Volume 23, Issue 3, Fall 2001
Rethinking Critical Theory
Instrumental Reason, Judgment, and the Environmental Crisis
Through rethinking the trajectory of critical theory, I suggest the need to reconsider its environmental possibilities. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School, usually overlooked in environmental circles, provides a fecund opening for social and environmental theory with its recognition that the multiple catastrophes of the twentieth century are not extrinsic to civilization but intrinsic to the rationality of the Enlightenment. That is, the promise of the scientific domination of nature and rational forms of social organization simultaneously spawn the perils of environmental crises, fascism, genocide, world wars, and nuclear annihilation. With its theorizing of the domination of nature as involving the interconnection of humans and nature in a shared fate, the Frankfurt School provides a fundamentally ecocentric base for rethinking humanity-nature relations. Further, through its nuanced understanding of reason, critical theory provides a trenchant critique of instrumental reason and suggests judgment as the basis for a new ethic for humanity’s interactions with the natural world.