Social criticism, dissonance, and progress: A socio-epistemic approach

Philosophy and Social Criticism 49 (8):975-997 (2023)
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Abstract

The immanent approach adopted by most contemporary representatives of the Critical Theory tradition has generally the purpose of offering a foundation for social criticism that, without relying exclusively on explicit or factually accepted principles, avoids both the potential arbitrariness of subjective judgment and the appeal to transcendent criteria. However, this project has not yet paid much attention to the socio-epistemic elements related to the intersubjective praxis of criticism. Based on this concern, I intend to explore the possibility of immanent criticism by using the epistemic category of dissonance. I will begin by showing how Davidson’s notion of irrationality can overcome the problematic separation between healthy and pathological behavior found in Festinger’s classical theory of cognitive dissonance and serve as an indicator of epistemic contradictions that can lead to social change. Thereafter, I will explain the link between these approaches and both Brandom’s inferential semantics and Honneth’s normative reconstruction. At the end of the first part, I expect to show an articulated picture of how dissonance can serve as a key for the analysis of inconsistencies present both in the belief systems and in the institutions and practices that constitute forms of life. In the second part, I will reconstruct three possible objections to this comprehensive approach in relation to the role of the individual in processes of social criticism and to the notions of progress and rationality that the approach adopts. I will analyze here what kind of meta-criterion is necessary to overcome the discomfort generated by the experience of dissonance so that it leads to social change. Taking up the Hegelian-Pragmatist idea of accumulation of experiences, I will argue that such a meta-criterion refers to the possibility of gathering and using available and non-endogenous socio-epistemic resources that allow reconfiguring the foundations of the questioned form of life.

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