This dissertation reconstructs the intellectual and political reception of Critical Theory, as first developed in Germany by the "Frankfurt School" at the Institute of Social Research and subsequently reformulated by Jürgen Habermas, in the Netherlands from the mid to late twentieth century. Although some studies have acknowledged the role played by Critical Theory in reshaping particular academic disciplines in the Netherlands, while others have mentioned the popularity of figures such as Herbert Marcuse during the upheavals of the 1960s, this study shows how Critical Theory was appropriated more widely to challenge the technocratic directions taken by the project of vernieuwing (renewal or modernization) after World War II. During the sweeping transformations of Dutch society in the postwar period, the demands for greater democratization--of the universities, of the political parties under the system of "pillarization," and of society more broadly--were frequently made using the intellectual resources of Critical Theory. In turn, the development of a progressive, "posttraditional" society in the Netherlands, which appeared to reach its apex in the 1970s, suggested to a number of intellectuals that Habermas's more sanguine "theory of communicative action" best conceptualized the democratic achievements of modern society and the continuing prospects for the "rationalization of the lifeworld," through which injustices and social pathologies could be exposed to the scrutiny of critical reason. Critical Theory, then, had an "actuality" that went well beyond academia and had continuing "relevance"--another meaning of the Dutch actualiteit or German Aktualität--for understanding the past and future rationalization of society.
There was, moreover, another sense in which Dutch thinkers interpreted the actuality of Critical Theory. In the transnational process of reception, ideas and theories are inevitably shaped by the contexts in which they are taken up. This study begins with the Dutch social democrat Andries Sternheim, who worked at the Institute's office in Geneva in the 1930s, and shows how tensions arose over the more speculative philosophical premises of Kritische Theorie, as formulated in director Max Horkheimer's key 1937 essay "Traditional and Critical Theory." These tensions prefigured the later emphases and inflections given to Critical Theory by its intellectual supporters (and detractors) in the Netherlands and reflected, I argue, a "discourse of actuality" with which Habermas's thought had greater resonance. Although some Dutch intellectuals gravitated towards the earlier arguments of Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, which identified the roots of modern pathologies of social domination in the widespread expansion of "enlightened thought" into forms of "instrumental reason," these claims were seen by many as overly pessimistic and speculative, particularly in comparison to Habermas's thought. Habermas argued that Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis of the "dialectic of enlightenment" had obscured a different form of rationality, made possible only by the rationalization of the lifeworld, namely "communicative rationality," which had its basis not in the arguably metaphysical, "emphatic" concept of reason to which Horkheimer and Adorno appealed, but rather in the immanent practices of everyday, intersubjective communication. Although Habermas insisted that the telos of mutual understanding, toward which non-strategic communicative practices were oriented, remained a counterfactual ideal, many of his adherents went beyond Habermas in ascribing an empirical actuality to the idea of communicative rationality. Furthermore, even as Habermas's theory was challenged in the course of the "modernism/postmodernism" debates of the 1980s, Dutch scholars frequently interpreted "poststructuralist" thought in ways that broadened the concept of rationality, rather than pitting one side against the other, as the leading German and French antagonists often did.
By putting the ideas of Critical Theory into historical and comparative relief, this reception history goes beyond strictly philosophical studies of the relative validity of the Frankfurt School and Habermas's competing forms of thought. The Dutch example offers a particularly revealing view into the "actuality" of what Habermas called "the unfinished project of modernity," as well as its potential limitations. In concluding, however, I follow other scholars of early Critical Theory in arguing that Adorno's thought in particular may have its own pressing actuality, even as its philosophical premises are considered outdated in the wake of the "linguistic turn." Against the historical developments of the last decades of the twentieth century--not least in the Netherlands--we might yet have something to learn from Adorno's thought, even in its most apocalyptic and utopian exaggerations.