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  • The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory by Amy Allen
  • Sina Kramer
Amy Allen,
The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, 304 pp.
ISBN 9780231173247

Drawing on Adorno's aphoristic claim in Negative Dialectics that "Progress begins where it comes to an end," Amy Allen's The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory is a critique of the concept of progress in critical theory, for the sake of critical theory's decolonization. It is a clear, forceful and convincing argument that calls us to question what critical theory is, and perhaps more pressingly, for whom.

While Allen aims both to decolonize critical theory and to criticalize post- and decolonial theory, she thoroughly succeeds at the first but only really invites the latter. While she relies on some postcolonial theorists and feminist and critical race philosophers (Spivak, Saïd, Chakrabarty, Alcoff), Allen's target and audience are members of the second, third, and fourth generations of critical theory and those inspired by their thought. She employs the method Adorno described as "critique and rescue": she gives an immanent critique of the concept of progress implicit but largely unacknowledged in the work of Habermas, Honneth, and Forst. And she rescues a version of progress and a method of critical theorizing more friendly to decolonial aims (by means of the work of Adorno and Foucault). [End Page 357]

Allen rescues a version of progress for the decolonization of critical theory by distinguishing between a backward-looking sense of progress as a historical "fact" from a forward-looking sense of progress as a moral-political imperative, a kind of anti-foundationalist, immanent regulative ideal. While the latter is a necessary expression of the demand for a better world at the heart of critical theory, the former is rooted in the desire to ground the normative claims of critical theory in empirical claims about the "fact" of our historical progress. Allen argues that this backward-looking notion of progress is grounded in a theory of modernity as a developmental, geographical, racial, and historical logic that positions non-European and non-Western peoples as lagging behind Europe and the West. She characterizes this backward-looking notion of progress as self-congratulatory, producing a neat political-epistemological circle that presumes the very thing it is meant to prove: the superiority of Europe, or the West.

The middle three chapters of the book address the implicit accounts of progress at work in Habermas, Honneth, and Forst. As a theory that proceeds immanently, critical theory has to find grounds for making normative judgments without relying on the prop of some transcendental element. These theorists worry that this leaves critical theory open either to relativism (if societies develop their own internal normative criteria, then there is no place from which to adjudicate between them) or conventionalism (if normative criteria develop immanently to a particular society, then those criteria should be regarded as legitimate). Allen identifies Habermas's concept of universal pragmatics as his attempt to solve this problem. Allen argues that while Habermas does not work from an explicit philosophy of history, universal pragmatics nevertheless relies on a notion of social evolution that commits him to an implicit philosophy of history. She argues that Habermas's universal pragmatics is based on a conception of discursive competence that presumes the very thing it claims to argue for: the superiority of Western or European societies, or those that have historically developed the relevant capacities for justifying their claims and sorting between the different life-worlds to which these claims belong.

While Honneth is also committed to the project of grounding critical theory's normative claims, he considers Habermas's approach insufficiently rooted in empirical practices or lived experience. Honneth grounds the legitimacy of norms in our subjective investment in them, arguing that our need for reciprocal recognition provides a mechanism for the revisability of norms and thus for progress. While Honneth avoids explicit claims about the superiority of Western or European societies and the reasoners within them, Allen argues that his commitment to a backward-looking account of progress ties...


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pp. 357-362
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