, 1964.

  3. N. Goodman has suggested, for example, that he might be willing to give up the law of non-contradiction in favor of a law of getting better results yet remains understandably puzzled by how he would then distinguish between getting better results and not getting them. See hisFact, Fiction, and Forecast, Harvard, 1955.

  4. Cf. W. V. Quine's comment, “One effect of seeing epistemology in a psychological setting is that it resolves a stubborn old enigma of epistemological priority. Our retinas are irradiated in two dimensions, yet we see things as three dimensional without conscious inference. Which is to count as observation — the unconscious two dimensional reception or the conscious three dimensional apprehension? In the old epistemological context the conscious form had priority, for we were out to justify our knowledge of the external world by rational reconstruction. What to count as observation can now be settled in terms of the stimulation of sensory receptors, let consciousness fall where it may.” “Epistemology Naturalized” in hisOntological Relativity, New York, Columbia, 1969, p. 84.

  5. Cf. H. Reichenbach,Experience and Prediction, Chicago, 1938 and Rudner op. cit.

  6. W. V. Quine,Ontological Relativity, op. cit., p. 16.

  7. Ibid. p. 84.

  8. It may be instructive here to include the following passage from White'sFoundations of Historical Knowledge, New York, Harper, 1965, to distinguish his position explicitly vis-a-vis Habermas: “For better or worse — and I think for the better — the speculative philosophy of history has not endured a serious intellectual enterprize in the age of analysis. Among philosophers its place has been taken by an approach that is more closely linked with the philosophy of science and the theory of knowledge than it is with metaphysics. Instead of seeking to chart the development of epochs, cultures, and civilizations the contemporary philosopher of history is more interested in analysing historical thought and language. Instead of trying to advance or defend some general theory of the historical process itself, the contemporary philosopher of history who is not dominated by the aims of Marxism or by certain forms of theology is now primarily concerned with the logic of history, anxious to elucidate terms that are commonly employed by historians and historically minded thinkers, eager to advance toward a clearer understanding of the chief intellectual activities of the historian. Such an understanding is the main aim of the present study, which unlike Hegel's course of lectures on the philosophy of history, could hardly be called what he thought his could be called; “A Philosophical History of the World”. But its concerns are not only to be distinguished from Hegel's; they are also to be distinguished from those authors of manuals on historical method, who describe tools of textual criticism and outline the methods of dating documents and establishing authorship. Today's philosopher of history is not a metaphysical speculator, but neither is he a methodological consultant. Like the philosopher of natural science, the critical philosopher of history is theoretically oriented, primarily interested in analysing historical language and achieving insight into history as a form of knowledge ... What aspect of historical language does he study? In answer to this question it is fair to say that he is primarily interested in analysing the parts played by factual statements, lawful generalizations, and value judgments in historical investigation and writing”. (p. 4.)

  9. See N. Goodman,The Language of Art, Indiana, Bobbs-Merrill, 1968; and his “The Epistemological Argument” inThe Philosophy of Language, J. R. Searle ed., Oxford, 1971.

  10. There is an interesting sense in which an attack upon the inability of methodological principles to depict an independent realm of the cognitive in which science thrives seems to presuppose just such an independence or autonomy of the cognitive. Cf. I. Levi. “If science is indeed the handmaiden of practice ... all these conflicts involving scientists would appear to be conflicts between moral, economic, political, aesthetic, etc., values. Consideration of implications such as these suggest, if it does not establish, that scientific inquiry is a part of an autonomous enterprise, which is engaged in pursuing special objectives, distinct from those found in other sorts of deliberate human activity.”Gambling with Truth (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1967) p. 19.

  11. “Current science is continuous with other areas of live, and shares with them the distinctive feature of the rational quest. However, in institutionalizing this quest so as to subject it to an ever wider domain of claims to refined and systematic test, science has given as a new appreaciation of reason itself. Since reason is, moreover, a moral as well as intellectual notion, we have thereby given also a new enlarged vision of the moral standpoint of responsibility in belief, embodied not only in a firm commitment to impartial principles by which one's own assertions are to be measured, but in a further commitment to making those principles ever more comprehended and rigorous. Thus though science has certainly provided us with a new and critically important knowledge of man's surroundings and capacities, such enlightenment far from exhausts its human significance. A major aspect of such significance has been the moral import of science: its dynamic articulation of the impulse to responsible belief, and its suggestion of the hope of an increased rationality and responsibility in all realms of conduct and thought. Such moral import has surely been too little appreciated.” I. Scheffler,Science and Subjectivity. Indianapolis, Indiana, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967, pp. 4–5.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Silvers, S. The critical theory of science. Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 4, 108–132 (1973).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Final Section
  • Practical Interest
  • Critical Theory
  • Traditional Concept
  • Cultural Institution